What’s French for déjà vu?

This will be our last year as custodians of Le Papillion and, with the end of tenure rapidly approaching, we’ve been getting away whenever we can to cruise and reminisce along some of our favourite stretches of the Burgundy canal.  It’s proof positive that there’s nothing not to like about déjà vu. Although some things have changed, some things remain gloriously the same.

Recently we had a weekend on board with family from England. We met up at Pouilly-en-Auxois, the highest point of the canal at almost 1,250 feet above sea level. We took her down to the basin at Pont Royal on a lovely hot sunny day and had a 5 hour nostalgia-fest.

Le Papillon high summer

There were two big noticeable differences from those days of 20 years ago (actually three differences if you count the fact that Bill, at the helm, seems to have rather a lot more silver in his hair than in days of yore!) The first was the fact that we had the canal here to ourselves – we saw no other boat the entire time we were on the water. We think that has to be because, in a relatively short stretch, there are 12 locks and people can’t be bothered to navigate them.

For us, back in the day, cruising into the lock, having a chat with the lock-keeper and perhaps buying tomatoes or onions from his garden, was half the fun. All the more so when we were trying to get through the gates before the keeper downed tools for his lunch on the stroke of midday.

The second big difference is that the locks and lock-keeping have changed too. Some of them are electrically operated and at Pouilly we were allocated our lock-keeper for the whole transit – he rode from one lock to another along the tow-path on a scooter! He also didn’t complain that we were not at the final gates until 12.05 – and happily accepted 2 cold beers from the fridge in thanks for his patience.

No need for keepers means that the lock cottages have all been rented out. The new tenants still give a cheery wave but there is not so much banter and no tomatoes are on offer! It’s a bit less romantic but we guess that’s the way the world goes – tradition is sacrificed for efficiency.

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One thing that remains unchanged is the timeless beauty of the route. The authorities are doing a fantastic job of maintaining the canal and in late August the trees hang down low towards the towpath (now a perfect cycle route) framing the scene in perfect green against a cornflower blue sky.

In particular there is one long cutting through a hillside that is simply magnificent – the canal stretches some 2 kilometres dead straight into a vanishing point in the distance through symmetrical and tailored banks lined with stone. It’s a wonderful contrast to the waterway before and after where the canal follows the contours of the terrain. On the one hand nature. On the other, man’s determination to follow the shortest distance between two points whatever may stand in the way.

We moored and stowed our gear away, then jumped into the bus and headed home for a swim and cocktails wondering if we’d ever cruise this particular waterway again. In some respects it’s sad, but it made us realise that skippering and crewing, and perhaps barging in general, is a business that keeps you young. The fact remains that it’s every bit as beautiful as it was when we started so we will definitely be back – but now we’re a little ‘older and wiser’, we’ll do it as passengers!

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Le Papillon is still looking for a new owner. She’d make a perfect home or, if somebody wanted her as a going business concern, we know many people who would be happy to crew and sail her. If you know anybody who might be interested please get in touch with Bill.

There is of course one last chance for the final waltz on Papillon – a stunning week starting on September 25th cruising through the Ouche valley.  The wine harvest will be in, autumnal colours will be at their best, the approaching October light will be perfect and we’ll include a free majestic balloon flight for your party of six; what are you waiting for?

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