The gentle Saône River bubbles through the verdant hills and valleys of Burgundy’s pastoral landscape and along its run of 480 kilometres to the Rhône River at Lyon. The river is navigable from Corre all the way to Lyon, a charming stretch that covers some of the prettiest waterways in France including adjoining canals and major tributaries. We’ve booked to explore the leg from St Jean de Losne to Fortenoy le Château. Our start is some 25 km’s from the capital of the region, Dijon where we meet up with our friends Chris, Jenny and their daughter Shirley.
We take the train to St Jean and after managing to cadge a lift for our luggage, we walk the 2km to the boat base of Crown Blue Lines (now Le Boat). While Chris and Geoff are briefed on the sparkling 6-berth boat and what to expect along the route, the ladies go off for supplies at the “Casino” supermarket. It is fun to stock up with a variety of fresh French produce such as baguettes, gruyere, pâté, wine and chocolate.
We leave St Jean immediately we’ve loaded the bicycles and we cruise for two hours to Auxonne, getting used to our barge.
The scenery is exquisite. The river is flowing quite swiftly and there is a little breeze helping us up-stream. Deep in the heart of rural France, we admire the lush pastures of grazing cattle and peaceful tree-lined stretches. On either side of the banks people are relaxing, fishing, picnicking and walking their dogs. It’s pleasantly sunny and it seems promising that we may get a tan.
We cruise at a speed of 5 or 6 km-per-hour along the canal. It has to be one of the prettiest waterways for holiday barging. En route to Auxonne we negotiate our very first lock. Jenny, Shirley and I are dropped off ahead of the lock and we trot off to wait our turn for our barge to go through the lock. The Chris and Geoff manoeuvre the boat in the vicinity until the lock is free. There are traffic lights that indicate when it’s okay to advance. A pole hangs over the water and from the barge you reach up and twist the pole to set the mechanism in motion. Once the barge enters the lock which is waaay below where Jenny and I are standing, the gates close and the water begins to surge. Jenny and I grab the ropes and try to secure the rising boat. Once the level of the water is equal to the river ahead, we climb aboard and watch as the opposing gates open to allow us out. Simple enough but at first there was a touch of panic and confusion as we learn the ropes and what to expect.
By sunset we dock and take a bike ride into the village to explore, check out the shops and other facilities and importantly to find a suitable restaurant for dinner. We choose one with a view of the canal.
The facilities on board the barge are super. More spacious than the keel boats I’m used to, we have a modern cabin with a comfortable bed, a shower and toilet and even a hair dryer!
Heading out for dinner on our bicycles is fairly challenging. Apparently it’s not ‘like riding a bicycle’ after all, and I end up in a heap on the tar. Returning to the barge in the dark is even worse. Maybe the red wine consumed with our delicious moules, veal escalopesand fish has something to do with my lack of coordination.🤷🏻♀️
Another heavenly day suntanning on the deck ensues, punctuated with occasional pauses at locks. We’re getting quite good at tossing ropes to the lock keepers and securing the barge without losing too much skin on our palms. We exchange cigarettes for their assistance and purchase bottles of local wine.
As we approach the river bank looking for a suitable picnic site, I nearly get knocked overboard by a low-hanging branch. I’m lucky! The injury could’ve been a lot more serious that the swollen forehead that we attend to with ice packs. Our lunch of tasty baguettes that Shirley prepares gets interrupted by a persistent swarm of mosquitoes and we are rudely chased on board and have to head out to deeper water.
Our next stop is Mantoche. As it is a Sunday, everything is closed and it turns out to be ideal for exploring the peaceful town on our bikes. We eat on board and Shirley spoils us with a delicious pasta Provençal-style followed by strawberries and ice cream. A rowdy game of Pictionary followed by Apple Sours on the deck, is a perfect ending to a lovely day.
An early start and we head for the larger town of Gray where we once again explore by bike and then stock up on groceries and other goodies. The weather changes rather abruptly – a chilly wind and a cloudy horizon. At our next lock we have to wait for the keeper to return from lunch before we can proceed. Such is the languid life of barging!
Then the rain sets in which makes lock navigation not too much fun. We get completely soaked and quite appreciate the long tunnels that afford some protection from the weather. Our evening docking site is at Rey-Sur-Saône. What a picturesque little village with the perfect church spire, stone buildings and charming chateau on the hillside. A kind French gentleman allows us to anchor against his private jetty which leads to a soft green meadow. It drizzles non-stop but we are perfectly content. Jenny, Chris and Shirley find an appealing restaurant in the village but Geoff and I were look forward to preparing fresh salmon with créme fraiche and herbs on a bed of pasta. We also rustle up garlic bread and a salad. Delicious!
In the morning we’re delighted to discover a mobile bakery. Ringing its bell like an ice cream van, it produces warm, fresh croissants and pain aux chocolat! We take a stroll up to the castle and explore the gardens. We are really missing our dogs suddenly. Taffy would’ve loved to romp through the green grass!
We cook brunch on board while making our way through a few more locks.
The close access to the towpath allows us to hop off and walk or bike along the canal, catching up with the slow moving barge further upstream. We take turns cycling while the others steer the barge. The soft fields with their golden flowers, plump cows, ducks and even llamas are just delightful. At one point the tow path veers off sharply when the barge approaches a lock and we end up being re-routed on our bikes through a reasonably large town, slightly worried that we won’t be able to catch up with our barge on time! Luckily we make it in perfect synchronization.
We stop for the day in Port-sur-Saône and are delighted that the rain has completely stopped and we can explore the town. We have time to lie around reading before showering ahead of a dinner that ranges from escargots and prawns to pork roasted with raspberries, followed by creme brûlée, fromage and cigars!
The following morning we walk around the village, buy some fresh croissants then leave for Les Hautes du Val de Saône. We arrive at lunchtime and head out for a lengthy cycle through the village of Cendrecourt to the town of Jussey.
Charming little shops tempt us everywhere. The afternoon is spent relaxing and reading followed by a few games of rummy. We make a delicious dinner on board using the superb local ingredients.
Lots of rain falls during the night and we set off later than normal. We have an interesting adventure when the barge gets caught up in a swift current that fiercely pushes us against the side and straight into the overhanging trees. It is frightening to lose control and the branches almost remove our bikes, umbrella and flagpole! One particularly nasty branch catches in our side door. Because it is a forked branch, we can’t escape in either direction and watch in horror as the door gets scrunched and the metal frame bends sickeningly. Eventually both Chris and Geoff have to climb the tree and push away from the barge using their feet while I simultaneously use the motor and steer to dislodge us. Jenny and Shirley battle the branches on deck, trying to protect our things from being swept away. Badly shaken we eventually escape our plight but feel disappointed that our door is severely damaged and the lock completely smashed. 😫
But our hair-raising adventure is not over yet. Just before Corre we enter a narrow area that joins a fast-flowing stream ahead of a lock. Jenny, Chris and Shirley disembark to go for a cycle and Geoff and I try to take the barge through the lock. Waiting our turn we drift for ages, battling to hold steady in the current. Shirley and Jenny return to say that a huge barge is coming through from the opposite direction and we need to get out of the way. The problem is that the river is too narrow to turn even our small barge. We have to drift far down before we find a place wide enough to turn around. Even then we struggle against the current and end up drifting sideways, unsuccessfully trying to turn the bow. We end up abandoning the attempt and head even further down-stream where the current is eventually more gentle.
Eventually we make our way back to the lock and moor against the pedestrian ramp to watch the massive barge come through. It literally has only an inch to spare all round inside the lock!
Finally we dock in Corre, ready for a well earned rest. This region is known for its rich history, quaint villages, castles, churches, lakes and forests, and rolling hillsides swathed in vineyards. We ride into the town of Jouvelle and visit the site of Gallo-Roman ruins. It’s a lovely sunny afternoon for long cycle. Geoff and I make a crab dish for supper and we play cards and sing and laugh until the early hours.
Once again it rains all night. Jenny prepares a delicious English breakfast, our last on the barge. We set off on our last leg via about 10 locks! The locks are getting steeper with at least a 5m rise each time. There is a chilly wind and our hands become icy as we pull the ropes. 🥶 Luckily the locks in this are are all operated with a remote control and by now we are experts at lassoing the ballasts with our ropes.
We arrive in Fontenoy-le-Château around 2pm after having done almost 30 hours of cruising in total. Fontenoy is a charming town with narrow cobblestone streets. Elderly gents play bocci. It’s peaceful and the water is like glass as the sun sets on our last evening. We find a busy authentically French restaurant and have delicious meals although Geoff bravely orders the tête-de-veux, which smells as bad as it looks. We pack before we go to sleep and lie in bed listening to the bells from the local church spire for the last time. ⛪