Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Monday, 31 August 2015

Medieval Fetes and Floods -Aigues Mortes

Aigues Mortes
Our intention was to spend just a day or so in Aigues Mortes but the medieval town within its huge and impressive walls captivated us to the extent that we stayed there a week. We spent a  night moored on a slightly rickety pontoon on the canal that bypasses the town happy to be saving the hefty mooring charges of the in town marina.It seemed a beautiful peaceful spot surrounded by marshland and close to the picturesque Tour Carbonniere built by Louis 1X to defend the road he constructed over the marshes to the town.

And peaceful it was apart from the 2 large trip boats which swept by at speed several times a day with loud commentary. One of these boats morphed into a disco boat at night at which point it sashayed up the wide canal all flashing lights, loud music and dancers having a great time on the open top deck. Then it was back to starry skies and near silence - just the occasional plop as a fish jumped. Perfect.
In the middle of the night - actually just as the very first rays of the new day began to light the sky- we both sat bolt upright in bed, our dreams instantly forgotten, shattered by gunfire all around. Some distant but some so close I could hear the sound of the shot, like raindrops, falling into the water. It sounded as though a war  was going on and I suppose it was - against the wildlife. I've never heard anything like it and I have been (accidentally) at 'Duck Opening' in Australia. The shooting continued for hours. No wonder there's not much birdlife on the waterways. Perhaps flamingos don't taste so good - there are plenty of them.

We moved into town where we were astonished to find that we didn't need to go into the marina at all and could stop alongside the quay right outside the city walls. No services but completely free and what a spot.

By chance we arrived on the biggest weekend of the year in Aigues Mortes; the medieval festival of Saint Louis. Most of the population including the shop staff seems to enthusiastically take part wearing costumes depicting every type of medieval person from peasant to knight to King. There was a large medieval market set up all around the interior of the walls, various processions and tableaux of performances of dancing, sword fighting, strolling bands and singers etc. (I have to say it was a bit incogruous seeing medieval ladies puffing away on cigarettes and carrying walkie talkies.)
Outside the walls there was jousting on horseback and the weekend was to finish with a big fireworks dispaly.  Of course the narrow streets were thronged with tourists visiting for the festivities and spending lots of money in the shops and restaurants. All went well on Saturday.
In the middle of Sunday afternoon the sky turned black and the biggest thunderstorm I have ever seen slowly passed over the town, then turned and passed over again, and then again. Hours of torrential rain. The streets quickly flooded and the pompiers (firefighters, emergency services) were out in force. Some shops had 10/15 cm of water on their floors and the water level in the basin rose and rose until we were concerned we were going to be on top of the quay and so we made up some sinking fenders out of rubber doormats to hold us off. The boat in front of us had a rubber dinghy which filled with water and was then so heavy it snapped its metal davits. Our bailing bucket which hangs on the stern of our boat was full and overflowing and it is 20 cm deep. All the tourists tried to leave at the same time so the roads that weren't flooded with water were gridlocked with cars. What a pity for the town.
Needless to say the fireworks were cancelled.

Helping to weld our neighbours broken dinghy davit

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Petite Camargue

Tour Carbonniere
The Saint Gilles lock is one of those that performs that neat trick of transporting you, if not instantly then in the space of ten minutes or so, from one type of landscape to another which is completely different. (Very occasionally a lock may go one better and act almost like the Tardis. You might enter from a modern bustling river and exit onto the canals of a medieval town for example). On this occasion the top lock gates closed on the winding Petite Rhone -a river overhung with shady trees and whose banks are thick with rampant shrubbery -whereas the bottom gates opened onto the dead straight canal Rhone a Sete, the banks of which are neatly trimmed and lined with tall reeds whispering in the wind. Beyond the south canal bank, flat marshland stretches away toward the Mediterranean sea with the occasional etang (small lake) dotted with birds; possibly flamingoes but at this point they are too far away to tell. Small groups of the famous wild horses of the Camargue graze freely at the canalside (although I did see one wearing a halter so I am not sure quite how wild they really are). The foals are born dark and gradually become white by the time  they are about 5 years old.On the northern side the land rises up slightly and there is the occasional farm or small village but it is a wild place quite different to anything we have seen so far in France.

We made our first stop in the small, slightly run-down town of Saint Gilles. The town was busy preparing for its annual bull running festival- the railings to seal off the sidestreets were being erected -but we the prospect of seeing that wasn't enough to persuade us into paying another 20 euros for a further night's mooring.
The next day we moved on to Gallican, a small, nondescript village with moorings (21 euros), a cafe and a couple of shops. Here we had our first close (very) encounters with hire boats struggling to moor in the strong winds. August is the main holiday period for hire boats (and everything else) so we may just try and find somewhere out of the way of danger and lie low for a couple of weeks.
At Gallican is the beginning of a rather splendid new bike track leading to the medieval city of Aigues Mortes and then the Mediterranean - part of a bigger project I think. From the bridge over the canal you get a good view over the marshland (part of which was burning when we were there) and also all the way to the Tour Carbonniere which marks the entrance to the medieval citadel of Aigues Mortes and which we would head for the following day.

Monday, 24 August 2015



After a further promise from the courier to pick up the air conditioner wasn't kept we bundled the offending item unceremoniously into the spare cabin- repository of all junk when we don't have visitors- said our goodbyes to the friends we had made over the past fortnight and cast off for our final day on the Rhone. The wind which had been blowing strongly for a week had moderated but what was left of it was behind us so we made good progress.

After passing through the Beaucaire lock the current picks up considerably and soon we were bowling along at 13kph (that's honestly quite fast for us) past the impressive castle at Tarascon and then onto the Petite Rhone just before Arles. Immediately the character of the river changes becoming shallower, more closed in and completely lacking in traffic. We didn't meet a single boat. The Petite Rhone runs right through to the Mediterranean but becomes very shallow in its lower reaches and navigable for only small boats. We turned off at Saint Gilles lock - back onto the canal system and into the Camargue region.

A couple of pictures from Avignon. I took a bus in from our Aramon port one day. The bus services are great here. Modern, comfortable vehicles and really cheap -only 1euro 30 for a trip. One driver was a bit of a worry though. He drove fast which is normal but more worryingly he was simultaneously having a blazing row with his wife on the mobile pressed firmly to his ear. And immediately after that, jabbing a text message!! Talk about fast and furious.

The Avignon bridge- from above this time.

View from the Jardin du Rocher des Doms, Avignon

Performers in Place de l'horloge, Avignon. I know there's a trick here but am not sure how they do it!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Lyon to Avignon


The Rhone has treated us fairly gently on the whole. The current was slight, a disappointment to one of us and a relief to the other whilst the weather remained almost continuously hot. The 'almost' being a sudden, major thunderstorm which caught us out in the middle of  a section of the river so wide it was like a lake. Seeing a huge electricity pylon light up like a Christmas tree when struck by lightning was spectacular but a minute later we were somewhat unnerved (to put it mildly) when it seemed like we might be next as there was a flash and an almighty crash right over us causing our instrument panel to crackle alarmingly. As I write there is another thunderstorm going on but this time we are safely tied up and there are other, taller boats around us. I have to say, however, that I'm not enjoying the spectacle quite as much as I used to.
There are power generation facilities all along the Rhone. Hydro, wind,solar and nuclear. Here's how to give your nuclear power station a more friendly, 'soft focus' kind of look.

 There is a fair amount of commercial traffic on the Rhone although not as much as we expected. There is no shortage of cruise ships though. Several of them pass every day. When we called in at Avignon I counted 8 moored up!
The locks on the Rhone are enormous  190m x 11.40m - the deepest is 23m - but very easy to navigate as they have floating bollards to tie up to. These bollards make a groaning noise as they operate. As the lock becomes emptier they begin to echo around the cavernous chamber sounding like an unearthly orchestra.

Bollene Lock - 23m deep
There's a lot of water behind those gates!

Despite the huge volume of water required to operate each lock we have mostly passed through them on our own and without much delay. I call up the keeper on the VHF when we are around 20 minutes away and then we tie up at the waiting pontoon until he or she gives us the green light.
The river passes through lots of interesting looking towns and villages but a difficulty with river cruising is finding somewhere secure to moor and quite often there is either nowhere or it's been taken or it's reserved for the cruise ships. We made stops at Condrieu les Roches, a small village with a decent port and Valence which has a huge port. After Valence the mooring we had planned was taken and the back up port was 'ferme' for 2015 so we had to go on to the waiting pontoon at the Bollene lock (the deepest one). I called up the keeper and asked if we could overnight which fortunately we could. We had planned to stay in Avignon but being August and the holidays it seems that half the world was there. There was no room alongside the quay (apparently the pontoons were swept away in a flood some years ago and never replaced). So we just did a little cruise around the famous Pont (sous le pont). There are notices on the bridge forbidding navigation through the arches. It is quite a temptation to do so but I hate to think what the consequences might be.

Tain l'Hermitage

The character of the villages and the landscape has changed completely as we've moved further south. The lush farmland of Burgundy has been replaced by craggy hillsides. There are still vineyards - the cotes du Rhone is renowned for its wine - but here they cling to steep rocky hillsides. The more famous wine makers have huge signs advertising their names in often quite small vineyards. The strategic importance of the river is obvious from the ancient castles and fortifications on top of the hills. Not accessible to visit by boat though.

We are currently moored at a great 'halte fluviale' at the pretty village of Aramon a few km south of Avignon. We've been here for a week now trying to sort out our problems with our air conditioner. Without going into the boring details it has been an expensive disaster and the cause of some frayed tempers. We've now given up on it entirely and the company we bought it from is sending a courier to collect it tomorrow. (update - guess what? They never turned up. Why doesn't that surprise me?)
Our harbour captain, Olivier, is enterprising and helpful and  tries to provide interesting 'entertainments' for vistors to the port. Being an ex fighter pilot he has an obvious interest in flying and so far this week we've had a helicopter land on his barge roof before taking people on joy flights and a hot air balloon doing similarly, only it took off from the bank before skimming the river. Air force planes regularly do fly overs (Olivier also trained  pilots) and a couple of days ago we had seaplanes practising landings and take offs alongside. To be fair I think these last were incidental and not organised for our benefit. Of course the Rhone valley is a great wine growing area and so there have also been wine tastings.

Since we've been in Amaron a few days we hired a car to see a little further afield. Yesterday we visited, quite by accident, yet another of France's 'most beautiful villages' - Baux de Provence. It sits on top of a hillside and there really wasn't room for all the tourists crammed into it. It was lovely though with amazing views from the ruined chateau atop the plateau.

A few days ago we visited Pont du Gard, an enormous Roman aqueduct and a favourite spot for swimming (swimming in the Rhone can be dangerous). It is the most visited historic monument in France apparently.  I can well believe it.
Pont du Gard

We have also seen some bull running in a village close by. Unfortunately I haven't any pictures due to every time a bull was 'coaxed' out of the holding arena (by young boys kicking a football at its legs) the crowd went wild and jumped on chairs and tables and it was virtually impossible to see anything other than the tips of the horns of a very confused bull.

Provence vineyards and olive groves from Baux de Provence

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Left Turn

We were undecided until the last minute as to which way we should turn on leaving Confluence port in Lyon. Left and down the Rhone to the unknown south or the safe option, right, and back up the benign Saone.
'Let's just go for it,' declared the skipper. So, although we have no winter mooring organised (not for want of trying) we turned left, past the adventurous architecture of the confluence riverfront and joined the Rhone; France's 'mightiest river' according to the information book handed to us in the first lock which didn't make me feel any happier.

Confluence of the Saone and Rhone

The Rhone locks are huge and are controlled remotely. The procedure is that you call up on VHF (or phone) to announce yourself and then follow instructions. It's the second part of that which inevitably causes confusion -for me anyway - you have to respond to what the lock keeper says to you. What they ask you at the first lock is, what's the name of your boat, where are you coming from, where are you going to (not today - your final destination) and how many people on the boat? If you're struggling they will speak English, but that can be even more excruciatingly embarrassing when you don't understand that either. We were greeted in the lock by a lovely group of young people- new employees of the Rhone waterway- who made sure we knew how to tie on to the floating bolllard, asked us the same questions again as the lock keeper had asked (probably my French is just too awful) welcomed us to the Rhone and gave us an information book.
Tonight we are in Condrieu les Roches having passed through 2 locks.There is very little traffic. We've seen a few cruise ships and one or two commercials but mainly we've been on our own.
Viking chefs taking a break
 The river is wide, the current gentle and we're passing through some of the famous Cotes de Rhones vineyards. So far so good.
Cotes du Rhone vineyards