Canal Cruising in Burgundy, France. Part One

A French canal cruise has been on the top of my bucket list for years so Tom and I were delighted to accept an invitation to cruise the canals and rivers in Burgundy with France Afloat.

Our self- drive cruise would take us along the Canal de Bourgogne , the River Yonne and the Canal du Nivernais for a five day journey on board Ziggy, a new and elegant boat in the France Afloat range.  Commencing in Tonnerre, we will travel along the canals and L’Yonne to reach our destination of Vermenton.

Tom testing the controls of Ziggy at our starting port of Tonnerre


We arrived in Tonnerre in the same torrential rain we had left behind at our home in the Limousin, four hours drive south west.  Summer in France can be unpredictable but as the rain clouds disappeared we were able to explore Tonnerre, a town nestled on the banks of the Canal de Bourgogne.

The Fosse Dionne in central Tonnerre, a karst spring dating from Roman times and once the wash basin for the town


Finding the France Afloat base was easy and we were thrilled to find Ziggy, our home for the next five nights ready and waiting for us.

Ziggy is a new, spacious boat equipped with two double bedrooms, kitchen, showers and two toilets. Much more luxurious than we had anticipated!

The spacious and elegant interior of our boat
DAY 1   Tonnerre to St Florentin

Canal de Bourgogne

Our day started early with a comprehensive lesson in boat handling and safety by the knowledgeable Chris, France Afloat’s local representative.  A barrage of information left us a little overwhelmed but soon we were on our way with Chris guiding us through our first ecluse (lock).

Ecluses  operate on all of the canals and rivers in this part of France’s waterways and thankfully in this region they are all manned which makes the passage through much easier and quicker.   Tom had studied several videos of how to operate an lock prior to departing  but as boating novices the reality was a little frightening given we had the responsibility of this new and expensive boat.

The technique for using a lock is quite simple:

  • Wait for the gates to open,   In some cases this could mean hovering your boat in the canal  for up to 20 minutes as there could be another boat coming through the lock.
  • Move forward in to the lock.   This can be precarious as some locks seem quite narrow and there could be another boat inside as well – the lock keepers will try and fit as many boats as possible in to one lock to save time.
  • Throw your ropes over the bollards to keep the boat steady as the water either rises of falls depending if you are travelling upstream or downstream.
  • Hold the ropes for your dear life and try not to argue with your partner as to whose fault it may be if the boat moves about in the lock as the water rises or falls.


  • Once the water is level and still the lock keeper will open the gates for your to proceed on your way.


Sound easy, right?    In theory it is, but on our first day the eleven locks were a challenge and it seemed the rain gods were having a laugh at us as the skies poured at almost  each lock.

Tom soon had Ziggy under control and we were able to enjoy the serenity of the Canal de Bourgogne with it’s lush green scenery as we cruised along at a leisurely pace.   Locks close for an hour during the midday and we found this the perfect opportunity to pull over and enjoy our lunch on deck.

Lunch break on the Canal de Bourgogne


As we continued on our journey we were greeted at each lock by the lovely lock keepers, most of whom were university students earning some holiday money.   The Ecluse stations were all decorated with flowers and well tended gardens which made our days even more magical.

A typical Ecluse (lock) station along the canals.


As our first day of cruising neared an end, we arrived in the pretty town of Saint Florentin, our stop for the night and home to a large and fairly crowded marina.    The marina manager greeted us and directed Tom to a bay to park Ziggy.   Naturally, on our  first day of boating, this was not going to be and easy task as Tom needed to reverse the boat in to our assigned position alongside other large moored boats.

The marina became  crowded with curious onlookers and boat owners of various nationalities performing charades on the dock as to the best way for Tom to reverse a large boat in to a small space.

St Florentin Marina


A little stressed, wet and tired we finally managed to moor along side a lovely Swiss couple in their boat.  Our hot shower was a blessing and after a few verres de vin rouge and a quick dinner we congratulated ourselves on our new found skills then slept like babies.

Our first day on the waterways had been exciting, challenging and wonderful.   Follow us along with Part Two of this story as we cruise the canal to the busy and fast flowing River Yonne.  Then we take a left turn on to  the beautiful Canal Du Nivernais, enjoying the abundant wildlife and stopping at some lovely towns along the way to our final destination of Vermenton.


St Florentin Marina at sunset


For more information on this and other cruising options with France Afloat