Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne
25th August to 11th September 2018
This is a seriously exciting and enjoyable canal. It is 224 km along with 43 locks on the way up and 71 locks on the way down plus a 5 km tunnel through the summit – the Balesmes tunnel.
It passes through glorious agricultural countryside, forests, villages and somewhat industrial areas with the kilometres marked off by small white stone markers all along the way. Nearly all of it is tranquil, very rural, and somehow real whilst totally charming.
It is also very different to the rivers we had just left, Le Rhône and La Sâone.
After waking to a very misty morning in Maxilly Stewart and I jumped on our bikes and cycled off for a restock of the fridge and cupboard; There are very few shops on the way up to the summit!
Then with provisions aboard and the Sun shining we set off for our first day on the canal. We covered 23 km on day one going through 10 locks and rising 30 m. We found a lovely lunch spot-very pleasant thing to be able to stop for lunch after all the full days on the rivers.
We passed under the beautiful viaduc d’Oisilly, through plenty of locks ….
…. and eventually found a very tranquil mooring spot for the night.
Next day was a shorter cruising day-only 17 km, nine locks, and 28 m up. We began to pass more livestock – mostly cattle, but occasionally a horse. And dragonflies appeared to join the journey.
We arrive at Cusey in time for lunch and siesta, and then walk round the Village. This has obviously been a busy agricultural centre in the past, full of old barns and houses, and even 14th century Chateau.
There were no people there to greet us but we did make one new friend.
It was a peaceful mooring, even though a couple of other boats did arrive later to keep us company.
The following day, Tuesday, began with a bit of boat cleaning. The heavy overnight dew provided just the right amount of water to clean the roof!
We only covered 14 km but we went up 14 locks taking us 41m higher.
The locks on this canal are mainly operated by a mix of a remote control, to prepare the lock and open the gates, and pulling blue levers (often rather slimy!) to fill or empty the lock.
For some reason the light was just right for photographs so I took quite a few; here are a couple with nice shadows, to my way of thinking.
At one point I jumped off the boat and ran, well sort of jogged, to get a photo of the Pont Canal de Badin from below.
I had by then begun a series of photos ‘through the galley window’, a couple reproduced here to show the varied buildings we passed by.
We had not planned to go quite so far but it took a while to find a mooring. Eventually we stopped outside Villegusin-Le-lac under the trees; gentle light for the Captain and his crossword. (Oh, he and I together had cut off his curls a few days before, so here is the convict look!)
Once more there was time to eat, sleep and go for a walk. This time our new friend was a young Whip snake at the side of the road, behaving very bravely and threateningly given his size compared to mine!
There are plenty of fruit trees bulging with ripe fruit, many just growing at the side of the canal or the road, so some scrumping was in order! This continued for the length of the canal, with me collecting and tasting lots of varieties of plums and apples, some eaten raw, and some cooked with added alcohol!
Thunderstorms forecast for Wednesday so we decided to have a day moored up under the trees. Before the rain arrived I cycled back down the canal to Dommarien because I knew there was a Lavoir there – and as it turns out there is also a pretty bridge.
That afternoon the storm arrived and the rain absolutely poured down! We stayed in snug and warm with cups of tea.
Then when it had abated we walked into Villegusin-le-Lac and found the one bar, attached to the one restaurant, and had a pleasant evening along with the locals.
Throughout the bad weather the big commercial barges must keep working. Many of them are quite new, but one beautiful old barge came past ……
A good night’s sleep prepared us for what was to come – the final assault on the Saône side of the canal in order to reach the top. This meant 8 x 5m locks, each about half a kilometre apart, followed by the 5km tunnel. This required hours of concentration from Stewart, getting in and out of each lock without mishap, and then avoiding being sucked into the sides of the tunnel for an hour and a half!
We stopped for a well earned lunch by the side of the canal and a field of 5 mares and 5 foals. Delightful. Then pressed on for two locks – downwards! – to reach Langres. We moored up with two other Piper boats, an unusual event since leaving the south where we were in the company of quite a few Piper owners.
Our objective in Langres was fuel. If you read the Sâone chapter of our trip you may recall our need for diesel and ‘shock horror’ finding the expected pump on the Sâone closed. So it has been an ongoing concern.
So we made it to Langres and I thought it would be easy. But when I phoned 4 companies who apparently deliver to boats all I got was ….. “non, non, non, non”.
Next day I asked the girl in the VNF office; she found a number, made a call for me, and before I could walk the 150 yards back to Calliope a tanker was drawing into the quay!
Such a nice guy too, helpful as you like – and patient as well when we asked him for his slowest fill so we didn’t overflow. The only bit of an Oops was when we gave him our card to pay for it, and he apologised that he didn’t take cards . . . . No problem he said though, we would pass by his garage in a village down the canal tomorrow and could drop in and pay for it then! Marvellous!
So having spent the rest of the day very pleasantly with a trip to Intermarché (yum yum, head and tongue charcuterie) and an excellent evening with the Rangali crew (fizz and salmon blinis) we set off first thing next morning for Rolampont to pay our bill.
A short day of 9.9kms and 7 locks brought us to our destination. Along the way we were saluted by a lift-bridge, ascending magestically into the blue.
There was just room for us to join a cruiser on the 30m quay …. and then another, and another, and another boat arrived. We all squeezed up, moored with stakes, round rocks, and anything else that held fast. We ended up with our nose tucked into the reeds!
It’s a lovely mooring and attractive village, with that great essential – a good boulangerie.
And guess what we found – a lavoir! Watch out for more!
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. A quick visit to the boulangerie also discovered the start of a fishing competition, each ‘pecheur’ having several long long rods that reach right across the canal.
We were off at 9 when the locks officially open for ‘pleasure boats’ (yes we are known as bateaux de plaisance’ here in France). The locks along this section are all newly automated, with nice shiny clean blue levers to lift.
Calliope passed through green/blue scenery, reminiscent of England in some ways, although the Charolais cows are white rather than our brown Jerseys and piebald Friesans. (Do friesans come from Friesland, where I want to go cruising?)
Where kingfishers had accompanied us on the other side of the tunnel, this was heron country, though most of them take off just as you plan to take their picture!
There were twists and turns in the 15 Kms and 7 locks we covered, running alongside the Marne river and the railways line much of the way.
This led to interesting combinations of bridges and locks at some points, such as Pommeraye.
We came to Foulain at about 1215, fingers crossed for somewhere to moor, and hey presto we have the place to ourselves. It is a joy to be in such a lovely place again, and in sunshine after our visit in the rain two years ago.
We took a walk into the village, and here’s another lavoir. There was added interest for this lavoir lover as it has a little trough all round the edge with drain holes in it, to carry away the splashes form the washing.
The pontoons here are surrounded by meadowlike grassfull of flowers, and my little autumn display on board hopefully complemented the array; a suitable setting for a sunny evening.
We were only allowing ourselves one night on most places, so off we went next morning for a 24kms, 13 lock day – the run down to Riacourt. The first part of this section is not yet automated – the gear is all in place, but it has not been commissioned.
This meant that we were accompanied by a young temporary éclusier whose job it was to manually open and shut two pairs of heavy lock gates, and manually operate the ‘vantelles’, or paddles, that manage the water flow through the lock. Stewart helped close one side behind us and I got off open up at the other end of each lock, but it was still mostly his muscle power that saw us through locks 17 to 22.
The approach to Chaumont is different, passing the very pretty Chamrandes, then passing along a stone walled stretch. We waited for the Chamrandes lock while a big commercial barge came up, giving me an amusing addition to the ‘through the galley window’ series! We stopped briefly at Chaumont to eat lunch, then onwards to our destination.
The section through Condes is interesting – we remembered it from two years ago when the lift bridge did not lift and we floated about mid-aqueduct waiting for a VNF service van and man to appear.
Seven hours after we stated we came to the final lock, and looked down, with relief, to see the hoped for mooring place empty and waiting.
The mooring at Riacourt is next to a rather ornate ‘colombier’, or dovecote. We have seen many of these across France, of varying age and materials and in varying stages of repair. This one is newer than most, but still at least 150 years old.
I took myself for an introductory stroll round the village, and guess what … another lavoir! I had not heard of these structures when we came through the canal in 2016, so was very much catching up on what I had missed. This one was a gem, with lovely stone shelves round for the laundry baskets. But I bet it didn’t have a boat full of flowers outside when the villagers came to kneel on the cobbles and do their washing.
Tuesday morning we were off again, starting on one of those misty autumnal days that you know will get better and better as the sun comes up, passing through such lush and beautiful scenery that words escape me. Even pictures cannot communicate the freshness of the air, the stillness and tranquility, or the real darkness of starlit nights. But maybe you will get a sense of the majesty of the wooded hills, and the abundance of the fields.
I had put in a special request to stop at Vouécourt as (apologies all round) I had heard of a rather special lavoir there, but I think you will be suitable amazed! We had a very short day of 10 kms and 5 locks, all quite easy, although a lot of loose weed in many of them. We hope it has not got wrapped around the propellor.
So this special lavoir – well it turns out that the village has had two previous lavoirs; one of them closed because of the amount of iron ore in the water, turning all the laundry pink! This has been a major metallurgy area in the past. The other, built in 1904, was a floating wash place that went up and down with the level of the Marne river; this no longer exists.
So in the 1860s the council built this new almost posh lavoir with water from the source of the Grandvau, 2400 meters south of the village and a little higher. The gravity fed pipework still functions and in addition to the lavoir, water was made available for drinking. The big arched windows, grand doorways, and separate rinsing basin all point to something a bit special here in Vouécourt.
Wednesday morning was beautiful; I am quite envious of the people who wake up with this kind of view very day – although it does get very cold here on the winter, just above freezing and with a little snow.
Our cruise took us initially to Froncles, in the company of a young brave heron at one lock. Sorry about the look on my face; I did not expect to be on the photo! We stopped for a short time at Froncles to visit the supermarket, and we were surprised by the lack of boats at this nice little Halte Nautique. It was almost full when we came thorough two years ago.
Journeying on we met two boats that only just fitted onto the locks – a wide catamaran and another commercial barge. And we think we have it hard!
After Froncles we finished the 13 kms and 4 locks of the day and arrived at a tiny mooring at Villiers-sur-Marne. This is a super quiet place. The tiny stone village has its Mairie in the front room of a cottage, and the only commerce is the far that sells milk, butter, cheese etc for two hours twice a week! We missed the slot.
Next day was not so blue – in fact a bit grey and drizzly. The days scenery included a shepherd inspecting his flock and a quarry with a juxtaposition of an old stone quay and a row of bright red railway trucks; the ancient and the modern ways of moving the quarry’s produce.
The travelling day was very short, just 6.4kms and 2 locks to Donjeux. As we got closer to the village the Donjeux church appeared through the mist above us. It is not the prettiest of places to stay the night, but is perfectly adequate (can those two words be put together?).
We walked round town, mainly to post a birthday card to our daughter, and found the La Poste in the school, with no collection until next day when the postman called! As we walked back to the boat we found ourselves following one of France’s characters.
He came and sat down by the canal later, deploying his green umbrella as the rain came down.
A few glimpses of the sun in the evening and as we left in the morning showed the mooring at its best.
The final day of the working week took us on down to Joinville, past the majestically rusting point levée at Massey – now permanently ‘levéed’!
This bridge leads onto yet another ‘point-canal’, or mini aqueduct, over the Marne, still twisting and turning alongside us. I include this photo more because I enjoyed the inadvertent shadows than for the river!
Along the way to Joinville there was plenty of countryside, less remarkable than that we had seen recently, but one article of fascination was this lonely and strangely placed book exchange. France has many of these free community operated mini-libraries, where people can browse, leave and take books – but normally in town and village centres. This one was way out in the country, but with a helpful reading bench alongside.
We are now only 60kms from the end of this canal, but with over 40 locks still to navigate, moored up by the trees and reeds at Joinville.
In the morning the town, up a hill above the canal, looked almost ethereal.
A quick visit to Lidl for bread and wine (that sounds a tad religious) preceded our 9am get away from Joinville ….. and after less than a kilometre we were halted by an ‘en pan’ lock with two red lights to prove it! Having phoned for help we settled down to enjoy the morning sun in the countryside, and within half an hour all was sorted and we were on our way again.
Signs of preparation for winter were all around with much stock piling of wood at houses and cottages all along the way.
And random views of inquisitive young herons, cuts along tree lined valleys, sunlight on wet lock walls, and rusty bridge reflections all add to the delights.
We were heading for a little rural mooring at a village called Bayard with just room for one boat – us! Around us were ripe apples one side and a railway line the other! Luckily the trains were few.
I walked into the village, strung out along a hilly section of the Mane, and found another lavoir, more utilitarian than many, and fed from a watering hole just above.
This felt a bit like the end of our rural moorings as we were heading into the town of St Dizier. I kept remembering May two years ago when we cruised this canal in the opposite direction, in the rain! These photos compare me at the same lock, 28 months apart.
We had our last bit of help from an éclusier who opened the lift bridge at Marnaval for us. Next to this is the old railway turning bridge that used to allow the trains across the canal, long our of use.
The long quay at St Dizier was almost empty; we tied up and sat down in the sun for lunch.
Later we had a stroll round the town which is famous for its ironwork, Miko ice cream and its castle.
Back on board for the evening we discovered that even St Dizier can feel like countryside in the autumnal sunshine!
With two days to go to the end of our odyssey on this canal Calliope set a north easterly course and 15kms, 7 locks later she was secured to bollards at Orcante, our last night on the Canal Entre Champagne et Borgogne. And somehow, yet again, we found ourselves in a quiet country spot, with chickens and donkeys almost the only sounds, and as the light fades, beautiful skies. (The two mysterious ET eyes are from our wifi router)
The last day dawned brightly and we left a sparkling wake behind us as we began the final stretch to Vitry-Le-François and the junction of three canals.
It took about three hours, during which I pondered on the past; lock keepers cottages derelict, idyllic (back breaking poorly paid) jobs replaced by a remote control.
Finally we reached lock number 71, the last in line going down the Marne side. The surroundings began to become industrial. Then we had to wait for the lock while a narrow boat came up to start their voyage through all the scenery we have enjoyed over the past two weeks.
And ironically, this, the last lock, was a bit tricky! The water level came up above the top of the lock walls and a small surround wall has been built to contain the spillover. So the bollards along the side are partly under water; that, with the wall, makes it difficult to throw ropes and the skipper had to step ashore to get the ropes on and fend Calliope off the submerged ledge as the lock emptied !
But all was well, and we said goodbye to the Canal Entre Champagne et Borgogne – bring it on Canal Lateral de la Marne ……
…. where we moored up after 3kms, but that’s another chapter!