Nivernais Canal

Nivernais Canal 2008


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Mooring at Villiers sur Yonne


For readers who would like a complete description of the Nivernais canal the first section is described at the end of the Spring in France page.

Following our return to France from Ireland we had a telephone call from Kevin Varnes, one of Sue's old Australian flatmates, who had sold his Port Douglas restaurant and was currently in London heading for France. We invited him on board to cruise the Nivernais Canal and while waiting for him to join us, continued our exploration of the Morvan.

In the south of the region are the highest mountains, the highest being Mont Beuvray on top of which is the ancient Gaulish town of Bibracte. In the 2nd and 1st centuries BC there were several thousand people living up here. It must have been pretty cold in winter at 800 metres above sea level, unless, that is, they had global warming like what we have now!! There is a small museum here containing Celtic artifacts and you can drive across the mountain where several archeological digs are taking place and they have reconstructed part of the original main gate. At the top you get a glorious view across the Morvan.

The view from Mont Beuvray, Bibracte.

In the latter part of the 1st century BC along came the Romains and built a new city 25km away down in the valley called Augustodunum, now known as Autun. The Gauls, realizing it was less "parky" in winter down there, abandoned Mont Beuvray for Autun. Bibracte featured in the history of the time as it was here that Vercingetorix was proclaimed head of the Gaulish coalition in the year 52 BC and where Julius Caesar completed writing his "Gallic Wars".

We returned to Chatillon-en-Bazios by a circuitous route and the next day found us at Autun where there are several well preserved Roman remains.

Roman amphitheatre at Autun

The amphitheatre held an audience of 12,000 people and was the largest in Gaul. There are also two gates, one of which is largely intact but I preferred the smaller ruined one which had a nice view of the Morvan heights beyond. This was the gate to the city on the Via Agrippa which ran from Lyon to Boulogne. Much of the Roman city had disappeared by the 3rd century AD but the city experienced a resurgence in the middle ages from which its Cathedral and part of the ramparts survive. We ate in the main square of the city which boasts a graceful and attractive Theatre and Hotel de Ville amongst its many public buildings and private mansions.

Porte d'Arroux at Autun
Theatre and Hotel de Ville at Autun

The next day we collected Kevin from Nevers station and, as there was still no cheque book from Banque Postale, closed the account. On Monday 30th June we had arranged with the eclusier to continue our travels but that morning he advised that the water level in the next pound was very low so we should delay our departure until 2pm so we drove up to the triple lock at Chavance with our bikes on the back, left the car and cycled back. At 2pm we entered the lock and some local opened the paddles and filled the lock, then a different eclusier arrived and told us that the first eclusier who had told us to leave at 2pm was crazy and that the level of the pound was too low. I made a show of inspecting the level, declared I was continuing and crossed my fingers. The pound is nearly 5km long and very wide in places so we were in danger of getting stuck for days in Chatillon if we had not chanced it. In the event we had no trouble at all with that pound but struggled in the pound coming up the Chavance flight and suffered the usual problem of the engine cooling water suction pipe getting plugged with mud. The triple lock at Chavance is unique on the Nivernais and is probably the reason for the shortage of water in the pound above but we pressed on to Baye arriving just on closing time for navigation at 7pm.

triple locks at Chavance

Kevin and I cycled back to Chavance to collect the car So it was about 8-30pm before we set out to find a restaurant. Nothing in Baye so we set out for Corbigny and while passing through la Clancelle noticed a little cafe still serving and ate steak and chips al fresco for a pittance. At Baye you moor against the dam wall of a huge lake that supplies water to the canal. This is the summit level so the next day we commenced our descent towards the Seine through three tunnels and the first flight of 16 locks to Sardy. After passing the tunnels on a one way system controlled by lights you navigate a very deep cutting through rock walls and overhung by trees. Unfortunately, one of these tree branches swept our stainless steel ladder, we use to climb on the wheelhouse roof, off the roof and into the water. This was reported to the eclusier at the top lock but there was not much he could do apart from report the hazard to navigation. The weather was hot as Hades as we descended down the locks in a steep wooded valley with little or no distance between each one, eventually mooring at Sardy. I cycled back to Bailly to collect the car and nearly died of heat exhaustion! We BBQ'd at the mooring that night while Kevin waxed lyrical over the distribution of hay bails in the field opposite. He is making a film of his travels so you might see us on the silver screen in the future.

At Chitry we had water depth problems so moved a little further south to Dirol where the water level seemed to vary almost one metre. I staked the gangway to keep us a couple of metres away from the bank so that we stayed afloat when the tide went out! From here we motored over to the Château de Bazoches.

Chateau Bazoches

This was the home of Marshall Vauban, the sun kings military architect who was responsible for many fortifications throughout France and the great man is buried in the churchyard here, apart from his heart which is in the cenotaph erected to his memory in the Invalides, in Paris. It was from here that he wrote many of his books, for he was a great author in addition to being a famous soldier. He loved the Morvan region and his plans for the defence of France were masterminded here. Vauban was a genius of his time and there is no part of France where his building works can not be seen and admired.

The canal gets prettier as you approach Clamecy (locals pronounce it Clamcy) and we found an excellent mooring at Villiers-sur-Yonne which is pictured at the top of this page. We decided to stay here until the Hockeys arrived on 12th July just in time for Bastille Day so Kevin decided to move on before getting his marching orders. He bought a nice expensive chicken at Clamecy Saturday market and cooked us a feast that night. Only problem was he began cooking very late so it was after 9pm before we ate and I could have eaten a horse. Here you can see Kevin trying to read a book called "Kevin the revolting" but as he doesn't speak French he did not pick up many tips. Here I digress for a sample of Kevins humour.

Kevin at Clamecy

I have written previously of the way the French let their dogs defecate anywhere and how you must be on your guard to avoid stepping in it. Whilst filming in Corbigny we came across a large pile and Kevin panned around to zoom in on it. He called it a "Barkers Egg" and inquired if we knew the similarity between a Barkers Egg and a woman? The answer was that both are easier to pick up the older they get!!!

Stocks of bubbly were low so we drove over to Bailly one day and literally under a limestone hill. They make Crémant de Bourgogne here and age in old limestone mines which you drive into and park in a huge underground cavern where you can taste and purchase the wine. We bought some excellent 2005 Crémant called "Harmonie", I wonder why! We also purchased some Irancy red wine and a bottle of Cassis. This is also a fruit growing area famous for its cherries and kirsch is also made locally.

Irancy is reckoned to be one of the nicest wine villages in Burgundy and so it proved to be, nestling in a fold in the hills between vineyards and cherry orchards. It was Sunday when we drove through and most caves were closed as everyone was at the fete in Cravant. Up over the hills through the vines and down into the Cure valley and the old village of Cravant where the fete was in full swing.


There was a play of some kind being performed continuously, stalls selling a variety of crafts, food and drink. We bought bread, olives, dried kumquats which Sue has bottled in Armagnac, pickled lemon and a soft stone infused with perfume for cleaning your hands. In between all this purchasing we sampled artisan wheat beer which went down quickly on this hot afternoon and watched a display of horsemanship. There was also rides on Shetland ponies which Kevin was too big for! Back on board Harmonie we quickly chilled the Crémant and enjoyed Kir Royale with a splash of the Cassis.

The next morning we took Kevin to Auxerre to catch a train to Nantes, his next port of call, after which we visited our proposed winter port capitane. We had discovered a nice English lady who worked for the Credit Agricole Bank in Dijon who had offered to open an account for us if we could produce a contract from the Capitanerie showing we were going to be resident there. The port is run by Paul, a Dutchman who explained that he did not want any clients using the port as an address so once again French bureaucracy seems to have beaten us. After some thought and discussion we have decided to abandon France this winter and have managed to secure a mooring in the heart of Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium where we already have an internet account, the food is great, its nice and close to the channel ports for trips to the UK and bureaucracy is minimal. We have cancelled our reservation at Auxerre and France will loose our contribution to her economy this winter which will probably raise a tear in Mr Sarkozy's eye!

Water Jousting at Clamecy

We spent a pleasant few days at Villiers, catching up with the washing awaiting the Hockeys arrival then a short cruise down to Clamecy where we managed to squeeze into a mooring with inches to spare. The following day was Bastille day so the canal was closed. We visited Vezelay again for the umpteenth time as the Hockeys had not seen it then tootled round the Morvan before returning to Clamecy where the water jousting was in full swing. This seems to be a popular activity in this region as we noticed many little boats moored at different places rigged out with a platform over the transom. That evening we were moored in a grandstand position for the firework display on the opposite bank on the canal sitting out on deck, all of which was filmed by Mr Hockey and punctuated by ooh's and ah's as each rocket exploded. I must say it was pretty impressive as firework displays go.

As we progressed down the canal the countryside became prettier but so did the lady eclusiers.

Admiring the flowers of the Nivernais
Another Nivernais flower

Here you can see me admiring the pretty flowers on the lock gates. Chris was much more forward than myself asking them to pose for the camera which they were happy to oblige. Most spoke good English and were working for a month before going off to study at University. We eventually came to a lock which was completely over the top as regards the flowers and the lady eclusier had a nice top also! In addition to the flowers there was an army of gnomes, Snow White and the seven dwarfs, various dogs, deer and other woodland creatures, a farm cart full of flowers and various farm implements. We shared the lock with a Belgian family in a hire boat and Dad assisted with the lock gates and waved us goodbye. A little further down the canal he suddenly came roaring past us, or tried to as the canal was very narrow, we lost our water and went aground, lost steerage way and careered into his bow as he came level.

flowery lock on the Nivernais
ott lock with ott eclusier

I explained that he should never attempt such a manouvere and he apologised profusely but we might have inflicted serious damage to his plastic hull. We pulled over for the night at Châtel-censoir where he was waiting for the next lock and he walked right around the basin to apologise again and explain this was his first experience of boat handling and he had learnt a valuable lesson.

We were cycling back and retrieving both ours and the Hockeys cars each day and we used them to explore the hinterland as we travelled. Downstream from Châtel-censoir you arrive at a particularly lovely section of the river Yonne at Les rochers du Saussois. We stopped for lunch at Mailly le Chateau and I cycled back with Carol for the cars. On the way my back wheel developed a severe attack of the wobbles and I discovered several spokes broken. We soldiered on regardless and recovered the cars but we then had to position a car at the next destination and use it to recover the other.

Statue at Mailly le ville
The rocks of Saussois

At Mailly le ville below the lock there is a very nice statue of a naked lady sitting on a rock. Coming upstream it must be a foretaste of more alive French sexiness to come!

But we were continuing downstream with no more lady eclusiers and arrived at Prégilbert, tied up and retrieved the car, positioned ours at Vermenton and headed for the Bailly caves in the other, arriving after 7pm. The big doors at the entrance were just closing but they opened again automatically for us so we drove in. We asked the lady at the counter what time they closed and she told us 6-30 but what would we like so we bought a few cases of Harmonie cremant and tootled on up to Irancy. Lovely village, no restaurant but a local worthy informed us that there was a very good one in Accolay and indeed there was. At the Hostelerie de la Fontaine we sat outside in the garden and ate superb food and drank Chablis and Irancy wine, all at Mr Hockeys expense which made it even nicer!

Next morning the Hocks set off for home while we cruised on up the branch arm and two locks to Vermonton only to be told by the Brit running the port that we couldn't stay as we were too big and should have booked so we sailed back to Accolay where it was nicer and free.

The view from the bridge over the river Cure and canal at Accolay.

The port soon filled up with returnees from Vermenton and here we met Julia and Richard who had chartered the little Luxemotor "Amity" for a month and shared a few glasses. Our car was retrieved from Vermenton and we motored into Auxerre with my bike and found a repairer who promised it would be ready the next day. We also went to a tyre and exhaust place and had them look under Desmond Daihatsu as there was a knocking sound that had developed but they could find nothing wrong. It remains a mystery. The repaired bike was collected, we deposited Desmond at Vaux and cycled the 20 odd km back to Accolay. Arriving in Auxerre the next day we moored upstream of the passerelle on the left bank, thereby avoiding the huge charge we would have incurred on the opposite bank. A little later, up sailed Amity who had experienced a fraught day so we calmed them down with a bottle of Harmonie. After a quick trip to Leclerc for provisions we sailed down the Yonne and turned south into the Burgundy canal.

Auxerre at night.

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