“To enter this waterway is to step back in time, to gentleness and relaxation” wrote John Liley in ‘France – the quiet way’ published in 1975. In 2017 I am happy to report that the Nivernais, which he calls “possibly the most beautiful French canal of all”, still remains just that and it was fitting to find ourselves, when in Clamecy, moored opposite hotel barge ‘Luciole’, still owned and run by the Liley family.
Our time since entering the Nivernais on 27th September at St-Leger-des-Vignes (Decize) now seems a bit distant – the details lost in early morning mists and days of cruising in glorious autumnal sunshine through rolling hills, lush fields of fat white cattle or sheep, wooded hillsides, occasional Chateaux, farms, and small villages.
This is our third passage along the Nivernais, but for the first time heading from Decize in the south to Auxerre in the north, with the advantage of only having 32 uphill locks to climb over 70 km to the summit at Baye with the remaining 80 locks over 100 km then all downhill. We have had the pleasure of cruising on this canal in early spring, in mid-summer and in autumn, but whatever the season we have provisioned the boat well in order to progress comfortably, at a slow and gentle pace, as there are only few and far between opportunities to reach a grocery or supermarket.
Our first stop therefore at St-Leger-des-Vignes was at the Supermarket jetty (PK 1.5, free, no services) where we spent two days stocking up at the Carrefour, LeClerc, BricoMarche and Lidl stores all on our doorstep. Time too, with a decent 4G phone signal, to catch up on my blog, get my blocked Vodafone SIM restored, and reboot my Free SIM which hadn’t at all taken to its prolonged lack of signal at Gannay-sur-Loire. I remembered from our previous trips that the Nivernais also has long stretches with little or no mobile phone signal.
On our way to Cercy-la-Tour (PK 16, free mooring with services) we passed wb Avalon, last seen by us in Ely Cambridgeshire, and stopped for a brief chat with Kevin Wade before mooring up there on the pontoon. Kevin, who had shipped his wide-beam over to Nieuwpoort, Belgium, in the same month and year as us and whose progress we have been following since, came back the next day, between heavy showers to pick up his campervan, and we were able to say ‘hello’ properly over a cup of tea. Here we sat out five days of dull and frequently wet weather, waiting for our order of paint to arrive at Entente Marine and for Sid to kindly deliver it to us.
The paint did eventually arrive, 10 days after being ordered, and the weather brightened up, and so onwards and upwards we went. Leaving Cercy-la-Tour and attempting to share the lock with Bodecia (10m cruiser + dinghy) we had a timely reminder that the locks between here and Sardy (PK73) are ‘sub-standard’ at only 30 metres in length.
The experiment was not deemed to be a success (we are 18 metres), neither by us boaters nor the three lock-keepers, and so then we followed at a respectable distance locking through separately and mooring up for the night at a favourite spot just above Anizy lock (PK 31, free bankside mooring no services).
From Anizy we set off early next morning in more of a fog than a mist, which was slow to clear, but after a sunny lunchbreak at Pont (PK 47, bollards no services) we pulled in to Chatillon-en-Bazois (PK 51) just after 1.30pm only to find the port full and with no access to the free services.
We had thought to stay here for a few days, as we had done on our two previous visits, but without water or power and with a couple of fine days forecast we decided to press on to the summit the next morning. On the Nivernais one has to let the lock-keepers know of one’s plans in advance – or risk arriving at an untended lock – and we were given a choice of a 10.00 am departure, along with two other boats, or a very long wait for the lock-keeper to return! As it turned out Jane and Bill, moored up on the serviced quay in wb Lazybones, left at 9.00 am heading downstream and we were able to nip in and take on water for half an hour before our locking time, slowly following Lundy and Kate again on Bodecia, and stopping for lunch in a full Lock 11, Orgue.
Pottering along quietly, with the two boats ahead of us always out of sight, it seemed as though we had this lovely stretch of canal all to ourselves. We reached the summit at Baye (PK 66, free mooring, no services along the wall for larger boats – small hire boat base only for smaller boats) by 4.30 pm, lit a fire, and settled in to a cosy Friday night in this scenic mooring overlooking the Etang (lake) de Baye.
Saturday was forecast to be sunny but Sunday to be wet and dull so on arrival we had opted to carry on, leaving at 11 am the next morning. This gave us an hour to get through 3 tunnels on the 4 km summit pound (one way and controlled by lights – the lock-keeper had forgotten to turn them green for us!) and conveniently placed us at Port Brule (Lock 1) by 12.00 for lunch.
We found ourselves in company with Sanguetta (10 metre Linssen cruiser) and before the lock-keepers returned, from lunch and locking a boat up, at 1.30pm we had made inspections and measurements of the lock and conducted detailed discussions around not being talked into sharing the next 16 locks in the Sardy ladder, but that we would perhaps agree at least to try it initially. The lock-keeper was fairly persuasive, reassuring me about leaking gates and the location of the cill, and letting us know that a shortage of keepers could lead to long delays.
I can’t say that it was an entirely comfortable ride down being within a metre of the upward gates and most of the time, through lack of a suitably placed bollard, with a rope around the gate railing and the engine engaged to both keep us off the cill and away from the waterfall coming over the top of some of the gates. But we settled into a good routine with Stuart and Lizzie and enjoyed their company all the way down for the next 4 hours.
The lock-keepers were assisted by Pam and Lizzie, on shore on bikes, to help with gates and ropes, and we all had quite a sociable time – with my contribution to any conversation being severely limited by the deafening roar of falling water!
Although overcast, that evening was just warm enough for aperos on the picnic table at the Sardy mooring (PK 74, free no services) with Stuart and Lizzie and they then joined us for dinner aboard Xenia. The next morning Sanguetta headed on whilst we opted to sit out a dull and possibly wet Sunday in this quiet and peaceful spot.
We covered the next 16 km from Sardy to Monceaux-le-Comte in just under 5 hours, passing through 16 more locks and 4 lift bridges and seeing only one other boat. The mooring at Monceaux (Dirol) (PK 90.5, free no services – possibly water in season) is beside a large and continuously watered wood pile which had put us off stopping on our previous trips. But a friend had told us about a decent restaurant here, so we thought we might try it – no such luck on a Tuesday (when it is always closed) and it is only open on weekends from October 1st until April.
Next day, after a walk around the attractive little village sitting on the banks of the River Yonne, and a quick look at the very small general store, we ambled on in the afternoon to Flez-Cuzy where we moored opposite the Locaboat base (PK 96, free no services – but the base has services, now including diesel, if you want to pay for them). Although we had stopped here before we had never taken the time to visit Tannay – where there is a supermarket and we hoped perhaps a restaurant for lunch.
From the canal, Tannay is a long 2 km walk uphill – a relentless incline that made us wonder if perhaps electric bikes might be a good idea – and by the time we had enjoyed the spectacular views all around as we walked up, pushing our bikes, we felt quite ready for a decent lunch. But, not a single restaurant left open for business at any time could we find here. The Super U supermarket came up trumps though with some decent hamburger meat and a few bottles of Bombardier Ale and we fairly whizzed down the hill back to a pub lunch on the boat.
Our next overnight stop at Chevroches was another first for us but the popular little port here (PK 110, free with services, I think) had shut off its services for the season, so we had the place to ourselves except for two empty English narrow-boats, one of them the Book Barge. A ten minute walk around the pretty little village revealed only that a bakery van calls in twice a week. I later learned however that it is a site of considerable archaeological interest having been a centre for early gallo-roman metal working between the 1st and 5th centuries.
We arrived in Clamecy in time for Friday lunch to find the port (PK 114, previously €6 including services, but this time free) empty except for hotel boat Luciole moored on the right bank opposite. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, most of which we spent in the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire Romain Rolland; learning about the Chevroches Zodiacal ‘curved disc’; studying the paintings and drawings of Caruelle d’Aligny (1798-1871); admiring the posters of Charles Loupot (1892-1962); seeing the study and books of writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944); and visiting the exhibition on ‘flottage’ – the Morvan timber trade for which Clamecy became the log floating capital and the commercial centre for the supply of firewood to Paris. We had earned our drinks that sunny evening in this lovely little port.
First order of the day for Saturday – after café au lait, bacon and eggs, and toast and marmalade of course – was the covered market, on this occasion for oysters and organic fruit and veg. The Clamecy Saturday market is a relatively small affair but with some very good quality local (not the oysters!) produce and on each visit we have found something special. We popped in to the Tourist Office but there are no longer ‘tourist’ bus trips to Vezelay – we had so enjoyed our trip there in August 2014. There was however a ‘Rendez-vous du Blues’ pamphlet which I idly picked up.
An Indian summer had arrived and we moved over to the sunnier side of the port to get a full day’s benefit of 24C temperatures. Our search for a meal out continued but Trip Adviser left us uncertain as to whether any of the listed 12 Clamecy restaurants would come up to snuff on our price/value/location equation. Pizzas are OK even if not #1 rated on TA but not really what we had in mind. We did a walk-by tour, and that ruled out a few more. On Sunday evening we went to see and hear ‘Vicious Steel’ (a two piece, electric guitar and drums, French blues band) playing in the Mairie (in the rather grand ‘salle’ where I imagine weddings are conducted) and enjoyed it. Now we have to work out how to get back to Clamecy for the next concert in this series of three to hear Brummie Steve “Big Man” Clayton, with his quartet, playing boogie blues on piano.
The fine weather continued unbroken for a week and on a cycle ride to the Auchan supermarket on the other side of town we spotted ‘La Grenouillere’ – well down the Trip Adviser list at #7, but Moules Frites for €9 seemed good value, it looked nice inside, and I was feeling bad about having spent four years in France without sampling any frogs legs, their specialty. The fact that the lady patronne had been consistently criticised for not smiling seemed to be a minor blemish set against the prospect of a good meal out. So mid-week we lunched there – Pam had a huge and delicious pot of mussels in a creamy wine sauce with a vat of string fries and I had a huge bowl of frogs legs in a provencale sauce (I should have opted for the ‘persillade’ – it would have been less messy) with a more modest basket of string fries. As I was the first that day to be served with frogs legs I was unable to take a steer from other diners on the etiquette of eating these tasty morsels, full of little bones. I assumed that as I had been given two generous paper napkins and a moist towel sachet that fingers were the only way to go – I later read that it should be thumb and forefinger of one hand – and I sucked my way through a good dozen, sometimes resorting to two hands, without getting provencale sauce all down my shirt. Delicious with a nice half bottle of house white – and topped off with the largest tulip Coup de Glace we have seen in a while – all for just under €50 for the two of us. We left pleased with our choice and got at least two half smiles from the patronne.
The Nivernais Canal closes every year for the winter, from sometime in November to sometime in March, and wanting to allow at least seven days to cruise to Auxerre we needed to know the exact date of closure this year. The Port Capitaine at Decize had told me that the Canal was not closing this year, that it was all changed now – but I didn’t believe a word of it. At Clamecy I asked the ‘matelot’, busy swabbing decks, touching up paint, and filling the water tanks of Luciole, but he wasn’t able to enlighten me. The lock-keeper also didn’t know the answer and said he would call the boss, but didn’t come back to me. I called Zoe at the Port in Auxerre and although she didn’t know either she said she would find out and called me back to say that it would be early this year on Sunday 29th October – just over a week away. The 50 km downstream from Clamecy is a particular favourite of ours with the canal intertwining with the River Yonne all the way to Auxerre and passing through rocky outcrops, wooded hillsides, open fields and very pretty villages on the wider banks of the river.
We had time for one more week-end in Clamecy and one more concert; this time in the Collegiale St Martin church with its splendid Cavaille-Coll organ. The concert, a Lion’s Club fundraiser, featured a string quartet, the organ, and a choir – performing music from Beethoven, Vivaldi and Mendelssohn. It was a good note on which to end our very enjoyable 9 day stay in town, and we headed out of port, between rain showers, that Sunday afternoon to reach Pousseaux (PK 121, free no services) for the night.
Dull weather followed us for the next couple of days. We stopped at Lucy (PK 126, bollards but nothing else!) for lunch and possibly the night but we found only cats and some very noisy geese around and so moved on.
At Chatel-Censoir (PK 132, we moored beside rather than in the little port, so free) for the night. I walked up into town to the small Proximarche here and then on up to the very large church of Saint Potentien, with a singing janitor and a C13th crypt, on the hill top. I checked with the lock-keeper for the last cruising day this year and he seemed to think that there had been an extension to the Oct 29th deadline, but he hadn’t yet had a chance to read the bulletin.
At Les Rochers-du-Saussois by Merry-sur-Yonne, where we stopped for lunch (PK 137, pontoon no services), we were joined by a hire boat and then three house-boat-loads of excited and vociferous children who disembarked and headed for the Saussois rocks – a limestone wall popular with rock climbers.
We left them to it and carried on to Mailly-le-Chateau (PK 142, free mooring with electric and water) where we had the place to ourselves for the night. Our last visit here had been on a Monday and we had walked up the very steep hill into town only to find the shops closed. So, on a wet and misty Tuesday afternoon I thought that I might have better luck. But no; the COOP grocery is permanently closed; the bakery closed on Tuesday afternoons and all day Wednesday, and the Tabac I found firmly closed but with no opening hours listed. The Le Castel restaurant, despite many canal-side posters, was not open at lunchtimes and this left only the church to visit and in which to rest my weary legs before once again heading back downhill empty handed.
In another burst of ‘Indian Summer’ and confirmation that we did indeed have a couple of extra days cruising time I was in shorts by the time we stopped for lunch at Ste-Pallaye (PK 152, free bollards only) and almost sunburned by the time we reached Vincelles, where we stopped on the main quay (PK 160, free but no services in October). By the time I had cycled off to get a gas cylinder refill from the nearby ATAC service station we had been joined by 5 other boats (4 hire boats) for the night – almost a traffic jam!
In the morning, soon left on our own again, we stocked up at the ATAC supermarket but after lunch decided to move on whilst the sun was still shining. The lock-keeper had warned us that over the weekend there would only be three of them to cover the 50 km 30 lock stretch from Coulonges to Auxerre and that we would be better off staying put. So we made a stop that night at Bailly (PK 163, free no services) to pick up some wine at the Bailly-Lapierre caves. I skipped the fun tour on this occasion and took the sack-barrow to wheel back a case of their Cremant de Bourgogne (Pinot Noir), a case of their St Bris (Sauvignon Blanc), and a case each of their 2016 Irancy and 2016 Cotes d’ Auxerre.
The next morning, grey and drizzly, we opted for a 10.00 am start and got to our ‘as planned and glad to find it vacant’ pontoon at Toussac (PK 166, water (30 minutes) and electric (12 hours) by €3 token each) in time to cycle in to the Champs-sur-Yonne ATAC and the bakery (to get tokens as well as bread) before lunch and much heavier rain. On our last visit here in October 2014 the tokens had only cost €1 – and I still had three left over! We were visited on Monday morning by the vnf eclusiers (lock-keepers) asking about our travel plans and decided to stay for Monday, now brighter, and booked our next lock for Tuesday afternoon at 1.30pm. We had a cheap and cheerful lunch that day at the Bar St Louis in Champs-sur-Yonne and enjoyed the re-appearance of the sun.
Tuesday 31st October was indeed the last day this year for cruising on the Nivernais Canal and we set off in bright sunshine under clear blue skies filled with the cries from V formations of flocks of migrating cranes passing overhead – only slightly wishing that we were heading south too, to a warmer winter.
We savoured the river and surrounding countryside at a slow pace – the only boat – reaching Auxerre by 3pm that afternoon to a port so full that we had to moor on the only space left on the Town quay. It will take a while before Mike moves all the boats around in order to create our winter mooring space on the Port quay.
We always experience a sense of relief on entering a port for our winter mooring – a chance after 32 weeks to reflect on yet another year’s cruising; for awhile no more daily decisions to be made about when and where to go next, and with 24 hour access to most of the comforts of life, like crumpets, English bacon, and oatmeal crackers from Monoprix.