As I write this post, our tiny barge Daniele is leaving Dijon and headed toward the Saône river. The journey along the Canal de Bourgogne will take us just under two days. We’ll have many opportunities to step ashore for walks or bike rides on either side of the canal.
The locks, all 21 of them between Dijon and the Saône, serve not only to transport Daniele but also to allow us to step off and back on board. The way it works is that Daniele enters the lock with the lock’s front doors closed. Essentially, the barge is entering a basin. It’s similar to lowering yourself into a bathtub. Once Daniele is positioned inside, the lock’s rear doors close. Slowly the water level inside the lock lowers (like draining a tub) and the barge along with it. Once the water level inside the lock equalizes with the canal ahead, the front doors of the lock open. Daniele exits and voila, we’re on to the next lock. This is the process for traveling downriver – or down the canal. It works in reverse going upriver.
The distance between locks ranges from a third of a mile to just under two miles. Mileage between locks is posted inside Daniele so that we can calculate how far we want to walk or pedal.
This morning, our skilled captain passed through the first lock without bumping the sides of the barge, a remarkable feat considering that the barge is nearly as wide and as long as the lock. It’s a tight fit to say the least, and our female captain, Fanny, takes her time to position Daniele inside the lock.
Transiting each lock takes up to 30 minutes. As previously mentioned, there are 21 locks along the 30-kilometer (18-mile) stretch between Dijon and the Saône river.
The going is slow. Though Daniele is capable of nearly 20 knots per hour, her pace on the canal is about walking speed. We can easily keep ahead of the barge on foot or on a bike between locks.
Despite the slow speed, the pace of the barge is one of the appealing aspects of this type of travel. Life is relaxed, and we can be as active or inactive as we like for the most part. On the many barge trips I have hosted, I’ve not heard a single complaint about the pace being too slow.
The 242-kilometer (150-mile) Burgundy canal itself is fascinating – and it is only one of many canals in France. Construction on the Burgundy Canal started in 1775, a year before 13 colonies declared independence from its British overlords. The canal was finished in 1832, completing the link between the English Channel and the Mediterranean, via rivers and canals.
Were it not for the canals, there would be no barge trips in France. The French government maintains the canals primarily for recreational and touristic purposes, through the navigation authority known as Voies navigables de France.
You’ll see few, if any, cargo barges on the stretch between Dijon and the Saône. Nor will you see many transport vessels on the other French canals. Railroads, rivers and highways are much more efficient at transporting goods.
Those who have experienced barge travel owe a great deal of gratitude to the French government for maintaining the canals. In fact, who knows if the government will continue funding maintenance of the canals? The expense, along with climate change, could spell trouble for barging in France. Our barge scraped the bottom of the canal after exiting one lock because of low water levels. Luckily, our captain was able to navigate through the shallow stretch of water. In the future high and low water on the canals could become problematic, just as is the case for the rivers.
It has been a beautiful trip so far, and we are now on the second of back-to-back barge trips. I stopped my last post as we were approaching Dole during the first barge trip from Besancon to Dijon.
While docked in Dole, we went out for a three-hour tour with the English-speaking guide Pascal. Dole is a beautiful city with many canals (Timi, our cruise manager referred to the city as Little Venice), ancient limestone buildings, an interesting history and lots of charm.
One thing caught my eye immediately. Dole is along a cross-Europe bike route that runs for 2,000 kilometers between Nantes and Budapest. I’d love to pedal it while I am still able. Bikes, barges and boats. They all travel at just the right speed for me.
In Dole, nearly everywhere I looked there was an angle for a photograph. There are ancient Roman ruins, including bridges and an old Roman road. Dole is dominated by the towering Collégiale Notre-Dame, a basilica dating from 1586.
Dole had been the capital of Franche-Comté until Louis XIV conquered the region. Pascal explained that Dole once had ramparts until they were torn down by the military engineer Vaubon. Remnants of the ramparts still exist and add to the city’s character. We learned that Louis XIV shifted the parliament from Dole to Besançon, the city where we started our trip, so we are connecting the dots of French history during our journeys on the canals.
Along the Rue du Prelot, we walked across a Roman bridge dating from the 12th century. The old Roman road ran between Chalon sur Saone and Besancon.
The symbol of the city is the perched cat, so called for Marcel Aymé, whose book, if I understand correctly, is about farm animals (including cats) that spoke to children. Ayme was born in Burgundy (Joigny), which can be reached via the Burgundy Canal, and spent some of his childhood in Dole.
After Dole, our next stop (on the following day) was in Saint-Jean-de-Losne. It was a sunny afternoon, and Timi suggested that we step ashore to play a few rounds of pétanque, similar to bocce ball. The guys were pitted against the gals for the match. The object of the game is to bowl steel balls as close to the “target ball” as possible. Ricard, an anise and licorice-flavored aperitif, was offered but few imbibed, choosing wine or champagne or other spirts instead. After several rounds, the score was 6-6. On the final bowl, both teams bowled so close to the target bowl that we had to measure. The gals won by only a few centimeters. Hats off to the ladies.
While we played pétanque, Daniele’s chef Armand prepared meats and sausages served with baked potatoes and salads. The waiter Oliver poured a light rosé from Provence as we dined outside on the front deck. I could not have imagined a better evening as the sun sank into the Saône.
Armand’s creations have been another highlight of the trip. Dining on CroisiEurope is always top notch, but the chefs on the barges take it to another level. His BaBa Rum, pictured, was a big hit, though a raspberry cake he prepared a few days later was an even bigger hit.
Before dinner on the first night of our trip, our chef Armand serenaded us and said that we would need to sing for him to earn our lunch. We did so today, with everyone accompanying Louis Armstrong, streaming from my iPad, to What A Wonderful Life. It was a beautiful moment, and one person said that Armand appeared to wipe tears from his eyes. Though the world may have its troubles, it is indeed a wonderful life – made even more wonderful on Daniele as we barge through Burgundy.
P.S. I used to publish photos of people, fellow passengers and crew. I refrain from that as much as possible now out of respect for their privacy. People, however, make the journey, and never more so than on this trip – from guests to crew, all have been wonderful. I wish I could show their faces, the many moments of laughter and gestures of kindness and camaraderie, but we live in a new world where privacy is paramount and pronouns are confusing. It is not easy to navigate for some of us who are older but I do my best to respect the new order.