What do we know about Dijon? Why is it so important? Where is it?
Situated in east-central France towards the southern end of the Canal de Bourgogne, Dijon sits at the heart of Burgundy, a region famous throughout the world for its fine wines.
In times past, its wealth of natural waterways brought goods and services to market by boat and over the centuries attracted economic, political and religious power to this important region, leaving a modern legacy of lush landscapes, delicious food and cuisine and fine examples of Burgundian art and architecture. Indeed Burgundy captures the glorious essence of the best of France and all things French.
Home to the Dukes of Burgundy from the early 11th until the late 15th century, Dijon was a place of tremendous wealth and power and is now the capital city of Burgundy. The Ducal palace houses the city hall and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon and other important buildings for the tourist to see are the Cathedral and the Grand Theatre.
But Dijon is perhaps more well-known for mustard – those distinctive pots of condiment spread by the English on hot dogs and roast beef. But saunter down the pedestrian shopping street of Rue de la Liberté and into the Maille shop and you’ll discover a myriad of different mustard flavours on sale, from Honey, Acacia and Nut Mustard to Black Truffle and Chablis. For those who love mustard, this is paradise.
Dijon mustard is said to have been invented by Jean Naigeon, when, instead of vinegar he used the juice from under-ripe grapes in his recipe. Today, it’s still lighter in colour than, say Bordeaux mustard, and stronger in flavour.
No trip to Dijon can possibly be complete without a visit to the covered market; a famous building in itself, the structure being designed by Gustav Eiffel and, with one or two modifications since, it still does the same excellent job as ever. It’s the hub for fresh produce from far and wide, from exotic cheeses to everyday tomatoes, countless types of sausage to rare cuts of beef.
It’s also a meeting place, where families shop together, join up with friends and eat together – a long, relaxed French lunch under shady umbrellas with the bustle of life going on around.
Wines and Cuisine
Dijon is a must for those who love their food and wines, offering authentic French dining-out, whether in a smart restaurant or the local brasserie. Dishes originally from Burgundy include Coq au Vin, époisses de Bourgogne cheese and Boeuf Bourguignon, with raw meats from the lovely creamy-coloured Charolais cattle and Bresse poultry.
Wine & Water, one of the hotel barges cruising to Dijon, says her favourite meal to prepare on board is “Poulet Gaston Gérard, a local dish with the famous poulet de bresse, with mustard, cream, white wine and local cheese.”
The Burgundian wine list is extensive and you’ll find a huge selection of well-known and lesser-known domaines available in Dijon: Nuits-St-George, Beaujolais, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and Chablis. And Chambolle-Musigny, Puligny-Montrachet and Savigny les Beaune. And Sauvignon St Bris or the wines from Irancy. These wines are waiting for you, along with many other excellent varieties, to savour and remember forever (and bring some back home).
Or, you can hire a self-drive boat from one of the hire-boat bases that serve the region. See this link for details of the waterways and boats available.
With the summer and plenty of lazy sunny days on the horizon, it’s time to think about your summer reading list.
Your summer reading list 2017
We’ve put together a selection of must-reads for lovers of France and all things French. From fiction to real-life accounts via coffee table delights on French liqueurs and the City of Light, this list of French books for summer truly has something for everyone. So, grab yourself a glass of a little something French, sit back, relax and read on.
My Good Life in France
First on our list of must-reads this summer comes backed by something of an expat institution in France. Author Janine Marsh is also the inspiration and know-how behind ‘The Good Life in France’, whose website, magazine and newsletter contain literally everything you ever wanted to know about France.
Well, not quite everything because Janine has saved some of the best for her book, My Good Life in France. Recently published in paperback, this summer reading list page-turner takes you behind the scenes to discover how the author ended up in France. Her rollercoaster journey from buzzing urban London to the distinctly non-buzzing and non-urban Seven Valleys in Pas de Calais in northern France via a seriously challenging renovation takes you from laughter to tears and then back to laughter again.
Janine provides a real insight into rural life in France and most of all, the French. She describes their quirks, habits and manners, and how two (very) English expats adapted to them. She also paints a detailed picture of life in her chosen part of France, usually given no more than a brief glance as tourists rush past on their way to other better-known parts of the country.
Warning: after reading this you will probably feel an irresistible urge to pack up and move to France yourself.
A list of French books for your summer reading list should, of course, include a nod to the capital. In this case, forget about the traditional Paris guidebook. Prepare yourself to greet an arty, hipster city. Written by long-time expat resident Lindsey Tramuta, The New Paris takes a brand new look at the City of Light and reveals its younger, designer vibe.
In the company of stunning photography (you can see why Lindsey has nearly 70k followers on Instagram) you wander on and off the beaten tourist trail and discover perfect spots for barista coffee, artisan beers, perfect pastries and seriously gourmet food. Lindsey also provides a list of small designer shops, a world apart from traditional French style but just as pleasing on the eye.
In among the gems waiting to be discovered, Lindsey has slotted in interviews with owners of small businesses in the city, Parisians and expats, who offer an interesting insight into the new Paris. Through their eyes you see there’s much more to Paris than the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees. This book makes the perfect read for anyone who loves Paris and fancies discovering a side to the city that’s difficult to find in regular guidebooks. The New Paris was published in April so you know it’s bang up-to-date.
Warning: after reading this you will probably feel the irresistible urge to book a flight to Paris.
Our next choice of French books for your summer reading list couldn’t have a more appropriate setting or author. The Dragonfly mostly takes place on the beautiful rivers south of Paris and is written by Kate Dunn whose inspiration for the book comes directly from her experience on the canals and rivers of France.
Despite its real-life backdrop, The Dragonfly is a work of fiction describing the river road trip taken by a middle-aged Englishman and his 9-year old granddaughter. Colin and Delphine find themselves thrown together in the small confines of his boat, the Dragonfly, after the murder of Delphine’s mother. The two characters are very different – not only is Colin a solitary figure, he speaks no French and has to deal with the fact that his son is in prison awaiting trial for murder. Delphine, on the other hand, has attitude with a capital A and is dealing with the pain of losing her mother and possibly her father.
As this unlikely couple wind their way along the rivers, they gradually come to trust each other and discover complex emotions. But The Dragonfly isn’t just about relationships; this family drama comes with much darker undertones. You’ll find yourself turning the pages compulsively in your bid to get to the denouement of one of this year’s best thrillers set on the French waterways.
Warning: after reading Kate’s lovely descriptions of the French rivers you will probably feel the irresistible urge to take a tour on one yourself.
If your glass of a little something French isn’t cognac, it will be after you’ve read our next suggestion for good reads for summer. If you have chosen cognac as your tipple, read on to discover just what’s behind that amber-coloured nectar. Guides to drink don’t come much better than this one and The World of Cognac really does uncover the whole universe of the quintessentially French liqueur.
Author Michelle Brachet knows exactly what she’s talking about – not only has she written extensively about the king of French liqueurs, she has won awards for her expert knowledge. The latest edition of The World of Cognac was published in May so all the information comes with all the latest updates.
The glossy book contains lots of excellent photographs and just about everything you could possibly want to know about cognac. From its rich history and the distillery process to an overview of the principal brands. Michelle also includes a long list of anecdotes surrounding the liqueur, which adds a fun and interesting aspect to all the alcohol. And of course, no world would be complete without advice on how to drink cognac and recipes for the perfect cocktails.
Warning: after reading this you will probably feel the irresistible urge to treat yourself to a VSOP. À votre santé!
Our last suggestion for French books for summer returns to rural life in France. Very rural in fact, since The Road that Runs takes place deep in the fruit-growing countryside of Provence. On the face of it, the setting and characters are just ordinary French villagers going about their daily lives. Scratch a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that extraordinary makes a much better adjective to describe the goings-on in The Road that Runs. After all, it isn’t every day that a villager becomes an international pickle purveyor.
Like Chez Martin, the first book in the series, The Road that Runs takes the Martin family as its inspiration. And that’s the animal family as well as the human since the people are joined by a motley collection of ponies, cats and Clovis, the wolf dog. There’s a decent sprinkling of expats too. This account of contemporary life in southern France takes you on a fun ride through the everyday events and paints an excellent portrait of the French as they really are.
Lovers of France will recognise a few of the traits as they turn the pages and everyone will laugh a lot. However, it’s not all fun and games so prepare for a sad twist. Little is known about the author, Madame Verte, other than that she obviously knew the Martins and their village life first hand. According to Amazon, she’s now experiencing rural life in Dorset – perhaps she’ll complete the trilogy with an ‘At Home with the Smiths’…
Warning: after reading this you will probably feel the irresistible urge to head for Provence.
The Saint Louis hotel barge cruises the lesser known waterways of South West France, along the Canal de Garonne. This area is known for its history and beauty, and of course, the wines of St Emilion and Bordeaux.
Your hosts on the Saint Louis are Peter and Wendy; they are Irish and passionate about barging. They have known each other since school and their families share a terrific bond. When Peter and Wendy were first persuaded to go on a hotel barge on the Canal du Midi several years ago, they were half expecting a ‘caravan on water’. However, they were overwhelmed with how spectacular the trip was and fell in love with barging and France.
They found and purchased Saint Louis, already operating as a highly popular hotel barge, and spent a year shadowing the previous owners before embarking on their first season at the helm in 2014. It proved to be a huge success.
Wendy at the Wheel
There are only a handful of female hotel barge pilots in France, and Wendy is one of them. Having taken responsibility initially for all the interior and exterior refurbishment of the barge and also filling the hostess role on board, she has now trained and qualified to become the full time pilot. Handling the barge takes concentration, and manoeuvring through bridges and mooring up takes practise, but you soon learn, she says. “One of main issues is that smaller boats don’t understand that we have to stay in the centre of the canal or we go aground. There is no overtaking. And of course, Saint Louis cruises are designed to be relaxing – we go at a slower pace.”
Food is an important part of any barge holiday and the Saint Louis is no different. Peter tells a great story where he and Wendy were at the French Embassy in London and the chef prepared quail breast with curried vegetable paste. They were so impressed with the gastronomy that they asked to meet the chef – and they went on to become great friends. And now that special dish is on the Saint Louis menu. Fabulous.
As Peter says, “We really like our guests to engage with us on their food so that it becomes a real collaborative effort. We encourage our guests to be hands on with matching and pairing wines in a fun and non-snooty environment. And we’re keen to introduce our guests to the hidden culinary gems of France, giving them an experience that they only get on our hotel barge.”
Every meal is set off with completely different table settings; imaginative dishes made with locally sourced fresh ingredients, delicious French cooking of Michelin quality and world class service – all designed to meet your specific likes and requirements.
The Saint Louis sails with two other crew members: a hostess and a chef.
In 2017 they arrived as a pair – Julia and Martin live locally near Montauban. Julia, the hostess, is French (and speaks perfect English) and started working in the hospitality sector in Montpellier six years ago before moving to Scotland to broaden her experience. There she worked with Michelin Star chefs Tom Kitchen and Dominic Jack and managed the front of house for their restaurants. She is a people person and, like Wendy, is quality driven and loves delivering simply flawless service with a smile.
Martin is also French, speaks excellent English too and has grown up near Saint Louis’ home base at Lacourt St Pierre – so he knows the region and its gastronomy well. Over the past six years he has worked with some of the finest Michelin Star chefs in France, Biasibetti and Pourcel. His training and extensive knowledge of French cuisine makes him a perfect fit within the team and his love of food shines through in every dish he prepares.
As recent guests said, “What a memorable week we’ve had. Way beyond our expectations. Hosts Peter and Wendy, 1st Class, Julia anticipated our every need and Martin’s food was the most delicious and beautiful we’ve ever had!”
What’s Saint Louis like?
Saint Louis can accommodate up to six guests in three airy cabins with comfy double or twin queen size beds. Air conditioning has been installed throughout and is individually controlled in all cabins. But Peter agrees that it’s the sun deck on Saint Louis that really sets it apart from other hotel barges – it’s one of the largest (at 9 metres by 4.5 metres) in France and is completely flat, making it ideal for lounging, eating and moving about easily.
The interior decor is contemporary – clean and smart, echoing the French country style of painted furniture, dainty classic furnishings and relaxed luxury.
And what about excursions?
Peter’s favourite destinations on the barge are Lauzerte and St Emilion. Lauzerte has been voted one of the most beautiful villages in France for the last 25 years as part of Les plus beaux villages de France®. Peter says that he finds it inspiring and reflective, and he likes to help his guests discover things one don’t normally find as a tourist.
The St Emilion wine tour is a huge success where guests can gain expert knowledge on one of the finest wine areas in the world. This a truly special full day spent with Saint Louis’ distributor in St Emilion and includes an education in Bordeaux wines, private tastings, private chateaux visits to major vineyards in St Emilion, a Michelin starred lunch and further fine wine tastings. It costs a little extra but guests really appreciate this exclusive opportunity.
Peter says that he wants guests to feel “as if they are spending a week with friends. We want the atmosphere to be relaxing so that guests feel as if they are coming home. We encourage guests to come into the galley and watch the chef at work or take a turn with the pilot steering the barge… It is about having a laugh and enjoying yourselves.”
He believes that he sets a very high standard and strives to deliver it year after year: “We want our guests to have their ideal trip so we discuss options and personalise the cruise for them.” On one cruise, they even organised an impromptu tomato tasting as their guests had been impressed with the varieties on offer at a local market.
Peter sums it up nicely when he says that holidays on the Saint Louis are “relaxed but professional and delivered with a huge Irish welcome.” As Peter concludes, “the craic is mighty” and we can’t help but agree.
In the first of our legendary reports, having made the decision to ‘sell up and go sailing’ and go through the French canals to the Mediterranean. We leave the UK, cross the Channel in a gale, deal with a toilet problem, crash into a lock, lower (unstep) the mast, nearly lose the mast, nearly lose the boat and eventually get to Paris.
Only going forward, ‘cos we can’t find reverse.
Monday 22nd September
POOLE – ENGLISH CHANNEL
97nm 15hrs (plus). Left Lake Yard 06:40 and got near Poole entrance, but failed to get VHF radio to transmit test, so aborted and arranged to get new hand-held set delivered to nearby Salterns marina. Windy and very nasty rainy all day while we get sorted again and await next optimal departure time. Have to anchor off Brownsea and lower dinghy to take Chloe for a walk – horribly choppy and wet. Finally leave 18:00hrs with weather and conditions much improved. All OK until mid-Channel 24:00hrs with rising following W-NW winds [20-25kts], biggish seas and Ruth unwell. Off Barfleur worse still [30kts+], alternating 1hr sleep watches. Frightening and unpleasant, but Grehan and the autopilot behaving well. Alter sails to reduce and centre main, keeping only moderate genoa, and motoring. Grit teeth.
Tues-Thurs 23-25th Sept
By 09:00 arrive St Vaast in calm, overcast, conditions (later brightens to sunshine), enter through lock and moor up on typical French short wobbly pontoon spur. People enquire what the gale was like. “How brave!” (is that “foolhardy”?). Catch up on sleep. Dismayed that lavatory pump has developed smelly problem, but captivated by amphibious bus that ferries folk to adjoining Isle de Tatihou. Too much time spent fixing loo pump during the next day. Thursday, took Grehan outside marina and beached her at low water to inspect underside, propeller, etc. All OK, scraped off barnacles and moved later in the day to anchorage in entrance bay off Tatihou.
Fri-Mon 26-27th September
18nm 4 hours. Left St Vaast at 06:15 (anchorage by Isle de Tatihou). Caught out grounding at low water during the night even though positioned some way off land – no problem, just raised the keel but should have properly reckoned beforehand. Quiet motor-sail (not much wind) southwards past the Isles de Saint-Marcouf, through estuary channel and into Napoleanic canal. Lovely, and lovely tranquil haven at Carantan. Then spent far too much time and emotional energy at Carantan, trying to get stupid Vodafone to help us connect to their GPRS service.
Sun-Tues 28-30th September
Nice day Sunday, bad ending. 83nm, leave Carantan 10:30 and out through canal and estuary into Baie de la Seine. Lovely sun-filled sailing for hours due East towards Le Havre, past the invasion beaches. Enter the Chenal de Rouen entrance to the Seine off Le Havre at 21:00hrs and finally get to Honfleur lock at 22:00, the upriver tidal current very strong. Lock is unfamiliar, intimidatingly big and dark but with very bright light sources, and we are tired. Muck up mooring to lock sides big-time and Grehan bashes head first into lock side. Very upsetting, arrive in Honfleur basin shaking and somehow moor up for the night.
Monday, morning dawned and damage not so bad (bent guard rails), but – underlying – very shaky. Met nice couple who’d just come thro’ from the Med and were getting their mast re-stepped here. With their guidance, got round to rough and ready type boatyard, spent the night there and got the boat ready. Mast removed following day, laid horizontally onto X-frame timbers brought from UK. Structure a bit wobbly – so added additional support. Moved boat into town basin – middle of mediaeval town with cute tall building all around. Very picturesque. Still worried about wobbliness of mast supports, went back to boatyard (evening) and pinched couple of stout timbers and incorporated them. Much happier, spent evening on new boatfriends boat.
Wed-Sun 1-5th October
Eventful and distressing. 114km, left Honfleur 08:30 and got through Lock without problem, into La Seine and under the impressively big Pont de Normandie bridge. All seems OK and we’re catching the upstream flood tide. Noon near Caudebec, a small ship passes the other way. Medium-size wake, Grehan wallows, the mast lurches to and fro, the forward X support breaks and that end of the mast crashes onto the pulpit (bow guard-rail). Will the whole lot collapse? Into the water? Then what? Heartstopping moments mid-channel in a major river in full bate. Frantic getting out of ropes and tying up everything in sight. Next heart-in-mouth – the next vessel to pass. Wobbly, but we’re OK. Carry on like that for the next 6 hours, which is very nerve-wracking, until we arrive at Rouen and France’s 3rd most important seaport, over 100km inland, past some big big ships. Finally moor up at the Port de Plaisance 18:15hrs. Gee whizz.
Next day we’re visited by Customs who also tell us where the nearest Brico is. Cycle across bridge and along river-front to the BricoDepot where we buy 5 big bits of wood, a saw and some bolts, tie them to the bikes and push the whole lot back to the boat. It’s amazingly hot and tiring. Start sawing to make new sturdy X-frames to replace yours truly’s stupidly inadequate originals. Arrange to use crane next day to lift mast up whilst supports are renewed. Costly.
Next day Friday morning and I’m nearly completing the second frame, the river current flowing past very strongly. Chaps next door are having trouble leaving their mooring, can’t swing into the channel because of the current. Your captain offers them some friendly help, eventually they ask if we could move up a bit to provide more exit-manouevring room. Engine started and ropes prepared, but with everything not ready, without warning and unbidden they uncleat our ropes and Grehan swings into channel. Captain shrieks. Then they actually drop some ropes which are now free, as is our boat, our home and our dream for the future. Leap onto boat and engage engine full tilt to try to avoid slamming into other boats, the pontoon, skating out of control downstream, etc. A rope they have dropped winds itself around propeller and shaft, engine stops, boat nosedives into pontoon. Finally manage to get situation under control. We’re both shaking with fear and anger. This after everything else. Every day is bringing some new unexpected calamity.
Have to arrange for diver to come and inspect and remove rope. However, in the meantime, get help to lift mast manually onto new stout timbers, which goes OK and seems OK. Fingers crossed. Cause-of-our-woes boat “Hiva Oa” leaves for Paris. Next day (Saturday) diver turns up, plunges into icy water and it takes worrying ages for him to cut and disentangle rope. Cost £100+ – very unfair and not our fault. Ruth goes to cash machine. We test the boat but she won’t engage gear. Have to get mechanic from adjoining boatyard to take a look. The selector lever mechanism has a problem. Heart in mouth I take it to bits and get mechanic back. Simple problem takes 5 mins to fix . . in the catastrophe panic I had wrenched it too hard . . but it’s yet another thing . . No more bloody boat things for the rest of the day – visit Rouen, Cathedral, Jeanne d’Arc, etc. Next day [Sunday] take it slowly and sort boat out, Ruth invents excellent fender lashing method. Prepare to leave next day. Let’s hope we leave these so-painful awful troubles, too.
Monday 6th October
40km. Left on the morning flood tide and fuelled up from very smart, very clean, barge (so unlike the picturesque laid-back oilfulness of barge and attendant at Aunt Betty, Poole!). 13:45hrs Amfreville Lock [ecluse] and we enter Middle Earth – no salt water, no tides, and inland water. Moor up in backwater at Poses village, which is pretty and quiet apart from high-volume laughing ducks. Someone’s obviously told them about us. And it being Lundi, the boulangerie ain’t open. Withdrawl symptoms abound.
30km. A very grey and rainy start but arrived happy at destination village Les Andelys – with magical-looking castle built by Richard the Lionheart (a.k.a Duke of Normandy) to fend off the French King. Problem – depth too shallow to get into also nice-looking riverside yacht harbour. Tried, but stuck and sucked up fine silt which caused the engine to sound lack-of-cooling-water alarm. Quick turn-off the motor and drift a bit. Then an emergency mooring tied to a couple of parked barges and gradually sucked out the merde with hand-pump I was glad I had bought. Not too much of a panic, but a disconcerting moment or two. Getting late so travelled a few km into nearby backwater and found a little concrete wharf to tie up to. Very quiet, very small hamlet of Tosny. Cycled along the riverside and Chloe accordingly took the waters . . .
Wed-Thurs 8-9th October
21km, through Garenne ecluse [no probs], to Vernonnet – pontoon alongside the river by a bridge and part of a children’s water activities centre. The kids canoe, kayak and generally have a marvellous time. Approach shallow (0.8m – just made it!) and passing barges create a noticeable wash. Moored behind “Hiva-Oa” [see Rouen calamity, nuff said]. Shopped. Thursday, cycled along ex-railway track path 4km to Giverny where Claude Monet lived and painted. Weather lovely and gardens very beautiful. Glad we’re out of season – must be packed in summer. Lots of Americans even now.
Friday 10th October
Breakfast porridge, taken al fresco on the afterdeck in tee shirts – it’s that warm. 30km, through Mericourt ecluse [fender board damaged], to Port de L’Ilon – a marina set in a woodland lake (ex-gravel working) just off La Seine. Water and electricity and nicer (out of season) than the guides might suggest. We’re nearly halfway between Rouen and Paris and have learnt that one page in the Navicarte map book equals about 1/2hr travelling. Bikes out and cycled to next small village – Guernes – to get baguette, wine and fun-size kit-kats. At last found time and space to start this web-log. Is that the same as a “Blog”?
Sat-Sun 11-12th October
27km, last 6km dicing with rowers in singles, pairs and fours all of whom row like mad not looking where they’re going (backwards). Arrived at Meulan to find annual Cheese Festival in full flow including mediaeval costumed troupe of musician-actors, stalls selling cheeses of all varieties, loads of people, etc. Great fun, especially since we are moored up in the middle of everything! Town so nice we stay 2 days.
Monday 13th October
48km 5.25hrs, through Andresy and Bougival ecluses and with the river almost to ourselves on a lovely sun-bright day. Doesn’t seem like October! We have liked to prepare and moor port side to, but the small lock at Bougival has bollards only on starboard side (going upstream), so we hitched bights of warps to the ladder on ‘our’ side – OK, but we need some practice in this ‘new’ technique. Arrived at Chatou halte de plaisance destination only to be gruffly warned off by group of anglers – although pontoon is there, it isn’t used now. Crossed to opposite bank to very smart Halte at Rueil-Malmaison fronting Docklands type business district piazza – flagpoles, lights, landscaping and a water feature, but no water or power . . ? Opposite an inn where Renoir, Monet, Manet etc used to meet, eat and paint but sadly it’s now considerably revamped and on the tourist-tripper trail. In the evening someone could be seen setting fire to something over at the old Chatou halte, so very glad to be where we are!
Tues-Tues 14th-21st October
46km, through Suresnes and then Paris Arsenal ecluses. The last couple of hours are fantastic. Bright sunshine and we almost have the broad river to ourselves as we sweep past all those landmarks – La Grande Jatte, Maison de la Radio, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde, Louvre, Notre Dame, and of course all the bridges. All to ourslves, except for the amazing array of river craft parked up in various places – from bloomin’ great sand and ballast barge conveys to ‘traveller’ yachts to smart luxury houseboats. And in the last hour, the bateaux mouches that zoom past at a rate of knots. Eventually we moor up in the Paris Arsenal basin, just off the river near the Ile Saint Louis and in the heart of the city in front of the Place de la Bastille and the (new, millennium) Paris Opera. Great!
Over the next week we get to the top of the Eiffel Tower (d’accord); walk along the Seine past Notre Dame to the Louvre, walk round the Louvre for 3 hours, walk around the city and then walk back (phew!); visit an impressive Sunday market; and visit the Pere Lachaise cemetry (where are buried Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Colette, and all the great and the celebrated since about 1850), which is a truly magical place. We are moored (“rafted”) alongside Fred and Kitty from East Virginia, who have been cruising in their yacht Mariah for the last 6 years, and who are excellent temporary neighbours, giving hospitality, tales and good advice.
In the second episode, with the waterways almost to ourselves, we enjoy champagne in a cold, bright November, travel the delightful and very quiet Marne à la Saone canal south to the River Saone and get to Saint Jean de Losne where we meet lots of new friends.
I went out late one night The moon and the stars were shining bright A storm come up and the trees come down I’ll tell you boys I was waterbound.
Wed-Thurs 22nd-23rd October
MEAUX – Capital of Brie
50km. We leave the Seine for the Marne, then some delightful ‘by-pass’ canals (and 2 short tunnels) and finally back onto the Marne at Meaux – as in Brie de Meaux. Starting to experience more typical, more frequent ecluses (locks) and our general level of basic ‘lock technique’ competence is growing. We moor up at newer pontoons than the books show, whose surroundings are unfortunately (for us) being further improved. This means diggers and no electricity or water. It’s a good spot and a nice town, but the weather turns icy and in spite of our modest heating system Grehan is very cold. Sleep fully clothed with two layers of socks and woolly hats, and wake up to ice inside our windows. Brrrr!!
Fri-Sat 22nd-23rd October
LA FERTE SOUS JOUARRE
44km along the Marne. La Ferte is a lovely typical small French town and we moor up close to the centre just off the main river. Get the bikes out and cycle up to the ancient Abbey at Jouarre, past a monument to almost 8,000 British soldiers killed near here in the first 3 months of the First World War. Bright sun but a bit chilly. Move on late afternoon Saturday to moor by the next lock at Courtaron, which is quiet and peaceful.
Sun-Mon 24th-25th October
36km to Chateau-Thierry another nice smallish town, this time with a large American war memorial above it. Good mooring with free electricity, so our fan heater is going non-stop!
We have been given a ‘hoofer doofer’ remote control to operate the next few locks ourselves. Do they know just what they’re letting themselves in for? Will the system survive?
Tues-Thurs 26th Oct – 6th Nov
EPERNAY – Capital of Champagne!
Leave C-T in thick mist – we can see both river banks, but not too much more. Fingers crossed that it clears and we don’t meet a barge convey head on. It clears, the sun shines and the 51km river journey past the vineyarded (?) hillsides is lovely. We see no other boat all day, except for 2 dinghies with friendly pecheurs in. We know the last three ecluses have sloping sides, which causes us unwarranted anxiety – but they’re all OK and have pontoons inside. At the last one, we return our Frank (Zappa) to the VNF eclusier. Then 2km up the Epernay branch to our mooring on the by-passed Marne at the Societe Nautique and opposite one of the big champagne ‘houses’. A lovely quiet spot (ok, it is near the railway but we rather like the sound of the freight trains whooshing through) with good facilities including champagne cocktails every night at 6. Decide to stay for a while . . .
And so over the next 11 days we cycle, shop, compare notes with Norwegian neighbours Arfinn, Anniken and Martin + Dina (their children), are visited by Trish & Tim (sister+brother-in-law), visit champagne firms, go on a truly excellent champagne fields and grower tour (for details click on poster, below, and thoroughly recommended), return to Paris by car (more sightseeing plus dentist and root canal work) and visit the battlefields of Verdun where so many thousands of French (and American) soldiers were killed in WW1. We learn a lot about champagne, and other things.
Fri-Tues 7th-11th November
CONDE SUR MARNE – VITRY LE FRANÇOIS – ORCONTE
Leave Epernay on a cold windy Friday for short (18km) passage to Conde where we sadly say goodbye to T+T. Moor up for the night tucked up behind sans-engine motor cruiser with our electric cable draped over. Being ever so quiet the next morning at 7 we still awake the owner who cheerfully emerges in his underwear to give us a hand. Ruth’s influence, obviously.
52km to Vitry where we are hoping to find electricity, water, showers . . but no luck. The facilities are closed. Tomorrow’s Sunday and that means the shops and the canal locks will be closed too. Zoom into town, supermarket, boulangerie, and camping-gaz shop.
Monday 10th. We have informed VNF about our passage plan but when we get to the first ‘manual’ lock there is no eclusier to open it. Phone and have to wait for hours, moored on quayside next to grain barges. Ultimately 14km further south to Orconte, in the middle of nowhere, but with newish Halte Fluvial – which is also closed – but the local Marie kindly switch on the electricity for us. ‘Us’ being Grehan and our Finnish motor cruiser neighbours Henry and Rita who have been voyaging the world since 1988. It’s a great spot, and we’re here on the 11th also, that being Remembrance Day with the canal system closed down.
Wed-Thurs 12th-13th November
BAYARD – FRONCLES
Our mobile eclusier meets us at the first lock and onward we travel. We hope to stop at St Dizier’s Port de Plaisance for fuel and water, but its very closed – looks terminal. Anyway, we park up by a garden supermarket who let us have water in our jerries and Ruth inveigles a nice man in a truck into taking her and three 10 litre cans to the nearest service station for some diesel. After lunch we pass through the lock immediately outside the VNF office and they have a water hose for us. Finally we reach Bayard, with a nice little mooring, a picnic area, a supermarket, two football pitches, a lifting bridge, a St Gobain glass factory and a railway line.
9 hours (including 2 lunch-stop hrs), 32km and 14 ecluses, today. About 4 kph, or one page in the Navicarte book equals 4 hours. Once upon a time it ‘meant’ half an hour – that’s what lots of locks does for yer! (and a change in map scale).
Bright and early (well, grey and eight o clock) we meet our Mlle de l’Ecluse and her moped. All smiles, she takes us through to Joinville where an unpleasant young man takes over. Spitting nails, he clearly doesn’t approve of our desire to keep going until lunchtime. But we do. Oh yes. And after lunch Mr Angry has been replaced by Mr Ponytail who is helpful and friendly and who takes us on to Froncles, past his own lock-keeper’s cottage (which is a picture). 39km, 16 ecluses, 8 hrs overall. Looks like any day’s journey hereabouts may be gauged by number of locks times half an hour. Weather mostly clear and bright: almost Spring-like.
Fri, Sat-Sun 14th, 15th-16th Nov
CHAUMONT – ROLAMPONT
Friday morning and it’s bye-bye pretty Froncles where the skipper saw a falcon sieze a bird in flight just 5m away, through locks and – increasingly now – also lifting and rotating bridges. After lunch we cast off, move off and round the bend to be greeted by a big Belgian peniche, head on, emerging from the next lock like giant steel toothpaste from the tube. We beat a hasty retreat then it’s onwards through the lock, a short 1/2km tunnel, another lock and now we’re at Chaumont in the (pouring) rain. Slow progress today, though we can’t work out why – we seemed to be moving along ok. 25km, 11 ecluses, 7+ hrs. No facilities at the Port de Plaisance, but we cadge an electrical plug-in from the pleasure craft in front. [no pics – poor weather]
With a light morning mist shrouding the river, we leave Chaumont and encounter Mme Samedi Eclusiere who is small, round, friendly . . and yet strangely uncommunicative. Maybe it’s her lack of teeth? Whatever, we certainly do crack on in record time, looping ’round hills ever upwards into the clouds and into remoter – very pretty – countryside. Mme tells us there’ll be no peniches (barges) on our stretch today, so we don’t need to worry about what’s going to loom around the next bend, forcing us to seek sanctuary on the sides, which are either stony or shallow or (usually) both. We lunch tied to our ‘rond’ anchors hooked into the bank and eventually arrive 1hr ahead of expectations at Rolampont, a large village. Water + Electricity = Heating and a Bloomin’ Good Wash. 29km, 15 ecluses, 7hrs overall. The GPS says we are 300m above sea level.
Monday 17th November
36km, 24 ecluses, 9hrs overall – good stuff. We meet up with our best eclusier(e) yet. Happy, talkative, helpful and with a Gitane always on the go . . (is there a connection?). She takes us past Langres (historic hilltop town – we must return and see it properly) and en route we wave at a boulangerie van which promptly stops by the canal and thus we get our morning croissants and baguette ‘drive-by’ style. Finally we get to ecluse #1 on the Marne side, having done 71 since Vitry. Thence we go through the 4.8km Balmesnes Tunnel at the canal’s apex, 331m above sea level. Stop for lunch on the other side and it feels almost like another country. Now it’s downhill in double quick time – a chain of 8 ecluses, followed by a chain of 4, then 3 more (dropping 60m via 15 ecluses in just 12km) and we arrive at pretty Dommarien‘s little jetty at dusk. A Danish boat rafts up against us – they’ve travelled from Malaga, Spain. Feels like a significant day has happened.
Tuesday 18th November
Tuesday, 32km, 20 ecluses, 9hrs overall. Slightly less successful. As per instructions, waited at first of the morning’s locks, but no-one turns up and it also turns out (after having called on the lock intercom three times) that the Dane messed up its mechanism last night, exiting after 17:30 when its radar had turned itselfoff, so it didn’t ‘know’ he wasn’t still in there . . So after a frustrating delay we get going in pretty cold, grey but dry conditions until lunchtime. After lunch – similar peformance – there’s no-one at the alotted time. So we operate the ‘manual’ ecluse manually ourselves and proceed steadily for another 4km. A chap in a VNF van passes by about an hour late and at the next manual ecluse the lady eclusier who is waiting tells us (a) we shouldn’t have done it ourselves but (b) “he’s a lazy so and so, that one, and if she’d left a plaisancier in the lurch like that her neck would be on the chopping block”. Arrive at grain silo quay near Champagne-sur-Vingeanne about 5. Dusk. Time to stop.
Wednesday 18th November
22km, 9 ecluses, 4hrs. The end of the Canal de la Marne a la Saone at PK224 (pic shows kilometre-stone PK223), the last canal ecluse – and almost the last ecluse before St Jean de Losne and the end of our voyage, phase one. We emerge into the River Saone (so different from that cosy shallow narrow canal), then a short journey to Pontailler and a hot shower.
Thursday 19th November
ST JEAN DE LOSNE
36km, 2 ecluses, 4hrs. So this is how episode one ends, not with a bang . . but a whimper. A very quiet, grey, cold few hours on the broad River Saone. No other craft, except in the two last ecluses and also when we reach St Jean de Losne which is a notable barge-inland-waterway centre. We’re moored up at “H2O” a very well-known place in French canal circles, with liveaboards of every nationality, boats of every size and variety, weekly events and relaxed friendly patrons in the shapes of Jean-Paul and Captain Bob. Apparently it freezes over come January.
Ah well, head South and get cold. Only going forward ‘cos we can’t find reverse.
In the third of our reports from France on the waterways our Journal describes our first weeks living aboard amongst a boating community of diverse nationalities and personalities in the Gare d’Eau at the centre of inland France, Saint Jean de Losne. Enjoy! (we certainly did).
” . . . We live on Ponton A, moored at an angle so that the break in our life lines, the easiest way to get on and off the boat, on the port side, meets the end of the typical short French finger pontoon. There are about 300 other boats at the Port de Plaisance, most of them empty now, but a good few have liveaboards like us.
The town itself is small considering it is at the junction of the Saone river, and the Bourgogne and Rhone et Rhin canals. It’s pleasant and has most things we need. Last week-end it staged its Fete de St Nicholas, putting a great deal of effort into decorating the lamposts and shop fronts, piping music everywhere via loud speakers and providing street-fulls of stands. Even Pere Noel arrived by barge. However, it was bitterly cold, snow in the air, and turned out to be a very quiet event.
There is a community here, a group very loosely organised and called the River Rats, within the wider fraternity of commercial and private vessels and all things boaty. It is very informally led by Captain Bob, an American of vast experience in many spheres, who has lived here for over 18 months and who swears he will leave if anyone ever says ‘let’s form a committee’.At the monthly Saturday afternoon meetings in the Bar we have chance to meet with those from ‘the old lock’, mostly liveaboards with large, barge homes, and we talk about social activities and so on. This week we talked about security – how to discourage petty crime and vandalism – and a Christmas party – who’s bringing what.
Each morning at 9.30am we take it in turns to host a VHF call in. Tuning in to channel 77 means you can get a forecast, borrow or lend, give or take items, get and give lifts and exchange all sorts of information, including medical or emergency needs, and reminders of regular social events. The latter include a book swop on Saturdays and Thursdays, French class on Tuesdays, petanque games ad hoc and early evening drinks at the Bar PMU every Friday. As Christmas approaches this side of life is increasingly busy – and we had envisaged that we would have a very quiet and strange Christmas without any family, save Chloe. Instead, we shall spend the day with another English couple, a couple from Australia and a couple from New Zealand.
So far, the gritty stuff of life aboard has been what we expected. Our standards have not fallen exactly, but changed. When water is at a premium washing up is saved for a once a day activity. Clothes get worn more times in between washes. We are more tidy than ever; everything must have a place when to put something down anywhere makes a mess. But whilst every chore generally takes longer to complete, getting up in the morning is much quicker. No decisions to make. Three steps to the kettle.
The weather, being more or less in it, is easy to assess. In any case, in winter, wear plenty – it saves on heating. We have rigged up a permanent tarpaulin to cover the stern of the boat for extra protection from rain and wind, and we have a removable tarpaulin to cover the windscreen windows at night. This makes a considerable difference to the temperature inside the boat – which hovers around 10 degrees during the day, hits 18 in the evening with the fan heater on and drops close to zero when we sleep. It may drop to -14 degrees outside, with skateable ice on the canal, before the winter is through.
We have been surprised by the sheer volume of condensation in the boat, and are watching it carefully so that things do not spoil. We now think nothing of drops of water splashing down on our pillows and of keeping the mattress edges dry by stuffing newspapers around the sides. Until we put our plastic double glazing up, we had ice on the inside of the windows. At times, everything feels damp.
We are used to deciding daily what we are going to eat and then going out to fetch only that. It’s a discipline enforced by not having room to store anything but the basics. Result – we eat better, waste less. Red wine and bread and cheese are part of every day’s nutrition. Breakfast is porridge or ‘croustillant’ cereal, lunch is bread and cheese with a beer, supper is always a dish that can be hob cooked because our oven does not reach high enough temperatures to roast or bake successfully.
We meet our new friends here every day, ad hoc when we go to the ‘facilities’ (showers, washing machines etc) or to collect the post from the chandlery or shopping at the supermarché or in town. Or by design. Someone is always going off to help somebody do something, have a cuppa, plan something.
We use our bikes nearly every day, to fetch diesel, to get to the old lock or just to explore. They continue to be invaluable. In the evenings, if we haven’t got a couple of friends round, we watch borrowed DVDs via the computer, or write our journals, or read. We haven’t watched TV since September, nor had a bath nor a bag of chips.
The fourth report and our second Journal. It’s Christmas. It’s New Year. It’s cold. It’s snowing. The boat is dripping with condensation. The water has frozen over. We’re having A Ball ! . .
” . . Happy New Year. It’s snowing as I type and I can hardly sit still for wanting to go out and play. We are surviving the cold quite well by ignoring the spinning electricity meter supplying our boat. We used to monitor it weekly, and two weeks ago we calculated that we were using 50% more than when we first arrived at St Jean. Goodness knows how much we are burning through now. To help conserve the therms we have a huge white tarpaulin (below, right) over the whole boat and another that nestles close to the pilot house windows, and we keep the external louvred doors covered at night. During the day, exits and entrances are made rapidly, whenever possible without removing the washboard or sliding the hatch back.
We have a convector heater on a low setting in the aft cabin day and night, and a fan heater in the saloon during the day to boost the temperature quickly and keep it above 14 degrees. Below that, we find we can’t settle to anything and constantly have to be moving around doing jobs, or eating, or both. We wear 2 or 3 pairs of socks and sometimes 3 or 4 layers on our tops and hats and scarves.
The water in the lock froze a few nights ago, just enough to support the gulls, but the ducks and cormorants soon broke it up and the clear, sunshiny day finished off the job. However, February is predicted to see temperatures of -14 degrees with ice in the lock for days, thick and safe enough for skating.
Condensation is still a problem but we have discovered that regular scrutiny in all the corners, wiping down with a bleach solution to combat black mould and the changing of the blotting newspapers every few days works fine, and so far we have avoided any damage to clothes, books or other precious things.
Whilst coping well, we still have a ‘things we should have brought with us’ list. So far:
The other fan heater
The other convector heater
Oven to table serving dish(es)
Endless supplies of tea-bags (the French do have tea, Liptons has cornered the market here, but it comes in presentation packs and is very expensive).
Ditto Custard Powder
Ditto Golden Syrup (for our porridge)
We have only purchased one personal item in the last 3 months – a new pair of jeans for the skipper (costing 13 Euros). I had already patched the patches on his previous pair. Enough is enough!
For Christmas I bought Him a neat Tin-Tin annual (Herge’s Adventures of), and he bought me a bottle of delicious champagne, which I drank up completely on Christmas morning before I got out of bed.
Xmas day continued with more champagne and mince pies on board the ‘Edward Thomas’, an immaculate British barge from Hull belonging to Mike and Sue, who have rigged a proper Xmas tree, with twinkling lights, on its bow. Then, off to the Australian’s apartment by the lock for an excellent Xmas lunch. The Aussies and the Kiwis like to have lamb, not turkey, which was fine with us, since we took our own ‘festive veggie pie’, along with our own contributions to the shared feast – parsnip croquettes, Mediterranean potatoes and a big trifle. The rest of the afternoon and most of the evening, during which other guests arrived, was spent on THE QUIZ – everyone brought 10 questions along and a jolly good time was had.
We saw the New Year in in the company of our German, Finnish, Australian, New Zealand and Irish friends, and our local French bar tenders and their little lad, Baptiste, aged 5. It turned out to be an unforgettable evening, spent in the Café de la Navigation and afterwards in the Finns’ apartment overlooking the River Saone. We danced the early hours away to Elvis Presley!
With the turning of the New Year and the promise of longer, warmer days the conversations have turned to plans for 2004. Most of our friends here have a long-term aim to keep on boating. Some are on their way north to Paris, Belgium and Holland. Others, like us, are heading south, to the Canal du Midi, Spain, and Cyprus. All boaters’ plans are flexible, however. Having just seen Le Seigneur des Anneaux 3 (at a cinema in Dijon with a handful of mates here) we have been toying with the idea of a trip to New Zealand, accompanying our Kiwi friends back home across the Pacific!
So, we are spending our days very happily, in the company of many kindred spirits, sharing suppers and playing games, fixing things, moving boats, planning excursions and parties (and enjoying them), going to French class at the Office de Tourisme, and just taking the time of day to walk and talk and tell our stories. Over the Christmas week we really began to get to know our fellow travellers and to appreciate the unique community here. Whilst we have all happily chosen this itinerant life, we know it will be a real wrench when the day comes for one of our boats to move on. We are all already making sure that we have the means to stay in touch, whichever directions we each take.
Journal the Third. Dark January, Paris and catastrophe strikes, Normandy on the beach amongst the sand-dunes, dog with lampshade, flares night and in February lurvv is all around. All human life is there. What do we do all day?
Keeps me searching for a heart of gold And I’m gettin’ old
” . . . Yesterday was the 14th February, a gloriously warm and sunny day that emerged out of a cold mist mid-morning. The River Rats community declared their Valentine’s Day love for each over the 09h30 ‘net’, with love songs and little ditties, both dedicated and anonymous, orchestrated by the Kiwis, Jayne and Pete, on Rehara II. It could have been ghastly, but humour prevailed. In the afternoon, a small group of romantic sports fans gathered at the PMU bar to watch France play rugby against Ireland, and in the evening, John and Jan, the Australians aboard ‘Arjo’, entertained everyone with another of their (in)famous Quiz Nights. Two days earlier, we gathered at the Café de la Navigation for another ‘Franglais Soiree’ – the French do love to parlez; and two days before that we had informed the local fireman and police that we would be having a ‘Flares Night’; not a Rave for Ageing Hippies, as our Aussie friends quipped, but a chance to let off out-of-date life saving devices, some of us for the first time. Boy, do those parachute rockets go! As I said, the social life here is non-stop.
I was prompted to sit down and write today by a visit from an English couple, who, whilst planning their own boating adventure, had been following this column with some interest. They seemed pleasantly surprised to find us in the flesh and grilling our morning toast! Yes, life is real here and, no, Jane and Mike from Southampton, we have no regrets. Just do it!
January was a dark month, the tenting over our boat making daylight hours even dimmer and shorter. After the snow melted the rain drizzled, and we snuggled down to read more books and make even longer lists of jobs to do when the weather became more clement. Our considerable library aboard is augmented by a ‘free book’ shop, run by a marvellous ex-pat, who arrived in St Jean 17 years ago and never went back. All you have to do is swap your own well-thumbed tomes for someone else’s. We also lend and borrow all manner of reading materials inter-boat.
At the end of January some good friends from Normandy invited us to visit for a week; we had baths and slept in a bed for the first time in 3 months. We took long walks on the endless sands around Montmartin, the sea in the distance, now fast becoming just a memory, was a mere strip of bright turquoise against the lowering skies. Then, a clean and comfortable train from Granville, stopping only twice on the 3 hour trip through the sparkling snow-dusted countryside, took us straight to Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Here we stayed with Neil, my brother in law, for a week in his flat in Boulevard Deaumesnil.
Opposite the block of apartments and offices are the Arches d’Arts, the undersides of the old raised railway line heading towards La Bastille. Newly renovated, they provide workshops and salerooms for artisans, and a roof top promenade for walkers, joggers and sweethearts, but not for dogs. Paris is difficult for dogs, at least for those who prefer to perform quietly upon some greenery or under a shrub, like our Chloe – and here starts the story of our worst trauma so far.
We were required to escort her 20 minutes or so from the flat to a park in Bercy Village, where on a large, raised stretch of grass, she found a playmate and raced around. We walked to the end of the park, bounded by a parapet overlooking a 3 lane road some 5 or 6 metres below, and beyond that, the brown waters of the fast running Seine. We called her since she appeared to be wandering off and suddenly she was racing towards us, had jumped up, and then skidded over the ledge beside us, plummeting to the pavement below. I saw her bounce, get up, take a few steps and lie down next to a tree, inches from the nearside lane of trafffic.
There followed a frantic dash to find steps to get down to her, a ride in a car with a Frenchman, who had been watching open-mouthed and immediately offered to take her to his vet, and then an agonising wait to find out the extent of her injuries. In fact, she sustained a dislocated hip, a cut to her leg and a bruised eye – that was all. Even her pulse and temperature were normal. Ours certainly weren’t. She is recovering well, back on the boat, still limping a little, wearing her ‘lampshade’ and restricted on a leash. She is also handling her notoriety with great aplomb.
February has been extraordinary; from the 2nd onwards, five brilliant days of wall to wall sunshine. Started the kingfishers to dart in and out of the reeds and the coypu to swim openly from pontoon to pontoon. The tent came off and we breakfasted on deck in shirt-sleeves most mornings, sometimes joined by friends for coffee. These were followed by one or two misty days, one or two very cold days, and then more sunshine, during which we have started in earnest on the jobs list. The extension (widthways) to the bed is now complete, we have widened all the shelves in the boat and are currently making alterations to the galley. Today, we watched the England v Italy rugby match on Hazelwood’s telly with 5 of our sports mad friends, in between preparing the windows for new sun-proof curtains, and designing the wind chutes and mosquito nets ready for our summer adventures in the Canal du Midi and the Med.
Now is the time to Say Goodbye. Goodbye Gare d’Eau and PMU Bar. Au revoir, glasses. We’ve started the next leg of our incredible journey sailing south through the French rivers and canals, to the sun. Fingers crossed, it’s all going to go well.
” . . . Last week, my glasses slipped from the neck of my shirt, where I habitually keep them, as I leaned over the guard rail to secure the starboard dodger back in place, it having been removed during our stay in the Gare d’Eau. As I reached to catch them they plopped into the murky water and dimly wafted to and fro until out of sight. And there they stayed till this morning, when I borrowed Captain Bob’s soon-to-be patented ‘fisher outer’, an old wire shopping basket attached firmly by wire to an overlong wooden pole. First dip and up they come, good as gold, and I choose to take this extraordinary turn of luck to be a welcome good omen for our coming trip, for all canny sailors are superstitious.
Glasses firmly on nose now, I am writing this piece from the still deserted pontoons at Seurre, a delightful small town just a short 2 hour trip south on the Saone from St Jean de Losne. We waved our final goodbyes through the first drops of a gathering squall, pulled on our windcheaters quickly as we passed the grain silos, and declined to stop at the old lock for a cup of tea with friends there. Sometimes things are just too difficult; all boaters understand this and our friends came to wave at us instead as we steamed on by.
We soon entered the cut constructed to avoid the huge meanders in the river and made good progress past fields and distant villages. There were a few small logs in the water but not a single fellow craft, just the ubiquitous herons, and black buzzards (I think) wheeling overhead from time to time, for company.
All’s well with Grehan, too, our hard work on the engine and all the deck fittings and surfaces over the past few days leaving us with a smart and smoothly purring vessel, eager and responsive. As the wind blew on the nose and I donned my sou’wester I found myself wishing we had the mast up and could sail a bit. She tossed joyfully about on the small waves and our excitement to be off, out, on the water and part of it too, increased as the kilometres sped by. Our concern that we may have forgotten our skills, hard-learned last year, was unfounded – we pulled off perfect moorings at the lock and at our berth here. What a relief! Two large unladen barges have passed by since tea-time going upstream, timely reminding us of wakes and washes, to put things away properly inside and get the lines and springs right.
We visited the UK in March, leaving St Jean by car with a much fitter Chloe; Trish & Tim very kindly picked us up and drove us further South to Lyon, a remarkably beautiful and historic city, for a long week-end, before taking us back to Oxfordhshire. It was a frantic, poignant and disorienting few weeks, visiting as many friends as we could, staying with relatives, a hospital check-up (good news, fortunately), lunching, dining and shopping for the very long list of essential items for our future voyaging.
Tom drove us back. We landed in Dover in daylight and immediately recognised the difference in countryside, more hedges but less horizon. Catkins and sticky buds were everywhere on the farm, drifts of snowdrops still flowering in and around the drive ditches and we happily soaked up all the familiar things and places that we used to know as we went around. But we had to leave eventually, however; another wrench, and this time not even promising a return within 6 months. Amazingly, our respective families have never baulked at this, and instead have been endlessly supportive and encouraging.
Two treasures brought from England and now installed on board have been the 80 watt solar panel, which we have fixed to our davits, to help keep the ship’s three batteries topped up. This should not be difficult given our chosen destination. We have also acquired a short wave radio, and now that we are out of the basin at St Jean, we find we can pick up stations broadcast from America as clear as a bell. Much more importantly, I can now hear dear Eddie Mair again for the first time in 6 months, although domestic news does seem rather mundane and irrelevant to us now.
We said goodbye to Christine, proprietress of the PMU bar, this morning and gazed for some time at the line of cherry trees, now garbed in their brightest pink blossom, fronting our beloved Casino supermarket. I will miss my English conversation with schoolboy Maxime and my friend Sylviane from the next village. And our fellow boaters ..well, it’s so hard. But, we’ll meet some of our friends again further south this season, and will keep in touch with others, and so the parting is do-able. Our current plan is to travel down to Aigues Mortes and then take the Canal du Midi, towards Toulouse and Bordeaux, spending May and June along this route, there and back again, before heading off into the Golfe de Lion. However, being prepared and flexible is everything; a winter in the South of France is not out of the question.
In Episode 6 normal service resumes as we get back onto the water, sailing down the wide but gentle, feminine River Saone and the wide, impressive, masculine River Rhone.
‘Cos it’s soon one morning, down the road we’re going. On the road again . . .
Wed 31st March
We’re off! Again. Having been cocooned in the Gare d’Eau at St Jean for 4 months, maybe we got too tied-up, and our voyaging spark dimmed ? . . anyway, we were sad to leave some good friends but we were also itching to get going again and experience those ‘into the unknown’ nervous excitement feelings when we cast off.
18km 2hrs. A short cloudy rainy sunny cruise downriver to the lovely village of Seurre. Excellent mooring. And The Best Showers on the River Saône (best we’ve yet been in).
Thurs-Fri 1st-2nd April
20km 2hrs 10mins. Another short sweet cruise to help us get back into the swing of things and a reason to experience the historic border village (town?) of Verdun-sur-le-Doubs. Bloody battles in the Middle Ages, plagues and dreadful inundations now left far behind. The village lads did, however, play a noisy game of football in the square one evening . .
Sat-Tues 3rd-6th April
21km 2hrs 25mins. The river’s getting that bit wider at every km and Chalon is probably our largest place visited since Paris in October last year. The port de plaisance is good and very handy for a big supermarket and a very big DIY store (“bricolage”). It is also next to a footbridge onto an island, thence across another bridge and into the centre of the town – which is impressive. We visit the Denon museum-art gallery and the Niepce photographic museum, both fascinating. Also the Tourist Office, contained in a pretty 1960’s period piece circular pavilion. All in all, a good stop (3 days) and it’s inexplicable why no photos got taken . .
Wed-Fri 7th-9th April
25km 2hrs 40min. Another easy trip to the lovely historic town of Tournus. A long riverside pontoon, subject to some wash from passing peniches, but a safe and secure mooring. Narrow streets and alleys. The enclosed 12th century monastery site of St Valerien and St Philibert with its cool calm church, cloisters, refrectory, cellar and houses. Stone quays, bridges and treed avenues. Terrific ‘pain rustique’. Memorable.
Sat-Sun 10th-11th April
32km 3hrs (well 4hrs . .). A lovely trip, with a sting in the tail. We get to Macon, which is on the true Saone with the main river traffic taking a by-pass canal that avoids the glorious multi-arched town bridge. We spot the town’s pontoon, just before the bridge, and make for it . . Unfortunately, we neglect some basic navigation, don’t look closely enough at the Navicarte book and run aground on a ‘hidden’ sandbar island. We have a devil of a job getting off – kedging out both bower and stern anchors doesn’t work but we remain calm and eventually after an hour a kind Swiss cruiser gives us a pull off. A definite lesson both in the dangers of complacency and also that seemingly big powerful rivers have shallow bits in the most unexpected places!
After that less than perfect start, Macon provides us with a lovely weekend stay. A quiet but convenient pontoon, a nice interesting town, and good dog-walking.
Mon-Tue 12th-13th April
28km 3hrs. A nice stretch of the river and we pass at least two possible village halte pontoons before arriving at Montmerle, which has been recommended to us. Deservedly so. A beautiful spot by a bend in the river, by the village square, and quiet and secure and convenient. Water, electricity and a nice little supermarket adjacent, all for 5€ per night.
Wed 14th April
21km 2hrs 55min. Through Villefranche (looks like a good mooring at PK41.5) to the stunning small town of Trevoux. Pontoon mooring by a campsite close to the centre. Trevoux, perched by and dominating a bend in the river on a steep hillside, was once the capital of a small independent principality – Dombes – with its own parliament and mint. Even more surprising, this existed up until 1762. Atmospheric narrow precipitous streets and alleys. Panoramic views from the town square and the ruined castle.
Thurs 15th April
LYON – LES ROCHES CONDRIEU
72km 6hrs 27min. Passing through the outlying town of Neuville we enter the heart of France’s second city (or maybe Marseille is). Lots of road and foot bridges, the Fourviere basilica dominating the skyline, old buildings, big buildings and kilometres of quaisides. Lyon was the Gaulish capital, very significant in Roman times and one of the Middle Ages’ most important cities. The archaeological museum and Roman amphitheatre complex is breathtaking, the central square – Bellecour – was Europe’s biggest, the cathedral houses an amazing mechanical-astronomical clock, and we also highly recommend the guided tour of Old Lyon. All this, from a separate visit earlier in March – today we just moor up at lunchtime to collect our forwarded ‘post restante’.
Then – a big step – we leave the calm but powerful Saône for the sizeable vigour of the Rhone. The feminine and the masculine as a memorable sculpture outside Lyon’s bourse has it. And it is big. Wide. Wind. Waves. Currents. The first enormous lock, just below Lyon, is 12m deep (it empties quietly in a few minutes, a truly dwarfed Grehan tied to a sliding bollard that descends smoothly with us into the cavernous depths). Out of the lock and into a large canal that by-passes the river itself, then back onto the river through Givors and Vienne, another big lock and we arrive at the river marina at Les Roches de Condrieu. The location and facilities are nice, but – well – not that special.
Friday 16th April
50km 4hrs 33min – considerable current-assistance. Big river, wide valley scenery of vinyarded hillsides, villages and small towns. Weather overcast. The Rhone carries sizeable ships, very big barges and enormous river cruise boats, all which we try to give a wide berth to because their wakes can be fierce and their pitching after-swell legacy seems to last for about 15 minutes after they’ve disappeared from sight. We’re mostly ok and the river is wide, deep and spacious. But, out of another deep lock at Gervans is a narrowish stretch that includes a single rock pinnacle out from the bank. An historic rock, where St Louis is supposed to have lunched on his way to the Crusades. Of course, this is exactly where we meet a big barge struggling upstream against the current. There’s room enough and depth, we think. There is, but out of nowhere while we’re concentrating on the King’s Rock and the barge, our alarm sounds and the depth zooms up from 4.5m to 1.2m. Twice. Our keel clangs on what must be uncharted underwater obstructions – we’ll call them the Knaves’ Rocks. They’re at PK88.5 and a bit and they’re well within the marked ‘safe’ channel, west side.
Shortly after we get to Tournon. The harbour (it’s seen better days, lots of rocking from passing craft) is by a big town square – gravel and tall plane trees. This is a fortified town, with a castle on a rock and two watchtowers overlooking. It also saw France’s first suspension bridge in 1875. Not exactly captivated at first (grey and rainy), the place then grows on us.
Sat 17th April
LA ROCHE DE GLUN
8km 45mins. A short hop downriver to a delightful rural halte, we’re moored up in the stretch of water created by the La Roche dam. Beside us is the village’s park; and the village of La Roche de Glun and its twin across the water (Glun) are very pretty (once the stronghold of river pirates). Quiet and peaceful. Some rain, some sun and mist in the morning, we get the bikes out and do some ‘sploring.
Sun 18th April
14km 1hr 30mins. A grey and windswept short journey, with one lock. We moor at the large porte de plaisance on the outskirts of Valence, a fair sized town. Aisles, pontoons, electricity, showers, fuel, etc but on balance, Glun was nicer . . .
Mon-Tues 19th-20th April
54km 5hrs 5mins. The weather looks good, we really don’t need the marina or the town, so we leave. Sky is blue but with big clouds, occasionally grey and producing a few spots of rain, bit of wind sometimes but basically a nice day all day as we motor down the increasingly wide river. At one point it must be 1.5km wide, with little islands. We pass the captivating-looking La Voulte sur Rhône, with its ruined castle on a rock. And Montelimar, with its nougat industry. We descend 3 cavernous locks and pass 1 nuclear power station.
Eventually we get to Vivers. We’ve been advised the pontoons are probably not in service but we trust we’ll be able to moor somewhere. We can. We tie ourselves to two pontoon piles, get the dinghy out, crane the dog down into it and row ashore. When we walk into town we are amazed. Captivated. This is a very ancient town with a castle, cathedral (France’s smallest), bishop’s palace, mansions, narrow alleys and higgeldy-piggeldy roofscapes. It’s so small and so untouched (so un-polished . . ) it’s like stepping back 200 years, if not 500. Tuesday, we explore the village/town – city? The Roman bridge. Cathedral (a gem). Cathedral Close. Belevedere. Streets. Alleys. Squares. The Lot. It’s beyond words . .
Wednesday 21st April
55km 6hrs. Brilliant blue skies for our further kilometres south. The river is impressively big and so are the railway bridges, power stations and locks, include l’ecluse de Bollene – biggest on the system at 23m rise/fall. It’s fast and smooth in operation and its architecture, described as “Art Deco” is more “Art Moscow”. Rather than press on to Avignon (where we know there are pontoon problems) we take a 4km sidetrack up the old Rhone to a small informal marina at L’Ardoise.
Thurs-Sun 22nd-25th April
36km 2hrs 40min. A fairly straight run, past the magical-looking ruins of the Chateau de l’Hers, to Avignon. Having got there, we turn up the old Rhone and past the famous Pont St Benezet (sous le pont d’Avignon . .) with its 3 arches remaining from the original 22; the city ramparts; and the Pope’s Palace. The pontoons have gone (winter damage), but there are convenient moorings alongside the town quais. We go ‘sploring once more, including across the river to Villeneuve where the cardinals had their mansions and castle.