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21 June 2018

Alsace, from Montbéliard to Illkirch-Graffenstaden

In May 2017 I finished the first segment, in six stages between the Belgian border in Givet and Paris. Since then, there have been short trips on the Yonne, on the Canal latéral à la Loire and along the Loire à Vélo, but these were just a few kilometres clocked up here or there on the occasion of meetings or other tasks, or a summer holiday with Irène. It was not until November 13 that I got stuck into the programme again full time, riding solo. I was dropped off by my BlaBlaCar driver beside the Canal du Rhône au Rhin in Montbéliard, just opposite the sprawling Peugeot works, and headed northeast.

In mid-November, there is practically nobody left cruising the canals, and most Pénichettes® are out of the water for the winter. No respite, however, for the cycling canal blogger! To complete my challenge of pedalling along the entire waterway network means pressing on during the season that the French unjustly call 'morte' (dead). The canals are also to be experienced in the winter, as attested by the hundreds of 'live-aboards', those bohemians who live all year round aboard their barge or large motor yacht converted into a permanent residence with all comforts. Even Locaboat once offered their boats for hire in the Camargue for the Christmas/New Year holiday!tes de fin d'année !

Although the boats I saw were moored up and inanimate, the canal itself was full of life, and the bare trees offered beautiful and captivating landscapes. I have never met as many wild animals as during these five days in Alsace. Shortly after leaving the marina tucked into the old canal at Exincourt lock (No. 12), what a treat to see a kingfisher darting along the water surface, the blue of its wings fluorescent in the setting sun! Later, herons were stirred into their customary repeated loops, but the pas de deux with a bicycle is more personal than with a motor boat, it feels like a game. On the Colmar Canal, two days later, it was a couple of musk-rats that dived into the canal right in front of me, seeking tranquility and perhaps something more interesting to nibble on the other bank. These contacts with nature are part of the boating experience in the summer, too, but they become almost sublime in the winter, when they interrupt the overwhelming silence.

Night fell as I reached Dannemarie, so I took a TER regional train for the night booked in a B&B in Mulhouse, and another one back on Tuesday morning. The old port of Mulhouse is a remarkable site, but was sadly taken over many years ago to make it a bland urban park, without any animation nor any recognition of its industrial past, apart from one abandoned floating night club. After Mulhouse comes the abrupt transition from the narrow 'Freycinet' canal and the vast port basin open to Rhine navigation since the 1970's. The bend at the junction with the abandoned northern branch of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin is called Île Napoleon, with a monument to the emperor (there are very few such monuments in France). The crew of a cruise ship was busy doing maintenance, moored up in front of the shipyard here. The two locks at Niffer make up an impressive technical landscape, with the nearby German Black Forest as a backdrop.

Here I made a detour to the south to discover the charming Canal de Huningue, which gives access to the attractive and welcoming Kembs boat harbour. The lift bridge here invites boats to explore further, but navigation is unfortunately forbidden. The canal is used to feed the locks at Niffer and its current is at present uncomfortably fast, but it would be enough to dredge the canal and adapt its three locks to restore navigation to Huningue. The whitewater basin that uses the fall of the entrance lock from the Rhine is a feature of interest to that user group, but the canal basin here could do so much more for the community if it were accessible to boats. I spent my second night across the Rhine at Weil-am-Rhein.

The route along the Grand Canal d'Alsace doesn't lend itself to cycling. It is a feat of engineering, but it is hardly more user-friendly than a motorway. The cycle path often runs along the foot of the embankment, while the top is compacted earth with irregular stones, making it very slow going by bike. I was forbidden access both to Kembs lock and to the port of Ottmarsheim, where the gantry was busy unloading containers from Rhine barges.

After a night in Biesheim, I took the irresistible detour down another unspoilt branch of the Alsace canal network: the Canal de Colmar. The succession of aqueducts over the many streams draining the vast plain of Alsace are a distinctive feature of this canal through to the river Ill, which is crossed on the level just after the last lock. There is no bridge here to cross the Ill, so the route follows the river upstream to the next bridge, then follows the busy main road into the town. After lunch and an excellent flammeküche in one of the old brasseries of the town centre, I headed back on the same canal, to turn left along another abandoned canal section, the 23km between Artzenheim and Friesenheim. I had recommended restoration of this link in 2000, and the locks are almost all ready for operation; what a tragic waste, abandonment of this project by Alsace Region! Hopefully this section with 11 restored and one new junction lock will eventually become accessible again.

After a last night in Rhinau, I cycled back along the Rhine path for 5 km, turning at Rhinau lock into the 1960s-built junction canal, linking up with the original canal above lock 75. The cut was made with no service road, so cycling along it is a challenge, using muddy farm tracks. At one point even this option disappeared, and for about 1km a forest path offered the only solution. The junction with the old canal, or more precisely lock 75, took me back on to the excellent bike path rolled out by the Bas-Rhin département, making for a fast run-in to Strasbourg. Well, not quite, since fatigue set in and I called it a day at Illkirch-Graffenstaden, taking a tram to the main train station. This means that the next sequence will extend from the south of Strasbourg through to the Vosges. I will continue in northeast this spring and summer.

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