The Saône: Gray


The Canal de Bourgogne

The news that Wanderlust’s bow thruster would not be repaired anytime soon had us scrambling to reconsider our season’s cruising plans. We were already committed to staying in range of Saint Jean de Losne until the end of June for a paint survey and other possible work. The absence of a working thruster created a further criterion: We needed a route where the absence of a bow thruster would not make navigation too onerous. In particular, we wanted to avoid cruising through tunnels.

Tunnels are surprisingly frequent on the waterways in France. The advantage of including tunnels on a canal’s route is that the canal’s water supply only has to reach the height of the water in the tunnel, necessarily lower than the height of the top of the ridge the waterway is intended to transit. Engineering an adequate water supply to the upper reaches of a canal is one of the big challenges in their construction; inclusion of tunnels can make things a lot easier. Tunnels are also used elsewhere to bypass horseshoe bends on rivers, speeding navigation.

Port Royal just off the River Saône in Auxonne

Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne splits off of the Saône upstream of Auxonne.

Canal tunnels are cool in concept. But in practice, they are often tedious to navigate. The typical tunnel on the Freycinet waterways in France is not much wider than the width of the locks (5.1 meters). For example the Pouilly tunnel at the top of the Canal de Bourgogne is 5.8 meters wide. Wanderlust is 4.3 meters wide, not including the protruding fenders on both sides, and 20 meters long. There’s not a lot of wiggle room; it is a challenge to cruise through without constantly pinging off the walls. Under these circumstances, a bow thruster is very useful aid for keep the paintwork intact. There’s no doubt that we could make it through a tunnel in one piece. It just wouldn’t be pretty. If there were a choice of routes, we’d choose to avoid tunnels while the thruster was out.

The good news is Saint Jean de Losne is a nexus of French navigable rivers and canals. There are six major waterways accessible from the commune within a couple of days cruising. We had many route options.

Wanderlust in Mantoche

Up close in Mantoche

The bad news is that four of the waterways have tunnels and three of those we had already cruised the section of the canal on the tunnel side of Saint Jean. Another possible route, the Canal du Centre, is tunnel-free but we had also cruised it in 2015.

This left the River Saône, going downstream or down, as the only novel tunnel-free route option. Yet even the upstream direction on the Saône was limited: Roughly 90 kilometers from Saint Jean is the Tunnel de Savoyeux, an underground passage that bypasses a bend in the river. Going downstream on the Saone there are no tunnels. We could take wide rivers all of the way down the Saone and the Rhone until we reached the Mediterranean if we wanted. But once we started down the Saône and Rhône, it would be hard for us to want to turn back. The temptation to continue on would be strong.

All things considered, heading upstream on the Saône seemed the best option. After churning through the possibilities we decided that our destination would be Gray, Becky’s namesake commune. With guests scheduled to arrive on board in early June a short roundtrip to Gray could be followed by an out and back cruise on the Canal de Bourgogne. The familiar territory of the Burgundy Canal would make the guest logistics and experiences easier and better.

La Saône


The road leads to Becky’s namesake town.

In theory we could make the journey from Saint Jean de Losne to Gray in one long day, but there did not seem a reason to rush. Instead we stopped twice, once in Auxonne and a second night at the shady riverbank in Mantoche.

Mantoche is within easy range of Gray and we could have easily continued on. But the mooring looked nice and our canine companion Gigi would surely enjoy romping on the green lawn at the edge of the quay. So we stopped just short of Gray for the night and Gigi had extended shore leave.

The next day we continued up to Gray.

Older more historic towns tend to be along rivers, as the natural waterways provide water, food, and natural trading routes. Gray, founded in the 7th Century, is certainly historic. Since the Middle Ages the commune has been an important river port and trading center in Franche-Comté.

Becky and Gigi in Gray

Wanderlust in Gray

Today the locks on the upper Saône are too small for the big international scale barges to reach Gray. Limited to smaller barges, industrial river commerce is no longer the lifeblood of the commune. These days the port’s traffic comes mostly from pleasure boats, with a clutch of private and hire boats stopping at the quay for the night when we visited.

L’hôtel de ville Gray

A closer look at the tiled roof, characteristic of the region

If you travel by car on the regional autoroutes you’d likely whiz right past Gray without even realizing that it is nearby. France has many towns like this. There are countless villages with significant history and interesting buildings but are not grand enough to be major tourist destinations. For good reason tourists in the region will preferentially stop in Beaune, Dijon, Besançon, or Nancy rather than Dole or Gray. Dole and Gray are interesting but there are even more interesting places nearby. There’s more to see in the larger and more famous towns; they are bigger tourist destinations for a reason.

Nevertheless it is a shame to miss the pleasures of France’s less famous places. But unless you are committed to traveling slowly, it’s hard to take the time to stop. This is one of the advantages of traveling France by boat. There is no choice but to make a slow journey. The places overlooked by high-speed tourists become highpoints for those who creep through the countryside.

Gray France

Gray has a population of 6,175, a relatively small town. But by French standards Gray is more than large enough to warrant a tourist office. Though it’s not clear to me that maintaining infrequently visited tourist offices has net economic value to France, they are helpful if you are a tourist. And Gray’s tourist office is better than most. The agent in the office was able to arrange for a walking tour in English on short notice.

Walking tours, when you can find them, are often the best way to see a commune. Sometimes, as in Gray, a tour can get you into places that are otherwise closed to the public. The tour in Gray culminated inside the village’s usually locked small theater, Théâtre municipal de Dole. From the outside Gray’s theater looks like a typical small theater. There’s little to suggest from the street that the inside is a smaller version of a more grand theater that you might see in a big city.

Everyone’s a star

Getting ready for her big night

A five-night stay in Gray is enough time to see the commune comprehensively. With a tunnel just ahead on the river, Gray was a good place to swap ends of the boat and head back down the river. The guests would arrive in a few days. Afterwards we’d be busy on and off the boat until after the paint survey at the end of June. We had no idea of where we would go afterwards.


Click here to see a map of the route from Saint Jean de Losne to Gray.

From Gray Wanderlust’s next turnaround point was on the Canal de Bourgogne in La Bussière-sur-Ouche. From La Bussière headed back to the Saône. These cruises occurred in late May to the end of June in 2017.

Canal de Bourgogne

The route from Saint Jean de Losne to Gray covers 66 kilometers with four locks. Wanderlust’s engine ran 9.7 hours and we did the journey over three days. She stopped in Auxonne and Mantoche.

From Gray we headed directly to Dijon to pick up our guests and continued on to La Bussière-sur-Ouche to dine at l’Abbaye de la Bussière. The first leg of the journey to Dijon took three days. After a pause in Dijon, Wanderlust covered distance to La Bussière-sur-Ouche in two days. All told Wanderlust cruised 121 kilometers and passed through 55 locks. Her engine ran for about 25 hours.

From La Bussière-sur-Ouche Wanderlust’s next turn around point was back in Auxonne. From Auxonne she continued down river to Seurre where we waited until it was time for the paint survey in Saint Jean de Losne. This leg of the season’s cruising covered 134 kilometers with 55 locks. Wanderlust’s engine ran 36 hours. There were extended stays in Dijon, Auxonne, and downriver of Saint Jean de Losne in Seurre.

Weed growth is an issue for France’s canals. Here the mooring in Longvic is choked with water plants.

The VNF works to remove weeds but it is a tough battle.

2 thoughts on “The Saône: Gray

  1. A horror story. I now know far more than I want to about paint. One day, one blog, I hope to hear how, if at all, this was resolved.

  2. Pingback: La Petite Saône: Auxonne to Gray, Rental Cars and a Small Bag of Dog Food | Wanderlust

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