Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Chateaux and Lavoirs


 One more lock will take us from the canal de Bourgogne onto the River Yonne. We have visited this town of Migennes several times before. The fact that it may not be the most beautiful in France is thanks mainly to its railway. During WW2 the Allied bombing raids destroyed the rail marshalling yards, the bridges over the river and, unfortunately, much of the town itself. Today, whilst the uninspiringly rebuilt Migennes remains a convenient place to catch a train and stock up with fuel and food, it also provides a nightly magnificent spectacle – the murmuration of thousands upon thousands of starlings. One starling on its own may not conjure up any particular vision of beauty but believe me en masse they are absolutely spellbinding.
Burgundy has always been a rich region of France and consequently it has many fine chateaux some of which have been owned by the same families for generations. Evidently there were some aristocrats who managed to hang onto not only their heads but also their castles during the Revolution. Many are open to the public and we visited those closest to the canal. Some don’t allow visitors.
Chateau Tanlay

Chateau Ancy le Franc

One of the latter is the chateau at Marigny le Cahouet. A Frenchman we met at Port Royal told us to be sure to stop at this little village to see ‘the very beautiful castle’. We had had a hard day; heavy locks coming every few hundred metres, in very hot weather, with our young, slightly built, female travelling lock keeper. By the time we reached the last lock before Marigny we’d all had enough. We told her we were stopping and after telling us the ‘halte’ was just round the corner she made her escape zooming off down the tow path on her scooter. 
Marigny le Cahouet

‘Round the corner’ was a short distance and the mooring was just before the next lock. A couple of boats were already tied up. One was a narrowboat we had travelled with previously and as we drew near they came out to call to us that the canal was so shallow that they’d had to tie up well out from the bank and use a gangplank. Worse though was apparently the water level dropped considerably overnight and they had been woken that morning not by church bells but by the rather more upsetting clatter of their cupboards emptying themselves onto the floor as their boat listed. Our boat, having a much deeper draught, meant there was no chance of us getting alongside. Without a lock keeper we could neither go on nor back so we just had to try and find a bit where we could get close enough to the bank for the ‘great leap’ into the inevitable nettles.
With much palaver (ie cursing and swearing) we’d no sooner hammered in stakes and manhandled the gangplank ashore when the lock keeper and a colleague hove into view at the next lock to fill it in order to let 2 more boats up into our section. Filling the lock was going to put us all seriously aground so I put my best French into action (thanks Sylvianne) and went to remonstrate ( the French for shallow is ‘peau profonde’ in case you’re interested). The upshot was that they let the boats through but were persuaded to call up the boss keeper who then made an appearance and agreed to let more water down so we could all be afloat again. However, he did insist we move our boat to the opposite bank where the official mooring was. More ‘palaver’. Next morning we were all hard aground again but yesterday’s last yacht in, being fairly light, was refloated before anyone else was even up and they dashed into the lock. Extraordinary bad manners, the protocol being that one queues for the lock in the order of arrival. Someone, and I have a fair idea who you are, stole our boathook that day. Boathooks are a vital piece of equipment on a boat with many, many uses. One of those is pushing a boat off should it run aground. May you have great need of it in the future,
Our reason for stopping here was not in evidence. No hill with a castle on top. None of the other boaters had any idea of where it might be, nor did the lock keeper. So, I set off on foot to look. In the village I found a rue du Chateau which, being a fair clue, I followed and eventually found the castle in question and also a beautiful ancient stone footbridge. The chateau had a sign saying no visitors so I contented myself with a solitary wander around the moat.
Marigny le Cahouet

On my way back to the boat I called into the baker’s shop which adjoined the village bar with a connecting door inside. The baker, who had a broken arm (which may explain why his croissants were so heavy you could have used them as boat anchors) was also the barman. He was very friendly and I asked him who owned the beautiful chateau. ‘Ah!! Le Dijonais’ ( I think that’s what he said. He didn’t speak any English). ‘He’s the owner and he’s in the bar now! Come and meet him and he’ll take you to the chateau and show you around.’ Suddenly I was on the spot. The bar was a typical French village bar - full of men laughing and talking at full volume whilst having a drink on their way home. No women. ‘Come on,’ he encouraged but I’m sorry to say I shyly declined.
Now I am sorry.
What a missed opportunity.

 Lavoirs. I love these old communal washing places. There are a few beauties along this canal. Should you be interested in a little history see the page link on the right.
Fosse Dion, Tonnerre
Grand Lavoir, Brienon

Friday, 19 July 2013

On the Downside - from Pouilly to Montbard

We may be on the downside of the Canal de Bourgogne but the temperature’s definitely on the way up. We’ve left the green forests behind and are now into rich farmland where gold is the predominant hue. Farm machines are everywhere. If you can’t see them you can hear them every hour of the long summer day (except lunchtime of course). There seems to be a machine for everything and all look new. They’re out in the fields cutting, turning and baling the ripe hay –jobs that once took many people days to complete are now finished in a few hours.
 Tractors pulling laden trailers constantly clatter across the canal bridges and through the villages leaving a trail of hay sprigs or cereal dust in their wake. One sight that can’t fail to cheer is the field filled with hundreds of thousands of bright sunflowers which turn in unison, each like a hand mirror to the blazing sun tracking across the sky.

It has been a little while and a lot of locks since the last blog post. Going downhill is much easier than going up but we have had a few long, tiring days nevertheless. I am writing this in Tanlay which is 53km and 89 locks from Pouilly (the summit and from where I last wrote).  We have been accompanied by teams of itinerant lock keepers over all but the last few. This generally works fairly well but it does mean you have to book a setting off time (usually 9am) and decide on an appropriate stopping place. Sometimes there’s not a lot of choice about the latter. Most of the locks are hard work with heavy gates which have to be manually opened and if there’s only one keeper one of us always gets off to help. I don’t know what the recruiting process is but some of the hardest locks seem to be the responsibility of the smallest, weakest keepers and then you get to an automatic, push button lock and the pusher of the button is a strapping, muscle bound, young man. Perhaps he got that way after working his way up.

And then there was this young eclusier who deserves a mention. He would seem to have lost so much weight due to his morning’s exertions that, by the afternoon when we went through, his clothes were falling off him. He could almost qualify for one of those facebook ‘weird dieting tips’.

We had a couple of days in Montbard over the Bastille Day holiday. The celebrations here were fairly low key. There were fireworks but somewhere in the distance. The area around the canal port in Montbard is not particularly picturesque and if we hadn’t been forced to stay we probably would have just spent one night – which would have been a pity as we’d have missed seeing an old, as yet un-prettified town with a picturesque river and lovely park around the remains of a chateau on top of another of those steep hills.

We are now in Chateau country which I’ll tell you about in the next post.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Not the Tour de France

There was much excitement in Pouilly yesterday when Tour de Cote d'Or whizzed past the canal basin and into town. This may not be the Tour de France being only 3 days in length and confining itself to Burgundy but it is an important cycling event nevertheless.
What interested me particularly was their route. Day 2 for the racers covered much of the same area of our cruise. What has taken us 3 weeks they have done in around 3 hours. They weren't hanging around scoffing 4 course lunches mind you. Day 2 was also the day for the climb section and guess where that was - the very same route that I wrote about a couple of posts ago. The 10% incline hill up to Colombier that just about killed me and I was merely pushing my bike. What is more they were timetabled to do it in about 5minutes! I'd have liked to have seen that.
Actually I don't believe they did. They were a bit late arriving here in Pouilly.

Pouilly Tunnel

Old electric tug which once pulled peniches through the Pouilly Tunnel
Much has been written about the Pouilly Tunnel. Boaters endlessly discuss its dimensions and those who have already traversed its 3.33km sagely advise others on technique with the result that worriers (like me) imagine all manner of disaster and become generally tedious company.
We've been through a fair number of canal tunnels and they all vary. Different lengths, heights, shapes; fancy lighting, no lighting; towpath, no towpath; ghosts....To be honest I haven't actually met any ghosts but if there are any to be found then the cold, dark, stalactite encrusted Pouilly Tunnel might be the place.
Construction of the Canal de Bourgogne was begun in 1775 and of course, at that time, all the work needed to be done by hand. Progress was further slowed by the turmoil caused by the Revolution and the tunnel joining the 2 sections of the canal wasn't completed until 1832. I read that English prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars were employed to dig out the tunnel, being kept underground for the whole period with their food lowered to them via shafts. They were promised release on completion of the tunnel but few survived and many are supposed to lie entombed behind the walls. This information was prefaced by the words 'it is said' and I couldn't find independent verification of the story (but I haven't had much time to research) so I hope it isn't true.
Lock Cottage near summit decorated with tools

Traffic through the tunnel is one way which is as normal but we also had to get a written pass and VHF radio from the lock keeper which is not. We were also given a set of instructions; wear lifejackets, use a spotlight (the keeper checked this worked), turn off the gas etc. All as per usual except for the lifejackets. We were to wait for the trip boat to come through from the other direction and then we were number 2 of 3 boats making the trip that morning. This instruction was immediately ignored by boat number 3 who made a quick dash for first place!
Pouilly Tunnel Approaches

Pouilly Tunnel entrance. Looks like plenty of room.

As mentioned in a previous post we had  made our boat profile as small as possible in order to fit through the smaller than usual tunnel. After the longish approach through the narrow cut the tunnel entrance seems surprisingly spacious -for a few metres. Then, all of a sudden, the walls close in!

Hope we fit! Sudden decrease in headroom.
 We have sufficient room though as long as the skipper can drive in a straight line for about 45 minutes which he does by following the guide line of the power cable in the middle of the roof very close to his head.
 This cable powers the fluorescent lights which work well in some sections and not at all in others. Plunged into darkness (apart from the faint light of the lead boat) we are given some inkling of what it must have been like pre electricity and we're very glad of our spotlight.
No Lights

Now, there is one tunnel hazard which I have never seen mentioned and so here's my contribution to the list of things my fellow neurotics need to worry about.  Every so often there is a  largish metal bracket dead centre on the roof containing, I presume, the cctv camera tracking your progress. If you are standing on a high deck, as we were, and you are tall you had better beware. Mind your head!
Safely Through

Thursday, 4 July 2013

La Vallee de l'Ouche

Chateauneuf en Auxois

 The summit of the canal de Bourgogne is up in the clouds today which means it is wet. We’re waiting here until we can pass through the 3.3km Pouilly Tunnel tomorrow. We could have gone this afternoon but we not only have to co-ordinate our passage with the trip boat but also make some modifications to L’Avenir so she will fit through the decidedly cramped conditions of this tunnel. The arch of the tunnel comes close to the boat roof so good luck to the skipper who’s going to have to steer a dead straight course and will he be able to stand up? I am watching a barge owner on the other side of the mooring basin completely dismantling his wooden wheelhouse so he will fit through. A bit more of a palaver than us - we have to take down our nav frame, canopy and wind and side screens.
The previous 50km cruising from Dijon up the Valley de l’Ouche has been beautiful. We’ve been lucky in that the weather has been good, as has the company -but we expected that! Thank you Libby and Brian for, once again, your excellent crewing skills ranging from rope wrangling whilst knee deep in nettles to steering, finding errant lock keepers, cooking and general entertainment (certificates in the post). You’re welcome again any time.
At the top of the hill - Chateauneuf

Onboard barbecue

The canal is heavily locked with one or 2 keepers travelling on motor scooters working the boats through each sector before handing them on to their colleagues. This is generally very efficient but hotel boats are a priority so you may occasionally be delayed or alternatively pushed on further than you wanted. We found ourselves waiting below a faulty lock on our first night out of Dijon, for example, and were told we would be held up. How long? Shrug. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day. Maybe you might have to go back.  The cottage at this particular lock is now a restaurant and being a suspicious type I immediately suspected this was some sort of ruse to capture customers. It wasn’t (well probably not) although we did have a very good evening meal there. Next afternoon when a hotel boat appeared, 4 lock keepers wrestled the jammed lock gate open to let it through and decided they could repeat the process for us.

Near Vandenesse, Bourgogne
The valley follows the course of the River Ouche. Completely rural and heavily wooded it is renowned as one of the most beautiful stretches of canal in France.There are quite a few very attractive villages whose limestone cottages are usually surrounded by climbing roses or pots of geraniums. Most are without any shops nowadays unfortunately. We stopped at Pont de Pany – hotel closed that particular day, boulangerie closed forever; Pont d’Ouche – hotel closed due to flooding; Chez Bryony, a small shop and cafĂ© open every day (thank goodness); Crugey – restaurant open for excellent lunch. 13.50 euros for 4 courses with glass of wine and pretty Vandenesse  - 2 restaurants (again with excellent13.50 lunch menu), Salon de The and a boulangerie van that whizzes through in the morning but will stop if you run onto the road and gesticulate wildly enough to catch his eye. We’ve made good use of the fixed price lunch menus – starter, main course, cheese plate, dessert, coffee and wine but it does mean you have to lie down for the afternoon. 
The restaurants are always busy with local workers; one had the driver of an enormous log truck (laden) enjoying a pichet of red with his meal. How they manage to get through an afternoon’s work beats me. Perhaps you have to be brought up on it.
Port, Vandenesse, Bourgogne. Chateauneuf in distance
 We spent a couple of days at Pont d’Ouche and because there were no 4 course lunches on offer we managed to cycle to those villages along the canal we’d been hustled through. The tow path is a velo (cycle) route and we saw lots of people on cycle holidays, panniers heavily laden with gear. Should you be thinking of this I hope you have a good bike. On my little one it was hard going as the track is loose limestone chips and quite rutted. A couple of hours at a time was more than enough.Or maybe I just need to toughen up.
Off the canal and you’re climbing very steep hills. I made the mistake of suggesting we go the short distance from Pont d’Ouche to Colombier. The 2km turned out to be straight upwards. Pretty village of restored limestone cottages with a spectacular view I’m told. I spent half an hour spreadeagled on the village green (well the French equivalent - the grassy bit round the cross. It has just occurred to me that the residents might have found this sight slightly offensive; sorry - I could barely breathe never mind think straight) waiting for my vision to return from black to colour and my heart to resume its proper place and pace within my chest. The suggestion was then made that we go back via a different route. ‘It’ll be downhill as well.’ It was, eventually. First we had to push our bikes up to where there was a notice saying ‘Summit. 480m’. Then after what some (but not me) might call a thrilling downhill run we ended up in another picturesque village at the bottom of the valley. Trouble was it was the wrong valley and we were faced with another uphill slog. By this time it was raining and I’d had enough but what can you do? The afternoon was just about saved by the next and final village though. Chaudenay le Chateau. Unfortunately, as we’d set out on only a short ride, I didn’t have my camera with me to take a picture of the beautiful old castle.
Of all the chateaux so far, Chateauneuf en Auxois has been the most spectacular. Again atop a steep hill with amazing views it is, along with its village, said to resemble a miniature Carcassonne without the tourists. Well worth the climb.

At Chateauneuf

Turrets of Chateauneuf
Finally, I must (yes Malcolm!!) make mention of the tourist steam narrow gauge railway from Pont d’Ouche to Bligny sur Ouche restored and operated by volunteers from all over the world. We stayed an extra day in Pont d’Ouche in order to take a trip along this line and the little train was nearly full which was great to see.

Chemin de Fer de la Valee de l'Ouche

Tuesday, 2 July 2013


We left Dijon a week ago – long enough to forget our would-be bike thief (except when I sit on the damaged and therefore even more uncomfortable seat) and recall a few of the many good things about the city.
 During the 14th and 15th centuries Dijon was the capital of Burgundy, then a huge and rich Dukedom extending as far north as Flanders and east to Switzerland. Today Bourgogne may be much smaller but the city is expanding into the countryside. Should you travel out to the termini of the tram routes (which we did just because we had an inexpensive day pass and we could) you will quickly find yourself amongst block after block of new, low rise apartments and eventually a huge shopping mall ‘in progress’. As yet, the old city still has a vibrant shopping centre. Let’s hope it survives.
Most of Dijon’s tourist attractions are within the ‘Quartier Ancien’ – the medieval centre.

Typical decorative tiled roof

Dijon's most famous product

No, not beer pumps. Delicious fresh mustard!

The Well of Moses, dating from the middle ages, is a little more difficult to find being situated in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital.

Dijon has a TGV (fast train) station and so is one of those places people tend either to whizz straight through or walk from one platform to another to change trains. Next time consider a stop. It won’t disappoint.
Being welcomed to Dijon by the local primary school kids.