Since leaving Auxonne we have travelled 228km and passed through 70 locks. Our engine has run for 41 hours. It’s a Nanni – a Kubota engine that’s been marinised – and it’s never let us down yet, in 8 years. It starts first time and just keeps going. Provided it has a constant supply of water (we check the filter often) and a change of oil once a year, it purrs away happily down below and up top you can only just about hear the water and exhaust discharge on the port side. We’re now at Dompierre-sur-Besbre.
The Canal Lateral a la Loire began at Digoin to the east and now follows the Loire itself, still descending but through a flatter landscape now, more tree-lined stretches, fewer views but more welcome shade. With the Canal du Centre, the Lateral forms the bottom section of the Burgundy-Loire loop, with a little spur leading down to Roanne, an important city for the transportation of Beaujolais, ceramics and textiles in times past. We pass the entrance by and at the first lock we notice it is manually operated with winding gear for the gates and sluices.
As normal, the VNF employs students for this seasonal activity but it’s quite fun and OK to help too, if you want. The Lateral is wide and tranquil and with easy access to provisions along the way, and just a handful of locks and bridges to negotiate, it’s the perfect learning route for beginners, getting the hang of boating for the very first time.
We take the next embranchement, left to Dompierre, just before the Peugeot factory at PK29 with one modern commercial barge tied up at its foot. This, and the concrete block factory at the end of the canal, hint at times past, when Dompierre port was busy with commercial barges loading up with goods for transportation by water to Lyon and beyond. Waterway commerce has slowly declined since WW2 and Locaboat’s hire-boat base, built beneath one of the old loading gantries, arrived almost 20 years ago, bringing new industry and a little life back to the port.
Marcus, deputy manager, is one of three full-time staff looking after guests as they arrive and return from their cruise, making sure the boats are cleaned and serviced for the next arrivals. Being Swiss he speaks English, Italian and German, as well as French, starting his career as a restaurateur – he knows all about customer service. The days are very long during the summer months, with departures usually on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays (the base is closed on Sundays).
The port carries 12 Penichettes and Locaboat Linssens of varying sizes that cruise to the other bases on the loop. Most guests are from Europe, with an increasing number from America and Australia; on a recent Saturday eight boats departed with guests just from Germany. Customers appear to favour an ‘out-and-back’ cruise, Marcus says, returning to Dompierre to collect their cars after their week afloat. But Locaboat offers a car delivery service – your own car can be at your destination base for a fee of around €300 making your homeward journey shorter perhaps.
Locaboat’s port opens in March and closes in October, with the boats stored, maintained and repaired by the staff in the refurbished sheds alongside the canal. Close by you can spot the old branch line railway station and the water deposit to refill the steam trains, and also the remains of the old public ‘laverie’ for clothes washing from the days when the Besbre flowed faster, higher, and before town plumbing. It’s still a large pleasant town with a Super U a 10 minute walk from the port, quite a few bars and restaurants, and an Office de Tourisme if you get stuck.