Amongst the beautiful inland waterways of France, the Canal du Nivernais offers a scenic cruising route through the bucolic, history-laden landscape of Burgundy. Originally created as a feeder waterway along which to float firewood, today it has a very different incarnation as a popular route for the new breed of barge holidays in France.
A Working Waterway
The 174km-long Canal du Nivernais serves as part of the wider Bourbonnais and Bourgogne link between Paris and Lyon. It runs north-south between the basin of the Seine (at Paris) and the Saône and Rhône, almost parallel to the Yonne. Along the way it connects the Yonne with the Loire at Auxerre and Decize, respectively. Its strategic position was no accident and, in 1783, the French government commissioned its construction as a channel to transport the firewood so desperately needed by the freezing residents of Paris.
It was many more years before it reached completion (in 1843), but it then became a vital transportation hub for everything from wood and wine, to coal, stone and charcoal. The canal is fed by the Yonne and also from the north by another feeder canal leading from the Pannecière Reservoir, via the beautifully-constructed and much-admired Montreuillon aqueduct.
There are 122 locks and 23 dams along its length and in one section three tunnels have been hewn from solid rock to allow its passage. Travelling through the tunnels has been described as a silence so complete it is akin to "the silence of a sepulchre". Despite the magnificent feat of engineering required to complete its course, many of the locks were constructed to what were deemed 'sub-standard' specifications. This meant that with a length of only 30m, some of them were unable to accommodate larger barges, leading to a decline in the waterway's usefulness.
It wasn't until the 1960s that the local authorities saw the potential of the Canal du Nivernais as a touristic attraction, and an extensive decade-long rehabilitation programme was implemented. The works provided facilities and mooring for private and commercial vessels along the route, which has enabled operators to include the canal on the itinerary of their barge holidays in France. A hostof surrounding attractions can be enjoyed from the water and on shore-based excursions.
Attractions en Route
One of the most popular attractions en route is the magnificent Saint-Germain Abbey, in Auxerre. Dating back more than a thousand years, the monastic complex contains a veritable treasure trove of history within its cloistered walls. Along with the oldest wall paintings in the country, archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus from the sixth century and the crypts, nave and tower of the abbey are almost completely intact.
Something a little more energetic that can be undertaken along the canal route at the lovely village of Merry-sur-Yonne is climbing at the famous landmark, Le Saussois. This imposing crag set against a highly picturesque backdrop is renowned as one of the most challenging climbing sites in the country, although there are plenty of pre-bolted areas for novices to cut their teeth as well.
With a reputation as one of the most interesting and enjoyable places for barge holidays in France, the history, engineering and scenery of the Canal du Nivernais serve as an important reminder of the past and a delightful insight into the present.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge holidays in France and other great destinations in Europe. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.