The French give Lorraine an unfair reputation as an industrial region and, therefore, not very interesting from a tourist point of view. A holidaymaker travelling through the region’s canals will find this is not the case. Lorraine is indeed a region that is little known to Anglo-Saxon tourists, but it has a lot of appeal and offers a lot of surprising discoveries. One of the best ways to discover the region is to sail on the Marne-Rhine Canal (or canal de la Marne au Rhin). Indeed, Lorraine is the leading river region in France. For unforgettable waterway holidays in Lorraine, hire a houseboat and enjoy the scenery: pastoral landscapes and historic towns await!
What is the Marne-Rhin Canal?
The Marne-Rhin canal (or Canal de la Marne au Rhin) is 314 km long and links the Seine and Rhine basins.
The small-gauge waterway thus crosses the watershed between Paris and Germany.
As its name suggests, the canal connects the Marne to the Rhine rivers through the historic provinces of Champagne, Lorraine and Alsace.
The canal’s inauguration dates back to 1851 (Vitry-Nancy) and 1853 (Nancy-Strasbourg). The waterway was intended to improve the transport of goods between Paris, Nancy and Strasbourg.
However, it soon came into direct competition with railways and cars.
From now on, the Marne-Rhin Canal is almost exclusively allocated to pleasure boating, to the delight of boaters.
Description of the Marne-Rhin Canal
- Inauguration dates: 1851 (Vitry-Nancy) and 1853 (Nancy-Strasbourg)
- Starting point: Vitry-le-François, watered by the Marne, a tributary of the Seine – altitude 90 metres.
- Arrival point: Strasbourg, on the banks of the Rhine – altitude: 132 metres
- Length of the canal: 314 km
- Direction of the route: west-east
- Towns crossed: Vitry-le-François, Bar-le-Duc, Toul, Nancy, Réchicourt-le-Château, Saverne and Strasbourg
- Number of locks: 178
- 1 inclined plane at Saint-Louis-Arzviller enables the canal to cross the Vosges Mountains.
- 1 long tunnel of 4.8 km at Mauvages (Meuse) crossing the watershed between the Seine and the Meuse. This is France’s second-longest canal tunnel.
- 4 canal bridges.
- 18 port calls (ports and/or water stations)
Navigating the Marne-Rhine Canal
Some practical advice for exploring the most beautiful sites along your waterway holidays in Lorraine:
- Barge hire is available by the day, weekend or week. Houseboats (or barges) are subject to booking conditions (rental period, departure days, etc.) which may differ according to the season.
- Most of the time, boats are rented without an accompanying pilot. No boat licence is required as the control lever has only two positions. However, you must be of age. The yachtsman will receive a theoretical lesson before setting off on the cruise. You will receive navigation information: respecting speed limits, passing locks and how to dock.
- Take bicycles on board! You can use them to explore the area around your marina or simply cycle along the towpath!
- This list of the most beautiful sites is an inspiration for you to discover the region. Let yourself be surprised by other discoveries during your escapades, and stay curious! There is so much to discover, especially if you are a lover of small heritage. Don’t hesitate to go to the tourist offices. The receptionists I met during my travels in Lorraine know the area and will be happy to help you discover their beautiful region.
- For more practical information about cruising the canals, check out the Voies Navigables de France website.
Sites to see on waterway holidays in Lorraine
I suggest you follow the route from Mittersheim to Toul via Nancy, which is about 220 km / 137 miles long. It can take up to two weeks to complete.
Most of the route uses the Marne-Rhine Canal and a small part (20 km / 12.5 mi) of the Canal des Houillières de la Sarre.
In the heart of the Lorraine regional nature park and the Pays des Etangs, Mittersheim is surrounded by deciduous forests where nature reigns supreme.
The village (pop. 600) has both the traditional aspect of a Lorraine village and a tourist aspect thanks to the Saar Canal (Canal des Houillières de la Sarre), which runs through it, and its pond (the Lac Vert).
The first part of the waterway holidays in Lorraine follows the Canal des Houillières de la Sarre (Saar Coal Canal), which was built between 1861 and 1866. The canal crosses the northeast of Lorraine and borders the picturesque country land of Alsace Bossue in the west.
Many ponds covered the area. They were created in the Middle Ages for fish farming and are now used to supply water to the Canal des Houillières de la Sarre. The most iconic is Stock lake, known as the largest navigable lake in Lorraine.
(about 20 km / 12,5 mi)
Gondrexange is a commune in Lorraine not far from Sarrebourg. It is on its territory that the Canal des Houillières de la Sarre joins the Marne-Rhine Canal in the centre of the vast Etang de Gondrexange.
Ecluse de Réchicourt
The Réchicourt lock replaces an older section of 6 locks. Constructed in 1965, this concrete lock is 16 metres high and 40 metres long, making it the highest lock in France.
Château de Lunéville
(about 50 km / 31 mi)
If you have reserved bicycles for your boat holiday, dock at Einville-au-Jard to reach the magnificent Château de Lunéville (7 km / 4.35 mi). Since the 18th century, this superb example of French classicism has been known as the “Versailles of Lorraine”.
The Château de Lunéville has been a residence of the Dukes of Lorraine since the 13th century. In the 18th century, it was a major centre of the Enlightenment under the reigns of Leopold I of Lorraine and Stanislas Leszczyński.
The old town centre is also worth a visit, including the Rococo church of St. Jacques and some 18th-century townhouses (including the Maison du Marchand).
(about 65 km / 40 mi)
From Dombasle-sur-Meurthe onwards, the landscape changes radically as the canal enters an industrial zone extending to the edge of Nancy. However, this area is home to one of the most beautiful churches in Lorraine, which should not be missed.
The basilica of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port has the appearance of a cathedral. In flamboyant Gothic style, it has impressive dimensions: a 30 m high nave, slender columns 21.50 m high (the highest in France) and two towers of 85 and 87 m, respectively. Its volumes are harmonious, and the basilica shows a surprising unity of style. It was restored in 1983 thanks to a considerable donation from Mrs Camille Croué-Friedman, a wealthy American native of this town.
In Laneuveville-devant-Nancy, the Moselle is joined by the Canal de Jonction de Nancy. This passes through the castle of Fléville.
The present castle dates from 1533. It is in the early French Renaissance style and is built against a feudal keep dating from 1320. It is also one of the few castles in Lorraine spared by Richelieu on the orders of Louis XIII at the end of the Thirty Years War.
The facade, completed in 1533, is typical of the early French Renaissance and has a unique balcony that reflects the Italian influence on the Lorraine Renaissance. The castle has also often been compared to Azay-le-Rideau for the purity of its lines.
The interior, fully furnished, is open to the public: Renaissance woodwork, a chapel, the Hall of the States of Lorraine, which displays the Coat of Arms of Lorraine, as well as the bedroom of Stanislas Leszczyński.
Boucle de la Moselle
From Richardménil to Maron, the Canal de l’Est follows the course of the Moselle and crosses the industrial zone of Neuves-Maisons.
From Maron onwards, the route follows that of the Moselle and becomes more serene. As far as Toul, the river makes its way through the vast Haye forest. This is part of the Boucle de la Moselle.
(about 115 km / 72 mi)
The historic city of Toul is an unmissable stopover for discovering the Toulois (the region of Toul). Watered by the Moselle and surrounded by ramparts, Toul was once a military stronghold and the seat of one of the Three Bishoprics.
The town’s episcopal past explains the presence of a magnificent cathedral, one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in the northeast.
The cathedral’s cloister, in Gothic style, is one of the largest in France.
The city centre also contains old houses in the Renaissance style.
Finally, whether you visit Toul on foot or drive through it, you will discover the formidable ramparts surrounding the city.
They bear witness to the strategic position of Toul, historically placed between France and the Germanic countries. Toul was fortified by Vauban in 1700 and again in 1874 as part of the Séré de Rivières system.
By bike, you can easily reach the Côtes de Toul vineyards stretching from the town’s north to the south. The northern part, from Pagney-derrière-Barine to Boucq via the wine villages of Bruley, Lucey and Lagney, is best explored along pretty little country roads.
(about 135 km / 84 mi)
The small town of Liverdun occupies a pleasant site in a meander of the Moselle.
A fortified gate of the 16th century gives access to the old centre. The Place de la Fontaine is picturesque with its 16th-century arcaded houses.
The church is very old – its construction started at the end of the 12th century.
Finally, Liverdun is famous for its madeleines. If you have time, stop by the shop! It would be a shame to leave the city without tasting this local delicacy…
(about 150 km / 93 mi)
The last stop on our waterway holidays in Lorraine is the historic city of Nancy, the former capital of the Dukes of Lorraine.
A major commercial and cultural centre in Lorraine, Nancy owes much of its fame to the majestic Place Stanislas. The city with its golden gates, elegant and bourgeois, knows how to seduce its visitors with other surprises.
The city has kept a beautiful part of its medieval centre. Its backbone is the Grand Rue which runs from the Porte de la Craffe to the Ducal Palace.
Nancy is famous for its 18th-century squares, which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1983. There are three of them:
- Place Stanislas (formerly the Royal Square),
- Place de la Carrière
- and Place d’Alliance.
Home to Art Nouveau, the city is home to several creations of the Ecole de Nancy, the most famous of which is the Villa Majorelle.
To discover the historic capital of the Dukes of Lorraine, the Saint-Georges marina is ideally located in the city centre!
From Nancy, take the Marne-Rhine Canal in the direction of Strasbourg and return to your departure base, Mittersheim.
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Featured image: Nicols’ Estivale Quattro © Faivre
A fascinating journey. I would love to visit the magnificent cathedral in Toul. And I've always wanted to spend a few days in Nancy.
Thank you David, the cathedral of Toul is indeed a stunning work of structural art!