We had arrived at the summit of le canal de Bourgogne on Wednesday, 10 September and had moored in the basin. We were at the highest point in the French canal system and had ascended through one-hundred-thirteen locks, forty-five of these in the past two days. We wanted a break before starting the steep descent toward Dijon. On Thursday morning we watched as the French sailboat, which had accompanied us in the locks the previous day, slipped and headed toward the tunnel, leaving only Zonder Zorg and Milo in the basin.
We continued to be amazed at the lack of traffic as we watched the sailboat motor into the early morning mists.
Forward of us at the northern end of the basin was an arched structure. We walked over to take a look.
Inside is a decommissioned electric chain tug. It was used from 1893 to 1987 to haul barges through the 3350 metre tunnel. This tug had replaced steam tugs, which had operated since 1867 and they in turn had replaced a team of six men that had done the haulage from the time of the canal’s opening in 1832.
The profile drawing of the tunnel shows its restrictive dimensions. At 5.0 metres width, the vault is only 2.2 metres high, making it too low for unladen barges. However, the depth at 2.4 metres is well in excess of the 1.8 metre depth of the rest of the canal.
In 1910 a solution for unladen barges was devised. To take advantage of the extra depth, a floating dry-dock was constructed, which when partially sunk, lowered an unladen barge sufficiently to allow it to fit into the tunnel. This old postcard shows the electric tug coming out of the tunnel towing the partly sunk scow containing an unladen barge.
After looking at the old chain tug we walked the three hundred metres to the Atac supermarket to stock-up on fresh supplies. By the time we had returned, Milo had departed and Zonder Zorg was the only boat remaining in the large basin. We relaxed on board and did small chores. Among these was shelling the walnuts we had harvested along the way.
I reviewed the sheet that l’éclusier had given us. It detailed the procedure for the transit of the tunnel. This was our tenth tunnel in France with Zonder Zorg and the only one we had seen with any instructions. In addition to the requirements on the paper handout, l’éclusier told us that he must inspect our spotlight to ensure it is sufficient for the tunnel. Fortunately, I had earlier read about equipment inspections here, so the previous week we had bought a light. Rather than an expensive marine light, for €7 we got a basic home outdoor security floodlight and I wired a plug to its leads.
At 0845 on Friday I walked back to the lock house to ask l’éclusier for a transit ticket. He gave me a radio specially set-up to allow communications from within the tunnel and then he accompanied me back to Zonder Zorg to inspect our life jackets and tunnel light. I hung our new light on the mast step, plugged it into the 220v outlet and we passed the inspection. At 0910 we slipped and motored past the old chain tug and past the green traffic light toward the narrow cut leading to the tunnel.
The six-metre-wide cut is about eight-hundred metres long, the first half of which is a gentle 45º curve toward the mouth of the tunnel.
The stone walls supporting its sides gradually increase in height as the cut advances into the ridge. There are a few places with crumbling masonry, some of these shored-up by temporary scaffolding. From the appearance of the vegetation in the rubble, it looks like it has been waiting a long time for repairs.
When we finished the bend and caught our first sight of the tunnel entrance, we were pleased to see the traffic light was still green. It would have been an awkward reverse back around the narrow bend.
It was still early as we approached the tunnel mouth and most of the tourists were likely too busy with breakfast to watch the day’s boat traffic head into the tunnel; there was only one spectator on the viewing plaza near the middle of the town of Pouilly.
We were surprised to see lights down the centre of the tunnel. Of all the tunnels we have been in, this is the best lit. We turned on our navigation lights, but we saw no need to turn on our new floodlight.
Zonder Zorg tracked perfectly down the centre of the tunnel, well balanced by the pressure waves from the sides. She needed very few adjustments to the tiller. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel more than 3.3 kilometres ahead.
We glanced back from time to time to watch the light astern gradually diminish in size.
Slowly, the ellipse of light ahead grew. I kept myself from being hypnotized by watching and keeping track of the numbers along the side walls marking the distance from the end.
At 0958, thirty-four minutes after we had entered the tunnel, we came to its eastern end. Of the long tunnels we have been through, this was by far the easiest; it was easier than the 4820-metre Balesmes and easier than the 2302-metre Mont-de-Billy.
Just over a kilometre along from the exit is the first lock, Écluse Escommes, where we were met by l’éclusier, who had prepared the lock for us. He told us there were three hotel barges on their way up that we should meet by early afternoon. Only one was continuing past Vandenesse-en-Auxois, and after the fourth lock we met it.
L’Impressionniste shuttles between Fleurey-sur-Ouche and Escommes on week-long luxury cruises, Sunday to Saturday and then reversing the itinerary with new clients the following week. We slid past each other and continued along.
Through four more locks past beautiful scenery, we arrived in Vandenesse-en-Auxois at 1130, where l’éclusier told us to stop and wait for the locks to reopen at 1300 after lunch. The second hotel barge was approaching from downstream and les éclusiers would be busy handling it.
About half an hour after we had moored in the small basin in Vandenesse, hotel barge Wine & Water arrived and began to wear around in the basin beside us. She was completing her Dijon to Vandenesse itinerary and would disembark her clients here the following morning.
On Sunday she would embark new clients for the six-day itinerary back to Dijon.
At 1250 we slipped to arrive at the next lock as it reopened after the lunch break. On the way we passed Wine & Water, which by this time had stabilized alongside at the end of the basin.
Around the bend as we approached the lock, we had the beginning of a long series of views of Châteauneuf-en-Auxois on the hill above the canal.
We were followed into the lock by a strange-looking vessel that was handled even more strangely than it looked. The skipper seemed to have given-up using the engine and rudder and resorted to excessive and ineffective use of the bow thruster.
He then relied on the four crew then manhandling the boat into the chamber.
At the first lock we thought he had simply blown the approach, but when he repeated the same incompetence at the next lock and the one after that, we realized we were in for a very slow passage. In the beginning l’éclusier assisted with the manhandling, but after a couple of locks, rolled his eyes and gave-up.
We were delayed fifteen to twenty minutes per lock and we thought of stopping for the day to let the boat continue its bumbling on its own, but with the crumbling canal banks with generally foul bottom alongside, there were no suitable places to moor. We resigned ourselves to watching the passing scenery.
A couple of locks along we met the third hotel barge, Prospérité and we waited as it cleared the chamber and then the bridge hole.
The lock keepers along this stretch operate several locks and travel between them on motor scooters. After they have finished with the gates and sluices of the previous lock, they often passed us before we got to the next lock.
To control the water levels in the pounds, the lock keepers often leave sluices in the locks opened a crack to bleed water downstream through a series of locks. We arrived at one lock to find the downstream sluice had apparently been left a bit too widely opened and the chamber had partly drained. L’éclusier was still refilling it as we arrived.
We had intended stopping for the day in Pont d’Ouche. L’éclusier told us it was very crowded with permanently moored boats, itinerant hotel barges and visiting cruisers. She phoned the port to see if there was space for us and was told there was none. Fortunately, there was space for the smaller boat that had been delaying us in the locks through the afternoon, so we decided to continue along through three more locks before stopping for the night. We told l’éclusier that the following morning we would be at the next lock when it reopened, ensuring we wouldn’t have to share chambers with the bumbling boat. At 1750 we secured in the village of Veuvey-sur-Ouche. The water along the quai was rather shallow and rubble-strewn, so we held ourselves off a metre with our spud pole and boarding plank. We had come 21.8 kilometres and through twenty-two locks, eleven of them with frustrating company.
There is no bakery in the tiny village and we had no croissants, so we slipped without breakfast. Just beyond the bridge we passed a new quai that appears to have good depth alongside, though no mooring rings or bollards. It is too new to be in the guide, and would have been a better place to have spent the night.
At the first lock l’éclusier replied to my query with information about a bakery a hundred metres from Écluse la Bussière, three kilometres and four locks along. While Zonder Zorg was lowered in the chamber, I walked into town, made my purchase and made it back in time to assist with opening the gates. By the time we had arrived in the next lock half a kilometre along, Edi had prepared ham and cheese croissants and had pulled fresh cups of espresso.
As we rounded a bend a few locks further down the canal we saw three barges. At first I thought we were meeting a parade, but soon saw they were all moored.
The first appears to be a long-abandoned dream of converting an old péniche into a hotel barge. As we passed, we could see that work on the project had long since ceased. This was likely when the owner grew aware of how huge the conversion task was, both in time and expense. There are many broken dreams like this moored along the canals.
The next barge in the line-up appears to have completed its conversion, but apparently has no business. Vaillant is not listed among the more than fifty active hotel barges in France, so either it is new or simply has failed in its marketing.
The third barge in the line-up appeared to be another incomplete conversion project that has run out of energy.
Shortly before noon we arrived at a lock filled with a luxemotor, so we moored on the bank to wait. We recognized L’Escapade as she began rising in the chamber and chatted with David and Evey as they locked through. We had moored next to them in May in Sérignac-sur-Garonne and in July in Carcassonne.
Even though it was striking noon, l’éclusier invited us into the lock and worked us down a few minutes into her lunch break. She then told us we could wait in the next lock during lunch. Just above the lock were two boats, including Xenia, and as we were waiting in the lock, Charles came over and chatted. We had been sharing experiences on the DBA Facebook group for many weeks, and it was fun to finally meet face-to-face.
After l’éclusier returned from her lunch break, we continued through the lock and down the canal. We were following the valley of l’Ouche, in places rather steep-sided and desolate. A few of the lock houses were unoccupied or used only as waiting places by the roving lock keepers.
Most, though were occupied by tenants who obviously took pride in maintaining the buildings and their surroundings.
Limestone crags appeared more frequently above us as we neared the end of the ridges coming down from the back side of the Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Just across these ridges, near the bases of their eastern slopes are such famed vineyards as Morey-St-Denis, Chambertin, Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée and Corton, the home to some of the world’s greatest Pinot Noir. I fondly remembered my many years of barrel tasting and selecting wines to import. I salivated at memories of the spectacular old bottles and the exquisite cuisine the wine growers so proudly and generously shared.
Around a few bends we passed the junction of the road beginning its wind over the ridge toward Grvrey-Chambertin and the great Burgundy vineyards, but Zonder Zorg insisted on staying in the canal.
Very soon we passed under a large divided highway, which then followed closely beside the canal. Seven locks further along we stopped for the day just below the lock in Velars-sur-Ouche. It was not a pretty place, but it was along a short loop away from the noise of the highway leading into Dijon. Beside the concrete quai is a supermarket that is so new its exterior sheathing was not yet completed. During the day we had passed through twenty-three locks and had made just over twenty-seven kilometres.
In the evening to celebrate my seventieth birthday I prepared dos de cabaillaud with a cumin crust served with gnocchi in a mushroom, garlic, shallot and armagnac sauce and fresh Peruvian asparagus. The bottle of Champagne Canard-Duchêne complemented superbly.
When I had gone to the bakery for breakfast croissants, I had also bought an entremet glacé de mousse à la framboise. With a candle on its top, it made an appropriate birthday cake. We enjoyed it with some wonderful Alsatian Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive.
Around 0845 on Sunday, as I was pulling our second cups of espresso and Edi was nearly ready to plate our pain perdu au lardons, madame l’éclusiere knocked on the hull to ask when we wished to continue through the next lock. I told her we would depart directly after breakfast and be there by 0915. We had nine locks to Dijon and the last one was a little over eight kilometres along from the first, so to make the last lock before it closed for lunch, we needed about two and a half hours.
Shortly after 0900 we slipped and were in the first lock seven minutes later. The locks were all in our favour and we moved along steadily until the ninth and final lock, where we had to wait for an up-bound boat.
At noon we were motoring past the collection of moored hotel barges on the northern rim of the D-shaped basin of Dijon.
A semicircular island sits in the middle of a larger semicircular basin and moorage is around its periphery. The basin is within a kilometre of the medieval heart of the city.
We motored past the crowded moorage in the port. We had no reservation and we were hoping that there were still open spaces along the quai along the right bank. The previous day both David and Charles had reported there being plenty of open spaces when they were there a couple of days earlier.
We were in luck. There were several open slots.
At 1210 we secured to solid bollards on the stone wall a couple of boat lengths short of the next lock. There are no water or electricity points on the quai, but neither are there charges for mooring. We were within a hundred metres of the tram line to downtown and a block away from a large supermarket. We decided to pause for a while.