Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

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...