Our inland journey through France pt.2

The diary

69 days through France… We had snow, been stuck in ice and sailed on rainy and very windy days. OK…I do admit, it sounds a bit dramatic. Yes, it was often cold as we were traveling in autumn and winter but luckily we also had very sunny days, especially on the Saône and Rhône river. These notorious rivers were actually very kind to us when we traveled on them.

We absolutely loved our trip through inland France. Would we do it again? No, but that’s because of all the locks we had to pass through and the condensation our boat had to deal with on those cold days.
The nature, however, was amazing. Very varied and surprising. Forests, hills, snow-capped mountains, snow-covered fields, plains, fields of flowers, vineyards, … We saw so many beautiful places along the way.
And let’s not forget the many birds (kingfishers, herons, birds of prey, European cranes, …) that flew alongside our boat. They accompanied us, amazed us and somehow gave us a reassuring feeling.

Below is an excerpt from my daily diary and the adventure of our journey through France. Enjoy reading it.

Before entering France

To give a short summary of how we started this sailing adventure and how we ended up in France, let me take you back to August 2022. We had just moved to our boat and up until October, we sailed through Zeeland and South Holland in The Netherlands to get used to the feeling of living aboard full-time our 10 meters vessel.

In October we sailed back to Antwerp, unstepped the mast and built a construction to place it on our deck. We then left Antwerp at the end of October and first traveled through Belgium (via the Scheldt river). In Flanders, we passed Willebroek, Ghent, Oudenaarde, Avelgem-Kerkhove, Bossuit before crossing the border into Wallonia. We then stopped in Antoing and Péronnes-lez-Antoing, communication was now already in French so we had a good practice on how to communicate in ‘boat language’. Écluse (lock), en aval (downstream), en amont (upstream), amarrer (to moor), la courante (the current), bâbord (starboard side), tribord (port side). To name but a few.

Happy faces when we entered France.

Entering France via l’Escaut

Our first stop was at Mortagne-du-Nord. We found a long quay wall, tied up and immediately took off our sailing clothes and lifejackets to go for a walk. Whenever we moor, we always like to explore the surrounding area. Although it’s a rather small town, there are some very nice hiking opportunities. We stayed here for two nights before continuing our journey.

Our next stop was Fresnes. We saw in our guide that they had a halte nautique there just after the lock. It looked like a great place to spend the night. Unfortunately, we are still a sailboat and this means that an insufficient depth is an issue. Giving up is not an option in my opinion so we tried mooring at the jetty from all directions without any luck. We decided to keep going and hopefully find a place along the way.
Well, that was a disappointment… We just couldn’t find a place to stop. I called ValEscaut, the marina in Valenciennes where I had made a reservation and told them that we would be arriving earlier. It was getting dark and we were getting tired and a bit frustrated that we couldn’t find any other place to moor our boat.
We were quite happy when we saw the harbour. Finally, we could stop and get a rest or so we thought, but luck was not on our side that day. We just couldn’t get into Valenciennes harbour, the entrance was too shallow and we got stuck several times. We tried again from all directions. I called the harbour master and told her that we had run aground several times and that she should cancel the reservation. By this time we were really annoyed, it was dark, we were hungry and cold. Our only option now was to call the lock keeper and ask if we could stay at the waiting pier of the lock. He gave us his permission so we slept at the pier where large commercial vessels passed by. Let’s just say it wasn’t that very comfortable.

Sometimes you have to have a bad day to appreciate the good ones. We didn’t see Valenciennes, but the next day we found a good halte nautique in Denain. It wasn’t the prettiest, but it was safe and there was a good swimming pool and spa nearby. We also visited a huge Carrefour where you could spend half a day just wandering around the aisles.

The halte nautique in Denain.

After Denain, we passed the last big lock on l’Escaut and were given our first remote control. I stared at the little device in my hand and thought it was so cool that we were allowed to press a button to operate the locks ourselves. I’d read about them in the guides we’d bought and now I had one in my hand. So cool! 🙂
You press a button to open the lock, sail into the lock, press another button to start the whole locking process and then the doors open automatically. At least, they should open automatically, we waited and waited at the third lock but the doors remained closed. Fortunately, VNF is just a phone call away to help you out. Locks are prone to breaking and we experienced this many times during our canal adventure but we had a great service from VNF.

El Burro in one of the many locks we passed.

The first major town we visited was Cambrai. We moored in the port of Cantimpré. It was actually closed (as most ports are in winter) but there was space and we had free electricity and water (but no access to the sanitary building). We enjoyed a weekend with good friends in Cambrai, had good conversations and ate good food.

Cold nights on the canal of Saint-Quentin

The weather got much colder. Our mooring lines felt stiff and a layer of ice formed on our deck. Our fenders felt rock hard and one of them even exploded when it hit the lock wall. In the locks, we could hear the ice cracking under our bow. Winter was just around the corner.

After a night of -7°C, we woke up to find the Saint-Quentin canal covered in a 2.5 cm layer of ice. We had an appointment to go through the Riqueval tunnel so we had to keep going. Our speed was limited to 1.5 knots as our boat had to plough through the hard ice. We were moving so slowly and the noise was deafening. Everything inside was vibrating from the pressure our boat was putting on the ice. Nelly, our cat, was so frightened because she couldn’t place where the loud noise was coming from.

Not only did the ice on the canal bother us (although we have to admit that the ice-covered landscape was quite magical), but there was a tangle of underwater vegetation under our boat. After every lock, we had to check our engine and the operation of our propeller and empty our strainer.

We made it to the waiting pier before the Riqueval tunnel and stayed there overnight. The next morning, we heard a chain rattle. Our tug had arrived to pull us through the tunnel. We attached ourselves to the tug with Y-shaped mooring ropes and before we knew it we were sailing into the tunnel.
The history of this tunnel is quite amazing. It was opened in 1810 by order of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the beginning, the boats were towed by manpower, with 7 to 8 men pulling a ship through the tunnel in 12 to 14 hours. Later it was done by horses, which reduced the time to 6 to 7 hours. Afterwards they tried it with a steam-powered tug but the smoke caused suffocation problems, so the electric tugboat was introduced in 1910. The passage through the 5670 meter long tunnel took about 2 hours.

Getting towed through the Riqueval tunnel.

The locks on the Saint-Quentin canal worked differently. We still had a remote control which we used to open the doors but now we had to pull a blue lever to start the locking process.

As the temperature remained -5°C degrees, we decided to stop, moor our boat and wait for the temperature to rise above freezing-point. Our boat was stuck in a thick layer of ice for 3 days and we just relaxed and chilled on the boat. As soon as the temperature rose above 0°C degrees, we untied the mooring ropes. We soon realized that the ice was even thicker than we had expected and our boat had to pass through 5 cm thick layers of ice. Fortunately the ice melted over the next few days.

Stuck in ice on the Saint-Quentin canal.

The many dead animals in the canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne

As we entered the canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne, we saw more hills and open plains alternating with dense forests. We also noticed a lot of dead animals floating in the water. Drowned and unable to climb out of the canals because of the high walls. This became a constant throughout our trip. Deer, wild boar, foxes and even a single cat was floating lifelessly in the canals.

Easy-going canal lateral à l’Aisne

A canal without difficulties. No locks, no ice, no water plants and no branches in the water. Finally, we came across living mammals again, two beaver rats (or coypus; did you know that they are not native to France but come from South America?).

Each canal comes with another landscape.

Celebrating Christmas on the canal de l’Aisne à la Marne

Another new lock system. Still a big question mark as to why the way locks are operated is not the same on every canal. We now had to manoeuvre our boat next to a pole suspended over the water and then turn the pole. It took us a while to figure out what to do from the vague instructions on the sign.
I remember that the locks on this canal were quite tricky as we had to go up with a difference of almost 3 meters. It was a real challenge to throw ropes from our boat around the bollards which were at the very top of the lock wall and then position our boat correctly to push the blue lever up.

We visited the beautiful city of Reims, the city where many French kings have been crowned and famous for its rich history and huge Christmas market.
The best example of Gothic art in the city is the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It had been badly damaged over the years but has undergone extensive restoration. We were overwhelmed by all the detail on the façade and the interior was also beautiful with the colourful stained glass windows and the imposing vaults.
We strolled through the streets, admiring the architectural splendour of some of the buildings and visited the Christmas market with over 150 stalls.

The impressive Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims.

As our mooring spot in Reims was located next to a busy road, we decided to spend Christmas Eve in Sillery in peace and quiet. Close to the port of Sillery, you have a store, gas station, gas outlet and a national park. Very handy for us liveaboards to stock-up. My eldest brother came to visit for a day which was a pleasant surprise.

Celebrating our first Christmas Eve on our El Burro.

Family quality time on the canal latéral à la Marne

Just after New Year, my sister came to visit us in Châlons-en-Champagne. The harbour was full but we managed to find a place on a long quay with a few bollards, just opposite a small island, L’île aux oiseaux. Châlons-en-Champagne was quite charming, thanks to the many half-timbered houses that give the town its authenticity. We really enjoyed the family time before moving on to the next and last canal of our trip.

Moored in Châlons-en-Champagne.

Too many locks on the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne

The longest canal of our trip with a total of 114 (rather slow-opening) locks, 2 tunnels, 10 aqueducts and 17 moveable bridges.

Not long after entering this canal we saw these strange looking creatures in a field nearby. At first we really thought they were emus but why the hell would there be wild emus in France? After a thorough search, we realized they were actually European Cranes. When they flew over, they made a funny trumpeting sound.
We had other things fly by as we sailed along this canal. Jet fighters! Boy, are they noisy, but it was quite impressive to see them take off.

We moored at a rather special halte nautique at a beautiful looking hotel. At first we thought we’d tied up in someone’s garden by mistake. We were able to take a shower (the staff shower so not the most fancy one), had electricity and water and did our laundry at a very reasonable price.
This halte was located in Joinville where we explored the quaint little streets, walked up to the viewpoint for an amazing view over the town and tried a pizza machine for the first time. As we were not allowed to sail on this canal at weekends, we enjoyed a few days here. Other towns we visited during our trip on the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne were Chaumont and Langres. In Langres friends came to visit and we enjoyed playing board games together.

Enjoying the viewpoint and the sunny weather in Joinville.

The locks were sometimes a real struggle, especially the ascending ones. Getting the rope around the bollard was a challenge and the many aquatic plants in the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne didn’t help. At the beginning of our trip through France we were very excited about entering the locks. Now we were a bit tired of them. Too many locks on the way.

As well as the locks, the weather also took us by surprise. Storm Gérard came through…That day we were soaked and cold, strong winds blew our boat against the lock walls. The next day, a white carpet of snow slowly covered the landscape. Our fingers were frozen as we grasped the mooring ropes in each lock. Luckily, we had a good heater on board to warm the boat up quickly. And to be honest, it was quite magical to be cycling through a beautiful snowy landscape, with deer frolicking in a nearby field, in the middle of France. By now we had seen almost every weather scenario.


Going fast on the Saône

At least it felt that way. With the current we were going a good 2-3 knots faster than on the canals. The water was wider, the occasional tree floated by and we came across commercial shipping again.

Our first port of call was Auxonne’s Port Royal. It was a strange feeling to be back in a real harbour with 150 berths. Auxonne is a fortified town and has a rich heritage of military buildings still in use today. Even Napoleon Bonaparte attended the artillery school here from 1788 to 1791.

A white heron looking for fish in Auxonne.

The next larger town we visited was Chalon-sur-Saône. The harbour is very well located, close to a commercial centre and within walking distance of the city centre and L’île Saint-Laurent with its many restaurants. The city is renowned for its rich history and cultural attractions. It is also the birthplace of Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography. The Niépce Photographic Museum, where you can discover the history of photography, is free to visit, as is the Vivant-Denon museum, which houses archaeological and ethnographic objects, sculptures and graphic works.

Our next stop after Chalon-en-Saône was Macon. Here, we met up with other boaters. Two Dutch people on a motorboat (our adventure together ended quite surprisingly. I won’t go into detail here but you can read more about it on Polarsteps) and a fellow sailor.

The Saône is quite beautiful although we preferred the Rhône. When we were on the Saône, the river was calm and peaceful and for the first time we saw snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance.

A peaceful Saône.

Amazing nature on the Rhône

The nature around us was breathtaking. We finally saw the many vineyards for which the region is famous and were almost on a daily level surrounded by hills and snow-capped mountains. We loved the halte nautique at Ampuis. No facilities, but the spectacular view took our breath away.

The view in Ampuis.
The stunning Rhône.

The cities we visited on this river were Valence and Avignon. The port of Valence is tricky if you have a keel. We ran aground trying to berth in our box which was quite a challenge knowing that the harbinger of the mistral was blowing hard. At least Valence was quite a nice city with a spacious feel.
Avignon is definitely a must. Made famous by the children’s song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’, the city is much more than just the bridge. The sun was shining brightly and the atmosphere was convivial. People were enjoying the beautiful weather on a terrace or a bench, as if it were summer already.
We strolled through the streets, visited the beautiful Rocher des Doms park, looked at the Italian paintings in the Musée du Petit Palais and chatted with some travelers from Brussels in front of the Palais des Papes while a street musician echoed her angelic songs in the background. You can get lost in the narrow streets, discover the many cosy shops, enjoy a coffee on a sunny terrace or take in the scents and colours of the market hall. We thoroughly enjoyed Avignon!

Charming streets in Valence.
Enjoying Avignon.

We were lucky with the weather when we sailed on the Rhône. The Mistral only blew for one weekend so we made good progress. Before we knew it, we were at the end of the river, ready to enter the lock at Port-Saint-Louis. As soon as we entered the port, we immediately got that Mediterranean holiday feeling and were very proud to have made it this far with our boat, El Burro.

* Read the first part of this blog (part 1) to find out how we prepared.
* More insights on traveling through France by boat in part 3.
* Follow sailingelburro on Instagram for travel pictures.

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