19 SEP 2017: It was time to head north. We had achieved our aim of reaching the Mediterranean and had spent ten sparkling days there. Now it was time to negotiate the canals of France once again and, we hoped, reach Paris by late August, as we had a marina reservation there for a month. In fact we were on the marina’s waiting list to spend the whole winter in the capital, but that’s a story for later! We turned into the Rhone River once again and started our journey north. Ahead of us stood 232 locks and a summit tunnel.  

For many miles we were travelling along a familiar route. Once again we stopped in Avignon, where their summer arts festival was in full swing and we were caught up in all the fun and vibrant atmosphere. Later we called into the marina at Valence, where we had spent the previous winter, and said “Hi” to some familiar faces and stocked up in some familiar stores. Lyon, where the ancient city sweeps down to the river on both banks, we found to be as attractive as on our first visit. It is here that northbound boaters leave the Rhone and take the Lower Saone River to Chalon-sur-Saone and, just beyond, to St-Jean-de-Losne.

It is in St-Jean that boaters have a decision to make. From here a selection of canals head north and north-east, two of them providing the most direct route to the Seine River and on into Paris. All involve many locks, as boats are lifted up and over France’s central plateau. And not only locks, at the summit - thanks to Napoleon - there are canal tunnels which cannot be described as pleasant experiences!

Our most direct route, and a different route from our passage south, was through the Canal de Bourgogne. Everyone with whom we discussed the matter told us it was the most attractive route too. But this canal is shallower than the others and, being a sailboat (albeit without a mast at this stage), we have a keel and need 1.5 metres of water. Operation of all the locks, together with natural factors such as rain or drought, affect the depth of the canal at different times. So we paid a visit to the lock-keeper in St.Jean for up-to-date news. “Pas probleme,” was his response to our query as to whether our passage was feasible. The canal, he assured us, was two metres deep all the way. So off we set.

Two days later came our first major stop - Dijon. We soon discovered that the marina serving this gracious town does not do it justice. A berth there is free, which is not the advantage it at first seems. With no services, no dock master and no charge, many old boats have been abandoned here, resulting in a forlorn atmosphere. However, we were keen to visit the city, so found a space on the outer wall where our view wasn’t too dismal. It’s a lovely city, with a vast central square surrounded by a museum, the city hall, fine restaurants and, of course, in the winding streets nearby there are lots of mustard shops!

After enjoying Dijon (and, of course, stocking up on various varieties of mustard) we pressed on north. Now our problems began. The ‘pas probleme’ of sufficient water was indeed a problem. ‘Two metres’ was nonsense; often there wasn’t enough for the one-point-five we needed. Time and again we found ourselves grinding through mud at best, gravel at worst. (We have not hauled our boat out of the water since, so have no idea if any damage has been done to our keel.) On one occasion we became firmly stuck. Although the canals are not busy, they are occasionally frequented by commercial barges or small river-cruise boats, so the ‘powers that be’ couldn’t leave us stuck mid-canal. An official came to request the nearest lock-master to give us more water and after a tense half hour or so we were floating again.

As we approached the highest point of the canal - Pont Royal - we discussed whether we should turn back and take the alternative route. But to back-track through the same problem wasn’t very appealing, so we decided to press on. The region around Pont Royal is most attractive and very popular with cyclists. Many such travellers enjoy cycle tours here, with brochures that give routes complete with B&Bs and restaurants. Many cycle routes border the canals, so are flat, and we were happy to see so many people enjoying this mode of travel: the elderly, the young and families with children - some small enough to occupy bike seats, some even with their dogs along too.

When the canal joined the Yonne River our depth problems were over and we could enjoy the route and some of the towns along the way: Migennes, Joigny and Sens among them. Closer to Paris the marinas become busier and are well used, especially by companies offering charter boats. But in general many of the canal and river towns in central France are not what one might call prosperous and the facilities offered to boaters are far from good.

However, who can complain about driving one’s own boat along the Seine destined for Paris? Certainly not us. Two days out of the capital we were even able to anchor behind a small island in a quiet part of the Seine itself. Not a building in sight! Just water and trees and the occasional flash of a kingfisher, all enjoyed with the knowledge that for the next few weeks we would be city based.

The weather was very hot on 26 August as we negotiated the river through the city and waited for the lock that would take us into the Port de Plaisance de l’Arsenal, the main Paris marina. Notre Dame is close by and, once in the marina, the statue of ‘the genius of liberty’ atop the Colonne de Juillet in Place de la Bastille seems to look down on the boats.

We had arrived, several weeks in Paris lay ahead of us, our problems of the previous weeks slipped away and a bottle of ‘bubbles’ seemed the order of the day!


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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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