Boating in France: Cold and Wet in Burgundy
For over nine years, Neil and Joan have been spending their summers cruising the canals and rivers of Western Europe aboard their now thirty-one-year-old Dutch motor-cruiser, the “Estate.” This year they are again sharing their experiences.
Train strikes and volcanoes started our 2010 boating season. Once we got through those challenges, we had a couple of weeks of very pleasant weather for getting our boat, the Estate, ready for cruising. The trees and flowers were blooming; the days were warm and sunny with temperatures up to the mid-seventies. Then the cold and rain descended on Burgundy. And that is all anyone talked about – and experienced – for over two weeks.
During our first year of owning the Estate, we cruised in Holland. Wisely we had bought a winter weight duvet. Rarely since that first year, however, have we used it more than three or four nights each year. This year, we snuggled under it for many nights. Temperatures went down to the 30’s F at night, and days sometimes didn’t hit 50° F.
We last cruised the Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal) in 2003. We call it “the year of the heat:” temperatures were in the 80’s, 90’s, and for ten straight days, over 100°, from May through August. We had been hoping for better, cooler weather this year, so we could enjoy the wonderful old towns, the biking and walking. Maybe one does have to be careful what one asks for!
We started up the Burgundy Canal at the end of April from our home port in St. Jean de Losne. The first couple of days en route to Dijon were uneventful, but we had a good chance to get some practice working through locks – 21 of them. The weather started turning while we were in Dijon. We would have been tempted to stay there, but we had friends from Portland meeting us for a trip through the 19 locks and the two-mile long tunnel at the summit of the canal. It was wonderful being back in Burgundy on the canal again, but wearing six layers of clothing including a ski sweater, 2 layers of fleece, and gortex did detract from some of our enjoyment!
We moored for two nights along the canal, tied to bollards or our own pounded-in stakes. After tying up at the end of the first day in Velars sur Ouche, we decided to hike to the chapel of Notre Dame d’Etang. It was an uphill climb, but the splendid array of wildflowers distracted us: bluebells, buttercups, and many more we couldn’t identify. We had seen a statue atop the highest point while cruising, and that, we realized while climbing, was the chapel. When the sun started to go down about 20 minutes from the summit, we decided that we had gone far enough, so headed back to the Estate.
At the end of the third day, Pont d’Ouche was a warm refuge as we were able to plug in our heater at Chez Bryony. Chez Bryony is the name of the port, run by Bryony, an Irish transplant. She runs the port, prepares her famous frites (chips, fries), manages a small grocery store, and is generally helpful to all. The town has the small port, one restaurant, and a post office. We stayed three nights, finally getting the cold out of our bones, at least temporarily. Then our brave friends, Heidi and Gerald, joined us, and we headed for the summit.
Heidi and Gerald’s enthusiasm helped us re-kindle ours too. It was interesting getting their perspectives and comments on the differences between canal boating in England and in France. In England, the locks are only 7 feet wide and the boats, of course, must be less than that width. In France, the standard width of locks is about 16 feet. In France, there is usually at least one lock-keeper to operate the gates; in England you do it yourself. For the first time ever for us, we sometimes had 2 or even 3 lock-keepers on this particular section of canal. (These days, because there is not a lot of traffic on the canal, instead of a lock-keeper at each lock, the lock-keepers are “itinerant.” This means a lock-keeper travels along on a motor scooter, operating each lock in turn as the boat progresses. Each lock-keeper will normally do a section of 3 to 6 locks before the next keeper takes over. If there is very little traffic, such as early in the season or when the weather is bad, the lock-keepers team up and help one another, which makes transiting the locks much quicker.)
We tied up in Vandenesse, a small town with 2 restaurants, a British tearoom, and a 12th century church. If you need bread, you order it for the next day through the British tearoom, Charolly. Looming above Vandenesse is the castle and village of Chateauneuf en Auxois.
A hotel boat was tied up just in front of us, and while we were getting settled in, I happened to say hello to one of the boat’s crew. He was the best person possible to connect with — he was the chef. A few minutes later he came over with a container of homemade melon sorbet and one of a fruit filled frozen nougat. They were excess from their last group of guests and he wondered if we might enjoy them. We surely did!
Once we were securely tied up, we decided we needed some exercise, so we walked the 3 km up the hill. The construction of the chateau in Chateauneuf was begun in the 12th century. We were able to walk through several buildings that comprise the chateau, some of which have been re-furnished: a guest pavilion, a grand logis, a chapel, and guard room. The village itself is classic Burgundian: 14th – 17th century gray stone houses, occasional splashes of color from small flower boxes, narrow winding streets, and an ancient church. You have your choice of several tearooms for lunch or beverages.
That evening we discovered Restaurant de l’Auxois near our moorage. We had heard about it from other boaters over the years, but had never stopped for a meal. Luckily we made reservations because it was a very crowded Saturday night. The golfers from a nearby resort chateau were in town!
The restaurant serves typical Burgundian fare. We sampled jambon persille (ham with parsley), escargots (snails), charolais beef, lapin (rabbit), and, of course, Burgundy (pinot noir) wine. Three of the four of us chose a winning dessert: scoops of cassis (black current sorbet) and two other unidentified flavors of smooth, rich ice cream.
The next day we conquered the last 8 locks and traversed the summit tunnel. Two years ago, electric lighting was installed in the tunnel making it a lot less spooky. When you use your own light in a tunnel, it bounces around and off the various surfaces. The tunnel is long and narrow with occasional strange currents and small stalactites. At the other end, we popped out at Pouilly en Auxois. Pouilly is not as charming as some of the towns we had recently visited, but has several shops, a large grocery store, restaurants, and bakeries – and a port with electricity, showers, laundry, and tourist office!! What luxury. We decided to stay until the cold, rainy weather changes.
English tea salon and boutique.
Tel: 03 80 49 22 71.
Restaurant de l’Auxois
Tel:03 80 49 22 36