Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Summer's End - from Dole to St Jean de Losne

St Jean de Losne
 The journey has ended for this year. We are back in the marina at St Jean de Losne and busy preparing L'Avenir for her long, northern winter and ourselves for our long flight to the southern summer. As ever, we find ourselves wondering at our surprise that this moment has arrived. Surely after 5 summers afloat we should have learned that time really does fly when you're enjoying yourself and the closer you are to the end the quicker it speeds by.
Summer virtually threw its hand in a couple of weeks ago. We had intended staying at Auxonne for only one night but ended up tied to the pontoon there for 4 days of torrential rain and high winds. There seemed to be as much water falling out of the sky as there was running beneath us. At least we had the luxury of staying put. We felt admiration (and sympathy) for those hirers on their expensive week's boating holidays forced to battle on, clad in sou' westers and oilskins in conditions more North Sea than lazy French river.  Not quite the relaxing autumn break portrayed in the brochure.
As soon as the rain let up we moved on downstream and turned up the Canal du Rhone au Rhin which follows the River Doubs. We've been up and down this waterway several times but had never seen it so full of water. There can be quite a strong current running on this navigation at times and in fact it was closed for several days from Dole onwards after all the rain. We were going only as far as Dole however.
 Dole, once the capital of Comte, is a pretty medieval town with winding streets, lots of designer clothes boutiques and an interesting underground lavoir (wash house).
 It is a busy hireboat base and even at the best of times has a strong current running. This combination makes for an entertaining spectacle for the locals as they watch the antics of people attempting to moor their boats. Fortunately for us the port was fairly quiet when we arrived and so there was plenty of room for manouevre. It filled up over the next couple of days though and we saw some fairly close calls. As ever, we met up with people we'd seen earlier in the season and caught up on their adventures and met new boaters whom we hope to see again in the future. I think I've said before that it often amazes me that people can visit the exactly the same places and have such differing perceptions. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

Last lock of the year from the canal du Rhone au Rhin onto the River Saone
 On our arrival in St Jean de Losne, the sun came out for a last glorious couple of days so we stopped on the quay on the river, always a busy meeting place, and did some boat washing and painting jobs. Then, a stop at the fuel berth to top up the tanks and round the corner into the marina where we discover that we have Australians for neighbours. There are a lot of Aussies in Europe this year thanks to the good (for once) exchange rate.
For those who like statistics here are some :
277 engine hours
632 ltres of fuel
545 locks (good grief! You'd have thought I'd have lost some weight)
?? Km - sorry I haven't worked that out yet. We went a long way this year, more than we originally anticipated. We really ought to plan a bit better. Actually making a plan at all would be a good idea.
Finally, we'd like to say thank you to those of you who visited us, those who made us welcome in their homes both on land and water and all of you who have taken the time to follow our trip on the blog. We'll be back before you know it!

'on the steps' at St Jean de Losne

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Deja Vu. Along La Petite Saone

Chateau at Ray-sur-Saone
We handed in our remote control zapper at the final lock of the canal des Vosges at Corre with a slight feeling of relief. We'd made it through all those locks without any major delay. From here on we are on familiar waters. In fact this will be our third trip along this stretch this year alone. We know the stopping places, where to eat (at least we thought we did), where to shop etc. On the other hand there's a certain  lack of excitement -we know exactly what is, or isn't, around the next bend.
We knew, for instance, that despite Corre appearing on our charts in bold type we would not stop. Instead, we went on to the port at Fouchecourt which has a 6 table restaurant serving reasonable food and run by an expat Belgian with possible ambition as a stand-up comedian (his side-kick is Chocolat the dog). Fouchcourt is one of many small villages along this stretch which are pretty, have a church and often a lavoir but nothing in the way of shops. Conflandey is another. Here there's an attractively situated chateau on an island in the middle of the river and a free pontoon mooring alongside a now closed restaurant but the village at the top of the hill, once again, has no shops (although there is a building which declares itself to be a covered market but no sign of when, if ever, it opens).
We made stops at Port-sur-Soane which has some shops and restaurants but suffers horrendously from the constant truck traffic along its main street which carries the road across the canal and the river and then at Scey-sur-Saone which is a lovely mooring and thriving village (with an excellent baker's) down an embranchment of the river.
There are 2 tunnels on the Petite Saone - the Saint Albin and the Savoyeux neither of which presents any particular problem once you're inside. They are controlled by traffic lights which may mean quite a wait depending on the traffic coming the other way.
Saint Albin tunnel approaches

This is a popular hire boat cruising area and as we are now into the slightly cheaper hire season it is still quite busy. And so it was that we found ourselves firmly aground at the side of the canal whilst waiting around for three qaurters of an hour for the Savoyeux tunnel. Our stern somehow became hung up over a mud bank which meant moving a heavy wieght as far forward as possible whilst at the same time freeing the back end with the engine and a barge pole. No prizes for guessing which heavy weight had to do the figurehead impression. The tunnel approaches are under video surveillance so that the keeper can decide when to change the lights so I suppose we provided some light relief for him.

Waiting our turn at the Savoyeux tunnel

Then, onto Gray where, for 4 days, we availed ourselves of the free electricity and water provided along the quayside. Thank you Gray.
This fisherman at Gray couldn't believe his luck
 We've been to Gray several times but never eaten out so this time we stirred ourselves and hiked up the steep hill to the old, upper town to a restaurant in a building dating back to the 1600s - a restaurant with stars no less.
I don't know which is the big night out in Gray but it's certainly not a Thursday. We were the only customers.
The restaurant itself was much as you'd expect in a medieval building; rafters, an enormous carved stone fireplace, red plush upholstered dining chairs and a huge gilded mirror.
Empty restaurant, Gray
One of the two diners

The young waiter was obviously a trainee and possibly new to France. In fact it may even have been his first night as he was accompanied by the owner as he took our order, was told how to write it down and what he should ask us. Oddly, one of the things he had to ask was did we want a dessert because if so it had to be ordered at the same time as the entree and main. Put on the spot we decided not to bother.We could hear more explanations in the kitchen regarding the food and we began to wonder if the chef was also a trainee. An hour or so later, when when we were finishing our main course we were a little surprised to see the waiter appear from the kitchen dressed in hat and jacket and on his way home. Apparently no back door then. The owner was by this time at the desk at the entrance and the kitchen completely silent. Were the trainee waiter and the chef, in fact,one and the same person? We finished our meals and wine, paid our bill and left. We were no sooner out of the door when we heard the great medieval bolts being slid into place and the lights went out. It was all of 9.30 and we made or way back to the boat through completely deserted, silent streets. And what of the food? Well, it was ok. Nothing to write home about though- or award stars for.

Bonjour from Auxonne. One of the turrets on the fortifications around the town

We are now in Auxonne which is only a couple of hours from St Jean de Losne where we will leave the boat for winter. We still have  about 10 days left before we need to go into port in order to do the jobs necessary before we fly home so perhaps we'll make a trip along the Doubs once again as far as Dole. Last decision for the year.
The garrison town of Auxonne

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Fortresses and Forests

 In 1670 Louis XIV of France ordered the complete destruction of the fortress at Chatel-sur-Moselle near Epinal. The chateau, which stood on a limestone outcrop overlooking the river Moselle, was begun in the 11th century and by the time of its demise had grown to cover 5 hectares and was reputedly impregnable. For the next 300 years it remained an overgrown pile of rubble and then, in 1972, in protest at a project development on the site, a group was set up to try to save and restore the chateau. 40 years later we were privileged to be shown around the chateau by the man instumental in saving the chateau and who has devoted his life to the enormous task. I'm sorry to say that I don't know his name.
Chatel-sur-Moselle doesn't get a mention in any of the guide books we have and we happened upon it more or less by accident. We had had the obligatory stop at Charmes which has been obliterated several times over the centuries and most recently during the WW2 and seems not to have a great deal to offer other than a good boulangerie and a supermarket. It is however, a Mecca for camping cars so must be a good touring centre.
We moved on the few kilometres to Nomexy which has a pleasant, free mooring alongside a picnic area. Nomexy is one side of the canal and river and Chatel is the other. Nomexy had nothing much of obvious interest and so we headed over the bridges.
The signs for guided tours of the 'forteresse' are faded and the old fashioned pointing finger painted on the walls of the houses directed us to an office in a building next to what appeared to be the upper level of the chateau remains. The young woman inside seemed oddly surprised to see us and when she asked what language we spoke she said she'd go and see what could be done. What could be done was a dapper, elderly gentleman in a pin striped suit, blindingly white shirt and tie who apologised for his very good English and who carried a French/English dictionary which he never once consulted.

 That was at 3.30. By 6.30 we were two thirds of the way round. We'd spent an hour listeining to our guide's exploits as a boy carrying messages for the Resistance, looking at intricate working scale models of the castle he'd made showing each stage of its construction and listening to its history; another hour walking the ramparts, the outside and the arsenal and then another following our guide through subterranean tunnels,up and down spiral staircases, along blind alleys, through locked doors and all the while watching this 80 plus man re-enact scenarios of intruders fighting their way up winding steps and along narrow walls whilst being shot through the cunningly angled arrow slits. 'Stay there!' he'd say. 'It's too dangerous,' before stepping out onto a wall with a sheer drop into a well 25m below. We stayed and held our breath. What has been excavated is nothing short of amazing. Most of the structure is within the limestone rock and had been completely filled with rubble which seems to have been removed by teams of young volunteers from eastern europe. We (he) could have gone on all night but when the town clock struck 6.30 we made our excuses, shook hands (oddly soft considering) and returned to our simple life on the boat, grateful for those people who have obsessions and relieved that we have been spared them.

The major town on the canal des Vosges is Epinal. It is situated down a short arm off the main canal but at the moment they're working on the arm and it's closed off so we couldn't visit. After the flight of locks from Epinal we were in thick forest. The main occupation at this time of year seems to be cutting down the wood and stacking it in every available space for the winter. The weather has been beautiful over the past couple of weeks but as one scantily clad resident of a canalside house told us by December they will have a metre of snow.
Fontenoy le Chateau

And so to Fontenoy le Chateau. Nearly everyone we've spoken to has been quite disparaging about Fontenoy. We liked it a lot. There's not a lot there as regards shops but there's a baker, a small supermarket, the ubiquitous pharmacy and an 'original style' cafe/bar. What else do you need? We stayed a couple of days one of which was market day. This has to be the most understated market ever - 2 stalls. One butcher the other fruit and veg. The village itself has lots of character and seems happily frozen in the past.
Fontenoy was the first paved town in Lorraine - and, apparently, the last.

 Up on the hill behind is another ruined chateau. This one, sadly, remains a pile of rubble awaiting a saviour.

'en panne' on the Vosges

93 over a distance of 122km. 47 up to the summit of the canal des Vosges and 46 back down. At the final Moselle lock we were, once again, given a 'telecommande' (remote control)  to zap the upcoming canal's automatic lock mechanisms. You point the zapper at a sign that says 'ici, hier, here'. Beside the sign is a post with a yellow pyramid shaped light. With luck (and a strong zapper battery) the pyramid will begin to flash and a green light will illuminate alongside the red light at the lock to indicate it's preparing for you. After an interval of time (varying) the gates open, the red light goes out leaving the green and in you go. In an ideal world that is. The canal des Vosges, whilst pretty, is not that ideal world.
The first lock sets the tone for the whole trip - it doesn't work. It is 'en panne'.
 The predecessor of the zapper was, of course, the real, live lock keeper (eclusier) who lived in a cottage beside the lock which he maintained  and worked manually. Some of the cottages are still occuppied, now and again by a waterways employee, but many are abandonned and crumbling into a sad state of disrepair. The locks themselves have new automatically operated hydraulic gates but the chamber walls are sometimes in poor condition with large holes and leaks. Earlier this year, you may remember, we had to rethink our route when this canal was closed for some weeks due to a lock wall collapse. A lock very much 'en panne'. So, what do you do when faced with the 2 red lights of despair which indicate that the lock has thrown in its hand?

Sigh. Swear. Stop. In any order. Then someone with a modicum of French struggles valiantly ashore. I say struggles because the banks are often broken down and carpeted in nettles, it's too shallow to get close to them and the someone in question is the one with the gammy knee. Fortunately the waterways authorities have had the foresight to equip every lock with a phone which connects directly to their control centre. If it's not lunch time you'll usually get a fairly prompt answer and then it's just a case of telling them the lock number, the name of your boat and if you can, what the problem is. They will say something along the lines of 'a man will come' and he will. Within a short time (if it's not lunch time) a little white van (sometimes 2) will come speeding into view along the tow path and a lock keeper will quickly reset the controls and chat about the weather while he sees you safely through and waves you off with a cheery (or optimistic) 'bon journee'. You both know there's a pretty good chance you'll meet up again though.

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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Another Day, Another Tunnel (Foug)

We're at Lay Saint Remy tonight ready to traverse the Foug tunnel tomorrow morning. This one is a mere 866m long. Unlike the Mauvages tunnel you can see right through to the exit from the entrance. We've been this way before and not so long ago but what a difference a few weeks makes. We have the canal virtually to ourselves. Today we saw only 3 boats one of which was the first hire boat we've seen in...well, weeks. It's perfect cruising; peaceful, beautiful weather and a whole day (a short one admittedly) without locks. The biggest decision of the day - the only one in fact - was whether we'd like this morning's baguette 'bien cuite' (well cooked) or not.
Toul tomorrow.

The wildflowers are beginning to fade

Tuesday, 28 August 2012


Void, Lorraine, France
It may have taken a little time for summer to really start in this part of the world but then we had a weekend of 38/40 C to remind us to 'be careful what you wish for'. We were in the new port of Chalons en Champagne -a town which really merited much further exploration than the air conditioned supermarket but not at those temperatures. 'But you're from Australia, you should be used to this,' people said. Yes indeed - but we generally don't go out in it. At least I don't. Going outside, however, was preferable to cooking inside our steel boat where the heat was very definitely at slow roast levels.
From Chalons we went to Vitry le Francois which is at the crossroads of the Canal du Marne au Rhin and the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne (which we went up and down last year). We had been told that Vitry wasn't worth visiting and when we arrived at the miniscule port opposite a boatyard lined with decrepit, barely- floating barges and sad-looking, partially dismantled boats on land it did seem a bit unprepossessing. Perhaps that's as far as our disgruntled informant went. The town is, in fact, very pleasant particularly the Place d'Armes where we had a very good meal. 90% of the town was destroyed in WW2 but, as with many French towns and cities, it has been restored/rebuilt quite handsomely.
Vitry le Francois

After Vitry it was onwards and upwards - lock after lock, 20 or so in 20 km each day. We've been quite lucky only having to call out the lock keepers twice (touch wood. We have an awful lot to go). This canal is virtually deserted and passes through quiet countryside. Today we met only one other boat. The only major town we've been through since Vitry is Bar le Duc where the 'sacred road' of WW1 began (supply road to battlefields of Verdun). Bar le Duc is really 2 towns in one. The lower town, being the centre of commerce, is bustling and noisy. The 'Ville Haute', perched on a hilltop and reached via narrow, steep streets and steps is peaceful and elegant and has, in the church Saint Etienne, one of the most macabre sculptures ( Le Transi de Rene de Chalon by Ligier Richier)  that I've ever seen.

Clock Tower Bar le Duc

We've stopped at several villages with varying facilities. Usually there's a baker but at this time of year s/he may be on holiday. There's nearly always a hairdresser (or 2 or 3) and a pharmacy - usually the busiest spot in town. I must make mention of a little village called Fains les Sources which has, amongst other things, a 'restaurant scolaires' ie a school canteen. Only it's not a canteen - it's very much a restaurant. In keeping with the serious attitude the French have for the business of food this restaurant (and I think it is probably for primary school kids) has a weekly menu, (each day and each week is different) posted in the window. There are 4 courses, no apparent 'options' and no burgers and chips. So, there's an entree which might be something like tomato vinaigrette or radish in butter, a main, perhaps boeuf bourguignon or fillet of duck and gravy, a veg such as pureed cauliflower or potatoes, then a selection of cheeses and a dessert. I have no idea what the cost is but I'm betting it's very reasonable. I'm sure that Fains les Sources is by no means unique in offering this service, it's just the first I've noticed. Jamie Oliver would be impressed. I am impressed.
Today we reached the summit of this canal so it's all downhill from here - until the next climb up the Vosges mountains. At the summit we passed through a tunnel of almost 5km - the Mauvages.
Waiting to enter the Mauvages Tunnel

In the Mauvages Tunnel - our flag's looking the worse for wear

The other end of the Mauvages Tunnel - almost 5km long

Yesterday we were given a laminated sheet of regulations regarding this tunnel. Of paramount importance was the information that all boats had to be towed through by an electrically powered barge - 'no exceptions' and that we had to present ourselves at the tunnel entrance at 9.15am. So we, along with 2 other boats, arrive on time. There's no towing barge in evidence but there are 2 waterways officials who wave us through at 30 second intervals and then follow us by bicycle along the tunnel's towpath in order to keep an eye on us and wave goodbye at the other end. We still have the laminated sheet. We tried to return it to the first lock keeper we met but he didn't want it. He just laughed and said, 'I've seen that.'

For Malcolm - one of the electric trains that used to tow barges along the canal du Marne au Rhin

Tonight we are at a very pretty village called Void which has a liking for fountains. Next major stop will be Toul - once again.
A railway enthusiast's garden!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Close Encounters and Revisiting Reims

We  have had a couple of 'whose idea was this?' moments recently. Usually, life afloat is a pretty relaxed affair. Decisions about destinations can be pondered over and put off for weeks sometimes and need to be made (or changed) only on arrival at a junction in the waterway. Even then we've been known to toss a euro.We've come to several of those junctions recently. We've had to think about where we might leave the boat this winter and even (and this will be a first) where we might cruise to next year. Suddenly, 'we've got plenty of time left' has become 'we've only got.....' So, we're turning south once again, albeit in meandering (no, not dithering) fashion.
Leaving Sedan, we turned onto the Canal des Ardennes which we've been on before and I've no particular desire to see again. It's very pretty but we had a couple of 'incidents'. Leaving Chesne, one of the few stopping places and on the canal summit, you are faced with a day of solid locks - 26 in all to the end of the canal. They are all linked which means after you work through one the next is automatically activated which generally works reasonably well but means you really have to do the lot in one go. The team of lock keepers like you to go in pairs. Last time they said it was to save water but as the canal was full to brimming this time they couldn't give that as a reason. I imagine it's to make things less complicated for them when things go wrong. The fewer the lock operations the smaller the number of callouts.
26 locks is a lot particularly on a hot day which this was. At least we were going down rather than up. Nearing the bottom of the flight we were tired and perhaps not paying sufficient attention and failed to notice that the footbridge of the lock we were exiting, whilst exactly the same in design as the previous 20 or so was, in fact, closer to the water. Consequently, our mast (along with our tempers) snapped. 
In a previous year's diary I'd remarked that I was glad that we hadn't met any commercial barges because in many place the canal is rather narrow and overhung with trees and shrubbery. There are commercials using it particularly at harvest time. And yes that is now. We had just come to the end of the canal and were at the first lock of the next. It has a pole hanging out about 5m over the canal a hundred metres or so before the lock which you turn and it begins the lock operation. Only, as sometimes happens, it didn't. So, off I went to call up the control centre. Events were conspiring against us. A few minutes later it was all sorted through some sort of remote rejigging and we were down through the lock and rounding a bend overhung with trees about a hundred metres or so  beyond the lock. Suddenly we were facing a wall of steel -the bows of a huge peniche whose skipper had pulled right over to what normally would be the middle of the canal but at this particular narrow point was our side in order to twist the pole so he could go up in the lock.
Not the barge in question but you get the idea

We had both arrived at the worst possible point at exactly the same moment. Panic stations! With absolutely nowhere for us to go except through the shrubbery at full speed that's what we did -even then we missed each other by inches. In case you've ever wondered, your life doesn't flash before you in the face of imminent disaster but the moments leading up to that disaster seem to last a long time. Whose idea was this again?

Reims Cathedral

Then, on to Reims which we almost didn't stop at because we've been before and it has the noisiest moorings in the world being right beside the motorway to Paris on one side, a busy city road on the other and virtually underneath a bridge carrying more traffic. But the Chagall windows beckoned and I'm so happy they did because Reims cathedral has, like many cathedrals this summer, a sound and light show and it was fabulous.
Must've been my idea- surely
Chagall windows Reims Cathedral

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Sedan - again

We haven't had much luck at Sedan in the past - or the present in fact. This time some unfortunate boater had sideswiped the pontoons at the moorings and now they are unusable. There is a convenient enough wall on the opposite side of the river but the adjoining large carpark was full of caravans large and small and very large trucks. No problem - we secured ourselves to a convenient boulder, hammered in a couple of pins and got down to the business of  lunch. Then we took a closer look. This seemed to be a serious encampment. Floodlights, generators, awnings - a frites (chips) van. And, hoses snaking their way from the caravans over the wall and down to the river - only not quite... We decided to move. Out of the frying pan, so to speak.
So, we didn't get to see if the citadel roof had been repaired since our last visit but I expect it has.

We moved on to a pontoon a few km outside the city. Looked lovely. Quiet farmland, dusty track leading to a village about a km away and a picnic table alongside. No sooner had we tied up than 2 elderly men appeared from nowhere. What were we doing there? Did we have a problem? No, we explained we just wanted to stay the night as it seemed a lovely quiet spot. They had a bit more of a chat to each other and then asked us again. Surely we must have some engine problem. Why else would we choose to stop here? No, we smiled. They shrugged, chatted a bit more and next time we looked they'd disappeared again. We had a sneaking suspicion they knew something that we didn't. They did.
There was a short period of peace and quiet before the first car arrived. 2 young men got out, leaving the door open and the music on and sat at the picnic table a bottle of rose between them. Thereafter, a procession of cars, all containing young men, came and went throughout the afternoon. Then, in the evening, several cars pulled up and didn't leave. It was a long, loud night of  music, laughing and shouting interspersed by occasional crashes as limbs were torn from trees to be thrown on a disturbingly large bonfire- but we were left alone.
Next morning we woke to the aftermath. The partygoers had all left - at what time who knows? Our once again quiet picnic spot was littered with dozens and dozens of bottles and the remains of the bonfire still smouldered and possibly will continue to do so for days - until next weekend perhaps.

Thursday, 9 August 2012


Verdun’s story has been told by many and much more eloquently than I could ever attempt. If you don’t know it then you should find out. If you have the chance to visit then you should.
Unlike most fields of battle the ‘Red Zone’ above the city has not been ploughed up and returned to smooth farmland. Almost one hundred years has passed and although the ground has now been reclaimed by forest and grass, it still clearly shows the utter devastation caused by the millions of wartime shells. The zone includes a number of 'villages detruit' - destroyed villages. They have never been rebuilt except that each now has a church. There are no inhabitants but each village has a mayor.
85% of the city of Verdun was also destroyed but it was meticulously restored over a ten year period after the war.
From the top of the Ossiary at Douamont, Verdun. The remains of over 130 000 unidentified soldiers lie here.

We spent 5 days in Verdun as there was much to see and reflect upon.
Underground at Fort Douamont. The audio worked here.

Fort de Vaux

From the roof of Fort de Vaux- scene of a heroic French defence

Memorial to the last messenger pigeon - Fort de Vaux

We also saw yet another sound and light ‘spectacle’. This one was From Flames to the Light and was held in a quarry a few miles outside Verdun. We had bought our tickets a few days earlier in St Mihiel thinking that there would be some transport from Verdun. There wasn’t. ‘It’s not too far,’ said the lock keeper. It was. ‘You can cycle.’ Not with my knee. Fortunately, we met up with some Brits on another boat who had a car and were also going and very kindly gave us a lift. Even a taxi would have been virtually impossible as there were what seemed like thousands there, all in cars and only one road in and out. We would have got there all right but getting back to the boat after midnight would have been impossible. The show was excellent apart from the audio translators we were given not working (yet again. we don't have much luck with these).

Verdun Port
The port at Verdun is very popular - not least because it is free, is in the centre of the city and doesn't charge for electricity or water. Often it is double banked on both sides of the river and each morning there is musical boats as some people leave and others jostle for the best spots.
Anyone can go cruising! Verdun

One way to move house. This young man is on his way to Lyons with all his possessions

It can be fairly lively here at night as well. We didn't particularly appreciate the Macarena (in French) from 2 til 3am outside a bar on the quayside opposite...