31202Discovering Burgundy’s Industrial Heritage on the Canal du Nivernais

The principal purpose of the Canal du Nivernais today is to play host to French barge cruises, transporting guests through the charming scenery of the region. Like most made-made waterways, however, the Canal du Nivernais was created amidst the hustle and bustle of trade and commerce. Its impressive feats of engineering were put in place to ensure the fastest and most convenient way of transporting goods into France’s capital.

Keeping the Flame Alive

If you’d attempted a French barge cruise a couple of hundred years ago you would have been in for a nasty shock. The waterways of France were places of work for many of the country’s citizens. The Canal du Nivernais was first constructed so that firewood could be transported all the way from the forests of Morvan to Paris. Before the construction of this waterway, logs were simply floated down the River Yonne using a system called flottage du bois. This term refers to the technique of floating all kinds of wood along a river which runs close to where the trees are felled. There was no standard method for this dangerous system, where a huge number of floating logs were guided by downstream.

In order to increase the amount of firewood that could reach Paris, a project was started to extend the ‘floatable’ sections of the River Yonne. This entailed clearing a small channel below the hills of La Collancelle. The work was taking place at the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth; during this period in France, canal building was very popular and soon this small project turned into a 60-year, canal-building enterprise. Between the years 1784 and 1841 a fully navigable canal was created along the firewood route.

Au Revoir to Flottage

Those involved in the creation of the canal were certainly far-sighted as, forty years after it was completed, the practice of conveying wood via flottage was banned in France. Thanks to the Canal du Nivernais, this region of Burgundy continued to profit from trading in timber for many decades. Of course, many other goods were also carried down the channel such as stone, charcoal and (most importantly!) wine.

The Canal du Nivernais Au jour d’Hui

With better roads and other methods of transporting goods, a journey down the Canal du Nivernais today is much more peaceful and relaxing than it would have been in its heyday. Today on a French barge cruise your eye is more likely to be captured by the gentle hills and green fields of Morvan and Bazois than a multitude of vessels and goods. It is difficult to imagine the world of industry and trade that once enveloped this region – a must see along this route is the Romain-Rolland Museum in the medieval town of Clamecy. This museum explains the town’s important role in the nineteenth-century logging industry, as well as describing the ‘infernal descent’ to Paris that the logs and their transporters made all those years ago.

Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider if you're looking for an all-inclusive, luxury French barge cruise or cruises in other great destinations. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.

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