Up the Moselle and down the Saone by Valerie Helps with photographs by Geoffrey Bull 

Over the winter we left our 11.35m boat de Villehardouin in Toul port de plaisance (marina) in the region of Lorraine (north-eastern France) and rejoined it in April to find burst water pipes, flat batteries and a malfunctioning heating system; mould thrived and the mattresses were damp. Mind you, it had been an unusually cold winter as the canals froze and the locals were riding their scooters along the icy waterways.

Our first few weeks were spent putting things right with the willing help of the staff from the Connoisseur hire boat base and a politically radical plumber from the town, with whom we shared rhubarb tart and many cups of coffee – all in French!

Up the Moselle

In June we finally left port, negotiated three locks and a lift bridge on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin before turning south to join the broad, brown Moselle River as it meandered through heavy forests with little sign of habitation.

In the partially canalised sections of the river which is known as the Canal des Vosges (after the local range of mountains) the trees lean over the waterway leaving little room for boats.

Our out-of-date chart indicated several moorings but those we found were truncated pontoons and occupied and the others didn’t exist. For the first time we found ourselves in a gale on a major river with nowhere to tie up and it was a relief to reach a mooring at a steel works at Neuves-Maisons, where massive 3,000-tonne barges transport metal north to Koblenz in Germany, at the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine.

Next day at lock 46 we were joined by a peripatetic éclusier (lock-keeper) with whom we covered 32km and 16 locks (in seven hours).

Enchanting countryside bright with wildflowers, villages nestling in valleys with delicate church spires but we were unable to linger due to the enforced schedule dictated by our travelling éclusier – or rather by the VNF (Voies Navigables de France – French waterways) and the enforced 35-hour working week that has changed everything on the canals. This hurried pace did not suit us at all.

Fields of hay. 

Canal de l’Est

Between locks 35 and 34 the canal changes its name to Canal de l’Est (branche sud - south) and we finally moored at the port of Charmes for a well-earned day’s rest. Charming it was not!

At the first lock south of Charmes an elderly German couple refused to move their boat closer to the front gates to allow space for a small yacht behind us and an unpleasant contretemps ensued between the éclusier and the man who finally and with ill-grace – pulled his boat forward. Fortunately we seldom experience this kind of rancour; in fact strong friendships are often formed with fellow travellers who then keep in touch for many years.

Epinal, capital of the Vosges district, sits at the end of a 4km side branch of the River Saône and we arrived in the port de plaisance in heavy rain just in time for an outdoor concert.

The programme was titled: “Sea shanties” and “Folk songs from Brittany”. It was the strangest performance; every 20 minutes or so the band, the singers and their matelot-suited dancers would move to a different area of the park for another brief act before abruptly setting off again across the soggy grass and puddled paths to another location.

The middle-aged violinist was totally confused, standing alone in the throng trying to ascertain where he was supposed to be. The only one who seemed to know was the choir mistress who we followed under our umbrellas like wet rats behind the pied piper.

We spent several days in this attractive town leaving early morning to begin the flight of 15 locks only to find a queue including a 25m péniche (working barge) in front of us that held us up throughout the day.

A restaurant advertised at Chaumousey made our mouths water but on arriving at the village found absolutely nowhere to moor; we carried on, disappointed, and tied up against a bank in the middle of nowhere (at PK97 – poteau kilometre marker) under trees full of songbirds and listened enthralled as a nightingale developed his shining repertoire.

Next morning Geoff went hunter-gathering on his bike in search of fresh bread and alimentation (food supplies) but came back with wildflowers so we enjoyed a late breakfast of mushroom omelette sans baguette! Meanwhile the éclusier for the next flight of locks turned up to ask us when we intended to travel; these éclusiers are conscientious and keep an eye on all our movements.

The thunderstorms cleared and we spent a day negotiating alternate manual and automatic locks with the occasional éclusier in attendance. By late afternoon after 18 locks we tied up against a wooded bank near Uzemain where we dined in great style at the Italian restaurant of the “Auberge du Cony” which faces the bridge and canal at Port de Bains.

The delectable three-course repast began with crudités – a huge platter of raw vegetables with tasty dips followed by a main course of veal with home-made pasta followed by péche Melba. We choose an excellent table wine (the bottles were seriously over-priced) and lingered late over coffee and liqueurs as the night air cooled.

Village of Soing. / Main street of Ray Sur Saône. 

The canal south of Port de Bains meanders through green tunnels – stunning with the morning sun slanting through the trees. Finally we were able to travel freely; in place of an éclusier we were given an electronic control box that activated the sensor at the lock gates at about 200m.

However, the first lock refused to budge so I rang the number indicated on the box outside the éclusier’s empty control room and spoke in my best French. No reply. Eventually a young man arrived and when I asked how he knew where we were, he explained that when the lock phone is activated the main switchboard at the VNF office lights up and a video camera allows them to see which lock is malfunctioning.

We spent a few days at Fontenoy-le-Château one of the Crown Blue hire bases; a lovely mooring set amongst shady trees and the sound of rushing water but the 38 degree heat was stifling. Replenishing our dwindling supplies at the weekly market we returned to the boat with fresh produce including herb-laden spit-roasted chicken and golden brown roast potatoes – this is the life!

Fields of sunflowers.The afternoon saw us moored against the bank below écluse 39 in welcome shade, revelling in the quiet of the countryside until the throb of a machine woke us as a man with a mower came charging past, barely stopping to pick up our ropes that were loosely tied to our piquets (stakes). He returned twice throwing weeds, grass seeds and white daisies into the air and all over our decks with abandon – adieu siesta!

Petite Saône

At Corre marina I discovered a washing machine – clean sheets and towels at last – washing in a bucket is totally unsatisfactory. At this point we left the Canal de l’Est and joined the Petite Saône and its fishermen along the grassy banks. The river runs through fields of various crops but there was nowhere to moor till we reached a clump of oaks (at PK397) between two fields of sun-gold hay bales. We abandoned the sweltering boat and spent the evening sipping sharp white wine beneath spreading branches – not a soul around.

In the tiny marina at Fourchécourt we met an American couple on a hire boat who joined us for dinner at the little restaurant run by the Chef du Port. Gayle told us they once tied up to the bank on stakes and went for a leisurely lunch in a nearby village and on returning to the canal found the boat had disappeared!

Golden hay bales.Panic reigned until they spied it drifting sideways across the canal some distance away. She raced ahead, dived in and grabbed a trailing rope and was hauled out by Archie just as a huge péniche (working barge) appeared. Having experienced the loss of a stake we now use two-ringed spikes through which we tie a safety rope attached to the mooring rope so if we are dislodged we don’t lose the stake.

Scey-sur-Saône is dominated by a crusader castle and was one of the prettiest villages we’d seen where the flowers of a huge lime tree were so sweetly scented, the bees swooned and fell to the ground. Ray-sur-Saône – a serious shortage of moorings in the shallow port where one of the hire boats ignored the hauts-fonds (shallows) sign and became firmly stuck.

Mid-day and too windy for comfort so we attempted to moor in the narrow approach to the Rigny écluse – we failed – tied up to a concrete slab while several hire boats jumped the queue to the lock so we opted to remain until the gale dropped. Later we braved the elements and walked into the village to drool at the enticing menu on the gates of the superb château, now a classy hotel and 4-star restaurant.

Auxonne – Fête National du 14 Juillet parade – the brass band.A hire boat full of Americans moored nearby and, dressed in evening elegance set off along the muddy path for an evening of wining and dining. Was I envious? Not at all – our gourmet meal of seared salmon steaks accompanied by a colourful salad was unbeatable as were the generous slices of tarte tartine (traditional apple tart) drenched in crème fraîche. A crisp white wine and Mahler on the CD brought our evening to a close – no 4-star restaurant could beat that! The wind finally blew itself out as the temperature dropped to 13 degrees – could this really be summer?

On arriving at the Connoisseur base at Gray, Geoff arranged for a crane from the workshop above the quay to pump out oil and excess rainwater from the engine sump. We went through the lock and moored below the bridge almost opposite a supermarket where we bought fuel and re-stocked our supplies. In the hilltop château we visited the Baron Martin Museum and an exhibition of the striking works of the French artist Louis Toffoli on the top floor. Gray is rich with 15th century architecture though the town itself seemed a little run down.

Mantoche – another pleasant mooring against a bank shaded by overhanging willows. The weather was turning muggy so we swam in the khaki coloured river while hire boats arrived (and departed) endlessly seeking this free mooring which was overfull. We had a long wait outside lock 17 as the tirette (twister pole) didn’t work – eventually the cheery éclusier arrived and manually opened the lock gates.


Harebell and de Villehardouin.In the evening we tied up against the bank at PK 263 and Geoff barbequed succulent lamb chops with rosemary followed by cantaloupe and yoghurt drenched with honey as Beethoven’s Fifth drifted through the evening air.

On leaving lock 18 we passed the southern entrance to the Canal de la Marne à la Saône and headed south to Auxonne where Napoleon Bonaparte was stationed for three years. We were in no hurry to leave the Petite Saône which is a gorgeous river that meanders gracefully through wild and unspoiled country and we found plenty of places to tie up along its banks.

The pontoon mooring at Auxonne turned out to be a nightmare as screaming jet-skis and water-skiers hurtled past all day causing a tremendous wash that rocked all the boats. This pontoon should be avoided at weekends, however, the fortress town with cobbled streets, mediæval buildings and the Bonaparte museum was worth seeing.

There remains a strong military presence in the town and we watched the cadets on the Fête National du 14 Juillet (Bastille Day) standing to stiff attention as the ceremony took place overlooked by a fine statue of Napoleon. The brass band consisting of mostly portly and elderly musicians did its best with the Marseillaise but for one trumpeter who should have been shot during the revolution.


The Rivers

The Moselle – this northward flowing river rises in the Vosges Mountains in Lorraine at 735m above sea level and flows into the Rhine at Koblenz in Germany. In France the 520km long Moselle is canalised for 152 kilometres and sixteen locks control its flow – these are of standard European size – 176m x 17m to accommodate 1,500 tonne peniches (barges). The river leaves France at Apach and for 37km forms the frontier between Luxembourg and Germany. The Moselle has been in use since ancient time, the Romans used the river to carry supplies to their Rhine legions.

The Saône – this southward flowing river also rises in the Vosges Mountains; nourished by numerous streams and the rivers Doubs and Seille it raises the level of the Rhône in winter. The Saône is navigable from Corre where it meets the northward flowing Moselle. Since antiquity this river has been a major thoroughfare, its alluvial soil facilitating the development of a rich agriculture. The Saône Valley with its historical ports and abundant forests has made this region a favourite haunt for pleasure craft.