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Boating in France – Ultimate Guide, Tips, and Experiences

Boating in France – Ultimate Guide, Tips, and Experiences to plan the perfect Boating Holidays in France

Boating in France – How we got started

A number of people have asked us how we came to be boating on the canals and rivers of Europe.

Joan and Neil aboard the Estate
Joan and Neil aboard the Estate

Here is the short version:

In 1970 we visited Amsterdam.  There I saw the live-aboard canal barges, and said to myself ”That looks like a really fun way to live!”  During the next 25 years, whenever we traveled in Europe, I looked for the canals and the barges tied up along the banks, and it still looked like fun.  In 1996, acquaintances told us about their recent second honeymoon aboard a rented canal boat in southern France, and gave us a couple of brochures. One thing led to another and in the summer of 1997 we rented a small (25’ long) boat for one week on the Sarthe river in western France, near Angers.

That was so much fun, we rented again in 1998, this time for a week in northern France, near Sarrebourg.  Then we did it again in 1999 in central France, south of Auxerre.  Each year we enjoyed it more and the third time was the charm, as they say: we decided to buy our own boat and spend a lot more time boating.

At this point, most folks hearing our tale say, “But of course you had boating experience before all this, right?”  Nope. Three weeks experience and we were off to buy a boat.


In the Fall of 2000, we spent two weeks looking at boats in Holland and France, aided by the internet listings by dealers. We looked at over 30 boats, and learned a lot about what we wanted and even more about what we didn’t, but we didn’t find a boat we liked enough to buy.  We came home and spent the winter reading about boats and boat-buying, and thinking about what we had seen.  Then, in the spring of 2001 we rented a small vacation house on a lake in Holland (off-season it was very reasonable) and a car and started our search again.

This time we found “our” boat after only a week’s looking.  Joan said: “This is it.”  I said: “Too easy.  We need to look some more.” We did, but she was right.  We made an offer, it was accepted, the contract was written up in both Dutch and English, and we were soon the proud, and a bit stunned, owners of a 36’ motor cruiser.  (See picture.)

All boats are compromises – each person must decide what they need and what they can give up to get it.  We started out looking for a barge and chose a motor cruiser.  In a future blog, I’ll discuss why and have some pictures of the wide variety of boats seen on the canals.

For over ten years, Neil and Joan have been spending their summers cruising the canals and rivers of Western Europe aboard their Dutch motor-cruiser, the “Estate.”

Boating in France: Arrival in St. Jean de Losne

Arrivals are always interesting. That’s the good news and the bad. We landed in Paris in mid-April, returning to France with great anticipation of another season on the Estate. What a wonderful re-entry! The weather was lovely, flowers and trees were blooming, and friends were there to welcome us. After an overnight at the Hotel des Trois Gares, a comfortable, two-star hotel just a few blocks from the Gare du Lyon (where the Air France bus from Charles de Gaulle airport arrives), we headed by train to St Jean de Losne, the inland boating center of France.

We arrived in France earlier this year than we have previously. April and May are dicey months for the weather. Also, there are several holidays, state and religious, during these months. Weather and holidays can both contribute to the complexities of travel planning and the availability of boating services. But we were anxious to be aboard the Estate again, and knew we would have lots of work to do before we could start cruising.

St Jean de Losne is a small town in the Burgundy region built on both sides of the river Saone. There is a “Le Boat” rental base for those who want to try boating for a week or two, two marinas (Blanquart’s and H2O), a dry dock for barges, and the lock that officially starts the Burgundy Canal. And boats everywhere, in various states of repair or disrepair.

From the train station in St Jean de Losne, we had the taxi take us immediately to our marina, Blanquart’s, rather than the B&B where we would spend the first two nights, so that we could check out the condition of the Estate without delay. Having just had her bottom painted, she was resting in a “cradle,” waiting to be put back in the water the next day by a large crane. And she looked great to us! Though truthfully, it’s hard to see much when inspecting the bottom of a boat.

B&B Les Charmilles courtyard with purple wisteria plant

We walked over to our B&B, Les Charmilles. Indeed, it did look charming: our room overlooked the just coming to life garden and the already blooming wisteria. After a good night’s sleep with only a few jet-lag problems and a wonderful, typical French breakfast of breads, croissants, home-made jams and café au lait provided by our hosts at Les Charmilles, Sylvie and Gerard, we went back to the marina to nervously watch the craning process. All went well, and we were soon on board.

To back up a bit: when we leave the boat for the winter, we bundle and package our bedding and clothing in plastic bags, and bring inside all the mooring lines, fenders, boat hooks, detachable wood trim, antennas, the gangplank, and anything else that will fit.  In general, about half of our belongings end up in places that they do not live in when we are aboard, most of them buried beneath stuff that is normally outside. This has worked well for us as we have had very little problem with weather damage, mildew or mold on our return. However, it never fails to be a bit disconcerting to come back to this muddled environment.

Adding to the mess, there are, of course, the dust and the spiders. How this happens in a sealed boat is quite a mystery. This year somehow we have so far avoided the spiders (they probably haven’t hatched yet), but the muddle was there. And not having been aboard for several months, it was often difficult to remember just how things went back together! That’s when the really interesting part began.

Boating Holidays in France – First Days Abroad

As anticipated, it took a couple of days to sort out our living spaces. The books were in the food compartment, the bedding on the kitchen table, and the gangplank was in the aft cabin bedroom. Luckily the weather was good, so we could open up the entire boat and move things from area to area, including the outside decks and pontoon to which the boat was tied.

While I did the unpacking, Neil focused on getting some of the domestic systems working. That’s when he found out what he would be doing for the next week: the engine batteries were dead, the toilet didn’t function, and the water pump for supplying water from our on-board tank needed replacing. But I’ll let him tell you that story later.

Every year when we leave I do an inventory of what we are leaving on board for the winter: clothing, bedding, first aid supplies, etc. But somehow my memory of what’s there, what the inventory indicates, and what is actually there – and its condition – don’t quite match up. This year the critical mismatch has been warm weather clothing, and slacks for me that fit. We had never arrived in April before and, though the afternoons have often been warm, the morning temperatures have ranged from 10-15 degrees C (in the 50’s F) – inside the boat!  Luckily, we were able to find a small, oil filled, electric radiator to warm things up. Unfortunately, our fleece jackets didn’t make it into the suitcase. Neil says it can be “a toughening up process.” I just admit I’m cold.

After getting things in place, more or less, I then needed to focus on provisioning the kitchen and making sure we had some of the basics, e.g. lots of paper towels, toilet paper, etc. Luckily, there is both a Casino (grocery store) and an Intermarché store within about a 10-15 minute walk of the marina. So, I headed out with my trusty Dutch shopping cart.

quai on the saone river

A couple of days later, Elizabeth, from the boat tied up next to ours, asked if I’d like to do a more serious shopping with her. And she had a car. What luck! Then I could replenish our heavy supplies: boxed milk, juice, water, beer, and wine – plus some canned goods. British and German boaters frequently bring their cars with them for the cruising season. They leave the car at their first port with a train station nearby, cruise down the canal or river for several days, then return by train to retrieve their car. It seems to be a bit of a hassle at times, but certainly simplifies grocery shopping and touring to places without train or bus stations.

Each year we connect with old friends and make new ones. With boaters, you are seldom sure who will pop up when. During the first week, we met Scots, English, and Americans. Each new friendship called for getting to know each other over several glasses of wine. Interestingly, the most unique connection was meeting an American couple. There are many Americans who boat for a week or two, renting a boat or staying on a hotel boat. But we rarely meet other Americans cruising on their own boats. British, Dutch, Germans, Australians, and New Zealanders typically populate the French canals and rivers. The French have traditionally thought of their canal system as a means of transporting freight, but are slowly coming to recognize the recreational possibilities.

Boating in France – Visiting Dole

Our home port, St Jean de Losne, France, is unusual in that there is easy access to several waterways: the Burgundy Canal, the Saone River, and the Canal du Rhône au Rhine.  Last week, having never been to the city of Dole, we decided to head for the Canal du Rhone au Rhine.

Taking a trip by boat is somewhat different than taking a trip by car. With a car, you put the key in the ignition, turn it on, and go! Before ever getting to that point with a boat, one checks the fenders (those things that hang over the sides and look like they could be called “bumpers”); retrieves the binoculars, charts, VHF radio, boat hooks, etc.; locates one’s hat, sunglasses, water jug; makes sure all loose or unstable items are secured; checks the weather report; and on from there! It usually takes about 20 minutes, especially when we are out of practice at the beginning of the season.

We left St Jean de Losne, heading up the Saone River towards the entrance to the Canal du Rhône au Rhine. This canal, linking the Rhine River to the Saone (which flows into the Rhone) was completed in 1802.  A lock activator system was put in a few years ago, but, otherwise, the canal is much as it was when it was completed.

The entry to the canal from the river is a 3 meter (10’) deep lock controlled by a lock keeper. After we rode the lock up, he signaled us to join him in the control house. There he presented us with a lock activator (similar to a large cell phone, but with 6 buttons) for our use on the subsequent locks, which do not have lock keepers. He explained its usage in English and also gave us written instructions in English.

The canal winds its way through quiet forested areas where it was just us and the birdsong, and then past a couple of villages. Grey herons, regal birds standing about 3’ tall, feeding along the banks, flew off as we approached, then settled again behind us.  We stopped for an early picnic lunch at a small town, Abergement-la-Ronce that conveniently provided a place for an easy mooring. The day, starting off cool, had turned very warm and we welcomed the chance to cool off in the shade of the canal-side picnic shelter.

The lock-keeper at the initial lock had said that we could operate the locks through lunch hour if we wished, but that from 12:30-1:30 no assistance would be available if we had any problems with the locks. (This is France, and lunch hour is not a minor thing.)  Luckily, we decided to be cautious and waited to resume our cruising until 1:30. The lock activator had been a little “sticky” on a couple of locks, but on the seventh, it malfunctioned. At the first lock, we had taken down the telephone number of the canal authority for that stretch of waterway, so used our cell phone to call, and in about 30 minutes a lock-keeper arrived to manually activate the lock.

Just before Dole, we came out of a lock and found ourselves on the Doubs River. The next lock took us from the river back into the canal where the port was located. We had traveled 29 kilometers (18 miles) and passed through 9 locks, taking about 7 hours, not counting lunch. Yes, a leisurely way to travel.

The site of the port is wonderful. The town of Dole goes up a hillside from the water, and the buildings of Old Town, many clustered around the church of Notre-Dame, are lovely. We found brightly flowered gardens, corner turrets, and wrought iron grills as we walked towards the commercial part of town. Later, using a map and historical walking tour itinerary that we picked up at the Dole Tourist Office, we discovered some of the hidden corners and arcaded inner courtyards in the many buildings from the 16th and 17th century, all in use today.

Dole obviously has some wealth, as there are many stores displaying stylish clothing as well as some of the best “traiteurs” (prepared food stores) and “fromageries” (cheese stores) we’ve seen in France. There is also a large food market hall, and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings the Dole market spills into the square between the hall and the Notre Dame church and adjoining streets.

The second evening we decided to try one of the restaurants in the Old Town area near the port. We chose an Italian restaurant, “La Petite Venise,* and we both had lovely seafood pastas, dining on the outside patio on the side of another canal that years ago had been used by tanners. The following evening we cooked on board, but we were sorely tempted by the “Pizza Boat” that advertised a wood-fired oven, tied up across the canal from us.

The third day we opted to go to Besconçon, about 35 minutes away by train. By boat it would have been 17 locks and 55 kilometers – probably a couple of days cruising each way. We wanted to see the citadel there and weren’t sure when we’d have time to follow this canal further by boat.

On the fourth day we cruised back to St Jean de Losne. Our return trip was cooler, less eventful, and took less time. It was good to be home!

La Petite Venise
33 rue Pasteur
39100 Dole.
Tel: 03 84 72 40 06.

Boating in France: The Burgundy Canal to Dijon

Last week we decided we needed some time out of port and on the canal, so we headed up the Burgundy Canal towards Dijon. We have been to Dijon by train from St Jean de Losne a couple of times this summer; that’s only about a 30-minute trip. The trip by boat takes us two days for the 24 locks and 30 kilometers at 6 km/hour. Six years ago we cruised the entire 242 km. length of this canal and knew that there were some very pleasant sections we would encounter en route to Dijon.

We decided to get about a third of the way on the first day, stopping at Longecourt en Pleine where we had spent a night on our previous trip. We tied to a bollard on the bank in a shady, tree-lined section, just above a lock.  As is frequently the case, a local road crossed a bridge at the lock, and we walked to town following it.  Longecourt en Pleine is known for its chateau that is now a B & B. Originally constructed in the 13th century, it was transformed into an Italian style house in the 18th century.

The town of Longecourt, itself is quite small, but does have a bakery and some very nice residents. After getting directions from a couple of people, we found the bakery closed.  As is frequently the case in small towns, there were no hours posted.  What’s the point? Everybody in town knows when the store is open. So we crossed the street to a magazine/tobacco shop to ask if there was another bakery nearby. When I queried a man waiting in line to make a purchase, he replied there was no other bakery in Longecourt, but there was one in the next village. When we told him we were on foot, he offered to drive us there so that we could get our bread!  We thanked him and declined and upon leaving the shop found that the bakery had just re-opened (a few minutes late) after the normal two or three hour midday break.

During the night another boat had tied up not far behind us, so the next morning the lockkeepers wanted us to travel together through the locks.  This saves water —and the backs of the lockkeepers, as most of the gates are hand-operated. As a courtesy to the lockkeepers, whenever possible, Neil lends a hand with the closing of the gates. Sometimes locking through with another boat works well, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it didn’t, as the design of the two boats and the placement of the bollards on the lock walls were not a good match. As a result, I strained my back and it was a much less pleasant trip than I had hoped for.

The pontoons in the port of Dijon were crowded so we moored along a quay wall next to a park with large shade trees and benches filled with the senior-citizen residents of the newer apartment buildings behind the park. Our arrival and tying-up was very carefully observed and quietly commented on. After a day with 16 locks, it is a relief to stop and relax; the first glass of a local beverage goes down very smoothly indeed!

The next day we moved into the port, which was not as pretty, but had electrical and water hookups, which we wanted since we intended to stay for five days or so. We had quite a contingent of English-speaking boaters near us: British, Australian, and Dutch (most Dutch speak at least some English). Our late afternoon’s entertainment was the young children and their moms and/or grandparents who visited the playground directly in front of our boat.

The next morning at 5 am we were awakened by “duck wars” on the swimming platform at the rear of our boat. We sleep in the aft cabin, so it sounded like we were being attacked by ducks, or was it geese?? Was it a dispute over nesting space, or possibly a defensive reaction to a heron looking for breakfast? (There were many young ducklings and goslings, a favorite meal of herons). Since we were up early and it was Friday, we headed for the street market in downtown Dijon. Dijon is the capital of BurgundyBurgundy considers itself the capital of French gastronomy. This market, therefore, has some of the best fresh produce, cheeses, meats, fish, etc. of any market we have visited. An example of just the produce: lovely blushing apricots, delicate strawberries and crisp green beans (both “haricots verts” and Moroccan flat beans).  And the best part is that, since we are traveling by boat, we can buy, prepare and eat these wonderful things, not just take a picture of them and wonder, back at the hotel, how they might taste. The DIjon market, held every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings, also features colorful table linens from Provénce, geometric, patchwork clothing from Africa, and a whole host of things you might never buy but are intriguing nevertheless.

Saturday started a two-day festival at the port, mostly kid-oriented with rides, balloons, bungee bouncing, a merry-go-round etc. There was a stage with local and imported talent (such as a dancing and singing group from Poland). The evening ended with a short but very spectacular fireworks display. We were so close that we got grit in our eyes from falling residue!

Sunday at midday the festival started up again, with the first music selection being Chubby Checker’s, “Let’s Twist Again.” Are we really in France??  We wandered through the crowds, stopping to talk to the captain of “Prosperité, one of the two hotel boats also in the port. He shared some informational brochures with us. Wow: incredible menus and wonderful sounding accommodations.

During the next couple of days we enjoyed a special exhibit on Hungarian post-impressionism at the Musée de Beaux Artes; wonderful costumes, furnishings and preserved old storefronts from downtown Dijon at the museum of life in Burgundy (Musée Vie de Bourgogne); and last but not least, mussels and fries at “Les Moules Zola” on Place Zola, a square with many open-air restaurants.

Then we headed back down the canal to our home port. The best experience along the way was eating freshly picked cherries. Late in the afternoon of the first day, we tied up beside the canal and decided to walk towards some houses about a kilometer away. In front of a house at the crossroads was a sign: “cerises” (cherries). I asked the woman standing on the front steps, under the cherry tree, about the cherries and she immediately offered us some samples: they were delicious! We walked back to the boat along a path planted with flowering shrubs, beside a ripening wheat field, under a brilliant blue sky spotted with fluffy cumulus clouds, eating cherries fresh from the tree. It is true: the little things in life are the best.

Château de Longecourt
Tel: 03 80 39 88 76

Les Moules Zola
03 80 58 93 26; 3
place Emile Zola

Spencer Hayes
Tel: 03 80 49 09 28

Boating in France: A Cruise on the Saone

The last cruise we wrote about this summer was on the Burgundy Canal from St. Jean du Losne to Dijon and back. We are currently in the middle of a cruise on the Saone river from St. Jean to Chalon sur Saone.

There are some significant differences between cruising canals and navigable rivers. Perhaps the most notable is that on most rivers there are a lot fewer locks. Our Dijon canal cruise took us through 48 locks in 60 kilometers (36 miles) while this river cruise will have a total of only 4 locks in 96 kilometers (57 miles). We don’t mind locks, one gets used to them, but since an unexpected side current on the approach or a mooring line jammed in a crack in the stone lock wall can instantly create difficulties, one does have to stay constantly alert and focused on what is happening.  So the fewer locks, the more relaxing the cruise. Also, the locks are much larger than on the canals and, in general, much easier to pass through.

The Saone is a very nice river to cruise, since in addition to fewer locks, it is comfortably wide, the channel well marked, and there was not a lot of current on this trip. In addition, there are a number of small and medium sized towns along the way, many of them with mooring facilities. This makes for short cruising days, if you wish, and lots of opportunities to visit places that are, in many cases, well off the beaten tourist path. Most of the time there were no other boats in sight, and it was just us, the fishermen, and the herons and swans.

Our overnight stop on this cruise to Chalon was at the town of Seurre.  The pontoon provided by the town cost us only 11 € (about US$15) including shore power and water and was only a ten minute walk from the main shopping street. Having gotten away early that morning, we arrived in time to buy fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as a small goat cheese, at the Saturday outdoor market before it closed at noon. With fresh bread from one of the several bakeries and half of a roasted chicken from a butcher, we were set for meals for the day as well as for Sunday, when almost all shops in Seurre are closed.

Seurre doesn’t rate a listing in the Michelin Green Guide, but it has a number of interesting buildings and architectural details from the past few centuries, such as half-timbered houses, corner circular turrets, and stepped brick gables that would be expected in Belgium or Holland, but not here.  The tourist office was helpful, but unfortunately this weekend was between events, except for an evening organ concert in the church. We got to listen to a few minutes of the afternoon rehearsal when we visited the church, but decided to give the concert a pass.

As always, there were the local cafes with people chatting over small cups of espresso or a cold beer, or gathered under the trees in the park near the port, discussing whatever comes to mind on hot Saturday afternoons.  Others were fishing off the riverbank, and a bride and groom were having wedding pictures taken at a picturesque spot by the port. In other words, a very relaxing typical French small town Saturday afternoon.

Since afternoon rain showers were predicted, we departed early Sunday morning after I walked up for a fresh baguette from the nearest bakery. As on Saturday, we encountered only a few other boats on the river, sharing the one lock with one of our pontoon neighbors from the prior evening. We arrived in Chalon early afternoon, found a mooring on the pontoon and headed for the tourist office for maps and information.

Boating in France: A Week in Chalon sur Saone

We recently visited Chalon sur Saone, a very pleasant small city (population under 100,000) with a large port for pleasure boats (about 145 moorings). We were expecting friends, Lisia and Dennis, from the US for a few days, so wanted to be in a place that was interesting, had good rail access and complete port facilities, including showers. As an added bonus, Chalon has a huge Carrefour store for groceries and almost everything else that you need plus much you don’t–and a large “bricolage” (hardware-do it yourself store) within an easy walk of the port. We booked in for a week on our arrival and spent the rest of the day getting the boat ready to accommodate two additional people. This involves moving lots of stuff around to provide sleeping quarters as our V-berth guest cabin is usually used for storage.

Market Day at chalon-place St Vincent

Chalon proved to be as nice as we remembered from previous visits. Downtown is a 15 minute walk across two bridges and an island with a great array of restaurants along its main street. Once in town, there are several interesting pedestrian shopping streets for both clothing and food. French law only allows major sales twice a year, and we were in the midst of the summer sales. Lisia and I had great fun poking around in the shops one afternoon, looking for those 50-70% discounted treasures – but only managed to spend about 20 euros between us!

Chalon sur Saone
as a significant city goes back to the time of Julius Caesar, who chose the town as the main warehouse for his legions’ food during the time he was conquering Gaul. During the Middle Ages, Chalon held a popular animal pelt fair that was known throughout Europe.

A little more recently, the city was the birthplace (1765) of Joseph Nicphore Niepce, the father of photography. We spent one afternoon visiting the museum (free admission) named after him, which has a rich collection of old photographic equipment and galleries, some that are permanent, others that display special exhibits. Many explanations were in both French and English.

I think the loveliest part of town is the Place St. Vincent. The Cathedral St. Vincent, begun in the 11th century, is on one side of the square and half-timbered houses on the other sides. The vibrant colors of perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables add color to the scene when market is held on the square twice a week (Friday and Sunday mornings).

Chalon sur Saone is well-served by trains, so we decided to use the easy rail access to visit Tournus, only 15 minutes away, for a day. We had cruised there previously, but that takes about 3-4 hours each way, and for this visit we preferred spending our time touring.

Tournus is home to an architecturally lovely abbey church and associated buildings dating from the 10th and 11th centuries. The Romanesque simplicity, faint pink limestone and unusually bright clerestory windows make for a soft, wonderfully pleasing interior. But, my favorite place is the cloister, planted with bright red begonias that provide a lovely contrast with the weathered stone walls.

Lisia and Dennis headed on to Paris and home after 4 days; we headed back to St Jean de Losne a couple days later. We cruised back under threatening skies, but only traces of actual rain developed. En route we stopped again at Seurre (see our previous blog), planning for a quiet Sunday evening. As I wandered through town looking for a pizzeria, I noticed a handmade sign advertising  “un spectacle,” a show, right at the port. It was to be put on by “les enfants mariniers,” children boaters. What we didn’t anticipate was that two boats would arrive with about 10-12 pre-teens per boat—-and that they would tie up on either side of us! With the idea of a good night’s sleep, we decided to move the boat to an open spot further down the pontoon.

However, we did thoroughly enjoy “le spectacle,” a collage of a talent show, tai chi, a robbery reenactment, and a young male vocalist with a lovely, clear voice. The kids wore makeshift costumes, using props, such as a cardboard cutout sun. The curtain of the “theatre” was colorful sheets sewn together patchwork style and clipped between two trees with a cord. The small crowd of 30 or so local people and a few boaters gave each act an enthusiastic round of applause and demanded an encore from the young singer.  Who knows, perhaps we got to see the next Maurice Chevalier or Catherine Deneuve perform!

Boating in France: Cold and Wet in Burgundy

Joan and Neil Malling on the boat

Train strikes and volcanoes started our boating season in France this year. Once we got through those challenges, we had a couple of weeks of very pleasant weather for getting our boat, the Estate, ready for cruising. The trees and flowers were blooming; the days were warm and sunny with temperatures up to the mid-seventies. Then the cold and rain descended on Burgundy. And that is all anyone talked about – and experienced – for over two weeks.

During our first year of owning the Estate, we cruised in Holland. Wisely we had bought a winter weight duvet. Rarely since that first year, however, have we used it more than three or four nights each year. This year, we snuggled under it for many nights. Temperatures went down to the 30’s F at night, and days sometimes didn’t hit 50° F.

We last cruised the Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal) in 2003 – we call it “the year of the heat:” temperatures were in the 80’s, 90’s, and for ten straight days, over 100°, from May through August. This year, we had been hoping for better, cooler weather, so we could enjoy the wonderful old towns, the biking and walking. Maybe one does have to be careful what one asks for!

Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal) with tunnel
Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal)

We started up the Burgundy Canal at the end of April from our home port in St. Jean de Losne. The first couple of days en route to Dijon were uneventful, but we had a good chance to get some practice working through locks – 21 of them. The weather started turning while we were in Dijon. We would have been tempted to stay there, but we had friends from Portland meeting us for a trip through the 19 locks and the two-mile long tunnel at the summit of the canal. It was wonderful being back in Burgundy on the canal again, but wearing six layers of clothing including a ski sweater, 2 layers of fleece, and gortex did detract from some of our enjoyment!

We moored for two nights along the canal, tied to bollards or our own pounded-in stakes. After tying up at the end of the first day in Velars sur Ouche, we decided to hike to the chapel of Notre Dame d’Etang. It was an uphill climb, but the splendid array of wildflowers distracted us: bluebells, buttercups, and many more we couldn’t identify. We had seen a statue atop the highest point while cruising, and that, we realized while climbing, was the chapel. When the sun started to go down about 20 minutes from the summit, we decided that we had gone far enough, so headed back to the Estate.

white boat on a french canal at Bryony

At the end of the third day, Pont d’Ouche was a warm refuge as we were able to plug in our heater at Chez Bryony. Chez Bryony is the name of the port, run by Bryony, an Irish transplant. She runs the port, prepares her famous frites (chips, fries), manages a small grocery store, and is generally helpful to all. The town has the small port, one restaurant, and a post office. We stayed three nights, finally getting the cold out of our bones, at least temporarily. Then our brave friends, Heidi and Gerald, joined us, and we headed for the summit.

Heidi and Gerald’s enthusiasm helped us re-kindle ours too. It was interesting getting their perspectives and comments on the differences between canal boating in England and in France. In England, the locks are only 7 feet wide and the boats, of course, must be less than that width. In France, the standard width of locks is about 16 feet. Usually, there is usually at least one lock-keeper to operate the gates in France, while in England you do it yourself. For the first time ever for us, we sometimes had 2 or even 3 lock-keepers on this particular section of canal. (These days, because there is not a lot of traffic on the canal, instead of a lock-keeper at each lock, the lock-keepers are “itinerant.”  This means a lock-keeper travels along on a motor scooter, operating each lock in turn as the boat progresses. Each lock-keeper will normally do a section of 3 to 6 locks before the next keeper takes over.  If there is very little traffic, such as early in the season or when the weather is bad, the lock-keepers team up and help one another, which makes transiting the locks much quicker.)

We tied up in Vandenesse, a small town with 2 restaurants, a British tearoom, and a 12th century church. If you need bread, you order it for the next day through the British tearoom, Charolly. Looming above Vandenesse is the castle and village of Chateauneuf en Auxois.

Chateauneuf en Auxois medieval castle in france
Chateauneuf en Auxois

A hotel boat was tied up just in front of us, and while we were getting settled in, I happened to say hello to one of the boat’s crew. He was the best person possible to connect with — he was the chef. A few minutes later he came over with a container of homemade melon sorbet and one of a fruit-filled frozen nougat. They were excess from their last group of guests and he wondered if we might enjoy them. We surely did!

Once we were securely tied up, we decided we needed some exercise, so we walked the  3 km up the hill. The construction of the chateau in Chateauneuf was begun in the 12th century. We were able to walk through several buildings that comprise the chateau, some of which have been re-furnished: a guest pavilion, a grand logis, a chapel, and guard room. The village itself is classic Burgundian: 14th – 17th century gray stone houses, occasional splashes of color from small flower boxes, narrow winding streets, and an ancient church. You have your choice of several tearooms for lunch or beverages.

That evening we discovered Restaurant de l’Auxois near our moorage. We had heard about it from other boaters over the years, but had never stopped for a meal. Luckily we made reservations because it was a very crowded Saturday night. The golfers from a nearby resort chateau were in town!

The restaurant serves typical Burgundian fare. We sampled jambon persille (ham with parsley), escargots (snails), charolais beef, lapin (rabbit), and, of course, Burgundy (pinot noir) wine. Three of the four of us chose a winning dessert: scoops of cassis (black currant sorbet) and two other unidentified flavors of smooth, rich ice cream.

The next day we conquered the last 8 locks and traversed the summit tunnel. Two years ago, electric lighting was installed in the tunnel making it a lot less spooky. When you use your own light in a tunnel, it bounces around and off the various surfaces. The tunnel is long and narrow with occasional strange currents and small stalactites. At the other end, we popped out at Pouilly en Auxois. Pouilly is not as charming as some of the towns we had recently visited, but has several shops, a large grocery store, restaurants, and bakeries – and a port with electricity, showers, laundry, and tourist office!!  What luxury. We decided to stay until the cold, rainy weather changes.

English tea salon and boutique.
Vandenesse, France
Tel: 03 80 49 22 71.

Restaurant de l’Auxois
Vandenesse, France
Tel:03 80 49 22 36

Canal Holidays in France: Warm and Sunny Burgundy

Pouilly-en-Auxois proved to be a great starting point for walking and biking. It is a small town, surrounded by spring-green hills. Over the next four days, we wandered in several directions and biked along the canal and out into the countryside. The area is fairly flat, making it an easy place to bike. There is a new museum at the port, tracing the history of the canal and the tunnel, but only open regularly during July and August.

Chateau-Vand canal on a grey day

Originally, we had planned to continue west on the Burgundy Canal, ending the summer in Paris and environs. However, the Estate “being a boat” means that she needs some specialized work done this fall at our homeport near Dijon.  We didn’t want to do more than 200 locks this summer, and continuing on the Burgundy would have doubled that number, so we turned around in Pouilly en Auxois and headed back towards the Saone River. Our plan is to cruise south on the Saone for about three weeks and then turn around and return to St Jean de Losne for the winter.

The weather started to gradually improve, so we decided to take our time going back. After again passing through the tunnel, we first re-visited Vandeness. We had another lovely meal at Restaurant de l’Auxois – this time lamb proceeded by a cheese and caramelized onion tart. To work off the calories we were adding, we did some more biking (to St Sabine) and walking.

We also re-visited Charolly, the British tearoom, small boutique (gift items, used books), and epicerie (a few grocery items). The very friendly owners, Brits who now live in the house across the walk from the shop, love the area and their life there. The back garden is a charming place to spend a sunny afternoon sipping tea or coffee.  While there, we asked about the graves of two British Airmen we had seen in the churchyard.  They told us the story of the crew of a British bomber that crashed just up the road in 1943, killing the pilot and bombardier, and how two of the five that had parachuted had been hidden from the Germans by local residents in an outbuilding on the grounds of the nearby chateau that was being used by the Germans as their headquarters for the area.  The men were eventually moved to Switzerland by the French underground. There is both old and recent history here.

old steam roller train

Heading down the canal, we serendipitously arrived at Chez Bryony in Pont d’Ouche on a Sunday, the day the historic steam train runs between Bligny sur Ouche and Pont d’Ouche. The narrow gauge trains are maintained, operated, and supported by a volunteer group comprised of French, English, Swiss, and Americans. The oldest locomotive dates back to 1910. Originally the train was used for the transport of coal from the mines to the canal for loading on to barges. What a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Old and young – all had a great time.

The next day we passed by the villages of la Forge and La Bussiere. Seven years ago, we enjoyed the grounds of the Cistercian abbey at La Bussiere and had a very pleasant dinner inside the abbey. It was then being run as a conference center. Now it is a very expensive hotel, restaurant and bistro.

rapeseed field and trees in the french countryside

Neil wanted to re-visit the medieval castle at Malain, about a five-mile bike ride from the village of Pont de Pany, so we decided to stop there next.  I don’t think there is a chateau in France that does not require an uphill climb – and this time it was uphill the whole way. The rapeseed (canola oil is made from rapeseed) was in full bloom – bright yellow, surrounded by the green of various other crops. We decided not to hike to the very top this time, but the ride and the views were lovely.

Now we are back in Dijon, enjoying big city living, but tied up in a port that has nesting herons, ducks, coots, and geese. The Ouche valley was a wonderful place to spend a few weeks– yes, in both the cold and the heat, just cruising along.

Charolly English tea salon and boutique.
Vandenesse, France
Tel: 03 80 49 22 71

Restaurant de l’Auxois
Vandenesse, France
Tel: 03 80 49 22 36

Boating in France: Burgundy Biking

Shortly after purchasing our boat, Estate, in Holland in 2001, we also bought some old, Dutch, “clunker” bicycles. At least that’s how they look. Yes, they are old, but they also are good sound bikes with hub brakes and gears, and the chain guard totally encloses the chain. They have served us well for the past nine years.

dirt path next to a canal in france with a boat

We have used the bikes primarily for errands or to get to places within less than 5 km from the boat that we didn’t want to walk to and weren’t easily accessible by bus. This year, inspired by several bike trips made by my sister and brother-in-law, we have started to ride just for the pleasure of riding.

The canals are often a good place to bike. Canal barges originally did not have engines to power them, and were instead pulled by horses or people. As a result, most canals have the remains of a towpath, now used as access for locals or by bikers and hikers. Some are paved; some are just loose gravel over dirt.  Virtually all the “hotel barges” that cruise the French canals carry bicycles for their guests to use, and some offer itineraries especially designed for bicyclists.

Biking on a Country road

We have noticed a significant increase in bikers in France in the last couple of years. It seems the word is getting out! To help you plan your trip, maps and guides are often available from specific regions, e.g. check out Tour la Bourgogne a Velo to see what Burgundy has to offer. Another resource is the IGN (Institut Geographique National) for an incredible selection of maps with various scales. France started in 1997 with an itinerary from Givry to Cluny in Burgundy. A loop of 800 kilometers, comprised of five main routes has been developed throughout Burgundy. One can visit chateaux, historic villages, and vineyards along the way

Over the last few years, two types of itineraries – veloroutes (bicycle routes) and voies verte (green ways) – have been defined throughout Europe. A voie verte is a special route reserved for non-motorized traffic: pedestrians, bikers, roller bladers, dog walkers, etc. Many of the canal towpaths now carry this designation. A veloroute may be a quiet country road or a cycling corridor: safe, pleasant, and with gradients of 3% or less.

A Canal path is great for biking

Boaters, such as us, have a place to go home to after a day’s ride. Non-boaters who are out for more than a day either camp or book hotel or bed and breakfast accommodations along the route they have chosen. Many towns now have shops where you can rent bicycles for a couple of hours or for a week. You can do the planning and arrangements yourself or get assistance from travel companies that specialize in doing this for you.  Check the above mentioned IGN website for a listing of cycle firms.  If combining cycling and a cruise on a hotel barge appeals, check out Euro Escapes. They can help with planning a hotel barge vacation. Most local trains offer a special car for bicycles. Check TER for more information.

While on the Canal de Bourgogne this year, we did some short rides on both veloroutes and voies verte. The voies verte have been easy riding, either smoothly paved or with hard pack clay and gravel. We used IGN maps to plot our route using country road veloroutes. The IGN maps can be purchased at many tabac/presse stores. There are wonderful IGN stores with a much more complete selection of maps in both Dijon and Paris – and probably other major cities of France.

Boating Holidays in France: Back on the Saone

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.

couple smiling with river behind them

We 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.

Lock house on the burgundy canal
Lock house on the burgundy canal

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 store 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 way

We 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 burgundy

We 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.

Boating in France: Celebrating France’s Summer Festivals

All over France there are cultural festivals, musical performances, dance, theater, art shows, and sporting events that are held to celebrate summer. Many are internationally famous, such as the Avignon Theater Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, or the Tour de France.

Some events such as the Fete de la Musique on the summer solstice, June 21, are celebrated with great exuberance in Paris as well as elsewhere. Amateur and professional musicians perform on the streets, in parks, and in public places during the day and into the late evening. In recent years, many small villages have started some type of musical celebration to celebrate the start of summer.

The biggest celebration in France is held on Bastille Day, July 14, commemorating the beginning of the French revolution in 1789. In Paris, there is a military parade on the Champs Elysees with military planes flying overhead, leaving red, white, and blue contrails. That evening, a spectacular fireworks display is held at the Eiffel Tower. All over France, the day is celebrated with music, military commemorative events, and fireworks to end the day.

There are also many less known events, sponsored by scores of small cities and villages that we have discovered while boating through France. Three years ago as we were going down the Burgundy Canal, we saw a posting in a small town announcing a Dixieland Jazz event at the nearby city of Montbard the next day. The next morning we took an early train and arrived in Montbard just as the opening parade began. The music was fantastic – had you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were in New Orleans. We joined the crowd following the band to the plaza in front of the “Hotel de Ville” (City Hall), where, after more music, there was a kickoff speech by a local authority and everyone was invited a have a glass of champagne. And this was at 10 am!

This year we haven’t yet found anything quite that spectacular. However, here in St Jean de Losne, a Friday evening jazz event started last week along the quay. A small group of musicians travel from café to café along the waterfront, rain or shine. In the last few weeks, just in our homeport of St Jean de Losne or within easy biking distance, we’ve enjoyed speed boat races, flower shows, music, carnivals, fireworks and art shows.

One flower sale/show was held in the tiny village of Franxault. Again we happened to see a notice at a local tourist office, so we biked there from the boat expecting something a bit larger than what we found. In the local park, lovely bedding plants were for sale, individually or in flats. Several women were making “gaufres” (“Belgian” waffles served with powdered sugar), and people were standing in the shade sipping chilled rosé wine while conversing with their friends. We were the only tourists of any nationality, but we were greeted warmly and offered enthusiastic assistance with our selection, a single pink dahlia to put in a pot on our aft deck.

As a contrast, we saw a similar notice for a flower and art show to be held in St Jean de Losne. We followed the signs to the event, and found very skillfully executed art (watercolors, photography, pastels, etc.) and had a wonderful conversation with an illustrator of botanicals, Patryck Vaucolulon, whose work was being shown. He is a botanist and has researched, written, and illustrated a book on the flora, fauna, and animal life of Burgundy. He has also spent a year living with and drawing the penguins in Antartica for a French scientific organization.

Another festival we stumbled across by accident, while on the Rhone River, a couple of years ago was the Festival of Bulls in Beaucaire. About two hours after we tied up in the port, a marvelous parade passed by within thirty feet of the bow of our boat! There were hundreds of historically costumed participants, some on horseback, many bands (including one from Brittany playing bagpipes), and several dragons from multiple cultures (there is a local legend about a dragon that lives in the river here).  During the following week, certain streets were blocked off every evening to create a course through town. Bulls were then turned loose to run the course, one or a few at a time, accompanied by cowboys on horseback, while teenagers and people old enough to know better tried to touch and even “bulldog” the bulls. On the final evening, 100 bulls were released simultaneously. Talk about the “Thundering Herd!”  This week long event starts 21 July this year.

Socialization seems to be a primary component of each of these events. Everyone is out to enjoy the day and many obviously know each other. In small towns we’ve never felt excluded, but instead have been welcomed and made to feel part of the summer celebration.

Boating Lifestyles in Europe

We meet a lot of people while boating in France. As Americans, we are foreigners—but most other boaters cruising the inland waterways are too. We hear the stories of British, Australians, New Zealanders, Swiss, Dutch, and Germans, as well as French.

joan and neil malling on the boat

Many British have previously been sailors, with sailboats (”yachts”) in the English Channel. After they reach “a certain age” they get tired of being “beat up” in those stormy and difficult waters, but still want to boat. Touring the inland waterways (canals and rivers) of Europe in a motor cruiser is an oft-chosen next step. Because they are just a ferry or “chunnel” ride away, many Brits bring their car to France, thus giving them an easy option for touring and running errands such as transporting liquids (water, wine, beer, etc.) from the grocery store. They leave their car at a marina or in the train station parking lot, cruise for a couple of weeks, then hop on a train and go back for their car.

Perhaps the Australians and New Zealanders have the optimal situation. Their seasons are the opposite of France and the US. They arrive in France at the end of their summer and go home for the beginning of the next: year-round good weather!

Because of the proximity of Holland, Germany, and Switzerland to France, many residents of those countries moor their boats in France and visit for weekends or short vacations. Others do the reverse, starting in their home country and spending a few weeks in France, returning home on their boats for the winter.

Since we are a very far distance from home, we generally plan on spending the better part of the summer in France. This year we plan to return home in early August as many Americans do because it’s the height of the European tourist season (ports and canals are crowded) and, for us, the weather in Oregon is at its prime.

white boat in a canal in france

Using the Estate as our base and taking short train trips to other locations is one strategy that works for us for expanding our travels. We are both over 60, so are eligible for senior cards in France. They entitle us to at least a 25% discount on train travel in France, and with the right timing, 50%. Last week we were invited to spend a week with friends who had swapped their house in Oregon for an apartment in Haarlem, the Netherlands for three weeks. The trip to Haarlem takes about 9 hours from St. Jean de Losne and involves trains, buses, and taxis.

In 2001 we purchased the Estate near Arnhem in the eastern part of the Netherlands. We spent the first year cruising from there to Friesland in the North, and on to Amsterdam, Leiden, and Gouda. In Holland, there are few locks, but lots of low bridges where we needed a bridge-tender’s assistance. Some bridges swing, some raise, and for some, not only does car, bike and pedestrian traffic stop, but also the trams must wait for boaters to pass. Normally there is no charge. However, in the North, a tender extends a wooden shoe, swinging from a string at the end of a pole, for a small payment.

Museum in Classic architecture large house in france called Mauritshaus

It was great being back again! Holland is so close to France, yet so different: tall row houses, canals, and bikes everywhere. The puffy white clouds, cleanliness, and structured agricultural land all shouted, “You’re back in Holland!” We alternated visiting museums with biking at the beach and walking through small towns. We particularly enjoyed visiting the Mauritshaus Museum in The Hague, a small gem of European museums. Several Rembrandts and two Vermeers (the famous “Girl with a Pearl” and “View of Delft”) are in their collection.

Aerial shot of the beach in france
Statue of a scottish highland bull

One day we headed for the beach at Zaanfort, rented bicycles, and peddled north along the sea. The wind blows a lot here, so you often see cafes with low glass walls to protect diners from the wind. Many people on the beach had what looked like a half-domed tent that was also used for breaking the wind. We picnicked on the beach, and then headed for the sand dunes behind the beach. They run for many miles along Holland’s coast, protecting the inland areas from storms.  They are stark, but lovely, with grasses, some trees, and wildlife. At one turn we came upon a large, horned cow scratching its neck on a sign that told about the area. Needless to say we let that sign go unread!


At the end of the week, we headed back to St. Jean de Losne, arriving in early evening. Over dinner at a local café, we mused about the wonderful differences between countries and how having a boat enables us to easily experience them by leisurely cruising or by a fast, smooth ride by train.

Mauritshaus Museum
Korte Vijverberg 8
The Hague, Netherlands

Boating in France – Ultimate Guide – Pin for later:

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Wednesday 9th of January 2019

Wow, what a beautiful post. This is the first time I visited your blog and its so amazing. Keeping it bookmarked for your next tour. I am highly motivated. Thanks for sharing the information and Happy Traveling.

Teniesha Collins

Monday 7th of January 2019

These are some awesome tips thank you so much for sharing. Boating in France has now been added to my bucket list!!

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