Canal du Centre

Canal du Centre

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Chalons en Champagne, August 15 and 16

After several consecutive days traveling we thought it might be nice to take a day off and explore the town of Chalons en Champagne. We arrived at the moorings about noon on Tuesday to find a marina with all services right next to a free bank mooring. Since we were fine without plugging in and the water tank was almost full, the bank was just fine and there was just enough room for us.
Like Noyon, Chalon was founded by the Romans at a crossroads of a major road and the Marne River. It became an administrative center in the 4th century but it’s big expansion came in the 11th and 12th centuries with it’s integration with the Hanseatic League towns of Flanders and northern France and the expansion of the cloth trade. Chalon was a major source of tapestries. Unfortunately, the 14th and 15th centuries saw infighting among the guilds, plague epidemics and the Hundred Years War cause a gradual decline in the towns importance. The major focus of activities today is agriculture including, you guessed it, grapes for champagne.
One of our first stops was the magnificent St. Etienne Cathedral with it’s beautiful stained glass windows.




A detail from a window telling the story of Adam and Eve; 
their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Something else we’re seeing more often in this area: half-timbered buildings. The framework is wooden beams and then the gaps are filled in with limestone cement. This building is across the street from the tourist office.


There are several bodies of water in town. The Marne is the furthest to east then the lateral canal. Two smaller rivers snake through town to join the Marne, the Mau and the Nau. There are also three nicely landscaped public gardens, the Grand and Petit Jard and the Jard Anglais. The Grand Jard, just around the corner from the moorings, was the site of Chalon’s summer plage, complete with kayaks and pedal boats, all kinds of kids activities, ping pong and badminton, chairs for just lazing around but, surprisingly, no buvette; no place to get our sandwich American.
Wednesday was market day so we wandered into town to find out what fresh produce we could buy. Our visit to the covered market revealed that the mirabelle plums were ripe and there were plenty to be had.


This was just one of a half dozen stands with giant mounds of plums.
Yes, that’s about 4 1/2 pounds for 5 euros.
We’d also picked a bag full from a tree along the Somme.

One day of rest was enough although Chalon is a very nice town and we can see ourselves returning. 
Thursday morning we set off further down the canal. We had two days to reach Vitry le Francoise, the beginning of the western branch of the Canal Marne au Rhine, with it’s train station. Cathy Jo’s father would be joining us for a few days.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Headed South and East, August 9-15

It was back out onto the Grand Gabarit, the wide gauge commercial canal, heading south. There wasn’t that much traffic but it’s any easy canal anyway, wide and deep with bigger locks. As a bonus, both days we traveled alone with those big locks all to ourselves and with minimal waiting. We would call the first lockkeeper of the day in the morning and the others along the way would be alerted; the locks waiting for us when we appeared.
It was also time to “make some kilometers”. We had reserved winter moorings in Toul and the easy way to get there, north on the Canal des Ardennes and south on the Meuse River, was closed because the drought had caused low water levels on the river. That meant we’d have to use the western branch of the Canal de la Marne au Rhine, with it’s 97 locks in 130 kilometers and the 5 kilometer Mauvages tunnel, to get to Toul. We didn’t have much of time to linger.
After 5 locks and one 15 minute tunnel we arrived in Noyon about 3:30. All of the locks have moorings on both sides so we alerted the lockkeeper we’d be stopping for the day and tied up to the bank above the lock. There was time for a quick stroll around town before wine time so we saw the church, of course, and the usual old architecture.



Noyon started as a trading crossroads in Roman times. It was first fortified in the 3rd century and expanded in the 12th. WW I caused the destruction of 80% of the town with only 23 of the 1800 homes still habitable after the violence, but the town used the reconstruction as an opportunity to upgrade its infrastructure while meticulously restoring the town hall and other old buildings to their pre-war appearance.
Thursday morning after just two locks we left the Canal du Nord for the Canal Lateral a l’Oise, beginning our travels to the east and Toul. We followed alongside the River Oise for just 18 k until we turned onto the Canal de l’Oise a l’Aisne, a connecting canal between the Oise and Aisne Rivers. We were now off the wide gauge canal, back onto the Freycinet-sized locks (39 by 5 meters). From here on we would find several types of lock operating systems. Some used the telecommand, some used the dangling twisty pole, others used an electric eye to actuate the lock. Most of them worked well and the occasional hiccup was quickly solved by a phone call to the central control and a quick visit from a technician. Some of the locks that were very close together operated as a chain. Once the first lock was entered, the rest in the chain automatically operated in sequence. Some of the chains were as long as 15 or 20 locks.
After an 8 hour day with 9 locks we found a nice spot for the night in the village of Pont de Pinon and the next morning headed out for the end of the canal, 8 locks and one half-hour tunnel transit away. By 2 pm we were tied up at the junction of the l’Oise a l’ Aisne and the Canal Lateral a l’Aisne near the village of Bourg a Comin. There was a pontoon with free water and electricity but it was occupied. Luckily there was lots of available bank space with well placed bollards so we set up for the night. It was early enough in the day we could make the hike into the village a restock our bread supply; there wasn’t much else there.
Saturday after just one lock, we headed south on the Canal a l’Aisne a la Marne where it was 10 locks to the village of Courcy. Sunday we traveled through Rheims and it’s very poor and noisy mooring to the village of Sillery, where we spent a couple of days in 2009.  Unfortunately, the boulangerie we considered one of the best in France was closed Sunday afternoons and Monday so we missed out on a chance for their delicious baguettes.
Monday, after 11 locks and yet another tunnel we spent the night in Conde sur Marne and Tuesday we started down the Canal Lateral a la Marne to an early stop at Chalons en Champagne. It was time to take a rest.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Back Up the Somme, August 2-8

As we came down the Somme we kept an eye out for good places to stop on the way back. Wednesday morning we were off to our first stop, a pontoon just a couple of k upstream from Long. After an hour and a half lunch stop we arrived at just a little after two to find a fisherman with his gear all over the dock. As we came in we told him we would share, only using half of the pontoon and our stern in the weeds but that wasn’t good enough for him. He wished us a sarcastic “bonne vacance” as he stalked off. We used the whole pontoon. Our timing was good, too, because as soon as we got settled it started to rain.
The next morning we were off back to Amien, this time staying at the moorings just above the Amien lock. There was just enough room for us on the bank but everything conspired to make it very difficult to get the boat alongside. When reversing the boat pulls to the right (starboard). Of course we had to moor on our left (port) side. The wind was blowing from left to right and there was no room to back up to get the boats head to the dock. Luckily the very nice Belgians on the other boat moored there gave us a hand and we did eventually get tied up. When we mentioned we had spent a couple of months in Belgium and enjoyed the beer we were invited over for a tasting. The two couples were from the French-speaking part of the country and spoke very little English but everybody speaks beer. We had a couple.



We stopped for lunch one day at the approach to a lock.

Friday was a very trying day, 9.5 k and a hour and a half to a mooring at the Lamont-Brebiere barrage. There is a little cafe there that is trying to be a tourist spot with some “unusual” lodgings, a teepee, a yurt and small cart but things were not busy at all. We did have a beer. We also discovered that right across from where we had moored was one of the power and water points that have been installed. In the morning we shifted across the channel and spent the 2 euros for power and water to do a load of laundry. We shoved off about 10:30 for a stop at Corbie. Sunday morning we headed out for our last stop on the river, just past the lock at Eclusier Vaux.


Looking back at the lock from our mooring, the third of the three platforms along the river.


The mooring from the lock bridge.

Phoenix and Tango, the two barges we’d seen on the Scarpe had been tied up there when we went by down the river but the docks were empty when we arrived about 3pm. The weather was going to be good for the next couple of days so we decided to hang out a little.
This area is in a big “buckle” in the river; part of it makes a big curve while part keeps a pretty straight line down the valley. We decided to ride our bicycles around the outside of the buckle. It only took us a couple of hours but there were hills involved so we got the heart pumping.
It also took us past a couple of informational signs about the freshwater eel fishery on the Somme. Who knew that the eels were born on the Somme, swam all the way to the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean and then migrated back to the river for spawning? We didn’t. Overfishing  and habitat destruction have caused a major decline in the population so much work is going on now to study their life cycle and bring them back. They use this “eel box”, sort of like a sluice used by gold miners, to count the young ones as they’re heading for the ocean.


In the afternoon we hiked up to a park on a hill overlooking the river. This was a major battlefield site in WW I and the remains of trenches and mortar craters still scar the area. It also provides a great vantage point to view the “buckle”.



The navigable portion of the river is at the bottom of this shot. 
You can also spot the old dikes used for medieval fish farming.

Tuesday morning, after just 3 locks and about 3 hours we left the Somme, moored up at the town of Perrone, once again on the Canal du Nord. It was time to start making our way south and east for our winter mooring in Toul.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Abbeville and St. Valery sur Somme

We weren’t going to take the boat all the way to St. Valery sur Somme, where the Somme meets the sea. The last 15 k to the sea lock is straight and no locks. We didn’t like the idea of getting Oldtimer too close to salt water and we heard that the available mooring on the freshwater side of the sea lock were in short supply (that turned out to be untrue). Another concern is the influence of tides on that end of the canal. The water level can change quite a bit over a day so tying up can be a challenge. We decided we’d do the trip by bicycle from Abbeville. 
We arrived at the Abbeville moorings about noon. They were full but we were able to tie up alongside another boat for an hour or so until a boat left and room became available dockside. Off we went to wander the town.
A massive German bombing raid destroyed most of Abbeville in World War II and the restoration of the town left it rather bland architecturally but there did seem to be lots going on; not another “dying village of France.” Most of the shops were occupied and there were plenty of busy bars, cafes and restaurants. Also several good boulangeries, always a good sign. There was a big supermarket just a couple hundred feet from the moorings, a bonus for those of us without cars.
Tuesday morning we unloaded the bikes and headed for St. Valery. Since it’s along the canal and a well paved bike path, it only took us about 45 minutes to get there. We locked the bikes up at the tourist office and wandered off into town. 
St. Valery is a typical seaside resort town but very old (stop me if you’ve heard that before). One section, called the Medieval Village, still retains some of it’s old defensive walls and the ponds that were water sources then. Up on the hill, there’s a great view across the Baie de Somme.



What used to be a busy fishing port is now mostly a harbor for small yachts.


We also saw the flock of salt marsh sheep, so special they have their own appelation.


After our stroll about town we enjoyed a big lunch at a local hotel/restaurant and then decided to take a train ride.
In 1887 a narrow gauge steam train line was opened around the bay from Noyelles sur Mer to Cayeus sur Mer, passing through Crotoy and St. Valery. It carried tourists to the seaside resorts and also the bay’s local products. In the 1960’s competition from trucks put the line out of business but in 1970 a group of railroad enthusiasts decided to bring it back. Now, the group has 5 coal-fired steam locomotives and a bunch of old restored carriages that carry tourists around the bay. We took the trip from St. Valery to Crotoy and back, about 3 hours total. Oh, the carbon offsets we’re responsible for now!


One engine shifts ends of the train.


Another engine goes by.


Around the bend is the back of the train.

Back on the bikes we headed downwind back to the boat. Wednesday morning we’d begin retracing our steps back toward the Canal du Nord and further south into France.




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Long, July 28-30

Thursday morning we set off at the usual time headed for our next stop, the village of Long. Nigel and Margaret (who had preceded us to the river because of our stop in the boatyard and were there)  told us it was a beautiful village and well worth a stop. The only problem was mooring space was very limited and it was a popular spot. We found a nice wild mooring about 5 k from town, parked the boat and unloaded the bicycles for a trip down the towpath into town. Sure enough, along with Me and ‘Er, the Cromptons boat, the moorings were full, but two of the boats were leaving in the morning so there would just be room for us. Perfect!
Friday morning we proceeded very slowly downstream and, sure enough, both boats passed us coming up so when we arrived at 9:30 we were able to secure a coveted spot. Soon enough, the laundry flag was flying.



To the left the city hall, in the center the village church and just below the church, Friday night’s restaurant with it’s great view of the moorings just to the right of the lock gates.

Archeological digs have found evidence of habitation in the area since paleolithic times and a Roman amphora filled with bronze coins showed that Lungam was an important town. Charles the Bald gave the town a charter in 844. The sale of peat, harvested with a long handled spade called a grand louchet, made Long one of the richest village of France in the 19th century.
Early in the 18th century the mayor of the town built a large chateau, The Folie de Buissy, with it’s huge manicured gardens and orangerie.  



Between 1900 and 1903 the town also built a hydroelectric plant on the river, supplying power to the town until 1968, although at 110 volts, not the European standard 220.
Friday night Nigel and Margaret invited us to dinner at the local restaurant. Their son and daughter-in-law and her mother were visiting for a couple of days and we made a very lively table of seven.
We took the day Saturday to do a little bike riding around the area, checking out the lakes and marshes created by the peat mining and the meandering river. Walking on the trails is almost like walking on foam rubber, the ground is very soft and the soil very dark and fertile.
Sunday morning we set of on the final leg of our downstream trip. We would turn around in Abbeville, about 16 k down the river. Although still 15 k from the mouth of the Somme, it was as close to salt water as we wanted to take Oldtimer. We would make the trip to St-Valery-sur-Somme by bicycle.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Amiens “Floating Gardens”, The Hortillonages

 Covering almost 800 acres of small islands and holding 65 kilometers of little canals, the Hortillonages are ancient marshes that were “mined” for their peat (along with textiles, a source of Amiens early wealth) and later turned into market gardens. Now they has been turned into a nature preserve with small houses and gardens surrounded by water.


Central Amiens is to the lower left of this Google Earth shot.

We took a boat trip though the gardens in an electrified version of the small craft that used to ferry the vegetables grown in the gardens to the market in Amiens. The “Friends of the Hortillonages” have a thriving tour operation.


One of the small “chalets”.


Walking back to the boat we were able to see some of the art works that have been scattered around the few islands that are accessible by foot. Others can only be reached by boat but we didn’t have the time for that.
We did see Amiens summer Plage, however.


The summer “beach” in Amiens. 

Thursday morning a little before 9 we set off down the river for our next stop, the village of Long.





Amiens, July 24-27

We left Corbie a little after 9 am and after negotiating three locks with the assistance of the waterways staff, we arrived at Amien about 12:30. There are three moorings in Amiens, the upper, or Amont,
closest to the center of town and the first we came to. Others are above the Amiens lock about 1 k downstream of Amont and below the lock on a pier in front of the engineering school. We preferred the Amont mooring but had been warned that it could be a little raucous. It’s right next to the parking lot that serves the bar and restaurant district and the weekends can be trouble. Luckily, we arrived on Monday and things were very quiet for the three days we were there. The Belgians that were there when we arrived (just behind us in the picture below) said their boat had been “boarded” by a drunkard about 3 am on Saturday.



A wide-beam narrowboat maneuvers to take a spot in front of us at the Port Amont.

An obligatory first stop in the city is the famous Cathedral Notre-Dame. The biggest gothic building in France, the building would hold two of Paris’ cathedral of the same name. Begun in 1220, it was effectively finished in 1269, a great contrast to other large churches that took generation to be completed.

Note the many sculptures surrounding the entrance doors. They are mostly intact, 
unlike many others in France that had their statues destroyed during the Revolution.

One of our guidebooks describes the interior as “a light, calm and unaffected space with works of breathtaking virtuosity… (like) the sculpted panels depicting the life of St. Firmin, Amiens first bishop, on the choir screen.”


Of course nighttime at the cathedral featured a spectacular Son et Lumière, a light show projected on the front of the cathedral with a soundtrack. This particular show finished up with a display painting the statues surrounding the three entrance doors in colored light to show what they would have looked like when new. It was breathtaking!


Just one of the three doors.


We spent Tuesday just walking around the city, admiring the old Saint-Leu quarter, the “little Venice of the North,”, its little houses with colorful facades, criss-crossed by small canals.


Wednesday we would visit one of the cities most unusual features, the Hortillonnages.