If you have ever wondered what it would be like to escape your well-trodden path of everyday life and take off on a canal boat travelling through the picturesque waterways of France, then you might enjoy The Voyages of de Villehardouin by Valerie Helps.
The Canal du Midi is one of the oldest canals of Europe. Built between 1666 to 1681 by Pierre- Paul Riquet to provide an inland water route through Southern France between the Atlantic at Bordeaux and the Mediterranean at Sete via the Garonne.
Map - By David-waterways - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61223716
The popular waterway weaves 240 km through Southern France and is a much-loved destination for holidaymakers and those that just resolved one day to escape the safe existence of the known and tackle the unknown exploring the French waterways living on a canal boat.
Canal life - By Christian Ferrer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25956666
Valerie Helps and Geoffrey Bull did just that. They decided at the middle stage of their lives to buy a canal boat, christen it "de Villehardouin" and set off on the Canal du Midi from Trčbes near Carcassonne.
Valerie Helps and Geoffrey Bull on their canal boat de Villehardouin
The good ship de Villehardouin on the Canal du Midi in France - watercolour print by artist and author Valerie Helps
In the beginning, there were challengings to overcome and navigating their way along the 200-year-old Canal was initially a difficult task. Eventually, they conquer their fears like seasoned boaties as they manoeuvre their boat through many of the 91 operating locks along the Rhone River and Canal du Midi.
By The original uploader was Dedounet at French Wikipedia. - Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 1.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1700736
The lifestyle becomes appealing and they begin to enjoy the gentle pace of canal life, visiting interesting ports, gliding past picturesque fields dotted with wildflowers, watching nature in action, visiting ancient sites, castles, chateaux and picturesque French villages.
House on the Canal de Briare - artist Geoffrey Bull
Throughout the book, Valerie describes in loving detail their passion for food, music, their simple togetherness and also the many interesting characters they meet. Each stop is enchantingly filled with glorious descriptions of the French villages they discover in each region.
image credit: By Selbymay - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18122675
They visit the local country markets along the way to stock up on supplies and fresh produce. Here they find inspiration from the colourful stalls crammed with an assortment of fragrant Mediterranean fruits and vegetables, cheeses, cured meats and wine.
Peace and tranquillity begin to overcome them as they ponder their lives and the pure simplicity of Canal life. They continue for a year discovering Narbonne, River Saone, Canal lateral a la Loire at Digoin, The Auvergne, River Seille, Canal du Centre, Canal de Roanne a Digoin, Canal de Briare, Canal du Loing, Petite Seine and the River Yonne finally ending their journey on the Canal du Nivernais.
Watercolour of the Mustard Fields of Trebes on the Canal du Midi by Author and Artist: Valerie Helps
Valerie is an engaging writer and illustrator and her fun and practical personality shine through in her writing. At times, you won't be able to prevent chuckling quietly to yourself while you visualise their adventures. You may even feel surprised as a few tears of emotion escape, while enviously wishing you were sitting up on deck with the lively pair just taking in the evening sunset while enjoying a nice French wine to the sounds of classical music.
The book also has several beautiful sketches and watercolour illustrations done by Valerie and Geoffrey. In addition to the book, these illustrations have been transformed into Art Greeting Cards and an Art Calendar which is available to purchase from Minuteman Press at Mona Vale. The Calendar watercolour prints can also be framed.
Personally, I feel this book and or the Art Cards and Art Calendar would be a wonderful gift of inspiration for those who love an adventure, especially if they are finally retired and have the means to take on a less than conventional holiday or lifestyle.
A selection of art greeting cards and watercolours of France and Greece by artist Valerie Helps
This book is a lovely reminder that even at an advancing stage in life, an adventure is still attainable if you follow your dreams.
About the Author: Valerie Helps was born in London and grew up in East Africa. Her life has taken her on many world travels. She has lived in Australia, Greece and France where established herself as a successful travel writer and illustrator. At the early age of eighteen, Valerie wrote her first children's book, Freckles the Fawn which was published years later following her arrival in Australia where she established Valerie's Page. This popular children's page in a major Sunday Newspaper was filled with stories inspired by her children and life in East Africa. Seven of her "Chanky Tales" were featured in her own television series and several other short stories, poems and children's stories have been published in journals and newspapers worldwide. Valerie also worked during the eighties as Administrator with the Canberra and Sydney Youth Orchestras and as Orchestra Manager with the Opera and Ballet Orchestra in the Sydney Opera House.