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Empty cottages reborn for tourism

With 660km of canals and waterways in its control, the Brittany region has a vast network that links tourist sites as well as being a tourist destination itself with great walks, majestic locks... and some empty lock-keepers’ cottages, maisons éclusières.

Many of the region’s 300 or so locks have cottages beside them and the region owns 156 of them, with lock-keepers living in about a third. Now, however, 21 of the unused ones have been given a new life after appeals for suitable projects.

Most offer different types of accommodation on the popular walking and cycling routes of the chemins de halage towpaths that are part of France’s national Voies Vertes (routes where motorised vehicles are banned).

But others are used by local associations. One, at Hilvern, Saint-Gonnery, on the Nantes-Brest canal opens next month as Louarnig Park, a site for Breton games such as boules (played on a curved pitch) or tug o’war along with local specialities such as Bazh yod, or Patigo and the many different Breton varieties of skittles games.

At Rouvray, near Lanouée, two different projects are being run on one site with Ti War An Dour offering two floating wooden gites on the lake near the lock plus electric bike hire for visitors wanting to see the Château de Josselin.

The second project is sited at the lock- keeper’s cottage and will offer horse-drawn carriage rides. It will also have a canal history exhibition when renovations are complete. Built as a river supply route to the naval bases of Brest and Lorient which were often under siege by the English, the canal was started in the early 19th century and extends for 364km.

In another project, the cottage at La Haie 103 near Noyal Pontivy is known for its fine coffee thanks to Italian hostess Paola Camoletto who opened it for walkers and cyclists as well as fishermen fishing trout in Le Douric that runs beside the canal or pike and perch in the Etangs du Roz.

Running from Pontivy to Lorient, the Blavet canal has 28 locks and the Au Fil de l’Eau company uses the one at Les Gorêts at Hennebont for navigation linked activities which even see sailing barge trips on the Dutch tjalk to the Ile de Groix off the Breton coast at Lorient.

Run by Tanguy Rogel and Linda Guidroux, the company offers accommodation both on the tjalk and onshore with evenings livened by films screened on the sails of the péniche.

The Canal d’Ille-et-Rance et Vilaine is also known as the Canal Manche-Océan and has 48 locks linking Saint-Malo to Rennes and then Arzal on the Atlantic coast along its 240km length.

The Rubigny family have turned the Gué Noëllan cottage at Québriac into a workshop and office for their Osmonde business building and renting out canalboats.

Jean Luc Rubigny has been building wooden barques and canots since 1980 and each is made to his own design. He has just created the Ombelle, a 3m boat powered by a Free Wheeling hand crank.

He also has the bateau gîte Osmonde berthed near the cottage.

A little farther south, at Hédé-Bazouges, in Ille-et-Vilaine, Catherine Saint James runs Ille Flottante from the Petite Madeleine site of the canal’s well-known 11 locks. Based in the keeper’s cottage, she has two toue cabanée, wooden houseboats as well as lodgings in the old stables for horses used on the towpath. It is a handy spot for cyclists as it has a repair workshop.

One fun addition to their complement is what they call a ‘Diskiant’ – a 1960s mahogany yacht sited in a field. Sleeping three, its name is from the Breton word for ‘fool’.

The Brittany region helped the new cottage occupants by bringing the buildings up to standard and they were offered on leases of between five and 30 years.

Although it has other cottages that could also be brought back to life this way, it says they are in poorer condition or with more difficult access and it is waiting to see how the first projects work out before looking at offering new buildings.

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