Part 1 – Going up!
2 weeks end of May 2016
Goodbye Soulanges, next stop Vitry Le Francois, to buy bread for lunch. This looked a major junction – three canals meting – we were leaving the Canal Lateral à la Marne to join Canal Entre Champagne et Borgogne, with the Canal de la Marne au Rein coming in on the left.
It was very busy with lots of commercial barges moored two deep, leaving a narrow channel through, and huge barges using the right angle bend as a turning space.
An even narrower channel at the corner led into the little port de plaisance where we moored to get bread.
Lunch excitement was provided by another commercial giant turning behind us, her mighty bow stopping just short of our back deck! Turned it on a sixpence too – all the more impressive when you consider that they can’t see a thing in front of them when they’re unloaded, as this one was.
Then off again, leaving a slightly grubby Vitry behind us (we probably did not get to see the best bits) and through an ‘eye of the needle’ bridge to see Lock 1 of 114 in front of us. A cheerful lady eclusier let us in and helped with the ropes – it was one of those days!
She gave us two leaflets, a zapper, and a warning about ‘bad boys’ at lock 63. Checked this out with Women on Barges, who said “go early, don’t worry” – so we did and we didn’t.
The leaflet showed on the left incline 71 (blue and yellow) locks going up, a black tunnel at the top, and 43 (red and blue) locks going down the right incline.Oh yes, also yellow triangles, green triangles and red/blue triangles, plus yellow squares and diamonds to complete the picture. They all meant different types of lock operation and bridge. Keeps you on your toes – especially as many of them had changed operation type when we reached them!
And we were off, with deep locks to go up every 10-15 minutes. All of these, from Vitry to St Dizier, interestingly, and sometimes a little disturbingly, fill to the brim. This resulted in our fenders being too high to protect the hull when we left each one! Watch that paintwork!
Actually, we dropped the centre zig-zag fenders to almost water level which eased the anxieties a little, though it was now our turn to be sailing out of an enclosed space that we couldn’t see.
After 4 locks we were tired – there were three before lunch as well after all. We had planned to reach Orconte, but stopped at Ecriennes for the night in the middle of nowhere except an ex-lock keepers cottage, now inhabited by a fine and enthusiastic gardener. It is a truly lovely location for all fans of peace and countryside.
The village is about 1 km away from canal so it is a very quiet mooring. And it absolutely poured with rain, followed by a weird yellow sky, and our first mosquitos.
On to Orconte the next day, arriving in time to get a lunch time baguette from the boulangerie. When we arrived we moored up alone on the right bank, apart from a couple of seemingly permanent boats on the other side. Then two Dutch boats arrived, followed by a Swiss. Then a massive pink and green ex-commercial barge came through the lock – Le Lapin Vert. They squeezed in at the end, so the left bank was full up.
We went for a walk along the canal and although storm clouds seemed to be gathering it cleared up for a beautiful sunny evening, just right for a Happy Hour or two on the back deck.
Our entertainment for the day? It was watching a swan swim calmly into the lock over the upstream lock gates (remember the lock is full to the brim) – and keep swimming through the lock to the down stream gates where it was caught by the current and thrown unceremoniously over the precipice! Luckily no damage seemed to be done apart from to it’s pride, and it continued downstream with great shaking and harrumphing of it’s tail feathers.
The next stretch included the ‘bad boys’ écluse at Perthes, which we now knew had given some previous barges problems with children throwing things at boats, but we were lucky and saw no-one, quietly passing on our way.
Eight écluses and several hours later we were at St-Dizier, our only event being a broken down lock just before St Dizier, at Hoericourt, that caused us, and the boat in front, some delay. The two red lights and one open lock gate were a sign of the hold up. First we were waiting outside the lock, eating lunch and watching French fighter jets whizzing about from the adjacent airfield; then we were stuck in the lock! The French for ‘broken’ is ‘en panne’ (where the distress call ‘pan pan’ comes from of course) and it’s a phrase we have become quite used to using. A quick call the VNF however with the lock number will usually get you an agent in his or her little van pretty promptly to sort it.
We moored up at the long quay in St Dizier, opposite the leisure centre and really handy for the town. Everything is available, free! We had electricity, water, wifi, mooring; excellent value.
Our only ‘complaint’ on night one was that we had moored rather close to the disco. Although we col not hear the music from within, it was a little excitable at 4am when youngsters went home!
So next day we moved along the quay; Calliope was now moored next to Lapin Vert who, it turned out, were putting on a Moliere play!
The weather was generally hot and sunny during our stay and we had a fascinating walk round town and along La Marne on a very hot Saturday, ending with a welcome with beer in the Square.
I also managed to catch the inspiring Saturday market where, amongst other things, I discovered oeuf en geleé.
It was a rather wet Sunday, but we still had a walk round to explore other corners of the town, including the chateau and the gardens around it.
After three nights we decided to leave St Dizier, despite the weather forecast. At this point we little knew what an absolutely beautiful canal we were on, becoming more and more stunning the further up into the hills we went. There were so many gorgeous views that I had to stop taking photos – a surfeit of beauty! But it did dampen down considerably for a couple of days.
Boat has changed name from Calliope to ‘Locks R Us in the rain, in the rain . . . ’.
The initial stretch from St Dizier was more urban, but still with its interest. For example our first ‘obstacle’, at Marnaval, was a disused railway swing bridge at immediately followed by a lift bridge – all in slightly damp conditions.
We saw yet again the demise of a tradition with more empty, boarded up, sad sad eclusiers’ houses, this one at Marnaval.
We had set of from St D with a planned stop at Joinville, but had not taken account of the time and effort involved in ‘amonting’ all the locks, or the wet wet wet, so with the eclusiers agreement we stopped between the lock and the bridge at Bayard – a very simple and delightful country mooring, despite the rook chorus. We managed to moor directly opposite a rookery full of young demanding to be fed every minute of daylight! Not quite the same as the nightingale arias that had soothed us before.
We gave ourselves an easy day next, and pushed on to Joinville. We went past a series of old open lift bridges, all with beautiful ironwork raised skywards – this one at Gourzon.
We could see, through the most and rain, that we were heading towards the hills – this view between Breuil and Curel.
Our eclusier Jean-Claude accompanied us in his little VNF van, sadly explaining at Curel lock that he used to live in the lock house there; it is now privately owned, seemingly by a chicken lover.
The lock is immediately followed by a lift bridge, stopping the local traffic for ten minutes.
As we came into Joinville we at first mistook the hotel pontoon for the Halte Nautique, but corrected our mooring after lunch.
Joinville was a … surprise – a small and ancient town on a hillside, with narrow streets, many old (often dilapidated) buildings, and an arm of the Marne running through the centre. Joinville was also useful, with a supermarket for ‘essential supplies’ and a garden centre for my ‘potting on’ equipment. It was also the venue for the frog chorus. I have never heard so many frogs croaking their love songs all night.
We recalculated our timings, knowing we needed to travel up, and then down, the rest of the canal in a fortnight in order to meet our daughter in the Dijon area. The aim was to do an average of 10 locks per day, through sunshine as far as possible, whilst trying to limit cruising time to 3 / 4 hours per day. With that in mind we left Joinville, and thought that with a bit of effort we could get to Chaumont.
Amazing birds entertained us along the way – black kites, kingfishers, black redstarts, herons, buzzards, baby swallows and sparrows learning to fly – and a changing vista as we progressed higher and higher into the hills.
We found ourselves cruising over the winding Marne time and again, watching the river gradually become smaller as we climbed higher. At Mussey we went through the lock, and onto a viaduct (or is it an aquaduct?). Here La Marne was joined by the Le Rognon – the two rivers joined by history in fame for metalwork. (Just wondering – how is it decided whether a river is male, Le, or female, La?)
Another example of the metalwork immediately followed – one of the beautiful pont-levis.
We broke the day’s trip for lunch at Donjeux – what a lovely little mooring – peaceful, pretty, and, on the day we were there, hot sun. We descended from the boat and used the picnic table on the grass for a change. (Yes, Le Capitaine is a little rouge from the soleil)
On through the sun for the afternoon past Rouvray Lock – a bit deeper this one, so helpful bollards in the wall.
Just beyond the lock a kingfisher scrutinised our progress from atop a signpost.
We met up with our éclusier at Gudmont Lock Bridge. He helpfully let us know that there would not be space for us at Viéville, our hoped for endpoint that day, and suggested Froncles.
Well who can resist a place with a name like that?? So we stopped at the scenic mooring at Froncles, amongst high wooded hills, shared with some camper vans and boule players. And in the morning by a patient, focused fishing team.
Next Day – Thursday
We knew that the hot sun and blue skies would at some point give way to grey skies and thunderstorms – it was just a matter of when. In the meantime we enjoyed the full-on sun and spectacular scenery.
We went onwards and upwards, through locks of 3 – 4m in height, Vouecort being one of the deeper ones. There were baby swallows everywhere, calling for food as they practised their swooping and swerving flight in the blue blue sky.
But our main bird excitement of the day was created by seeing an Osprey! Whoops – no camera ready for that moment.
Lunch was eaten on the move, and we fully expected to make it to Chaumont before the rain – only 11 locks between Froncles and Chaumont. A couple of blips held us up a bit. At Viéville bridge we waited a while midstream for an éclusier . It seems that our notified progress to the VNF had not reached the appropriate éclusier. He turned up eventually, as cheerful as ever, and we were on our way again.
The passed some interesting moorings – the one at Riacourt is fronted by some more remarkable old buildings.
The second blip was at Condes – the exciting combination of lock/tunnel/viaduct over La Marne/Lift bridge was more exciting that expected.
We exited the tunnel to see a double red light for the bridge. Captain Carr kept Calliope gently waiting as the rain began to fall. Eventually the bridge mechanism was mended and we progressed on to Chaumont.
Not quite the planned mooring at Chaumont as the Port de Plaisance looked full, but we found a stretch of grass with two stout metal poles and decided that would do nicely. We then had a mission to accomplish – a French SIM card to replace the ones that were about to stop service from Three (a huge sense of annoyance). There is a clue on the name Chaumont – it is on a hill and the walk up from the canal is steep! We did not accomplish the mission until next day, but found respite in a pleasant café with a beer.
Chaumont is a fascinating town with lost of buildings to catch ones attention – but I regret I took no photos, being so focused on the SIM card mission!
The day started with aforementioned 1.6 mile walk up to the area of Chaumont we required. Mission was accomplished, so back to boat for early lunch and noon departure, as agreed with our éclusier. This was to be a short day – only 3 hours, 14 kilometres and 8 locks. We began in rain – wet weather trousers and everything – and ended in sunshine, dipping toes in the water to cool down (well one of us did!).
More of the area’s expertise in metalwork over the centuries was evident at Luzy-sur-Marne with this pont-levi. It was sadly no longer working but we cruised underneath in awe of the use of ore. (haha)
The river Marne still meanders alongside, passing now and then under the canal, but becoming a smaller and calmer waterway.
The system at locks with the éclusier was a change for us. He prepared the locks, we went directly in and moored up. Then he, manually, closed the ‘portes’, and opened the ‘vantelles’. These locks fill very gently, after a first fountain spurt of water at the front mid point of the lock – much to my delight!
I offered to jump ashore and help by opening one of the ‘portes’ while he (or sometimes she) opened the other. In this way we made our way through to Foulain for the night. I think he and I both earned our beer – and the Captain of course, who steered Calliope through the various obstacles with aplomb and no mishap.
Foulain – just our kind of mooring; quiet, peaceful just outside a village and apart from the occasional train passing by, the only sound being church bells and birdsong. Lovely lovely lovely.
Supper in the coutryside, a wonderful sunset, and in the morning we were visited by a pair of goldfinches.
Next morning we set off with our new éclusier, Franc, who joined us at lock 16 and stayed with us through to lock 10, 2 kms from our next chosen mooring at Rolampont. This was another Halte Nautique – pleasantly rural, at the end of an EU funded ‘facility’ for the village, comprising boulodrome, outdoor table tennis, small playpark, and tiny shower/loo block for camper vans and boats.
I discovered another stowaway – rather a nice beetle.
All looked set fair for a quiet night, apart from rumbling thunderstorms, until the local young congregated under the shelter for an impromptu party! One cannot blame them for thinking o was a good place to meet up, have fun, and make (relatively muted) noise – but it did rather disturb out sleep. Ah well, we were all young once!
We were moving on again – this time to Langres, which looks a really fascinating town on a hill. We realised as we prepared to go that there were an unusually number of fishermen (yes, all men) with all kinds of amazing tackle, on the bank. On enquiry we discovered that a fishing competition was about to commence, and that Calliope passing by, however smoothly she travelled, might not best please ‘les pecheurs’. A quick word with the organiser resulted in a decision to embark 15 minutes early, and avoid the start of the competition; everyone happy.
Our éclusier for the day was Sylvie. A delightful lady who lives in the lock house at Lock 3, named Moulin Rouge! Sylvie has worked as an éclusier for 35 years. She had a mixture of manual and automated locks to deal with, made more difficult by one of the ‘automated’ locks being out of action and requiring manual handling. I helped as and when I could and overall we had a laugh!
Highlights of the day included sight of another osprey, budgies at two of the lock houses, and an ability to miss all the rain that was definitely rolling around the hills.
This took us to the ‘port’ at Langres-sur-Marne, below the wonderful hill top town of Langres itself, moored about 1500 feet above sea level, which is where we began! There was a plan to visit Langres, but I regret we allowed the very wet weather and very steep hill to deter us.
We had very limited internet connection and were blissfully unaware that the continuous heavy rain, which we put down to being on the ‘mountains’, was causing havoc down below. The Seine had flooded Paris, a canal had broken its banks, rivers were closed, and boats stranded. Luckily we were high above all the trouble.
We were now just two locks from the Balesmes tunnel that would take us through to our decent to the Saone. After two days in Langres we attacked the final stretch, and the tunnel to the other side.
It was our last ‘Amont’ of the zapper; after 71 locks starting in Vitry here we were at Batailles.
The people living at Lock 1, Batailles, had made a real effort to make the area attractive, with a small garden and a cabin. They must be most welcome to those emerging from the darkness of the 4.8km tunnel!
But we were entering the gloom. First the cut towards the tunnel entrance, and then the tunnel itself. Almost an hour underground.
The story continues with Calliope’s exit into the world of Côte D’Or and 43 locks down to La Saone/