Once moored up in Fragnes, PK8 on the Canal du Centre, we had less than 24 hours to prepare ourselves for Lili’s arrival. Her friend John was giving her a lift in his camper-van from Oxford, England, and her ex flat mate Joe, who is on a cycle tour of Europe with just what he can carry, happened to be passing by and that would make us five for dinner. Joe arrived after a heavy rainstorm in time for tea and a hot shower.
The weather had turned, as though to welcome us from the warm dry south, and we spent a wet Thursday in Port playing games and ‘chilling out’. Joe’s plans for pitching his tent nearby were shelved in favour of a dry bed aboard for two nights and John set off for Corsica the next day. Meanwhile I had to give some thought to our mechanical problems and our travel plans with Lili. A sheared alternator bolt meant that we would have to manage without our TravelPower generator – so we would be dependent on finding shore electrical supply should we want to sit for more than a day without moving, to keep the house batteries charged, and for running the washing machine. I unbolted the alternator, to stop it banging about with the engine vibrations, so we could continue cruising but I would need to find a mechanic to replace the bolt and hopefully to fix our fused out bow-thruster. Lili needed to be able to get to a station to catch a train to Montpellier at the end of her 6 day stay.
Joe and Lili cycled off to the Leclerc, 4 km away, for a top up of essential supplies and I worked out that we could get to the summit of the Canal, 50 km away, in five days in order to walk to the TGV station at Le Creusot, between Montchanin and Les Sept Ecluses. I had time to pick apples and raspberries in the little public garden by our mooring – on our last visit here I had harvested an early crop of rhubarb – a real pleasure to find a garden full of herbs and fruit for anyone who wants to enjoy them. Joe used the self-serve bicycle service centre (the only one I have ever seen) located beside the port to get his bike in top condition for his next leg to Geneva.
We left port on Friday morning in the clear knowledge that there were no hotel boats to slow us down travelling that day on the next stretch. We had cruised this canal twice before, both times in the opposite direction, and not without long delays caused by both hotel boats and the automatic locking system not always doing what was expected, but had heard that the locks to the summit were much tougher to go up than to come down. Lili wanted to gain some more experience at the helm and so with 34 locks to go, and no bow-thruster, we entered the lock at Fragnes to find ourselves, at the last minute, joined by another boat from the port.
The configuration of these locks with the only ‘activation’ cord by the ladder almost up against the upstream gate meant that in the deeper 5m locks, with floating bollards in the centre, we needed to put someone ashore as we entered the lock. There are no lock-waiting pontoons, only steep steps just before the downstream gates as you enter. Without Lili this would have made it extremely difficult for Pam and me to manage on our own. At the third lock, 32, the gates failed to open fully, but enough to allow us to squeeze through and leave our rather unfriendly and fatter Dutch cruiser companion behind. Three locks later we came up against closed gates and no lights and as it was lunchtime (no lock assistance available between 12pm and 1pm) we moored up on pins to the bank, had lunch, and called the central control at 1pm. Help arrived in twenty minutes and we continued on, unable to get the cord pulls to activate on locks 25 and 24 where we waited for the Dutch cruiser which had now caught us up. Unfriendliness had turned into downright hostility as they blew their horn to pass us as soon as they were out of the lock. We decided that we would not risk sharing a mooring with them and so were relieved when they continued on past the nearly empty port in Chagny at PK19. We had not stopped here on our previous visits but found a good mooring (free, no services) just before the long hotel boat quay and pontoons (paying with services) for smaller boats. After five hours of doing 11 locks over only 11 kilometres it was time for a walk into town.
Despite the rather uninviting appearance of its port the town of Chagny is very attractive and it has a three star hotel/restaurant, Lameloise, to boot. We made do though, after visits to the butcher and the supermarket, with a nice steak frites aboard.
It rained again overnight but cleared by midday and we decided to move on and at least have lunch at Santenay. This hour’s cruise has become one of my favourites, the canal winding gently along the steep valley with great views across the vineyards and fields to wooded hills beyond. On arrival at the very picturesque Santenay Escale Nautique (PK 24/25, free no services) we found it empty and so decided to stay for the night. After lunch Lili and I walked into town in the hope of a wine tour. There are more than thirty establishments in Santenay selling mainly locally grown and produced wine, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, Cote de Nuits, with too many other famous names, and fabulous pricetags, to mention. We found our way to Chateau de Santenay and waited for the 4pm tour (€8) to begin.
It was a great tour and we were able to see the early arrivals of this year’s ‘vendage’, which had begun on Sept 1st, of pinot noir grapes from 1er cru vines. Last year the harvest had begun on Sept 30th and I was amused to note later that our first visit here in 2014 was on the exact same day, Sept 2nd.
The tour concluded with a tasting of two reds, and two whites and we came away with a full ruck-sack of Mercurey 2012 (red), Mercurey 2013 (white), Saint-Aubin 2015 (white) and a special addition to the standard tasting, at my request, of Marc de Bourgogne (Hors d’Age), which turned out to be Lili’s favourite. We left, as the Chateau was being readied for a wedding reception, to return to a light Chinese supper and ‘Life of Pi’ on DVD and a quiet peaceful Saturday night, still alone on this lovely mooring.
The weather was a lot brighter in the morning and we had a very pleasant and trouble-free 4 lock, 7 km, cruise to St-Leger-sur-Dheune where we moored up on the left bank (PK 32.5, 3 small yellow bollards, no services, before the hotel boats and then the port) for lunch. Mike and Aileen (nb Quaintrelle) had let us know that they would be passing nearby on their way back by car from the south west and we were in the messaging process of working out where and when to rendez-vous. Somehow my recollection of moorings got muddled between St-Berhain-sur-Dheune and St-Julien-sur-Dheune and so we ended up at 4pm with them parked beside Lock 15 with us tied to the safety barrier just beyond. There is a road which runs along right beside the canal almost continuously for 70 km from St-Leger-sur-Dheune to Paray-le-Monial which somewhat spoils the otherwise very pastoral canal route through this verdant Charollais beef countryside. It was lovely to see Mike and Aileen and to get news of their house hunting but they were all too soon on their way back to their boat moored in Vitry-le-Francoise. Earlier in the year we had planned to meet up on the Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne but due to our change of plans this was no longer to be, although we will look forward to hearing from them about a canal that we have now missed. In the Du Breil Guide there is a mooring marked in this pound but we couldn’t see it and as it was too late to carry on that evening we opted for a flat bank on the non-road side at PK 39 where we were able moor up on pins.
The next day we had planned to stop for lunch at the nice moorings at St-Julien-sur-Dheune (PK 45), beside which there is a bar/restaurant, but as we prepared to leave Lock 11 at 11.30am the gates failed to open fully, only this time not leaving us enough room to get out. In between talking to the resident of the lock cottage who was wanting to sell us cucumbers and courgettes from his garden and getting no response from the emergency button/intercom on the lock-side, then finding there was no phone signal to call the central control, then hearing a garbled voice on the intercom but not being able to get back to it through the railings quickly enough, we managed to throw sticks for the old man’s dogs, visit his sheep and a donkey, and eat lunch before being rescued at 1pm.
After lunch we managed to complete the 12 km and 14 locks for that day, with no further delays but disappointed to find the Canal Museum at PK 46 now permanently closed, to reach the summit where we moored up on pins at PK 51 in a nice spot away from the road and beside a large lake and public park.
From here it was a 45 minute walk the next morning to take Lili to the very modern station at Le Creusot where she was able to catch the Paris to Barcelona TGV, needing to change at Lyon only 45 minutes away, to get to Montpellier in just over three hours. As I cycled the 15 mins back to the boat I reflected on the time and effort, a month of long hard days of travelling, it had taken us to make the same journey by river and canal.
My search for an English speaking mechanic had resulted in a booking with Mark at Entente Marine at Gannay-sur-Loire on the Canal Lateral a la Loire, on our route to Decize to reach the Nivernais Canal heading north to Auxerre. But in my eagerness to get things fixed as soon as possible I had only allowed 6 days for us to complete the remaining 63 km and 26 locks (all downhill) of the Centre and then the further 52 km and 11 locks (still downhill) of the Lateral. By my reckoning that would be an average of at least four hours cruising each day, without delays, to complete 20 km and 6 locks each day. So after lunch we set off on a three hour trip to Blanzy (PK 61, free mooring, water and electric) and couldn’t quite believe our luck on finding a space next to the only services point. We were able to fill up our nearly empty water tank and run two loads of washing.
On a quick sortie to the nearby butcher and baker to get something to eat for supper (our larder now very low on supplies) I spotted the little garage forecourt just by the bridge and was able to top up our Jerry cans with 40 litres of diesel, all we needed since our last fill in Macon. A most productive evening, but we would need to do a big food shop the next day and as we approached Montceau-les-Mines we had a choice of the Leclerc (PK 63, very small wooden platform mooring – but big signs advertising it!) or, our preference, the Grand Frais on the other side of town. There are really no moorings for larger visiting boats in the port at Montceau-les-Mines and it is this year in the process of being emptied out for dredging works to take place over winter. In the morning we carried on through town, and the three lift bridges, and were pleased to find a useful mooring (PK 65.5, free, no services) just beyond the Grand Frais. We came back heavily laden and had a leisurely lunch before moving on.
Our next overnight stops were both familiar. Genelard at PK 82 (free, with water and electric if not already taken by other boats, some left here long-term) then Paray-le-Monial at PK 102 (€13, water and electric – but plenty of other moorings, no services, free) where we popped into the Friday market before heading on and passing through Digoin at the end of the Canal du Centre and the beginning of the Canal Lateral a la Loire.
We spent 8 days cruising the 113 km and 61 locks of the Canal du Centre – just as we did on our first trip in 2014 when we were under time pressures from the early closure of the canal that year in the middle of September due to water shortages. Our trip through in April 2015 had taken us a more leisurely 10 days, without any mechanical problems, and only the slightly daunting prospect of getting down the Rhone to the south. This year we are still feeling somewhat tired after our return up the Rhone and Saone – we are in need of a break!