Downhill all the way from Montchanin, with the locks named and numbered Ocean 1 to 26, each with a lock-cottage in a more or less critical state of decay. We are heading for the end of the Canal du Centre. The locks are all full to the brim, making it difficult for a curved-sided boat to stay off the lock edge on the way down (so, lower the fenders) and the stubby white-painted mushroom bollards often fail to keep the ropes secure. But the water is calm in the locks going down, just a splashing at the rear gates, so an easy last few days.
We pass no vineyards nor sunflower fields, nor even stubble; just rolling gentle green pastures for the white Charolais, bordering the delightfully twisty Bourbince river – well, stream at the moment – on its way to join the Loire.
Cruising west, we pass through Montceau les Mines with its 3 lifting bridges – the first rising up horizontally, the second and third hinging vertically, all having a rapid movement up and down so as not to hold up the town traffic for too long.
We stop at Genelard, a good wide basin just beneath a huge disused factory where machinery and tools for mining used to be manufactured, and where the Reich took over the local Gendarmerie in the building opposite in WW2. The line of demarcation between the 1942 German occupied and free zones ran through this town and region.
But the domed turrets are intact, even on the fine gateposts; it is in good order, clearly occupied. The ‘Breil : 02 Loire-Nivernais’ guide book tells us it belongs to the descendants of the Comte Pierre de Croix, decorated inside by Ciceri of the famed Opera House in Paris, and where Offenbach composed his triumphal waltz ‘Chateau of Digoenne’. It’s open for tours – but alas not right now due to renovations. Round the next bend we look back and see its east face lit up and the full extent of the facade and walled gardens. Well worth a visit should you have the time and some wheeled transport.
At Digoin the pont de canal crosses the Loire, completely un-navigable here as many large sand-banks supporting vegetation confirm. We will cross tomorrow. Meanwhile, we walk the town streets and discover yet more early 20th century facades including the marvellous Post Office with its upside-down anchor heraldry. Any ideas what this means or why it should be there? (Sorry, no prizes).
A little lighthearted post from us today. We’ve spent the last few weeks in Auxonne and this is our homage to that longer-than-expected sojourn.
We returned to the waterways of France this summer after some time back on dry land in England. In what can only be referred to as ‘meant to be’ the opportunity arose to buy back our original boat. And so we collected it from its mooring on the River Sâone in Auxonne, Burgundy. We say ‘collected’ but actually we stayed moored there for some weeks while we made Grehan home once more.
Refurbishing is probably too grand a way to describe sorting out the boat to be our home once more. Perhaps reconfiguration, spring cleaning and mechanical maintenance would be more accurate, though certainly less glamorous (we can vouch for that part too). As such it took much longer than we anticipated and so we found ourselves in Auxonne for an extended period of time.
Auxonne is in the Cote d’Or department in the region of Burgundy and to the east of Paris. You’ll pass it en route between Dijon and Besançon if travelling by train. Can you picture whereabouts? We’ve found it remarkably hot there this summer.
It has some loose ties to Napoleon Bonaparte – he stayed in two rooms at the military barracks and received some military training here back in the day. If you stop in Auxonne for long enough you’ll spot the barracks easily for its pink Moissey stone. And you’ll struggle to miss the imposing statue of Bonaparte in the Place d’Armes.
We also found Auxonne to have some storytelling roundabouts (rond-points). This is not unique to France, but while we were there we captured a few of them to share with you here.
Welcome to the first in our series of cruising tales, our very own experiences of France’s waterways now that we’re back aboard Grehan and waterborne.
For those who don’t know, PK means Point Kilometre. They are marked along the waterways, like the old milestones in the UK, discreetly printed on very small posts and are notated in the Breil guides. Really useful for knowing exactly where you are and working out when you might arrive at the next restaurant!
Tuesday 25th August, 18:00 A glorious sunny summer’s evening here in Saint Leger-sur-Dheune. Moored up at the Locaboat hire-boat base, hooked up with water, electricity and now, resting up after a day’s cruising. I also have a glass of chilled rosé to finish the perfect day afloat.
The Canal du Centre turns out to be a beautiful canal, starting from the Soane at the eastern end, winding through the rolling hillsides of the Dheune valley, with sunny vistas across cropped fields, serried vineyards, brown cattle grazing and little canal-side villages dotted along the way. At Fragnes this morning, we literally stepped off the boat and into the boulangerie to collect our elevenses’ croissants and ‘vicking’ bread (dark, seedy, delicious) to go with our Comté cheese for lunch. Plenty of locks to navigate on this route but they took us up 40 metres throughout the day.
The Centre, like other canals in France, is managed by the Voies Navigables de France (VNF) who make sure that all cruisers (plaisanciers) have a great experience on the canals. They are always contactable by a push-button/speaker at a lock but also frequently arrive by car to check who is travelling, where they are going and that everything is OK. The locks (ecluses) hold two medium sized boats so you might travel with another boat for some distance, sharing the locks and saving water and time (it takes at least 20 minutes to go through a lock). The Centre has a curious closing lock-gate system, using a blue rope once you are in the lock, which in our experience needed two or three tugs each time to encourage operation.
Locaboat, one of the major hire-boat companies operating throughout Europe, has had the hire-boat base here in Saint-Leger for many years and has 21 great boats to suit any sized party – Penichette is their distinctive brand.
There are three basic styles: the original classique, ones with aft decks and ones with a flying bridge (i.e. two steering positions). They are all excellent quality, well-maintained and highly manoeuvrable. Locaboat’s base at Saint-Leger has three fully trained ‘techniciens’ to make sure the penichettes are in tip-top condition throughout the season, but also to greet new guests on board and, literally, show them the ropes. Julie, who greeted me with a big smile, has worked at the Saint-Leger base for three years and says, too humbly, that her English is not very good, but it’s much better than my French and in fact her colleagues, Frank, Bernard and the ‘chef’ in charge of the base, Lauren, all speak English very well and other languages too.
A new Locaboat base opened at Macon further south on the Soane this year, which makes a one-way trip from Saint-Leger to Macon (or the reverse) a new cruise option. Locaboat is the only hire-boat company operating this route, opening up lots of opportunities to explore places such as Seille and Louhans and the Pont de Vaux. Business is good, up on last year, and is all set to grow next year.
Guests arrive from all over the world, the majority coming from Germany and Switzerland, but many from much further afield – UK and USA, Australia, Russia, Poland and, of course, France. They might drive and leave their car safely at the base or they arrive by train at the tiny station just down the road (10 minute walk). Bus services don’t really exist in France, perhaps because the trains are so good and taxis are freely available.
Julie kindly showed me around the facilities: the office (Capitainerie), the WC and shower, a large selection of bikes for hire if you’d like to take some with you on board your boat (the cycle paths are excellent and, of course, flat) and the small area with tables and chairs just outside the office where you can use the free WIFI (you’ll need an access code) and have a coffee.
The port also has a grassy area shaded by trees for those that would like to sit out or walk the dog. Apart from a lively canal-side restaurant on the other side of the bridge, a pizza cafe just round the corner and the Atac supermarket down by the station, Saint-Leger can only offer charm, but it does so in spades. In our experience, Locaboat customers can be sure of a great welcome and great service. It’s an extremely pleasant stop and I’d recommend it to all-comers, not just Locaboat clients. At 13.40€ per night, inclusive of water, electricity and WiFi, it’s great value too.
“2016 holidays?” We hear you ask. “But it’s still summer 2015!”
Yes, it’s summer in France right now so forgive us for talking about booking your 2016 holiday already. It’s just that there are a few incredibly organised people out there who have already started looking for next year. The autumn booking flurry has started early this year.
To chime with this flurry we’ve produced a brand new free ebook all about hotel barging in France. It’s available to download from our website.
It’s no surprise there’s early interest for this select and exclusive travel niche. Hotel barges always book up early (often before Christmas for the following year). They don’t just get booked up for summer either, they’re popular all season long – the hotel barging season is typically April to October.
Those booking for large groups or holidays to celebrate special occasions are particularly keen to get in early. Some hotel barges do what it says on the tin: they offer a hotel within a barge. So you book a cabin much like you would book a hotel room then cruise and dine with your fellow passengers. Yet even the biggest barges ensure a sense of intimacy – at most you will cruise with 16 other passengers. In contrast, some hotel barges are charter only – in other words you hire the whole boat. Then there are a few that are flexible depending on the enquiries they receive and they’ll consider both charter and ‘by cabin’ guests.
Why so popular? Hotel barging is a travel niche that France dominates globally. France has earned a reputation for having the best and most well known barges cruising its inland waterways. While some cruise itineraries can be tailored according to passengers’ requests for particular stops or activities, every hotel barge host prepares an itinerary that showcases the very best of local life in France, French history, culture and produce.
If you want expert insight into French viticulture, you won’t be disappointed. Most, if not all, hotel barges serve a range of personally sourced local wines in addition to offering wine tastings as part of the itinerary.
If you want to delve into some of the finest French cuisine, you’ll be spoilt for choice. All barges have an onboard chef using only ingredients from the local area and serving some of France’s most recognisable dishes as well as some that will make you marvel.
It would be unfair to suggest that any barge cruise is typical of the niche when so many of the cruises and itineraries can be tailored, but you’ll gain a valuable insight that will hopefully leave you desperate for a holiday aboard a hotel barge! In the guide we’ve finally gathered together more than 10 years’ experience of this luxurious and expanding travel sector. We love this most relaxing, high quality holiday. We hope you will too. It is the perfect holiday for a special occasion – for a holiday of a lifetime.
You can contact us directly with your waterway holiday requirements and we’ll help you find the best barge for your needs, budget and travel dates.
Carcassonne perches in southern France’s Languedoc – a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. For a wider sense of geography, you’ll also find it in the middle of a triangle that has its points at Toulouse, Montpellier and Barcelona. Whilst not the biggest city, it will still delight with its share of history, gastronomy and wine offerings.
Its hilltop medieval citadel, La Cité, is the image conjured when one thinks about this part of France. And the citadel is France’s second most visited tourist attraction after the Eiffel Tower. It has also provided the backdrop for various Hollywood swashbuckling movies including Labyrinth, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Les visiteurs.
Yet the citadel alone should only take up part of your stay here. Step outside of the old city walls and across the River Aude you’ll find Carcassonne’s new town or lower town (La Ville Basse) also known as Bastide Saint Louis. The ‘new’ town dates back to the Middle Ages and so is still packed with architectural delights and brimming with character. Although here is where you’ll find all the usual trappings of town life. So if you need a strong coffee or a cashpoint, look no further. Delightfully though, you’ll also find a batch of charming boutique stores complementing an authentic gallic setting as well as some fine eateries.
Most guides to visiting Carcassonne naturally imagine a tourist to have flown into town and jumped on a bus tour – the guide writers can be forgiven for this assumption given that the majority of the city’s four million annual visitors take this route. As such, the Canal du Midi is pitched as one of the greatest ‘sites’ or things to do while in town. In fact, the Canal du Midi was granted UNESCO world heritage status one year before La Cité. If, like us, you’re visiting en route along the Canal du Midi you may be interested in some of the other things to do in town while you’re there.
Here we’ve included the two fairly obvious ‘must-do’ attractions of old town and new, but ahead of those are some of our favourite Carcassonne alternatives. Whichever you choose, just pack your comfortable shoes!
Take or make a wine tour
The vineyards and the sunshine are plentiful in these parts and as such so is viticulture. If you’re familiar with Fitou and Corbières, Minervois, Limoux, Cabardès or Malepère you’ll be spoilt for choice whilst in Aude. If you’re not staying long, where do you start? If you have a car then obviously your wine drive can take you where you please. If you’re limited by bicycle then you’re options will be fewer but it’ll probably be easier to choose. The Carcassonne tourist office helpfully produces this guide and map to local cellars categorised by their wine production.
“This is the way to… Cassoulet”
If you like more than your fair share of authentic French cuisine then The Road of the Cassoulet, or at least part of it, could also be right up your street.. Cassoulet is said to have been created during the siege of Castelnaudary in the Hundred Years War and brought to Carcassonne in the 1920s by famous chef Prosper Montagné.
The Road of the Cassoulet takes in a 180km route that incorporates sites between Carcassonne and Castelnaudary where all of the ingredients and components of cassoulet are grown or produced. From farms, wineries and potteries (yes, the serving dish matters too) to cookery classes, wine tasting and guided walks, you’ll experience the most fascinating dip into local French life. Combine with your bespoke wine tour and you’ll be more than contently sated.
Dine in one of Carcassonne’s most loved restaurants
If you just need to rest your weary legs and savour the local gastronomy from sedentary position for a couple of hours then you’ll find plenty of restaurants in Carcassonne.
O’Vineyards Table d’Hote is a 15 minute drive north to the suburb of Villemoustaussou. It’s primarily a vineyard, but food is important here too and the two are developed to best suit each other. Run by an English family who are heartwarmingly renowned for offering vineyards tours either in English or Franglais and for presenting refined home cooking from a daily changing menu.
Le-Bis-troquet is just off Le Place Carnot on Rue Chartran. From the reviews it proffers some quiet time away from the hubbub of town and a menu with a twist that specialises in tartines. What’s more this won’t hurt your wallet. In fact, the reviews from patrons both French and English are overwhelmingly positive.
Take a day trip by train to…
Bram (10 minutes by train from Carcassonne) to wind your way around one of the most beautiful and well-preserved examples of circular villages. Although its layout is best observed from the air, its history, for such a small place, is bloody and remarkable. From within the village, the church of St Julien and St Basilisse is worth a stop as is the parc des Essars – an arboretum in the grounds of a stately mansion. Whether you come by train or along the Canal du Midi, Bram’s port is a picturesque picnic spot.
The festival takes place annually through July and early August. Its continual success as a local event has been successfully steered to achieve regional acclaim in the last 10 years and is now proudly heralded as one of France’s top 10 festivals to visit. The scale of today’s event requires it to have ‘in festival’ and ‘off festival’ venues. So the sites you don’t have on your tourist site hit list may well come up amongst your festival event venues. Notably the Théâtre Jean-Deschamps and the Chateau Comtal (a fortress within a fortress) are both ‘in festival’ venues, while Place Carnot, Saint Nazaire Basilica, Beaux-Arts Museum and St Vincent Church are all ‘off festival’ venues.
Cycle to Lac de la Cavayerefor a swim
Set in 40 hectares an artificial lake has been artfully placed amidst lush forest as part of the Raymond Chésa leisure complex. You’ll find beach, meets water, meets countryside and all the activities of each of those are on offer here. From beach volleyball to crazy golf and sailing, you won’t be disappointed. Hire a bike in Carcassonne and take a steady 30-45 minute cycle there or for the super-active it is walkable in a couple of hours.
Created and marked by 2,500 years of history, this is the fortification with more than a handful of stories to tell about Catharism and the Crusades.
Walk the fortified walls (all 3km of them if you feel so inclined) of the citadel for a stunning and defensive perspective of Aude. Walk “the lists”, which run between 1km of rampart walls and once housed the poorest inhabitants. The ramparts themselves include 52 towers.
Hang around until sunset for magical views, echoes of centuries past and a sense of calm captured by peaceful footsteps meandering the cobblestones – a sheer delight after the day’s crowds have departed.
During the summer months, you’ll be treated to jousting displays amidst the city walls. These take place twice a day and do require a small viewing fee, but are a spectacle worth a stop and far beyond the tourist pull they first suggest.
The Théâtre de la Cité sits on the former St Nazaire cloisters and has done so since 1908. Once upon a time it sat 6,000 guests though now only permits half that. It is also famous for being the home of the Festival de la Cité (see below). The festival was the brainchild of renowned actor and director Jean Deschamps, whose contribution to the city and the arts was recognised in 2006 when the theatre was renamed Théâtre Jean-Deschamps.
The St Nazaire Basilica was first completed in the 12th century although rebuilt and renovated many times over subsequent centuries. But the church’s presence is documented as existing there since 925. It was originally Carcassonne’s cathedral, though this accolade was passed to the church of Saint Michel in the Bastide at the turn of the 20th century.
Bastide St Louis La ville basse is comparatively new and virtually modern in its grid-like layout. First built in the 13th century you’ll see an architectural evolution in the facades of its many mansions, monuments and churches. Of the four city gates that initially surrounded the new town just one, Portail des Jacobins, remain. And for quick hops from old city to new the Pont Vieux with its high vaulted arches will also delight anyone fascinated by eras past. It was once the only link between the two parts of Carcassonne, built in the 14th century and nowadays still open to pedestrians.
Place Carnot is the Bastide’s central point, meeting place, marketplace and home to a magnificent marble fountain of Neptune.
The cathedral of Saint Michel is unlikely to leave you speechless when surrounded by all of Carcassonne’s ancient history, but some visitors cannot bear to tour a city without visiting its cathedral. Built in 1809 and then rebuilt in 1849 after a fire it is simple in layout, not dissimilar to cathedrals of the United Kingdom, though reflective of its period’s architecture in France.
We hope you have enough time to spend here. As we say, it’s not the biggest city in France, but there’s plenty to do and discover in and around that we think it’s worth mooring a short while if you can.