Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vitry-le-François to Chaumont

Vitry-le-Francois is at the crossroads of three canals, predominantly the commercial one connecting Paris to the Rhine and Germany, but also connecting two centres to the Saône, Rhone and the southern French seaports. These days, the route south has lost most of its commercial importance although some péniches do make the journey. It is this route that we shall be following.

We arrived at Vitry on Saturday evening and decided to stay an extra day, continuing the journey on Monday. I can’t work out whether Vitry is a small city or large town. Certainly it has a large conurbation, but its centre-ville is only small, and on Sunday there are few shops open. The glamorous Capitainieré, in good English, had pointed out a number of shops local to the port, a Supermarché, a LeClerc’s, a MacDonald’s for wifi etc, but failed to say they were all closed on Sundays. Sunday morning saw us walking aimlessly around the local area looking at closed shops. There were few people about, but those who were carried baguettes so a boulangerie was open somewhere close. A darling old lady took pity on us and led us across town to the only shops open, a bakers, a butchers, a SuperU supermarket and café/bars. Both Hil and I were puffed at the speed she walked – what a remarkable old lady.

Vitry-le-François centre-ville.

We returned to the boat and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon doing nothing much more exciting than reading, sudoku and generally enjoying the day.

The following morning, we warped out Sno’ Rush’s stern into the open area of the unused pontoons and easily made out of the port. We were now going over the last hill before the Saône. This final canal is not only the longest on our route, but the most heavily locked. It is 224km long with 71 locks up to the central plateau at 340m above sea-level, a 4.8km tunnel and 43  locks going down to Heuilley-sur-Soane where it joins the upper Saône. The facts are a bit daunting, especially when we had not yet found an easy way to tackle the locks. Still, it is the last canal and that is was drove us forward. There aren’t many stopping places marked on our guide, in fact only two for its entire length, St. Dizier and Chaumont. Luckily, the lock-keeper at Châlons-sur-Marne had given us a booklet detailing the canal and its stopping places. This canal was formerly known as the Canal de la Marne a la Saône but has recently been renamed as the Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne (the canal between Champagne and Bourgogne). I guess there has been an advertising campaign to promote the regions wine producing areas as the pamphlet was subtitled ‘the enchanted canal’. We found this guide particularly useful to plan our day-to-day travel.

On Monday 1st August, we travelled the 30km and 14 locks to St Dizier. The Châlons lock-keeper had also given us a ‘télécommande’ (remote control) to operate the locks and this was particularly useful as now filling the lock was a button-press on the remote. No jostling for position near the push/pull bars made life much easier as we could chose the best position in the lock and just sit tight while she was lifted up. St. Dizier was a disappointment though. We motored straight past it at first, but, not finding any bollards or mooring place up to the next lock, had to return. It is long quay, with bollards, next to a large car park in the town, and nothing like the picture in the pamphlet. I get the feeling that in typical French fashion, all is not as it seems. Failing it’s scenic beauty, it was quiet night and, as we found the following morning, only five minutes walk to the centre of the town and supermarkets.

St. Dizier (couldn’t resist a picture of that cloud).

On Tuesday 26th July we left St. Dizier and travelled 32km and 13 locks to Joinville. We were now encountering swing-bridges across the canal that automatically sensed our presence and lifted to allow us through. It was usually a short wait for us, longer for the cars waiting to use the bridges. The canal itself was much cleaner and we could actually see the mud on the bed either side of the boat. Whether this was the recent rain or not I have no idea but it was distinctly different to the usual muddy-brown stuff we’d been travelling through up until now. We were certainly back into the farmland area with cereals and sunflowers growing behind the tree-lined canal. The land was also becoming more undulating. We hadn’t noticed this gradual change in landscape until we rounded a bend before Bussy Lock. What confronted us was something we had not envisaged. I had to take a picture.

Bussy Lock

Now we knew that we were really heading away from suburbia.

Joinville lock was not much further away from Bussy, after which was a lovely, wooden quay nautical stopping point as described in the pamphlet. As we left the lock, we saw a boat moored and, on drawing closer, saw the halte was much shorter than its photograph depicted. A British couple were already berthed there and enjoying the early evening sunshine. They helped by taking our lines and after settling in we chatted for some times. There were no charges for berthing, only for electricity usage (by kilowatt) and a small charge for a wifi connection. It was a beautiful spot and we had an excellent overnight stay. Before turning in, we had a visit from a VNF official. He wanted to know when and what time we were leaving. It appears that from this point onward, some of the locks and low-level bridges were manually operated and he wanted to arrange our passage. We told him we were making for Froncles the following day and he said that he would arrange for someone to travel with us to operate the locks and bridges. Our twenty-year-old Fluviacarte mentions this but I didn’t believe it was still current practice.

The following morning we were charged €2 for the electricity and €1 for the wifi. As we pulled away, we wondered whether we should stay an extra day with Angus and Pamela. Strangely, as we rounded the bend to the next lock another mooring quay came into view. This one however, had a large VNF sign showing ‘Joinville Halte Nautique’. It appears that our ‘Joinville’, was an enterprising individual cashing in on local demand. Good for him, as we were well pleased with our nights’ stay and the official halte was ominously empty of boats. It took us five hours to travel the 23km and 9 locks to Froncles, a very picturesque Nautical Halte. It also doubled-up as a motor home ‘halte’. Electricity and water pods were on the quayside with showers and toilets in the Capitainieré.

The Halte Nautique at Froncles.

The VNF man paid us a visit late in the afternoon. In our pigeon-English conversation, we understood that a number of locks and bridges ahead of us were manually operated. In order to save water, we had to follow a holiday péniche into the locks that would be operated by VNF staff. We had to give a time of departure so that he could plan the passage of all the boats using the locks that day. We went to bed that night wondering what was in store for us.

At 1100 hours the following day, the péniche ambled past us right on queue. We recognised it as the one we had seen at Vitry. I call it a holiday péniche as is was similar in construction but I guess it is correctly called a Dutch barge, particularly as it was flying a Dutch ensign. He was dawdling at around 6km/hr, which is a little above our tick-over speed, making slow progress. The first lock was already open for us and we both entered – carefully, but with sufficient room between us. The VNF chap was there with a couple of lads and mopeds. We had seen moped-riding teenagers buzzing up and down the towpaths on previous days and not really took any notice. A we later found out, these are the ‘Vacancieres’ – kids employed by The VNF during their summer holidays to do all the ‘dirty work’, and this meant winding the lock gates open and closed and cranking the paddles (to allow the water in or out) up and down. Not a good job on a hot summers day. Two lads accompanied us on their mopeds for the whole day. From what I could see, the locks on this section were only now being automated.

We carried on for a few locks, meeting pairs of oncoming boats, and all seemed to be going according to plan. But then we started waiting at locks - for a working péniche travelling in front of us to lift and clear the lock and then oncoming boats to enter and fall to our side. Having to wait more than an hour was becoming tiresome. Our objective was the port at Chaumont, which should have been easily achievable but as the day drew on, it seemed more than likely that we wouldn’t make it. Later on in the day, the Dutch barge moored up and we waited for a posh French motorboat to join us in the locks. We were following the péniche by this stage and he was travelling no faster than 4km/hr. It becomes very weary travelling on tick-over then coasting to avoid getting too close to the boat ahead, and péniches really churn the water up. Two locks before Chaumont, the Vacancieres announced that we wouldn’t make the port as they finish at 1800 hours. The lock we were in would be the last they operated that day. The French couple were not impressed as they wanted to go further, and pointed out that the locks should close at 1900 hours. They were met with dumb silence, which, in any language means ‘tough’! Fortunately, Hil had spotted a disused silo quay on our fluviacarte so we knew we had a berth for the night. As we left the lock the boys arranged to meet us the following morning at the next lock. We motored out and up the reach towards the silo a few bends away. As we rounded the second bend, I looked back to see the French couple in the distance attempting to moor up on the canal side – not a place I’d have chose, but there you are. We moored against the silo quay and bedded down for the night. In nearly eight hours we had passed through 9 locks and travelled 24km only to run out of time. Chaumont was only 1km away on the other side of the lock. To make matters worse, the péniche ahead of us was allowed to pass through the lock  – what a day!

We woke up the following morning to a thick mist surrounding us. The lock was barely visible at ½ km away. The French couple came alongside shortly before our pre-arranged 0900 meeting time and, as the gates to the lock were opening for us, began to moor up on the quay ahead of us. The impeccably dressed pair from the day before now looked rather dishevelled as they left their boat and walked towards the lock. We carried on down and entered the lock which closed behind us. The boys told us the French couple were walking to a supermarket behind a short distance away. Obviously they had changed their minds about going through the lock – or was it just a case of bloody-mindedness. Anyway, that was the last we saw of them as when we got to Chaumont port we went straight back to bed.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reims to Vitry-le-François.

We didn’t spend too long at Reims for two reasons. The first being that we had promised our grand-children that we would have them for a couple of weeks in August. We had promised this when our initial plan was to blast down to Seté but our slow speed made that arrangement a non-starter. The new plan was to have them when we got to the Saône and spend a few weeks with them there. To do that we needed to step up a gear, or two, as we hadn’t really got out of first gear. The second reason was that a cheaper and far nicer port was only a short distance down the canal. Friends had recommended Sillery to us and we wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation. At 1030 hours on Thursday 21st July we left Reims to travel the 10km and 4 locks to the Port du Pleasance at Sillery. 2½ hours later, tied up to British-style pontoons, we weren’t disappointed. Although the rain on the way down had dampened our spirits, the sight of Sillery, located in a wide bend of the canal, and its long pontoons jutting out from the bank and boats tied up beam-on to the bank soon raised them. Although crowded (with many British boats), a berth loomed out in front of us and we just drifted into it. Sillery was up to expectation, with all the facilities of Reims but at €8.40 per night. And then the sun came out to make it a very pleasant afternoon. A short stroll around the area found shops offering all the basic needs.

With our new-found vigour, we left Sillery the following morning to travel through three locks up to the summit (at 96m), pass through the Mont-de-Billy tunnel (2.3km long) and then down a series of eight locks to Condé-sur-Marne (a total distance of 24km). Condé is a Port du Pleasance formed from a widening in the canal near to its junction with the Canal lateral a la Marne and is comprised of finger pontoons very tightly packed together with electric/water pods at the head of each berth. Typically designed for shorter, shallower and more manoeuvrable pleasure boats, we found it difficult to take one of the inside berths between the live-aboards already moored there. We were greeted by one of the British residents there who gave us the ‘low down’ about the place. He and his wife had been at Condé for eight years and used it as a base to tour the canal system. They were very informative and above all, a very pleasant couple. The village is a 10-minute walk away and has the usual bread/cake shop and bar/tabac. We popped in the bar/tabac for a coffee and found that it was also a hotel and restaurant of, lets say, meagre means. It was run by a middle-aged woman and two young girls that followed her around wherever she went. Indian-file springs to mind. By here appearance they were grand-children or nieces helping out in their summer holidays as she took time to show them what she was doing. The only patrons of the place were a group of Australians who we recognised from Sillery. As we chatted they told us they were moored near to us at the port. We spent the rest of the sunny afternoon chatting with them. As we were leaving, Hil noticed that the lady was offering evening meals and, since it was too hot to cook (as Hilary said) we booked a ‘plate de jour’ for the evening. As it happens, the Ozzies had done the same so that when we returned at seven o’clock, the small restaurant was soon bristling with eight people. This was a meal we shall not forget. A starter of home-made quiche lorraine, a main course of boiled chicken in butter sauce with two veg and couscous, bread and cheese, a sweet comprising of a chunk of possibly chocolate brownie with another chunk of soft meringue on a custard base, all followed by coffee and a large flute of the local sweet champagne. Superb value at €18 each. All eaten on one knife, fork and spoon and served by very polite children. And of course there was the banter, started by the Ozzies but soon to spread throughout the room. By the end of the evening, everyone was laughing and joking and strangely being able to understand each others’ language – I blame the champagne! As I say, a night to remember.

The following morning when we went to pay our €7 berthing fee, we were told, quite politely, that the book was full and we didn’t have to pay. A full receipt book was produced and it appears that without a receipt, no money could be paid. The man had a large grin on his face as he told us so I’m not sure really what was going on. But, as the man says, no receipt, no pay. We didn’t argue, and gingerly manoeuvred out off the berth.

A short distance away was the Canal lateral a Marne where we again turned east and headed towards Vitry-le-François where our last canal before the Saône started. This was a lovely warm sunny day and the trip, although not scenic was enjoyable. This canal is the direct link between Paris and the upper Saône and follows the River Marne where, in its upper reaches, has been widened into a canal. The ‘canalised’ section is the one we were travelling and its long straight stretches between locks soon identified it as being constructed later in the networks history. It took us 7½ hours that day to travel the 48km and 11 locks to Vitry.
 The Port du Pleasance at Vitry-le-François

The port du pleasance at Vitry is another designed for the smaller craft. Located in an un-used section of the old canal, the finger pontoons are on one side, leaving access from the main branch down the side of the cut to moor bows-to in the berths. It’s a bit tight and a it short of water but, as we found, accessible if took cautiously. My only concern was that there would be enough room to warp the stern round to get back out – we’ll see!

Chauny to Reims

On Saturday 16th July we left Chauny and travelled the short distance to enter the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne. This would take us up to the Souterrain du Braye and then down to Bourg et Comin and onto Canal à L’Aisne. Again the scenery wasn’t that spectacular, and now the warm weather had left us with grey skies and showery rain. We were heading for an overnight halte called Pargny Filain which was 35km and 9 locks way from Chauny. About halfway the skies darkened and it pelted down with rain. Luckily, Sno’ Rush has both interior and exterior helming positions so we quickly changed over. What a dreary time it is ambling along with the rain pounding on the coach roof! Made even worse when you have to go back outside to helm when a péniche comes towards you. It stayed like that for most of the day, however we did stop off at a place called Pinon, a picnic halte that had a large Carrefour behind it – civilisation at last!

The rain was still bucketing down when we arrived at Pargny Filain. The halte consisted of a pontoon suitable for about three boats, an electrical pod with two plug-in points and a water tap. Unfortunately three boats were already moored up with another rafted, so we rafted against a steel motorboat that looked as if it had been left there for some time. Two of the boats had connected together to use one socket whilst the cable from the other trailed off towards the bank. A plug was loose on the ground and was clearly coming from the abandoned boat. I asked the third boat about the supply but he wasn’t connected and didn’t know whose the single cable was. I then wondered whether that cable was supplying the rather large péniche that was moored someway further along the bank. I always thought they were self sufficient with their own generators – anyway we’ll soon find out. I took my 2-in-1 connector to the pod, unplugged the single cable then plugged it all back in to share the supply. It was the péniches supply as I saw three heads pop up and look directly at me from then deckhouse. No shout of abuse or anything, so I just waved to them and went back to our boat, fully expecting a knock on the hull. I thumbed through our French phrasebook to get my argument together, but no one came.

The following day it became clear that the péniche was a liveaboard, but, even though the occupants were around and about, no one came to speak to me about the electricity. In fact no one came to see us about the mooring charges either even though they were clearly displayed at €7 per night on a display board. I guess that whoever took charge of the halte had been driven off by the rain and didn’t work Sunday’s. As morning turned to afternoon, the sun came out and the place took on a far more hospitable ambiance, even though it was in the middle of nowhere. We took a short walk along a nearby road but, other than a crossroads, a few houses and a closed warehouse of some sort there was nothing. Nevertheless, the warm sun made the afternoon rather pleasant.

Monday morning saw us cast off and head towards the l’Oise entrance to the Braye tunnel. This is the high point of this section being only a small hill at 66km above sea-level. The tunnel is almost 2½km long, and lit throughout its length. Again, it is operated on a traffic light system which seems to work well as we encountered no problems at all. I wondered if the slow progress through these tunnels would evoke some base, claustrophobic instinct but, I’m glad to say I had no reaction at all. I think the wonderment of how these places were dug overcame any fears of that kind. We left the tunnel and began the short descent through 3 locks to Bourg-et-Comin. Here the canal joins the Canal lateral à l’Aisne at a ‘T’ junction and since we were not heading towards Paris, as all canals in this area seem to, we turned East toward a halte marked on the VNF guide at Maizy, only 6km away. Well, the halte wasn’t there. It may have been some years ago but it isn’t any more. Luckily, on this section there are no locks, so we carried on to the next halte marked at Berry-au-Bac, a further 14km away. Had the canal banks been anything other than overgrown and totally unsuitable for mooring, I’d have tied up sooner as the showers had started again. It was becoming a long day.

Berry-Au-Bac is another ‘T’ junction where the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne starts its southerly track, leaving the main canal to head off towards Belgium. When we arrived there we mistook the halte for a lock waiting area (no signs) and went through the automatic locks onto the l’Aisne à la Marne still looking for somewhere to tie up. What we found was a large section of canal bank with péniche bollards outside a granary silo. A péniche was being loaded but behind him there were two bollards just the right length for us. Having done 6hours, 6 locks and 35km, we plumped for this opportune mooring. Well, it seemed opportune at the time and watching the péniche being loaded with tons of fresh wheat was intriguing. What I hadn’t considered is that the quay had spilled wheat grains along its length, which obviously attracts all the little beasties. We found out the following morning when Hil opened the door to the deck. The sight of a dozen earwigs scampering around made her freeze. She doesn’t like earwigs, neither do I, but someone had to kill them. It must have been a odd sight, me jigging around the deck trying to squash the little horrors! We cast off as soon as no more could be seen.

Due to the forced (and energetic) early start, we decided to make for Reims, 24km away, and have a few days there. This meant going up 6 locks and would make for another long day but, for all that, we were now back on the charts. Our Fluviacarte guide for the Champagne Ardennes region charts our journey from Berry-au-Bac to Pontailler-sur-Sone, and the end of the canals. The journey to Reims was uneventful apart from the occasional flurry of earwig stamping. More had boarded overnight than we had thought and were settling in all sorts of places. They had even ousted the spiders from the stanchion guard rail holes. Hil tackled the cull on these by pulling the guard rail to one side to crush them, each successful kill accompanied by a squeal of joy.

It soon became clear we were entering the suburbs of Reims when the scenery changed from rural woodland to urban concrete. Disused warehouses and works, graffiti-covered bridges, allotments, all the outer trimmings of a big city. Just before the centre we had noticed a Commercial Centre in the guide and when we passed by, part of it was a purpose built péniche loading port, some years old now but still working in a smaller capacity. Some twenty péniche loading bays and associated warehousing and storage trailing back from the quays. In its heyday it must have been tremendous. Only four or five péniches were loading when we passed.

 The postcard view of Reims Cathedral

Reims Port du Pleasance, or Halte Relais as it calls itself, is a larger version of Chauny with finger pontoons from a quay wall. It has electricity & water pods on the quay by the pontoons and a Capitainieré nearby with toilets and showers (locked when he goes home – of course). I have no idea why but the rates are high at €30 for two nights (including two showers). We spent that evening and the whole of the following day in Reims, exploring the city and re-stocking supplies from the local Carrefour.

St. Quentin to Chauny

On Tuesday 12th July we left St. Quentin to travel down the Canal Du St. Quentin to its ‘T’ junction with the Canal lateral à l’Oise (to Paris) and the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise (to Belgium). Here is the small town of Chauny with, as noted in the guide, a port du pleasance. I must admit that since Cambrai I have had no up-to-date fluviacarte to guide me in this, the Picardie area. You cannot by them for love or money, so at Cambrai, I downloaded the VNF version which is current, but very basic. VNF, or Voies Navigables de France, is the French Waterways Authority who regulate, maintain and licence craft on all the canals. It is from them that you have to buy a ‘vignette’, or licence, allowing your use of the canals. I suppose what could be free mooring for 12 months at around €248.90 is not that bad.

We arrived at Chauny after around 6hours, having travelled 40km and down 13 locks. The canal itself wasn’t that interesting, mostly being tree-lined with only a few pleasant villages. We have found that most of these canals, those that allow the péniches to and fro’ are more workmanlike than picturesque.

Chauny port du pleasance was on the canal bank and had finger pontoons perpendicular to the quay, so that boats moored bow or stern-to the quay. It catered for perhaps a couple of dozen boats and had a building that housed the Capitainieré, showers/toilets and boat repair workshop. It had electricity, water, wifi and a small hoist. Basic shops were nearby with the main town a 20-minute walk away.

 Chauny Port du Pleasance

We had intended to stop for two nights but, once moored up, realised that the 14th July was a Fete National or public holiday, one of the biggest in France’s diary – Bastille Day. Fireworks began late on the evening of Wednesday and carried on throughout the day. I hazard a guess that the local council had employed a group to wander around the area setting off Chinese firecrackers. It sounded as if this was the case as the noise was continuous but moved all around the area. I can picture it being a reminder of the peasants firing flintlocks in the revolt. There were events in the town that we missed. A local café owner told us on the afternoon of that day that there had been a live band in the centre-ville the previous evening with more events planned throughout then day and dancing on the evening. On the quayside, other than the firecrackers, the only event occurring was an afternoon dance at a hall some 3-4 km along the canal. We sat the day out on the boat.

We had intended to move off on the Friday but, after my most embarrassing moment yet, decided to spend a further night on the free public quay opposite the port du pleasance. I have to own up to getting stuck in the mud – good and proper! Sno’ Rush prop-walks to the port in astern. I have taken the easy option and moored bows-to in the berth. As we came out of the berth, her stern turned towards the direction we intended to go so, rather than turn in the middle of the canal in a series of forward and astern moves, I decided to make a nice 360° turn in one move. Well it was easy enough as the canal was rather wide, and had I turned further down it would have been no problem, but I chose a place near to where the moorings finished not knowing that it had silted up quite badly and I ploughed my port keel right into the stuff. The assured way of extracting oneself didn’t work. Slow astern only served to turn me broadside to the canal bank and even deeper into the  sticky stuff. I then went for the power cycle – full ahead and full astern. Nothing, except to surround me in a whirling mess of muddy water. I think that both keels had dug in to some extent as no more movement could be had, but at least my stern was now away from the end of the moorings. Shifting weight didn’t work. Nor did winching from the protruding moorings. Two of the local boat owners were offering advice – something like ’I wouldn’t have done that’ or similar, although one did jump into his boat and try to pull us out. No such luck, his engine was far too small, but at least he tried and I was grateful. So we sat it out until a larger boat passed. After an hour or so sitting conspicuously on the canal (it felt as if the whole of Chauny were peeking through their curtains at us), an unsuspecting Belgium holiday péniche came ambling towards us. He saw immediately what our situations was and took our line to give us a bow pull. After three attempts, Sno’ Rush nose dived then pulled free. Our lurch forward obviously worried the crew as they cut the tow line to save it fouling their prop (my best 30m rope cut in half, but it was well worth it). We both moored on the public quay and they later accepted a couple of bottles of wine with a large fruit tart as a token of our gratitude. Hil and I stayed on the quay overnight, the days events being far too stressful (in embarrassment) to continue further.

The following day we set off towards the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne and the Souterrain du Braye.