If you’re looking for the perfect deviation for an upcoming trip to Paris, look no further than Burgundy, specifically the Burgundy Canal. One of my favorite starting points along the canal is Montbard, just over 1 hour, but light years from busy Paris. Just a few steps from the train station you can rent a bike and quickly immerse yourself in Burgundian history, enjoy cycling along car-free bike paths, eat local Burgundy specialities, and visit picture-perfect medieval towns all at a fraction of the cost of one day in Paris. Bicycling along the Burgundy Canal is one of my favorite itineraries in France.
Construction on the Burgundy Canal, began during the reign of Louis XVI and took 67 years to complete. The canal provided a navigable route to connect northern and southern France, and proved to be an important factor in the modernization of France.
There are 209 locks along the full length of the canal and watching them in operation is an incredible sight. If you are traveling with kids, watching the locks in action is sure to be a highlight of the trip. If you would like to learn a bit more about the mechanics of the canal lock system, take a look at this animation at Burgundy-Canal.
The wide and flat canal towpaths were once mule paths used to pull barges along the canal. Cycling along the canal is safe, even for families with children. The itinerary along the canal is dirt and gravel, so you definitely will need a hybrid or mountain bike.
Cycling on the gravel and dirt paths is slower than cycling on solid surfaces, so be sure to plan your mileage accordingly, especially if you are carrying your own panniers. Also be sure to have a spare tube and bike repair kit and know how to use it. Odds are you will never have a flat when you are near a repair shop. At least I never do.
Migennes is the starting point for the itinerary, but there is no easy train service from Paris. I prefer starting in Montbard, which has TGV service from Paris in just over 1 hour. If you are already in Dijon, you can hop on a train at Dijon Ville and be in Montbard in 36 minutes on a regional express. My favorite long weekend itinerary is Montbard to Dijon at 112 km, allowing time for deviations to Fontenay Abbey and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain or Semur-en-Auxois.
Bicycling along the Burgundy Canal has become a lot more attractive in the last year thanks to a new bike rental service from Veli Bourgogne. Similar to Detours de Loire bike rental service along the Loire, with Veli Bourgogne, you can pick up/drop off your bicycle at one of a dozen locations along the Burgundy Canal including Migennes, Montbard and Dijon.
The service uses Giant all-terrain bikes and a three day weekend rental picking up Friday and returning on Sunday is 45 Euro. A seven day rental is 99 Euro. For the time being you will need to use Google Translate to use the site, but the bike rental services they offer are well worth it.
Another service available to cyclists along the Burgundy Canal is a very efficient and affordable luggage transfer service offered by BagTransfert. Bags can be transported between the following cities along the Canal: Migennes, Brienon, Auxerre, Tonnere, St. Florentin, Thunder, Ancy, Montbard, Venarey, Semur, Flavigny, Pouilly, Vandeness, Dijon, Beaune, Santenay, as well as many intermediate villages. Luggage can be transported to hotels, B and B’s, private homes, campgrounds as well as local tourist offices, which is nice in case you don’t have a reservation yet for the night!
The luggage transfer service is available from May to September (contact each spring for exact dates) and is very easy to use. Just go to the website, www.bagtransfert.com, and make your reservation by 5:oo p.m. the night before. Provide the pickup and drop off locations and date of transfer. Pay for the luggage transfer online, in advance with Visa or Mastercard. You will receive a bag tag to place on your luggage. Leave your bag at the pick up location by 9:00 a.m. and it will be delivered to your destination by 5:00 p.m. It is also possible to arrange for transfers in advance before leaving the States by contacting Laurent Richoux at firstname.lastname@example.org and providing him with your itinerary and your credit card information. Laurent speaks great English and is very quick to respond to inquiries. The cost of this service is 8Euro/bag. There is a 20% discount for groups and families.
Other than great train service from Paris, easy bicycle pick up/drop off and an affordable luggage transfer service, why else would you choose the Burgundy Canal as a bicycling destination? Because the route is full of more cultural, historic and religious attractions that you can squeeze into your schedule, great food, gorgeous surroundings and the beautiful city of Dijon at the end! Here is just a sampling of attractions:
This perfectly preserved Cistercian Abbey was founded by Saint Bernard in 1118. The Abbey of Fontenay is one of the oldest Cistercian monasteries in Europe and one of the best examples of Romanesque style. The monastery was plundered during the Hundred Year War, and then was closed during the French Revolution and subsequently converted to a paper mill. In 1906 it was purchased by the Aynard family who painstakingly restored it to its original splendor.
All of the rooms have been perfectly restored except for the refectory which was destroyed. In 1981, the Abbey was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of 23 such sites in France. A visit to the Abbey at Fontenay would certainly be a highlight of a bike trip to Burgundy.
Chateauneuf-en-Auxois is recognized as one of the most beautiful villages in France. It’s castle and fortress date back to the late 12th century and was once an important stopping point on the pilgrimage route through the region. It is best known for the castle in the town – the Chateau de Chateauneuf-en-Auxois. The castle and surrounding village developed in the 12th – 15th centuries (the original castle dates from 1132) and many of the houses to be seen date from that time.
The fortified town Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is regarded as one of the most beautiful villages of Burgundy. Best known in recent times as the town where the movie Chocolat was filmed, Flavigny is steeped in history and at one time was one of the most powerful towns in Burgundy. Today, it is a sleepy village with mostly day visitors to the 8th century Benedictine Abbey and the Crypt of Sainte Reine.
The fortunate ones are those who stay when the crowds leave. It is a steep uphill climb of about 3 km to reach this hilltop town, but well worth it.
Alesia is where modern France was born. The battle of Alesia in 52 BC was the turning point in the history of France when Julius Caesar defeated Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gauls. Several hundred thousand Gauls fought tens of thousands of Romans in a battle that is thought to have lasted more than six weeks. Ultimately Vercingetorix surrendered to save his people. As a Roman province, the region stabilized and became educated, Latin was taught, the culture developed and modern day France was born. Earlier this year, a new museum park opened at Alesia which documents the battle of Alesia, including displays of weaponry, clothing, logistics, strategies of the Gallic and Roman armies, and in the cinema, you can watch a reenactment of the battle.
Outdoors there is a reconstruction of the Roman fortifications. In the area surrounding the museum, there is an archeological area containing remains of the old Roman forum and temple. The museum is open from April to November.
Note that Flavigny-sur-Ozerain and Alesia are part of a 25 km deviation loop that includes Bussey-Rabutin, Alise-Sainte-Reine (Alesia) and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. You return via the canal from Pouillenay. Flavigny or Alise-Sainte-Reine are perfect choices to spend the night after visits to area attractions.
The Ouche Valley is spectacular, and from a bike it is even more incredible. From Pont-d’Ouche, this valley is one beautiful village after another: Veuvey-sur-Ouche, La Bussiere-sur-Ouche, Barbirey sur Ouche and its castle, and Pont de Pany, each unique and well worth a visit, and a perfect choice for lunch or a picnic. The Ouche Valley is also full of peaceful cycle path deviations, making it a perfect choice for weekend exploration.
If you only have time for a weekend bike trip from Dijon, it would be well worth it to consider a weekend bike excursion from Dijon to this beautiful valley. Since this area is so popular with local French cyclists, the hotels and B&B’s in this area tend to be more expensive than other towns/villages along the Canal.
The ancient and modern capital of Burgundy, Dijon is one of the most beautiful cities in France. Visit the Duke’s palace and noble houses. Enjoy strolling on pedestrian-only city streets. Explore ancient alleyways and half-timbered buildings. Either at the beginning or the end of your trip you are definitely going to want to spend time in this capital of Burgundy.
The Canal is sprinkled with small towns and villages, both along the canal and in the hills. It is possible to find very affordable lodging in either location. The most affordable choices are generally in gites or B&B’s. A complete list of lodging options along the route can be found at the Burgundy by Bike website. On my last trip along the Canal, I stayed at L’Ange Souriant in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain and my room was 67€ for 2 people, including tax and breakfast.
I understand that the wonderful woman who ran the gite has since left, and the reviews have been mixed. Another new location in the village is Couvent Des Castafours where a room for 2 people including breakfast is 65€. English is spoken.
Bicycling toward Dijon, there are numerous affordable gites and small hotels where you can stay for under 60€/night. In Bellenot-sous-Pouilly, 2 km from Pouilly-en-Auxois, Le Clos de la Perdrix has a double room for 60€/night. In the charming town of Pouilly-en-Auxois, the Hotel de la Poste has double rooms from 58-66€/night, depending on the time of year. There are plenty of affordable restaurants and cafes in town also, making it easier to stay within a tight budget. If you want to splurge, the hotel offers a four course menu of the day for 25€. The town also has one of the best bicycle shops along the Burgundy Canal. In Crugey, the gite Le Pre Vert has a double room for 55-65€/night including breakfast, and offers a five course dinner with a bottle of wine for 23€/per person. The closer you get to Dijon, the more expensive the lodging options become. If you are looking for something very unique, there are even houseboats along the Canal that offer lodging for the night!
One of my favorite ways to save money on any bicycle trip is buying lunch supplies at the local market or the supermarket for a picnic lunch. We normally spend under 10Euro/day for lunch for two. We also spend several Euro/day for water, as I get really thirsty on the bike. One day during our trip, we discovered that the local supermarket was making Boeuf Bourgogne, so we bought two servings of it along with a bottle of red wine, a baguette, and two tarte au citron for 16€! It was without question one of the best dinners of our trip, and certainly our favorite dinner picnic. We did splurge one night for dinner, but the other three days, we had no problem staying very close to our 100€ budget.
Bicycling along the Burgundy Canal is an incredible experience. Whether you have a week or a long weekend, whether you are biking in France by yourself or with your family, this route has it all: history, castles, abbeys, knights in shining armour, small medieval towns, great food, great wine and of course, the incredible lock system. The fact that you can enjoy all of these things and do it affordably is just an additional benefit in my book.