The Nivernais Canal is part of a circular ring of four canals through Burgundy. Less than 2 hours by slow train from Paris, it takes you through some of the loveliest countryside in central France. You can explore medieval villages, centuries-old vineyards and fortified chateaux, and enjoy French food and wine at its best.
The canal was once a major transport route, supplying timber to Paris, the logs from local forests floated down the river in rafts. Today the canal is focussed on recreation for boaters, tourists, hikers and cyclists. There are five companies offering hire boats and many hotel barges cruising between Auxerre and Clamecy.
The one-week route from Tannay to Migennes covers 100 km with 49 locks and requires only 24 hours of direct cruising. The canal winds through the countryside past small, picturesque villages and hamlets passing with names like Clamecy, Vezelay, Chatel Censoir, and Vermenton.
To a visitor, the entire region is based on wine – production, marketing and consumption – and every village has something to taste and sample. You have ample time to explore the area, visit the local markets, taste local wine and cheese, and enjoy the beautiful scenery that unfolds round every corner.
The Canal du Nivernais is part river and part canal. You cruise on the River Yonne from Clamecy to Auxerre, and here the locks change from rural to industrial.
The boat company provides you with a detailed guide book in English, and the route is very easy to follow. Finding a place with water and electricity to moor overnight is not difficult. There are different charges for mooring in different places and some villages don’t charge at all. We had very hot weather so moored in shade as much as possible.
The villages are small and many only have only one restaurant which isn’t always open; weekly markets are held on different days in different places. If you are barging it’s important to plan and book ahead.
The locks were all working well and the lock keepers were mostly friendly, some with a smattering of English, and grateful to have some help operating the manual locks.
Locks in the countryside typically have a small house for the lock-keeper who may be required to cover 3-4 locks using a small car or van. On first contact it is strongly advisable to make arrangements to ensure the next few locks will be opened for the next few hours, always mindful of the lock-keepers all-important break for lunch.
Notable places to moor up:
Many boaters moor up for a night or two in Auxerre, the largest town on the Canal, capital of the Yonne department and the fourth-largest city in Burgundy.
Auxerre's population today is about 35,000. The main town centre up on the hill is a good area for catching up on shopping, with many bistro and street cafes.
Auxerre has several fine monuments including its 13th century cathedral.
The area is famous for its production of fine Burgundy wine, particularly Chablis,which is a white wine made from the Chardonnay grape. From Auxerre you can visit the town of Chablis by bus or taxi. The town has many overpriced wine bars and restaurants and is full of visitors in summer. You can taste the same wine and eat at lower prices in neighbouring villages.
Rochers de Saussois
Amongst the most spectacular sites on the Canal are the Rochers du Saussois, a series of 50-metre-high limestone cliffs beside the river, much enjoyed by climbers. There is a very good restaurant at the base of the cliffs, open for lunch only.
Caves of Bailly
The Canal du Nivernais passes through many vineyards and wine villages. Wine lovers should make a point of visiting the Caves de Bailly Lapierre. In the Middle Ages these quarries were tunnelled into the side of a hill, and supplied stone for the Notre-Dame de Paris and Chartres Cathedral.
Today these underground caves inside a mountain cover an area of four hectares, and provide unique natural conditions to mature sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne (equivalent to Champagne – delicious!).
The Caves Bailly Lapierre is run by a co-operative of 71 winegrowers who sell their crémant and a huge selection of other wine varieties, on site in the caves. Guided tours and tastings are available daily in the summer months and the cool interior provides relief from the midsummer heat.
After reaching our departure point at Migennes a day early, we continued to the quiet town of Joigny. It’s a good place to wander through the narrow streets with their many half-timbered houses, art and craft shops.
From the mooring point over the bridge across the river, we had a beautiful view of the town centre and its three churches before and after a thunderstorm.