Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

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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