Boating in France: Back on the Saone

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 with  readers of EuropeUpClose.com.

June 16
As a boater, one gets accustomed to sitting in port, waiting for parts or repairs. After spending the better part of a week waiting for new batteries and then getting them installed, we finally are back on the river. We left St Jean de Losne and headed south on the Saone.

Joan and Neil MallingWe decided to just cruise a couple of hours our first day, so stopped at Seurre at lunchtime and for the night. Due to the copious amounts of rain we recently experienced, the river was running faster than anyone seemed to realize until trying to tie up in Seurre. It took us a couple of passes before we were safely docked, then we spent much of the first afternoon helping other boaters land.

Seurre is a nice, small town with a tree-covered park that faces the port. Every afternoon a group of older men and a separate group of older women congregate on the benches under the trees to catch up on the events of the day. Seurre has more bakeries than any other town of its size that we have encountered! One impressive house specialty we tried was an apricot crumble tart. There is also a small market on Saturday mornings. We arrived just as the market closed, missing our weekly roasted chicken. Somehow the grocery Lock house on the burgundy canalstore chickens just don’t compare to those available at markets.

Our next stop was an even smaller town, Gergy. We’ve been on this route several times before, but never stopped here. The port is quite simple: one long pontoon with a restaurant perched above it. We landed just in time for a late lunch. This was a special treat for us because somehow this juxtaposition of pontoon/restaurant/lunchtime/wanting to stay for the night has not previously occurred. Since the lunch menu included wine, we knew we wouldn’t want to go further. By evening the pontoon was filled with people, including another American couple on their barge. This was unusual, as not too many Americans own their own boats here in France. We had a great time swapping stories and books.

Approaching the Lock The weather forcast in the local paper we had checked in Seurre indicated a rainy week. We decided to hope for the best, however, and took a detour off the Saone to head up the Canal de Centre to Fragnes. The bicycle routes in this area have been extended, paved, and are very popular, and we hoped to use them. To get there we encountered our first significant lock in a couple of years: over ten meters deep. In reality a lock this deep is often a lot easier to work through than locks with 2-3 meters of depth. The reason? Floating bollards. Instead of having to stabilize the boat with lines to fixed bollards at the top of the canal wall, there are floating bollards built into the lock wall that rise and fall with the boat. This usually means it’s a lot easier to control the boat as water rushes into the lock as it is filling.

We did the full length of the Canal de Centre, from west to east in 2006. Now we are approaching it from the opposite direction. Our first port, Fragnes, has significantly developed over the last four years. The town has extended the options for mooring, installing stakes and bollards along the canal bank beyond where they were on our previous visit. It’s one of the best little ports in this area, known for its inexpensive rate for moorage, electricity, water, and wifi, as well as a bakery and restaurant right at the port. The rest of the town is strictly residential, though a large grocery store is about a 5 km bike ride away.

Wildflowers along the wayWe decided to get in a ride before dinner one evening, following the voie verte (path alongside the canal). Lots of other bikers and walkers were also out enjoying themselves. We were surprised to see yellow and purple wildflowers still blooming alongside the path. As we returned to drop off some groceries we had detoured to purchase, we were met with the sight of a very large barge, probably 35 meters  (115 feet) long, seemingly headed for our boat on a collision course. Needless to say, we hurried over to see what was happening.

Luckily for us, the captain of the barge was a very skillful driver. He squeezed the barge between another small pleasure boat and ours with less than a meter between his stern and our bow. That distance diminished to about 40cm (16 inches) by the time he was tied up. We decided it might be a good idea to pull our boat back as far as we could, about another meter, so he would have more room to maneuver when he left the next day.

Kid barge in burgundyWe couldn’t quite figure out what function the barge had. It obviously didn’t have the pristine paint job and uniformed crew of a hotel barge. Nor was it carrying freight. Instead, it looked a little grungy and the main floor was set with tables and chairs.

About fifteen minutes later we found out: a barge used for discovery classes for children. Thirty or forty kids, 10-14 years old, suddenly appeared, peddling by us, calling out, “bonjour, bonjour, bonjour….” Apparently they ate and slept on the boat, bicycling during the day. The next morning at 8 am they moved on, and the port settled back to its quieter normalcy.


Written by Joan Malling for EuropeUpClose.com