Several years ago, after the completing 100+ miles of England’s Cotswold Way, over hill and dale and, at times, experiencing painful difficulties, I resolved to give up hills in favor of walking along waterways, of which there are many, with no less magnificent countryside and gentler terrain. I had never gotten too lost in England, a land of walkers and well-marked paths, but using towpaths precluded the possibility almost entirely by simply following the river or canal bank, so less need to consult maps and more time to dream, if one is so inclined.
Having walked once before in France, through the Loire Valley, I knew that France is more of a challenge for walkers than England in general, the paths less well marked, waymarks sometimes removed entirely by residents in an effort to discourage such suspect activity. In the case of the Burgundy Canal, opportunities to stop for the night are far less frequent than they are generally in England, if one is not prepared to go far off the path in search of accommodation, and I am not. So planning and reserving ahead were essential to me on this walk, if only a night or 2 in advance.
Well aware of my own limitations, planning is an intense exercise in being as sure as I can be that there are no unpleasant surprises, especially where distance is concerned. Guides to waterways with detailed maps, usually written for boaters, but just as useful for cycling and walking, combined with other maps and the internet, make thorough planning possible and I can set out with enjoyment of the countryside my only objective.
Maps come first, during the decision-making process, and then for planning. I found a large format guidebook series for French waterways online, including the Burgundy Canal (Canal de Bourgogne), from French publisher Éditions du Breil, with superbly detailed large-scale maps (1:25,000 scale, about 1.6” or 4 cm to the kilometer) and all information printed in 3 columns per page, French, English and German (I’ve recently bought another for the Canal du Midi in the south of France, for dreaming, perchance to actually walk someday).
Using the maps to figure approximate mileage for each day’s walk in relation to possibilities for accommodation, the search began in earnest for beds that budget allowed. When nothing turns up by direct online search, an alternative, though time-consuming method, involves Google Street View and trolling roads for B&B or hotel signs near the route. This is where love for process comes into play, and if you don’t possess that component, then look for a tour or be willing to live with uncertainty. As a last resort, call a taxi. While I’ve yet to avail myself of the last possibility, I carry phone numbers with me, if only for reassurance.
Planning for me includes compiling a detailed list, with distances between places, sometimes restaurants and nearby attractions and, especially, all possible accommodations I’ve found near the path to call in advance of arrival. The list is not usually an itinerary set in stone, but rather the information I need because it isn’t. I want the days to remain as flexible as possible, allowing for unexpected pleasures that walking, the ultimate slow travel, may present along the way.
As the years go by, my pack (a medium-sized daypack with padded shoulder straps, hip belt and rain cover tucked away in a zippered pocket) gets lighter. I know it’s because everything seems heavier these days, but I’m also better at knowing what’s essential and paring down the amount of stuff I bring along “just in case”. For me, essentials are 1 complete change of clothes that dries overnight, a light fleece pullover, raincoat and small umbrella, something to wear at night where the bathroom may not be private (only in an emergency, I like my ensuite bathrooms), a lightweight change of footwear to allow me to get out of my walking shoes, a tiny camera, a basic phone & tablet, a book, a metal cup and heating coil for hot drinks and instant soup, teabags, small snacks, a spoon, a knife, minimal toiletries, and a water bottle. That’s about it. All packed, it comes to 10 or 12 pounds, no shopping allowed.
Hotel de la Poste, Pouilly-en-Auxois
I can’t remember why, but I chose to begin my walk along the Burgundy Canal at a place where the canal is invisible, in a tunnel. I’d stayed a night in Dijon, where the hotel would kindly keep my luggage while I walked, and took a local bus from Dijon-Ville Station to Pouilly-en-Auxois, and the Hotel de la Poste. The plan was to walk along the towpath for several days, staying at the inns and B&Bs I’d located along or near the path, and arrive back in Dijon, 34 miles plus detours, where I’d inevitably be lured off the path.
Atop the Canal Tunnel with Ventilation Shafts
My room at the Hotel de la Poste was huge by French standards and hugely appealing to my eye. In the morning I found the tree-lined path above the 3.3 kilometer canal tunnel, the high point of the Burgundy Canal. Almost immediately I was in “The Zone”, the indescribable feeling of being transported out of time and place, to a state of mind so intense that, despite the effort and sometimes pain, it compels me to walk across countryside, again and again. I was in my fifties when I began my walks and feel what a terrible loss it would have been had I never begun. And as I write the words, it happens in imagination, that feeling that fuels the desire to find the next path that will take me there again, “there” being the state, rather than a place.
The Canal, Towpath, Locks & Numbered Lock-Houses
Boat in, gate closes, water rises, boat exits.
Charming Rest Stops & Accommodations
A fairy castle appears, Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, the inevitable detour.
Goodbye fairy castle, back on my way along the canal again.
Éditions du Breil, France Waterways Guide Series:
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