13 October 2014

Starting Up the Canal de Bourgogne

On Thursday afternoon, 28 August we had entered le canal de Bourgogne, passed through the first lock and had stopped for the night in Migennes. Ahead of us were another 188 locks and 242 kilometres back to le Saône.

After a relaxing breakfast on Friday morning, we headed up canal. We were delighted to see so many rental boats in the LeBoat base as we left Migennes and even more thrilled to see a full house at the Nichols base in Brienon two locks further along. This meant that there would be few bangy boats endangering us along the way.

The lock houses along this section of the canal are small, but very attractively designed and many of them are well-maintained and decorated by their occupants. We got into a relaxed routine passing through the locks, tossing our lines up to loop the bollards, stopping beside the ladder so I could climb up to help close the gates, then help opening the gates before motoring out toward the next lock.

We were looking forward to some pleasant locks on our own, but when we arrived at the next lock, l’éclusier told us we had to wait for another up-bound boat. After a few minutes, a rental boat came zigzagging toward the lock.

The skipper continued to oversteer all the way into the chamber, managing to hit both corners on the way by. 

We resigned ourselves to an extra five to ten minutes per lock as our new companions bumbled in, fumbled with their lines and then scraped their way out of the chamber. Waiting for them caused us to be too late to make Écluse St-Florenitn before the lunch break. We had planned on stopping for the day in St-Florentin, but the moorage is through the lock and we had to wait an hour for l’éclusier to return from the noon break. We locked through and at 1320 stopped beneath some large trees just upstream of the lock.

We heard what we thought was a stone hitting the boat and looked around to find the responsible kids. There was another thunk on the deck, but no stone throwers were in sight. Then we saw a walnut bounce off the roef and onto the side deck. We were sitting beneath walnut trees with a heavy, mature load. We grabbed the boathook and assisted the nut fall.

On the hilltop of St-Florentin sits a beautiful gothic church, which was begun in 1500. On its doors are signs indicating that a door key is available in l’office de tourisme.

Saturday morning we got the key, let ourselves in and as instructed, locked the door behind us. We were the only people in the church and we wandered in awe of the spectacular interior.  

Église St-Florentin is famous for its many stained glass windows of the Troyenne school, which was reaching its high point as the church was being completed. Very few intact examples remain outside this church.

The Troyenne school is notable for its use of bright reds, rich blues, emerald greens and silvery yellows. 

It also used subtle grey tones to add shadows and dimension to bodies, clothing and objects.  

The organ dates to 1620. It has been restored and is still in use with its cabinet and many of the pipes original.

For over an hour we were totally alone and undisturbed as we absorbed the beauty of the church interior. We then locked-up, returned the key to the tourist office and went shopping for fresh provisions in the Saturday morning street market. We arrived back at Zonder Zorg shortly before noon and harvested more walnuts while the locks closed for the lunch hour.

At 1240 we slipped and continued up canal, timing our departure to have us at the next lock as it reopened. Écluse St-Germigny is a former double lock reworked to a single one over five metres high. Fortunately, l’éclusier was on the chamber top to take our lines; it would be nearly impossible to loop lines around unseen bollards from Zonder Zorg’s low decks.

Among the things we have noticed with canal de Bourgogne is that there are very few waiting facilities at the locks. The banks are usually very shallow and rubble-strewn. There is seldom a safe place to moor to await the preparation of a lock. Fortunately, Zonder Zorg has a spud pole, which allows us to be very creative in mooring and in waiting for locks.  We’ll often drop the spud and grab overhanging branches to stabilize the stern.

Where there are no branches, a pole lashed to the aft gunwale and jabbed into the bank will keep the stern off the crud. Here, a bollard is nearly all that remains of a collapsed wall and the pole keeps our stern off the rubble with a line holding us in while we anticipate a huge wake to be set-up by a down-bound rental boat. We have no idea why they all seem to want to get up to hull speed immediately out of the lock.

While we were waiting for a down-bound boat to lock through, a zigzagging rental caught up to us. It was the same one we had shared locks with the previous day. After slowing us again for a few locks with their incompetence, while exiting Écluse Flogny they appear to have collided with two down-bound boats that were waiting to enter the lock. We didn’t see the collision happen; we just heard the loud crashes and turned to see the jumble of the aftermath. With the lock keeper close at hand there was no need to call authorities, with the shallow water a holed boat wouldn’t sink very much and even the injured could step ashore. We decided there was nothing we could offer that wouldn’t add to the confusion, so we continued along under the Flogny-la-Chapelle bridge. We had the remaining five locks of the day to ourselves.

In the late afternoon, after twelve locks and twenty-five kilometres, we secured to bollards in the basin in Tonnerre.

Tonnerre is on the Armaçnon River and was established at a crossroads: north-south between Auxerre and Troyes and east-west between Dijon and Paris. The settlement was enhanced by the Romans and called Tornodurum. The following morning we headed into the centre of town, about a kilometre south of the canal across bridges over two branches of the river and the railway tracks. The focal point of the old town is the imposing structure of l'Hôtel Dieu de Tonnerre, the largest civil monument in the Burgundy.

Construction on the charitable hospital began in 1293 and in 1295 the first patients were admitted. La Grande Salle des Pauvres housed the poor in forty wooden cubicles along its walls, and at 96 metres it is the longest medieval hospital in Europe. Its immense roof is supported by massive curved wooden arches. For several centuries the building served as a model for architects and in 1443 the famous Hospices de Beaune was based on its design. 

The hospital was built by Marguerite de Bourgogne, Countess of Tonnerre and Queen of Sicily, Naples and Jerusalem. She was the widow of Charles of Anjou who was the brother of the King of France, Saint Louis. Besides donating the hospital, she became a servant of the poor, nursing invalids and comforting the dying and she was broadly respected and admired. Her original tomb was destroyed during the Revolution, along with other vestiges of royalty and the revolutionaries used the building to store hay and straw. In 1826 a fine white marble replacement of Queen Marguerite's tomb was erected. 

Fortunately, the fifteenth century sculpture of the entombment of Christ was not destroyed. This magnificent piece is considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved representatives of mid-millennium Burgundian art.

Carved into the floor stones and spanning the width of the great hall is a set of meridian lines. The light of the sun projected through a pinhole in the south wall falls on the meridian line at noon. There are also indications of 1145 and 1215, and the instrument is a very precise measure of time.

The position of the spot of light along the ellipses across the floor, which represent the sun’s progression along its ecliptic, indicates the day of the year.

In display rooms at the western end of the building is a wonderful scale model of the roof structure. 

The model is about four metres long and is set on trestles to allow close examination not only of the exterior, but also of the interior. 

We did an extended examination of displays that include Queen Marguerite’s favourite ring, the golden cross she wore around her neck containing a piece of wood from Christ’s crucifixion cross, the original 1293 charter for the hospital and her last will and testament.

It was late morning by the time we had left the hospice and headed along narrow, winding streets toward l’église Saint-Pierre perched on a rock high above the medieval centre of the town. 

Along the way we came to la Fosse Dionne. This circular basin is fed by a spring in the hillside behind it and once served as a public wash place. 

We climbed a steep trail with winding stone stairs leading to the church and were soon well above the rooftops. We had a splendid view across town to the huge roof of l’Hospice de Tonnerre.

We arrived at the church at the top of the hill to find it closed. Parts of the church date to the ninth century, but the literature reports that it has undergone many modifications and restorations over the centuries. We wound our way down the hill, through a park and along the streets back to Zonder Zorg. Our minds and souls were so filled with images and information that we decided to take the remainder of the day off.

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