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.