Canal Boating in France

Larry MacDonald

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France has two popular types of canal boats—large boats with captain and crew for 80 or more passengers and small boats with no crew for 12 or fewer passengers.

For our weeklong trip in May 2023, Sandy and I rented a small canal boat with our friends Barry and Joan to explore the Burgundy-Franche-Comté Region southeast of Paris. Each day, history, culture and nature unfolded along our 150-kilometer route on scenic rivers and a canal from Saint-Jean-de-Losne to Branges.

Our cruising area

Our charter company, Le Boat, has many different size powerboats available in locations across France and in many other countries.

Our route allowed for a few hours of daily cruising between marinas, giving us the remainder of each day to explore picturesque cities and villages. We only had to navigate seven locks on our route; others have 10 or more locks in a single day.

Getting there

Flying from Calgary to Paris, you cross eight time zones. To recover from jet lag before our boat trip, we explored two cities: Paris and Annecy.

In Paris, we enjoyed a sightseeing bus tour and a champagne cruise on the Seine River. We visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and several other museums. We also strolled through charming parks and neighborhoods.

A three-hour high-speed train ride through scenic (but slightly blurred) countryside brought us to Annecy, a not-to-be-missed romantic city known as the “Little Venice of the French Alps.” Wandering the old town’s cobbled streets, we marveled at the magnificent view of Lake Annecy with mountains in the background. We browsed the Musée-Château (Castle Museum) and the Palais de I’Île (Island Palace), enjoyed a tour-boat cruise on the lake, and sampled local wines at popular canal-side eateries.

Le Palais de I’Île with canal-side eateries in Annecy

Saint-Jean-de-Losne

Three train rides later, we arrived at Le Boat’s base at Saint-Jean-de-Losne to prepare for our cruise. Staying two nights at a nearby 18th-century house, Les Charmilles B&B, gave us ample opportunity to explore the community, shop for groceries and wash some clothing in a unique outdoor laundromat.

After arriving at the Le Boat office, we completed paperwork, watched a safety video and received a thorough orientation to our 11.5-meter powerboat, Horizon 2, which included a short ride in the harbor to become familiar with the controls, instruments and stern docking. The boat’s cleanliness and features—two separate bedrooms and bathrooms and useful options such as a microwave, gas barbecue and large fridge with freezer—impressed all four of us. As captain, I was especially impressed by the side thrusters, which would be useful for docking and entering locks.

By 2 p.m., we departed on a two-hour cruise downstream on the Saône River. Shortly after getting underway, we practiced a successful crew-overboard drill when Sandy’s hat blew into the water. Every day proved delightfully sunny. White swans and cormorants gathered in the water, and cattle and sheep grazed on the grassy riverbanks.

Along the way, we passed through our first canal and first lock. A lock keeper opened and closed the gates and sluices while Barry and I adjusted fore and aft lines attached to bollards, holding us against the wall while we dropped several meters. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at our first night’s marina, which offered electricity and fresh water to fill our tank (fees ranged from nothing to 40 euros per night). We also filled our water bottles for drinking and cooking.

Stern-tied boats at Seurre Marina

Seurre

A friendly white swan and a family of muskrats welcomed us to Seurre by meandering through the lily pads beside us while we had dinner topside.

A relaxing stroll along the seawall brought us to the tourist office, where we paid for our overnight stay and picked up a town map to explore a few attractions, including a bakery and wine shop. A cacophony of birds serenaded us at nightfall. Church bells chiming on the hour reminded us we were elsewhere.

After a leisurely breakfast of omelets and fresh croissants, we departed for our next destination two hours downstream. We passed through our second lock with another boat before reaching the Doubs River and the marina beside the village of Verdun-sur-le-Doubs.

Verdun-sur-le-Doubs

The strong current at the marina provided a challenge for many boaters attempting to stern tie. It took me two tries to figure out how far to go upstream to compensate for the current. Using the downstream side thrusters on the third try, I eased straight back to the dock. Friendly boaters from Austria and Germany, already moored and enjoying happy hour topside, shouted suggestions to those of us struggling to dock.

After a walking tour of several historic sites (following yellow fish painted on the sidewalk), we enjoyed a quiche dinner topside with fresh baguettes and creme brulee from a local bake shop, supporting our recent addiction to French food (and wine).

Chalon-sur-Saône

A few hours downstream, we moored at the marina and explored Chalon-sur- Saône, the largest city on our route. We took advantage of the extensive patio dining and wandered the city center with its beautiful architectural heritage, including half-timbered houses and the magnificent eighth-century Chalon Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Vincent de Chalon-sur-Saône) with its 19th-century neo-Gothic facade.

Born in Chalon-sur-Saône, Nicéphore Niépce, the first to make a permanent photographic image, has a museum named after him in the city dedicated to the history of photography. Before departing, we restocked our supplies at a major supermarket near the marina.

Tournus

Numerous bicyclists and anglers beside the river provided opportunities for lots of “bonjours” and waving during this three-hour stretch. A short walk from the marina took us to the Musée du Vélo (Bike Museum). With a fascinating collection of over 200 bicycles, the museum traces the history of bicycles from their invention in 1818.

After visiting this unique museum, we attended an organ concert at the stunning Church of Saint-Philibert followed by a delicious escargot dinner at a nearby patio restaurant. We had originally planned our next destination to be a couple of hours away, but fellow boaters told us about the famous livestock market on Mondays in Louhans, which is just beyond our destination, the Le Boat base in Branges.

Deciding not to miss this market, we cruised five hours upstream on the narrow, meandering Seille River through lush green countryside. Cuckoos and kingfishers sounded our passage while gray herons flew hither and yon. It was nature at its finest.

This segment involved three locks, two of which did not have lock keepers, requiring us to manually open, close and fill the locks. Fortunately, we took note of how the previous lock keepers managed the gates and sluices with wheels and levers and simply repeated their actions.

Louhans

Monday morning after breakfast, we followed shoppers with their tote bags to the renowned market, where aisles of vendors sold live chickens, rabbits, goats, turkeys, guinea pigs and dogs of various breeds—an ongoing tradition since medieval times. Next, we walked the longest arcaded street in France with 157 arches, some dating back to the 15th century. Stores of every description move their wares out into the street for the market—a shopper’s paradise.

Spending two nights in Louhans allowed us to explore the city the next day without the busyness of shoppers at the market.

Branges

A short distance downstream toward Branges, we approached a lock we had already passed through. This time, Barry helped an appreciative lock keeper with our passage. What had been somewhat intimidating at the beginning of our cruise was now becoming routine. Joan and Sandy tended the dock lines as our boat was lowered to match the downstream level. Ladders recessed in the lock walls allowed Barry to return to the boat before departing.

That afternoon, we walked through the village and discovered its impressive church and cemetery. For our last meal topside, we enjoyed a charcuterie board of leftover cheeses, olives, produce, baguettes and, of course, wine.

The next morning, we cleaned the boat for our noon inspection, which was completed within an hour to everyone’s satisfaction.

After a short taxi ride back to Louhans, we checked into our spacious rooms at Le Moulin de Bourgchateau, a remodeled grain mill dating back to 1788. In the afternoon, we walked into town to do some last-minute souvenir shopping. An exquisite dinner at the hotel’s restaurant overlooking a lazy river topped off what we all agreed was one of our most memorable holidays ever—both on and off the water.

Trains and planes over the next two days brought us back home to reality with definite plans to arrange another canal boat cruise soon.

Tips for taking this cruise

  • Purchase a prepaid SIM card for France.
  • Bring adapters for converting 220-volt to 110-volt electrical appliances.
  • Bring wide-brimmed hats with chin cords for sun protection.
  • Indulge yourself with a couple of weeks in Paris and Annecy to capture the essence of France and reduce jet lag before your cruise.
  • Practice “bonjour,” “merci,” and other French phrases. It’s much appreciated.
Larry MacDonald

https://www.sailingaway.ca

Larry MacDonald is a freelance journalist from Victoria, British Columbia, who writes about his boating adventures at various cruising destinations. His website provides useful information about chartering, nautical skills and destinations.

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