The Canal de Bourgogne is one of the most impressive waterways in France. Connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean via the River Seine and the River Rhône, the Bourgogne traverses some of the most beautiful countryside in France. Barge holidays often take place on its calm waters as commercial vessels are now confined to the north and south extremities. Like many canals, this one has a particularly rich history. Here are some of the key pieces of historical engineering still in use today.
The Beginnings of the Canal de Bourgogne
This important waterway was conceived as far back as the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, in life things rarely go to plan! The construction of the canal was delayed; first over arguments about the designs, as some thought the plans were far too expensive. Next came the French Revolution, swiftly followed by the Napoleonic Wars, meaning that there was no money spent on the waterway at all. Finally in 1832, over 200 years after the plans were first made, the canal was completed.
A lovely feature of the Canal de Bourgogne is that almost all of its original lock houses still stand today. An even more impressive statistic is that 80% of these cosy cottages are lived in by working lock keepers. During construction, maison gardes were built alongside the waterway for skilled workers who would journey along the canal making essential repairs. Lucky holiday makers might have the opportunity of looking round some of these historical houses, just one benefit of travelling in France. Barge holidays are a particularly popular way of experiencing the Canal de Bourgogne; journeying the length of the waterway provides a unique insight into its interesting past – you might just get invited in for a game of boules.
Prisoners and the Pouilly Tunnel
The Pouilly Tunnel is the most impressive feat of engineering along the Canal de Bourgogne’s length. It was also the last section of the waterway to be completed. The tunnel runs for two miles underneath a hill between Pouilly-en-Auxois and Escommes. It has 32 ventilation wells with the deepest one reaching 50 metres below the surface. According to some stories, the excavation of the tunnel was carried out by English prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars. We don’t know whether this is true, but whoever was doing the work was certainly in danger. Ninety percent of the digging was done by hand!
When the tunnel was first used it took around ten hours for a barge to be pulled through using a purpose-built chain attached to the tunnel wall. A few decades later this chain was replaced by a steam tug, and then, in 1893, by an electric tug. Though this greatly reduced the journey time, the one-way traffic of the tunnel can still slow things down for those travelling in France. Barge holidays passing through the tunnel now take around three hours to cruise from Pouilly to Escommes.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury river cruises and barge holidays throughout Europe. If you're looking for the most exciting way to explore France, barge holidays are an ideal choice. 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.