Verdun (‘tis walnut season)

Early morning mist while moored at St-Mihiel

As agreed with VNF, we left St-Mihiel at 10 o’clock on Friday morning to get to the first lock which was about seven kilometres away.  This meant they would know what time an éclusier would have to be at the lock to get it ready for us.  Once the mist had cleared it turned out to be lovely and warm and it stayed like that all day.  As we left town, we passed some ‘cliffs’ that had been one of the sights worthy a visit as recommended by the tourist office.  We were glad we hadn’t taken them up on their suggestion.

Call those cliffs?

For the first part of the journey, we continued on the river Meuse but once we re-joined the canal, we were on that for the rest of the day.  Being back on the canal meant we were potentially returning to the weed issues of earlier in the week, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been further up the canal as only two trips to the weed hatch were required.

The river Meuse north of St-Mihiel

As expected, our éclusier had the first lock ready for us and living up to expectations he had a cigarette on the go too.  He did four locks for us during the journey, and he was smoking at each one.  Of course, he may have had others while waiting for us, but it does seem to be a thing that éclusiers have a fag when operating locks and almost invariably they are also on their phones.

Lock ready for us

We were soon back into the swing of having the locks manually operated for us, but it felt quite different to when we last had this which was on the canal de Bourgogne a couple of years ago.  There, most of the éclusiers used motor scooters and zipped up and down the towpaths keeping one step ahead of ‘their’ boats.  Here, with no towpath to speak of, our guy used the road system in his VNF van so there was none of the embarrassed waving as we were passed on the towpath.  I say embarrassed because after waving at each other the first time, who will take the plunge and decide it’s pointless waving any longer as we’ll all be meeting up again in a few minutes?

Our éclusier always opened both top gates for us even though we would only need one open.  It was necessary in order to release the weed that built up against them.  Having two gates to close meant Karen could get her hands dirty and help out by jumping off to close one of them.

Karen putting her back into it

She found the final one too hard to close so our guy had to come over and help her.  In good old French machismo style, he did it one handed but with a big smile on his face.  He was also happy for us to leave through one gate but looking back at each lock we noticed that he partly opened the other gate too so he could use his drag rake to get weed clear of the lock.

Passing Lacroix-sur-Meuse

Soon after setting out, we’d commented to each other that we couldn’t remember when we last saw a boat on the move and then, at two successive locks, there was one waiting to come in as we left.  The first was a converted day trip/restaurant boat from Amsterdam with a Dutch couple on board and the second a lovely old Dutch barge with a couple of Brits on board.

Going under the Paris-Strasbourg TGV line

By early afternoon we’d arrived at our destination for the day, Ambly-sur-Meuse.  We agreed with the éclusier that we would leave at 10 o’clock on Saturday with the aim of reaching Verdun where we hoped to stay for a few days.  He told us that he would be asleep all day, but a colleague would be along to help us.  We pulled up on a 10-metre pontoon in an old basin and settled in for the rest of the day.

Moored at Ambly-sur-Meuse

We soon realised there was a wasp nest under the pontoon so thought it wouldn’t be sensible to stay there especially as we would want to be sitting outside.  We decided to have a look around the village and then move the boat further along the basin where there were some old bollards.

The village was small with a population of just under 250 but it did boast a boulangerie.  There was the usual mairie, and it was massive considering the population, but it was doubling as a school as it would have when it was built.  There must have been a small population in those days as the words ‘École mixité’ were inscribed on the lintel above one of the doors as opposed to separate ‘École garçons’ and École filles’.

Over the top mairie
The high street

Karen was delighted because at the top end of the high street she found a walnut tree that had started dropping its fruit.  This was the first we’d found this season to be at this stage, so she spent a happy ten minutes or so gathering the fallen nuts.  We’ve noticed that not many trees have a lot of nuts on this year and have learnt that walnut trees have their own cycles of plentiful and barren seasons.  It does seem strange though that nearly all are practically barren this year.

Karen happily harvesting

When we got back to the boat, we moved it along to the other end of the basin to get away from the wasp nest and I spent some time in the engine bay checking all the electrical connections for the starter battery were clean and bright.  The battery loses its power so quickly now that I have to jump start it every time so the need for a new battery was paramount.  Looking on the web later on I found a company in Verdun that could supply a battery of the correct dimensions and, just as importantly, with the poles in the correct positions.  I told them I would pick it up on Tuesday and they agreed to keep it aside for me.  This did mean I would have to catch a bus back to Commercy to pick up the car on Monday in order to drive to the battery shop.

Moored at the other end of the basin at Ambly-sur-Meuse

I mentioned the dimensions and pole placings especially for narrowboaters who’ve never replaced their boat batteries.  The battery compartments are generally very tight on space and difficult to access.  On top of that the wiring associated with the batteries tends to be just the right length.  We’ve heard of people who’ve bought batteries of the same measurements as the ones they were replacing.  When they tried to install them, they were stymied because the poles were either switched or placed centrally rather than on an edge meaning the leads couldn’t reach the correct terminals.

Mentioning lack of space on a narrowboat reminded me that while working in the engine bay I found I had two sets of jump leads which just goes to show that even on a narrowboat you never really know what you may find.

On Friday we cruised 11 miles down four locks.

Saturday was another 10 o’clock start but we didn’t get to the first lock at the allotted time as one of the two alternator belts failed.  The other one had failed when we were still in the UK and were halfway down the long flight of locks at Wigan.  Spare alternator belts are a must to carry especially over here so once we drifted to the side, I set about replacing the failed belt.  Karen tied the boat to a couple of trees while I rang VNF to explain we would be 30 minutes late to the first lock which turned out to be a good estimate by the time I got the new belt on, adjusted it and jump started the engine (remember, we are without a starter battery).

Our éclusier was a jolly chap and spent most of the time talking about his son and daughter.  He finds it funny that his daughter is also fluent in Chinese, English and Spanish and his son is studying criminology at university while his father is an éclusier.  He saw us down four locks and then left us as the final lock, in the centre of Verdun, was operated by staff in the control centre there.

We reached Verdun by early afternoon which initially looked like it was a mixture of old and new buildings. 

Skyrises and cathedral beyond the weir

As is often the case there was no warning of the weir other than on our map and the trees caught on it.  Just before the lock was the Verdun tunnel which at 50 metres in length was little more than a bridge but the canal had to get through the town's fortifications somehow.

Tunnel de Verdun!

As we dropped out of the lock, we could see rowers ahead and a guy in a RIB was having a difficult time trying to get them all over to the side as a boat was coming.  They were obviously all inexperienced and unable to follow his instructions, so we clung to the right bank while they tried to manoeuvre to the other side.

Rowing boats huggubg the side with more ahead

Apart from a bridge and a block of apartments, none of the buildings along the river in the centre looked modern:

Modern apartment block looking more like a multi storey car park
Modern road bridge

As we rounded the final bend, we could see a long pontoon that was empty apart from one boat which we found out later had been left there since July.

The whole quayside was lined with busy bars and restaurants.  We could see that the ones at the near end were screened by a wall as the parasols were only just peeping over the top, so we turned around to face upstream and moored under the wall for a bit of privacy.  There were plenty of electricity and water points so once we'd tied up we hooked up and got the electric kettle out.

The fact that Verdun was so heavily involved in WWI means it's quite a tourist hotspot and it really was the busiest town we’ve visited this year.  We decided to find the tourist office to get a trail we could follow but leave the walking until Sunday even though rain was forecast.

As it turned out we ticked off a few sights on our trip to the office.  This is the Porte Chaussée which was built in the 14th century and was the main entrance to the town through the city walls as they were then.  Over the centuries the fortifications were moved further out as the town expanded but the gate remained.

Porte Chaussée
Section of ramparts from the 19th century

Just outside the tourist office was a moving memorial to the citizens of Verdun who perished in both world wars.  The figures represent the five arms of the French army in WWI although the names inscribed on the memorial are those who lost their lives in both wars.

Memorial erected in 1928

At the end of a street leading away from the quay stood another memorial this one in memory of the Armistice with more mentions of the citizens of Verdun.

We stopped for drinks at one of the bars overlooking the quay where we were moored and fortunately Karen had a hard copy of her passe sanitaire.  We've been to bars out in the country where they haven’t asked for our covid passes but, I suppose as Verdun has so many tourists, they won’t serve customers until covid passes are produced even when sitting outside as we were.  Karen had lost her covid pass when she lost her phone so has to carry a hard copy everywhere.

On Saturday we cruised 12 miles down five locks.

A grey Sunday morning

We completed the town tour on Sunday morning and compared with Saturday Verdun was deserted.  It was a very grey day but at least it didn’t rain on us, and the sun finally came out in the late afternoon.

Quiet streets

On the banks of the river stood the 19th century officers’ mess:

We found the most moving of all the statues and monuments was one erected in 2016 on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun.  This was sculpted to commemorate the work women carried out while the men were at war, akin to our own Land Girls and Idle Women.

St-Paul’s gate which stood in the 19th century ramparts

A chapel in the high street was not a particularly attractive building but, like many buildings in Verdun, still bears the scars caused by artillery and shrapnel.

St-Nicholas chapel

After a stiff climb to the top of town we came across another gateway, this was set in the first town walls, built in the 12th century.

Porte Châtel

The cathedral and archbishop’s palace were the main buildings left standing at the top of the town and the palace now houses the world peace centre.

The bishop’s palace from the rear

Walking back down to the river we followed the 'Escaliers des grandes marches' or the stairs of the big steps.  These sounded really impressive as they’d been cut into the rock face to give access between the upper and lower town.  Sadly, they’d been replaced by standard concrete steps so instead here’s a picture of the main road west out of town once we reached the bottom.

Back down at river level we walked to the west along the river past a vast underground military headquarters built in the early 1800s and used until the end of WWI.  Apparently, it’s like a small town and is open to the public under the grand title of citadelle souterrain or underground city.  A little farther on we reached the ramparts again and yet another gate.  This one wasn’t mentioned in the town tour but was being restored so maybe it will appear in future editions.

The ramparts on the western side of town

Under the walls stood 16 large statues of marshals and generals from both world wars.  They were placed there in 1959 and were originally intended to line a boulevard in Paris.  It did feel like Verdun is the recipient of unwanted statues as earlier we'd seen a Rodin bronze that had been donated by a town in Holland. 

Later in the afternoon I caught the one bus a day back to Commercy.  It was about 10 minutes late turning up and seemed to break all the speed limits in an effort to get back on time during the hour long journey.  As is always the case I was a little nervous about what state the car would be in or even if it was still there, but all was fine and, apart from finding four lavoirs, I had an uneventful journey back home.  The lavoir at Dieue-sur-Meuse has to be mentioned as it had a really unusual floor.

The lavoir stood on the banks of a millstream whose level would vary depending upon the operations of the mill downstream.  A clever system of Archimedes screws was installed that would lower and raise sections of the floor and the washing stones accordingly.  The mechanism and floor were in a sorry state now, but you can get the idea.

Lavoir at Dieue-sur-Meuse

An advantage of going on town trails is that we are able to seek out likely places to leave the car for a while.  After parking up it was a short walk back to the boat and as I made my way along the pontoon, I was greeted by the smell of freshly baked madeleines wafting out of the rear doors.  Full credit to Karen as they were even better than the real thing!

I had a quick scout around on the web and found a picture of the lavoir at Dieue-sur-Meuse from the days when it looked happier and the Archimedes screws were plainer to see:

Karen was back at work on Monday for a couple of days and top priority of my job list was to replace the starter battery.  As we now had the car in town, I drove to the motor factors to pick up the battery I’d reserved.  It’s never an easy job replacing batteries on a narrowboat because of the awkwardness of accessing the battery bank but at least I managed without knackering my back and hopefully the new one will hold its charge.

St-Mihiel (boater’s dream)

Can you see the dream?

Karen was back at work on Monday, and I wanted to get on with some painting, but it was really grey and threatening rain, so I took Buddy for a walk instead.  I wore jeans for the first time this autumn but by the time we came back the sun was out, so it was back to shorts, and it also meant I could get on with the painting.  I managed to get a bit more done on Tuesday morning and then spent most of the afternoon travelling back to Épinal to pick up the car.  For once the train journeys, with a break at Nancy, and the return car journey were uneventful, and I wasn’t even asked to show my Covid pass which passengers have to carry on public transport.  In fact, the Covid pass (passe sanitaire) is mandatory for access to most public places in France such as bars, restaurants and museums.

In addition to getting the car I had to start the ball rolling on replacing Karen’s UK phone and carte de séjour that were at the bottom of a lock on the canal de la Marne au Rhin.  As we have a spare phone on the boat it was simply a case of replacing her SIM but as expected, the phone company wouldn’t send it to France.  The solution was for Polly to pick it up and post to it us and she has now done that so it’s winging its way to France.  Replacing the carte de séjour will be more problematical, not least the fact that it costs €225, but there is a volume of paperwork to put together.  A saving grace is that it can all be done online so that will make the process simpler.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recall we’ve been staying at the ‘grim’ mooring in Commercy.  By Tuesday evening we’d been there for four days and we had to admit that we’d rather got used to the it and at least we didn’t get any passers-by.

The 'grim' place

We also decided that the view wasn’t too bad on the opposite side considering we were in a town and it was also very quiet, so we did alright as they say.

One of my walks during the last four days took me back to a weir on the Meuse that we’d passed on our way into Commercy.  When we went by, we noticed a cottage on the opposite side to the weir and had been too interested in the life size fishermen set along the canal side, including one with just his legs protruding from the water.  We hadn’t noticed a plaque on the cottage that reads, ‘COMMERCY BARRAGISTE’.  It’s amazing to think that the guy responsible for the weir was supplied with a tied cottage back in the day. 

One fishermen under the parasol and the upturned legs to the right

Wednesday saw us up early ready to leave before 9.00am.  That was until the engine refused to start, all we got was the sound of the starter solenoid clicking on and off.  I checked the electrical connections and they all seemed fine, so I surmised that the starter battery had lost power.  Luckily, we have a set of jump leads for this sort of occasion and I connected the starter battery to the domestic battery bank and the engine started immediately.  It seems we have an issue with the starter battery retaining its charge and I suppose it’s over five years old now so probably a replacement is due. 

We realised that we hadn’t run the engine in Commercy for a couple of days as we’d been using the solar panels to top up the domestic batteries; they don't top up the starter battery.  Normally, we either run the engine for an hour a day to charge all the batteries and provide hot water or we’re hooked up to power in a port that keeps all the batteries topped up and the immersion heater going.  We decided to leave worrying about a replacement until we reached Verdun which is a much larger town than Commercy and will have a better selection of batteries available.    

It was a lovely sunny day if a tad chilly to start with, especially in the shady spots.  Our journey alternated between sections of river and sections of cut.  A lot of the cut was quite narrow and very weedy which necessitated a few trips to the weed hatch.

Canal section

Canal a bit more open here
A stretch of river looking quite autumnal

It was definitely a kingfisher day.  We haven’t seen many over the last few weeks, but they were certainly making up for it, especially on the river bits.  Sometimes we could see three at once and I would say that they are more numerous on this part of the Meuse than they were on the Bristol Avon which was the previous record holder as far as we were concerned.

On one of the weed hatch stops we were able to temporarily pull in at a pontoon at a place called Sampigny.  It looked rather a pleasant place to moor, and we would have stayed if it had been a bit later in the day. 

Temporary tie up at Sampigny

An éclusier was waiting for us at one of the locks and wanted to know what our plans were for the next few days.  He explained that after St-Mihiel, our target for the day, the locks were manually operated for a while and he would be seeing us through.  This would be the first time we’ve been in manually operated locks since we were on the canal de Bourgogne in summer 2019.  We will have to get back into the swing of agreeing our plans with our éclusier at the end of each day so he can be ready at the first lock when we set of again.

Soon after lunch we were approaching St-Mihiel, and we could see the town mooring on the right.  We could also see a likely looking building on the bank of the river on the left.

Approaching St-Mihiel

Yes, it was a lavoir and it was the first time we’ve been moored opposite one on a river.  We’ve been alongside them on a few canals but there’s something special about a riverside lavoir.

Our view from the dining table
This is the picture at the top of this blog entry where I asked if you could see the dream.  Of course my answer would be being moored opposite a riverside lavoir but more common answers would include, 'wishing Brexit had never happened' and 'living the dream on a narrowboat'.

Moored on the Meuse at St-Mihiel

On Wednesday we cruised 14 miles down five locks.

I rang VNF first thing on Thursday as we’d decided to stay put in St-Mihiel for another day to do some exploring so I needed to cancel the arrangement to meet our éclusier at 10 o’clock.  Before I could make a new arrangement for Friday morning the guy asked me if I was aware that the canal des Ardennes was due to close for works from 4th October to 12th November.  This was news to us, and we couldn’t understand how we’d missed it.  We’d planned to be cruising along the Ardennes during October but were now going to have to rethink our itinerary so I told the guy we would call him later with our new plans.

We both made posts on a couple of boaters’ social groups and also got in touch with friends who are further up the Meuse, but it transpired that no one knew about the closure.  Anyway, we decided to carry on travelling north on the Meuse and then retrace our steps upstream back to Toul and then head west along the canal de la Marne au Rhin.  I rang the guy back and when he knew it was me again, he immediately apologised and said he’d given me the wrong information earlier; it was the river Meuse that was closing from the Belgian border and not the canal des Ardennes.  We knew this already and also knew that it didn’t impact us, so I made arrangements to continue our journey as originally planned on Friday morning.

Our bridge lessons were restarting at 11 o’clock after the summer break so first we made a trip to the tourist office to pick up a town trail leaflet and even had time to see some of the sights before bridge started.  Sadly, the photos we took didn’t really come out as nearly all of them had to be taken into the glaring sun.

For the most part, St-Mihiel is a pretty town with 4,000 inhabitants and plenty of old buildings and interesting architecture.  It was heavily involved in both world wars, and I remembered the name from history lessons at school.  Those of you with more knowledge than me of WWI will know what the St-Mihiel Salient was whereas I just remembered it as a name in a boring (as I thought at the time) history lesson.  It was formed when the Germans managed to push forwards 20km past the French lines in September 1914.  Heavy battles raged there during most of the war and being remote countryside, little will have changed since those days.

Here are the pictures that just made the cut:

Market halls rebuilt in 1902

The original hôtel de ville built in 16th century although the front façade dates from 1781

Another 16th century house, this one was built for the bishop of Verdun and was one of many occupied by the Germans in WWI:

This gargoyle house was built in 1554 and was another taken over by the Germans:

Many of the streets were quiet but the bars and restaurants in the squares seemed very popular.

A quieter street  

The Benedictine abbey and associated buildings are now used for offices including the current hôtel de ville. 

Following the bridge session, we had lunch and then set out on our main quest of the day, a six mile walk to visit some WWI trenches that can still be found in the Bois d’Ailly, woods to the east of the town.  I have to add that they were not mentioned by the tourist office, but I had found out about them when reading up on the Battle of Verdun, a town we will be visiting soon. 

Apart from the first section through the town our walk took us along farm tracks all the way with wonderful views up and down the Meuse valley.  In addition to the views, we were delighted to see so many butterflies on the wing which, in retrospect, made a stark contrast to what we would see in the woods.

Upon reaching the woods the first thing we saw was a monument which was built in 1923 to honour those lost at the battles of Bois d’Ailly and Apremont Forest.  In front of it was an ossuary containing the bones of unnamed soldiers and the plaques have been placed by families who lost someone and believe they lie in the ossuary.

The monument and ossuary at Bois d’Ailley

Through the other side of the woods stood another monument, this one in honour of those men from two particular regiments who lost their lives in the woods.  The monument of Tranchée de la Soif (trench of thirst), so named due to the lack of provisions:

The trenches criss-crossed the woods and with nobody else around it felt incredibly sombre but at the same time peaceful.  Of course, the trenches changed hands many times as advances were made and lost and we couldn’t help thinking how heart-breaking it must have been to lose a trench you’d been involved in digging.  Mind you that was probably the last thing on a soldier’s mind at the time it happened.  Walking along the trenches themselves brought it back to us how they were dug in a squared zigzag fashion to avoid standing in a line of fire from one end or the other.    Here are a few shots of the trenches:


These are the views of the Meuse valley from the woods:

We walked back to St-Mihiel following the same farmtracks and having been in the sun all afternoon we were pretty tired when we got back to the boat so just relaxed for the rest of the day.