Central Burgundy – Canal du Nivernais

Introduction by Unique Cruises Founder / Director Walter Nand

Linking the longest river in France, the River Loire, with the mighty River Seine, the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy is often described as France’s most beautiful canal.

Stretching for 111 miles with 119 locks, the Nivernais Canal passes through Burgundy crossing the River Yonne and, from time to time, merging with the river itself. North of the summit at Baye, the River Yonne serves as a navigation channel for most of the way between Clamecy and Auxerre and, where the canal is artificial, the Yonne serves as a feeder for the canal’s water supply.

A Brief History

The Nivernais Canal opened in 1843 after sixty years of construction and was primarily built to transport firewood from the Morvan Forest to Paris. Since the 16th century, the Yonne was used for “flottage de bois” – a system for floating logs downstream. Whereas most rivers and canals were used by barges transporting cargo, these logs were literally floated down the river in their thousands in rafts. Men called “flotteurs” rode on these rafts with poles to prevent jams in much the same way as the North American lumberjacks of more recent times. As the firewood demands increased, there was a need to transport logs from further away and so the requirement for a canal.

The Nivernais Canal was first proposed in 1708 but abandoned due to opposition from the Duke of Orléans who, not coincidentally, was proprietor of the nearby Loing Canal. At the end of the 18th century, a project was started to extend the “floatable” part of the river towards the forests of Bazois by building a small channel in a tunnel under the hills of Collancelle. However, since this was the era of canals, the project of a small channel for floating timber was expanded to become a navigable waterway.

The wood trade was the region’s main source of income until the 1920s, even when timber had to be carried on barges after flottage was outlawed in 1881. The canal saw the last of its commercial traffic in the 1970s.

Today the Nivernais Canal is known for its tranquility, its beautiful valleys and hills, and its historic and picturesque villages and vineyards. Its path through the hills of Morvan, the wild valley of the Yonne, and the green meadows of Bazois.

Here are just some of the highlights you may experience on our Luxury Hotel Barge holiday:


A City of Art and History, filled with many half-timbered houses that add to its charm, Auxerre is divided into distinct neighbourhoods, with so many different atmospheres to discover. Its historic centre is a 67-hectare preserved area.

Discover the La Marine district, organised around the River Yonne, where the memory of the river trades is very much alive. In particular, there is a beautiful 16th-century house, formerly owned by a merchant who traded via the river. This district lies at the foot of the oldest monument in Auxerre, the Benedictine Abbey of St. Germain, founded in the 5th century. Its 9th-century Carolingian crypt is adorned with the oldest known mural paintings in France! Meanwhile, the convent buildings house the Auxerre Museum of Art and History and its archaeological collections ranging from Prehistory to the Middle Ages. The 12th-century chapterhouse, the 14th-century cellar, the 17th-century cloister and the 12th-century St. John Tower with its beautiful stone spire are among the vestiges of the past that you can discover when exploring the area.

Photo Credit: Complete France

Domaine Laroche

Domaine Laroche is directly linked to the history of Chablis with a heritage dating back from the Middle Ages when the Canons of Saint Martin of Tours were making wine.

On at least one of our Luxury Hotel Barge cruises, we make a private visit to the prestigious Domaine Laroche for a wine-tasting, followed by a tour of the 1000-year-old Obédiencerie where Saint Martin’s relics were hidden for a decade. And where to this day, it remains the location for ageing the wines. Lunch will be served by a private chef in the Domaine’s dining hall.

Photo Credit: Times Expert Traveller

Cellars of Bailly Lapierre

It is difficult to describe the feeling you get when entering the cellars of Bailly Lapierre.

Bailli was originally open quarries designed to extract stone. However, in the Middle Ages, Pontigny Abbey acquired the site and Bailly would supply the stone for some of the greatest works in France’s architectural heritage -the Pantheon, Notre-Dame de Paris, Chartres Cathedral. The changeover to underground extraction probably occurred towards the end of the medieval period or the beginning of Rennaissance, until quarrying finally ceased altogether at the beginning of the 20th century. At this point, the extraordinary natural conditions gave the quarries a new life: mushroom cultivation first (1927-70), then wine cellars from 1972 onwards.

Today we explore this a subterranean wonderland of stonework to taste some their sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne in a uniquely atmospheric underground space.

Photo Credit: Tourisme en Bourgogne


The charming and historical village of Vézelay is a major site of Christendom and the climb to the basilica is almost a rite of passage. Over the centuries many artists and writers have found inspiration here. Spiritual, literary or poetic – the essence of Romanesque art prevails.

In the 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade in Vézelay. The village harboured the relics of Mary-Magdalene and became a major spiritual centre on the Santiago de Compostella pilgrim way. Today the basilica of Saint-Marie-Madeleine is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was restored by Viollet-le-Duc. Clinging to the hillside, lovely medieval houses line the main street so be sure to savour every moment of your ascent to the basilica.

Photo Credit: Michael Evans Photographer

Book your Luxury Hotel Barge and get ready to discover medieval villages, centuries-old vineyards and fortified chateaux while enjoying French food and wine at its best.

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