Saint Jean de Losne to Epinal. 230ks 82 locks, 2 tunnels and 2 swing bridges.
Names like these mean little if you haven’t read one of the guides or books describing the canals of France, and the names mean even less we’re sure, for those who haven’t experienced them first-hand. We feel lucky that we have now had such an opportunity.
So what are these canals all about?
The River Saone is one of France’s major rivers.
It, along with the Rhone into which it flows, heads south, while most other famous rivers head west or north. It’s very slow-running; less the two kilometres per hour and it snakes around in the wide, rich alluvial valley it’s created, like a French Mississippi.
To shorten the journey for barges, and occasionally to avoid rapids, in the mid-nineteenth century the canal’s engineers short-circuited some of these meanders by cutting long straight channels across the loops and installing locks to deal with changes in river heights.
So a day on the River Saone would typically be twenty or so kilometres on a wide river through rich productive farmlands, interspersed with two or three side trips though locks to lift us gently up around three metres a time as we slowly travelled north from Saint Jean de Losne towards Nancy.
One of our most vivid memories of this section of the journey was our afternoon in Auxonne.
The town is best known to many French as Napoleon’s first station on graduation as a sub-lieutenant of artillery here, from June 1788 for almost two years.
Many buildings of that time can still be seen; the gunpowder store, the vast old building where canons and other armaments were made and the stone walls and turrets of the old fort, including sections of its moat.
But the old military history lives on in Auxonne in a very vivid way as well.
It’s home base for a transport corps. As we quietly ambled around town and rounded a corner, a convoy of military trucks approached. In front of each truck was a Land Rover driven by a soldier in full battle kit, with another beside him and yet another standing behind them manning a heavy machine gun. The soldiers wore full black face masks and the guns were pointing straight at us. As this intimidating column approached, a black helicopter hovered overhead. Neither of us was game to even think of taking any photos!
We visited a very different, quieter old fort a few days later at Ray-sur-Saone. Concerned the river there might be too shallow, we were not game to tie up there, but travelled back by bike and power chair from our mooring at Charentenay a few kilometres further on the next day. At one time the castle had 17 towers.
Only two towers survived attacks centuries ago.
It’s a huge building and seemed strangely silent and deserted, though at least two people we saw lived or worked there. We were free to wander around the garden and admire the wonderful view, but signs instructed us not to look in through the windows.
The little village of Charentenay was a very different place.
Like so many villages we’ve visited many farmers and their machines go out from the old stone barns and farm houses in the town to work the fields. It had no shops – a bread van and mini supermarket made regular visits.
It also had an old chap who sold vegetables and within minutes of us pulling in, he turned up on the towpath in his van offering tomatoes, lettuce, radishes and eggs.
All fresh and delicious!
There was though, a very unique little restaurant in Charentenay, in English the Swallows Inn. And sure enough, sitting in her nest above the bar was a swallow, tending her chirping babies.
A small pane of glass in a window had been left out to allow her fly in and out, but she used the door when it was open. For who knows how long this family of swallows have returned to the same nest in this fly-speck of a village each northern summer before flying off with their young to South Africa to feed during northern winters.
The food and the hospitality were great as the swallows obviously knew!
In the tradition of Alan Kholer- business reporter on ABC News etc, here is this Blog’s graph, a chart of the population trend of this region, the Haute Saone Department, and a telling picture of decline from around 3 to 2.3 m over the past Century. No wonder so many houses are up for sale and shops closed up.
Suddenly we had left a canalised river (the Saone) for a completely man-made canal.
The Vosges was opened in the 1880s as a link to the north-east. Until the 1970s commercial barges travelled the route carrying cargoes.
Today it’s almost totally a pleasure boat way. Ancient forests cloak the valley as the narrow canal twists and turns its way up over 200 metres and then suddenly drops down again on the other side. In 66 kilometres, the engineers built 59 identical locks and still more to come. The water is so flat it mirrored the green vegetation and blue sky above; often making us feel we were flying.
Almost every lock has been automated and at the start we were given a remote control gadget to hit as the locks approached. A light would flash in the bushes by the canal side, traffic lights on the locks would change, motors would whirr and the lock gates would swing open to welcome us. Time after time after time.
We explored more interesting little villages along the way Ormoy;
where more tractors than cars seemed to travel the largely empty main street and where we were probably the only guests to eat lunch at the restaurant. As quiet and as old as it all felt, Ormoy’s great claim to a place in history is its boast that Claude-Antoine Lumière, whose sons perfected the movie camera, was born there. He was originally a sign-writer, but built a huge business in Besançon manufacturing photographic plates. Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/louis-lumi-re
It also has a wonderful washhouse. Lesley recorded its splendid sounds when she visited it.
Some of our best adventures have been around trips to find places to eat.
In Sense we discovered a cheese-making enterprise. Our trip to the Farm Inn of the Seven Fishermen (Ferme Aubege des 7 Pecheurs) in d’Uzermain, though will take some beating.
Pulling up in very, very quiet d’Uzermain after a heavy day of locks, we heard of a restaurant a couple of kilometres further on, so as the sun began to set we ventured off down the towpath – on bike and power chair to “The Seven Fishers”, a farm inn – advertised as a working farm with a restaurant. That’s just what we found!
A neighbour had the entrance the farmhouse and restaurant blocked when we arrived as he was frenetically filling his huge trailer with cow-dung from the heap by the barn; his load going back and forth at 80 to the dozen. Finally it was safe to proceed.
There inside was Madame and her mother eating their supper in the restaurant room full of empty tables. They dropped everything, welcomed us and we sat down to a great meal and a long friendly chat with her before returning to Endellion the couple of ks back. Farm Inns are a considerable network in the area. You can see more here: http://www.tourismevosges.fr/uk/fermes-auberges.php
The next morning as we made our way back up the canal – on the water this time, we saw a small figure standing on the bridge over the lock up ahead. Before she had even reached for the binoculars, Lesley knew it was Grandma from last night, come to wish us safe journeys.
How special was that??