Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Monday, 16 September 2013

Never Rains but it Pours

Boating in France is not all about lazing on deck sipping wine in the sunshine as you may be aware if you've followed this blog for any length of time. There are times, like now, when the view from the window, if indeed you could see it through the rain lashed glass, is unrelentingly grey. The weather has steadily deteriorated over the past week as have our moods. One of us was even heard to wonder, this morning, if it would be possible to change the date of our flights home. Things could be worse though. We could be one of those (not all holidaymakers) camped in tents on the banks of the River Loire. At least we are in a port with access to electricity and have the luxury of huddling around a fan heater with our mugs of tea. I saw one of the campers this morning vainly attempting to keep his campfire alight. Not that it is all that cold - just depressing.
The weather was still dry- just- when we visited Sancerre, the famous wine producing area of the Loire. The town is situated at the top of a very steep hill about 3km from the canal port at Saint Satur. I know from previous hill climbs that I'd rather walk than push a cycle uphill so I leant my bike to the skipper ( his bike being' hors de combat' and requiring a new tyre. You would think that in cycle mad France there would be the occasional bike shop...)
The first part of our climb took us over a most impressive viaduct.

 This was once the railway from Bourges to Toul but is nowadays a road with a fantastic view and virtually no traffic. Once over the viaduct I was able to take one of the steep, stony paths through the vineyards whilst the cyclist took the longer route on the road. September is the usual month of the 'vendange', the wine harvest, but this hasn'tyet  begun around Sancerre. I could see some winegrowers in couples out amongst the vines closely examining the grapes. Determining the best moment to harvest is an important decision. I wonder if this heavy rain is having an effect.
Pinot grapes

The climb became steeper and steeper and the last few hundred yards were a killer making me wonder what it would be like in the depths of winter. The view from the top over the Loire valley and vineyards all the way to the Morvern mountains was worth the effort despite the threatening rainclouds. I may have been first to the top but it took me some little while to recover!
Loire Valley from Sancerre

Sancerre itself is a lovely little town of cobbled streets and medieval buildings. Nearly every shop is a wine business where you can taste and buy. We confined ourselves to a beer for him and a sauvignon blanc for me at the bar in the square. For the wine afficianado there is very informative visitor centre in a beautiful old building restored and run by the local viticulturalists which will tell you all you ever wanted to know and more about the region's wines. I know some people are not fond of sauvignon blancs and I am no expert but the Sancerre blanc does taste rather good. 20% of the wine produced is pinot noir - I haven't tried that but I am sure it is delicious as well.

The other delicacy of the region is the goat cheese - crottin de chauvignol. These are small rounds of hard cheese matured for up to 4 months. (crottin means horse droppings incidentally - an accurate description). I have only tried one bought from a tiny old fashioned epicerie  in a small village. The owner chose one for me from a counter display full of them. I'm not sure if he was choosing me the best, the oldest or the worst but goodness it was ripe and strong. Too ripe for me anyway. More research is required for a balanced verdict.
Lastly on the food and wine theme I have to mention the lock keepers' produce. As I've mentioned before sometimes lock keepers will have produce from their gardens for sale. 'Would you like a cucumber?' asks one keeper. 'Yes please.' He brings a cucmber. 'I have courgettes as well'. I'm not that fussed about courgettes but to be polite I say ok I'll have some. 'One or two?' he asks. I think of Australian courgettes and to say just one  seems a little mean so I ask for two. He goes off to pick them straight from the garden. Here they are. We've eaten them every night for the past week and we're still only on the first. What did that cost? All of 1 euro 50.

We are now moored in the port de plaisance of Nevers. The city centre is about 1.5km away across the other side of the river Loire. This past weekend was the annual Journees Europeennes du Patrimoine when lots of historic buildings open their doors and have presentations so when the rain abated for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon we took the opportunity to stroll with the crowds around the old ramparts and then visit a few.
There are many ancient houses from the 14th to the 17th centuries along the narrow winding streets leading from the river quayside up to the cathedral some of which still house manufacturers of the famous(and expensive) blue and white pottery - faience- for which Nevers has been famous for hundreds of years.

The cathedral itself was bombed by mistake during the second world war- they meant to bomb the railyards - and consequently all of its stained glass windows were destroyed. However they have  been replaced by beautiful contemporary stained glass which fills the upper reaches of the cathedral with a softly coloured glow.

The exterior of the cathedral tower is shrouded in scaffolding at the moment as it is being restored and we were able to watch artisans at their intricate work on some of the statues.
In the time it has taken me to write this blue skies have begun to make an appearnce. Time to go and find a supermarket. Our next destination will be Decize which is where we will turn around and make our way back to where we hopefully have a berth for winter....

Monday, 9 September 2013

Across and Along the Loire

Briare Aqueduct
Now cruising another jauntily named waterway - the Canal Lateral a la Loire. As the name says it runs alongside the River Loire. At over 1000 km in length this is the longest river in France although the canal is only 196km. The part of the river we are cruising alongside at the moment is extremely wide with the channel meandering and splitting around islands and large sand banks. These islands are an important conservation area and habitat for many types of birds.
River Loire from Briare Aqueduct

River Loire from Briare Aqueduct
We arrived at the Loire at the small town of Briare. Once waterborne traffic had to make a difficult and dangerous river crossing in this stretch but now we can soar over the wide river on a most impressive aqueduct which opened in 1896. Until 2003 this was the longest aqueduct in the world. The lovely ornamental columns at either end and elegant cast iron lamps the length of the broad towpaths which run each side of the 6m wide channel give the crossing a distinctly gracious  and 'other time' feel. All that was missing to complete the illusion of stepping back in time was for the pedestrians promenading on each side to be dressed in Victorian clothes. Sadly for me, due to the lovely weather they were mostly clad in shorts and t shirts.

Briare Aqueduct

Mantelot's Lock, Chatillon sur Loire. Once enabled boats to lock onto the river. Now restored but unused.

Moving swiftly into this century we are moored close to one of the 4 nuclear power plants along the Loire - the Belleville nuclear plant. I cycled near there yesterday along the Loire Velo route and was a little disturbed to see an information board detailing recent floods of the Loire and showing photos of the power station on what seemed to be a little island surrounded by miles of water. According to Wikipedia it is constructed on a 4.6m floodsafe platform. Well, that's ok then.
Belleville Nuclear Power Station

 We've been back on the boat for a week now and have taken things slowly. We are in hire boat country once again and so we've tried to let them all get in front of us instead of fighting for moorings. As I mentioned we've been out cycling in an effort to burn off weeks of full Scottish breakfasts and fish suppers, the evidence of which is stubbornly hanging around our waistlines. 
Hopefully we have secured a winter mooring but as it seems to be a somewhat casual type of arrangement  with a bit of a language gap we won't really know until we pitch up. My meagre French speaking ability seems to have taken a turn for the worse. I don't know if I can blame the haggis and black pudding for that as well - sadly but not surprisingly they seem to be absent from this list.
Next stop is Sancerre - famous for its wine and goats cheese. Oh dear....
Lavoir - Lere

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Back Onboard - Scotland to Briare

'Haste Ye Back' say the signs in Edinburgh airport's departure lounge. A life lived on the move is one of both happy reunions and sad farewells and we've had plenty during our month in Scotland. It doesn't seem to matter how much time we plan to spend 'at home' it is never enough to see all the family and friends that we want to. So, apologies to those we missed this time. We will certainly hasten back - well, next year anyway.
As I mentioned when I last wrote Scotland turned on the good weather for us again this year so we decided to hire a car and do a 'grand tour', reaquainting ourselves with favourite spots and visiting some new ones. Scotland may seem a small country but it is crammed with a wealth of beautiful places and interesting historical sights. So, I'll let the place speak for itself with just a few pictures of places we haven't been before.
(We are now back onboard L'Avenir in Briare and about to begin the quest for a winter mooring. I know, we've left it a bit late. It's that planning problem again....)

Highland cow at Diurnish
Seal at Gairloch

Ardvreck castle, Assynt

Achmelvich Beach Assynt

Near Durness

Monument to 'the emigrants' at Helmsdale - that's us. In this case the victims of the Clearances - unlike us they had little choice

Eilean Donan Castle

The 'Harry Potter train' from Fort william to Mallaig

Royal Deeside. Glen Muick, Queen Victoria's favourite place.
Fishmarket at Kinlochbervie. A Scottish catch! Most fishing ports along this coast land fish from French and Spanish boats. This is loaded onto French/and Spanish trucks then driven over the tiny Scottish roads and straight to the restaurants of Spain and France.
Dunrobin Castle
Golden Eagle at Dunrobin Castle
Mallaig Harbour
Plockton - Hamish Macbeth was filmed here