Dawn, a team member at Waterways Holidays took her family to France in May to enjoy a boating experience with a different flavour on the canals and rivers of Burgundy. She has been kind enough to share her holiday experience with us in her travel log:
After many years of boating on the UK canals, we decided it was time to try something different and enjoy a boating holiday in Europe, but with so many waterways across Portugal, France and Germany to choose from where to start! After some discussion, we decided on beautiful Burgundy in the heart of France. We were attracted by the prospect of historic towns, medieval villages, prestigious world-renowned vineyards and traditional Burgundy gastronomy. And we were not disappointed.
So it was with excitement and anticipation that we boarded the shuttle at Calais for the 35 minute crossing for our very first boating holiday in France. The car journey through France was very easy with plenty of Aires for picnicking and comfort breaks, and took about six hours. We arrived in the lovely provincial town of Vermenton also known as ‘Land of Beautiful Hills’ (about 20 minutes drive south of Auxerre) in full sunshine at about two o’clock in the afternoon, having first visited the local supermarket to stock up on a few basics before boarding.
Our French boating partners were so welcoming. We were invited to board our home for the next week, a Linssen 33.9AC 10 metre long cruiser, to check out the facilities and unpack prior to tuition. What a beautiful, stylish and comfortable cruiser. We were all blown away by the quality and specification of the boat. Tuition and the safety handover took about 45 minutes which included being accompanied through the nearby lock. Interestingly, unlike the UK, all the locks on the French waterways have lock keepers who operate the locks for you, but if you’re the sort of boater who really enjoys operating locks, they are more than happy for you to get involved. By the way, never disturb a Frenchman’s (or women’s) lunch break, they prize it highly and locks are closed over the lunch time period, usually from midday to around 1.30pm, so you’ll need to plan your stops around this.
Our instructor jumped off the boat at the lock and we were on our way. Our adventure would take us from Vermenton, on a one way cruise, through the stunning landscape of Burgundy to the quaint town of Tonnerre following the course of the Canal du Nivernais, the River Yonne and the Canal de Bourgogne. We were very impressed that a full itinerary was provided for us on board with recommendations for overnight moorings, places to eat and drink and places of interest, to ensure we would get the most from our travels and didn’t miss any of the historic and enchanting villages and towns along the way.
We were cruising west on the Vermenton Branch of the Canal du Nivernais, which follows the River Cure for 4km passing through the pretty village of Accolay to join the River Yonne. Our mooring for our first stop was to be Cravant, 6km and three locks’ away. Arriving about 5pm in the afternoon we set off for a wonder around this ancient village. Cravant was once a fortified village and you can still see the remains of the old moats. There is a beautiful 15th century church and, as with most French villages, enjoys a market every Saturday morning. Having already planned to eat on board the boat for our first evening, we spent a short interlude to sample a glass of Chablis and a cold French beer at the Bar/Brassiere O’Jouvence in the centre of the village prior to enjoying our evening meal. One thing we did notice, however, was that generally bars and brassieres are open for breakfast around 7 o’clock in the morning and, because of this, they tend to close around 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening. So if you’re hoping to go out for an evening drink without eating, make sure you go early or you’ll be disappointed. Restaurants are generally open for lunch from 12 to 2 o’clock and reopen for evening meals at 7 o’clock.
We were very excited about our second day cruising. After passing through the village of Vincelottes, we stopped off at Bailly to visit the caves or cellars which house the fruits of the region’s labours, the famous Crement de Bourgogone; the region’s equivalent to Champagne. The cellars at Bailly are housed in immense underground quarries which once provided stone for the construction of Parisian housing. There is an easily accessible mooring pontoon at the foot of the cellars. We enjoyed a guided tour of the four hectares of underground galleries as well as tasting the region’s wines. Tastings completed and a few bottles purchased and stowed on board and we were off to Champs sur Yonne. The canal is separated from the river by a stone wall, an amazing feat of engineering that has fortunately defied the most devastating floods of the Yonne for many years. Like many of the moorings we visited, the moorings at Champ sur Yonne had information about vineyard tours. The wine producers around Chablis offer free of charge transport from the waterside to their vineyards and visitor centres.
Our third day’s cruising would take us to the outstanding town of Auxerre. Auxerre was one of the highlights of our week. The town is particularly noted for its production of Burgundy wine, including the world-famous Chablis, as well as the impressive cathedral of Saint Etienne, which dominates the riverside. In 1995 Auxerre was named ‘Town of Art and History’. Allow plenty of time to do this town justice. Moorings at the port were chargeable and cost between €6 and €9 according to the size of your boat. I should also say that we found that most quays asked for a mooring fee. Some were free of charge, but if you needed fresh water there was always a small charge.
A stop off at Gurgy on the fourth day was interesting with a visit to a Burgundy Snail Farm with a visitors centre showing how snails are produced and prepared. Then we continued on the river to Migennes where we left the river and entered the Canal de Bourgogne via the deep lock, which I have to admit, was a little hairy. Unable to see the top of the lock or the lock keeper, we heard a yell from above and slowly a large hook on the end of a rope came into view. We passed our mooring rope over the hook and it slowly disappeared again. Slowly, but surely, the lock filled and we emerged into sunlight once more. We were heading to our next mooring at Brienon sur Armancon, where another of our boating partners is located. The town was ravaged by two fires in the 17th and 18th centuries, but despite this several very attractive buildings survived including a big oval wash house built in 1792. The moorings at Brienon are particularly well serviced offering a supermarket, laundry facilities and post office.
On to Saint Florentin the next day, another highlight. Stunningly beautiful, in addition to the canal, the town also boasts two rivers; the Armance and the Armancon. The town, which takes about 15 minutes walk up a fairly steep hill to reach, is lively with a good amount of shops and several good restaurants, as well as a magnificent church built between 1500 and 1614 and famous for its stained-glass windows of the Troyenne School. The area North of Saint Florentin, in particular the small town of Chaource, is famous for its production of cheese, goat’s cheese in particular. Sampling the local cheese is a must! It’s delicious.
Day 6 & 7
The second to last moorings of our holiday were spent at Flogny la Chapelle, another pretty town with good amenities. Then onto Tonnerre, the last stop of our holiday. The town has a really welcoming port and the staff were on hand to greet us as we arrived. Once moored we had time to stroll across the footbridge to the centre of the town to visit the Fosse Dionne, a circular basin fed by a natural spring that was used as a public washing place, as well as the church of St Pierre which is perched on a rocky terrace offering panoramic views of the town and the surrounding countryside. To the north of Tonnerre is the small wine growing region of Epineuil. Here they produce excellent red, white and rose wines from the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, which are consider being some of the very best Burgundy wines produced. We spent our last evening enjoying a fabulous four course dinner at a family run restaurant in the town recommended by the staff at the port, Le Saint Père. A truly fitting end to an amazing journey through Burgundy.
In all, we only cruised three to four hours per day, which was perfect as it allowed us to enjoy lazy lunches soaking up the sun and to have an opportunity to see the sights of this beautiful region of France. In total, we navigated 91 km and passed through 43 locks, but it felt far less as we weren’t doing all the hard work.
Our car was waiting for us at Tonnerre, having been transferred from Vermenton. We left Tonnerre on Saturday morning following the contours of the rolling hills covered in emerging vines which would become grape laden by the end of the Summer homeward bound. Sad to be leaving this region of France that has given us so much pleasure but with memories and tastes to last until our next visit!