The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                            PAGE THREE

Cruising the Canals of France                                                     by Scott Porter (photos by Sue Porter)

We would like to thank Scott Porter for this insightful and informative article about his very recent canal cruising experience in France
and to Sue Porter for the great photographs to illustrate their adventure.  The Porters have sailed on France's canals before, and Scott
 is an avid sailor along the Pacific coast.  He is currently a volunteer docent at the Maritime Museum of San Diego which has
one of the world's finest collections of historic ships and is ranked the Best Maritime Museum in the United States.

 l'Amitie. Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.


We got off the train in Chalon-sur-Saône, south of Dijon, and took a taxi to Porte de Plaisance on the river.  A large fête with music and dancing was going on in the cobblestoned plaza. Skirting the crowd with our roll-aboards rattling across the stones, we worked our way over to the wall overlooking the River Saône from the east bank. The town was an important crossroads for trade since the Middle Ages and is at the northern edge of the Saône Valley where the Burgundy wine route travels south to Macon.  Looking to our right upstream, the river appears from behind the trees, taking a broad curve to its right to flow across our tableau and to our left where it hooks up with the Rhône at Lyon to travel south on its journey to the Mediterranean.

I wondered what exactly was around that corner, up river.  Jim and Myrna waved up to us from the dock below, and we rolled the bags down the cobblestone ramp to climb aboard L'Amitié (Friendship).  Following a pleasant lunch, Jim fired up the engine and we cast off, slowly motoring up river.  Around the curve, we turned into the Canal du Centre which climbs over the hills and connects to the Saône River to the River Loire on its way north to Orléans.  We would go up the canal as far as Chagny.


Gliding along the Canal du Centre. Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.
Canal du Centre.  WikipediaWe have known Jim and Myrna since the early 1980s in San Diego.  He has had a number of sailboats and was an avid racer up and down the Southern California coastline for may years.  Myrna learned sailing on a charter from Fiji to New Zealand, directly into the teeth of the Roaring 40s (strong westerly winds found in the Southern hemisphere). 

, as we are all moving into our 70s, they decided motoring casually along a waterway on a flat deck, sliding past views of the French landscape and estates with vast lawns rolling down to the water's edge or cottages alongside the canals, profuse with bright flower boxes, is a more civilized way to pass the days in our later years.  And, we heartily agreed. 

The history of the French canal system goes back to the 1600s as a method of cheaply and safely transporting goods along the eastern half of the country as well as east into Switzerland and Germany.  Oxen hauled the barges along the towpaths on each bank of the canal.  The largest collection of canals is based along the Rhône and Saône rivers, east of Paris, as well as all the way down to the Mediterranean.  When the railroads took over, the canals languished until the early 1990s when the British, with much experience in their own country, began exploring the options in France.  As a result, the French canals experienced a renaissance, attracting boaters from all over the world.  In the seven days we were there, we met people from England, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Latvia and New Zealand, plus a fair amount of French, of course. 

Our first canal boat experience had been with Jim and Myrna on the Canal du Midi, built to transport wheat, wine and textiles from Nîmes.  It connects the Mediterranean heading northwest, below the walled city of Carcassonne, on through Toulouse and up the Garonne River to Bordeaux and into the Atlantic, and east through the Etang du Thau to the Mediterranean.

Since then, the plane trees along the Canal du Midi (which provided a supporting root system for the banks, plus a leafy canopy overhead) have been attacked by an awful blight requiring many to be cut down.  And so, Jim and Myrna moved their boat up the Rhône and on to the Saône River with access to the vast French canal system. 

And so, we were motoring around the bend in the river.  On most mornings, we would walk or bike into a nearby village in search of a boulangerie.  Loading up with croissants, pain au chocolat and a baguette, of course, we pedaled back to the boat where café presse and jus d'orange awaited.  The most enjoyable part of this experience and what kept us coming back was the opportunity to interact one to one with the locals in the small villages.  Following a pleasant repast, we would fire up the motor and head around the next bend ~ looking for the next lock.

Peaceful scene on the canal.  Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.Captain's view.  Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.Flowers along the banks.  Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.

Passing through the locks.  Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.We finally reached Chagny which is most famous for its Michelin 3-star restaurant, Maison Lameloise.  We then reversed course to head back down the canal to the Saône to turn north to Verdun-sur-la-Doubs which lies at the confluence of the Saône, Doubs and Dheune rivers and is considered a fisherman's paradise.  It is also home to a fine museum,  Musée de la Maison du Blé et du Pain.  Our final stop was Auxonne, a commune with a strong military history whose arsenal was designed and built by Vauban.  It also has the distinction of being home to the Artillery School where Napoléon had his first training.

Approaching the locks.  Copyright Sue Porter.  All rights reserved.Passing through the locks is an interesting experience; the locks on the canal are different than locks on the river, but are quite necessary when the terrain becomes hilly.  Typically, the water source for the canals is flowing down from the surrounding hills.  Each lock has an upper and lower gate, and each gate has two side-hinged panels which open in the downhill direction.  A lock can usually accommodate four to six boats, depending on their lengths, but no more than two abreast so that each can wrap lines around bollards set into the canal wall and which will float along with water level.  Bollards are posts with a horizontal rod about 10-12 inches from the top so the line won't slip off and you are less likely to be banging into other boats or the lock walls. 

Once inside, the gates close behind you and you are in the 'Toilet Bowl Zone'.  Locks can be as high as 30+ feet and the water fills and drains very quickly.  Down locking is more civilized since the water is draining, but up locking is much more turbulent.  Water is flooding through pipes near the bottom causing a surge pushing you back.  Then, it surges forward as it rebounds off the back gate.  Hold onto your lines.  It is not overwhelming ~ just a new experience.

Myrna shared that the canal bank makes a great place to tie up either for a brief rest or overnight, plus it gives an opportunity to meet fellow boaters.  "It's always a treat to watch Jim converse with a Frenchman about boats, neither speaking the other's language but somehow understanding each other," she tell us.  Piquets (spikes) are used to secure the boat to the bank.  The balloon fenders hanging off the sides to prevent hull damage in the locks create a slightly wider gap when stepping ashore; it is good to have an agile crew member aboard. 

are many boat rental companies available in various locations.  Saône Bateaux has a very nice web site which explains a lot of the details and shows a variety of choices.  Some of their boats have bow and stern side-thrusters which make the entire tie-up process very civilized.  Most boats have at least two staterooms, each with its own toilet and shower facilities.  Something in the 35-40 foot range should be quite comfortable and manageable.  There are also some companies that offer longer, thinner boats (péniches) which come with a crew and chef if you prefer a smaller 'cruise ship' experience.

If you would like to read more about chartering, I recommend A Practical Guide for European Canal Boat Charters by Heather C. Thomas (2014).  It covers a lot of issues and has answers about many matters that you may not have anticipated.  I found it to be comprehensive and understandable for all levels of experience.  The e-book is available on Kindle for $6.99  and free for Kindle Unlimited. 

Or, if you would just like to settle in for an armchair ride with droll English humor, I would suggest Narrow Dog to Carcassonne: Two Foolish People, One Odd Dog, and English Canal Boat . . . And the Adventure of a Lifetime by Terry Darlington (2008).  Kindle $13.99. 

Safe travels, and bon voyage.

                               If you would like to read more about cruising the canals of France on a péniche (converted Belgian, Dutch or French river cargo barge)
                           with a crew and chef, click here to read one of our past newsletters.  The particular péniche referenced in our article is no longer
 in the canal cruise business, but there are many others from which to choose.
[Map courtesy of Wikipedia.]




Moulin de Fresquet.  Photo copyrighted by M. et Mme RAMELOT.  All rights reserved.


 Moulin de Fresquet in the Lot  département offers luxurious, comfortable
accommodations at their 14th century mill.  History and the warmth of your
hosts surround you on this petite estate at the edge of the town of Gramat.
Don't miss the chance to experience its charm for yourselves.
 Click on the image for more photos and information and to book your reservation.

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