Day 4: Pont d’Ouche to Pouilly-en-Auxois

Walking in France: Coffees to start, next to the Canal of Burgundy (Canal de Bourgogne)
Coffees to start, next to the Canal of Burgundy

Sunday, 21 June 2015
Distance 18 km
Duration 4 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 50 m, descent 11 m
Map 136 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

Before setting off along the canal, we paused at a bar with a pleasant terrace right beside the boat harbour. Duly fortified, we crossed the bridge and started off along the towpath.

The surrounding land was much hillier than on the Canal du Midi and it must have been difficult for its builders to find a route (although it was over a century later, so they had probably learned a thing or two).

Pont d’Ouche was at the southernmost point of a sharp turn around a high forested bluff, and as the land continued to rise, there were frequent locks.

Walking in France: Beside the Canal of Burgundy
Beside the Canal of Burgundy
Walking in France: Châteauneuf

At Crugey we had intended to branch off up the road to the hill fortress of Châteauneuf, which was a Plus Beau Village, but we decided to stay on the canal, as we had already walked a lot further than we meant to, with the drama of the hat.

We felt that we could admire Châteauneuf quite well from below.

An hour or so later, we were striding along peacefully when Keith got a sudden excruciating pain in his leg and had to stop.

Walking in France: This is not good!
This is not good!

We were beside a lock, so he struggled over and sat on a bollard, then tried stretching and massaging the offending muscle, but nothing seemed to work.

We were nine kilometres from Pouilly-en-Auxois, our destination, but luckily only about one from the boat harbour of Vandenesse, where we hoped there would be some form of help.

As Keith hobbled at snail’s pace towards the village, my mind was whirling with possible ways out of our dilemma.

Walking in France: Slow progress towards Vandenesse
Slow progress towards Vandenesse

There seemed no hope of our walking as far as Pouilly, but we could perhaps get there by bus or taxi, and either have a day’s rest or, at worst, make our way back to Paris and go home.

If there was no transport from Vandenesse (quite likely on a Sunday afternoon), we could try to walk to the camping ground at the Lac de Panthier, which was only four kilometres away.

At the bridge of Vandenesse there was a closed café on the left, but we crossed over and found another one – the English Tea Room – where people were sitting at tables in the gravel forecourt, under hot pink umbrellas in front of a facade painted a violent mauve, clashing cheerfully with a blood red climbing rose. We sank down with relief and ordered coffee.

Walking in France: The English Tea Room, Vandenesse
The English Tea Room, Vandenesse

The cyclists at the next table were eating hot chips and sprinkling them liberally with salt, which gave us an idea – if Keith was suffering from cramp, salt was what he needed.

I went over and borrowed the salt shaker, then Keith poured a pile into his hand and licked it up with a grimace (he hates salt). By the time we had finished our coffee the treatment was having its effect and he could walk. The muscle was still sore but not agonising.

We set off slowly and gingerly along the canal, which was rising even more than before, so that there was now only a few hundred metres between one lock and the next. It must have been hard work for the bargemen, with the next lock already in sight as they negotiated each one.

Walking in France: Lock-keeper's cottage, Écluse du Grand Pré
Lock-keeper’s cottage, Écluse du Grand Pré

Lock-keepers’ cottages often have beautifully tended gardens and are sometimes decorated with whimsical things such as gnomes, sculptures or murals. We passed a wonderful example of this art, a frieze of old iron tools of every sort.

Before long the canal was enveloped in a deep channel and then swallowed into the shrubby hillside.

We had arrived at the watershed between the rivers Ouche and Armançon, which was in effect the divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. Crossing this divide was the whole aim of the canal and it culminated in the cutting of this tunnel through the final ridge separating the two sides.

Walking in France: On the path above the canal tunnel, Pouilly-en-Auxois
On the path above the canal tunnel

The canal stayed in the tunnel for three kilometres, leaving us to walk over the top, following a line of aeration towers. It was a straight, gently rising path edged with magnificent trees, a bit like a canal, but without the water.

At the end we joined a road and had a brief flirtation with a spaghetti junction of highways before getting back on the tree-lined path.

This descended fast and before long we were in the main street of Pouilly. Keith’s leg was going well, although it was painful to touch.

Walking in France: Beautifully situated Pouilly-en-Auxois camping ground
Beautifully situated Pouilly camping ground

Just before the church we came to the main square with two hotel-restaurants and other shops. It was already 5 pm, so we only stopped long enough to book a table at the Hotel du Commerce, then kept going around the corner towards the camping ground.

It was almost a kilometre from there, past some market gardens, to the entrance of the camping ground, which stretched along between the canal and a field of wheat (there were no vines in these parts).

Walking in France: Rest at last
Rest at last

We had a pleasant chat with the people at the reception, who plainly thought us mad, and then chose a grassy plot for our tent, looking over a hedge onto the wheat field.

The ablutions block was hard to find until someone pointed us towards a tall, windowless bunker that we had mistaken for a machinery shed. Inside it was bright and modern and the showers were excellent.

Walking in France: Inspecting the tunnel entrance on the way to dinner, Pouilly-en-Auxois
Exit of the canal tunnel, Pouilly

We did not have much time to rest before setting off to the bright lights of town. The first thing we came to on our way back was the exit of the canal tunnel, this end lined with mown lawns and well-behaved trees, in contrast with the rough vegetation at the other end.

According to a sign, the tunnel had been built too narrow to allow barges to pass each other, so there were major delays as convoys passed through in one direction at a time.

This greatly reduced the usefulness of the Burgundy canal, and in any case it was not long before railways arrived and rendered the whole canal system obsolete.

As we approached the town we heard, for the first time this year, the frenzied pealing of church bells which often happens at 7 o’clock – what we call “crazy bells”.

At the Hotel du Commerce, the small back terrace was full of people, probably overnight guests, having drinks before dinner.

Walking in France: Apéritifs at the Hotel du Commerce, Pouilly-en-Auxois
Apéritifs at the Hotel du Commerce

We found a spare table and ordered apéritifs – pastis for Keith and rosé for me. The rosé was as pale as the first hint of dawn, in the style favoured in Burgundy.

When it was time to eat we walked through the bar to the restaurant, a fine old dining room with original dark beams on the ceiling and a fire burning in the corner grate. This was for cooking the meat, not for heating, although the evening was cool enough for us to enjoy its warmth.

Our table was in a pleasant corner beside a window, looking onto the street. There was a glassed-in terrace at the front, where some hardy people were eating, but we preferred the comforts of the room.

Walking in France: Salads, Hotel du Commerce, Pouilly-en-Auxois
Salads to start

The four-course menu was €20 and we started with salads as usual. One contained shrimps and avocado, the other fetta and olive tapenade, and they were beautiful, both in looks and in taste.

Following that, with our bread basket refilled, we pressed on to steak with green peppercorn sauce (for Keith) and roast duckling (for me).

Walking in France: Followed by steak with pepper sauce and roast duckling, Hotel du Commerce, Pouilly-en-Auxois
Main courses – steak with pepper sauce and roast duckling

A plate of cheese was soon dispatched, and then we had a cherry sabayon and a rhubarb crumble with lemon ice-cream.

Whilst eating we enjoyed the murmur of conversation around us, the coming and going of the waitresses, the sparkling cutlery, crockery and glassware – all a big contrast with last night’s windswept pizza from a box.

Walking in France: And a cherry sabayon to finish, Hotel du Commerce, Pouilly-en-Auxois
Cherry sabayon to finish

As we were leaving the restaurant at about 9:30, we saw something that we had never seen before in France. Some diners arrived and were told, politely but firmly, that they were too late. We had always been impressed with how people could walk in at any hour and be served, but evidently times were changing.

The walk back to the tent confirmed that Keith’s leg was much improved. The test would come in the morning, but we did not need to worry about that tonight.

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