To the Med via the French canals

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Autumn sunshine along the sleepy Saone

September 12, 2012

After leaving Gwennol safely moored at St Jean de Losne during the months of July and August (a time marked memorably by Owain’s and Beth’s nuptials in Pembrokeshire), we returned from Wales at the beginning of September to resume our Odyssey. Having travelled so far earlier in the year we decided to take things much easier with just a short journey from St Jean to the little ‘port de plaisance’ at Savoyeux up the Haut Saone.  Our first few days were spent doing some repair and maintenance work, after which we decided to take a couple of days break in one of our favourite regions of France – the Franche Compté and the Jura, which lie within an hour’s travel of St Jean. Our two nights at Salins les Baines (once a key centre of salt production when it was more precious than gold), coupled with our walks along the river Lison at Nans Sous Sainte Anne and the river Loue at Ornans, were delightful.

On our return to St Jean the skies turned a sparkling autumn blue and we quickly set off up the Saone to Auxonne in ripples of heat. The following day took us further up the wooded river to the town of Grey, which was anything but grey in the hot afternoon sunshine. That night we dined in a riverside restaurant as the as the sun set in streaks of red and gold to the west. The air was warm and the food quite delicious. Life was good.

Our final day on the river was just as lovely as the previous two as we weaved our way up to the canal cutting at Savoyeux, entered through a short length of tunnel. Although there is little to detain the river traveller here these days (other than the neat and well-run marina), it is clear that the small rural communities of Savoyeux and Seveux were once a hive of early industrial activity with canal-side timber and paper mills. The well-built tunnel and other fine canal works testify to this past investment of hopeful early entrepreneurs, though whether much profit was made is uncertain. There is, nonetheless, a fine private chateau which is, apparently, the home today of the current French Minister of Sport!

We will leave Gwennol at Savoyeux for the winter since the rates are cheap, the facilities are good, and the family who run it are welcoming and friendly. We aim to return for another short holiday at the end of October, after which we will tuck Gwennol up for her winter in central France.

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Pardon me, but we've just arrived!

July 01, 2012


After the trauma of our argument with the canal bank, it was a relief to pull into the lovely surroundings of the Port de Paisance at Chalon sur Saône, where we were joined by Toussac and an hilarious Dane we’d met along the way. After pushing so hard to get over the Charolais before they close the canal, we needed a rest, and this was just the place. Yet another settlement founded by the Romans (Julius Ceasar used it as a winter base), Chalon is an attractive town which makes the most of its riverside setting. It has a strong ship-building legacy which continued right up to WWII when destoyers and submarines were built here, then sailed down the Saône and the Rhône to the sea. Almost all that has gone, and tourism is the new economic force.

The break did us good, so refreshed, we set off up-river for St Jean de Losne (pronounced ‘lon’). The weather was hot and sunny, and we needed the breeze created by our passage. With the heat still pulsating, we pulled in at Verdun sur Doubs in the late afternoon. The river Doubs (and its tributary the Loue) run east across the Jura, one of our favourite parts of France (the old ‘free county’ of Franche Comte). Here, we sampled a local dish, ‘Potchouse’, made from various river fish, including eel – something discovered by Betsan only after she’d cleared her plate!

Our final day was equally hot, as we made our way up to St Jean, taking a lunchtime break at Seurre. We’d originally planned to make for the historic town of Auxonne, further up the Saône, but we needed to repair Gwennol’s bent stanchon, and the metal-straightening skills we required were available in St Jean.

As we approached the town, something special seemed to be happening, judging by the flags and banners, and the numerous boats gathered around the quay. It turned out to be the annual ‘boat-blessing’ ceremony – or ‘Pardon des Marinieres’, and once Gwennol was tucked into the popular marina (run by a company called H2O), we went to take a closer look. There were stalls and fairground attractions, and hundreds of people milling around, many looking a little worse for a weekend of carousing! But what caught our eye was the boat-borne jousters who were trying to knock each other off into the river. There seemed no shortage of competitors for this masochistic event!

So we’d arrived at another important staging-post in our never-ending journey – and with the sun and the bunting out! We’d enjoyed our time on the rivers and canals of France, even though we’d had to motor over 100k further than planned. But now it was time to get ship-shape again and to prepare for our journey home, via the TGV to Paris, and thence to Dieppe, where our journey had begun. As we packed up Gwennol for her stay at St Jean, and braced ourselves for rain-soaked Wales, we looked back on an adventure that had introduced us to many faces of France’s extensive inland waterways – both commercial and touristic. We have already decided that when we return in the autumn we’ll stay in these waterways a little longer, rather than making straight for Marseilles as planned, because much as we love the sea, there are many pleasures to be had on these waterways without waves! A tout à l’heure!

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Up where the air is thin

June 16, 2012

It was interesting to reflect that, except for a short length of the Oise down to meet the Seine at Conflans St Hororine, we had been steadily rising through 100s of locks since coming in from the sea at St Valery sur Somme. Over the last 200k, for instance, we’d followed the Loire steadily upstream, through lock after lock. Now the moment had come to climb even more steeply over the Charolais mountains along the Canal du Centre, down into the Saone valley.

Leaving Digoin we started the climb by traveling through old mining areas, such as Montceau-les-Mines. Several canalside memorials marked the herioc sacrifices of members of the wartime Resistance, many of them local communists. After a wet stay at Genelard where the present-day locals displayed the stoicism of their forebears in a vigorous boules competition, we sheltered amid downpours at Blanzy. There we met helpful Steve and Barbara White in their Fisher 34 ‘White Mistress’. Steve and Barbara sold their sailing school on the Isle of Wight to journey to the Med, but finding the canals delightful they have decided to explore the inland waterways of Europe. They were followed in at Blanzy by fellow Fisher-owner, Brendan, on his way home to the UK after spending several years based in Majorca.

Pressing on, we eventually arrived at Montchanin, the high-point of our journey at 301m (987 feet above sea-level). This upland industrial town presented a dismal appearance in the rain and mist. But by morning the skies were brightening as we began our steep descent to the Saone valley 45k and 35 locks to the east. This side of the Charolais presents a much prettier rural appearance, and by the time we’d reached the charming town of St Leger sur Dheune, we were on the southern edge of the famous vinyards of the Cote d’Or.

The following day took us through equally delightful countryside, but the day was fraught with problems as lock mechanisms appeared to fail. When it started around the time of the leisurely French lunchtime, we had our suspicions as to the cause! Given the problems of getting a twin keeled boat into the bankside to await the opening of locks, we were grateful to have the assistance of two young Swiss holiday-makers in their hire-boat, Toussac. These boats have numerous rubber fender strips around them, which is just as well since they are difficult to steer, and are often skippered by land-lubbers! But Toussac’s crew were charming and thoughtful, and very pleasant company.

The morning of the 15th of June, almost two months since Gwennol had left Chichester, marked the end of our long haul down the four canals, but there was to be a sting in their tail. During our journey along the Somme we had discovered a damaged coupling in our wheel steering mechanism. Using some Heath-Robinson ingenuity, this had been repaired, but occasionally it failed and the helmsman had to make a quick dash to the tiller to recover control. However, as we motored rather too enthusiastically towards the deep 10m lock connecting the canal to the wide river Saone, it suddenly failed for the last time, sending Gwennol at speed into the canalside! When 5 tonnes of boat meets terra firma at 5mph, nothing good is likely to occur. We were extremely lucky to clobber a rare section of grassy bank which allowed Gwennol to rear up then slide back into the water without a scratch on the hull, but one of her portside stanchions was buckled by an encounter with a tree. The edges of 90% of the canals we had travelled were formed of steel piling and concrete, so we’d got away very lightly with an accident that could have been far worse.

Feeling rather bruised and shaken, we made our way into the lock, then out into the Saone and motored the short distance to Chalon sur Saone, there to lick our wounds.

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Gwennol (swallow/hirondelle) flies south!

June 08, 2012

Many days have passed since we left the Seine at St Mammès and entered the Canal du Loing. This is the first of four canals that links the rivers Seine, Loire and Saône (and Rhône) and together they run for over 400km, mainly due south.  At our first halt in Souppes sur Loing, dominated by a huge and surreal  alcohol distillery fuelled by sugar-beet, we made the acquaintance of Jean-Louis, an 80 year old ‘live-aboard’ in his beautiful péniche ‘La Chiosille’. Retired from a busy life that had taken him many times around the world, Jean-Louis had decided several years ago to tie up at Souppes and watch the passing canal traffic. We had the privilege of a tour of La Choisille which had been little altered from its days as a working péniche, and later that evening Jean-Louis joined us for an evening meal in the local auberge.

The following day provided a series of crises as first we lost wheel steering in a lock, then caught some plastic sheeting around the prop which clung fast for a couple of hours, and then we were verbally abused by an irate German for not helping open the lock gates as we passed through! He had really lost it and was beyond placation, so we bit our tongues as stereotypical WWII sayings came to mind – it is shocking how easy it is to slip into these patterns of thought when the pressure is on! But shrugging this uncharacteristic incident off, we stopped at a delightful little village of Cepoy and dined well at a café on spaghetti Bolognaise, so at least we ended the day at peace with the Italians!

As we pressed on down the Canal du Loing, we learnt that two unusually dry winters had severely reduced the water reserves feeding the Canal du Centre – the last link to the Saône – causing the authorities to give notice that it would probably have to close in July or August. This significantly affected our plan to leave Gwennol on the Loire side of this canal at the end of June for a couple of months (at Roanne) while we returned home to enjoy the brief summer in Wales. However, when we planned to return in the autumn we would likely find ourselves trapped and unable to continue our journey. The consequence was clear – we would have to travel an extra 150km to get Gwennol into the Saône before going home. Our pace would have to quicken considerably.

For the next week and more we pressed on, first down the charming and wooded Canal de Briare to the town of Briare at which point the canal passes over the wide river Loire on a remarkable ‘aquaduct’ bridge built by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). The south side of this bridge marks the start of the 196km long Canal Lateral à la Loire. Travelling down this, day after day, was rather like an endless canal journey through the remoter parts of rural Powys! Not unpleasant, but a test of endurance and self-sufficiency, particularly since the more interesting towns along the route (e.g. Sancerre and La Charité sur Loire lie some distance from the canal on the river itself. At last after days in the wilderness, we made Decize (unfortunately pronounced ‘disease’) where we stopped for a day to refuel and restock, and then finally on to Digoin, marking the southern end of this canal. Now came the passage over the Charolais mountains on the Canal du Centre, taking us past old coalmining towns where rugby is still played, and then, after having risen 301m above sea-level, steeply down through staircases of locks to the Saône valley and our final destination.

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Halfway up the Haut Seine

May 25, 2012

The sun came out at last, and the rain clouds receded, as we departed the Paris Arsenal for the next stage of our journey up the upper or Haut Seine.  Actually, the weather changed completely, and we experienced many days of brilliant and hot sunshine as we made our way up this attractive part of the river. Our first stop was the well-appointed little harbour (or Port de Plaisance) at Draveil where we stayed for a couple of days enjoying the local parkland and the excellent wifi signal. We made friends with some Irish neighbours (Shane and Frank) and we set off with them in their motor launch ‘Atlantis’ the next day, finally reaching Melun – while our friends decided to press on. After a little difficulty identifying a suitable mooring, we enjoyed a pleasant riverside evening meal. Travelling further up the Seine the following day, we saw some beautiful waterside properties, presumably owned by French bankers, or the such-like. Eventually we arrived at St Mammès sur Seine, another gathering-ground for retired Péniche owners, where the first of the Bourbonnais canals we planned to take (the Canal de Loing) branches off south.

A particular delight awaited us just a couple of kilometres into the canal – the unspoiled, historic town of Moret sur Loing. Basing ourselves at the little Port de Plaisance, we spent a couple of pleasant days amongst the cluster of Pèniches, walking around the local area, including a rather hot walk through the Forest of Fontainebleau. Despite an effort to reach a verdant high point, the palace itself remained beyond our view deep in the woodland. By this time the heat of the day was upon us, and we stumbled rather stickily back to the boat for a shower, vowing never again to enter this extensive forest without a decent map!

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A dog's life in Paris

May 21, 2012

Having heard so much talk about this place called ‘Paris’, I was keen to cock my leg against some notable Parisian feature, such as the Eifel Tower, in order to announce my arrival to those with a nose for these things. Once into the oddly-named Paris Arsenal marina, my co-guardians started wittering on (especially the one that likes to refer to himself as ‘Popeye’) about all the cultural excursions they could drag me around over the next couple of days. However I had to chuckle because all their carefully laid plans were scuppered by the poor spell of weather that closed in on us, whilst Wales apparently experienced a heat-wave! More significantly, I also heard them complaining that there were surprisingly few places where dogs were allowed to sniff and pee (and worse), despite the much vaunted love of canines attributed to the French populace.

Putting these tribulations to one side, things started reasonably well with a walk to the Bois to Vincennes, during which I met my French double, Jaques, looking adoringly at me through a glass door. But then the heavens opened the following day and we started to experience cabin fever after hours of being cooped up while “il pleut des cords”, as I heard one of my guardians mutter. After a while it became too much and we abandoned the dry for a trudge through the rain to that small corner of Les Jardins de Luxembourg actually open to dogs. Mind you, that’s when things went pear-shaped for me. As I waited patiently for my compatriots to put on their many waterproof layers (God how they take an age!), I decided quite stupidly to make an ill-judged leap onto a neighbouring vessel from the safety of the pontoon. Alas, the rain-soaked surface was just too slippery and much to my horror I slithered off into the grey and litter-strewn water of the marina! As I spluttered to the surface thinking my end was nigh, I was suddenly hoist back onto the pontoon coughing and spluttering. If this wasn’t enough of an indignity, my two guardians seemed to find the whole incident highly amusing!! Still, after a bit of drying and pampering the sun came out, and I regained my composure with a bit of sunbathing in the cockpit. All-in-all, it was quite a dog’s life in Paris!

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Taking on the bateaux mouches

May 19, 2012

A sunny Saturday morning greeted us as we set off for our triumphant entry into the French capital. There were a handful of working péniches about on the river but as we approached the outskirts we found ourselves practically alone. The long, sweeping meanders of the Seine took us past many fine riverside properties and a remarkable collection of converted péniches forming a motley array of homes, from rustic cottage style to modernistic steel and glass designs, many with delightful potted plant gardens. The previous day we’d shared our pontoon with a French artist in his own DIY floating studio, showing that all shades of life can secure a place on the river if they really want to.

After several hours of steady motoring we swept past the Bois de Boulogne and the pinnacle of the Eifel Tower hove into sight! From being the only boat on the river, the water suddenly became alive with large bateaux mouches (sight-seeing tourist boats) swerving and veering haphazardly from one side of the river to the other. Passing under vast, impressive bridges best viewed from water-level, the original Statue of Liberté glinted in the sallow sunlight, whilst tthe Eifel loomed above us and the river banks surged thick with people. This was a great way to see the city!

A nervous moment as we waited for the one-way system around the Isle de la Cité to turn in our favour, and then we were passing through the historic quarters, dominated on the southern bank by the huge Musée d’Orsay. Then, there, looming behind us was Notre Dame, looking grey and mossy as the light faded and rain threatened. Within minutes we were entering the locked entrance to the Paris Arsenal marina, located where the Canal St Martin meets the Seine. A perfect location on the edge of the vieille cité, just a stone’s throw from the Place de la Bastille, the Paris Arsenal has a good reputation as a friendly place to spend a few days.

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From the Oise to the Seine

May 18, 2012

The two days spent at L’Isle Adam were warm and sunny, and we made friends with a French couple in the boat next to us whose Slovakian credit card switched on our electric supply when all our UK cards were rejected – oh! how the days of Empire are long gone! We had an unusual river bank visitor which looked more beaver than otter, but which we never accurately identified.  It was part of a small group that seemed to live happily off tourist scraps.

Leaving L’Isle we made our way further downstream to Port de Cergy, a proper little marina for a change. A hot day spent searching for a supply of French gas to replace our expensive camping gaz allowed us to see the more industrial and unattractive parts of the local area. A more pleasant day (yet another French holiday) was spent exploring the extensive and very well designed waterpark adjoining the port. The whole area (once gravel workings) has been beautifully and skillfully regenerated.

Our departure from Pointoise-Cergy gave us a brief opportunity to call into Mery-Auvers to see the graves of Vincent Van Goch and his brother Theo. The town was popular with 19th century artists and Vincent painted feverishly here before shooting himself whilst receiving treatment for his mental problems – a strategy with real marketing potential.  The weather was cold and wet, so we pressed on and entered the Seine at Conflans -Ste-Honorine which was packed with colourful péniches. We quickly became aware of motoring against the current after days of downstream travelling on the Oise. By late afternoon, after a long day, we pulled into a mooring at Rueil-Malmaison where we enjoyed a Lebanese meal in preparation for our impending journey into the heart of Paris.

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That was the week that l'Oise

May 10, 2012

The short journey from Noyon to Pont L’Evèque took us into the Canal Lateral à l’Oise, allowing a play on words for our more mature readers. We were back in a river again, this time travelling down-stream, so we had our first encounter with locks that emptied rather than filling. Once we’d got the hang of these we found them easier and less turbulent. By lunch we were moored at the attractive town of Longueil-Annel, just above the Janville lock, marking the start of the river proper. This town makes the most of its attractive canal setting and is said to be a popular place for péniche skippers to retire.

The next few hours were spent meandering down the Oise, together with a group of péniches. We had to wait for them all to enter each lock before we were allowed to go in. We started to feel part of the team! Our hopes that we might stay overnight at Boran-sur-Oise were dashed when we found the bankside moorings too shallow. So wearily we pressed on for Beaumont-sur-Oise, reaching the town in the evening sun. As we settled to a small pontoon, two of our accompanying péniches slowly manoeuvred using the river current to gently moor together close by. The charm of the scene did not hold for long, however, as our walk around Beaumont revealed an impoverished community with a high number of African immigrants. Sad to say, we took care to lock Gwennol’s doors when we went to bed.

The day dawned bright but cold. Despite the sharp northerly wind, it seemed as if the weather had changed for the better at last. After lunch we made the short journey to L’Isle-Adam, a popular leisure resort which made a stark contrast with Beaumont. We joined a smart powerboat on the small pontoon with a crew of French folk who live in Portsmouth! Being a Sunday afternoon, there were crowds milling around in the sunshine. This looked like a good place to spend a couple of days.

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Chugging down the Canal du Nord

May 09, 2012

Leaving Peronne on Wednesday morning, we began a long day on the Canal du Nord. Rather featureless, but nonetheless an engineering achievement, the most notable moment was our passage through the 1km long tunnel called La Panneterie. Late afternoon we arrived in Noyon and made the lengthy walk into the historic town centre. The scene of many battles down the ages, Noyon still has character, and its cathedral, peppered with bullet and shrapnel marks, still evokes a powerfully medieval atmosphere.

We spent the night on a riverside factory wharf, together with several working péniches. It was the complete antithesis of a tourist setting, and the timeless sense of river-borne commerce was made all the more vivid when the péniches began loading tonnes of wheat the following morning.

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