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.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Somme, Cappy and Corbie, July 21, 22

Finally, after what seemed like a herculean struggle, we slipped our lines a little after 9 am and entered the River Somme.

The river itself is not very long, arising in the hills above the city of Saint Quentin about 250 k from the sea. Small craft navigated almost to the headwaters as early as the middle ages but it wasn’t until 1843 that the canal was opened to commercial shipping as far as Saint Quentin. Never very busy, the main products shipped were salt, grain, wood, coal and wine. The canal generally follows the bed of the river and there are many lakes alongside resulting from the digging of peat, used as fuel as late as the early 20th century. Peat was also responsible for the wealth of the region in that era, resulting in small villages with big churches and chateaus.
Of course, the river is also famous as the site of the killing or wounding of over 1.2 million soldiers during the WW I Battle of the Somme in the summer and fall of 1916. The area is scattered with numerous cemeteries and memorials
The upper reaches, from St. Simon to the Canal du Nord have been closed to navigation for a number of years and while there has been some talk of reopening the waterway, so far there’s been no action. In 1991 The Somme Department (generally equivalent to a state in the US) took over operation of the lower portion of the canal from the national VNF and has operated it as a separate navigation since then. They are doing a very fine job.
The first hint that this was not a VNF waterway was at the very first lock. The eclusier was there to assist us, handing us a detailed chart of the river showing the many stopping places, many with water and electricity, and the estimated travel time between each one. She operated the lock for us and then sped off in one of the bright orange cars that we would become very familiar with to be ready to operate the next two locks and two opening bridges we would clear before we reached our first stopping place, the village of Cappy. By lunchtime we were tied up in a very pleasant mooring in Cappy’s city park, near a former hire boat base, now a municipal marina.

We’re all the way down behind that big barge.

The lock just downstream of the village with the church in the background.
There is also a very nice mooring just above this lock, as there were at almost all the locks and bridges.

Cappy is a beautiful village but a little down on it’s luck. With the closure of the hireboat base a few years ago there’s really nothing there. The restaurant we wanted to go to had closed but there was a boulangerie so all was not lost. The whole river is a popular tourist area with lots of summer homes and holiday camps and there were several of both in town.
Saturday morning we set off through the lifting bridge and lock at Cappy, motoring easily downstream to the next major town, Corbie. We passed many beautiful mooring spots along the way, making careful notes as we’d be coming back through in a couple weeks.

The locks and bridges were all a breeze. We’d been provided a phone number for the central control office in Amien. All we had to do when we started out for the day was give them a call and let them know where we were and which way we were headed. A very helpful eclusier would be waiting for us at the lock or bridge and, if they weren’t following us to the next lock, they would telephone ahead to their colleague to let them know we were coming. We never had to wait more than a few minutes for a lock or bridge. Except of course at lunch. Things shut down between 12:30 and 1:30.
We pulled into Corbie a little after lunch. We’d stay the rest of the afternoon and Sunday, heading off for Amien on Monday morning.

The massive 18th century Abbey church of St. Pierre. Who is that not-so-massive person in the blue raincoat?

The church kinda dwarfs the architecture around it.

Corbie’s city hall. It started out as a private chateau built in the 1860’s by the Baron Caix de Saint Aymour, but was bought by the village in 1923.

Friday, July 28, 2017

On the Canal du Nord, July 19-20

About 9 am we shoved off from the shipyard and headed down the Canal de la Sensée. At 9:30 we cleared the Goelzin lock, whose extended closure for repair had severely delayed our trip to the Somme, and a little after 10 entered the Canal du Nord.
After three tries, including one interrupted by WW I, work based on the final plans for the canal began in 1960 and were completed in 1965 as the quickest route between the Seine and the English Channel ports. The locks are 91 meters long and almost six wide, designed to take two of the standard French commercial peniches at a time. Many other barges have been purpose-built for the canal at about 85 meters long and many bargees have taken advantage of the availability of old peniches and tied two together as one unit. The canal sees heavy commercial use but since it’s wide and deep, that caused no problem for us. And we did see alot of traffic, the vast majority fully loaded barges. It made us feel good for the future of this waterway, at least. 
Over two days we would pass through 12 of the locks, all of them about 6 meters deep, although one is nearly 8, and one nearly 4.5 km long tunnel.
We pulled up to Lock #1 about 10 minutes after entering the canal to see the dreaded “no lights on the indicator board,” meaning a problem. We hiked up to the lockhouse and were told that the lock was en panne, broken, and we would have to wait. Luckily there were plenty of places to moor so we threw a line ashore and did just that. Shortly after, another pleasure boat showed up and then the barges started to arrive. Since this is a heavily used commercial canal, the VNF was working feverishly to get things operating again. At one point there were at least 4 work trucks parked at the lockhouse. 

This double barge pulled into the lock and then the lock broke. 
They were down in that hole for about 9 hours.

We’re moored behind Thiros. He’d pulled up to the bank to load his car in that box on the front.
There are seven barges waiting now. There would be 12.

Finally, about quarter to 7, after 9 hours waiting, word came over the radio that the lock had been fixed and boats would be allowed through. It takes about 30 minutes for a lock cycle and the lock closed at 8:30 pm. Since commercial traffic takes priority, we were just about to give up on the trip to the Somme and head for the Canal de Saint-Quentin, an alternate route to the south, as we wouldn’t get through the lock until sometime late the next day and we’d be stuck behind traffic all the way to the Somme.
But the captain of Thiros (who told us he had worked on Oldtimer years before at H2O; he knew the previous French owners) hollered at us to get into the lock. We radioed the lock keeper who told us that boats would be locked though in the order that they appeared. We were first in line! We hurried into the lock with the other cruiser and a peniche pulled in behind them. At 7:20 we were free of the lock and scooting down the canal. About 8 pm we stopped at a small pontoon just before the next lock. Thursday, after a bit of tense waiting hoping other traffic wouldn’t catch up, we caught the third lock cycle of lock #2 at 7:50 am (The locks start operating at 6:30. They made us wait a bit.) and we had the rest of the locks to ourselves. 
About 11 am we made the 1 hour trip though the Ruyaulcourt Tunnel, not a bad passage as the tunnel is wide and very well lit and ventilated.

Look! The light at the end of the tunnel!

We breathe a sigh of relief as we put the tunnel behind us.

Shortly after 4 pm we cleared the last lock in this section of the canal and found a bollard just below it to spend the night.
Friday morning we would enter the Somme.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Old School Boatyard, The Real Thing

During our stay at Chantier Despinoy we were lucky to watch them “haul out” three peniches, each about 39 meters long by 5 meters wide (about 130’ by 17’), the typical size commercial boats for the smaller French canals. 
This is an old school yard, using “technology” created we don’t know when. Works great, though!

They open the shutters in the gate to allow canal water to flood the basin.

 The basin. Those two boats will remain in position. This started just after noon. The three peniches will go on those racks.

About two hours later, the basin is almost completely flooded.

 They use the crane to lift the gate and the first barge starts in.

 The first barge is now in position. Those little white floats mark the position of the racks.

The second barge is in. Olivier, the yard manager, is in the skiff 
taking lines to shore. By now it’s about 2:30 pm. 
The third barge arrived about an hour later, 
the gate was replaced and they started pumping out the basin.

 The barges are now on their supports and partially out of the water. It’s about 7 pm.

High and dry and ready for work.

They do this every week on Friday. This week it was Thursday because of the holiday. The following Friday they'll "launch" the boats. Since our work was done, we weren't there to witness that process but it must be fun watching the penuches back out of the basin.