Boat trips along the River Charente from the gabarre village of Saint Simon & from Rochefort
The River Charente is full of history and nowhere is this more apparent than at the Charente village of Saint Simon, west of Angoulême, from where you can enjoy the relaxing scenery in a boat trip aboard a gabarre.
A gabarre – which is often also spelt gabare – is a traditional boat once used to carry goods up and down the Charente. The most famous cargo was of course the precious local cognac, which was transported down from the warehouses of the Charente to be loaded onto ships at the mouth of the river, from where it would be taken to destinations such as London or St Petersburg. But the garbarre carried lots of other produce, too, including salt and cannons, and the river was the motorway of its day, transporting all kinds of daily goods up and down its waters.
River trip aboard a gabarre boat
From late April or early May until October each year visitors to Saint Simon can taste the gabarre experience at first hand by taking a trip on the River Charente aboard 'La Renaissance.' This is a replica of an 18th century gabarre – most of the originals have long since vanished, either broken up for firewood or in a few cases used in the construction of local houses. However the wooden Renaissance – built with the help of experts in Dublin, Belfast and Genoa – still gives you a wonderful idea of how these broad, shallow-draught boats moved up and down the river (even if in the past they didn’t have use of an engine!). The boat departs from a quayside at Juac, takes you up past Saint-Simon, turns round, then heads down river through a lock before returning to the quay.
The trip takes just up to 90 minutes (it depends slightly on how busy the lock is) and gives passengers a chance to experience going through a lock, admire the countryside, see the wildlife and watch the world pass gently by. There is also onboard commentary (in French) from a guide. He explains how in the early days the boats were towed down the river – often by teams of women. Later, horses were used instead. The towpaths themselves, however, have largely vanished after years of erosion.
The vessels also used sails to propel them, though they were mostly used towards the coast, where the winds were more reliable, for manoeuvring the craft. Passengers are also told how it was the coming of the railways that really spelled the end of the gabarre way of life; it survived, just, on stretches of the Charente until the 1930s but ended in 1944.
La maison des Gabarriers – the Gabare museum
The maison des Gabarriers has been created to tell visitors the story of the gabarres; how they were constructed, the tools that were used and the materials involved. It also has information on the culture and heritage of the gabarre, which had a huge impact on the way of life in Saint-Simon and other riverside villages until the vessels vanished from the river. There are also models of gabarres and other types of craft that used to ply their trade up and down the River Charente.
The village of Saint-Simon
Saint-Simon – once known as Saint Sigismond – has a 12th century Romanesque church and has long been at the centre of life on the River Charente. Saint-Simon was not just a part of the passing trade of the gabarres but was also a place where the river boats were built and repaired. In fact by the beginning of the 19th century Saint-Simon had become the major centre of construction and repair of gabarres, and the air was always filled with the sounds of hammering and welding. In 1885 it had three work yards and employed 38 gabarriers out of a population of 540. (Today the population is below 250.)
The end of the 19th century saw the village and the gabarre trade at their heights; the commune had two riverside inns, a notaire’s office and lots of other businesses, including distilleries. Then the full impact of the railways hit this part of the world and just three decades later this busy world of boats and cargo had all but vanished from Saint-Simon.
Now once more, thanks to the Maison des Gabarriers, 'La Renaissance' and the work of the L'association Saint Simon-village gabarrier, the story of the gabarre again features at the heart of this commune. Visitors can also go on a tour of the village – the circuit de découverte touristique – to find out more about local heritage and history.
La Renaissance offers boat trips from the beginning of May to late October, every day except Tuesdays. It leaves at 10.30am, 3pm and 4.30pm and each trip lasts up to 90minutes. The boat trip starts from Juac, a few hundred meters from the centre of Saint-Simon where you buy the ticket at the Maison des Gabarriers. Once you’ve bought your ticket drive down towards Juac and park your car on the right in the marked parking area. Then cross the road and head down towards the river on Rue du Port (it is signposted 'Ecluse de Juac'.) La Renaissance is moored just to the right of the small bridge over the Charente.
The Maison des Gabarriers museum is open from 10am to 12.30pm and from 2pm to 6pm every day except Tuesday during the spring and summer.
Tickets are bought at the Maison des Gabarriers. The full adult ticket price of €6.25 covers admission to the museum plus the boat trip. Tickets for one or the other cost €3.50. Tickets covering both for children and concessions are €4. There are also group bookings available – La Renaissance takes a maximum of 55 people. For more information: call 05.45.97.33.40 or visit the village gabarrier website.
Words: Michael STREETER
From Rochefort to the Pont Transbordeur
Launched in spring 2012, le Fluviobus is the newest way to travel along the Charente river. The journey, which comes with a guided commentary, takes just 20 minutes one-way but takes you from Rochefort's Corderie Royale to the Pont Transbordeur at Echillais, the last such bridge of its kind in France.
The boat has 90 places and has room for bicycles.
It runs every day until November 7. It departs the pontoon at the Corderie, every hour from 9.30am and 6.30pm, and from the pontoon near the Transbordeur bridge at Echillais every hour from 10am-7pm. Here there is parking100m away.
Tickets cost three euros one way and can be bought on board, at the tourist office at Rochefort, at the Pont Transbordeur and at the Centre International de la Mer
Cycling in Poitou-Charentes