Cruising Article

The Canals of France

Fabulous Scenery, Engaging History and Local Indulgences at a Pastoral Pace

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Taking in France along its many canals comes with challenges which are rewarding to overcome and the results are well worth the effort.

Touring a region of France by canal is a charming way to explore this beguiling country. However, the pace of life on the canals takes some getting used to. Don’t expect to zip along from city to city. The 5-knot pace and abundance of locks make traveling a study of learning to relax and enjoy the present. What makes up for the tranquil pace is absorbing the incredible beauty, opportunities to encounter interesting people and chances to explore fascinating places all while taking control of your own experience.

Discover the Canals of France – Dole to Dijon and the Canal de Bourgogne

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There are many opportunities to see France by canal and connecting rivers. We chose to travel between Dole and Dijon.

Taking it in slowly – Cruising the canals and rivers of France is not your typical charter. Once you decide where and how you want to cruise, there are few other things to worry about except learning to manage the locks. There are no sails to tweak, no electronics to monitor, no dinghies and outboards to keep track of, no seasickness and very little real navigation because you can hardly get lost on a river. And although the speeds may be comparable, life on a sailboat at six knots seems infinitely faster than life on a canal at five.

Up the River Saone – Initially, our cruise was to be a one-way tour from the charming town of Dole in eastern France, up the river Saone to Port-sur-Saone some 80 miles and 60 locks away. We arrived on Pentecost, which is the feast that commemorates the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ. (I had to Google that.)

Discovering Dole, France

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Dole is a surprising little French town chockfull of medieval charm, excellent cafes and a nice marina.

More than expected – To our surprise, Dole, in the Franche-Comte region, turned out to be more than just another town of 25,000 locals. We spent a day wandering the old town with its grand basilica and the detailed Dole Pasteur Museum – Louis Pasteur’s Birth Place. Bands, street performers and small impromptu parades surrounded us into the evening when we stopped in a cozy restaurant on the romantic river walk. Over the door, a picture of two cats, one white and one black, sat on the moon with their tails entwined letting us know that this was the creperie La Demi Lune (Half Moon). After a lovely dinner, we went down to the river and were treated to a lengthy firework show the result of which we witnessed the next morning with small burn marks in the gelcoat of our rental boat.

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La Demi Lune has al fresco seating alongside the canal.
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Dole’s inviting riverwalk leads to hidden cafes and galleries that can take a half day to explore.

Self-drive – We chose the self-drive option and rented a four-cabin, two-head boat from Nicols which has a base at the Port de Plaisance (marina) in Dole. By taking command of our very own small river barge, we got to set the itinerary, do the provisioning and figure out the locks on our own.

Unfortunate weather – We arrived in mid-May of the coldest and wettest Spring that Europe had experienced in 40 years. We were stopped on the first day at the last lock on the Rhone au Rhin just before entering the Saone. Everything north was flooded which meant we wouldn’t be able to clear the bridges and tunnels. A bit of sweet-talking of the lock-keeper led him to let us pass onto the Saone with the promise that we’d head south into the Canal de Bourgogne to Dijon which was still open.

Our first challenge – The maneuvering of the first lock in Dole was a small victory. Two rental boats or one large barge hotel can fit into a lock at a time. A successful first try led to high-fiving all around as if we had just crossed an ocean. Little did we realize that 40 locks later, we’d be dreading standing on deck in the rain once again managing the lines in yet another lock.

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After we got the hang of the first lock, we were quite full of ourselves. By the 60th one, we were less enthusiastic.

A Night in St. Jean-de-Losne

First night aboard – We tied up to stone steps in St. Jean-de-Losne on our first evening. Metal rings drilled into the steps provided us with a way to secure ourselves and there was evidence of a way to get electricity and water although no one ever came down to visit us, so we headed into town for dinner. The village has a small basilica and so started my odyssey to visit and photograph every church, crypt, and cathedral available on the trip.

Canal de Bourgogne

The next morning – We turned into a lock that had a large sign announcing this as the entry to the Canal de Bourgogne where we spent the next day and a half traveling through the rolling lazy countryside with lots of locks. The first locks on the Rhone au Rhin were not manned because they are operated via a remote, which was easy. After that, it got more interesting as the locks were staffed by lock-keepers which meant there is an opening and
a closing time for the day and after seven o’clock, there was little to do but pound stakes into the bank, tie up and talk late into the night.

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The path alongside the Canal du Burgogne lets you get off the boat and bike and walk to stretch your legs.

Friendly lock-keepers – Lock-keepers often maintain more than one lock so they would jump on their mopeds and race from one to the other to meet us as we trundled in. Although better prepared for the weather, they were standing out there with us, so we befriended them with cups of tea and coffee and in turn, they allowed us to help open the gates and we generally behaved like children at a fair.

On to Dijon

Canal traffic – Throughout most of the trip to Dijon, we were followed by a beautiful barge hotel named Caprice. Aboard were 20 people from Chicago celebrating a 50th birthday. Since we locked through before them, we were often met by their group out on bicycles. A barge hotel is fairly all-inclusive and they were having a luxury experience with a van that took them on excursions, gourmet meals prepared by a chef and wine tastings every day.

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Restored canal barges still ply the inland waters but now more as upscale and all-inclusive floating hotels.

Enjoying Dijon

Later, in Dijon – We managed to talk our way aboard one evening as they were partying on their own dance floor and welcomed us with glasses of wine. They seemed impressed with the way we were doing it which included driving, finding our own food and managing the locks. In short, they thought we were brave, and we decided not to disabuse them of that notion although our only courage was dealing with the weather at every lock while they were ensconced in a warm cabin with endless food and drink.

Dijon, a welcome change – We piled off the boat and headed into the beautiful city that has managed to mix its medieval character with modern amenities. Cafes and hideaway restaurants are on every corner and Dijon even sports its own mini Arc de Triomphe called the Guillaume Gate. Dijon has several churches including the Notre Dame de Dijon, St. Michel, and the Dijon cathedral below which the crypt of St. Benignus is 1,000 years old and open to visitors. The fine arts museum is housed in the Palace of the Dukes which looks out onto the spectacular Liberation Square that has two rows of fountains lit at night with changing colors.

Les Halles Market

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We learned that Gustave Eiffel, a native son of Dijon, designed the market in the 19th century. The same man that designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

From flowers to produce – In the morning we visited Les Halles, an indoor-outdoor market serving everything from flowers and handicrafts to every kind of cheese, pate, and produce imaginable. Everything looked delicious although the skinned rabbits including the heads and blind eyeballs were a bit disturbing – possibly only to the visiting Americans that aren’t used to their food resembling something that once was cute and cuddly.

Maille Mustard Shop

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Forget wine tasting. When in Dijon, you must indulge in a mustard fest with dozens of exotic flavors to try.

Since we were in Dijon – A visit to the Maille Mustard Shop was a must. This establishment has been in business since 1747 and offers a mustard tasting with dozens of interesting concoctions including champagne and raspberry mixes.

Travel on a canal is slow-going – Our big new Yanmar diesel was governed down so far, we made no more than five knots. When traveling upriver on the last day, we were moving at maybe one knot as we noticed people on the riverbank footpath walking faster than we could push against the current.

Interest in Taking a River Tour

At first, I found the place unsettling – What do you do when forced to slow down? You can only eat and nap so much. Eventually, I found myself spending time talking to the people aboard and the people along the way. Looking back, it was a very social interaction that required absolutely no Facebook, Twitter or even email and yet was one of the most socially satisfying and outgoing charters I’ve done. I’d absolutely do another river tour but for a change of pace, maybe on a staffed barge with free-flowing wine and pastries.

It could take a lifetime – With all of the accessible canals and rivers, it could take years to crisscross France by canal barge. If you only have a week or two to charter, it’s best to identify the region you want to explore because life on a canal moves slowly and you won’t be covering much territory as you visit cities and villages and mingle with the locals. Whether you choose to self-drive a rental boat or get the luxury treatment aboard a full-service barge hotel, the following major areas of France can accommodate what may be the most relaxing vacation you’ve ever taken – locks and all.

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Locks can be exciting, or they can be challenging. But if you slow down and really take it all in, they’re really quite beautiful.

How to Do It

Two Choices – The only other two real choices are whether you’d like to self-drive or let someone else take care of everything for you. The barge hotels carry from four to 20 passengers and can be chartered for a week or two at a time. They’re often fully staffed with a captain, a deckhand, an activities director, and chef. Some include wine tastings at every gourmet meal, excursions via a van that joins the barge at various destinations, and bicycles so you can explore the countryside and then catch up to the barge later.

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Bucolic scenery and a leisurely pace can be a real change of chartering pace - especially if any of your family suffers from seasickness when out on open water.

Canal and River Cruises – These floating hotels are colorfully painted and have flowers in the window boxes and are themselves, a part of the scenery. You won’t have to lift a finger while you lounge on deck or dance the night away after hours and you have the benefit of local knowledge so you won’t miss a thing. And because the crews are usually multi-lingual, you won’t need to stress over a language barrier. Prices range from $2,000 to $5,000 per person depending on the season, location and the barge amenities.

Self-Drive Charters – By contrast, a canal rental boat will put you in the driver’s seat. These boats are floating recreational vehicles that come with a galley, heads and 2-4 cabins. Some include a table, chairs, and parasol on deck and you can rent bikes for an extra fee. You set the itinerary (usually with the help of the base manager) and stop wherever and whenever you like to wander through small towns, pick up a baguette and some local cheese, or take an extra day in the large cities to visit museums and soak up the culture. A self-directed tour usually requires a bit more research so you don’t miss any highlights, or you can just stop where the big barges do and check out what they’re doing. Dust off that high school French, but don’t worry, it doesn’t take much to communicate with the lock-keepers and the locals are friendly. Prices depend on the length of the tour, the size of the boat and the charter company.

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