Two Rivers Cruise – La Saone et Le Rhone

From Chalon-sur-Saone, through Lyon, to Saint-Gilles

Thursday 18 August 2016

IMG_1728Leaving Fragnes (we like Fragnes) after a full moon night and just after breakfast we had a final short trip on Canal du Centre from countryside towards La Sâone.


First we had to pass the the industrial end of Chalon-sur- Sâone, with the usual warehouses, old quays and occasional beautiful rusting barge before reaching the tall, narrow 10.76m ‘bis’ lock to drop us down to river level.

The mighty lock 34 of Canal du Centre – ‘bis’ – ready to lower us to Sâone level.

And it started to rain! Ah well – boating is a water sport I guess.

We joined the big wide Sâone uneventfully and started chugging downstream at a good pace, enjoying the grey-hued view of Chalon from the water.

The statue is important to me, and all those who wield a camera. It is of the unlikely named Nicéphore Niépce, born in Chalon in 1765 and widely credited as the inventor of photography.

tournus__afterThe countryside below Chalon is rather flat – less interesting than some, but the wide, open, view and the wildlife made it very enjoyable on a day when clouds lifted and the sun came through..

From the tall and narrow to the wide and shallow – we went through our one Sâone lock of the day – all alone in a huge space! Life jackets on! It’s the rules!

Chalon, after, Ormes lock
Chalon, after, Ormes lock

And look who we saw the other side of the lock!  Our friends on Lapin Vert, the theatre barge, last seen on Canal de Bourgogne weeks ago.

Not far on from the lock we came to Tournus and moored up at the quay – what a pretty place, full of history!

I loved some of the balconies, and all the flowers!  It is a must for another visit, to explore the abbey sector and the many little narrow streets.

We saw all weather from sun, clouds, pouring rain, mist and back to sun again by 11am the next day, when we were finally able to move on down the river.


The Captain feels he is relaxing into river ways quite quickly. Huge hotel barges ply up and down but there is plenty of space for us all on La tranquil Sâone. Cattle and horses graze; towns and villages look down at the water.

maconWe cruised a massive 57 Kms on Friday, past the graceful riverside house of Macon and ending up moored near Belleville. Macon, which looks a pleasant city. It’s a shame to miss such an important wine growing region, but if we are to meet our mates Chris and Tasmin in 3 days time we need to keep going.

Below Macon we began to see a new set of watersports make use of the river – water skiing, power boats, jet skis and ribs were more prevalent than skiffs and kayaks!

It is so much quicker with about one lock a day, and at a steady 12 Kms an hour with the current. Friday’s lock was called Dracé – as wide and empty as Ormes the day before, out in the country, with the hill town of Mogneneins in the distance. In contrast the abandonded old lock of Thoissey, just after Dracé, seemed gentle and contained.

drace_lock__after__almost_perfect_mooring!Soon after Dracé we spotted a ‘perfect’ rural mooring for us – except that the pontoon was 8m long and we are 20m. In a canal it’s ok to moor in such a short space, but on the river, with big barges, jet skis and power boats sending wonderful wakes our way, we thought it might not be wise.

We carried on to Belleville, and at first were alarmed to see a ‘No Mooring’ sign on the pontoon. We came up close, peering through binoculars, and saw below something that indicated it was the next day that mooring was forbidden, so tied up and crossed our fingers. All was well.

No time to explore Belleville this time, but an absolute definite for next time we pass through.


After a nice calm night and pink purple dawn we had pouring rain – I don’t think it stopped until about 3.45 that afternoon! Nonetheless the intrepid crew slipped mooring ropes and set off to Lyon.


On the way we saw some lovely countryside – hills, woods, islands, lakes – and attractive villages; but all through windscreen wiper!

And there is always the industrial side of the river, lending purpose to the maintenance of the locks, banks,  and navigation buoys.

We caught sight of the National Patanque Competition at Trévoux – an Italianate town somehow transposed to La Sâone.

I don’t give much info about the towns, but Trévoux is worth a quick mention. It was capital of Dombes, an independent principality with its own parliament until 1762. It has a 10th -13th century castle amongst other old buildings and is famous for diamonds and dictionaries – and Petanque!

As we passed through le point de Trévoux we remarked on some languishing ladies in blue atop the ornate piers, unconcerned by the rain.

Route de Soleil!

Also unconcerned by the rain, or perhaps to escape it, were the cars whizzing South on the Route de Soleil, passing overhead for about the third time!

And then we stopped at Neuville-sur-Sâone for lunch. I ran through the rain to find a boulangerie, discovering on the way set of lovely lanes flanked by small shops of all types – how France used to be, but maybe tarted up for the Lyonnaise who were not far distant.

neuvilleNeuville-sur Saone has a claim to fame, linked to the Lumière Brothers. A congress of French Societies of photography took place in Lyon in June 1895. They had a boat trip on the Saône, to Neuville-sur-Saône where Louis Lumière filmed their landing on the Pastor dock. The following day the film was screened at the closing session of the congress. This film is considered to be the first “news” movie, the ‘ancestor’ of all news.

As we came on down into the Lyon conurbation we passed so many lovely houses and buildings, all set against a wet grey sky so not shown at their best.

But it did give us a typical parapluies sur le pont moment.


We were on the look out for gasoil and somewhere to moor, and found both. The diesel pump was at a very friendly boatyard / chandlery. We filled up to be sure of propulsion on the Rhone.

lyon__mooringThen returning up stream half a kilometre or so we tied up on a tree-lined quay in the middle of the city. When the sun comes out this is going to be spectacular!

lyon_nightThe skies cleared as it became dark, bringing ‘spectacular’ forward by a few hours.


Sun shining; it  was spectacular all over again.

There were no traumas joining the Rhone – just suddenly very wide, though no perceptible increase in flow. Seemed a quarter of a mile wide, so even had thee been loads of river traffic we would have been ok – and as it was we were the only ones there!

The confluence is marked by a slim isthmus of grass – and a huge modern museum building – both equally amazing in their way.

We had a bit of hanging around for the first lock, Pierre Bénite, as we had not qute grasped the ‘registration’ system, but once in the ‘sas’ (lock chamber), the floating bollards took us down the requisite 9m very gently.


Rules is rules, so life jackets on for the lock. We would be at our most vunerable waiting for a lock the Captain says, so we were lucky; with a low flow and a back breeze we were fine.

lyon__after_1Calliope glided on down the river, with the scenery opening, closing, changing. We passed towns and villages more reminiscent of Italy than France, so definitely now in the South and with a Roman influence.

lyon__afterOn the canals our expectations were to achieve 20 Kms per day; on the river, with few locks and a following current we have been doing 14Kms per hour on Le Rhone! White Water Barging!

We ate lunch on the go, with co-pilot taking the wheel while Captain ate, weaving my way in and out of bridges and boats coming the other way – with yards and yards to spare I must admit!


Just after lunch, before digestion set in, we were at the second lock, Vaugris. We only gave the éclusier a kilometer’s notice of our arrival, so we bobbed about a bit waiting for the lock to be set for us, and another bateau de plaisance also travelling downstream.

These big locks are so gentle that once tied up one can loll on deck during the descent.

By now the wind was starting to pick up …. Is it the Mistral???? We have been warned about the dangers of the Mistral, but ‘hell, came from a winter in Gosport!’

And its not the Mistral. It is northerly, but it is only 15kph, and its warm – though a 3 to 5hph flow coming up your aft at the same time makes it interesting . . . . 

We passed Viennes; it looks fascinating from the water, and through the greyish light; a town-in-waiting for exploration.

We were by then deep into Côte du Rhone country, slipping by lots of named vineyards; we passed so many vineyards – it was mega frustrating not to be stopping and trying them all, but actually there are very few mooring places on the Rhone. Capital V, capital F.

Our planned mooring at Chavanay was spotted from about 1.5 Kms away – a 20’ pontoon for our 20’ boat, empty. Hooray!

chavanay_mooring_3About half an hour after our joyful mooring out in the country we were joined by a HUGE hotel barge who was disembarking passengers for a coach trip! The Captain of this barge was superb, mooring up to 5 ‘ducs’, or huge black poles sticking out of the river, to which are attached gangways to the land.

Half an hour later, it was gone.

We had moored by a tall, elegant, simple monument. The plaque was a sad reminder of WW2 – something we thought we had left behind further North. The village were obviously very proud of this young man.

Stu and I took a walk round the village, bumping into the remnants of a holy of festivities  – the Vogue fete!  The band played on, with musicians in a variety of locations (and libations), and people (in a variety of locations and libations were joyous.

Not sure whether any of them made it it the evening’s dance and the 1.30am ‘Grand Galop’!


And Chavanay has wine caves too – for next time.

It all led to a peaceful moonlit night on the river and a beautiful clear morning..


We liked the mooring at Chavanay, but had to continue next day, leaving the monumental nuclear power station on the opposite back behind us.

Setting off towards the South, we descended through Sablons lock, which had one huge door each end that opened sideways, and a hydroelectric power station alongside. To be honest, most of these big Rhone locks incorporate hydroelectric – good source of power.

Callliope cruised on, between Andance and Andancette, the former being clearly labelled! Three crosses on the hill above the church stood strong against the blue sky.


Many of the small towns and villages along the Rhone are just out of site, behind trees, or well above flood levels. One that we could see was St-Vallier, where La Galore river enters the Rhone under a low bridge. Nauticulars will notice the white horses just forming; time to re-check the wind forecast . . . .


Before we reached Gervans lock the Tour d’Arras came into view above the trees, though the town of Arras was out of sight.

We were on and through this 11.5m lock quite quickly – getting used to them now, radioing ahead to say we are nearby.

arras__near__windyBy now the wind was picking up, a daily feature, probably linked to the ground warming up in the high temperatures we have been enjoying!

It almost felt as if we were back at sea – in a good way –  no, not so good some would say . . . . . .

We needed to reach our hoped for mooring at Glun to meet friends, so a quick bowl of cereal lunch for Stu and yesterday’s bread for me as we continued.

I took a turn at the helm, taking Calliope through the relative narrows by La Table de Roi – a small (6’across) flat rock in the channel where, apparently, Louis IX stopped to eat on his way to the Crusades.

We came into the Hermitage area, past Tain and Tournon and the many many vineyards terraced onto the slopes.

Tournon is overlooked by two watchtowers, and connected to Tain by the first suspension bridge over the Rhone in 1825.

glun__afterThe wind continued to pick up – blowing harder than forecast, but with a bright sky and sunshine – harder than forecast is correct.

We reached the wonderfully name Glun, and la Roche de Glun, and turned away from a canalised section onto the old Rhone and the hoped for mooring – which was totally full!

Stu managed a difficult astern manoeuvre in the wind, back onto the main route, refocussing to the South, with me contacting the friends and changing our meeting point.

A quick look at the map suggested that I should phone the port at Valence, and an extremely pleasant Capitaine told me he had a hammerhead on ‘J’ for our 20m boat – the second pontoon.

buorg-les-valence__lockThe 12km trip included another lock, Bourg-les-Valences. Here the ‘door’ rises up behind you out of the water, although this photo does not show the actin very well.

We entered the port a Valence  with me on the bow looking for pontoon J; the one closest to the entrance for H. The sign for the next was hidden by masts and wheelhouses, but surely would be I, not J? ………. As it emerged I could see that it was G, and coincidentally realised that in the French pronunciation of the alphabet, G is J, if you get my meaning!

Good, all sorted, and we moored up with welcome help from another boater as the wind was blowing us straight off the pontoon. We quickly met up with our friends, and after a 800m walk to Casino (supermarket, not entertainment!), we settled down to a very pleasant evening.


Lovely day – horizon to horizon sunshine, low winds. Perfect half days cruise, with Captain  Stu sharing the helm and binoculars with his old old Lake District boatman friend Chris – drinking orange juice look; mind, it was early. 

Through Beauchastel lock, past la Voulte with its fascinating buildings and lovely rock formations and onwards to find a resting place with a restaurant, if poss!

The four of us came down to le Pouzin quay which looked like a difficult mooring; the wall was tall, the two bollards too far apart to both be used, and the railings potentially insecure! Despite there being little to hang onto it all worked out , with the exception of one rope snapping after a small boat with a ridiculously large wake went by. Ah well.


Lunch weas enjoyed by all, followed by a stroll round town for the men and relaxation for Tas and I.

The ropes continued to be tested by some big commercial barges and hotel boats – will they even get under bridge?


Hey, got me a swimming partner, so while the old boat mates spun yarns and drank grog Tasmin and I took the healthy option of a cool down swim in the river. The current was strong enough to be testing, but not frightening, so good exercise for ten minutes or so.

Then off to a local pizzeria for a treat meal – all delicious, and with some delightful translations on the menu

le Pouzin
Chris, Tasmin and Stu at le Pouzin bridge

The evening walk back through warm air, past the illuminated bridge, to our floating apartment was just perfect.


This was ‘extreme écluse’ day; le Logis-Neuf (11.7m), Chateauneuf (16.5m) and the enormous Bollène at 22.5m!!!! (That is an 8 x storey building, with its roof on . . . . heroic engineering, and the smoothest decent ever.)

Prior to that we had a breakfast of croissants and hot chocolate before moving off in splendid sailing conditions; enough breeze to cool us down now and then, full on sun, and a gentle but persistent current in our direction.

Our first lock, Logis-Neuf, was the baby of the day. We had quite a wait for the lock to be ready, and then quite a wait for another boat to arrive and join us in our journey  11.7m down. It gave me time to inspect the floating bollards more than usual!

Birdlife was a bit more prolific than usual, with plenty of cormorants and gulls – and on a floating branch, an osprey. The photo, though not good, is included as we see them so rarely. Can I say “Cormorants to the left of me, gulls to the right. Stuck in the middle with Stu’? (Doh!) Guess it depends how much of a music lover you are!

In contrast to each other my Mediterranean garden was at the fore as we passed the nuclear power station at Cruas, where attempts have been made to make one of the cooling towers attractive.

chateauneuf_beforeFurther down river we saw the delicious town of Montelimar in the distance rive gauche, and beyond the inky outline of a mountain range.

Soon after the 16.5m Chateauneuf écluse came into view. As usual we radioed ahead to announce our presence. I know I am a bit of a lock nut! Chateauneuf had interestig features – ‘wine-stain’ colours to the locked, massive curved doors either end to hold the weight of water, huge doors part way along to make a smaller lock (I guess), a bit of a waterfall leaking in at the top end as we descended, and a rising, curved door, with metal gate beyond, to let us out at the bottom of our 54 foot drop.

There’s a couple of short videos filming the start and finish of our trip down at The start of the descent and ‘Getting to the bottom of the lock’

Below Chateauneuf lock is the Donzère Gorge. The river narrows appreciatively, although not to the scale of other famous gorges. There are many magnificent rock formations and cliffs that once formed the immediate banks of the river.

We had hoped to stop above the lock at Bollène, but the quay was full of commercial barges being loaded with very dusty stuff so we continued, down through the absolute biggest lock in Europe.

Does it look or feel different to the other big locks on the Rhône? Well probably not a lot, at least not on a benign August day, but just knowing that you are dropping the height of three houses is something to keep you awake on a dreamy afternoon. (Actually I had to be woken up to do it!)

It was a 10 minute smooth as silk descent from hot sun to welcome shade, and I even got a good shower from a spray leak in the wall at about 3m down, that continued to soak me with water all the way down to the bottom!

The associated dam and hydroelectric power station was designed by architect Théodore Sardnal, built in 1947 and officially opened in 1952. It is now a historic monument, as well as a working generator.

Still with Tas and Chris aboard we arrived at Saint-Etiennes-des-Sorts to find the pontoon occupied. We turned round and examined found tall wall at the upstream end of the village and located enough rings, some at water level and some 4′ above. With ingenuity, acrobatics, boathooks, (competent helmsmanship) and leaning overboard we managed to tie up securely for the night – although it did require the deployment of our ladder to get on and off the boat, even for swimming!

Across the river, solidly watching from the top of a cliff, was the Mornas Fortress, with colours changing as the day progressed into night.

St Etiennes,
St Etiennes

Downstream, as twilight faded in, we could see a cluster of village buildings, including the church overlooking the water.


Next day the sun streamed in once more. Chris set off early, hitch hiking, to collect his car from Valence, returning for lunch before taking himself and Tasmin home.

Stu and I had a relaxing afternoon and evening, including for me a late evening stroll in the cooler air around the village.


We liked Saint-Etiennes, and seeing the boat on the pontoon leave at 8am we decided to make the 400m journey down to that mooring and enjoy one more day at the village.

We had been told that there were no longer any shops or boulangeries in the village, so we were surprised to read a sign at the pontoon telling us that there was a an selling bread at the bus stop each morning from 8.30-9.30, and an épicerie van once a week on a Friday morning for an hour. We moored up on Friday morning!

I set off to find the bus stop, asking along the way, and discovered that the dépôt de pain had relocated to the Petit Restro. This was easy to find and a friendly welcome resulted in the lunch time baguette and a promise to return in the evening for a beer.


Then, just before 11.30, a van drove along the riverside road tooting; must be the épicerie!  I followed the sound and found a shop-in-a-van continuing everything I could need. His card reads ‘Épicerie, Fruits et Legumes, Boucherie, charcuterie & fromage à la coupe, Depot dépôt de pain, Crèmerie, Produits régionaux, Droguerie, Parfumerie, Timbres post, Presse …..’

I only needed one word for it – superb. In addition to buying some chicken legs for supper I noticed a regional specialty, from Sète, called ‘tirelle’ – or in my words, cephlapod pie. But I don’t know my version until I had heated it up, quartered it and served a portion to Stu – who pronounced it fish paste tart! No, it wasn’t that nice . . . . .


Another relaxing afternoon, reading, gentle cleaning, and an exfoliation of my feet by the local little fish!

One more bit of retailing to do; wine, veg and eggs. I had noticed a big high wall with a big high wooden gate on my evenings perambulation the night before – and a sign saying that they sold ‘vin en bouteilles et ‘bag-in-a-box’, ouefs, legumes et fruits’ – and were open after 1700 each weekday. So off we went to explore, rang the bell in the wall, and went in to an authentic rural courtyard and barn, linked to the Le Jonquiers vineyard.

A 5L Cotes du Rhone winebox €8; a bottle of white Vignognier was €6. I am not sure how much the 10 eggs, aubergines, onions and garlic were, but the total bill was €20. It’s how I had hoped rural France would be. (And the wine was more than palatable; apparently if you buy 4 x 5l boxes it’s only 7 Euros each – I’ve made a note for the trip back . . . )

On the way back we stopped for a beer at Petit Restro, and sat watching small village life swirling gently around us. I could describe so much; I am saying too much already.

saint_etiennes_electricityBut I had better tell you about our electricity cable. We were pleased to moor Calliope in such a way that the stern overshot the pontoon and allowed our 10m power cable to suspend over the water to the electricity point on the land. It worked perfectly – until a large boast with a particularly big wash rocked Calliope so much that the wires popped out of the plug on the boat and disappeared into the river. I hope not too many fish were electrocuted!

After a third wonderfully peaceful evening and night at Saint-Eiennes-des-Sorts we said au revere et bientot.


saint_etiennes_dawnFeeling much more relaxed we awoke to a perfect dawn. A gentle 21Km day was plotted, from Saint-Etiennes to Roquemaure, another free mooring at a small quay.


Our prayers were answered; the quay was empty. Along the way we had just one lock at Caderousse – a mere 8.6m. And I can remember only a few weeks ago being excited about he 7m lock on the Canal de Roanne  à Digoin!

We moored up and stayed two nights, entranced by the ruined Chateau de l’Hers on the opposite bank (it used to be an island in a much wider river, and paired with another castle in Roquemaure village – photos below). Like the fortress at Saint-Etiennes, the stonewalls changed colour with the arc of the sun.

The weather continued to be hot and sunny. We learned that a flat calm morning would likely be superseded by a breeze midday, then calm period in the afternoon before evening breezes blew in.

Saturday was invigorated by wat we thought was a flypast of about 5 sea planes, that appeared to landed the river further downstream. In fact they were part of a firefighting team, scooping up thousands of litres of water to dump on wild fires somewhere – or practising. At one point they swooped down over a barge, landing and taking off not far in front of it; I hope the Captain was expecting it!

IMG_2102Further invigoration for me was through the use of the biggest private swimming pool I have ever encountered – the whole of this stretch of the Rhone just for me, with warm stone steps at the end of the quay for easy immersion. On Sunday I dived in from the boat – feeling quite brave at my age; stupid really.



Stu and I went for a walk round the village in the cool of the morning air. Along the way I saw lots of little white flowers – except they weren’t. They were little white snails!

We found a small town full of surprises; it has rich history, part of which is, regrettably, being the place where that pest of  grape vines, phylloxera, was introduced to France in 1860 from America. Not one to be proud of, but plenty of other points of interest, a lively retail and bar/restaurant area, and the ruins of the aforementioned castle, now part of someone’s home.

roquemaure_duskTwo pleasant evenings at Roquelaure, during the second of which we planned a long day South and onto the Petit Rhône. Seems like a good idea through those millpond calm hours.



Our last day on the mighty Rhône – and it happened to be more than breezey, though certainly not a gale! (Hmmm, it had been picking up since 6am , and the wind forecast predicted 15kph plus later with up to 20kph tomorrow; time to go . . . ) We set off early before the midday winds came in and passed through Avignon lock on a bit of an adventure; our first lock on the Rhone shared with a big commercial vessel – called Poseidon! All went well.

We by-passed Avignon (it is up a side shoot of the river) having a better view of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. I would have loved to see the famous bridge that people danced under, rather than ‘sur’ as described in the song.

last_lock_on_rhone_for_usTaking note of the quite expensive, but not very attractive, marinas along the way we came to our last lock on Le Rhône, with the wind at its trickiest, blowing sideways across the river. We were helpfully blown onto the small waiting pontoon, but that made it difficult for the Captain to persuade Calliope back into the stream and through the lock mouth. He did it! Bravo!

Below the lock the river runs between Beaucaire and Tarascon – both of which have castles. In fact there was a castle on almost every tenth hill we passed, and I had to rein in my photography. Here’s a small selection, especially the Tarascon side, a very together castle, called Chateau de Roy-René, the 15th century King René, son of Louis II of Anjou.

It felt like quite a long day so we were pleased to spy, just before Arles, Le petit Rhône forking off to starboard, with a dredger working to improve the channel nearby. The morning’s high level clouds that had made it less bright than usual were lowering, and making photo clarity difficult for this amateur.

Good bye Rhone
Good bye River Rhone

Goodbye Le Rhône. We’ve spent 9 glorious and exciting days in your company. À bientot, l’année prochaine peut être.

What a change! From a wide open vista back to a quiet, narrower, tree-enclosed waterway.

We found the hoped for 6m jetty at PK296.5, as detailed by the DBA members, just a couple of kilometres before St Gilles; we tied up, and enjoyed the solitude.

petit_rhone_bug_2The flora and fauna is so different down here – definitely Mediterranean. I went ashore with the camera, but apart from this red mini beast I didn’t capture anything good ‘on film’. We were a little bothered  by biting mini beasts later, but a mélange of smouldering coils, sprayed skin, swatting and spraying kept us safe for the night.




The scent of sea salt was in the air! Casting off at about 9am Calliope glided through the last kilometres of the blue green Petit Rhône morning to reach Saint Gilles lock by 9.30.

St Gilles lock
St Gilles lock

A quick radio call resulted in the lock being prepared for us – the lock that would take us off the Petit Rhone, off the river system, and back into canals – the Canal de Rhône à Sète.


Would this be a big drop down – after all we have become used to locks from 7m to 20.5m over the past 10 days? Actually no; the drop was 15cms – fifteen centimetres! If you don’t believe me, just look at the waterline.

But it is obvious from the huge lock doors and vertical sets of bollards that in different river conditions it can be a lot more.

onto_canalSo that’s it for this section. The Canal de Rhône à Sète will be a somewhat different experience I think. Let’s see.

Published by lesley-jane

Wife of Stewart, mother of 3, Granny of 6 (yes, I am happy to define myself by my family; I value them more than anything), and living abroad Calliope, our replica Dutch Barge, currently cruising the inland waterways of France, Belgium and The Netherlands. Retired from a couple of enjoyable careers, and now being closer to the real, outdoor me. Love water, fascinated by animals, enjoy music, support Pompey and try to find fun in all parts of my life.

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