Marne au Rhin ouest – the Mauvages tunnel.

The Level Chart here tells the up and then down story of the section of our journey from Strasbourg (left of chart) to Paris (right of chart). To get up and down along the way here are the statistics:

The Up then Down story of our journey from Strasbourg (left) to Paris (right).
  • Covering 566 kilometres
  • 193 locks
  • 13 other things such as moving bridges, inclined plane, tunnels

From a “low point” in Flevoland on a reclaimed section of the Ijsselmeer north of Amsterdam, which was five metres below sea level, we have been climbing, then dropping our way south, inching our way towards Paris. Our detour to Strasbourg at 135 metres above sea level, look us all the way up and then down the inclined plane 266 metres above sea level.

The “high point” on the Level Chart shown here was 277 metres above sea level at the Mauvages tunnel which we’ve just left behind us on our way downhill to Paris.


Stewart with our boat neighbour friend Kate and host at the excellent Domaine de l’Ambroise winery in Toul – a farewell toast.

Our Hurricane diesel fired heater has been left behind in Toul and finally we are heading back to Paris with the Kabola heater doing a beautiful job at keeping us warm on these winter days and nights.

Leaving Toul we were reminded, as if we needed to be, that winter is here. When we arrived ten days before (with Ian and Pam) the autumn colours were fantastic. All along the canal banks and the hills of the Moselle river we couldn’t stop saying, “Wow, look at that”.. yet another brilliant orange, red or copper colour shining brilliantly even without sunshine.

The colour has gone (for the time being), winter is here and we see bare branches as we leave Toul.

When we left Toul a few days ago suddenly all we could see were sticks! Not a leaf, no matter what colour. Probably helped along by several nights below freezing and then very high winds.

The locks in this region are fantastic, generally speaking. They measure around 38 metres by 5, they drop or rise average 2.7 metres, and many operate by radar. This means we don’t have to click a remote control or turn a pole dangling over the water to tell it we would like to enter. Just as well they are great to use as they are extremely dense in population! On many days we have managed only to make twenty-two kilometres before dark sets in but passed through the same number of locks.

Sun setting at a lovely mooring in Ligny.

The tunnels, however, are much more interesting. In particular we’d been swatting up on the Mauvages tunnel which is almost five kilometres long (4.877km), the second-longest in France, shown in our Levels Chart image at the highest point. Some guides, like the Fluviacarte (an official French waterways guide book), state very clearly we are to be towed through this long tunnel, very much like our experience on the canal St Quentin (through the longest tunnel in France) earlier this year. We’d also read that these days you may or may not be towed so we were very happy when John and Martha passed by our boat in Toul just before we headed off. They’d just travelled from Paris, the opposite direction to our journey, and could give us the latest facts. They told us firstly there were virtually no boats out on the waterway all the way from Paris and definitely they were not towed through the Mauvages tunnel. They confirmed what we believed would be the case, that is, we had to use our own power to get through the relatively narrow tunnel, almost five kilometres long which would take us more than an hour.

A brief spot of sunshine on the hills, we had days of heavy rain and thought an hour in the tunnel was a good idea to dry out!

The lock before the tunnel, as normal, was the key. The lock-keepers have you trapped in a small space; you can’t leave until they operate the gates. This is where we were handed our two doubled sided A4 sheets of instructions, in English thankfully, headed: Regulations for the Passage of Boats. The lock-keeper with a yellow flash of his highlighter showed us we would be departing in Lane 4 at 15.30 hrs. We had arrived well before 1.00pm expecting we would head on through the tunnel under our own power.

Held up at the entrance to the Mauvages Tunnel – a red light and digital sign above it.

All we could do was exit the lock , once he’d opened the gates and  potter on the few kilometres to the entrance of the tunnel where the red light told us to stop. Above it a digital message board told us the same information as our paper instructions, the first point being: “The Mauvages Tunnel must be traversed with the aid of the tug boat. No exception can be made to this rule. Motors must be turned off during the crossing”.

We had several hours to wait and once through it would be almost dark so our plan to get to Naix that day had to be shelved. 

The yellow flash of a highlighter told us the time and lane we’d use to be towed through the tunnel. And no shouting!

We studied the instructions in more detail and found them quite amusing including a list of things we couldn’t do: Produce smoke; Smoke on board; Cook; Shout; Leave upright or manoeuvre masts, boat hooks, poles or similar. So we put our flag mast down on the deck and tried to control our shouting!

The two VNF operators for the tunnel – once they would have driven the tow barge but today they used their bikes to call out instructions. Note the red light.

The pages went on with many more amusing points. We could only wait, once again in our tunnel experience (like St Quentin earlier in the year) in the lonely and eerie entrance to the tunnel. So .. we had our lunch, pulled out our laptops and kept busy waiting for the appointed 3.30pm. At 3.00pm we could see a man heading our way riding his bicycle along the tow path across from us. Unusually he was wearing a crash helmet, something seen only on professional bikers in this country. Who could be down here we thought .. the VNF of course in their distinctive blue and green uniform. He pulled up adjacent to us and called out, using arms and finger pointing us to the tunnel telling us to hurry up and proceed. This must be the crew for the tug boat we thought.

The tunnel was out of sight from the stop light so we expected to see a tow boat waiting at the entrance, but no, just the two VNF operators who, ignoring the blaring red light, waved us on, keep going they were telling us. We entered the tunnel, unassisted by any tow boat despite the clear instructions “The Mauvages Tunnel must be traversed with the aid of the tug boat”. We had almost five kilometres to go inside there so were hoping these two characters on their bikes weren’t playing any pranks with us! It would be impossible to reverse back if there was something coming the other way!

Inside the tunnel, all is rather eerie. It took us just over an hour to get to daylight at the other end.

On we went slowly making our way next to the tow path and five minutes later I could see some bright white lights behind us, getting closer. This became the VNF men with helmet lights and as they overtook us, I opened the side window and they called out “Bye Bye”! Around an hour later we could see the same two men standing at the end of the tunnel, what a relief we were out again. I leant out of the window and handed over some cash for “une biere” (beer) and received very big warm smiles in return. It’s good these lock-keepers (tunnel keepers) are cycling rather than driving the tow boat .. a ten kilometre round trip through the tunnel is so much better for their health.

Approaching a lock with heavy skies and getting dark at only 3.30pm – the street lights are on it’s so dull.

The tow barge waiting, maybe never to be used again.

Beside us we could see the tow barge looking in OK condition, the electrical cables run overhead throughout the tunnel also in good condition, so we wondered if this tow barge will ever be used again. And if not (the most likely scenario), when will they stop handing out paperwork that is adamant towing is the only way then have us waiting at red lights for hours without cause, and then sending us through a tunnel on a red light? Actually, we thought it was all good fun and typical of many of the idiosyncrasies of life on the waterways of France.

Finally we moored for the night, through the first lock after the tunnel, at Demange and found it was right beside the lock-keepers house and who should arrive soon after but the two men who’d assisted us through the tunnel. It’s good to know some of these houses are still lived in.

Returning to Endellion, moored at Bar le Duc, after a tour of the old town and shopping at the covered markets. A few colours left in some trees.

We’re about to leave the Marne au Rhin and enter la Marne (canalised river), called the canal lateral a la Marne. The locks will now become far less frequent – yesterday we covered 26 kilometres with 25 locks leaving the lovely old town of Bar le Duc at the opening of the locks at 9.00am and ending in the dark at 5.00pm.

Paris here we come!

About Lesley and Stewart

Loving great waterways of the world.
This entry was posted in Accessibility, Waterway life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Marne au Rhin ouest – the Mauvages tunnel.

  1. Max Lake says:

    Hi Lesley & Stewart,

    I enjoyed reading about your tunnel journey! All is will at your place.

    Once you are in Paris, I will introduce you to my good friends Sara & Neil.


    • Lesley says:

      Hi Max .. great to hear from you and thanks for reading. Glad the house is all good .. would love to meet up with Sara and Neil at some stage. Due in Paris early December at latest. All the best. Lesley and Stewart

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