Saturday 31 August 2019

Reims (a sea of vines?)

Walking through the ‘sea’
The only way to escape our Wednesday night mooring at the northern portal of the tunnel at Billy-le-Grand was by boat as there was no pedestrian access to the bank.  We didn’t really fancy staying there with nowhere to go on Thursday so set off for Sept-Saulx which was only three kilometres away and had some moorings. You may remember me explaining recently that we have got into the habit of moving one day and staying put the next, well since then we have moved every day!

We arrived at the suggested moorings, but they were fenced off with works going on, so we carried on.  As we weren’t due to get full sun until later in the afternoon, we decided that we may as well cruise to Sillery, a place just outside Reims but still in the country.

We had three locks to drop down and it seemed that we had to wait at each lock for a boat coming up as well as passing a few boats on the intervening pounds.  It certainly is a busy canal; we hadn’t seen this many boats since being on the Seine.

The port at Sillery was full but we found a commercial mooring that would be in the shade later in the day.  After lunch we went for an eight-mile walk taking in the lighthouse in the vineyards at Verzenay.  On the way up the hill we could see a windmill at the top that we found out later is now owned by Mumm Champagne.  It was also used as a lookout post in both wars.

The moulin à vent above Verzenay
Before we reached the first vineyards and were still on the flatlands of the valley, we could see more preparations for the upcoming influx of grape pickers.   We passed a couple of meadows that had been mown short with portable toilets sited in the corners.  These fields will be used as campsites for the pickers.

The main object of our walk had been to see the lighthouse (la phare) which, like the windmill, is also on the hills above Verzenay.  It was built in 1909 as a marketing campaign for Joseph Goulet champagne.  At night, the light shone across the 'sea' of vineyards below.  During its life it was also used as a dance hall, another wartime lookout post and now it's a museum.

We forgot to take a picture of the lighthouse so this is the best we have!
There was also a road up to the lighthouse and many people were there when we arrived, looking around the museum, buying souvenirs and champagne in the shop and, of course, enjoying some champagne tasting.  There was a sign saying that dogs weren’t allowed so I went in first.  The lady at the till asked where we had come from and when I told her we had walked up she said Buddy could come in so we could all go up the tower together.

As expected, there was a spiral staircase and we were reminded of our friend Les who has only this year overcome his phobia of spiral staircases. Strangely Buddy has always been happy with them, so we were soon at the top.  It was completely enclosed by glass so was absolutely stifling in the heat which meant we couldn’t stay there too long.  Needless to say, the views must be magnificent on a completely clear day.

Looking north with Reims in the distance
Looking the other way towards Châlon-en-Champagne
On our way back down, we got chatting about the canal we are currently on and, although we are glad we are experiencing it, we have both found that it is quite different to other French canals we have travelled.  It feels very functional, is not particularly pretty and the mooring spots tend to be where commercials take on grain from large silos.  As I said earlier, there is a port just down from our current mooring and we believe there are moorings in Reims but that's about it for pleasure craft.  The trouble is you cannot just pitch up anywhere and bang pins in as the wake from the commercials would soon drag them out.

Towards the bottom of the hill we came across a tractor driver who was having a little difficulty.  He was cutting back the vine leaves and at the end of a row he had to turn his tractor in the track in order to start another row.  This particular track was really uneven and rutted and we thought he was going to topple over during his manoeuvring.

Here he is lifting up the cutter gear as he nearly caught his neighbour’s vines
He got himself sorted in the end
Looking at the lines of vines he had trimmed and the ones he hadn’t we had to admit that we couldn’t really tell the difference.

Reading this blog entry back, there seem to be vines in every picture today so just to balance things out here is our mooring in the shade at Sillery...

Moored at Sillery on Thursday evening
...and the war graves just down from the mooring where over 11,000 French soldiers from WWI are buried.

On Thursday we cruised 12 kilometres down three locks.

Friday saw us moving for the sixth day in succession as we left Sillery and headed for Reims.  I have always found the French pronunciation of Reims odd as they say ‘Rance’.

Having said we didn’t find this canal particularly pretty or inspiring we changed our minds on the trip to Reims.  Although there were still many silos alongside the canal, the scenery began to be really attractive, especially the avenues leading into the city.

Some of the silos
We could tell we were hitting a city as, by lunchtime, the towpath was getting busy with runners who we assumed were office staff on their lunch breaks.  Karen, who went for her run first thing, couldn’t understand how they manage to run in these temperatures.  Mind you, I can’t believe how people run at all 😉

The outskirts of Reims
Coming into Reims centre
We moored up on some handy bollards before the port at Reims and after lunch went for a walk around the city centre.

Moored at Reims on Friday evening
The port had a mixture of cruisers and converted commercial boats now used by permanent liveaboards.  There was also a section of finger pontoons but they were far too short for us to use safely.  Finger pontoons are those that are placed perpendicularly to the bank and consequently more 'paying' boats can be packed in. 

One end of the port
Our walk took us through the better end of town and there were some rather individual and ornate styles of housing along the terraces where we walked.

This house caught our eyes
We were aiming for the tourist office to find if they had any walking trails we could follow.  We were in luck and picked up a couple of leaflets but decided to leave the sightseeing until Saturday.  As you can see, dogs were welcome in the tourist office.

The cathedral was next to the tourist office
Our mooring was in the shade from the trees on the opposite bank by five o’clock, so we were able to spend a pleasant late afternoon and evening on the boat watching the countless runners, promenaders and rowers.  If the forecast is to be believed we are losing the 30+ degree temperatures after the weekend and it’s dropping down by ten degrees which will be a welcome relief.  It'll be much better for Lauren who visits us next weekend and is now four months pregnant.

 On Friday we travelled ten kilometres down four locks.

Thursday 29 August 2019

Sept-Saulx (no champagne for Karen)

Jet engines in the Tunnel de Mont-de-Billy
Having been able to moor in the shade on Monday afternoon the boat was nice and cool by the time we went to bed.  Of course, it did mean we were in full sun as soon as dawn broke.  We left for Mareuil-sur-Ay straight after breakfast, Karen walking alongside with Buddy whilst I was driving the boat.  This is a big advantage that canals have over rivers for us.  On a river it is usually difficult to just pull in and pick people up, whereas on a canal then it can be done almost anywhere.

They got on just before the first lock, after which we cruised through Ay and then, in what seemed a very short space of time, we were arriving in Mareuil-sur-Ay.  The last lock we had been through the previous day was number 15 so we were expecting to go through lock 14 next but for some reason the cast metal plate on the lock cottage announced we were at lock 13.  The guidebook and a more modern sign both indicated that we were at lock 14, so there must have been a lock added and/or some renumbering done at some point.

Confusing lock numbering
It wasn’t a long trip to Mureil-sur-Ay and were soon moored up and having lunch.  The moorings were one of those that are shared with campervans and it looked incredibly popular, with vans over spilling into the town carpark. We moored next to a bandstand which turned out to be rather fortuitous.  While we were having lunch workmen and vans turned up and started unloading barricades and outdoor seating.

Moored next to the bandstand
After lunch we went in search of Philippe Bénard, a small champagne house that had been recommended to us by Mike & Aileen.  On the way we saw posters were being put up around the town and realised that a jazz set were to be playing in the evening next to us.  We soon found the champagne house and Philippe, he was sitting in what looked like his dining room.  

There were four people sitting with him and they were all drinking champagne from unlabelled bottles.  He invited us and Buddy to sit down and join them which we duly did.  The Belgians (from campervans) and Philippe only spoke French which made our conversations somewhat fun.  The ice was broken very quickly as the Belgians recognised us; they had seen us arriving on the boat earlier in the day.  Plus, it seemed like they had been drinking champagne for a while too!

Incongruously, Philippe was wearing a tee-shirt with Champagne Lanson branding.  He was in no hurry to sell us any champagne and was happy chatting away and plying us with champagne while he seemed to smoke a continuous stream of cigars.

As many of you will know Karen hasn’t drunk alcohol for a number of years as she started to have severe headaches that lasted a few days.  Since we have been in France, she has had the odd small glass of wine without any ill effects, but when she had champagne at our first tasting the headache returned for three days.  So, sadly, no champagne for Karen

Every time I said we wanted to buy some champagne and leave, my glass was refilled.  After a lot of laughter and interesting conversation, Philippe took us down to his cellars to make our purchases.  His prices were incredibly good compared with those in UK supermarkets and we left feeling really pleased we had been.

The preparations for the jazz band were in full swing when we returned, all the seating had been erected and there were also tables full of champagne flutes, what else?  The occasion was one of many nights the band were doing on a tour of Champagne, each one preceded by a guided trip around the town/village.

It was a most civilised affair with the band playing for a couple of hours until it got dark soon after nine and then the audience were treated to champagne. 

Perfect vantage point from the back deck
It was very easy listening, instrumental-only, jazz of the type popular in the 60s and 70s hence the predominant age of the audience.  This type of music is where Karen and my musical tastes meet.  I’m from the prog/space/heavy rock era and Karen more from Motown.  Saying that we both enjoy listening to many types of jazz, southern rock and also Northern Soul.

On Tuesday we cruised seven kilometres up one lock.

Karen went for her run early on Wednesday morning before it got too hot.  We had decided to have a cruise when she returned rather than staying put for a rest day as we had changed our plans somewhat.  Lauren, my middle daughter, is coming over to spend a weekend with us in a couple of weeks and we have arranged to pick her up at Chalons-en-Champagne.

As we are less than 30 kilometres from Chalons we have some time on our hands.  After looking at alternatives we have decided to visit Reims before going to Chalons.  This means turning north onto the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne at Condè-sur-Marne. Reims is 35 kilometres through 15 locks from the junction so we will have plenty of time to get there and back and then carry on down to Chalons before Lauren arrives.

Even though it was another hot day, there was a thin covering of cloud which, although it masked the direct heat of the sun, it made it feel very close and humid.

Leaving Mareuil-sur-Marne on Wednesday morning
We had two locks to go up before turning off and, at the first, we took advantage of the water point whilst still in the lock.

Karen ready to get the water and Muscovy ducks at the lock at Mareuil
Coming into Bisseuil we passed a mairie right on the waterfront and then our first swing bridge for some weeks.  The swing bridge was operated by poles overhanging the waterway, so we didn’t even have to get off the boat to set the traffic lights and open and close the bridge.

The mairie at Bisseuil
Leaving the swing bridge to close itself up
Three kilometres after ascending the second lock of the day, which was in the town of Tours-sur-Marne, we were at the junction and turning up the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne.  This canal runs for 58 kilometres up to the Canal latéral à l’Aisne which in turn joins the River Aisne and also other waterways which can be used to reach Belgium and Luxembourg amongst other countries.

Turning left at the junction
Signpost has seen better times
If anyone reading this is interested in water levels on the two canals for their own cruising plans, then we can report that water was overflowing the top gates of many locks so neither appear to have issues at present.

We had a series of eight locks to ascend before reaching a longish tunnel at Billy-le-Grand.  We got ourselves in a right pickle at the first lock as we had completely forgotten what to do when going up locks without sliding poles or floating bollards to attach the front line to  We have been rather spoilt on the River Marne and the Canal latéral à la Marne over the last few weeks as the locks have all had sliding poles built into the side of the locks.  Although they are not the norm, they were easy and so we had become complacent to the extent we had forgotten the more common types existed!

Karen trying to remember what to do at this sort of lock
It was all a bit of a comedy as we were up and down ladders and changing ends on the boat.  In the end we ended up doing it in the way many people do on rivers in the UK and, indeed as some do on canals there.  I had a line around a bollard at the back which then looped back for me to hold as we went up.  Karen set up the same arrangement at the front.  All went well of course but it was all a bit long winded getting there.

By the time we got to the next lock it had all come back to us, Karen would use the dock-a-reni to loop a front line over a bollard.  At the deeper locks this necessitates her climbing onto the roof, but most were such that she could do it standing on the front gunwales. This way we only need one line attached to the boat and the driver just holds the rear against the lockside with the engine in gear.  

Some of the locksides were badly crumbling so there was a danger of catching the boat on overhanging stonework  This meant easing off on the throttle at these points and letting the back drift away from the wall until the danger was over.

All sussed by the second lock with the dock-a-reni at the ready
The locks on this canal are all boater operated and ascended in what are called chains.  Once in a chain you have to complete it and not moor in the middle.  As soon as you are going through a lock, the next automatically starts getting set for you and so on.  Of course, the locks have to recognise when boats are going in both directions.  The eight locks we had to go up formed one chain about five kilometres in length.

All the locks had control boxes, empty as the locks were all automatic, but I suppose were used by éclusiers once upon a time.  Most locks also had lock cottages ranging from well looked after to decrepit and in need of a total rebuild.

Lock cottage and  control box, both uninhabited
We were just saying that the only boat we had seen on the move all day was a hotel boat passing us during breakfast, when a commercial came around the corner.  We were quite shocked as we hadn’t seen one for a couple of weeks.  In the end we saw four commercials on the shortish stretch we covered so we can only assume that this canal offers a viable route for them compared to the previous canal we were on.  At least the locks limit them to a maximum size of 39 x 5 metres, so they are not too large.

A surprise around the corner
Another surprise was a sight we don’t often see, four herons standing on the bank together.  

After the eight locks we were at the summit of the canal and heading for the tunnel at Billy-le-Grand.  This canal, being lined with trees, meant we couldn't see the vineyards either side and we felt like we were back on a UK canal.

The Tunnel de Mont-de-Billy and feeling we were back in the UK
The tunnel is just over 2.3 kilometres long and, like nearly all the tunnels we have been through over here, is brightly lit.  It is one-way only and, as the lights were on red, we had to wait for a boat to come through first.  We moored up and walked down to the tunnel entrance and realised another commercial was on its way.  Being nearly as wide as the tunnel and deep draughted it took an age to emerge but as soon as it did the lights turned green and we were on our way.

Waiting for a boat to clear the tunnel
The mooring bollards at the tunnel entrances were rather quaint and set into the stone walls.

A quaint bollard
The tunnel didn’t have air vents, but it did have what looked like aircraft jet engines blowing air through.  It was really quite refreshing having cool air blown over us after the stifling heat on the canal.

A narrow-gauge rail track runs alongside the canal all the way through the tunnel and we wondered if it had been used for a small locomotive to tow boats through.  Apparently, the towage system operated until 1970.  When we reached the other end, we saw a small flatbed truck so maybe we were wrong and the track is used for maintenance purposes.

The truck at the end of the tunnel
When we came out, we decided to moor for the day.  After all it had been a long day for us for a change - 23 kilometres up ten locks 😉

Moored for Wednesday night outside the tunnel
The mooring was only accessible by boat, even the grass mower would have to be offloaded from a workboat.  So it meant we had a completely peaceful evening with no one else around.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Dizy (goodbye rivers, hello canals)

With the cricket to listen to on Sunday afternoon (remember we’re an hour ahead over here) we didn’t move as we wanted to be sure of a signal.  We also wanted to walk up to Hautvillers, the village which is meant to be Champagne’s prettiest.

To make sure we avoided the heat of the day, and also to make sure we were back by noon, we set off soon after nine.  We wouldn’t say that the village was overly pretty, especially as the public garden spaces didn’t look as well tended as many we have seen elsewhere.  Of course, there was no sign of deriliction as it was full of wealthy champagne houses. 

Other than being the burial place of Dom Pérignon, and a ‘pretty’ village it is said to have 140 wrought iron signs hanging outside the houses.  These signs depict (or at least depicted) the trade of the family who occupied the dwelling.  As you would expect, the majority of the trades related to champagne production, either directly such as picking, pressing, bottling etc. or indirectly in a supporting trade like bottle or basket making.

Some of the signs
We couldn't find anything like 140 signs and many of the ones we did see were difficult to photograph as they were either in full sun or deep shadow!

A few more signs
There was an abbey at the top of the village dating from the year 650 although it was destroyed and rebuilt several times during its life.  The abbey is where Dom Pérignon, the master of champagne, is buried.  He was born in 1639 and lived in Hautvillers most of his life. 

The abbey at Hautvillers
Dom Pérignon’s gravestone on the left

Dom Pérignon is Moet & Chandon’s premier champagne brand and several of the vineyards we passed during the day belonged to them.

We also had some marvellous views over the Marne valley during our walk.

Looking down to the river and Cumières where we are currently moored
Looking the other way, we could see Épernay in the distance.  We will be cruising up there on Monday as we need to do a big food shop get fuel.

The River Marne turning right in the trees towards Épernay which is just under the hill
Épernay marks the end of the navigable River Marne and once we have been there we need to turn around and return to the sharp turn in the picture above where we will take the Canal latéral à la Marne that you can see heading off in a straight line to the left.

We have noticed in many vineyards in the UK, France and Italy that roses are often grown at the end of the lines of vines.  They were originally grown to act as an early warning system for a fungal infection that would attack roses before the vines.  Nowadays, more sophisticated methods are used to detect infections and the roses are probably now grown to attract the tourists. 

One of the rose bushes
All along the bank of the river from our mooring up to the centre of Cumières are a series of informative metallic statues illustrating champagne production.  Against each display is a board describing the depicted process.

This one represents the vendange (us in the background 😉)
We didn’t see many butterflies during the day but did have a beautiful clouded yellow making itself at home around the boat.  Oh, and we got home in time to hear the day’s play.

Our clouded yellow
We had such a mix of emotions during the afternoon while listening to the cricket.  To make it worse we needed to go for a swim to cool down and couldn’t believe how long we ended up having to wait.

While swimming Karen made a comment that summed up my atrocious swimming ability.  She said that it takes her 19 strokes to swim the length of the boat against the current and seven to swim back.  I reckon it takes me about 150 strokes to swim a boat length!

Monday was moving day and we were off to Épernay to do some shopping.  We didn't think we would stop there long, a night at the most, as we visited the town last year and thought it was the Las Vegas of the Champagne region.  As we set off, we realised that we hadn’t seen any pleasure boats on the move since before the weekend which was rather surprising considering we are in the height of the holiday season.

We had seen the trip boat, Champagne Vallée passing our mooring a few times a day though, as it took its punters on a 1 ½ hour cruise down and up the Marne.  At least passing a narrowboat gave the tour guide something different to talk about through the loudspeakers each time they passed.

Passing the Champagne Vallée as we left Cumières on Monday morning
It was only about seven kilometres to Épernay and soon after setting off we passed the junction with the Canal latéral à la Marne. 

The lock up onto the Canal latéral à la Marne on the left
We carried on along the river and started recognising where we had walked when we camped here during the vendange last year.

The municipal campsite
In three weeks that bank side will be thronged with grape pickers relaxing after a hard day in the vineyards.  The river runs through downtown Épernay, so the town isn’t seen at its best from the river.  We weren’t too bothered as we knew we could moor right alongside a large Carrefour.  As we moored up, we independently decided that we wouldn’t really want to stay there overnight so agreed that after lunch we would turn around and start making our way up the canal.

Couldn’t be handier for fuel though
I made three trips to get 100 litres of diesel which happened to be at one of the cheapest prices we have seen it since being over here – €1.393 a litre.

When it’s hot we can’t leave Buddy on the boat on his own which means we can’t go food shopping together.  It’s not a done thing in France to leave medium to large sized dogs tied up outside large supermarkets either. To be honest Karen prefers doing the food shopping on her own as long as I’m around to help carry stuff when she has finished 😉.  On the odd occasion I'm allowed to join her I'm sent off to find things that are either at the other end of the store or just don't exist!

After Karen came back from Carrefour we got ready to set off again, leaving lunch until we moored up for the day which should only be an hour at the most.  Suddenly, Karen exclaimed, 'My cucumber!'.   She had left it in her trolley (I prefer the French chariot) so off she went to the trolley park to retrieve it.  Fortunately no one else had left a trolley after hers (it was the farthest park from the store as it was by the river) so she didn't have to faff around inserting and retrieving euros in a line of trolleys!

When she returned with her cucumber, we set off again and with only a few kilometres to go before getting back to the junction we were soon going into our first canal lock for what felt like ages. 

There are 15 locks on this canal which runs for 67 kilometres down to Virty-le-Francois.  The locks are all boater operated through a series of rods and poles.  The locks are smaller than we’ve been used to of late and can accommodate boats up to 39 metres long and five metres wide.

Pole to get the lock ready
Karen twisted the pole in an anti-clockwise direction which started the lock emptying and it wasn’t long before the gates were opening, and the lights turned green indicating we could go in.  Once in the lock we moored up and pushed up a blue metal rod on the lock side.  The gates closed and the lock started filling.  It was quite feisty compared with the river locks that we had become accustomed to but we managed to keep control and made a mental note to be more aware on the upcoming locks.

Leaving our first lock on the Canal latéral à la Marne
I mentioned in the last blog entry that Mike had explained to us how we can work out which side of locks the controls are on and hence which side to take the boat in.  His advice had been fine on the river locks but on this lock the controls were on the opposite side to the side indicated by the guidebook.  Maybe he forgot to mention that his theory doesn’t apply to canals, just rivers 😉

Even with the sunshades up it was getting too hot to cruise comfortably so we looked for some shade where we could moor for the rest of the day.  We had forgotten the big advantage of canals is that you can moor practically wherever you like provided you can make yourself safe from the wake of passing boats.

Moored in the shade just after going up the lock
Later in the afternoon we went for a stroll along the towpath but only managed a couple of miles before coming back.  At least Buddy had had a good run in the morning with Karen, so we didn’t feel guilty for not walking any further.

On Monday we cruised ten kilometres up one lock.