French canal holidays offer the discerning traveller a wonderful opportunity to get to heart of French culture, the French countryside and incredible French history. In fact, the history of the waterways is itself long and complex, so when exploring this fabulous country on water, it is almost like you are stepping back in time. |
Getting The Project off the Ground
One of the most popular waterways for French canal holidays is the Burgundy Canal, which began life in the 17th century. From the very start, the idea of the canal was the subject of many a debate and much controversy. Initially, not even the route could be decided on, and in 1696 there were 5 routes under consideration, all connecting the rivers Saône and Yonne. It was difficult to decide on a route as all of the influential parties had a different motive for their choice. The local mayors vied for it to pass as close to their cities and towns as possible for obvious economic reasons, while engineers had their reasons for disagreeing. Local landowners were also causing issues and only agreeing to sell for inflated prices. Once the route was finally agreed at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV, construction began.
Cost of construction was spread between the French state and the Burgundy state but funding was not consistent and the canal was initially only completed on the Saône side, between Dijon and the river itself. Barges began using the canal, although not for French canal holidays, only for trade and commerce.
Work on all aspects of the canal stopped during the Revolution, but during the reign of Napoleon, there was once again enthusiasm for continuing the construction of the canal. In 1822 a loan of 25 million francs helped finance the completion of the project, which involved the complex building of the tunnel that marks the canal’s summit. At over 3km long, the tunnel was a feat of engineering and involved difficult and dangerous work. It took 6 years to complete. The tunnel is wide enough for one barge at a time, so there is a system of traffic control, managed by the local keepers. At first, no tug system was in place and men had to pull on a cable to drag the barge through, but today an electric tug makes the job far easier.
Keeping The Water Supply Up
Keeping the canal full of water has also been an on-going issue, and several reservoirs were built over the course of time to accommodate the requirement. Although the need for water might seem a little obscure, as the canal is fed by the rivers Saône and Yonne, it must be remembered that every time a barge goes through a lock, the canal loses water.
Maintaining the Canal
80% of the lock houses along the side of the canal are still inhabited by the local lock keepers. Other houses, once occupied by maintenance workers, are dotted along the canal, although today they are largely private homes.
At over 242 km long, the Burgundy Canal has endless opportunity for those who organise and those who enjoy French canal holidays. And now, when you are travelling down the winding waterways of Burgundy, you will appreciate a little more how the history of this canal was complex, controversial and anything but straightforward. It was only a long succession of persevering champions who made the completion possible over the course of time.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury French canal holidays. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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