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Canal du Nivernais
This is probably the most picturesque of all the Burgundian canals, with unspoilt countryside, peace and nature all around. Over 180 different species of birds have been sited along the canal, including some 120 nesting breeds. Great crebe, grey herons, kingfishers, wagtails and kites are just a few you can expect to see.
The canal divides off from the river Yonne at Vermenton, passing by villages largely untouched by time such as Mailly-le-Château, Clamecy and Corbigny, following the Yonne valley. South of Corbigny it then goes on to Decize.
Clamecy in the days of the 'flotteurs'
We go back to the winter of 1782-83. This was catastrophically cold and Paris was crying out for firewood. The wood which was floated down river couldn’t meet the demand and so to quell the unrest in the capital, the government agreed to built the Canal du Nivernais linking the Loire river to the Yonne and the Paris basin to make transportation more efficient. Construction began immediately but wasn’t totally completed until 1843. It soon became an important communication axis, transporting wood, charcoal, coal, stone, cereals and wine.
The town of Clamecy survived on ‘les flotteurs’, the traffic of wood and all related industries including the production of charcoal which is still made today in the nearby woods.
The building of the canal was another triumph of engineering and heroic workmanship. It is 178 km long with 122 locks and 23 dams. One section l’echelle de Sardy has 16 locks alone and there are three tunnels through the rock. Travelling through the tunnels has been described as ‘a voyage in the world of silence, like the silence of a sepulchre’.
With the rise of the railways, the canal declined and fell into disrepair.
In the early 1960s the local government of the Nièvre department saw the potential of tourism on the waterways. This has saved the day; the canal is constantly cared for, the villages along its path take a pride in their appearance and holiday makers enjoy cruising holidays from April to October. An excellent cycle route runs along the length of the canal starting at Auxerre and ending in Decize.
Highlights along the route from Auxerre include
Saussois rocks at Merry-sur-Yonne, a favourite with rock climbers. Clamecy itself is charming. The town has a gentle air about it with the winding cobbled streets, half timbered houses and river setting. It is well served with shops for everyday needs both in the town and on the outskirts. It had an illustrious past. Since the time of the Crusades pilgrims have passed this way on their journey from Vézelay to Santiago de Compostelo via La Charité-sur-Loire and Nevers. They still do today.
The journey between Clamecy and Corbigny along the canal is a pretty one, flanked by wooded hillsides. and the villages of Armes, Metz-le-Comte and Tannay have views to be enjoyed over the Yonne valley. The countryside is gentle and undulating, ideal grazing land for Corbigny’s well known cattle market. Then there's the incredible engineering feat at Sardy with 16 locks within four kilometres, and Châtillon-en-Bazois, a former fortress on a rocky spur.
Pam Elson ©burgundytoday.com