Becky Allen and Mark Goodson take canal towpaths and quiet back roads on this 78km circular bike route from Tonnerre, inspired by France's 'lavoirs', or public wash houses.
Two wheels are better than four for lots of reasons, but a couple are key: travelling under your own steam lets you make time to see things you might not bother to park a car to visit; and, unless you're travelling from A to B, planning a route that includes plenty of excuses to stop can turn a day on a bike into a voyage of discovery. This 78km day ride in the Yonne département of Burgundy is a good example.
A mixture of canal tow path and quiet lanes, the route runs through open farmland and woods. Although there's little in the way of climbing, there are some lovely views on this ride and a real sense of openness and space. But what makes it really special is that you'll discover an often overlooked – but quintessentially French – form of civic architecture: the wash house.
A voyage of discovery
The route is part of a larger tour of lavoirs suggested by La Ferme de la Fosse Dion in Tonnerre and also inspired by associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, Mireille Roddier, and her book Lavoirs (UK, US).
“Among public buildings of the French rural heritage, the lavoir, or public wash house, is the most discrete and humble; though often the most beautiful,” says Roddier. “Unused and empty, they convey an impression of mystery and solitude, replete with ghosts and memories.”
Tonnerre's Fosse Dionne is one of the few French wash houses to merit inclusion in tourist guides and on post cards. Fed by an underground river, on a sunny day the water in its circular basin is the colour of the Mediterranean. Head north out of town on the D944, under the railway line and over the river Armançon before turning right onto the Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal).Follow the canal as far as Commissey where you'll find its simple lavoir built directly onto the river, with a roof to shelter the washerwomen and – bizarrely – a pissoir in the corner.
Take a picnic on this ride, because there are very few cafes en route.
The bike route
Continue along the canal to Tanlay, leave the water, heading towards the village and its château and pick up the D56 to Baon. Just before you reach the village there's a tiny, isolated wash house on the left. Continue on the D56, through open fields and a gentle drag uphill through woodland, to Cruzy-le-Châtel. Built in 1898 next to an older lavoir, the wash house is lit by a series of arched windows and roof lights, and would have been warmed in winter by its fireplace.
From Cruzy, head uphill on the Route de Nicey (D56) for a short while before turning right onto the D204. Cross the D965 and head through the woods to Sennevoy-le-Haut. If you're warming to the lavoirs theme, tucked away under the village hall is a gem, whose elegant stone arches are reflected in its single basin. Heading south-west out of the village, look for signs to Stigny and follow a quiet road through woodland before picking up the D17 just before reaching the village, where there's another lovely wash house beneath the Mairie.
Stay on the D17 to Ancy-le-Franc, which has a cafe and a château as well as lavoir. Just before you reach the château, turn left onto the D905 and then right (west) along the canal tow path for a short while before following signs left along a track to the lavoir at Argenteuil-sur-Armançon. It's a beautiful village, with a 14C church and its seven-arched lavoir, built in 1834, sits beside a small lake and looks more like a folly you'd find in the grounds of a château than somewhere to wash your clothes.
Leave the village on the D118 to Pacy and bear left onto the D418 to Lezines (the wash house is locked but for the determined, the key holder is at the gites/camping in the village). Follow the river, turn left onto the D905 and after you pass a few shops, turn right on the D518 towards Argentenay and Saint Vinnemer (which has a pair of wash houses, facing each other across the river), where you turn right onto the D118.
From here, you can return to Tanlay either by continuing along the D118 or turn left onto the canal and use the tow path. From Tanlay continue back the way you came along the canal to Tonnerre.
Becky Allen is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge. You can read more of her work at www.beckyallen.org. Mark Goodson is a sales consultant and business coach. He enjoys cycling long distances, slowly. He has started charting his adventures here.
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Accommodation for cycling in Burgundy
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Organised cycling tours of Burgundy
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More information on cycling in Burgundy
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