The canal du Centre links the rivers Saône and Loire. It rises 160 metres from Chalon-sur-Saône to its summit at Montchanin then down 78 metres to Digion in the Loire valley through a total of 61 locks. It follows a meandering 112km course, closely following the river Dheune and then the river Bourbince through often exceptionally lovely countryside.
We climbed up from Chalon towards the vine covered hillsides of the Côte d'Or and arrived in Chagny, a charming town with good shops despite the continual noise from the tile works opposite the basin. We cycled along the towpath to Santenay and found ourselves in the cave of Prosper Maufoux, right in the main square of the village where we indulged in a little degustation ably assisted by the very knowledgable Christelle. When I asked her if she had a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet open for us to try she replied "no, but I 'ave a very good corkscrew"! We left with the aforementioned wine plus some premier cru Volnay and Santenay and cycled back to Chagny a little light headed for we had rarely used the spittoon! The following day we decided to cycle up into the hills above Chagny. We pushed our bikes most of the way up to Bouzeron, stopping frequently to collect Cob nuts and green Walnuts from laden trees. From the top of the hill we enjoyed the spectacular view over the Saône valley through acres of vineyards and then freewheeled down into Rully over the limestone escarpment for a welcome cold beer in the town square.
This is where they make the Cremant de Bourgogne, the Champagne of Burgundy, but it was very hot and all the cave owners were having a siesta as we cycled back to Chagny where we stayed for several days until our guests, Chris and Carol Hockey plus Chris's mother Brenda, arrived from the UK.
The weather was hot and sunny as we sailed on up to Santenay. The canal is cut high up on the valley side and you look across to the 521 metre high Mont de Sene and the Grand Cru vineyards on its slopes as the canal winds around the hillside opposite. We found a mooring at Santenay and walked into the village for another degustation with Christelle. Now we were greeted as established clients in the French manner and tested by Christelle on our knowledge of Burgundy wines to ensure we had listened and absorbed on our last visit!
They delivered to Barges so we all emerged considerably poorer and Brenda having generously contributed a case of premier cru Volnay to Harmonie and all who sail in her! Methinks the wine doth flow to the head somewhat!
We had a light lunch on deck, Christelle delivered our wine with a couple of free bottles and we continued on up the canal to St Leger-sur-Dheune and a mooring at the Locoboat quay for a pittance including water and electricity. Only problem was, this was France in August and every restaurant was fermé en vacance so we lit the barbie and cooked up some Petherton butchers snags which our guests had smuggled in.
We continued up to the summit level at Montchanin the next day and moored to a tree next to one of the big reservoirs that feed the canal.
Dinner at a little Auberge beside the canal included Brenda's first taste of Grenouille (frogs legs) which she much enjoyed. During the afternoon the barometer had sunk to a very low 720 millibars in a cloudless sky with hot sunshine such that I declared the thing knackered. Not so. When will I learn to trust instruments? A violent storm ensued causing us to rush back and close all the skylights and it lashed down with rain all night but the sun came out again the next day for our descent to Montceau-les-Mines where Carol and I returned to Chagny by train to collect their car. We waved goodbye to our guests the following day and continued our journey down to Genelard, a pretty little village which was on the border of Vichy France during WW1 and has a museum devoted to the subject.
Here we met up with Patrick and Jill Barron, two Scots in their first year of Barging about France in "Topaz", a converted old (1926) Shell bunker barge about 22 metres LOA. We lunched together at the local hotel, watched the Rugby World Cup warm-up games between Wales & Argentina game on Topaz, then in the evening the England v France game on Harmonie of which the least said the better.
Our next stop was the attractive town of Paray-le-Monial. This is a famous place of pilgrimage where from 1673 onwards, Sister Marguerite-Marie Alacoque received a succession of visitations leading to the worship of the Sacred Heart in France. The good Sister was beatified in 1864 and subsequently the basilica of Sacré Coeure was built in Montmartre, Paris.
There is also a Romanesque Basilique du Sacré Coeure in Paray which dates from the 11th century but was made a basilica in 1875.
The town itself is full of shops selling religious artifacts and there are many quaint little streets with elegant houses and interesting architecture, in particular the Hôtel de ville, a renaissance mansion, built in 1525 by a rich draper.
We ate lunch at a restaurant in town, faux filet and frites washed down with a pichet of vin rouge. This is Charolais country and this was the best steak yet. At least 300g of lean and tender loosely textured meat cooked à point, like a piece of veal but with lots of flavour for a mere 13 euros.
We had learnt that the canal de Roanne a Digoin had been closed earlier in the year due to a breach, caused perhaps by burrowing coypu! Many boats, including hire boats, had been stranded in Roanne and some had even trucked their boats out. It was supposed to reopen after repairs on August 22nd and those still trapped were reported to be forming a queue to get out so we resolved to arrive in Digoin on the 21st to bag a mooring before it was swamped by a throng of frustrated boaters, then have a leisurely trip down the canal to check out Roanne.
Arriving at Digoin we cycled over the aquaduct across the river Loire to the lock on the other side where an electronic display told us that the canal de Roanne was open for the first three locks and for vessels with a draft of 1 metre. Digoin is a nice little town with a Romanesque church built in the 19th century, the interior of which is rather more beautiful than the basilica at Paray. This area is famous for its many Romanesque style churches.
That evening we dined at a Thai restaurant with a Laos chef. The dishes included dim sum, langoustine in a spicy sauce, egg noodles with seaweed, rice with crab and beef in a satay sauce. Very strong and different tastes, but the big surprise was the complimentary chinese sake served after the meal in tiny ceramic beakers. In the bottom of Sues beaker was a magnifying glass through which one could see a picture of a man with a large erection and in mine a lady fellating a man!!! The interesting thing was that once the sake was drunk you could not see the pictures. Fascinating and the first time we had been entertained in quite that way!
Wednesday 22nd August and the canal de Roanne should have been fully open so we cycled over the aquaduct again to quiz the eclusier who knew nothing so we cycled on to the first lock on the Roanne canal where the lady eclusier informed us the canal would be fully operational the next day.
Whoever is responsible for the various flower arrangements around Digoin is to be congratulated. At the lockside the display was stunning and there was even a banana palm which appeared to be thriving. Up through the first three locks on the Roanne canal and into a very shallow pound. We touched bottom a couple of times and our speed was severely restricted but otherwise we arrived at the fourth lock unscathed where the lock keeper sold us some home grown veggies. Two locks followed in quick succession and now the pounds were full so we progressed at a faster pace. Just past Melay-sur-Loire we encountered the motor cruiser Stargazer Lily flying the blue ensign of the Falmouth yacht club. We hailed them to be told they had an engine breakdown so we came astern to see if we could assist. Roger Mellows informed us he required a Jabsco impellor and the one we carried was the wrong size so we said we would see if we could get him one at Briennon where we were headed. We took his engine type and telephone number and promised to phone him after we had tried to locate a spare.
The scenery now became really attractive as the canal reached a narrowing of the Loire valley, winding around the side of the valley above the river. It was in this pound that the canal was breached and we soon passed the repair close to where the river and canal amost meet. After about an hour moored at Briennon, Stargazer arrived having discovered a pipe blockage rather than a pump failure. The next day we cycled the 7km into the pretty little town of Charlieu, full of quaint half timbered houses and a 10th century priory. The only problem with this mooring was that there were two clocks which chimed the hour all night and one was three minutes slow. If your sleep was not interrupted by the first one then the second one made sure three minutes later!
We arrived at the port of Roanne and tied up next to Stargazer as Roger had determined to be the first boat to Roanne after it had re-opened.
Roanne is the end of the canal which terminates in a huge basin. There are 100 winter moorings available for barges complete with electricity and even a fixed telephone line. A large waterborne international community has established itself here, dominated by US and British nationalities. People were continually coming up and introducing themselves asking us if we intended to winter there as if desperate for a new relationship. It seemed to us what we imagined ex-pat communities might be like elsewhere and not really to our liking, despite the evident friendliness of everyone.
Roger & Mo on Stargazer invited us aboard for drinks that night and we sat out on deck passing the time of day with people promenading along the quay and consuming several bottles of Vin Rosé until Sue rescued the remains of her lamb and chicken tagine and fed us all. We both woke with headaches during the night!
We had hired a car the previous day so set out up through the Côte Roannaise vineyards where they make red and rose wines into the Monts de la Madeleine, a range of rounded mountains rising to over 1000 metres.
We sat outside an Auberge high up on the mountain drinking water as we were feeling a bit liverish and watched a bunch of raving idiots race through the village on bikes with everyone in the Auberge cheering them on. That night we tried to get our own back on Roger & Mo by feeding them Côte Roannaise Rosé, not a wine to be recommended and more like raspberry juice with alcohol. We felt better the next day and drove up the opposite side of the Loire valley where we had a lunch of paté, braised pork cutlet with ratatouille, a selection of cheese and creme brulee washed down with a pichet of Rosé (not Roannaise) and a bottle of sparkling water, all for the princely sum of 24 euroles.
At the Gorges de la Loire we admired the Chateau la Roche sailing in a sea of green algae before driving back to Roanne.
On the way back downstream we moored for the night at Artaix next to a very smart Dutch barge "Déjà Vu" owned by an American couple and bound for the winter berth in Roanne we had just left.
Back at the junction of the Canal lateral de la Loire we turned left and proceeded downstream towards Nevers where we were to rendezvous with our friends the Cliffords on September 13th.