The picturesque Canal de Briare, which connects the valleys of the Seine and the Loire, is notable for a number of reasons apart from the delightful scenery through which it wends its way. A popular route for both private and commercial cruising vessels, the canal is renowned as one of the loveliest places for a barge cruise as well as being a highly impressive feat of engineering.
Cruising the Canal de Briare: One of the Oldest French Canals
A Pioneering History
The canal is one of the country’s oldest manmade waterways, built between 1602 and 1642 under the patronage of Henry IV. When first constructed, it linked directly into the Loire at Montargis, but later in the nineteenth century the building of the famous Briare Aqueduct created a bypass to La Cognardière, 2.6km away. Despite its name, the aqueduct actually forms part of the Canal latéral à la Loire.
An Engineering Triumph
The canal was also the first to be constructed at summit level using “pound locks”, which feature a chamber with gates at either end to control the height of the water within. (Before then locks were created with a single gate.) A summit level canal first rises and then falls along its course, and in the case of the 57km Canal de Briare, it rises through 12 locks before falling through another 24 on an 85m descent.
During construction a number of artificial lakes were created in order to feed water into the locks. At the most precipitous location, Rogny, it was necessary to build what was in effect a “staircase” of seven locks in order to navigate the fall of the canal. While it was without a doubt an outstanding feat of engineering, the design caused huge hold-ups as each vessel had to navigate all seven locks before the next was able to pass through. In the end the staircase of locks was abandoned and the canal re-routed to bypass them, but the town was later renamed Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses in their honour.
Attractions en Route
Along with the locks at Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses, the many other attractions along the course of the canal make it a popular route in France. In Montargis, one of the most renowned local businesses to have put this pretty town on the map is the Mazet Praline Shop. The confectioner still makes its praline treats to the recipe of founder, Leon Mazet, who opened the shop in 1903. As well as a range of chocolates and other delicacies, the shop is famous for its signature caramelised almond, the Prasline Mazet de Montargis.
Situated in the commune of Saint-Fargeau, the magnificent seventeenth-century Renaissance-style Château de Saint Fargeau is the cultural centrepiece of the region, with its chequered history dating back some one thousand years. Its present distinctive pentagonal construction surrounded by six imposing towers is built on top of an original fortress commissioned by Héribert, son of King Hugh Capet. Even though it is privately owned, many parts of the castle are open for public visitation.
From Ancient Trade to Modern Leisure
For many centuries the Canal de Briare existed as an important channel to transport coal, wood, wine and other supplies from the Loire Valley to Paris. Today, this beautiful waterway serves as one of the most appealing locations to explore on a barge cruise.