Nivernais need to know

The Canal du Nivernais  ranks as one of Burgundy’s best-kept secrets and remains undiscovered by many hotel barge cruisers. Yet the 174km of gliding canal take you through some of the loveliest countryside in central France with plenty of surprises on the way.

Get ready to discover medieval villages, centuries-old vineyards and fortified chateaux. Enjoy French food and wine at its best. Have fun making your way through the locks (there are dozens en route) and tunnels. But most of all, sit back and relax as you make your way up river from Auxerre to Baye just ahead of where the Canal du Nivernais joins the great River Loire. Read our Nivernais need to know guide and find out just why this Burgundy canal should be next on your list for a French river trip.

Navigating the Nivernais

Stage 1 – Auxerre to Vincerres 14km, 8 locks

What to see

Start your Canal du Nivernais journey exploring Auxerre. This historic city boasts several fine monuments including its 13th century cathedral, considered a masterpiece of Gothic art, and Saint Germaine Abbey with its medieval battlements and treasure trove museum.  The main town up on the hill is a thriving centre for shopping with many bistro and street cafes.

Nivernais boating with kids?

Sign them up for the Cadet’Chou trail with seven clues to solve as they make their way round Auxerre. They then put the letters together to make the magic word and find the treasure at the end. Details at Auxerre Tourist office. Suitable for children aged 6 to 12.

Where to eat

L’Aspérule with one Michelin star is run by French-trained Japanese chef Keigo Kimura. He revisits classic French dishes in a minimalist setting. Tasting and set menus available. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. 34 Rue de Pont.

What to drink

This first stage of the Canal du Nivernais is mostly about vineyards and the wine villages. Don’t miss the Caves de Bailly Lapierre. These old underground chalk quarries cover an area of four hectares and are used to mature sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne (equivalent to Champagne – delicious!). Guided tours (available in English) and tastings are available daily in the summer months.

Where to moor

If you’re hire boating, start your trip at Auxerre port. Mooring is also available in Vincelles.

Did you know?

You can tour the Canal du Nivernais in style and luxury aboard hotel barge Luciole, the original converted French river barge and also Randle, a classically-styled mahogany and brass motor yacht.

 Canal du Nivernais


Stage 2 – Vincelles – Mailly La Ville 14km, 8 locks

What to see

As you can probably guess from their names, more wine villages highlight this stretch of the route: Saint-Bris-Le-Vineux, Coulange La Vineuse… The ancient village of Cravant, that dates back more than 2,000 years, is also well worth a visit to explore the keep, tower and church.

Boating with kids? Stop off at the Ecluse des Dames. Housed in the old lock keeper’s house, this family-friendly restaurant serves homemade fast food (think chips, croques monsieur, burgers and panini). Plus it has a trampoline fun park, Le Parcabout, suitable for children over 3.

Where to drink

Domaine Félix et Fils in Saint-Bris-Le-Vineux dates from 1690. Today, the family’s 32 hectares of vineyards produce 16 wines, some of which are award-winning. Open daily for tours.

Where to eat

At Les Tilleuls in Vincelles you look out onto the water as you dine on seafood, fish and meat dishes. Set menus are available and the wine list stretches long. 12 Quai de l’Yvonne.

Where to moor

Hire boat travellers can moor at Vermenton marina, Cravant-Bazarnes, Accolay and Mailly La Ville. France Afloat has a canal boat hire base here.

Did you know?

Le Festival Garçon La Note takes place during July and August at bars and restaurants in Auxerre and surrounding villages. Free concerts every evening (except Sunday)  9 to 11.30pm. Find out who’s playing where.

Nivernais lock

Stages 3 & 4 – Mailly La Ville – Censoir Coulanges 22km, 9 locks

What to see

Several must-see highlights dot this stretch of the Canal du Nivernais including Noyers-sur-Serein. Famed as one of the most beautiful in France, this village goes back to medieval times – as you can see from the castle and half-timbered houses. Mailly Le Château also has medieval roots and a stroll round its quiet streets is certainly atmospheric. While you’re on this stretch of the canal, don’t miss Chatel Censoir, a fortified village with some magnificent mansions.

Where to eat

Le Castel, in the heart of Mailly Le Château, has several good value set lunch menus. There’s also a special menu for kids. And when the weather’s fine, you can eat in the garden. 2 Place Saint Adrien.

Where to moor

You can stop at Mailly La Ville and there’s a marina at Chatel Censoir further up river.

Nivernais canal boat hire base

Did you know? Cycle tracks flank the entire Canal du Nivernais so you can discover the canal’s delights by bike as well as by boat. Plus, most hotel barges and canal hire boats offer bicycles for guests to ride the towpath.

Clamecy, Nivernais


Stages 5 & 6 – Coulanges – Tannay 24km, 12 locks

What to see

This stretch of the Canal du Nivernais was once the river logging capital of France. At the heart of this stretch is the capital of the Nievre region, Clamecy. Capture a bit of logging history as you explore the atmospheric medieval town. Don’t miss the church of Old Lady of Bethlehem; it’s dedicated to no less than 50 bishops of Bethlehem who lived in the town – a fascinating piece of world history.

Nivernais, old lady of Bethlehem church

Boating with kids? Take a ride on Le P’tit Train de l’Yonne, a restored mini-train that takes you on an hour’s tour through the picturesque Serein valley.

Where to eat

The historic coaching post Hostellerie de la Poste now houses a restaurant and hotel. Local dishes with a good choice of Burgundy wines reign supreme. There is a range of set menu options. 9 Place Emile Zola.

Where to moor

Clamecy is the best place to moor and stop on this stretch of the Canal du Nivernais route.

Did you know? A Luciole hotel barge cruise includes a guided tour of Chablis town and its vineyards. And best of all, you get to enjoy a tasting session of this unique wine.


Stage 7 – Tannay – Chaumot 13km, 9 locks

What to see

The river brings you back into wine country along this stretch. Admire the vineyards at Tannay itself and don’t miss the pretty village of Chevroches where a medieval wall encloses the stone houses. The towered 14th century Château de Chitry at Chitry-les-Mines proffers panoramic views over the River Yonne

Where to eat

Burgundy truffles harvested between September and December are a local delicacy and the perfect gourmet condiment to pair with local cheeses and cold cuts. Look out for it at food stores in the villages alongside the canal.

Where to moor

You can stop off at Chevroches and Villiers-sur-Yonne or at the marina in Tannay where Le Boat has a hire boat base.

Did you know? The Canal du Nivernais links the Loire with the Seine. Built in 1784, it was one of the main routes for exporting local produce to the rest of France.


Stage 8 – Chaumot – Baye 15km, 28 locks

What to see

This part of the Canal du Nivernais is all about the canal itself. Highlights of impressive canal engineering include the narrow Valley of Sardy with 16 locks along its way and the vaults at Collancelle Tunnel. Made up of three tunnels, stretching for 760 metres, the vaults allow the canal to go uphill.

What to eat

Stock up on local produce in Chaumot and you’ll be stocked for a tasty day ahead. Feast on local cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables as you cruise your way to Baye.

Where to moor

If you’re travelling by hire boat, allow a day for this stage as the 28 locks will keep you busy! You can moor at the marinas in Chitry-Chaumot and Chaise Corbigny where Locaboat has a base.

Did you know? Two main grape varieties make up the many Burgundy wines – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But it isn’t just the grapes that are part of this world-famous brand. The region’s climate, stony earth and winegrowing know-how all contribute to the wines’ unique terroir.


Now we’ve given you lots of reasons to visit the Canal du Nivernais, might one of these detailed waterway or region guides be of use?



Anise: part 2 of our essential guide to French liqueurs

In the second of our posts making up the French Waterways essential guide to French liqueurs, we take a look at anise flavoured tipples. These are perhaps the most characteristic of all French liqueurs. Certainly an aperitif in France wouldn’t be the same without a glass of pastis.

Absinthe: one of the anise liqueurs

The Green Goddess of French liqueurs

Absinthe rates probably as the most famous anise-based liqueur. It’s also one of the most controversial and has a rich history of notoriety and prohibition. As a cure for indigestion, absinthe goes back centuries but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it began to be produced commercially as a French liqueur.

Established at Pontarlier in eastern France by Henri-Louis Pernod, the first distillery produced Pernod Absinthe, a liqueur made from anise, fennel, mint and wormwood. The drink quickly caught on in Paris and became a favourite among artists and painters.

Known as the ‘Green Goddess’ or ‘la fé verte’ (green fairy) because of the green ‘smoke’ that rises from it when mixed with sugar and water, absinthe is also synonymous with the world of the arts. Degas’ ‘The Drinker’ is one of the artist’s iconic works and Van Gogh reputedly painted many of his pictures under the effects of absinthe.

The ‘demon drink’ appears in works by French poets Baudelaire and Verlaine. And Oscar Wilde’s quote about absinthe is infamous: “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they aren’t. Finally you see things as they really are and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

The high alcohol content of absinthe (around 70 per cent) and its reputed hallucinatory effects gained it a notorious reputation. As a result, the authorities banned it in France in 1915 and didn’t legalise it again until 2007, when Pernod Absinthe returned to bars.

How to drink absinthe

If you’re going traditional you need an absinthe fountain – look for vintage designs in antique shops in France – or you use a jug. Fill your glass with one part absinthe, place a slotted spoon with a sugar cube over the glass and slowly drip chilled water into the glass (about four times as much water to absinthe). Watch the green ‘smoke’ rise from the glass as the water mixes with the liqueur.

Pernod and Pastis

The prohibition of absinthe meant that liqueur producers had to look for an alternative way of making anise-based liqueurs without wormwood. Pernod produced its first version in 1928 while four years later, Ricard Pastis appeared for the first time in Marseille. Named after the southern French term for lazy, the drink became hugely popular in its home city as the locals’ favourite long drink.

Nowadays, anise-flavoured liqueurs are the classic French summer drink, particularly in the south of the country where a lunch wouldn’t be the same without a glass of pastis or Pernod beforehand. Cocktails using the two are also popular – the pink La Tomate combines grenadine with the anise liqueur and water, and Le Perroquet goes parrot-green with its combination of anise liqueur, crème de menthe and water.

How to drink Pastis and Pernod

Pop a few ice cubes into a glass and add one part of the liqueur. Pour in water to taste, but at least four parts. As you pour, watch the liqueur turn from transparent to its characteristic cloudiness.

Anise-based French liqueurs in cooking

Pernod and pastis pair particularly nicely with fish and seafood dishes. Add a dash of the liqueur to white fish such as sea bass or halibut for a tasty liquorice-fragranced kick. Or pour in a splash to accompany langoustines and prawns.

One of the best vegetables to go with anise-based liqueurs is fennel whose intense flavour brings out the fennel in the liqueur itself. And if you want a classic French recipe for your pastis, make the Marseille signature dish – bouillabaisse, one of whose vital ingredients is a generous glug of anise-based liqueur.

Enjoy a quintessentially French summer for yourself: take a hotel barge trip on Napoleon through Provence and take in the stunning landscapes that inspired Van Gogh as you sip a glass (or two) of pastis on the sundeck or in the stately lounge.