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.

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