From the top of the limestone escarpment, the Canal du Nivernais appeared no wider than a ribbon, the stationary canal barge no bigger than a toy. The only sound was that of the wind in the treetops far below. How strange to think that this forest was once an ancient seabed, and that sharks had slipped by at eye level. Because I was about as far inland as it was possible to be, halfway along the 110 miles of canalised river that bisected Burgundy, connecting the valley of the Seine in France’s north with the valley of the Loire in the south.
My journey had begun a couple of days earlier in the Gallo-Roman city of Auxerre. ‘Welcome to the Randle,’ Captain Tim Harrold had said as I stepped aboard his barge and adjusted to the sensation of being afloat. I felt much as Mole must have done when he was first brought aboard a riverboat by Ratty. ‘It’s traditional to name your boat after your dearest love’. Tim was saying, ‘but Randle named his barge after himself.’ Tim explained how the original owner of the barge had sourced the ship’s wheel, the portholes and the engine from an eclectic array of vessels, ranging from a Scottish herring boat to an ocean cruise liner that had seen action in the Falklands War.
Tim had moored the Randle for the night, and yet there were still several hours till suppertime, so we returned to the quayside and set off to explore Auxeire. Before long, the evening traffic noise was hushed within a complex lace of medieval streets. Pastel-coloured timber-framed homes reminded me of Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house. Gardenias, wisteria and roses re ached through cast-iron railings. Chocolate shops and patisseries reflected the confectionery nature of the architecture. A 9th-century abbey and a great Gothic cathedral dominated the skyline. An older Romanesque cathedral still crouched within the walls of the Gothic church. A third church, dedicated to St Pierre en Vallee, rivalled the cathedral with its flying buttresses and tower. As the heat of the day faded, and the daylight with it, the streets began to fill with townspeople.
We dined in the tiny and appropriately named La P’tite Beursaude – one whitewashed, wood-beamed room with a red-terracotta tiled floor – and so small it would have been easy to miss but for the blue painted door and baskets of pink geraniums outside. A waitress wearing traditional Morvan dress, with wide lace sleeves, brought us an amuse bouche of oeufs en meurette – tiny quail’s eggs cooked in bourguignon sauce, and a speciality of the house. Two identical twin men, wearing identical paisley shirts, were applauded by their companions as two identical bowls of steaming snails, cooked in Chablis wine, arrived in front of them.
On our way back to the Randle we stopped at a bar and ordered milky absinthe, while a band dressed in jellabas played French-Moroccan fusion, the bass line performed on a euphonium. As we returned to the quayside, the great cathedral of St Etienne blotted out the stars, its windows glittering with their reflections. The music was still audible from the riverbank, and a trace of cigarette smoke mixed with the improbable scent of candyfloss.
In the morning, I woke to the squeals of starlings as they turned in arcs above the quay. We were moving! The Canal du Nivernais was not a canal in the sense that I was used to. In 1784, the River Yonne’s curves were modified by a system of locks and weir-like barrages to enable the river traffic to reach the higher ground upstream. As a result of this, the canal, for the most part, runs along one bank of the river. Its original function was to carry firewood to Paris, in a process known as flottage du bois, and in its heyday the river was clotted with timber bound into woo den rafts until there was no more wood left to cut. The great forests that surround the river today have sprang up from the stamps of thousands of acres of felled trees. In later years, grain, stone, wine and coal replaced the wood as cargo, although today the only traffic is that of leisure boats.