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Touring the waterways of France with author Kate Dunn

12th May 2017

#TalkingLocationWith… author Kate Dunn, whose novel The Dragonfly is set on the waterways of France.

My novel The Dragonfly takes place on a tiny boat and follows the adventures of my hero Colin and his nine year old granddaughter Delphine as they sail along the Seine from Paris, up the river Yonne and onto a small squiggle of a canal called the Nivernais, planning to travel south through Burgundy until the butter melts. Delphine is nine years old and full of attitude and pain – the holiday with her grandpa is intended to divert and comfort her following the death of her mother.  Initially ill-at-ease together, a succession of scrapes and narrow escapes soon forges a bond of trust and affection between them.  However, there’s a shadow over their journey: how did Delphine’s mother die? Her father, Colin’s son, is in prison awaiting trial for her murder…

waterways of france

My husband and I are the lucky owners of a little river cruiser.  When we first embarked on our adventures on the French waterways, we were inexperienced sailors with extremely low panic thresholds and many of the adventures and challenges that Colin and Delphine face have happened to us.  When we are not dodging hire boats, fumbling with the VHF (trying to interpret the guttural French of the lock keepers above the crackle of a shortwave radio is no mean feat) or losing our mooring lines and coming adrift as the lock is filling fast,  we have spent many tranquil hours gliding through the heart of rural France – off the beaten track doesn’t come close to describing it.

waterways of france

The Nivernais is one of my favourite canals in the whole country – and there is stiff competition!  It links the Seine and the Loire by way of the remote and beautiful heath land of the Morvan and was built in the 18th century to bring timber from the countryside to Paris.  There are 110 locks to divert you and keep you fit and if you are travelling upstream one of the joys as you rise up through the chamber is never being quite sure whether you will see a garden crammed with gnomes, or a lopsided privy, or a donkey scrumping for apples, or a hopeful eclusier (lock keeper) waiting to sell you unlabelled bottles of premier cru that he has cellared in the boot of his car, when you reach the top.


In contrast to these rural delights there are exquisite medieval towns and villages that ravish the eye. My top tips for places to visit include Auxerre, close to the beginning of the canal on the banks of the Yonne. This is a historic city of such astounding loveliness that it boasts not just an 11th century cathedral, but a 12th century abbey too (and Delphine is quick to drag her grandpa off to the wonderful array of shops that pack the narrow, winding streets).

Another place I’d recommend is Vezelay, which is only a short taxi ride from the waterside and marks the starting point for one of the pilgrimage routes to Saint Iago di Compostella; it is easy to understand why pilgrims might be drawn to the pale and compelling beauty of the medieval abbey, particularly as it is said to house relics of Mary Magdalene.  This hillside village has spectacular views and the streets that cluster round the church offer irresistible foodie and retail opportunities as well.


Burgundy itself is one of the country’s best kept secrets: a place that tourists hurtle through on their way to Switzerland or the south. It is reputedly the gastronomic heart of France, famous for its garlicky snails, its rich beef stew and some of the finest wines in the world.  Almost any village you tie up at – Vermenton, Clamecy, Cuzy – is bound to have a classic French café serving up the duck confit of your dreams.  And if a glass of vin rouge (or blanc) is your tipple, a visit to the wine cooperative at Bailly, said to produce some of the finest sparkling cremant in France, is a must (and cheaper than nearby Chablis, too).  An extensive network of underground tunnels houses five million bottles produced by 480 different wine growers and there will almost certainly be one or two that find their way home with you.

The profound pleasure of boating in France isn’t just the food or the wine though, or the camaraderie with other boaters, or the white knuckle moments, or the weather, or the outdoor life; it’s gliding along liquid green rivers and canals that are picture perfect, only to find that you are part of the picture.  The landscape and the lifestyle are transfiguring and inspiring: enough to make you want to write a book about them!

1911501038.01.ZTZZZZZZThank you so much to Kate for sharing her love of this part of France.

Kate Dunn’s novel THE DRAGONFLY was short listed for the Virginia Prize for Fiction and is published on April 27 by Aurora Metro. You can catch Kate on Twitter and via her website and of course buy her book The Dragonfly here  – it is shortlisted for The Virginia Prize for Fiction



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