France – Burgundy Region (Part 1)

We explored the Burgundy region of France by cruising up and down the Nivernais Canal in early October. Cruising the French waterways during the off season is a bit of a gamble as the weather is hit or miss and the locks are understaffed. However, the canals aren’t crowded, the pace is leisurely, and the boat rentals offer deep discounts…enough to lure us into joining Becky’s parents on a two week vacation. They had first heard about exploring Burgundy by canal on a Rick Steves’ video “Burgundy: Wine, barging and beyond”, and were convinced that this would be a stress free vacation for us to soak up quintessential French culture. We had briefly debated which canal circuit to sign up for. During the off season, one way boat rentals aren’t offered, so that meant we’d have to pick up and drop off our canal boat in the same location. We were a bit disappointed because we knew that during the peak season, boats can be hired for a one way trip (Joigny to Dompierre), offering us a chance to see more of the French countryside. In the end, we decided on a two week Joigny – Auxerre – Châtel-Censoir – Clamecy – Joigny itinerary, set at an extremely leisurely pace. Vive la France!

First day of our Burgundy adventure (30 Sep – 14 Oct) was mostly travel! We made our way from El Paso, TX to Boston, MA. From there, we checked into the budget Wow Air flight from Boston – Reykjavik – Paris. The flight was pretty uneventful. We lucked out with on the Boston to Reykjavik flight with an extra seat between us, but the Reykjavik to Paris flight was completely packed. We got into Paris at around noon and made our way from the Charles de Gaulle airport to the Gare Bercy train station. It was a fairly straightforward process with the RER B and metro lines, and before we knew it, we were at Gare de Bercy. From there, we bought train tickets to Auxerre, with the next train set to depart about 20 minutes later. We had comfortable seats and settled in for the three hour journey to Auxerre. It had been a long travel day so we were happy to finally reach Auxerre by mid afternoon. Lugging our backpacks from the train station to the old part of town took about 10 minutes and Robby hiked across a bridge to see if he could spot mom and dad with the Lezinnes (our Locaboat Penichette Classic rental). Yay! They were anchored up awaiting our arrival with a couple of welcome drinks. We quickly dumped our bags into our miniscule cabin and joined them on the top deck for a sundowner before deciding to explore Auxerre before sunset. The city is quite picturesque, filled with half timbered houses. Its definitely a walkable city, and we enjoyed checking out the Tour de l’Horloge (a clock tower dating from the 15th century). Other highlights of Auxerre were the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d’Auxerre. This lovely Gothic cathedral was closed already, but thankfully we had another day scheduled for Auxerre on our return trip back to Joigny (the locaboat headquarters where mom and dad had picked up our two week rental), so we would have another chance to visit this Auxerre “must see”. Our locaboat was fully furnished with a kitchen, and mom whipped up a delicious dinner of lamb to celebrate our arrival (and final departure from Afghanistan). After making up our beds in our makeshift cabin, we didn’t need much prodding to crash hard for the night.

1 Oct (Auxerre – Vaux – Augy – Bailly): On our second day of our trip, we woke up early to take a few more photos of Auxerre before starting our journey on the Nivernais Canal. The first lock opened at 9 am, so we made sure to be back onboard for breakfast before then. The trip had been advertised as a leisurely jaunt down the canal. Let me assure you, leisurely it is not! There is much work to be done to get through the locks (we were helping the lock keepers who definitely appreciated it). But first, a little bit about our boat, the Penichette Classic 1107W. Mom had scored an off season deal for the bargain price of 1981 Euro for 2 weeks. The boat itself is very similar to an RV. Advertised as ideal for 2 couples, the boat can accommodate 5 to 7 passengers with fold out beds and a couchette. There is only one bathroom (below deck in between the front cabin and connecting cabin’s double bed). The toilet flushes via a hand pump using canal water (hence we were told not to use the toilet while tied up in a lock). The shower was actually the faucet for the bathroom sink! It was a fully extendable hose that could be secured above the toilet for a very tight, contorted shower. The best part of our floating RV is the kitchen (galley) area, complete with a fridge, 3 burner propane powered stove, an oven and a sink. Mom and dad had gone a bit mad shopping for food, alcohol and snacks while in Joigny, so our kitchen was fully stocked! The boat has two fresh water tanks, so we made sure to refill them each night while camping at a site with facilities. Lastly, a 12 volt battery system provided on board power for our lights and refrigerator (as long as the boat’s motor had been running long enough to keep the charge). But each night while moored up, we always hooked up to shore electricity (which provided 220 V power so we could charge laptops, camera batteries, etc). It was hit or miss whether we had to pay for electricity/water. We actually ended up lucking out more times than we could count, because for the entire 2 week vacation, there were only 3 campsites that actually charged us for the facilities. Perhaps another bonus to cruising during the off season?

In any case, now that we are on the move, we had to quickly figure out the lock system. For the first half of our trip, we would be locking up, which was a process of gaining altitude as we were moving upstream. You enter into the lock well below the rim of the lock. While the captain tries his/her best to navigate as close to the ladder as possible without scraping the entire side of the boat, another nimble footed crew member has to quickly grasp on to the ladder and scramble up with mooring lines in hand to secure the boat to the steel bollards (moorings) located at various points on the side of the lock. Mom and dad had been given a training course followed by a quick “certification” in Joigny, so at least they were aware of what to do when approaching a lock. We ended up learning the hard way, with dad bellowing instructions in an increasingly frantic voice as we tried our best to comply. We later found out why the stress levels had gone up significantly despite today officially being their second day cruising up the Burgundy canal system. Yesterday, as they plied their way from Joigny to Auxerre, they were still cruising on the very large and mellow Yonne River, complete with massive locks and uber helpful lock keepers. Heck, despite the dozen or so locks they had traversed through yesterday, mom hadn’t been forced to climb up the slippery swimming pool style ladders once to tie off to the bollards! And yet here we were, about to leave the Yonne and enter the narrow Canal du Nivernais. No wonder dad’s stress levels were at an all time high. These canals were miniature versions of their big brothers on the Yonne and he was concerned about scraping either side of the boat while navigating into these narrow locks. Entering into our first lock must have been a comical sight. Dad was trying his best steer us in at full speed (our cheapito boat didn’t have forward thrusters and we needed as much thrust as possible to make the steering a bit easier). Meanwhile, Robby was trying to time his leap of faith to an awaiting ladder (slippery as hell with algae from being submerged in the lock). Becky was at the front of the boat ready to toss the front bow lines, while mom was in the rear ready to catch the rear mooring lines (from Robby) and hold them tightly. Its way more difficult locking up because the water is way more turbulent and the lines have to be held tightly to keep the boat from banging about. Meanwhile, after Robby had completed his task of lassoing the front and rear bollards, he’d head over to the gate to help the lock keeper hand crank the lock gate shut and open the sluices to allow the water to equalize inside the lock itself. Once the water level had equalized, a crew member would assist the lock keeper with opening up the forward lock gate, hop back onto the boat and we’d be on our merry way. This entire process takes about 20 to 30 minutes and we had to repeat it several times a day. Not a relaxing vacation as had been promised!

Highlights on our second day included dad shattering the kitchen window with a claw hammer in Augy (his defense was that he was trying his best to secure the window which wasn’t cooperating!), and visiting the village of Bailly (famous for its Bailly-Lapierre Caves). The winery is known for its crémants, consolidated from 71 different wine growers. We bought tokens for electricity and water at the Cave Bar, but discovered to our dismay that the machines accepting the tokens down by the dock weren’t operational. Luckily, the friendly Bailly staff allowed us to use the water and electricity for free, telling us to keep the tokens since they could be used at other anchor sites along the Canal du Nivernais. Score!

2 Oct (Bailly – Vincelles – Cravant – Mailly-le-Chateau): On day 3, we made our way from Bailly to Mailly-le-Château, via the charming 2000 year old town of Cravant. In Cravant, we stumbled upon a butchery (boucherie) where we bought a KG worth of lamb (agneau). Pricey at 24 Euro/KG, it was worth every cent when mom grilled it to perfection along with oven baked potatoes. Definitely an unforgettable meal, especially coupled with a spectacular pink/orange sun set over picturesque Mailly-le-Château (a medieval fortified village with lots of charm…hike up the rocky promontory to check out the church and lovely mansions). (Free water and electricity at this dock)

3 Oct (Mailly-le-Chateau – Clamecy): Day 4 of our adventure saw us cruise from Mailly-le-Château to Clamecy, with a bike ride to Château de Faulin. One of the lock keeper’s mothers had given us a basket of apples (free!) from her apple tree, so mom was busy baking apple pie during our cruise. In return, we gave the lock keeper a bunch of chestnuts to thank his mother for her generosity. The people of Burgundy were wowing us with their hospitality and changing our impression of the French! Clamecy is definitely a highlight on the Canal du Nivernais. This medieval city is full of half timbered houses and the first sizeable city since Auxerre. We will always remember it because we discovered escargot in the Carrefor supermarket (the boucherie was closed the entire time we were there!). Escargot with garlic butter and french bread…freaking delicious. Countless calories were consumed in beautiful Clamecy! (Free wifi, water and electricity at the dock)

4 Oct (Clamecy – Villiers-sur-Yonne – Dornecy – Clamecy): On the fifth day of our canal cruise, we decided to take a quick jaunt upstream from Clamecy to Villiers-sur-Yonne. From there, we broke out the bikes for a quick ride over to Dornecy and return. Dornecy’s washhouses (built in 1832 following an epidemic of cholera) are fed by a source that doesn’t dry up. There wasn’t much to do in the sleepy town of Dornecy but we did discover the town’s only boulangerie where we stocked up on more french bread (for round 2 of escargot in Clamecy!) Back in Clamecy, we finally got a chance to explore this lovely city which didn’t fail to impress. Half timbered houses on every corner just oozing with character, we definitely succumbed to charms of Clamecy. Plus with free wifi, water and electricity, how could we resist another night here?

5 Oct (Clamecy – Chatel Censoir): Our sixth day on the Canal du Nivernais saw us finally tear ourselves away from Clamecy (but not before Becky and mom did some shopping for groceries and a bit of stalking at the town’s main boucherie…sadly still closed, what crazy hours they have!). Today we were turning around in the canal and heading back downstream. Which meant no more locking up, yay! From now on, we could look forward to locking down, which is a helluva lot easier of a process. Basically, our navigator would just cruise into a lock, one of us would causally saunter ashore while looping the ropes around the bollards. Once the sluices are opened, the rope holder simply has to ensure there is tension (to prevent the boat from rocking too much against the turbulence) and voila, easy peasy. We were definitely looking forward to locking down rather than locking up! Our destination for today was Châtel-Censoir. This was the first dock on the trip thus far that we had to pay a fee in order to tie up. However, the 8 Euro fee was more than acceptable because it came with water, electricity, hot showers at the visitor’s center, and free wifi. Today marked the first day of our trip that the weather didn’t cooperate with us! It rained cats and dogs and we had gotten completely soaked. Despite the constant downpour, we decided to hike the short distance up to Châtel-Censoir to check out the church, town square and stock up on some local wine.

6 Oct (Chatel Censoir – Mailly-la-Ville): One week into our canal cruise and our pace had slowed down considerably. The only agenda for us today was to slowly make our way from Châtel-Censoir to Mailly-la-Ville (complete with its own little mermaid statue). The weather threatened to downpour again, but managed to hold off for the majority of the day. Mailly-la-Ville is a teeny tiny town with one miniscule store. The two other boats’s passengers that docked up alongside us inundated the village’s only store once it opened (limited hours). We were grateful to have stocked up with plenty of food in Joigny/Clamecy since we would have gone hungry in Mailly-la-Ville otherwise.

7 Oct (Mailly-la-Ville – Accolay – Vermenton – Accolay): On day 8 of our cruise, we decided to take a detour into the tiny tributary leading to Accolay and Vermenton. Other cruisers had warned us that the facilities in Vermenton were nothing to write home about, and they recommended we tie up in Accolay instead. Since that saved us having to deal with two extra locks, we happily took their advice. The fee to dock up and get water/electricity in Accolay was minimal (about 3 Euro), and we decided to ride our bikes to Vermenton. As straightforward as that sounds, the bike trail to Vermenton was not! We ended up cutting through some rough brush and had to carry our bikes on a railroad track (despite signs warning us to keep off the tracks). Vermenton was worth the effort though, with a massive church, a squat tower, and a fully stocked supermarket. We were able to restock our alcohol and french bread, so two thumbs up for Vermenton.

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