Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Battlefields of the Somme

Villers Bretonneaux

Now that the tunnel trauma is out of the way it’s time to move on up the canal to Cambrai. We initially intended spending only a couple of days here but the port captain suggested we stay for the ‘fete’ over the long weekend – not having any other pressing plans (any plans at all) we agreed. There was a religious aspect to the celebrations invovlving a relic from the cathedral processing around the town but that was to become rather lost amidst the bright flashing lights, loud music and screaming crowds being whirled, twirled and hurled in all directions at the biggest carnival I have ever seen. Not only the main square but every other square and street in the town was crammed full of rides and sideshows. The carnival was actually in town for not just the weekend but the whole week forcing cars taking people to and from work to patiently squeeze through strolling crowds intent on winning a cuddly toy at a rifle range or hooking a plastic duck in a pond – who knows what you win for that. In amongst all the modern roller coasters, ghost trains and throw you up in the air o’planes was a rather disturbing ride – a carousel with real ponies. Half a dozen very sad looking little ponies connected together and harnessed up to a central pole endlessly walking in circles with the ride operator ‘encouraging’ them to keep moving.
One evening spent at the carnival was enough so we hired a car for 4 days and got out of town. Car hire in France is a first for us. Now, having done so and worked out the sometimes archaic road rules (we think) we wonder why we haven’t previously. The hire itself was amazingly easy (mobile phone operators take note) requiring very little in the way of documentation. It was a case of take what’s left as regards the car though. The smallest they had was a Nissan Juke which seemed nearly as spacious as the boat but less comfortable.
Cambrai is close to many of the Somme battlefields and monuments. A day’s drive will take you to the scenes of the deaths of around a million men. The first day alone of the Battle of the Somme saw 5000 Allied forces lose their lives. One of those killed here was my great uncle and whilst he has no known grave I was anxious to see his name on the Vis-en Artois memorial. Before deciding to rent the car we had gone to the tourist office in Cambrai to see if there was perhaps public transport out to the memorial. There wasn’t but the women in the office could not have been more kind and helpful; one of them even offering to drive us there on her day off (quite a long way as it happens).
There are military cemeteries everywhere in this region. Some are fairly small, some very large and all immaculately kept. Each headstone or cross represents one young man, of course, as well as his broken hearted mother and family. There are also memorials and monuments some of which are so enormous they can be seen for miles. The monument at Thiepval is one – it is only when you get close to it that you realise why it is so huge and why, tragically, it could not have been any smaller. Every inch of it is neede to accommodate the names of the 72205 British and South African men who were killed at the Somme and who have no known grave – ‘the missing’.  We visited memorials to Australians and Canadians also. They overlook what is now beautiful rural countryside which makes it almost impossible to begin to imagine the horror and utter ruin and devastation of that time. It was a sad and moving experience for me to lay some poppies at the Vis-en-Artois Memorial for my own great uncle. I know very little about his life and nothing of his hopes and dreams but he is not forgotten.
Thiepval Memorial

Vis-en-Artois Memorial
Huge shell hole from WW1

On a lighter, weirder note we visited an old Vaubin fort near Lille which is now a privately owned residence and museum. We really should have learned by this time. If someone has gone to the trouble and expense of buying a castle or fort and building up a museum they are probably going to be quite keen on their subject. They also, invariably, want to show you every single brick and artefact and tell you more than you every wanted to know. And so it was at the Fort de Seclun. A 2 hour guided tour of a partially ruined fort now being run as a farm with hopes of one day turning it into a wedding/convention venue. We were part of a group of a dozen without any chance of escape as the gates were locked behind us after we entered. The lady of the fort was responsible for the first section showing us around the fort itself whilst shooing geese, chickens, goats and the xmas turkey out of the way along the underground passages as we all picked our way through the trails of animal droppings they left in their wake. 

The fort had been used as a garrison by the Germans during WW2 and so the present owners had the idea to set up one section as a replica of a commandant’s quarters in the trenches. Before we could have a look at that Madame had to dislodge a very pregnant pig who was most disgruntled (appropriately) at being turfed out of her comfortable berth and into the muddy yard. Then we were passed onto Monsieur who had amassed a large amount of guns, machine guns, medals, uniforms and general war memorabilia,wanted to show us every single one of his exhibits and wouldn’t allow any independent looking around. All this in French which was hard enough for me and of no use at all to the person who had expressed an interest in visiting. Main grumble of the day was from Monsieur who expressed disappointment and annoyance that he isn’t permitted to purchase ammunition for his patiently restored first world war Howitzer

Saturday, 23 August 2014

One Tunnel Too Many- Riqueval

Riqueval Bridge
The summit of the St Quentin canal passes through two tunnels. The first presents no problems. It is one way but controlled by traffic lights so you just wait around for the green light and then through you go. It is a couple of kilometres but there is reasonable headroom and lighting and as long as you take your time there should be no dramas.
The second tunnel is an altogether different proposition. Here you can't go under your own power. Twice a day an ancient electrically powered tug tows the boats through. The first boat (the biggest) is attached by a long cable to the tug and then any subsequent boats use their own ropes to attach themselves to the one in front. As the canal is so quiet we weren't anticipating anything untoward. In fact, for once, I hadn't given it any thought at all. I assumed we'd just hitch up to the tug and off we'd go. Rob had organised a really long rope so we could attach to another boat if necessary although as I mentioned in a previous post we had seen virtually no other boats - perhaps one cruiser a day coming the other way.
There is quite a distance between the two tunnels which is all part of the one way system. As we passed through the narrow deep cutting the sides became steeper and steeper. On a sunny day it might be an atmospheric trip. We passed under the Riqueval Bridge, the site of one of the most famous photographs of the first world war. The sides of the cutting are now covered in trees and shrubs but I can't understand how all those soldiers managed to cling to the sides of the slope - they are virtually vertical. The bridge has been rebuilt and while quite handsome one can't help but be aware of the slaughter that went on in this area. Then the sky turned black and the heavens opened. We tied up for the night with the dark hole of the tunnel yawning ahead of us. It was only about 5pm but it in the gloom of the deep cutting and beneath the thunderous sky it seemed much later.Torrential rain poured down for the rest of the afternoon and evening making a depressing place seem even more unpleasant. Then, to make matters worse, a fully laden peniche (large commercial barge) slid around the bend to join us. Just our luck.We wouldn't be making the journey through the tunnel on our own.
The tunnel crossing was to commence at the unearthly hour (for us) of 7.30am and at 7 the peniche chugged past us ready to hitch up to the tug. Rob slotted in behind him and started organising our tow rope. The bargee came out to help but didn't like our arrangement and re-did it to his satisfaction. Rob wasn't happy believing the ropes were too short but the bargee insisted it was fine and we bowed to what we believed was the professional's opinion. Big mistake.
At 7.30 on the dot the tug gave a toot toot and off we went. There were quite a few waterways employees standing around for some unexplained reason - no one had been to see us to give us any instructions or advice. However, as we passed a couple they nodded to our tow rope set up and helpfully said - they're too short. Well thanks for that. It's a bit late now. And it was.
Things went badly very quickly.The channel in the tunnel is not much wider than a 38m commercial peniche and a laden barge is so low in the water that it takes up just about all of the depth too. Eureka...
Within minutes we were being dragged along the tunnel wall and no amount of fending off was going to get us off. The tunnel trip takes 2 hours...The tug operator must have heard us shouting and screaming at each other and one of them came hurrying back to us (there's a narrow pathway along one side of the tunnel) and told us we should disconnect the ropes and start the engine which we did quick smart. Thereafter we had no problem apart from the lack of ventilation in the tunnel which is why they don't want people going through on their engines. Our professional bargee didn't have a good run either becoming firmly stuck at one point and gouging a few more bricks out of the wall whilst the tunnel filled with the stench of burning rubber as his fenders dragged along the sides. I hate to think what would have happened to us if we'd still been attached.
So that was the Riqueval Tunnel. I won't be going that way again.
The tunnel on the canal du Nord was a breeze by comparison even though it carries much more commercial traffic. Again it is quite long but it is interesting in that both end sections are one way and controlled by traffic lights and then the middle third widens out and is two way.It is a very surreal experience to meet ships and boats coming the other way in the echoey darkness.
Enough tunnels for one year.
Inside the Riqueval Tunnel - for 2 hours

Friday, 22 August 2014

On the Beach

La plage - Saint Quentin
On a whim we turned our backs on the canal du Nord and headed up the Oise and then onto the canal St Quentin. The canal du Nord is the main waterway to/from the north and carries a lot of commercial traffic. This gives it a slightly fearsome reputation which, I have to say, having travelled the more circuitous route – ignore! Whilst the canal du Nord may have large ships and few interesting places to stop it is a fast (in boating terms) and easy trip. There is a tunnel, of course, but there is also one on the St Quentin. Having traversed both tunnels give me the canal du Nord one any day. More on that later.
Before the opening of the Canal du Nord in 1960s the St Quentin canal was the main freight waterway and in the late 1800s up to 110 barges crossed the summit daily (through that tunnel... I cannot begin to imagine that!). Nowadays, after leaving the Oise and joining the St Quentin proper, there is very little traffic at all. Some days we met only one boat. The St Quentin is certainly a more attractive waterway than the Nord passing through pleasant countryside and some interesting towns and villages. The canal was on the front line of the first World War and so is part of the ‘Poppy Route’ around the battlefields of the Somme.
We spent a few days in St Quentin itself. The well set up port hasn’t had an operator for several years and is completely free – including the electricity. The local boating club keeps the place tidy, there’s a secure entry and there are a few friendly long term residents. It seems a real shame that the place isn’t fully operational. We’ve heard a few people saying they would like to base their boats there.
St Quentin was very badly damaged during WW1 but like many French towns reasonably sensitively reconstructed afterwards. The large, main square is surrounded by elegant buildings and during the summer is filled with tons of sand for a month and turned into a beachside resort. There are pools, fountains, umbrellas and deck chairs. Childrens’activites catering for different age groups are set up in separate areas and parents,some clad in bikinis and bathers, enthusiastically join in. Best of all it’s all free. It is always great to see how the different towns in France provide excellent and free activities for their communities. Well, like all of us, they do complain about their taxes, of course, but at least they can see something tangible for them even if it is just sand. Sadly, for everyone concerned, the weather this August has been fairly dreadful.
From St Quentin we travelled to the fine city of Cambrai via ‘The Tunnel’ - both of which deserve a post of their own.
Waiting in the rain for the Riqueval Tunnel - can things get worse?
Unfortunately, yes.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

After Paris - l'Avenir

We farewelled the Seine at Conflans Ste Honorine, an important barging town in days gone by and according to our guide, a place bargees go to retire. The guide hasn’t been updated for many years so perhaps they retire elsewhere nowadays but there were certainly many unused barges stacked along the banks. We didn’t stop but swung around the bend to join the River Oise (have yet to find out the definitive pronunciation). There was a lot of commercial traffic on the Seine and this continued on the Oise. The river was initially a lot smaller than the Seine so we were up close to some large craft – a lot of ‘convoys’ (one barge pushing another) which are the waterways equivalent of  B double trucks with which Australians will be familiar on the roads. The navigation signs required us to change sides of the river quite frequently to give the ships the best channel which I found a bit nerve wracking as they didn’t seem to correspond exactly on the upstream and downstream banks.
Being on a busy commercial waterway means that you can’t just moor anywhere and consideration has to be given as regards options for overnight stops. The mooring places marked on the charts may be unsuitable for a variety of reasons; they might be taken already, have fallen into disrepair or simply no longer exist. Sometimes a couple of fishermen will have set up their lines and you would have to be a braver person than I to ask them to move. The only people fishing that look as though they are enjoying themselves are the children who invariably smile and wave as we pass – perhaps the older men (and they almost always are male) have grown increasingly morose with years of staring into muddy water and catching next to nothing. Anyway, when we set off for the day, we try and have a couple of options in mind.
Cergy, our first port on the Oise, was once a small village but in the 60s it was decided that it would become one of a number of ‘new towns’ to be built surrounding Paris to relieve the population explosion. The original village remains much as it always was with the usual array of shops such as a baker and hairdresser (more unusually its streets ring with the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer) but it is now surrounded by modern development housing a couple of hundred thousand people. Public transport wasn’t forgotten and an RER train can whisk you to Paris in 45 minutes – somewhat faster than the 2 days we’d taken. The port area is a fairly recent and is very pleasant with a range of restaurants and the oddly named English Pub which serves those well known ‘English’ beers Guinness and Kilkenny.
Our next stop was to be Isle Adam where Vincent van Gogh and his brother are buried but it was a Sunday afternoon and the pontoon near the restaurant was taken up by a couple of boatloads of visiting diners and the next pontoon through the lock was occupied by a courting couple – we’d sooner have tried to move fishermen. So, it was on to St Leu d’Esserent which initially looked fairly uninteresting having been badly damaged during both world wars but has an enormous, beautiful, ancient abbey on the hilltop which fortunately survived intact. Local stone of the type used in its construction was later quarried and transported by river from here to build the Louvre and other great buildings of Paris.
Compeigne, about which I knew nothing at all, was our port for a couple of days and turned out to be a very interesting city with an impressive variety of beautiful buildings from different eras. The grandest is the Palais built by Louis XV – closed when we were there unfortunately. Rob cycled out to the clearing in the forest to visit the site of the signing of the armistice of the first World War – the Clairiere de l’Armistice. There is a small museum in the railway carriage (a sister of the original) where the signing took place. (My bike has developed a recurring puncture and needs a new inner tube so is out of commission until we can find somewhere selling spares.)
We left Compeigne early in the morning knowing it was to be a long day. Arriving at the junction with the canal du Nord we suddenly and inexplicably made one of those spur of the moment decisions which may eventually have big implications. We were supposed to turn left into the first deep lock of the Nord. Instead we went right.

Au Revoir Paris

We dropped down through the lock from the Paris Arsenal onto the River Seine just after 9am. Uncharacteristically early for us but the day was forecast to be hot and we wanted to cover some distance to make up for the 10 days our boat had languished in one spot whilst we enjoyed the sights of the city. Waiting for the lock to empty and the gates to open is a bit like waiting in the slightly scruffy and dingy wings of a theatre and then suddenly it’s time; out you sail onto a glittering stage with the most magnificent backdrop of grand buildings and your audience waving from ornate bridges which gleam gold in the sunshine. Not that boats on the Seine are anything unusual of course. Dozens of them plough up and down every day and evening carrying thousands of tourists. There are cargo barges too but smaller private boats are not quite so common. Being reasonably early in the morning meant we more or less had the river to ourselves and whilst the star of the show is the city itself we felt centre stage for a little while at least.
This is the second time we have enjoyed our own Paris cruise on l’Avenir. This time was beneath clear blue skies and so was perfect. One of the other Australians in the port was brave enough to take his boat out and join the crazily busy procession of bateaux mouches (huge trip boats) plying the Seine in the evening to enjoy the illuminated buildings and bridges. They returned to port thrilled by the experience. We would have loved to try it too but unfortunately our navigation lights, untested for years, stubbornly refused to play their part and contribute to the ‘City of Lights’. Perhaps next time.

We followed the Seine downstream as far as the junction with the River Oise. I would have liked to continue to Vernon in order to visit Monet’s garden but that also will have to wait for another trip. We did stop overnight at another Impressionist favourite though – the restaurant Fournaise on the ‘Isle des Impressionistes’ at Chatou where Renoir painted a series of works. The island was a popular destination for artists for a period of time when boating (and partying) on the Seine was all the rage. Then bicycles became ‘the latest thing’ and the fashionable cycled off elsewhere. 
Restaurant Fournaise
The area was renowned for its quality of light and there seems to be something in that. The evening sky put on quite a show – no flashy sunsets; a much more subtle shifting of cloud formations and colour. Quite a crowd of young people sat chatting, picnicking and enjoying the warm summer evening. Every so often someone would pull out their phone and capture a picture of the ever changing sky and their friends enjoying themselves. The digital equivalent of what Renoir himself was doing perhaps.