Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Monday, 22 September 2014

Living in Paris

Our recent cruise through Paris was rather more exciting than I would have liked. This was to be the second time we'd sailed beneath those famous bridges this year and the third time in total so we were feeling pretty relaxed and looking forward to the experience. I should know better by this time.
The Seine approaching Paris that afternoon was fairly busy with commercial ships. I am always surprised at just how many ships and barges load and discharge along the city's quays. Paris is still a thriving working port which is good to see. We shared a couple of the huge Seine locks with some large vessels but that was no problem. They are just in a hurry to be on their way and our rule of thumb on commercial waterways is to keep out of the way. The nearer you get to the city centre the more narrow and congested the river becomes and if you can't keep out of the way you have to try to keep up. Things start to become interesting at the Eiffel Tower which is where the many Bateaux Mouches (the trip boats) are based. The Bateaux Mouches need to turn over as many paying passengers as possible, of course, so they go at top speed. Mid afternoon, which is when we pitched up, is one of their busiest times. It is also a busy time for commercial ships.
The rule is keep to the right and the slower you are the righter you keep. Generally speaking the bridge hole on your side of the river is one way only and the one in the middle is 2 way. So there we were, passing the Musee d'Orsay going as fast as safely possible with a large, orange commercial ship close behind us and gaining. Behind him were a couple of Bateaux Mouches.The bridge arch on the right that we were heading for has 2 diamonds which means it's one way in our direction. The middle arch has one diamond meaning it can be used by either up or downstream craft and the one on the left has a no entry sign because it is reserved for traffic coming the other way. As the orange ship drew level with us we assumed he'd hold course for the middle arch but inexplicably, a paddle steamer coming in the other direction decided he was doing the same. The orange ship changed course at high speed at the last minute, passing within inches of us. Because everyone was going so fast and the banks are high stone quays there was lots of turbulent water and we were thrown about quite frighteningly. I don't now how we managed to avoid being dashed against the wall which would certainly have given all the tourists lining the bank and following in the bateaux mouches some interesting pictures. (and yes, we did have our VHF switched on to the correct channel)
That Paddleboat

We spent only a couple of days in Paris this time. The port was full but mainly with boats left for the winter. There were only a couple of visiting cruisers. Having 'done' most of the major tourist sights previously I did lots of walking instead.
Galerie Lafayette cupola (dept store)

There are huge numbers of homeless people in Paris. At the tourist sites there are numerous groups of men (always) selling little Eiffel Towers, bottles of water, doing 3 card tricks, attempting to tie your wrist with thread and then demanding money to release you. Children sit at the side of the road playing accordians and violins. Groups of young girls hang around the stations hassling for money for food. Pickpockets work their way through the metro. Women lie completely prostrate on the pavement, their heads covered, hands outstretched, begging. Each evening families carrying their possessions and a mattress set up home for the night on pavements metres from Parisians and tourists dining at street cafes.


 Beneath the bridges people pitch tents or, if they can, build little shacks from whatever is available. The police pull down their homes and move them on. The rest of us-we step around them, mostly unseeing.

from the roof of Galerie Lafayette, Paris

and finally, quality buskers in the Bastille Metro station. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time Slip in Chatillon Coligny

There are lots of Chatillons in France - a medieval castle once stood in each.  The Donjon dating from 1190 still stands in Chatillon Coligny and many medieval buildings remain in the narrow winding streets within the walls of this ancient fortified town.
The town could not be more welcoming to boaters providing great moorings with electricity, water, showers, toilets and wifi and all for free! We always try to give back to any community that provides a mooring by spending some money in the local shops. Chatillon Coligny's facilities are so good that they merited a bit more than the normal day to day shopping and so we decided to go out for dinner at the upmarket restaurant. It was still light when we left the boat. Even although it was Saturday night these small country towns close down fairly early. There were a few people and some traffic around but the shops were shut and the bar owners were busy washing down their floors and stacking the tables and chairs. The restaurant we were heading for stands just outside the town walls beside one of the gateways. At the end of our lovely meal the chef came out of the kitchen and spoke to each diner individually - and there were a lot of customers.

Our route home took us back through the town gate and into the now dark and deserted streets of the old town. First we heard hoof beats ringing against the cobbled streets and then a horse drawn carriage swept by without a glance at us from the driver.

A minute later two vintage cars passed. They at least acknowledged our presence with honking  horns whilst the occupants, dressed in flamboyant clothes from an earlier century waved gloved hands and tipped hats.Then we turned into the main square. Three women  in long dresses and hats and carrying baskets stood chatting under one of the street lights quite oblivious to our presence whilst in the centre of the square a couple of young boys played a game of skittles again apparently totally unaware of us.

From time to time the horse and carriage clattered through the square followed by the ratting old cars. No one, other than these characters from the past and ourselves was on the streets. It was the strangest feeling- a bit like that Woody Allen film 'Midnight in Paris'.

We watched and wondered for a while and then continued on our way back to the boat hearing the hoofbeats and the honking of the cars as we walked. We didn't meet another soul.
Apologies for the ghostlike quality of the photographs - I did my best....

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Do the Ayes Have It?

Le Martin Pecheur (Kingfisher), Nargis, France
I am no great believer in coincidences but what are the odds of this? Late yesterday afternoon, we were looking for a place to moor for the night. There seemed to be nowhere. No villages, no picnic areas, nothing to tie to except trees (not really allowed). Just at that beginning to be fed up point we rounded a bend and saw a bar/restaurant ahead which, unlike many canalside businesses, was still open. Even more surprisingly, hanging from a flagpole was a Saltire (Scottish flag). Seeing our Saltire on the boat a man on the terrace called out in the question that everyone in Scotland is answering today 'How are you voting?' Like this Scottish owner of the bar we don't have a vote but we do have an opinion or two so we tied up to the convenient rail and joined him to discuss them. What a great evening in a Scottish bar, filled with Scottish memorabilia, drinking McEwans Export and discussing the Referendum! Great to feel part of the excitement even from afar. Whatever the decision today - Bon Courage Scotland!!!
And a plug for Le Martin Pecheur, the bar in question. Excellent pub whose rock guitarist 'patron' seems to be on good terms with many noted musicians and organises concerts at weekends. You never know who you might meet. Good food as well. 
The Saltire

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Upstream on the Somme and the Oise

The dubious thrill of speeding downstream has been replaced by a slow slog against the current. The Canal du Somme terminates at the sea port of Saint Valery and as we weren’t about to brave a Channel crossing to England we turned around in order to retrace our watersteps. Doubling back is not as boring as you might imagine. You know what to expect and where to stop which relieves some uncertainty (oh it is such a worry filled life we lead), you get a second chance to visit the places you missed on the way down and invariably the weather is quite different which completely changes the character of the trip. So, our journey back was slower, stress free and best of all, sunny. As regards filling the gaps on places we missed, Rob cycled from Cappy up to the village of Villers Bretoneux in order to visit the Franco-Australian museum which was apparently well worth the hard slog up 2 long hills. A week previously torrential rain had forced us to give up at the Australian Memorial and Cemetery at the top of the first hill. Then on the River Oise we stopped at Auvers which is where Vincent van Gogh spent the final months of his life and, in an incredible burst of creative energy, painted many of his finest works.
The stop at Auvers was one of pot luck really. I had it in my mind that l’Isle Adam was the place that had attracted the artists. We hadn’t managed to stop there previously as we’d passed on a Sunday lunchtime and the pontoon alongside a restaurant was full up. Knowing nothing of the place we’d assumed that the restaurant was all there was to it. This time the pontoon was empty. Isle Adam turned out to be a sizeable tourist town with dozens of restaurants and one of the original inland ‘plages’ (beaches) in France. This one was opened by Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) in 1949 and remains in its original condition with a lovely restaurant (another one).
 A small, pretty park celebrates the history of the French Art with reproductions of famous paintings made in the surrounding countryside one of which was the Eglise (church)  painted by van Gogh which I’d thought was in l’Isle Adam but is really at Auvers.

Auvers, just half an hour along the river, has a pontoon and it was empty. Travelling late in the season has advantages. The village, a short walk off the river, is overlooked by the church of van Gogh’s painting. Apparently he completed it in one morning. We walked up the hill behind the church to the small cemetery surrounded by what, in Vincent’s time were hay fields. At the moment some are empty having been harvested and others have other crops. The cemetery has the graves of Vincent and his brother Theo. The graves are marked by simple headstones and unlike the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde in Paris they are unprotected by fences. No one has kissed, stuck chewing gum messages, laid flowers or grafittied here. 

Auvers has erected a Van Gogh trail with hoardings showing prints of his paintings at the location in which they were painted so you can compare your view today with the artist’s view. We really liked this -at every one wondering how did he make this out of this? Which is not to say that this is not a beautiful landscape – it is.
Auberge Ravoux

In the centre of the village is the Auberge Ravoux where Van Gogh lived and died. The tiny room (7sq m) lit by a small skylight that he rented in the attic has never been let since his death because as the room of someone who committed suicide it was considered to hold bad luck. The room was closed off and remains in the exact decorative order as it was in 1890. The present owners removed the old furniture as they were not absolutely certain it dated back to Van Gogh’s era so now there is only a single chair.  
Downstairs the café/restaurant has been beautifully restored although I daresay it is now perhaps rather more elegant than it was in the 1890s.
Next stop, Paris.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

La Somme

It’s been wet on the Somme. Who’d have expected that?  According to the local paper this has been the rainiest August since 2001. Our policy of not moving in the wet has had to be abandoned for fear we’d be stuck here for weeks- and we only have weeks left. Our return flights to Australia are now only one page flip away on the calendar and we have to be a long way from here by the end of September. Torrential rain and rivers are not a good combination. All that water has to go somewhere and that is downstream at high speed towards the sea. The current has been running at speeds of around 6 or 7km an hour which might not seem fast to those of you speeding in your cars but believe me on a narrow winding river with oncoming boats, weirs, bridges and locks it can be quite exciting. The speed limit on canals is normally around 6kph but as you need to keep up some engine speed in order not to lose all steering you end up going at a faster lick than is comfortable – for me anyway. We have come through unscathed but others haven’t been so lucky. We read in the paper of one large boat being swept sideways and then wedged between a guide rail and the bank whilst waiting for a swing bridge to open. The skipper, presumably in a panic, fell in the river. The fire brigade, police, ambulance and lots of divers were called to the rescue. No-one was hurt and the boat was undamaged but someone’s holiday was spoilt. Today we shared a lock with an English narrowboat whose skipper couldn’t get off the river fast enough (and heading upstream against the current that will take a while). He had spent hours firmly wedged against a weir barrier whilst attempting to enter a lock. At least there was a barrier I suppose. It has long been one of those bad dreams of mine that one day I will be swept to my doom over a weir. Recent experience in tunnels has begun to rival that mind you.
The Somme is a surprisingly pretty navigation. Because the landscape is fairly flat we had expected it to be boring, our main reason for visiting being its proximity to the world war battlefields. The countryside is indeed flat but it has been much excavated for peat which has resulted in large lakes and marshlands. Fishing is hugely popular and as for waterbirds…the ducks here must be the most vocal in France. People keep ducks and geese in their gardens and the lakes have little islands with bird hides on them. I don’t think they are for bird watching. In a small village bar the other night I heard an animated discussion on the subject of duck shooting and problems with avoiding the police. Another interesting feature, and unique I think, are ‘les hortillages’, which are cultivated islands in the marshes mainly around Amiens and dating back to the middle ages. Some are still cultivated as vegetable and fruit gardens – a bit like floating allotments- but others have been turned into holiday getaways. Many have elaborate security gates (with fearsome spikes) over the small canals separating them.

Amiens Cathedral

The 'Weeping Angel' - many soldiers sent home postcards of this sculpture.

Amiens is the capital city of Picardy and we spent 2 nights there. The mooring is in a rather lively and attractive area of town. By lively I mean it is in the student quarter – lots of bars and restaurants and many shouted discussions (no doubt intellectual)  from windows across the narrow alleys. It can be a bit dicey at weekends. We met an American couple on a hire boat who were cast off at 2 in the morning by over refreshed young men from one of the bars – quite a frightening experience on a fast flowing river.
Much of Amiens was destroyed during the wars and has been rebuilt rather uninterestingly but the huge, gothic cathedral remains intact and is beautiful. During the summer there is a lovely sound and light display highlighting the exquisite façade. While we watched there was a silent and effective demonstration by arts workers protesting against funding cuts. 
A bit of name dropping now. We went for dinner at L’Envie, one of the excellent riverside restaurants, fell into conversation with the lone diner at the next table and spent a lovely evening with a most charming, interesting man. He was there to visit the cathedral because ‘I work at Westminster Abbey’. Eventually I asked what he did, thinking he might be a tour guide as he was so knowledgeable. He is the Dean. The man in charge. The man who married Will and Kate.
We followed the Somme all the way to the end where it enters the sea at Saint Valery on the Baie de Somme. It was really nice and different to visit a seaside town as opposed to a canal/river. There is a huge tidal range at the bay – at low tide miles of sand and as the tide comes in it’s apparently faster than a galloping horse. We stayed safely above the sea lock. Saint Valery is famous for its seafood of course and I can definitely vouch for the most delicious moules and frites I have ever tasted.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside- no sand just pebbles at Cayeaux sur mer (Brighton on the sea!)
At 'Long'
Should just add that I have had to get over my phoning in a foreign language phobia on the Somme. The waterway is run by the Somme local authority rather than the usual VNF and you have to phone every day to arrange for a lock keeper to come. Don't know what you do if you don't have a phone.