We booked our trip through Air France, which means we were on a nonstop, Delta code-share flight from Seattle to Paris. We left Seattle at 3:30 PM and landed in Paris around 10:00 AM, which was almost an hour ahead of schedule. In our pre-trip planning, we had determined that the most expeditious route to Digoin was to take the RER train from CDG to the Châtelet – Les Halles station, then transfer to the number 14 Metro to the Gare de Bercy station. This cost €9.50 per person, including both segments of the trip and we arrived at Bercy about an hour and half prior to our 2:00 PM train ride to Moulins sur Allier. This gave us plenty of time to wait in the SNCF train ticket line to retrieve our pre-purchased tickets. We also had enough time to stop in the on-site Relay store to buy minutes for our Lebara-enabled iPhones which then worked perfectly!
From Moulins sur Allier to Digoin was a one hour bus ride that gave us a preview of the pleasant-looking countryside. We arrived in Digoin about 6:00 PM, then we rolled our suitcases about 500 yards/meters to our hotel, the Entre Mer et Montagne. The Entre Mer et Montagne was one of the top-rated hotels we found in Digoin, as the selections were somewhat limited. It was the European equivalent of a Motel-6, but we found it to be quite adequate. Both of our rooms were small and each bed had but a single long tube-pillow spanning the width of the bed to be shared by both occupants, but the shower worked well and the bed was comfortable. I later learned that the single long pillow is called a traversin and is fairly common in French hotels.
We all went out to dinner at a delightful local restaurant, Chez Lily for our first Bourgundian meal. Jill and I ordered a dozen escargot to split for an appetizer, then three of us had the Boef Bourguignon and Rich had the carpaccio, all washed down with two pitchers of local wine. The waitress brought out all our meals and Jill’s escargot at the same time. Jill then finished her half of the escargot and patiently waited for her Boef Bourguignon entrée. The rest of us were nearly finished with our main courses and still no sign of Jill’s entrée. So I went back to ask the waitress about the status and she assured me that Jill’s dinner was coming “soon”. Well, the plate was finally delivered to the table about the time the rest of us were finished. Despite the less-than-desirable timing of Jill’s meal, the food was quite tasty and we all had a good time dining outdoors on a pleasant late summer evening.
Saturday dawned cool and clear in Digoin. Rich and Dawn chose to have breakfast at the hotel, but Jill and I decided to explore the town in search of a boulangerie and coffee. After breakfast Jill bought a nice hand-made wool sweater that caught her eye in a local shop. We then checked-out and wheeled our bags to the Canalous boat rental facility located about 400 meters from the hotel. We had been advised at booking that our boat would be ready for a 4:00 PM departure. However, when we arrived at Canalous to inquire if we could leave our bags there for the day, they informed us that the boat would be ready by 2:00 PM. They gave us four bikes to use in the interim, so we went for a one hour ride up the Canal du Centre on a perfectly gorgeous Saturday morning. This gave us our first view of a canal lock, which was quite helpful, as we could examine its operation without the pressure of trying to maneuver a boat through the lock.
Prior to departure, we rode our bicycles to a nearby grocery store to provision the boat with food and beverages. Each of the bicycles had a rear rack and a basket on the handlebars, so we figured it would be no problem carrying our supplies back to the boat. But as the shopping carts start getting filled, it became obvious we weren’t going to be able to carry everything back in one trip. So Rich and I loaded our bikes with the six liters of water, ten wine bottles and various other items, then dropped them off at the boat and returned to the grocery to store to make another trip along with the wives. By the time we got our Tarpon 37 Duo Prestige (The Margot) all loaded with our supplies and luggage, it was around 3:00 PM and we were sweating profusely in the warm sunshine.
Finally we were ready to embark! We had to sign the obligatory paperwork and leave our credit card number on file with Canalous as a deposit against any major boat damage and then we did the on-the-water checkout. I had expectations from some blog I had read previously that the checkout would include passage through the first lock, but no, that was not part of the deal. Gunther, our Canalous representative explained that would take way too much time, so instead we pulled out into the canal and he showed us how to perform a 180 degree turn in the canal. He then told me to try the same maneuver, which I managed to accomplish, but without as much finesse. He then pronounced that we were good-to-go and had me drop him off on the nearby bank. With that, we were on our way!
Almost immediately, when heading south from the Canalous facility, one encounters the Pont Canal de Digoin, which is an elevated canal waterway over the Loire River. This pont, or bridge, is narrow and only one boat may be on the bridge at a time. As no other boats were in sight, we motored over the Loire River heading south out of Digoin. Crossing the river on an elevated waterway bridge is not something I have ever done in a boat and it was a somewhat disconcerting concept at first. By using the boat’s bow thrusters, though, it was easy enough to maintain a straight heading within the narrow confines of the bridge. Once over the bridge, we arrived at our very first lock of many more to come. We made it though without incident. Yay – our first lock passage!
We passed through two more locks by the time we had to stop for the day, having traveled a total of about 13 kilometers. The locks close at 7:00 PM and we were advised to not arrive at a lock later than 20 minutes before closing time. So our first day’s journey ended at the village of Pierrefitte-sur-Loire. We pounded two stakes into the canal bank as mooring posts, then walked into the village looking for a restaurant. We found a café/bar, but nothing else in the village center offering food. Jill had picked up a coupon for a restaurant called La Peniche that was ostensibly located in Pierrefitte-Sur-Loire, but we were not having any success finding it. Luckily our iPhone maps indicated that the road we were looking for was on the other side of the canal. There was a handy bridge nearby and we had no trouble walking to La Peniche. Talk about a stroke of accidental good fortune! We each ordered the four-course prix-fix meal (Jill and I had paella for our main course) and we considered it a delicious value at €18. We all agreed that we would attempt to eat there again on the return trip, if we could time the trip to make it happen.
Thus ended our first day on the canals of France and we couldn’t have been happier with our vacation choice! Not only is the countryside post-card picturesque, but the weather was fabulous, the experiences unique and everyone we met was friendly and helpful. As described earlier, I have been working on my French for the past year and I felt gratified that I could carry on some level of conversation with the majority of people that I talked to. I usually began most conversations with “Je parle juste un peau de français.” (I speak just a little French) and most people were quite accommodating and helpful.