20 October 2013

The Rhône from Lyon to Avignon

After a two day break in Lyon, at 1049 on Tuesday the 1st of October we slipped from the float in Place Nautique du Confluence and re-entered the Saône to run its final kilometre to the Rhône. The architecture along the final kilometre is a cross between creative, experimental and wild. An orange building has as its exterior curtain wall a coarse filigree of metal plates, and in one corner there is a five storey high crater that seems to be the shockwave impact from an asteroid that is about to hit. The architect likely has a more artful explanation of the design

Looking back upstream we see the shopping centre next to the port, with a Novotel occupying the upper floors of the complex. It and the building next to it would be considered radical were it not for the orange creation next along and others beyond it. 

To add to the wild, just along from the orange building is a green one with two huge craters in its riverside facade. Next to it is a four storey black shoebox daringly cantilevered way out over the river from a ten or twelve metre high base.

Next to the shoebox is an adolescent’s rendition of a space station. It is difficult to get a scale, but I estimate the building to be 40 metres high. It is still under construction.

From the signs on the riverside hoardings, the building is the new site of the Musée des Confluences. It is sited appropriately, on the narrow point of land between the Saône and the Rhône.

At 1109 we passed the bifurcation buoys and entered the Rhône. The current seemed to be about 5 kilometres per hour as we moved along at 14 with turns for 9. With this much current, when heading downstream there is little margin for error in the bends and through the bridge holes. Fortunately the channel is generally wide and the bends are mostly gentle. 

In less than four kilometres we came to our first Rhône lock, Écluse Benite. It was ready for us as we approached, I having used the VHF to advise l’éclusier of our arrival from twenty minutes back. L’éclusier took our details over the radio: name of boat, flag, length, beam and draft, number on board, departure port and destination. There are fourteen locks along the river to the Mediterranean and we need to pass through twelve of them. 

At 190 metres, they 5 metres longer than those on the Saône, but at 11.4 metres width, they are 60 centimetres narrower. The big difference; however, comes with their height. Where the Saône locks range from 2.5 to 4 metres, the twelve locks on the Rhône average 11.9 metres in height and they range up to 22.5 metres.

Fortunately, all these locks have floating bollards in their walls, so it is easy to secure the barge for the ride. In fact, these huge locks are easier to negotiate than are the smaller, Freycinet gauge ones of which we had done some 250 during our first six weeks in France. One thing I always do with a floating bollard, once I have a line around it, is put some of my weight on its top to see if it moves easily. If it is stuck or jammed with detritus in its guide rails, it is difficult to scramble along to a working bollard after the water has begun moving in the lock chamber.

On the bollard we selected in Écluse Benite was a sticker telling us “The Do Littles were here” and telling us to “Have a nice day, eh?”. The sticker was rather fresh, so it looks like our fellow Canadians had been here recently.

We were lowered nine metres very smoothly and effortlessly; it was our easiest lock since the Netherlands. We paused a while after the giant sluice gate had opened before we headed out, giving it the opportunity to drip off much of its water before we passed under it.

Outside and back into the river we were again being swept along with the current. It was a bit slower in this stretch and we moved along at a rate of 12 to 13 kilometres per hour. The river is managed by La Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, La CNR, which was set-up in 1933 with three main objectives: improvement of the navigation conditions; creation of irrigation canals and the installation of a series of hydroelectric power stations to utilise the strong flow of the river. On the riverbanks were vineyards in terraces up the steep hillsides.

We were entering the wine growing region of the Northern Rhône. The hillsides above the riverside roads and the dotting of villages are covered in terraced vines wherever the slopes face an adequate portion of the day’s sun and are not too steep. On many of the hilltops are ruins.

Our next lock, Écluse Vaugris was ready for us as we arrived, and again it was a very simple procedure locking down. As we left the lock and moved back out into the current beneath the dam, we were alongside the vineyards of la Côte Rôtie, which translates to the Roasted Hillside. These vineyards are reputed to be among the oldest in France, with wine known to have been grown here at least since Roman times and likely earlier. 

Among the more famous vineyards here are Côte Blonde and Côte Brune on the steep hillsides above the village of Ampuis. The story goes that a wealthy vineyard owner gave his two finest plots to his two daughters, one a blond and the other a brunette.

Four kilometres downstream from Ampuis begins a pair of sharp bends in the river at the town of Condrieu. Before the serious works done by the La CNR to reduce the current, this was a major navigational hazard. In the middle of the bends were les Roches de Condrieu, the rocks which brought to grief many boats.

On the steep slopes above the town are the terraced vineyards of Condrieu. The Viognier vine is at home here, making some of the world’s finest examples of that variety. The vines are believed to have been brought to the area by the Greeks in the sixth century before Christ.

We passed under le Pont de Condrieu, which bridges the narrows, and we headed around the next sharp bend. Navigation has been made so much easier through this once fearsome place.

In the middle of the bend, above the suburb of la Maladière, are the vineyards of Château Grillet, the smallest Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée in France. 

At the next lock, Écluse Sablons we had to wait while a lock-filling hotel barge was lifted and headed upstream past us. We have been seeing three or four of these each day on the rivers since we passed downstream from Chalon-sur-Saône. If we see that many in the distance we cover in a day’s cruise, there must be several times that many on the Saône-Rhône system. It was into October and the 180-metre floating resorts all seemed to be filled with passengers.

We entered our third lock of the day, and again had a very easy descent. This one has a 12.2 metre drop, which shows how much the engineers had raised the water level through the bends and past les Roches de Condrieu.

Downstream about four kilometres from Écluse Sablons, on the riverbank in front of the village of Champagne, is an old and now retired cable ferry pylon. For centuries before the bridges were built, lines were stretched across the river between anchors such as this. A ferry was attached to a pulley on the line and, by using a rudder to angle the side of the ferry to the river, the current pushed the ferry across the river.

In the old pylon at Champagne we saw a staircase of projecting stones winding its way up the tower. These stone steps were used to reach the top of the tower to string and adjust the cable. They reminded us of the steps we had used on our climb of Wayna Picchu from Machu Picchu in 2010 during our three-year sail around the South American coasts in our yacht Sequitur.

Three kilometres downstream from the pylon at Champagne is le Pont d’Andance, the oldest suspension bridge still in use in France. It was built in 1827, engineered by Marc Séguin, renowned as a pioneer in wire rope design and fabrication. To test his cable strength theories, he built a small suspension bridge over La Cance, a narrow tributary downstream a few kilometres. 

In 1825 he built his first major suspension bridge across the Rhône, joining the towns of Tain l’Hermitage and Tournon. That bridge was partly destroyed in 1944. Le Pont d’Andance was his second bridge across the Rhône and it still carries regular traffic.

Six kilometres further along, at 1800 we secured to float just upstream of Pont St-Vallier. It has no facilities, but it is a solid new pontoon of about 30 metres length in a very quiet area.  It is so new that it does not appear in the latest edition of Du Breil Guide Fluvial from 2011. We had come 76.1 kilometres and had passed through three locks.

On Wednesday morning we slipped at 1030, turned in the current and continued down river. Half a dozen kilometres down we passed beneath the ruins of Tour d’Arras and its surrounding vineyards. We were four kilometres from the next lock, Écluse Gervans and I radioed l’éclusier to inform her of our arrival in twenty minutes.

She told us there was a commercial following us down the river and that it would arrive a few minutes after us. We were to wait for it to enter and then follow it in. We arrived at the locks and slowed to drift along as we waited for the barge to overtake us.

As we approached the commercial mooring dolphins, we saw people with luggage waiting on the catwalk. They motioned to us and we quickly understood that the barge was going to pause on the dolphins to pick them up. We accelerated and moved further along and out of the way of the barge.

We had dawdled because the pleasure craft waiting float had a bangy boat plunked exactly in its middle, leaving insufficient room for us at either end. We moved along to it and asked the skipper to move either forward or astern to allow us to moor. He seemed afraid to move, likely having bounced around and struggled to get there. He refused to move his 10 metre boat off the centre of the 25 metre float. We came to rest against the guide barriers, hoping the huge barge didn’t need their assistance on manoeuvring into the lock. There is nothing to put a line on, so we hung onto pilings and beams to stabilise Zonder Zorg against the suction and wake of the passing barge. 

After the barge had entered, we had the amusement of the bangy boat bouncing around in the chamber trying to moor as two more pleasure boats joined us. These two, a bangy and a Belgique time share, which had been following the barge, offered us further entertainment.

After the lock had taken us easily down 11.5 metres, we all paraded out and continued down river.

Within five kilometres we swept around a bend and headed east past the town of Tournon on the Right Bank.

Linking Tournon with its neighbour Tain-l’Hermitage across the river, is la Passerelle de Tournon, built in 1825 by Marc Séguin as his first suspension bridge across the Rhône. After its near destruction in 1944, it was rebuilt and is now used for foot traffic only.  

Across the bridge and above the town of Tain-l’Hermitage, on steeply terraced slopes are the famous vineyards of Hermitage. Because of the bend in the river, the vineyards face south for the maximum daily sun. This, added to the fact that slope of the hill is almost perpendicular to the summer sun, the vineyards receive as much direct sunlight during the growing season as is possible here at 45º North. The Syrah is the grape planted here, and the conditions allow it to show at its finest, making some of the greatest Syrah wines in the world. So renowned were the wines from Hermitage, that the Australians and other New World wine producers called their Syrah grapes Hermitage. After nearly two centuries of name abuse, trade laws have now finally stopped that practice.

As we swept around the next bend, which is just over two kilometres along, and again headed south, we looked back at hill of Hermitage. Such a small area for such a famous wine.

Another dozen kilometres brought us to Écluse Bourg-lès-Valence. The same four pleasure boats paraded in astern the commercial, with us last. We quickly secured and watched the remainder of the bouncing acts.

After another easy 11.7 metre drop we all paraded out and downriver for five kilometres through Valence.

In the centre of Valence, under Pont Frédérique Mistral, a huge barge was sunk pointed downstream against the wall on the Left Bank. The bridge is at the end of a sweeping 45º bend to starboard, and it appears the skipper misjudged the current and was swept to port and ended up on the wrong side of the channel beacon and the bridge pier it marked. 

There was a work scow with a pollution boom moored alongside on spud poles. It appeared to have been a very recent accident. 

On the southern side of the city the two bangy boats dropped-out of the parade and entered le Port de Plaisance de Valence-Épervière. The remainder continued down river, along the way meeting another huge floating resort.

Another hour and a dozen kilometres brought us to Écluse Beauchastel, where we and the Belgian boat followed Camaël into the lock.

After an 11.82 metre drop we headed out and continued down the river following Camaël, while the Belgian boat stopped on the waiting float at the downstream side of the lock. 


A short distance along we met a large unladen barge putting up a very large wake as it headed upstream against the current.

A few minutes later we passed under Pont de la Voulte and looked at the mooring that is indicated in the guide. I did not like the openness of the wall and the way the wake of the barges ahead and astern of us rolled along it. It looked like a rough place to stop, so we continued along.

We met another floating resort as we made our way along the eighteen kilometres to the next lock. It was a long bief, and ahead we could see Camaël slowly pulling away from us, until even in the long strait sections we could no longer see her. We knew that we had fallen too far behind her to have her wait for us at the next lock.

At Écluse Logis Neuf we had the chamber all to ourselves, which really gave the space an added feeling of size. The drop of 11.7 metres went quickly and without hitch, and we motored out to run the three kilometres to our prime mooring spot for the day at Cruas. The little port is designed for small boats and has a tricky crosscurrent entrance past shoals, but it has space for three boats of fifteen metres length. As we arrived, I could see all the larger spaces were occupied, so we continued along.

Just downstream is la Centrale Nucléaire de Cruas, which looked benign in the early dusk. We continued along in the fading light looking for a place to stop for the night. With the current running at four kilometres per hour, and with the uncharted waters beyond the channel markers, we could not simply approach a bank and moor.

Five kilometres downstream, as we approached the eleven kilometre derivation leading to the next lock, I looked at the possibility of mooring at the canoe haul-out in the short arm above the Barrage de Rochemaure. However, prudence and poor chart symbols in the guide made me continue on past.

The sun set, but I was not concerned about navigating in the dark. We had our Navionics charts on my iPad and with its built-in GPS, we had an accurate plot of our position and track. The track was following perfectly our path along the derivation, which leads eleven kilometres to Écluse Chateauneuf. I switched on our navigation lights and we continued along confidently.

In the fading light we met a lock-filling barge on its way up river. We crept along the final half kilometre to the lock, using primarily the iPad to help pick out shapes around us. Most of the locks we had been in thus far on the Rhône have had a similar layout in their upstream approaches, so we knew what to look for. We found the pleasure boat float, but plunked exactly in its centre was a boat of about nine metres length. There was nobody aboard, and not wanting the liability of moving the boat along so we could share the float with it, at 1958, after adjusting our fenders, we rafted onto it and shut down for the day. We had come 88.5 kilometres and had passed through another four locks.

We were awakened shortly after 0800 on Thursday morning by an irate man who was demanding to know why we had rafted onto his boat. He could not understand that he was hogging the entire float and leaving no space for others. I told him we would be ready to move in about fifteen minutes and he fumed. 

As we slipped at 0815, we saw that the small boat was a CNR company launch, which as a commercial boat is not allowed to use the pleasure boat floats. The lock had been ready and waiting for the launch, so we motored directly into the chamber from our raft and secured to a bollard near the front to allow plenty of room for other boats astern. The CNR launch chose to a bollard at the rear of the lock.

After a 16.5 metre drop, we waited for the gate to lift and the barriers to open. When the light turned green, we slowly motored out, as is required by regulations. The CNR boat was impatiently nipping at our stern all the way out. Once we were clear of the lock entrance, it sped past us, cut across our bows and went across to the pleasure boat float. We continued downstream. 

We were a little over a kilometre further downstream when the launch came speeding down toward us and cut across our stern. It appears we had discovered a CNR employee with a company boat and an attitude problem.

A short while later we watched as two huge hotel barges danced around each other changing places at a moorage.

Soon we entered le Défilé de Donzère, the Donzere Gorge, a deep and narrow corridor through limestone hills. Because of the force of the water through the defile, the early boaters called it Robinet de Donzère, the Donzere Faucet.



It is crossed by Pont de Robinet, a wonderful old suspension bridge dating back more than a century and a half.

Within a kilometre downstream we came to a more modern structure, la barrage du garde at the beginning of the 28 kilometre derivation canal that takes traffic around the former navigational hazards: Le passage de Pradelle, Le Banc Rouge, La Désirade and Pont Saint-Esprit. These were finally bypassed in 1952 by the opening of Écluse Bollène, which with its 22.5 metre drop is the highest in Europe. Bollène even tamed the waters in Le Robinet.

A short distance into the derivation there are crossover signs, indicating boats must cross to the other side of the channel. This is to assist large barges in manoeuvring through a pair of 80º bends. As I crossed over to the port side of the channel, I was hoping there wasn’t a bangy boat coming upstream unaware of the meaning of the signs. Fortunately, the only traffic was a large convoy, and we met green to green as required.

About halfway along the derivation canal we passed another nuclear site. It uses the ample flow of water in the canal as its cooling source.

When I contacted l’éclusier at Bollène, I was told there was an up-bound commercial in the lock and a down-bound waiting for it. We could join the commercial in the lock. As we approached the lock we met the up-bound Cartoon, and saw ahead of us Bonova, the barge that we would follow into the chamber. 

The timing was such that we had to slow only at the last minute to allow Bonova to settle into position. We quickly came to a bollard and were ready for a 22.5 metre descent.

As the walls grew around us we marvelled at the engineering that had gone into taming the Rhône and making it much more safely navigable. I thought of boats that, before the taming of the river, had to run through a series of rapids, rocks and bends as the river dropped thirty metres in thirty kilometres.

We reached bottom, the gate opened and Bonova headed out.

We were left in the cavernous space by ourselves, which added to its sensation of size.

As we motored out, the enormity of the lock continued to impress us.

The hydroelectric generating complex at Bollène is huge, particularly when viewed from the downstream side. La CNR manages thirty-three power stations, which together generate 16 billion Kilowatt hours of electricity, about four percent of the French consumption.

We passed under the ramparts of medieval fortified castles at Montfaucon and Roquemaure.

Along the way we met a steady stream of commercial barges heading upstream.


Some graciously posed for us beneath the ruins of Château de l’Hers.

Château de l’Hers dates to the twelfth century and sits on a small rocky outcrop on the Left Bank of the river. It once regulated navigation on the Rhône, but today the commercial barges and pleasure boats pass by giving it only admiring looks, rather than taxes and tolls.

Beyond Château de l’Hers on a narrow ridge a few kilometres east of the river sit the ruins of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Pope’s New Castle. The château was built as a residence in the fourteenth century by Pope Jean XXII, the second pope of Avignon. The vineyards that he had planted around the château are today the centre of the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine growing area. The fist-sized stones throughout the coarse gravel and clay of the ridge hold the sun’s heat well into the evening and continue to warm the vines into the night.

Edi created a wonderful platter of open-face sandwiches for lunch and we ate along the way.

Eight kilometres downstream we came to Écluse d’Avignon. At 9.5 height metres it is a very large lock, but rather diminished in our eyes after having so recently come through the one at Bollène. 

We were quickly down and out and passing through the suburbs of Avignon. At Villeneuve-lès-Avignon we passed beneath the ruins of Tour Philippe-le-Bel, which was once part of the western access control to the twelfth century Pont Saint-Bénezet, the famous Pont d’Avignon.

We continued down to the junction of the two branches of the Rhône, turned in the current and headed up the eastern branch into the centre of Avignon. On the quai, just short of the Palais des Papes was a line of moored hotel barges.

Ahead of us was Pont Saint-Bénezet and on our starboard bow were Nôtre-Dame des Doms and Palais des Papes. The Palais, which was built in the fourteenth century as the papal residence, is the largest Gothic palace in Europe.

We continued around the end of the remains of le Pont d’Avignon and half a kilometre upstream of it, at 1605 we secured to mooring rings on Quai de la Ligne. We had come another 75.5 kilometres and had descended through four more locks. 


In three days we had come just over 240 kilometres from Lyon through swiftly flowing current and busy commercial traffic. We needed a break.

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