Cycling French waterways: Meuse and Ardennes to Reims and Paris
French Waterways News
It’s taken more than two months to recover from the shock and excitement of getting this initiative on the road. The itinerary chosen with Padraic Neville (a member of the Canal Society of New York State and IWI, from Fairport, NY) started with a conversation that took different directions, and that’s what we ended up doing. ‘Where do you want to cycle?’ I asked, and Padraic said ‘Reims, and then Paris’. ‘Why Reims?’ ‘Well, because of Clovis.’ ‘Ah, of course (the first King of the Francs, crowned there in 481 AD), but you don’t need 5 days to cycle from Reims to Paris, and not far away there are the spectacular landscapes of the river Meuse, and I’d love to cross the Canal des Ardennes.’ ‘Alright, then, but let’s add a day to be safe’. And in no time at all, the nights were booked and we had a plan: two nights in Charleville-Mézières, then Rethel, Reims, Château-Thierry and Meaux. Ignorance is bliss!
The practice followed the plan regarding the nights, but it was a grueling experience at times, and we had to make compromises, and take roads in places, even local trains. The very notion of a towpath seems to have been eroded over time, so that any form of canal bank ‘rollability’ (a term we coined while struggling through impossibly dense vegetation) can no longer be counted on. Unless the local authorities (départements) have taken control, and invested in canal paths. That was the case on the Meuse on our first, hot day from Charleville-Mézières down to Givet, just short of the Belgian border.
The path is a joy to cycle on, and lulled us into a sense of ease as we soaked up the glorious landscapes of the Meuse valley: the craggy rocks of the 4 Fils Aymon above Château-Regnault, the delightful site of Monthermé in the long loop of the Meuse, the fascinating alternation between the wide open river reaches and the narrow lock-cuts like the one shown here, and the succession of work sites where contractors are building new weirs to replace the old needle weirs to improve operating safety and reliability in handling extreme flows. The path is called the Voie Verte Trans-Ardennes, and has already been used by more than 200 000 cyclists in the 9 years since it was opened.
At Ham, the path leaves the waterway to cross the Meuse near the start of its long loop past the Chooz nuclear power plant. Earlier, our path had taken us through the Revin tunnel, but the Ham tunnel is without a towpath, so the designers had to route us over the top this time. Doubly disappointing: (a) because you have to climb up a hill, and (b) because you’re in the thick of the local traffic. One gets spoilt by these cycle paths!
Givet was our destination for this day, and quite far enough – 85km of cycling, covering 78km in actual waterway length, so the train back to Charleville-Mézières was welcome.
The second day started in slight rain, continuing upstream on the Trans-Ardennes path which at times leaves the river some distance to the right, so the towpath experience is not complete. How incomplete it can be we were to discover later.
A former railway bridge at Flize took us back to the left bank, where we had to be to enter the Canal des Ardennes at Pont-à-Bar. Just before the junction, we suffered from sign indigestion.
The first one shocked me because it was a page out of a guide, which tourists have anyway, whether on paper or on their devices, and it was only in French. The second one was irritating because the locks were shown with the chevrons pointing the wrong way. Consultants or communication agencies that get this kind of job can be forgiven for making the mistake when they produce their draft, but for VNF’s engineers to let the error slip through to costly production of the final panel is unforgivable! The last sign was interesting, because the new limit of 5.05m had been superimposed on the sign initially produced. ‘Pinching’ of lock chambers is a classic structural weakness, so it’s not surprising that VNF have had to impose the 5.05m; it’s just unfortunate for the péniches that are a little wider, which will scrape through regardless.
Pont-à-Bar was a busy place, as junctions so often are. Xavier Durr was preparing boats for hire at the Ardennes Nautisme base, while Marie-Claude was holding fort at the Café Franco-Belge beside the lock. This place is a gem, typical of France, urban or rural, where character, tradition and memories seem to ooze out of every crack in the walls. Marie-Claude and her husband ‘Tintin’ (the Belgian connection) have been running this café for 40 years, but cannot imagine retiring. Longue vie à eux !