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by Leigh Dome.

Leigh Dome experienced the delights of rural France on a canal boat up the Yonne River (without a paddle).

The fantasy of cruising the canals of rural France is not one exclusive to those familiar with boats so it is just as well the ‘reality’ is easily accessible to the most ardent landlubber.

My husband’s and my knowledge of things maritime was fairly limited so the brochures’ reassuring tone that “any idiot could do this” was of some comfort.

One of the most daunting tasks in the planning stages was to decide on which waterborne craft we would place our faith. The variety was endless from sleek and sassy to something that resembled a kiwi batch with a hull. We settled on a 12 metre model from one of the more reputable canal boat operators and opted to cruise the Yonne River and waterways through the Burgundy district of France.

Our one way voyage was over nine nights, in other words we had eight full days to travel 55 kilometres and negotiate 33 locks.

We arrived at our departure point after a two and a half hour train journey from Paris. Although hardly in a receptive state of mind in 30 degree heat, we listened intently to the boat orientation and canal etiquette explained to us in heavily French-accented English.

A (very) quick briefing of how to negotiate the locks was to follow and we were on our way!

Locks are used throughout European waterways to enable boats to effectively travel on flat, slow moving water either up or downstream. Our one way adventure was downstream so each time we entered a lock and the lock gates were closed behind us, the gates at the other end were opened, lowering the water level. The locks vary in depth, some altering the water level a mere 700mm, to our deepest one of 3.7metres. The larger locks nearer to our final port destination on the busy Canal du Bourgogne, were the size and depth of an Olympic swimming pool taking at least half and hour to pass through.

All of the lock gates were attended by a lock-keeper so our prime responsibility was to get our boat into the lock and loop a rope around a bollard onshore to keep us in position. Very few of the lock keepers could speak English and as our distant memories of high school French was our only means of communication, the conversation was usually limited to “Bon jour”, “Merci beaucoup” and “Au revoir”.

The first few gates were a little nerve wracking but once we became familiar with each of our ‘duties’ on board, the locks became and interesting diversion along the way and an opportunity to converse with other canal boat crews.

Cruising the French waterways is popular with the British but there were boats flying flags from a variety of European countries. Our silver fern flag identified our Nouveau Zealande origins and instigated several conversations about rugby and Middle Earth.

Much to our surprise at a lock in the middle of our journey, a young French lad, on seeing our black and white ensign gave us a resounding rendition of the All Black haka! We were reminded, even in a somewhat unusual way, of how small the world has become.

Life onboard “France-seen” (as we had named our boat) was relaxed and everything we had expected.

We were free to tie up at any one of the mooring platforms indicated in our cruising handbook. We were also free to just pull over to the shore, hammer in a couple of mooring pins and stay there for the night if we wished.

Our adventures were not limited to the canal as the two bicycles we had hired enabled us to explore the nearby countryside and ride into the nearest village for a freshly baked baguette and other provisions.

We soon adopted the French approach to daily life. Most of the shops open from early morning until noon then close for three hours, reopening again for trade through to early evening.

The local restaurants cater to the tourists and locals alike during this time when lunch is regarded as the main meal of the day. Wine is freely available and freely consumed. Red wine is often served chilled and usually cheaper than a soft drink.

It is not only the shopkeepers that close their doors for lunch. The canal is effectively ‘closed’ for an hour each day as the lock keepers take a break. Between 12.30 and 1.30pm the waterways are quiet as everyone ties up for lunch, compulsory ‘chill out’ time one might say.

The locks do not operate between the hours of 7pm and 9am ensuring a calm night’s sleep and a leisurely start to the day.

The Canal du Nivernais on which we were travelling winds peacefully through some of the most picturesque countryside in France. Huge fields of sunflowers lined the towpath on either side of the waterway and charming little villages would come into view around a bend. We’d glide past chateaux, vineyards and fields of grazing cattle at our usual cruising speed of 8 knots.

Traffic volume on the waterways varies, some days you can be sharing a lock with three other boats and at times you could imagine being the only one on the canal.
We were travelling in the peak summer month of August but rarely felt we were surrounded by hordes of other tourists. The privilege of sharing village life in rural France with the locals gave us a sense of what makes the French culture so appealing. We witnessed the French being French, their love of gentle and placid pursuits – fishing on the canal, dining at sidewalk cafes, playing petanque or just sitting on a park bench to watch the world go by.

The fantasy of cruising the French canals was all we had imagined. The food, culture, sights and sounds are a treat for the senses but the real rewards are gained with a sense of adventure.

A scant knowledge of the French language is a real advantage, but when it comes to boating know-how, no experience is necessary.

Photo captions:

Mailly: The tiny village of Mailly-le-Ville at sunset.

Canal: Canal du Nivernais - a postcard picture around every corner.


© leighdome.

Published: Manawatu Standard August 2005.