The beautiful Canal du Nivernais lies just to the north east of the centre of France, and it is about 4.75 hours' drive from Calais. It runs from its northermost terminus in Auxerre, in the department of Yonne, to its southernmost end, by the town of Decize, in the department of Nièvre. It links the River Seine to the River Loire, via the River Yonne in the north and the River Aron in the south. It is part man-made, and part canalised river. It's 108 miles long, with 112 locks.
Auxerre is a lovely town with a pedestrianised cobbled medieval centre and plenty of character. It is the biggest town on the canal, with a population of about 35,000. Its prosperity developed from transporting wine and timber along the river to Paris. The countryside around the city is dotted with vineyards, and there is a great deal to do here, with enough shopping, cafes and restaurants to last a lifetime. You can hire boats and book cruises a few paces from the town centre.
Larger towns not your thing? Let's set off along the Canal du Nivernais. The first part of the canal cuts through the modern outskirts of Auxerre, where you will pass a sports complex and some educational buildings, but you soon move out into open countryside. This part of the canal is at a lower altitude, and a little bland, but once you get past the little hamlet of Vaux, the scenery steadily becomes more picturesque.
I do love a proper village with a square and a cafe, so one village set a little way off from the waterway makes it onto my personal shortlist: Champs-sur-Yonne. It is a beautiful village, with some attractive houses.
Some villages don't make it onto the list. Some suffer from having a busier road through their centre, some are too small to have a single shop, and some have no 'heart'. These include Escolives Saint Camille, Bailly, famous for its wine cellars in caves. We can pause at Vincelles, which has a good seasonal creperie, but scoot past Cravant, Bazarnes, Sainte-Pallaye, Pregilbert, and Sery.
I get more excited about properties when we get to Mailly-la-Ville, and expecially Mailly-le-Château, which has a good handful of shops and attractive architecture. The upper village of Mailly-le-Château boasts the eponymous 14th-century fortified château and a 13th-century church.
As you arrive at the tiny hamlet of Merry-sur-Yonne, the landscape continues to change. The canalised river passes below the Rochers du Saussois, an outcrop of 50 metre limestone cliffs, where there are some spectacular views.
Now we arrive at Châtel-Censoir, where a small railway runs alongside the canal. Near the marina, you can cross the railway to find the attractive small town, which has a square and a smattering of bars, restaurants and local shops - enough to meet your daily needs. I like the almost Cotswold-coloured stone properties in this area.
The next settlement you get to is the tiny hamlet of Lucy-sur-Yonne.
Beyond Lucy, we reach Coulanges-sur-Yonne, which is over the river from the canal. This is a pleasant small town, with some pretty back streets, but I think it lacks some of the charm and heritage of Châtel-Censoir, and it is a bit blighted by the busier roads running through it, especially the N151. (N roads are national strategic truck routes).
The canal now leaves the Yonne department and enters the Nièvre. This area is totally rural and consists of beautiful undulating farmland dotted with hamlets and villages. As in England, several of these scattered villages are linked by the twin routes of the railway and the canal. The first such settlement is the small canalside hamlet of Pousseaux, followed closely by Surgy, just over the river. Surgy is a sweet little village, but not really on the waterway, and if you are looking for everyday essentials, you won't find them here either.
Now, almost unexpectedly, we arrive at Clamecy, the half way point down the Canal du Nivernais. If you are looking for a bigger settlement where you can reach the canal and a town on foot, this could fit the bill. At its heart is the medieval old town, which is a Secteur Sauvegardé, (a protected sector). However, in common with other larger towns, it can be a bit depressed outside of the centre. The population is falling gradually, but it still had 3,594 inhabitants in 2020, and it remains a vibrant, bustling town, with plenty of shops, even a few estate agents, and a good choice of bars and restaurants. It also has a great Saturday market.
Clamecy is a thriving cultural area with a busy programme of events. If you visit in the summer, don't miss the Tournament du Roi Sec on Bastille Day (July 14th) when a boat on the River Yonne becomes the venue for a floating joust. The last person standing on the boat at the end of the afternoon is crowned as the 'Dry King', and is carried through the streets by his vanquished opponents. Finally, you may want to check out the Romain Rolland Museum, where there is an exhibition dedicated to the canal and its industrial heritage.
Not far from Clamecy the canal passes the neighbouring hamlets of Armes, Chevroches and Chantenot. These are within easy reach of Clamecy if you would prefer to be in a rural location, but just outside a town. Chevroches is particularly lovely, with some quite desirable property, especially up on the hill.
After more farmland we reach Villiers-sur-Yonne, a delightful little canalside village, but with almost no facilities.
Next the canal reaches the larger village of Brèves, just across the river. This is an agricultural village, surrounded by rolling farmland. Attractive though it is, it lacks the facilities I would like in my French home from home.
Asnois is a lovely village, home to a fascinating brocante (antique/junk shop), but almost nothing in the way of facilities. Cuzy and Saint Didier are even smaller, although Saint Didier has a gem of a cafe on the towpath beside the canal called Yep & Pèt’. Understandably in this remote location, it's only seasonal.
Now we pass the small riverside village of Monceaux-le-Comte, a really great village, with some nice properties. It has the quirky claim to fame of hosting an annual ‘Singer Street Race’ in which old sewing machines are pimped up with wheels and remote controls and race around an obstacle course through the village!
Next comes the cute as a button canalside hamlet of Dirol. A good new restaurant has just opened up here. Beyond this is the small village of Marigny-sur-Yonne, which also has a seasonal canalside cafe, and the neighbouring hamlets of Chaumot and Chitry-les-Mines. Sadly, none of these settlements have shops for everyday essentials.
For a bigger settlement you have to go a little further down the road from the canal, to Corbigny. This is a well established local town, straddling the attractive River Anguison. It had a population of 1,525 in 2015. Although it lacks the medieval heart which is so enchanting in other French market towns, it is still a pleasant place, with plenty of shops, bars, and restaurants, and some impressive older buildings.
The canal now leaves the River Yonne on a sour note, passing through some rather ugly quarries. However, it soon emerges and climbs through 12 km of lovely countryside, up 28 locks in all, including the 16 locks of the échelle de Sardy (literally the 'Sardy ladder'). Finally, at the summit, it meets the Étang de Baye, where there is fishing, swimming, and sailing to enjoy.
The next settlement is the little agricultural hamlet of Bazolles which, despite its diminutive stature, has a café-tabac, a teeny weeny post office, and a large tractor shop! I was charmed by the ancient shoe shop which advertises sabots (tradional clogs). There is a long and proud history of clog making in the area. Does anyone know whether the shop is still running?
From here the canal continues southwards. Beside the lock near the hamlet of Roche is the splendid Écluse de Chavance bar/restaurant.
The next little canalside hamlet is Mont-et-Marré, with a little over a hundred and fifty inhabitants, but no facilities to speak of.
The River Aron approaches the canal here, and the two waterways converge at the next settlement, Châtillon-en-Bazois. The population was just under a thousand in 2015. One half of the village has a château set on a hill, looped on three sides by the canal and the river, overlooking the small marina, and enjoying spectacular views. The other half of the village is based around the high street, which has a good range of shops, services, bars and restaurants. Despite this promise, Châtillon-en-Bazois doesn't have a characterful heart, as it is ranged along a long straight D road.
South of Châtillon-en-Bazois the canal meanders back and forth through gorgeous open countryside alongside the River Aron. Eventually it reaches the large hamlet of Panneçot, which sprawls on each side of the canal, river and railway track. There is a restaurant here, but little else.
The River Alène joins the River Aron at Cercy-la-Tour, and the canal widens, forming a fairly substantial basin. The settlement is quite large, indeed, in 2019, the population was just over 1,700. This is perhaps a small town rather than a village. It spreads along the D10 road on both sides of the canal. The older town is near the canal, and is famous for its huge statue, Notre Dame Du Nivernais, which is perched on a former keep overlooking the canal. Despite this flamboyant monument, this is a modest town. Architecture ranges from the 11th century church, to modern homes in its suburbs. The village prides itself on its leisure pursuits, promoting hiking, fishing, tennis, boating, and swimming. There is even a swimming pool and a campsite. You will find a handful of cafes, bars, and restaurants, and the essential shops required for your everyday needs, as well as a couple of speciality shops, and even a police station. I particularly like the selection of shops dotted along the towpath. A less inspiring feature, thankfully almost entirely out of sight, is the large factory making car parts.
The canal continues westwards and eventually reaches the village of Champvert. The first thing you see is a church and cemetery alongside the towpath - a bit of a dream for me! The village is small - in 2019, the estimated population was 761 - nevertheles, it has an epicerie, a well-kept cafe-tabac, a hairdresser and a restaurant.
Just a little further to the west, the canal ends, and the River Aron merges with the broad River Loire. Boats cruise out onto the river by the Canal and Boat Museum. These merging waterways divide the towns of Saint-Léger-des-Vignes in the north from Decize in the south.
Saint-Léger-des-Vignes is named after the vines which used to grow on its southern slopes. The town had a population of 1,799 in 2020. It is more modern than its neighbour, and there are plenty of facilities here, including a number of shops ranged along the main road and the canal side. The residents are particularly proud of its sporting facilities. I only wish that this town was more picturesque.
Decize is a much more attractive proposition, even though it misses out on the canalside shops of its dowdier neighbour. It is a old town, built on a rocky outcrop beside the Loire, and it is surrounded by stone ramparts. It boasts a fabulous historic town centre with a wide range of essential and specialist shops, galleries and eateries. The population in 2020 was 5,193.
And that brings the Canal du Nivernais and this article to an end. I hope you enjoyed this tour!