Heading north up La Meuse part 1

The waterways comprising La Meuse include the river itself, the Canal de la Meuse, called, prior to 2003, the Canal de l’Est Northern branch. At the same time the southern branch was renamed the Canal des Vosges. Together they formed a 245 mile long canal within the Franco Prussian border.

This part, Part 1, is about our travels on the Canal de la Meuse – the northern branch.

June 19 – June 26 2019

Leaving Void-Vacun under storm skies

It was time to change canals – always interesting to find out what the new waterway will be like.

Propping up the bridge

We left Void, still on the Canal de La Marne au Rhin, first thing, passing under the bridge that was closed the day before, and which clearly still has more work to be done.

After a sort stretch we found ourselves on a short aqueduct over a river (was it La Meuse) before needing to take a share left hand turn onto our new canal. I rather liked the geometric Art Deco style of the aqueduct railings.

And immediately our first lock was upon us, opened by our nice new yellow zapper. We could see close by a huge cement factory that appeared to utilise stone and/or chalk from close by quarries.

When we got to the second lock we were right alongside the said cement factory, listening to the grinding of its huge evolving tubes. Everything, and I mean everything, was covered by varying depths of fine white powder. The whole factory was white, almost ghostly.

Our zapper quickly had the lock doors open, we were in, tied up, and Calliope decended to the bottom …. but the down stream lock doors remained closed.

Luckily I was above the lock, waiting to walk the kilometre to the next one, so could easily go to the ‘Aide’ button and call for help. But poor Stu was down in the depths, and then it began to rain! No matter – within a few minutes the VNF Service van arrived and we were on our way – all the way to lock 3 where the upstream lock doors didn’t open.

Once more I was above the lock, having walked from the previous one, and on the intercom again for Service!

All of these halts gave me a chance to take a look at the lock door make-up on this canal – and we were back to the metal doors that I had not see for some time; great big plates of metal, riveted together.

We did far better from then on, and at lock 4 we enjoyed the shapes and arches of the three bridges after the lock. (Touch to port skipper….)

We arrived at Eaville where we wanted to stop, and after a French family kindly moved their cruiser back a couple of bollards we were able to tie up for lunch and for the night – just before the next lock.

Those morning storm clouds continued to gather and soon after lunch the first of several thunderstorms passed across and we were pleased we’d elected to stay put.

Eaville church

We found time during one of the drier moments to walk the kilometre up to the village of Eaville, looking for fresh milk (no luck). We did find quite a grand church for such a small place, with a bike on display in front, (see bottom left) to promote the fact that the Tour de France would be passing through the village soon.

Next day we set off as soon as the locks opened, but not as early as the three boats already waiting below the lock to ascend once we were out of the way. Where had they come from??

We were moving along between pastures and villages in a distinctly river fashion, rather than canal …

…. and indeed the Meuse river joined and left us as she meandered slowly down hill. The junctions were all different – and as the weather kept changing the light in the photos is all different too.

Stopped off in Commercy long enough to do a quick shop in Aldi, which is right by the quay (no fresh milk there either), and then I walked up into town to look for madeleines as this is the town where they were invented. But would you believe it, unless I wanted to buy a kilo of them I couldn’t have any – except fancy gift wrapped ones!

One woman lavoir – I can’t help but wonder who it was for.

Then on we went downstream, passing at one lock the smallest lavoir I have seen so far – a one person lavoir!

The river/canal had some interesting quirks, like this railway bridge on an S bend, which as you come downstream you can hardly see! It is overhung with foliage, and the railings to the walkway through bear testimony to the number of boats that have bumped along the side on their way through.

I enjoy seeing the differences between canals in all kinds of ways. On this canal the lock houses are more cottage like, but still have an extra floor at the back on the slope down from the canal. They have the name of the lock engraved in stone above the door, a nice touch in this area of quarries.

We do get animal moments along the way! This little collection includes a young fox being seen off by a pair of magpies (the fox seems slightly bemused); a nesting grebe guarding an entrance to La Meuse river; and some inquisitive young cattle that I encountered on a rural bike ride to a supermarket!

Back to the journey! We were heading for St Mihiel, and hopefully a mooring in the town – but that was not to be. At least I caught sight of the local lavoir, unusual with its two slender central columns supporting the roof.

Just beyond St Mihiel we saw a possible mooring, at the edge of a rather run down looking campsite. It looked a bit shallow and the bollards were set back from the edge, so we came in slowly and all was doing well until I dropped a fender in the water, and got stranded on the land, and lost my rope all while the current was gently easing the boat back out into the river. Oops. Second time round was thankfully accomplished with more dignity.

The manager was out playing table tennis 50 yards from the quay, so I asked him if it was ok to moor. “bien sûr” was the reply.

Settling down with a cup of tea we noticed wed were directly opposite a peaceful WW1 cemetery, the white crosses and Islam markers shining against the grass. So many of these in the area – such a waste of young lives.

Before the afternoon was over I jumped on the bike and cycled off to the Intermarché while the skipper did manly things down in the engine room – a 9 minutes cycle ride from the boat according to Google Maps. After 25 minutes, much uphill, and getting lost twice I found it and hooray, they had fresh milk! It was on the way back down tracked between fields that I found the aforementioned cattle.

Next day, and the next lock, held a surprise – we had forgotten that the zapper was to be redundant for a while and we were back to manual lock keeping.

This has disadvantages – progress is slower – and advantages – we get to step off and do some turning of handles to open and close the lock gates.

The scenery along the Meuse is superb, pastoral, open and wide, often with a church spire or two to break up the horizon. There will be more examples to follow!

And we saw strange things like a tractor being ‘storked’ and an old tree that from a distance looked like an olive tree – perhaps someone will put me right as I don’t expect an olive tree in the middle of of a field of cows in north east France.

Lunch time was spent at Ambly-sure-Meuse, a grassy mooring at the edge of a small village recreation ground. Despite its small size Ambly does have a boulangerie so déjeuner requirements were met.

We hadn’t seen a boat since we left St Mihiel, but suddenly after lunch we passed quite a few, all in pairs – maybe on their way to find Noah’s ark (rather a tenuous connection). Many were cruisers, many looking similar and many from Holland, so we began to wonder if they were hire boats. But also a pleasant surprise – another Piper Boat, Tadham Castle.

Calliope passes on down stream

And Tadham Castle took a photo of us too – a passing Piper photo shoot.

Afternoon brought us in Dieue, and luck was with us as there was just space for us to squeeze in in front of an Australian catamaran on the quay. It turns out that Dieue has quite a history, and there were two sign-guided tours, one around the village itself and one around its neighbour Rattentout across the canal. We set off round the Dieue tour.

We saw where the embroiderers lived, the cobbler (now in semi ruins), the miller (now a brewery and bar), and lots of lovely old building with various functions of old. And of course a lavoir.

Later I went for a walk round Rattentout, somehow less quaint, but with a couple of interesting sights.

I followed the signs up a steep lane called Rue de les Carrièrers (quarries) wondering if anything would be at the top. At first all I could see was a path into a wood.

Then I saw a sign half hidden amongst tall nettles. Surging forward bravely I read that there was a statue to the virgin Mary, looking out over the valley. Sure enough as I walked into the wood I suddenly found her, on a mound of rounded stones. And from there, a great view across the Meuse.

Lavoir de Rattentout with raising floor

The second special find was a lavoir the likes of which I have never seen!

The water flows under the lavoir, rather than in front as is normally the case. And because the water level could change frequently depending on the activity of the turbines in a local factory a system of Archimedes screws and cast iron wheels allowed the floor to be raised or lowered. Amazing!

Our day at Dieue was Midsummers Day, the longest day of the year, so at sundown I took a photo to celebrate the solstice.

Next day was Saturday and we were heading to Verdun. The river was lovely along the way, plain easy sailing, and by 11am we arrived at the interesting tunnel through the fortifications built around the city by Vauban in the 17th century. The tunnel leads immediately to the lock down into the town.

It was an interesting manoeuvre for the Captain as we approached the tunnel from a right angle and could not be sure if there was a boat coming towards us, or in the lock. There did not seem to be the usual traffic light system to let us know whether to proceed or not, so we moved forwards cautiously until we could see that the lock gates were open for us – then full steam ahead(ish).

We had hoped to find a space in Verdun but the only spaces on the long pontoon were too short for Calliope. We did note another Piper barge, La Bas, on the pontoon, and they offered for us to raft up against them, but too late for Captain Stu to change course. It did have one good result – Patrice on La Bas took a photo of us as we passed on.

Belleville mooring in the morning sun

We headed on another kilometre to Belleville-sur-Meuse and made fast with ease to a pleasant little pontoon at the edge of a small park. After lunch and a siesta we were ready for a walk back into Verdun.

Gate of Verdun

We walked by the huge gateway to the town and explored some of the old narrow streets.

We walked up to the top of the hill by the huge statue of Charlemagne, looked in a few shops for shirts for the Captain (did you know that French for a short sleeved shirt is chemisette?).

We also found a restaurant that looked worth returning to later.

Then back down to the quay in the hope of finding the crew of La Bas aboard – and they were.

After a good bit of Piper boat, waterways, and general barge conversation we were treated to a glass of absolutely delicious champagne – very special because it is only made with white grapes. We also heard of an imminent heatwave set to sweep across Europe, including France, in a few days time.

The railway bridge at Belleville-sur-Meuse

Stu and I left them in peace and after a beer on the quay and a wonderful traditional meal at the little restaurant we had found we walked back down the river to Belleville, passing one of many beautiful bridges.

(Although it is not easy to see in the photo, this bridge must only be passed under by the right hand arch, which then leads into a 20 km canalised section of the river, whilst the other arches lead towards a long weir.)

It is now Sunday and a morning visit to the boulangerie for a baguette is essential as they all tend to close at noon. With bread safely aboard we carried on our journey on another glorious day, and with countryside stretching to either side. The only sadness in all of this was knowing how this same countryside and surrounding hills were the scene of the Battle of Verdun during WW1.

A hundred years on, and in addition to the military cemeteries there is still some evidence, such as the remains of blown up bridges, decimated villages and memorials.

Our next stop was Consenvoye, a village occupied by the invading army a century ago. It was here we saw an interesting tiny part of the post war reparations. On a walk round the village Stewart and I saw a building at the top of town that we both thought looked like a modern lavoir, but it was impossible to get in or even to see through the windows. I did ask if I could sit on Stu’s shoulders, but he declined!

Later, in the evening, I went for a second walk and this time saw a van pull up by the building so I used my best school girl French to ask about the building. On hearing that it had indeed been a lavoir, built after the war, I asked to see inside. It is now a village store, but it is clear that this was a very modern lavoir compared to many I have seen. And interesting to me that in 1919, when my grandmothers were in their twenties, a lavoir was still considered to be the way to wash ones clothes in rural France.

So enough of war, important though it is to remember.

The mooring at Consenvoye is on a small loop of the river that passes close to the village. The village was in there middle of a major brocante (like a car boot sale) when we arrived. We were surrounded by cheerful stalls on both sides of the narrow channel, so initially not the quiet mooring we had anticipated! But all good fun.

It was a hot day and we needed to fill up with water with the heatwave on its way.

Such a shame that the tap sent a fine spray in all directions from the connector, and that I had to sit and wait until the tank was full!

By early evening the brocante had ended, the stalls packed up, and quiet descended.

There was another interesting find at Consenvoye – a vending machine that apparently baked fresh baguettes 24/7 so for a Euro one could get your daily bread in a village that no longer had a boulangerie. We did not buy one, although I was keen to try the experience.

Next day I walked over to the adjacent lock to see if the éclusier had arrived at 9am as promised; the previous day they were a bit late. Stewart meantime reversed out of our mooring channel and came round to face the lock

We then discovered something that we have not seen since the Yonne river, three years ago. The lock here has sloping sides and a floating pontoon to attach to during the locking process. It all seemed very modern, easy and tidy.

While I am on the subject of ‘les écluses’, or locks, here are a couple of observations from this canal/river.

We have become used to bollards inset into the walls of deep locks so that you can move your ropes up (or down) as you go. On this canal there were a few alternatives to the inset bollard. There have been crosses, half-rings, bars and the good old sliding pole, but much broader than before.

old lock house with current itinerant éclusier’s hut next door

There have also been changes on the lock houses, the later ones being smaller and with gables above the front door.

These seem to be the more rural, remote, locks, with bigger houses attached to locks on towns and cities.

And the names of the locks, originally carved in stone above the door, as mentioned before, are gradually being replaced with blue metal signs, sometimes placed straight on top of the stone one as here at Sep.

Now that the éclusiers travel between locks and no longer live in the lock houses, unless they have bought them, they are provided with a little ‘hut’ instead, where they can make coffee, phone calls and have a loo.

My last bit of lock info for now is two photos of rusty old lock ‘gear’

The first is some kind of pulley system attached to the quay of a lock. We have seen these just a few times and must be linked to pulling laden barges into locks, maybe after horses had disappeared and various narrow gauge railway engines had taken their place on some canals.

The second is a winch at Remilly-Aillicourt lock, where we were moored up for the night – you can just see Calliope framed in the triangle of the winch.

Now back to the journey.

Soon after Consenvoye, in fact 4 locks after at Warinvaux, we moved from manual locks with cheerful éclusiers arriving in vans to do the work, back to ones operated with our yellow zapper.

We stopped briefly at Dan-sur-Meuse, in the lock (a bit naughty that) because I had seen that there was a boulangerie on the lock island. I rushed off and within 10 minutes had the daily bread. As we left the lock there were lovely views of the Dan-sur-Meuse church placed high above the river. No risk of flood up there!

For part of the day’s trip we were buzzed repeatedly by a slinky military helicopter that was virtually on its side as it went round tight corners. We think it was the new Guepard helicopter, maybe on secret trials as it was working above a large flat field with no military installations in sight.

Eventually, after a long day for us – almost 30 kilometres in what was becoming a heat wave – we reached the outskirts of Stenay and were delighted to see that the mooring we hoped for, an old factory mooring opposite a small weir, was free.

Phew! Tied up, parasol up, cool drinks up on the back deck and we were sorted for the evening.

It has to be said that I was ready for all of the above. This is how hot I had got.

Whereas later in the evening, with parasol down, Captain Cool was looking good.

I did take an evening walk round Stenay once it had cooled down to about 28 and there was plenty of shade. There were some interesting buildings, but nothing special until I saw the old mill in the last in the sun’s rays.

Calliope moored against a high old industrial wharf, opposite a weir

We were now onto our last day on the Canal stretch of La Meuse. The day started with me gallantly cycling to the local Intermarché, a mere two kilometres – but Google maps failed to tell me that it was up hill again! I walked up part of the distance, between fields of wheat so no unpleasant.

Once back on board we cast off and were away to the first lock, just round the corner. There were only 5 locks for the day, but 36 kilometres, on another of the heatwave days. No wonder we saw so many cows paddling in the water.

We found a relaxing place to stop for lunch before the voyage went on.

We passed storks circling in the sky (yes there is a stork up there), a church with a definite change of shape at Remilly-Aillicourt, and boys making the most of the hot weather by jumping in from a bridge over the (canalised) river.

Moored for the night above Ramilly-Aillicourt lock

When we moored up just before Ramilly-Aillicourt lock we were once again very hot – about 34 degrees in the wheelhouse even with the windscreen down and a reasonable breeze blowing in.

Stewart had a siesta. I went to find somewhere to swim, but finding a place to get in, or rather get out, of the river was not so easy. Eventually I found I could climb down next to the overflow from above the lock – delicious cool clear water to flump and splash about in!

After supper, when the air had lost its heat, I took off with the camera and took a couple of reflective photos that seemed too work quite well. One was of the railway bridge, where not only did the stone supports reflect well, but also the track of the bridge, looking almost real across the surface of the water.

The other was simply of Calliope, gently swaying in the evening sun.

And then there was the comfy Captain waiting to welcome me back home, with all the paraphernalia .

So just one more thing before we leave the Canal de l’Est Northern Branch, alias the Canal de la Meuse, we have yet another change in the look and feel of the levers used to set the lock operations in motion, caught in its full glory at Remilly-Aillicourt lock

We were 6 kilometres from Sedan where the next day we would enter the official La Meuse river, taking us on to Belgium. A fiery sunset was a reminder of the heat of the day gone by, and the heat of the day to come, destined to be the hottest of the heatwave.

June on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin – weedy in parts; ultimately glorious

June 10 – 18 2019

Monday 10th June – we had left Soulanges on the Canal de L’Aisne á la Marne in the morning and by lunchtime we had turned to port at the T junction at Vitry-en François and were heading up the Oest (West) section of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin.

Leaving industrial Vitry

We had 111 kilometres to travel uphill to Void, with 70 locks to help us. We had been warned by other boaters that the canal was full of weed, growing and floating, and indeed the VNF issued a warning to battle.

Before long the blue skies turned to grey and the rain that was to be with us for several days, on and off, began to fall. With locks to negotiate every kilometre this is not as much fun as it might seem.

We were following a commercial barge that was making particularly slow progress; however slowly we tried to go we kept catching her up, and then had to hang around at a lock waiting for our turn, but that’s what sharing canal space is all about.

And it is good to see he canals still being used for commercial purposes – taking freight of the road.

It was not too long before we reached the very pleasant mooring we had picked out on the map – Bignicourt-sur-Saulx. It is a delightfully peaceful place to stay the night, and a walk round the village elucidated some history from World War 1, when the village tried desperately to hold back a German advance across the river and canal, but were overcome and many lives were lost.

The village includes a chateau that is a small hotel, and opens its gardens to the public on a Saturday.

This was Sunday!

This bridge over the Saulx was a focal point of the fighting.

This beautiful snail was my other major find of the evening.

The next morning seemed drier so we drew in our ropes and went on our way. There was a need to find a baguette for lunch if possible. Google maps located one in the next village, where there was also a good long jetty so we felt our luck was in. However every space was taken apart from a short length at the far end, quite close to the next lock.

A plan was hatched – Stewart would put the bow into the small space, I would (somehow) jump off and rush to the boulangerie and back while he hung about mid stream waiting for me and the lock.

It worked! I arrived back with baguette in the wet weather baguette bag just in time to watch the lock gates open and Calliope glide in.

When will the sun shine again?

We continued in the rain, eating lunch along the way. By the tenth lock of the day we were wondering if it would every stop – and still 5 more to go to the night’s mooring.

It got so chilly that we thanked Piper for the heater that blows warm air up from the engine room!

This kept the Captain warm – I meantime was out in the elements. Lucky I like water.

Things got interesting around Sermaize-les-Bains, where a lock is followed in short succession by two bridges, a sharp S shape bend under a third, followed by a basin leading into the next lock, out of which was reversing a large commercial barge!

Astern astern

Uo until now sensors either side of the canal had detected our approach to a lock and begun to prepare it for us, but as we reached lock 55 the system changed.

Now we could put to use the telecommander, or zapper as we preferred to call it, pointing it at each lock when we reached the command sign on the edge of the canal.

On up through another three locks and we reached Revigny-sur-Ornaine where we hoped to stop for the night. We had been warned that the wooden jetty was taped off, but still usable, so headed towards it. But the owner of the Belgian cruiser already tied up there, came gingerly towards us to want us off – most planks of the jetty had rotted through – so Plan B came into operation.

Plan B – moor up against the VNF ice breaker, Asterix

Plan B came to be the best plan! At about 8pm, in great agitation, our Belgian friend came to our boat to point out that the water level in the bief was rapidly dropping and they were already aground! He phoned the pompiers (fire service) and gendarmes, the latter of whom duly arrived looking very perplexed. Raising the water in a canal had not been in their training.

ut they were trained in making phone calls to useful people and after another 20 minutes two VNF cars sped up. By then we had discovered that several of the ‘vantelles’ which allow water into and out of the adjacent lock had remained open and water was simply pouring out of our stretch of the canal (bief). The VNF cavalry got to work once more, partly opening up three next locks up the canal and over night the level gradually rose.

And us? Well moored to Asterix we were further out into the channel in deeper water, and unharmed by the experience.

I like to note the different style of lock-keeper houses on the different canals. On this canal the houses are built on 3 levels at the back, and two at the front – reflecting the fact that the canal is built up on a levée

Some are no longer occupied and left in varying degrees of decay and neglect.

This one has almost been captured by nature – it’s glazed entrance porch scarcely visible.

We had been told that the pont-levée (lift bridge) at Mussey would not be lifted between 11am and 2pm, so although only 6 kms away we set off at 8am in case there were problems at any of the 4 locks between us and the bridge.

And as luck would have it, we got stuck in the first lock!

Stewart tried to clear the masses of weeds that were stuck around the sensors on the lower lock gate; the lock was not filling with water and our best idea was that the system did not know that the lock gates had shut – but to no avail.

So Lesley’s ‘lock French’ to the rescue, phoning the éclusier’s office to explain where we were and what the problem was.

It worked, and we were soon free and on our way, enjoying an artistic array of canal weed as we left the lock.

The art of floating weeds
Mussey Pont-Levée

We reached Mussey pont-levée in time to get through and onward before lunch. And then two further lift bridges to arrive at Bar Le Duc.

We moored up on the quay alongside the camper van park – all very civilised. It was possible to see the old town in the distance on top of a hill so once rested from our cruising exertions we started walking towards it.

We went over the river Ornain, and began to go upwards – steps and roads – onto a rampart style walk with stunning views of the roofs of the newer, but still old, town below.

The ‘higher’ town, dating from medieval times hosts so many interesting buildings, so here are a few – the Chateau, now a museum, the church (where we had a private tour from an enthusiastic guide in his eighties, and pretending did to understand),and the c13 covered market, the clock tower.

My favourite weird story from Bar de Luc is about the wife of a Prince of Orange who, when he was killed in the siege of St Dizier asked for a sculpture to be made of what he would look like 3 years after he died (if dug up!)

Here is the strange (full size) result!

So weird to my mind.

We strolled and rolled back down the steep roads to the newer town below and found a pavement bar to revive us before and relaxation before returning to the barge for the remainder of the evening.

Next day was mainly a boat day – filling with water, cleaning winter green from window edges, and re-stocking with provisions.

Then we went out to walk round another part of town before beer and pizza.

This took us over the lovely Notre Dame bridge over the Ornaine river, with old houses flanking the banks.

Michaux, inventor of the bicycle

We discovered another of Bar de Luc’s famous son’s – Michaux – though I am sure he did not look like this!

We found a second bar with Stewart’s favourite game! And he came up against a mini pinball wizard; they enjoyed what was apparently a good pinball game.

The pizza itself was interesting on three levels/Police outside pizza place, and lovely old church. First, it was delicious, and cooked by a Tunisian, not an Italian. Second, whilst eating a table on the pavement we were suddenly disturbed by two police cars, sirens screeching, once of which drove onto the pavement. The police jumped out and arrested a young lad who looked quite innocent, but unsurprised.

And then there was this lovely old church – a complete mish-mash of styles.

Easterly leaving of Bar de Luc

We continued our journey on Friday, following a yacht at first, under a pont levée. We soon lost sight of them, being surprised by a big barge after an S bend under a bridge!

Bye bye Bar de Luc, as the bridge comes down

Later that day we had another lock that would not open – leading to an hour’s wait in a peaceful spot – then the same again 3 locks later!

On this one I had to scramble ashore from the bow into who knows what undergrowth, in order to reach the lock and use their phone.

It was too remote for us to have reception on the mobiles!

We were unable to tie up, even to a tree trunk, and with the engine off we drifted pleasantly and quietly from side to side.

But all good fun!

Once we were on our way again we passed by many moss laden lock doors, water lilies, and pieces of old lock keeper’s equipment, (I think these structures were to hold the long barge poles). Ah, this is the life!

Reached Tonville-en Barrois and found a delightful mooring just at the edge of the village, but out of sound of any road. Just birds, and later rain drops, to soothe us.

We took a walk round the village and were pleased to find a boulangeries for the morning, plus an amazing old fortified church, going back to the c12. And, more exciting for me, the first lavoir of the season.

The singing of the rain

Overnight it poured and poured with rain, hammering down on the roof of the boat – we love that sound – but it had consequences for the weediness of the canal next day, as you will see.

I made a quick trip to the boulangerie before we left Tronville, with a plan for the day of 17 locks – but we fell at the first hurdle. The first lock was chock-a-block with weed, and once full the doors would not open to let us out.

Captain Stu had a go at clearing the sensors with a boathook to no avail, so on the phone to the VNF and then settle down to enjoy the enforced break, plus wash down the side of the barge following the previous days spattering from the guy cutting and strimming the grass next to our mooring.

That was lock 27. Subsequently we were held up at locks 20, 19 and 17 – in every case waiting outside the lock because the doors would not open and the ‘deux feus rouges’ appeared, meaning ‘en panne’ again.

At least we were not as unfortunate as this Norwegian yacht, which ran aground and was truly stuck for quite some time.

They did get free, and caught us up later.

We heard that another yacht had had its keel snapped off in the low water and had to be craned out of the canal – I hope that is not true.

We ate lunch on the go, enjoyed the sunshine and lockside flowers, and had a visiting dragonfly on the deck (sorry the desk is so dirty!)

At one of the ‘stop-locks’ I had time to study and photograph the system of pulley wheels that must have been used to haul barges under the bridges, while then patient horses walked round.

All of this had a good outcome – we stopped short of our planned mooring and found a countryside idyll at Naix-en Forges, with a grassy bankside and woods of birdsong above.  

Naix-aux-Forges also possesses quite an unusual lavoir, with steps down from a front doorway, arched windows, and an oval shape wash basin, still with fresh water running in, presumably from a stream.

And what is more, by then we appeared to have left behind the thick carpets of weed. Hooray!

All clear for tomorrow we hope.

Next morning before we left, and in the interests of my new resolve to lose weight (go, I forgot to tell you that didn’t I?) I then took a walk up to the road bridge and down the canal path to the next lock, while Stewart got under way and met me at the écluse.

We were now out in the weed-free glorious cow studded countryside, with blue skies, billowing clouds, and scarcely ever a boat to be seen.

We passed pastures full of flowers, little villages in the distance, and big hunting birds – mostly red kites, soaring above us.

The locks all worked perfectly, ready and open for us as we approached.

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable days on this canal – one of those days when you want to shout “this is why we did it!”

It is only with photos that I can do justice to the colours, the clarity of the water, the natural surroundings. Sorry not to wax more lyrical, but a picture paints a thousand words after all.

This day took us up to the top of the canal – next task the 5km tunnel to the other side. So we moored up just before Lock 1 at Demange-aux-Eaux, attached in a relatively precarious non-maritime way; each rope across the pontoon and round a signpost on the bank! But there were no bollards or cleats on the pontoon so little choice.

From the lock bridge at Demange

Luckily there is only a long distance view of this outrage.

We went for our customary walk around the village – a village with no shops, cafés, bars or restaurants. But they have a lovely bridge over the (much narrower than Bar De Luc) Ornaine river, and a church visible across the fields that has its entry over a tributary. Yes, that’s me posing on the church bridge.

Naix-aux Forges lavoir

As we crossed a smaller bridge we noticed what must have been in the past a lovely long, sunlit lavoir, and now seemingly used to store village bits and pieces. It was all locked up, netting across the washing area and the beautiful wood sides left to perish.

I managed a photo from yet another bridge. I can almost see and hear the chatter and splashing of the women as they washed their clothes; quite pleasant on a sunny summers day, but far from attractive to have that chore in the winter.

Maybe some day the villagers will decide it is a nice idea to restore it all.

I had a bit of ‘really-me’ time sitting on the pontoon, my feet in the water, and with a perfect mini world of nature below me. In the clear waters were tadpoles and little blue and yellow fish. Flying above were several types of dragonfly, bee and butterfly, darting from flower to flower, or water weed to water weed. All of course moving too fast for me, apart from these two feeble attempts, plus the dragonfly sex scene on our geraniums.

Stu and Boris swap canal and wine stories

That evening we made the enjoyable ‘mistake’ of inviting our neighbours, Boris and Marsha, across from their cruiser African Queen to swap notes on canals, locks and moorings.

They are lovely friendly people and we got to know them very well over some wine, breadsticks, and a remarkably good rum – from St Nicholas Abbey, Barbados.

With the knowledge of the tunnel in front of us, we called an end to the fun before it got too late – but definitely up for it next time!

Off to bed with a full moon shining – and is that Venus just to the right?

And so it was Mauvage tunnel day. I make it sound more frightening than it is of course. It’s just that I know Stewart doesn’t like the narrowness of the tunnels and the way they suck Calliope into the side.

Still we started off brightly, through lock 1, and heading for the left hand turn towards the tunnel. Seemed a shame to be going underground on such a beautiful June day, but only for an hour.

The arm up to the tunnel entrance passes the old ‘Towing Service’ building. Until quite recently all boats and barges were towed through the tunnel and some of the service boats were moored up outside.

Then into and out of the tunnel – all 4.785kms of it, well lit and with a path running alongside the water where our éclusier friend rode his bike to keep us company. It took almost an hour of Stewart’s undivided attention to make sure we kept a straight path, and we emerged into the sunshine undamaged and undaunted.

There are 12 locks down into the next town, Void-Vacun. That felt good after the 70 upward locks of the previous week! We took on the first 7 and then stopped for lunch, allowing nature girl a few more photos!

An hour later and we arrived in Void, to find all the official moorings full, the bridge about to be closed for work next day, and the shops closed – it is Monday in France after all!

But all worked out fine. We were permitted to moor up on an old industrial wharf where goods from huge silos (we are not sure what) were once moved by barge, and now by lorry. It was surprisingly peaceful, the occasional lorry on the weighbridge gone by 4pm, the gates locked, and the space left to us and dozens of house martins.

Evening view across to Void-Vacun

After a tranquil evening and night we were up in the morning to watch the VNF tug do its mighty work pushing an iron barge topped with a massive girder for the bridge repairs. We watched as we walked over the passerelle to the town for food shopping.

The town was far more interesting than we had expected, with another old covered market place, with 44 columns to reflect the Roman buildings of nearby Nasium. For some bizarre reason, 4 are rectangular and the best are circular, in no particular pattern that I could detect.

A small river runs through the back of the town, the river Vidus, right by the little Proxi supermarket. We also found a good boulangerie and a great boucherie, with typical slightly raucous butcher’s chat!

As we walked back to the boat we cut through under Les Halles, the old market place, and found ourselves on front of a mighty fortified gateway, through which are the church, the chateau …

… and a characterful, part fortified, pigeon house. So much more to Void than immediately catches the eye.

The old Void bridges and lavoir

And in case you thought I had forgotten the lavoirs, Void’s lavoir has now gone, but a photo including women doing their washing is next to the canal bridge where it used to stand.

And then I went for a walk round the back of town and found another lavoir, on a branch of the River Vidus, next to a pretty tumbling area of the river.

Back to Calliope for the evening and a quiet time on the back deck waiting for sundown – rather late at this time of year, with the summer solstice only 3 days away!

Tomorrow morning it will be good bye to Void, and good bye to the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, Oest.

An unexpected sojourn in Chalons-en-Champagne

So with spirits high and buoyancy in our step and our ship we turned starboard out of one canal, and then port into another – the Canal Lateral à la Marne. We were on schedule to reach our Winter mooring in Sillery six days later, including two, or even three, nights in Chalons-en-Champagne. Little did we know that this would stretch to at least thirty-two!

And, sadly, be my last bit of cruising for months and months. 😢

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In our innocent unknowing state we left Vitry-les-François behind and began to experience the new canal. We were back to grabbing and rotating poles suspended over the water to operate the locks – always good fun.

 

 

 

 

 

There was a completely different style of lock keepers house – regrettably still mainly abandoned.

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And long stretches of straight straight canal, unlike the twists and turns Entre Champagne et Bourgogne.

B9C1111A-AA26-4564-AA60-9EF3E453AED2We were wondering where to spend our first night when turning a bend (yes, there are a couple of bends linking the straight bits) we saw one of the most beautiful moorings ever. A long stone quay, flanked by the remains of industrial stone buildings, stood waiting for us.

G(nIt was surrounded by peace and tranquility, with lizards and butterflies the only other obvious inhabitants.

Calliope’s crew had a wonderful time exploring the stone walls, arches and crevices – without managing to uncover the original purpose of the quay, but probably it is linked to a nearby quarry and was used to load stone into barges for onward journeys.

Later we were joined by Troubadour, another British owned barge, and in addition to having fun discussing our separate epic voyages, doubt was cast on our future plans! It was suggested that the canal to Sillery, our winter mooring, was closed. “No”, I assured them. “I have an email from the VNF saying it shuts next week”, and showed them the email to prove it.

 

The sunnny evening gave glow to the stone, and next morning the sun shone down on us once more, casting shadows as we cast off, to move on to Chalons-en-Champagne.

9FC4AC3A-47B9-4A61-8DF9-86CED8E7845CThe cruise was uneventful; 7 locks and 29 Kms under blue skies, past sleepy villages, glimpses of La Marne, and a series of grain silos, indicating local agriculture.

9FBF7BB6-8833-4B29-AB01-6B4224468819Calliope arrived at Chalons to find plenty of mooring along the port quay, next to Bird Island and the Grand Jardin; a nice spot. We booked in for two, or maybe three, nights and I went to talk to the éclusier to make sure that my version of canal closures was correct ………. except it wasn’t!

The éclusier rang the VNF office and was told it had closed on 10th September. I rang my email contact at the VNF and was told it does not close until the 17th. Then I rang the agency doing the work. It’s closed. The water has been drained out. There is no way we can navigate until October 15th!!!

 

Hence our enforced sojourn in Chalons-en-Champagne. Let’s make the best of it – not difficult here. We’ll start with a beer in the square, then a pizza – but not in this restaurant because it didn’t open!

Our time in Chalons was divided between working on the boat – painting, cleaning, varnishing, polishing – and enjoying the town.

The first weekend there was also the town’s Patrimonie weekend. This means that a vast array of activities and tours are laid on to give local people (and incomers like us) a better understanding of their history and culture.

 

 

Chalons-en-Champagne is a major Centre for circus arts, and one of the more surreal performances was in the gardens about 200 yards from the boat! So plastic tumbler of rosé in hand we went to watch.

752CCE74-D729-440F-8153-02892ECC4B99The next day I was up and away by 8.30, heading for the massive Porte Saint-Croix, an Arc de Triomphe look-alike edifice that was open for breakfast on the roof!

 

I was there in time, climbed the wooden spiral staircase, and out into an azure morning sky. Black coffee, orange juice, and mini croissants etc held me together for looking down and out at the views across the city.

 

I could see so many steeples and spires, it was inspiring! (Sorry.)

 

Before I returned to boat duties I called in at the Saturday market – temptingly delicious as always. The grape harvest is definitely in, and the range of plums is wonderful. I resisted most things, but bought some pork pie with mushroom and crême fraiche under the top pastry, some good fresh fruit and veg, and baguette.

 

My journey through town took me along little back streets adjacent to the River Mau which appears and disappears along its route.

The next few days involved work on the boat. We had cycled out of town to a brico to buy ‘stuff’ that was needed – to replace a tap, to bleed radiators, to mask edges for painting, brushes for varnishing, I could go on but won’t.

 

So in amongst going into a town full of ancient buildings we (mainly Stewart) got to grips with maintenance, sometimes in a ‘one step forward, three steps back’ manner.

I made a quick dash to see the Préfecture, a lovely classically French building, and later dragged Stewart out to an art nouveau hotel where I knew tasty morsels were on offer – both part of Patrimonie. Far too many people crowded into the art nouveau, so we escaped to a local square for a beer.

 

Later that evening I was back in town for further surreality. I sat with others in rows of chairs in the middle of the road by Norte-Dame-en-Vaux for a carillion concert with a light show!

Next day was full of boat duties in the morning, then a final dip into Patrimonie with a strange ‘concert’ in medieval cellars. It turned out not to be our thing so we crept out and up, and instead visited the cloister museum. It’s a museum because it was allowed to crumble away and get covered by other buildings, but was discovered in the sixties. Everything that could be reassembled is in the museum, with a garden showing the original outline next door.

609FB697-7DE1-4614-90A5-8493D40274F5We also found time for a walk round the Grand Jardin, over the passerelle and back along the canal. Gave us a view of the starboard side of Calliope.

DB616C47-31D6-4546-BF58-D454BB3D1963The new week had us starting on painting – well preparing or painting initially. For me this meant clearing  and washing decks and roof, hunting out little rust spots for treatment, and eventually masking all round the deck ready for the master painter and his roller. Looks good now!

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Despite all the work we managed to fit in a gentle stroll most days, trying to explore different parts and arts of the city.  I took the skipper to see some of the Nau and the Mau – two small rivers that cross Châlons, mentioned earlier. At one point the angle of the light on the twin steeples of Notre=Dame-en Vaux made it worth an extra photo.

A pigeon flew by obligingly at the right moment!

 

 

The next day was just a great laundry day – sunny, warm and breezy. So I used the excellent marina facilities and soon had my washing drying all round the back deck.

D18BB952-5043-4BD5-9B2B-703809A1DB27We stayed on board carrying on more jobs inside and out, and as evening faded in we had a surprise visit from Damien, the Port Capitaine, with a bottle of champagne left over from lunch with his colleagues at their end of summer season pic-nic.  He poured us a glass each and continued to the other occupied boats in his port. What service!

(You can tell the Skip’s done this before with two flutes inclined at just the right angle to get most liquid and least bubbles…)

It’s worth mentioning here the other great things that Damien does to earn the port’s Blue Flag. There are the basics like a working pump out, to discourage boaters form discharging their waste tanks into the port waters; a book swap; very clean showers and laundry room; selling environmentally friendly cleaning products; an array of recycling bins and a composting box; collect from us batteries, old light bulbs, plastic caps etc, and even taking things we no longer need and finding new homes for them.

 

So another evening drew to a close. We had a final /visit from the swan family, who adopted a stray goose when it was a gosling and brought it up worthy their three cygnets. They are now inseparable!

6F2F9C97-DC4B-4A96-A71E-9A8994B7D198Friday was a left bank, bonkers conkers and soup day. It was a bit colder ands greyer so what better than a nice bowl of home made soup for lunch – especially when blended to a creamy consistency. It helps not to turn the base of the blender the wrong way so that the soup pours out the bottom. It also helps not to have the blender spray the soup across the wall and curtains. Finally it helps not to drop the curtain in the canal when you are hanging it out to dry.  Sadly, this is all true ….

 

The bonkers conkers began Friday in earnest. and continued madly dropping until Sunday – more and more and more! We are moored under long rows of horse chestnuts and they fall on our steel roof with wonderful clunks, sometimes bouncing off into the water. They are a noisy but decorative distraction!

 

After lunch we went for our rive gauche (left bank) walk, crossing the canal, the Marne and the railway line to get there.

 

Quite unexpectedly we came across St Pudentienne, a church part deco and part something else (I think the word you’re looking for is the afore mentioned Bonkers) – strikingly different, and a delight.

 

On our way back we walked up into the town centre, looking for somewhere to eat out that night. The sun caught the gold and blue atop the town hall, below which a production team was in full swing preparing for a concert that night – a band called Natchez ….. (Yes, that’s the Captain peering into a shop window on the left).

We eventually went out for a Chinese meal – a bit odd to do in France, but we decided that the French restaurants were best visited at lunch time, both for the prices and to give more time to digest the good rich food before going to bed!

 

Saturday was an exciting one for me. Châlons-en-Champagne had laid on lots of free fun that was right up my street (less so for Stewart). The day time had a succession of world percussion events held at different locations back on the left bank. And the evening had a ‘colour run’ followed by a big outdoor concert.

 

Out came the bike and I cycled over the canal, the Marne and the railway line, and on to find the first venue and a Brazilian street drumming band. I honestly had tears of pure joy listening and moving to them; just loved it! Then onto to venue two and three to hear two different types of African drumming, one with great dancing, and the other with some fabulous singing. I had three hours of mesmerising musical entertainment.

Then the evening; well suffice it to say that I was not one of the official 2000 people registered to run 5 kms through the parks and streets, past Calliope, going through mad colour spraying stations, and accompanied by music at various stages. But I did manage to join in ……

 

Thank goodness the rain held off for that!

7E1B7550-D980-4F41-9594-D240EF351CD1Sunday was a different story, with storm force winds, pouring rain, and a temperature drop that had us lighting the stove. But then it is autumn, and it is northern France, pretty much – and still three weeks until the canal re-opens.

So most of the rest of this chapter is an outlook to and insight of Châlons-en-Champagne, in no particular order.

 

We had plenty of time to wander the streets, taking in the architecture from medieval to gothic. Almost every turn of a corner brings something interesting into view – a gateway, a roofline, a statue or a church.

 

Some are big, grand, and somehow survived the revolution. Others are small, functional, part of the real life of the Chalonnaise.

 

We walked down to La Marne, by now quite a big river and a long way from her source up near Langres where we were a few weeks ago.

 

The autumn colours glowed in the sunshine, and the earlier sunsets went from pink to yellow to purple as we watched.

 

There have been so many glorious days enjoying the sun on the back deck in comfortable warmth, rather than hiding from the blazing high temperatures of summer in the South.

 

Then there’s been swans …..

 

….. there’s been meals out – that good Chinese supper, an interesting French lunch in an old Parfumerie …….

 

…… there are local characters including many a fisherman (they are almost all men), and students affirm the crisis school practising tightrope between there trees (Châlons is a major cents for circus skills) …..

 

…… and the ever changing light on the structures of the Jards. (Jard is local colloquial for public garden or panted promenade, so almost the same as jardin, but not quite).

 

There was yet another event in the Grand Jard – an afternoon for crazy skate-boarders, cyclists, scooterists and skaters, with a DJ sending out good music, burger van, and a nice big air bag to catch the more acrobatic. We spent a while spectating, with quite a lot of amazement!

C5512502-D5D7-4682-99B3-17973C457524The Grand Jard includes a chalk board where you can add your bucket list wishes – ‘Avant de mourn je veux ….’ I love some of the wishes – fromage (cheese), miel (honey) and cheval (horse) – whether to eat or ride is not clear!

And as the weeks wore on we ensured we had seen the more cultural aspects of the city too – the Museum of Beaux Arts, the inside of the Cathedral and Notre-Dame-en Vaux, and a walking tour of the architectural wonders (Gates not the city – or where they used to be, houses of all ages, bridges over the many canals, rivers and tributaries of the Marne, statues etc).

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Joan of Arc, as a peasant girl

This includes my favourite statue of Joan of Arc ever – and we have seen quite a few on our journey – still as a young peasant girl, rather than as leader of a revolution.

 

 

We cycled south to Domaine de Coolus, a wooded nature park, which took us along next to La Marne and gave wonderful views of the weir and the old, now closed, municipal swimming area, with diving boards into the river.

 

 

The evenings gradually drew in, the leaves and conkers fell, and the time spent on the back deck decreased. But there were still some lovely early evenings there. My favourite Autumn drink made an appearance – white Aligote wine with a touch of Chataigne, chestnut liqueur.

2818C5B3-3598-41D5-8623-E9C10FDA32BEOut for an evening stroll on October 1st I discovered that Calliope was the only remaining boat on the port with people aboard – everything else, the hotel boats, other barges and cruisers, had either left or been ‘winterised’.

 

With only a couple of days before I was leaving Stewart alone to await the canal opening we went for a proper French lunch – a three course menu for €17 which for me included delicious herring and potato salad, a wonderful tripe dish (!!!!) with some of the best frites I have ever had, and a tangy fromage blanc. Stewart’s meal was also excellent, his steak haché arriving unexpectedly topped by two eggs!

My last full day arrived wet and windy, requiring a good sweep and mop of the decks to clear leaves, twigs, conkers and dust!

After lunch the weather changed – “Here comes the Sun doo be doo be” – (for those of a certain age) so we went for my final walk round. I didn’t take many photos, just of things I had not seen before, plus Stu and I in front of the one city gate still standing.

5A75CB0A-BC09-4237-82C5-3F2880EB86C4I’m not very good at good-byes, so started with my garden – at least the floral part of it. The herbal part is up on the foredeck.

So that’s it from Calliope crew for 2018, but the Captain is on board for another two weeks and will, hopefully, continue the tale………

………………

……. So – it’s gone very quiet on board all of a sudden I’ve noticed, but we have a plan. There is still have another week to sit out in Chalons until the canal to Reims re-opens – though as you may have noticed from the above, this is not much of a hardship. 

At that point my old schoolmate Billy will arrive who, after a further couple of days R&R in Chalons to help him get over TGV-lag will help crew us through the last couple of days to our winter mooring at Sillery.

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The autumn winds are definitely blowing the new season in, though the nights are still balmy enough for Billy to check his racing results on the back deck . . . . 

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And then – right – we’re off! First day is planned as a very leisurely 8k and three (descending) locks to a quiet stop-over in the small town of Condé, which boasts a church, a boulangerie and three champagne houses. 

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The journey was sedate – and slowed down even more with a 3 hour delay in a wonky lock with an absent lockie – but we made landfall late afternoon at an empty quay. New crew did well and got the hang of the ropes quickly, despite being more of an obstruction to look round than I’ve been used to …..

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(Sorry Bill)  So – the last day’s cruise of the season starts bright and early and we’re off up the Canal Aisne a la Marne with eight 3m locks ascending to the wonderfully apposite tunnel of Billy-Le-Grand followed by three more descending to this year’s home port. There was however a bit of an Ooops ….

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Having negotiated all locks with aplomb up until the last before the summit, the boat in that lock rose way above the bollard on the quay and somehow Billy got hung-up while going up – which is quite an accomplishment.

(To be fair, the skipper also snagged a zig-zag on the very next lock gate and lost a lanyard, though I don’t seem to have any photos of that.)

So, during the year Lesley and myself would always acknowledge the ‘Last Lock of the Day’. It’s down to me and Bill this year to salute the ‘Last Lock of the Season’.

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And so here we are, the winter mooring at Sillery. Another wonderful 6 months, and another winter to work out next seasons adventure. I still would love to go to Berlin . . . . 

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Juillet sur le Midi and la mer

I planned not to do a blog for a while,  but the temptation to share some of the things we have seen and done proves too great.

To be precise, 25 days were spent on the Midi, 1 on the Hérault, and 5 on the Canal du Rhône à Sète, which connects to the Mediterannean all over the place, so is sort of the sea. Also crossing the Étang de Thau is definitely a sea crossing, even if only two hours!

We have moved on from  Castelnaudary, where I had rejoined Stewart after my week in the UK. The simple way to show it is with a copy of our calendar as I enter our mooring place for each night.

 

 

Although I realise you only see part of the longer named locations! Ah well, sorry. I’ll explain.

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We left Castelnaudary on 30 June and after a relatively calm descent through various locks and a very shady lunch time stop we came to St-Sernin where we stayed the night. Despite my desire to desist from taking photos, the light and the shapes drew me in, so here are a few.

 

 

 

 

 

We  travelled 5 kilometres and 5 locks next day in order to spend a night near Villepinte,

59EDBAB8-A565-49DE-B0E6-BC3CAC792AB1then on for a night at Villeséquelande ….. well it was supposed to be there, but when some (pleasant) local youths came to fish, drink, listen to music, and then collect wood for a bonfire we decided to just move a kilometre to a more peaceful night time mooring for old folk!

BBE0DBD3-2A9C-4BD9-B83C-4827D2789CEDnext morning, bright and sunny, we moved on to Carcassonne. The heavens smiled on us and a rare free mooring above the lock, long enough for a 20m barge, appeared to port.

64DA5402-F69F-42AE-8A80-322E134491BFWhat happened next is a minor happy blur of barbecued lamb, rosé, melon, salad and bonhomie. Somehow within minutes we had been invited aboard Escapade for lunch, taken food and drink contributions, helped in the kitchen, and sat around on the top deck making merry. Thank you David and Evelyn.

225DA1BE-81BF-4C7E-B153-668D75421CBEThat evening we still managed to get to the Irish Bar to watch England in the quarter finals of the World Cup v Columbia, and, even more unlikely,  managed to get going again next day – but only after Evelyn sold me her bike for a bargain price. More thanks due.

it was a week of lucky moorings. After leaving Carcassonne we initially made slow progress, queuing with other boats over the lunch hour for the double+single locks at Fresquel. The consequence of this was that we arrived at one of our favourite places, Villedubert lock, at a convenient time to stop.

5FB4D313-9A56-4624-B8AC-083EB62C3012The lock keeper said we could moor up below the lock, just beyond the waiting pontoon for boats going up. Ah, peace. Just so lovely all evening ……

5267163A-5485-45EF-939F-A95209A08E9E….. until first one holiday boat arrived to spend the night – then a hotel barge came in for the night – then a second holiday boat ……. and in the morning, before we had even had breakfast a further two  boats arrived to join the queue ‘going up’.

We made a quick escape and still in travelling mode we went for another one night stand, this time at Marseillett. Lo and behold, the wooden pontoon mooring we had hoped for was free.

0FD75DAD-2D32-49D1-955F-2D890D361A00This mooring is next to a canal-side gite and it was not long until we had made friends with the English couple staying there.

BE3BE8B9-2C8B-48CA-B263-0D63B00E6B42Their recommendation for the local vignonier led firstly to us making a trip to buy a case of rosé, secondly to sharing some of said rosé with our new friends, and thirdly to them coming aboard for a cruise down the canal next morning!

B248EDCF-E610-4B70-9FE5-AB89639B2AC1So after another beautiful evening on the canal, we were off, with the addition of Arabella, Ian and Charley the dog for the first few kilometres.

I don’t know which god we had pleased but s/he was smiling on us again. We came round the final bend into La Redorte to see the end of the wooden quay free and waiting for us. DA393C45-C6C3-4FAA-BB6E-7D02706956B1This meant a happy two days, encompassing the France quarter-final in the bar and the England quarter-final on the boat, utilising a Heath Robinson-esque  assembly of wires, electronics and books to get sufficient reception for the best part of the match – we won!

Our social life continued to be busy with the arrival of Tesserae and an invitation to celebrate the victory with them. Thank you – lovely evening.

Carrying on downstream on 8th July we planned a stop in the countryside just below Ognon lock and ‘garden’, preferably in the shade because of the extreme heat (which continued for the rest of the month!).

 

 

We had something of a wait at both Ognon, and the previous lock, Homps, due to a large number of holiday ‘bumper boats’, many of whose helmsmen (and women) were very much learning the ropes! Éclusier’s lunch hour intervened, holding up six or seven boats at each lock – but the young éclusier at the double Ognon lock was keen to get down to ‘no waiting boats’ and had us passing one on its way up in between the two locks as we went down! Good man!

 

 

 

There is an artist based at the lock who has many of his vibrantly coloured sculptures watching from vantage points around the lock!  It makes for a slightly bizarre but interesting experience.

 

 

Our mooring was in the shade, and allowed me one of my canal-dips. I cannot resist when it is so hot!

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And afterwards a pre-dinner drink on the deck, watching the passing boats negotiate each other with varying degrees of chaos!

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Stewart meanwhile was irritated by flies; I discovered on the internet that various herbs keep them at bay, so a small defensive wall of basil and rosemary was built, and seemed to work!

 

Next days cruise included going round the hairpin bend of the Pont-canal de Répudre, one of Riquet’s earliest and bravest pieces of canal architecture.

(Check out Paul Riquet on the internet – astonishing engineering 150 years before Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born>)

 

 

On then to Le Somail – we like this little hamlet. This time the ‘fig tree’ mooring was taken, but we had been told we could just squeeze in beyond the hotel barge mooring – told by a boat that is a few foot shorter than Calliope.  We hung over into the ‘no parking zone by a metre and waited to see what happened.

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What happened was Algeria! Luckily the captain was gracious and said that a metre here or there was no problem. Phew!

 

 

We spent two nights at le Somail, both with startling colours in the sky and on the boat – I’d vowed to take on more photos here, but these colours just draw me in.

 

 

The following morning lit up another palette of colours, this time reflected n the water. After a quick photoshoot including a view of the ‘other side’ of the famous le Somail bridge, we left for a dalliance on Canal de Jonction for reasons that will become apparent. We turned off the Midi and went down through 5 locks to Salleles d’Aude, mooring up as before near ……… the Domaine de 7 écluse cave!

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Before long we had completed a re-stock of our favourite red and rosé wine boxes, plus a few bottles!

This photo is just part of the special purchase.

 

 

That evening was the hour of England’s finest football hour for many a year – reading the semi-final of the World Cup. We invited friends Carol and Martin to a quick early supper, then down to the bar to cheer our team on – sadly not to victory.

 

 

This was definitely only to be a one night side-stop so next morning Stewart, with great skill, turned the 20m that is Calliope around in the winding hole at Salleles. I was proud! Then back up the straight 3 kilometres and 5 locks that is the Canal de Jonction.

 

 

Just below the Midi, there was another shady mooring waiting for us for a night. (It doesn’t look so shady in the photo, but it shaded over beautifully.) A few natural moments here – a cicada, hardly visible on a tree trunk (one among many thousands that were ‘singing’); part of a fir cone; the fruit of an unknown tree; a sunset.

3591A8F8-B268-496F-BAF0-2B71A768CF94Moving on on Friday we re-joined the Midi, turning east this time.  Once more we sought a shady rural spot to hide from the blazing sun (temperatures in the mid to high thirties every day), but the hoped for spots were either taken, or not shady.  We ended up in full sun near Pont Malvies in amongst quite a row of live-aboards.

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There was quite a breeze, and with our various covers over windows and hatches we were fine. A walk in the cooler evening air resulted in watching the sunset through the reeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But next day, with even higher temperatures predicted, we decided to find a cooler spot. First we cycled to Capestang for stores –  sounds simple enough – a 12 minute ride according to Google maps. But we decided to go along the (extremely bendy) canal bank, rather than down the straight road! After an hour cycling, much in full sun and on hard baked bumpy tracks, we found Intermarché, but lacked the will of the energy to cycle back!

We bought Coke and sandwiches, found a shady spot, and took a rest. Then, fortified, we began the ride back, still on the canal bank because Stewart had a plan!  We had passed a super shady spot on our way and by cycling back to that point Stewart could leave me and the shopping while he went to fetch the boat!

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Great plan – worked a treat, especially for me with an hour to sit in the shade with my toes in the water!  And nice for Stu too, who found two Azure-winged  Magpie feathers on his ride.

 

 

 

 

And when he arrived back with Calliope and we had an afternoon, evening and 2 nights there. Our only disturbances were ‘bumper boats’ that chose not to slow down past moored boats and threatened to pull out mooring pins out.  However nothing amiss occurred.

 

 

 

Now came time to pass under Capestang bridge. For those who do not know, this is often referred to as the lowest bridge on Canal du Midi – it is true in part. It has particularly low shoulders, making the edges of wheelhouse roofs vulnerable.

 

 

Stewart was keen to know just how much space we had, so armed with tape measure and camera I attempted to take photos as we passed through! We had had ideas of mooring in Capestang, but no room at the port so we continued to second choice Poilhés – and I am glad we had that choice forced upon us!

 

 

What a lovely little village. It was a recommendation from our mates Carol and Martin, and justly so. I cannot describe the pure visual delights of the sun moving across the old stone walls.

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Poilhes mooring

 

 

We were joined by other friends for lunch at the slightly funky Les Plantanes for very delicious food on one day, and stayed on for another two nights just because we liked it – oh and to use up time before our booked mooring at Béziers; more of that to come.

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With two nights to fill before Béziers we aimed for Colombiers, going through the Malpas tunnel along the way.

We were hoping for a 20m space, but none appeared. As we were leaving the village past a row of long-term moorings a very helpful Frenchman appeared from his cruiser to let us know that there was a space we could use a little further along!

 

 

We found it, half hidden amongst the reeds, and a very fine space it was.

 

 

And so it was we spent two nights at Colombiers. This is yet another fascinating and scenic village, steeped in history.

 

 

There were insects and flowers to enjoy too – apparently the largest wasp in France, but not dangerous to humans. Certainly we escaped unharmed..

 

 

Then finally the short stretch into Béziers, along the narrowed canal, then down the 9 écluses de Fonserannes and into the port.

(Our resident raconteur makes light of the Bezier locks; it’s a spurs earning achievement – especially going up ’em!)

 

We had booked for two nights, but stayed for three, fitting in a good look round the old city, the servicing of our central heating boiler (ironic in such heat), and a new bottle of gas thanks to new friends George and Pam on the boat next door who had a car.

FB1FFA6F-5919-48B7-9BC7-9B59D43B71CBThey also saved me a cycle ride to the Brico for necessary timber to mend the parasol – I was all ready to go when George found a suitable piece of wood down below.

 

 

We took walks along the river Orb in evening and morning light …

502C01A6-EA90-469E-80F6-082DF6EB5DAB… and a lively evening drinking and talking with George and Pam, plus Lee and Kristie from the cruiser next door.

 

 

There were colours and shadows drawing the eye and the camera all around the port. Maybe it was the time of the year, but the sun light was painting such beautiful pictures everywhere I looked!

After three good days in Béziers it was time to move along the canal, stopping first at the next village, Villeneuve-les-Béziers, meeting up again with good friends Martin and Carol; Martin had somehow managed to keep us a mooring place on the quay in the shade! Marvellous man.

We only stopped for the one night – have I mentioned our batteries yet? A series of misadventures, including two winters where, for different reasons, we lost shore power and drained the batteries, has resulted in us suddenly losing voltage on our domestic battery bank – fridge (with cold beer in it), freezer, air con, water pumps, lights …. computer recharge! So we had to urgently get new batteries. A series of enquiries anded up with us ordering them to arrive in Frontignan and we were now heading that way.

 

 

Our journey took us to Vias for one night, where a 5 minute cycle ride brings you to the Med and a nice evening swim!

 

 

Then an early, short, journey along to Agde round lock, where we spent two hours queuing, going through, and leaving. This round lock has three entrances, and once we were in with three other boats, the lock emptied enough to open the gates to the lower Hérault connection in order for three small boats to join us, then filled up again so that we could all go off East.  We were largest, so first in and last out, allowing Stewart to manoeuvre us 180 degrees to moor and then 180 degrees to leave! Takes a while!

F527B52D-4EE3-47A3-A205-83E81053349FWe were soon away from the other boats, turning up the beautiful Hérault.

There was an idea to moor at the pontoon at Bessan, but it was ‘taken’ by three boats we know from the Canal de Garonne. Not to worry – there are plenty of trees to moor under and tie up to, and we found our spot.

621EFBC2-84EB-4FE2-8F60-FCD8061E9830A dinghy of two friends turned up from Bessan inviting us to join them for supper, but we absolutely could not get ashore, even trying the ladder into the water, which was far far to deep!

 

 

We had a relaxed evening, in our different ways. I swam in the cool extremely clear water – some of the softest I have ever found. Stu found that crosswords (not sure if he was completing them or creating them) and red wine was just as soothing.

 

I think this is where we picked up a mysterious friend, initially thought to be a grasshopper, but that idea discarded as he (or she) did not have the right back legs, or wings. Various species were suggested by friends on Facebook, the closest, in looks, being a weta from New Zealand!

 

 

 

Then the mission to Frontignan continued, out of the river, and along the final stretch of the Midi and –

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– across the Étang de Thau. Note I’m the helmsman across the Étang, which is a little more like open sea and totally loved by me. (Dancing a hornpipe on the inside!) (Doing a crossword by t’other)

We arrived in Frontignan on Friday, were blessed  by just a perfect mooring place including electricity, and settled in. Amongst the angst of getting batteries ordered and delivered (can’t be done until Monday) we enjoyed the town, as we had done before.

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Frontignan is the Muscat capital of the world, so after a Muscat in the square we went for a pizza, where we had a free Muscat! Next morning dawned with blue skies, sun and reflections.

 

 

It was market day, and not only that, I noticed that there was the annual Muscat festival taking place within the market!  We headed off there for fresh stores and Muscat tasting. I bought a tasting session to combine Muscat and food – first with oysters (a dry one), then with chèvre, goats cheese (a sweet one) and finally with chocolate ( a densely sweet and aged one – sounds like me, ha ha).  It was a very good experience, one to be repeated.

 

The old town is a maze of the narrowest streets ever, with interesting views round each twist.

 

 

Sunday morning we went for a walk around the old salt pans before it got too hot. The flooded pans are full of flamingos, waders, gulls and various fish.

Then, on Sunday evening, a treat. I lived in a fishing village in Malta as a child. Every year the statue would be taken from the church and paraded along the quay, then a fiesta would ensue. This was a smaller version of the same idea. The Frontignan church has as its saint St Paul, who, traditional has it, was shipwrecked in Malta. So one way and another I felt an affinity, even though not religious.

 

The little wooden statue of St Paul was taken from the church in the morning in a little boat full of gladioli. This boat was taken by boat to the sea, and he spent the day at the seaside, bringing blessings to the fishermen who still work the area, plus all us other mariners. In the evening he returned and was met by a small band of musicians, some traditional dancers, and a crowd of people.

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St Paul arrives back at the church

We paraded Paul through the narrow streets and back to his church, where after a short service and some traditional singing – we all drank Muscat out of plastic cups! And we ate little ‘barque’ (boat) shaped biscuits.

8EFFD647-C1ED-4BFD-AE15-67D24A80551DNext day, our three allowed days n Frontignan being up, we came out of town a couple of kilometres and moored up opposite old fisherman’s cottages (now mostly holiday homes), to await battery arrival.

969C7144-70BE-4EB5-8EEA-ECFF6CEF0F9ELooked like we might be here awhile, so we got the bikes out and started to explore. We went to the Brico, (bought a tough sack trolley for moving batteries) the Intermarché, and, more interestingly, to Sète. It was a bit of an inferno adventure. It was very hot, Stewart ad a puncture on the way; I set off into town with his front wheel, got a new inner tube fitted, and set off back – only to miss him, cycle far further than necessary in midday sun, while he was half carrying a unicycle bicycle and getting just as hot and bothered!

Once we met up, all was well. We had lunch in the town hall square, where a fabulous tenor popped out of a bar to sing Opera (capital O) to us all. Then a walk round town and a visit to the gallery of Contemporary Art before a slow cycle back.

A swim in the salty water of the canal (which also has the small tides of the Med to take us up and down) helped cool me down and the final day of July was spent happily on the back deck waiting for our cabin to cool down from its 32 degrees.

Every finger crossed that our batteries arrive soon and we can switch the air con on from time to time!è

 

Stowaways – Canal de Garonne part 2

When I got back to Grisolles from my weekend in the UK I was in the company of our friend Hilary – first guest of 2017.  What I had not realised is that there were two additional ‘passengers’, who emerged to take the sun on day two! They were welcome to join us on the two day cruise to Moissac.

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Hilary and I arrived at lunchtime, and almost as soon as we stepped aboard Captain Stu cast off and we were off down stream. This was a gentle day; just 12 kilometres and no locks, arriving at our wild mooring (PK 40.5) within a couple of hours and moored up ready to enjoy the sunshine.

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Hilary went for an exploration walk while I slept to recover from spending the previous night on a bench at Gatwick airport (another story altogether); she returned with a wild flower bouquet – beautiful.

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The sun began to set on our quiet, tranquil mooring. We love these out of the way places, close to nature.

Lock 10 Lavache

Steps at Lock 10 Lavache

The next morning the sky was as blue as before and the sniper was keen to make headway before it got too hot, or indeed thundery.

After a swift breakfast we ‘de-staked’ and set off the few hundred yards to our first lock, Lavache

As we left the lock, under the typical Canal de Garonne brickwork bridge, the waterway opened up before us.

Leaving lock 10 Lavache

Leaving lock 10 Lavache

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A true flower bed, Montech

Before long we arrived at Montech where we stopped for bread, and discovered it was market day. Hooray. Hilary and I used our 30 minutes shore leave to stock up with strawberries, asparagus, salad, avocados ….. and got back just in time to see another boat go by to enter the Montech flight of locks.

Montech looking at Montauban arm and Blue Gum

Blue Gum emerging from the Montauban arm

The Captain was a bit glum (no comment), anticipating a wait of up to two hours as we were nearing éclusier déjeuner, but we were in luck and first one, then two, and finally three éclusiers appeared to take us, and the boat in front, through the flight of four locks.

As we awaited our turn I looked towards the entrance to the Montauban arm of the canal – and there was a Piper sister ship, Bluegum, with Sally as figurehead.

Leaving Montech

Leaving Montech

Our turn came for the flight. As we left Month we passed a small basin next to a huge chimney – remnants of the massive paper factory that was an important part of the local economy for well over 100 years.

And then we were off – with an impressive flypast of black kites. I counted 10 of them in the sky far above us at one point.