Champagne country – La Marne


4 days mid-May 2016


The T junction at Condé-sur-Marbe looked tempting both ways – so we turned right for a couple of days, then came back and went down the left arm.

Turning right had Calliope faced towards Epernay – but we did not get that far.




We were on the Canal lateral de la Marne, and wended our way, next to the river, through calm countryside and vineyards.





The swing bridge at Bisseuil



After just two locks and a ‘pont-mobile’ we came upon Mareuil-sur-Ay, a village steeped in champagne history, boasting 14 champagne houses, and a small port.




the port at Mareuil-sur-Ay

Although pretty and pleasant, Calliope was too big for the port, but we had spied a new tranquil mooring just outside the village on the way and promptly accomplished a U-ey.

Fantastic – absolutely right for us. We could walk to the village for bread and La Poste, then retire to our own isolation.

The mooring was also just right for us to give the boat a clean and for me to sit on the grass and ‘prick out’ the herb and tomato seedlings – so housework and gardening done we relaxed.

The evening brought a set of swirling black clouds, followed by rain and thunder. In one whirlwind blow almost all the blossom of the chestnut tree opposite descended into the river and drifted into pink patterns on the water.

As darkness fell we enjoyed a nightscene of the village and a statue on the hill opposite.  At last we find something beneficial to come from a Straight and Narrow. 

Next day was fine again. We walked up the hill to get close to the statue and the vines, and a hillside view of the village.



We had the added benefit of a marvelous view back down to Calliope at her mooring, and a close up of a linnet.


You have to be at least as old as us to understand the link with ‘we’re in the boat with our ‘ome packed in it’, but in all those years this is the first linnet I’ve ever actually seen . . . .



And we checked on the progress of the next vintage champagne …



American geese

Our other ‘bird-find’ at Mareuil were two American geese – goodness knows why!

After two nights at Mareuil the barge turned round to head up for Chalons-en-Champagne, stopping at Conde for lunch. We had an interesting journey; on arrivale at the Tours-sur-Marne lock, ready to turn the hanging pole and open the lock gates, there was no pole. We kept looking and wondering if there was another device to operate the lock, but eventually moored up and phoned the VNF in my broken French. “je suis á l’écluse Tours-sir-Marne et il n’y a pas un pole pour tourner.”

I was not believed, and told the to turn the ‘peche’. (a peach?) “Non Monsieuer. Le pôle a disparu!” After repeating this several times he agreed to dispatch an éclusier, who soon turned up and agreed that the pole/peach was missing and set about operating the lock for us.

That was not our only difficult lock of the day. The locks from Condé to Chalons nearly all had a strong jet of water swooshing out just below the lock, pushing Calliope sideways. Of course our man at the wheel took account of this as much as he could, but at Juvigny, with the water pushing the boat into lock wall – a zigzag fender rope was broken with a good loud twang! Your Honours I do maintain that it was the merest of kisses and the line was indeed a little frayed already . . . . .

We arrived at Chalons-en-Champagne to find plenty of space for a nice mooring, above the lock by the Grand and Petit Jard parks, and beneath the towering cathedral. These are very pleasing spaces, and include plenty of waterfowl – more coots for me!

We quickly decided to spend two nights there. The town is full of ancient timbered buildings, and intersected by two tributaries of La Marne, Le Mau and Le Nau.

Our boating neighbours were an interesting group of people. One, an ex-diver, managed to lose his bow thruster and then his propeller mid-channel. Mark, who we had met at Sillery, tells us he is a millionaire farmer, and had on board with him his friend from East Anglia, Steve, who is an ex Baptist missionary, wants to be a writer, and shares our love of birds.

And then we were joined by Robin, who, in trying to moor, drove his big barge Magansar2 bow first into the quay three times (proper T-bones) whilst trying to get a rope ashore with inexperienced crew. All were very friendly, accommodating, humourous and helpful to each another nonetheless.

So after just two days in a lovely place and with good company we set sail again, towards the end of La Marne. But one more night still to spend on this canal.


Moored up at Soulanges


Up stream we went, stopping for the night at a 10/10 mooring for us -Soulanges. Initially all alone, later we were joined by a commercial barge that moored up behind us for night.





mini garden


I found time to do a little gardening – get those herb and tomato seedlings sorted out!




It is a pretty mooring and although the village is small it had an interesting walk up the hill between a series of crosses to a statue.


Soulanges vista



Looking down we could spot Calliope peacefully resting.







Bridge over La Marne, Soulanges

Alongside the canal La Marne flowed on. We crossed over the bridge to take a look at the river. The nearby car park was almost empty; just a few fishermen and one camper van – (skillfully hidden behind Lesley by the photographer) occupied (as we later discovered) by a Belgian story teller and his wife. After enjoying a glass of wine with them we all settled down to a calm night.



Next morning the sun still shone and we were off to where we would join the Canal Entre Champagne et Borgogne at Vitry-Le-Francois – the next chapter!

Sweet flowing L’Aisne and Canal on to La Marne

Fifteen days in early May, 2016

The first 6 days

New waterway; new system. Onto the L’Aisne, a river, not a canal and given our first zapper, so alertly looking out for the sign to tell us to press ‘amont’ –

Zapper sign L'Aisne.JPG

zapper sign (un)helpfully facing the river




and after a bit we realised that the signs, instead of facing us as we came along the river, were 90 degrees wrong, and facing the river itself! One or two zaps were a bit late.





Levers on L’Aisne



We soon got the hang of pressing the zapper, watching for a green light, and once in the lock, pushing up the blue pole to get things going!






Vic-sur-Aisne silos


Our mooring target was Vic-sur-Aisne – though we were not so sure as we first approached and saw huge silos with grain being loaded into a big barge.



Loading grain


Looking across to the morning at Vic-sur-Aisne


How wrong we were – just a few yards further, and …. almost heaven!







Our serene company for the evening



We found we were the only boat on a lovely quiet mooring, just past the silos, and extremely pleasant – our only company two courting swans.



Everything done including the washing


A walk round the village followed by a Happy Hour aboard created the perfect evening in the sun. Cheers y’all.


Morning, Vic-sur-Aisne

And when morning broke, it was still, and still perfect, or even more so.

Before leaving there was time for a look at the work going on to (sadly) remove one of the last ‘needle weirs’ on L’Aisne.


Linnet at lunch time


We had a great sunny days cruising, including a lunch stop that brought us our first linnet to tick off in the I-Spy book.




Calliope at Soissons, looking over to Faubourg St-Waast





We came into Soissons to find plenty of space on the town quay ….


Pont des Anglaise, Soisson


…. just in front of the new Pont des Anglaise …….. so named because the English built a bridge across the river just after the war – and this one has just replaced it.





Soissons cathedral and (non-food) market

We visited the market which occupied a characterful market hall plus a huge space in front of the green tiled cathedral, and found a food bounty awaiting us – so many traditional charcuteries, forgeries, boulangeries, and of course dew fresh fruit and veg.


Market fare!

Two night in Soissons gave us the opportunity to have a good look round this historical town with its ruined abbey and voluptuously vaulted Chapter House – plus the Captain could buy some ‘stuff’ from a Brocante to mend a fender.



Soissons goldfinch


Our walk round Soissons also provided another for the I-spy bird book – a gold finch popping in and out of a hole in a tree near the abbey.  (More goldfinches appear later in our journey)


We had Reims in our sights by now, and all that promised champagne! This was planned as a two day trip, staying just outside Reims in a country mooring at Courcy before tackling the city. Luckily we had a plan B.


The next nine days

Joining the Canal de L’Aisne a la Marne

So we left Soissons on a super sunny day and delighted in the smooth calm countryside along the River Aisne.


Goodbye Soissons

By later afternoon we were looking to moor up, and chose a quiet mooring near Cys-la-Commune – very rural – and between two villages.

A walk from one village to the next have us a perfect view of Calliope surfing a field of rape, and the discovery of a pleasing old church.

During a wonderful peaceful evening watching the sun disappear at the end of the lock pound, I was captivated and mystified by a bird call – black bird like, but a very distinctive different song. I downloaded ‘Warblr’ recorded the sound, but we were too rural for me to get an answer – so forever a mystery warbler. (I think we have since found out it was a frog . . . . .)

Maizey copy

Lunchtime relaxation at Maizy

Next day, knowing we were nowhere near a boulangerie, we studied the map and thought there would be bread, and indeed cake, at Maizy. What a lovely place to moor – the canal widened out with a wall for mooring and village road that led down to the river, with a cheerful bar close at hand. Not for us the midday beer, but the locals directed us to the boulangerie and a baguette was secured for lunch.

The L’Aisne is a beautiful river to wind through. Working the locks was a joy.


Lovely mooring at Berry au Bac

Having motored on to Berry au Bac we easily found a place to stop, mooring below lock. Again we were the only boat there and our only company, apart from a couple of gentle pecheurs, were nightingales, day and night, plus water rats, herons and other wild fowl; a good rest before the long haul to Reims!

The haul to Reims is actually only a day, through the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne, but in that day Calliope and crew had 9 deep locks like waterfalls to ascend.

These were operated by a new (to us) system; a pole hanging above the canal to be turned as we cruised underneath – and another pole to push up once safely inside the lock chamber. Quite a laugh grabbing that pole. Luckily the Captain is good at steering, except when side currents catch Calliope broadside. I learned a lesson at the first pole. Don’t let go after you’ve turned it! It will swing madly pendulum style across the boat, hitting anything, including the wheelhouse glass, as it goes. Luckily no damage, and from then on I walked the pole down the boat.

It was made even more interesting for us because the bollards were spaced for barges twice our size! Anyway, all was fine, if slightly demanding.

By the time we reached Courcy, the last lock before our stop over, we were looking forward to completing the day’s journey – but oh no! The lock was apparently closed for restoration! We quickly moored up to the lock approach and began to think through our options – when a most welcome ‘monsieur’ appeared above us, and with a few words, and lots of gesticulations made it clear that we could rise up to a new level! He and his working companion operated it all by hand for us. Fantastic. Merci messieurs.

And then … the expected mooring was not where we expected and the map had shown – the big ‘bay’ on the left bank that was to be our place of rest was shallow and full of fishermen (the bank was full of fisherman, not the actual bay).


Looking up the canal in Reims towards our mooring in the distance

So two tired people had to carry on to Reims, past long commercial wharfs, the small marina and, finally and thankfully, onto the free mooring right by the lock – and a main road! But look at the photo – it looks more like the Med! The canal is an unreal blue – must be full of copper sulphate! (Our mooring is just round the corner after the bridge you can see in the distance . . . . )

Never mind. We know how to relax, so boat safe and sound we walked into town and found first a bar, and then a restaurant under the trees of the main square..

We stayed two nights in Reims and managed to see some of this beautiful city, including the Cathedral, the park, the football stadium and many of the fascinating houses.

It was also our first (but not last) meeting with Beryl and Ray on Vrouwe Catherina, plus briefly Mark on Ariana.


Progress so far

So our journey was progressing – we had travelled a fair way on the map.


Near Sillery

We left the city environment of Reims for the more rural atmosphere of Sillery; just a 4 lock trip.


Sillery Marina

The small marina there looked full , but Capt. Stu sneaked into a space on the wall. We soon met up with Beryl Ray and Mark again. Plus made new friends of John and Martha. This led to two guitars and some singing voices appearing over some wine!



French war graves, Sillery

We walked round the village and found a good boulangerie, – an essential! Lesley also walked over to petit Sillery and round to the …… military cemetery.





Astern out of Sillery


After two nights it was time to move on southwards, starting with a difficult astern manouevre to extricate Calliope from her resting place – all done with an audience, and with aplomb by Stu!



It was 11 locks down to the end of the canal at Conde sur Marne, at the T junction with La Marne. There was also the ‘attractive’ tunnel Billy to enjoy, so described by Du Breille. Its not a long tunnel, but navigation and steaming lights needed just the same.


Waiting our turn for Billy Tunnel




This, as with most tunnels, is a one way system and we had time for lunch in the sun at a pleasant mooring just outside the tunnel awaiting our turn.






Conde-sur Marne was a sweet place to stop over, in the best sense of the word. We only stayed one night, opposite the old hydro power station, but this was time enough for a couple of walks round the village.



We sought out (recommended to us) Mme Potié’s champagne house with the inevitable tastings and purchases! We bought some Ratafia – a champagne based aperitif. Mmmmm.





Billy loco at Conde sur Marne lock


We also grabbed a photo of the little engine that used to pull barges through the Billy tunnel at the time of radical industrial revolution.




Next morning was said goodbye to the canal De L’Aisne à La Marne, because we were onto La Marne!