The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Dannemarie to Mulhouse

Spot Wanderlust moored in the port in Mulhouse.

If we had been in a hurry we could have departed Dannemarie and made it to Mulhouse, the easternmost city along Canal du Rhône au Rhin, in one day. Instead we chose to break this segment up into two short-ish cruising days, stopping overnight in the village of Heidwiller.

The decision to do this segment in two days rather than one was influenced by our route planning software. The computer estimated it would take more than a day to navigate from Dannemarie’s port to the port de plaisance in Mulhouse. That agreed our rough rule of thumb estimates. A leg that covers 23-kilometers with 22 locks and 2 lifting bridges doesn’t seem possible to cover this in just one day. But in practice the logbook says Wanderlust’s engine ran for a little over seven hours in total over two days on the way from Dannemarie to Mulhouse. We could have easily made that in a day even with a casual departure time.

Heidwiller’s unserviced quay is pleasantly rural place to stop for a night. It’s not a destination-worthy mooring but it is also not the type of place that you want to leave as soon as you arrive. All things being equal, it was better to stop there than not.  Maybe it was good that the computer over estimated the cruising time.

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By the time Wanderlust reached Heidwiller she was firmly in Alsatian territory.  We had expected to see the Germanic influence in the architecture increasing as we approached the border with Germany. What we hadn’t expected was a change in the language. We were in France. We expected French to be spoken.

Our first indication there was a different language being used came when we went out for a lunch in tiny Heidwiller’s center. The server responded to our piss poor French by asking whether we spoke German. At first we figured the server was seeking a better common language, one that might work better for everyone given our demonstrated lack of command of French. Or maybe she thought we were from Germany? The border is only 13 miles away after all. But as our German vocabulary is near non-existent, we reverted to our usually restaurant-serviceable French. Unswayed by our confident restaurant French the server continued on in German.

Eventually we realized the server actually didn’t speak French, at least not comfortably, which was odd to find in a country that is so proud of its language. And as it turned out she wasn’t speaking German either. She was speaking Alsatian, a language we had not until this point realized existed.

The canal less traveled in France.

Back on Wanderlust, after a hint from a boater moored nearby and a little Internet research, we learned the Alsatian language is the mother tongue for many who live in the region we were in. Indeed, as of the last survey 43% of the people from the Alsace speak Alsatian. Though to our ears Alsatian sounds a lot like German, and is not unsurprisingly related, they aren’t the same language. Nevertheless if we could have spoken German as requested at the restaurant, we would likely have been better understood.

It’s not the first time that we have been surprised by a regional language. We’ve been confused by Luxemburgish, Galician, Basque, Catalan, Welsh, and other regional languages. Unlike some of these languages, at least Alsatian sounds like something familiar. In this respect it was better for us than Basque where the sum total of our vocabulary are the words “txakoli” and “pintxo”. Those are good useful Basque words for sure but not so helpful if you need to get to a hospital in a hurry.

An authentic Alsatian éclusier: I have no idea of what the correct word for lock keeper is in Alsatian.  Google Translate does not include Alsatian as an option.

Our intended a one-night stop in Heidwiller turned to two when heavy rains rolled in the following morning. A lock keeper arrived an hour before were scheduled to pull up the ropes and knocked on Wanderlust’s cabside to get our attention. Did we want to continue today to Mulhouse as planned? Or did we prefer to hunker down and wait out the weather? He was clearly looking for an “It’s raining cats and dogs” exemption.

Getting drenched going through the locks did not appeal to us either. By mutual agreement we decided to stay another night on the quay. The weather would be better tomorrow and a keeper would meet us at ten in the morning at the lock tomorrow.

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The next day we received another bolt of Alsatian when a different lockkeeper met us at the first lock. This keeper did not speak French, at least not to us. Or English, as if that was going to happen. Instead it would be a day of non-verbal hand signals improvised at the spur of the moment and punctuated by indecipherable Alsatian grunts added seemingly more for emphasis than anything. With the diversity of languages on the Continent, Europeans are far more comfortable communicating non-verbally than are Americans. (If you speak Alsatian as your primary language you better be able to find alternative ways to communicate!) This day well-practiced non-verbal communication skills were a good thing.

There was one word of Alsatian spoken by the lock keeper that we did understand: “Schnëll”. We correctly understood this as a command to go fast. A lifting bridge was being raised for Wanderlust directly ahead. If we delayed were going to annoy a longer line of cars than necessary. Thus we moved quickly, slowing just enough through the road gap to avoid leaving a large sample of Wanderlust’s paint on the side of the bridge.

A little after midday Wanderlust reached Mulhouse, the pronunciation of which definitely does not rhyme with the English word “house” (think “muh·looz” instead). It is the largest commune on the Rhone-Rhine and the waterway’s last destination stop. It had taken us just over three weeks since leaving Saint Jean de Losne to cover the 220 km and 110+ locks to reach the city’s port. We expected the outbound trip to be slower but the combination of rainy weather and the threat of high water pushed us along a faster than we planned.

Wanderlust’s most excellent spot at the quay

But the pace of our journey didn’t really matter; we knew we were going to go back the way we came. In theory the outbound journey would let us map out moorings and places we wanted to stay longer on the trip back. Indeed, by the time we reached Mulhouse our waterways map guide was tagged with quickly scribbled notes to remind us of the good spots to moor and other important stuff for the way back.

Before we arrived in Mulhouse we called ahead to the port’s capitaine to reserve a mooring place for Wanderlust. As we entered the port the particularly helpful capitaine came out and directed us to a perfect spot in the shade up against the quay. We weren’t sure how long we might stay: Definitely one week, probably more. For now we just paid for a week.

When our week was up we decided to extend our stay a few more days. Becky went over to capitainerie to request an extension. She was told that the price for ten days was the same as it was for a month. If we paid for three more days we could keep our spot for the next 17 days. Instantly the motivation to start our journey back to the Saône evaporated; we ended up staying in Mulhouse for a full month. We had the luxury of time and Mulhouse seemed a good place to enjoy it.

A view from old to new in Mulhouse’s center

Mulhouse has an interesting back-story. It joined the Swiss Confederation as an associate state in 1515. Unlike the rest of the region, France did not annex Mulhouse in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. The commune instead remained as enclave surrounded by French-Alsatian territory. As an associate member of the Swiss Confederation, Mulhouse functioned as a free and independent republic with an alliance to the Swiss Confederation rather than to France. Mulhouse’s semi-independent status lasted until the turn of the 18th Century: In 1798 its citizens voted to become a part of post-revolutionary France.

In its more recent history Mulhouse has been a bit of an international football. After its Swiss Confederation and French periods the region was annexed by Germany in 1871 as part of the settlement of the Franco-Prussian War. The German period ended when the region was returned to France as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, the agreement that officially ended World War I. This period of French governance lasted until the Nazi’s took France in World War II. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies liberated Mulhouse and the Alsace reverted back to France.

The once gritty city of Mulhouse has seen a recent rejuvenation and rebirth. It offers a modestly sized metropolitan area of around 300,000 people, large enough to provide a wide range of services but small enough to minimize the impact of urban intensity. The commune’s historical center is compact, attractive, and well tended. It’s a bit off of the tourist radar; nearby Colmar and Strasbourg bring in more tourists. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

As a rule it is a myth that French waiters are rude, at least outside of Paris. There are exceptions, like this one in Mulhouse.

Our research was unable to determine the extent of the damage inflicted on Mulhouse’s center during the three major wars of the last 150 years. The city either was fortunate to escape heavy damage or was so skillfully repaired that the signs of its rehabilitation are not immediately apparent. In another respect our research was far more conclusive: Mulhouse’s plazas are excellent places to hang out and drink beer on warm days.

There’s also plenty to see around Mulhouse’s. The city is noted for its large industrial museums. The Cité de l’Automobile, the Cité du Train, and the Musée Electropolis are all first class and readily accessible from the commune’s center. The Alsatian wine village of Thann, with its prized grand cru vineyards, is just 13 miles away. Thann is the southern gateway to the Route des Vins d’Alsace, the spectacular 110-mile long tourist route through the best of the Alsatian vineyards.

Though we did not take advantage of it, Mulhouse is particularly convenient for transportation: There’s a TGV station was just across the canal from the port. If you want to you can moor in the port and be in the center of Paris in just three hours. Its airport, shared with Basel Switzerland and Freiburg Germany, is truly international.  Though the airport is located completely on French soil it has a Swiss customs border and is connected to the Swiss Customs Area by a 2.5 km (1.6 mi) long customs free road to Basel.  This arrangement allows air travelers access into Switzerland bypassing French customs clearance. Just don’t try to return your French rental car on the Swiss side, or vice-versa. (We learned that one the hard way.) Germany and Switzerland are both close enough to Mulhouse to ride a bike to.

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Though we stayed a month in Mulhouse we were not in a hurry to leave, even at the end. The commune has a lot to offer.



It took Wanderlust 3.6 engine hours to travel from Dannemarie to Heidwiller. There are 9.5 kilometers with 12 locks in between.

From Heidwiller to Mulhouse the engine ran for 3.7 hours while we covered the 13.5 kilometer segment with 10 locks and 2 lifting bridges.

It cost us €260 to moor Wanderlust (<20 meters) in Mulhouse’s port for a month. Heidwiller, with no services, is free as expected.

The route from Dannemarie to Mulhouse:

Dannemarie to Mulhouse by water

2 thoughts on “The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Dannemarie to Mulhouse

  1. Pingback: The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Halte de Hombourg | Wanderlust

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