Monday 20 September 2021

Commercy (a comedy of problems)

Friday was the first morning this autumn that we’ve woken up to condensation on the windows, so it was also the first time we’ve had to use our hand-held water vacuum.  Two winters ago, we borrowed Ken & Annie’s narrowboat to live on whilst we were visiting the UK.  They had one of these devices and it was the first time we’d come across one and we were so impressed that we immediately bought one for our boat.

We were hoping to get to a place called Commercy on the canal de la Meuse by the end of the weekend.  There was a station there so I would be able to get back to Épinal, via Nancy, to pick up the car.  The plan for Friday was to get near the junction with the canal de la Meuse and, as agreed with VNF, we were ready to leave and get up the Toul town lock by ten.

Ready to set off from Toul on Friday morning

The lock light was on red and there was no sign of an éclusier, so I went up to the lock and had a look around.  I got no response from the lock cottage so took a note of the canal control centre phone number on an unofficial looking piece of paper stuck inside a window on the cottage.

Back at the boat, I rang the number and told the guy where we were and that we were ready to go up the lock which he then set remotely.  Once we were in the lock, we were confronted with our first problem.  The lockside bollards were spaced such that once Karen got her line over the front bollard, we were then too far away from the operating rods which were at the other end of the lock.  Karen had to loosen her line while I reversed back to push up the rod and then we quickly got back into position before the lock started filling.  I know we could push up the rod as we entered the lock but that would be foolish because if we were unable to get the front line on before the lock started filling, we would be bounced around all over the place with no control.  This was especially so on the locks on this canal as they were particularly feisty.

Coming out of the lock we passed the upper port at Toul:

A Brit came rushing out of his boat and asked if we were Brits too, to which we said we were, and he commenced telling us that he lived on his boat in the port and knew all about the canal and explained that the locks at this end had sensors by the doors.  To operate the lock the boat should be edged up to the gates to trigger the mechanism.  We found that this was not true at all, and the sensors were just the standard ones at most locks that sense when boats enter or leave so the next stage of the lock operation could safely start.

The next lock was being set for us as we approached, so we expected the control centre was seeing us through remotely.  The following lock wasn’t being set so I called up the control centre again and they sorted it out.  It turned out that I had to ring them four times during the day as every third or fourth lock wasn’t set.  The guy was quite jovial each time I rang so I imagine he was expecting my call each time.  

Another problem was that the bollards on the side the operating rods were on were set in such a position that Karen couldn’t quite see them when reaching up with her boat pole.  We’d noticed that the ones set on the opposite sides were in recesses and would be easier for us to use.  To use them presented us with the problem that meant having the front tied to one side of the lock and moving the back to the other side in order to reach the controls.

The recessed bollards on the opposite side

We tried this approach but somehow, whilst manoeuvring, Karen dropped her phone in the lock.  The water was so clear that she could see it three metres below.  Of course, because we’d spent ages trying to retrieve it, the control centre noticed that nothing had been triggered to continue the lock operation so sent an éclusier out to check all was OK.  To add to the embarrassment, we were still at an angle across the lock because of our new approach so goodness knows what the guy thought.  Just before the next lock Karen suddenly realised that her carte de séjour had been with her phone so she’d lost that too.  Needless to say, we gave up the approach of angling across the lock but that didn’t matter because for the last few locks, there were recessed bollards on the right side.

The priority once we were moored up for the day was clearly going to be to order a replacement SIM card, work out how to get it to France so we could pick it up and also set the wheels in motion on the difficult and expensive process of replacing the carte de séjour.  Without proof of residence Karen will effectively be outstaying her post-Brexit welcome but at least we had the Id number and other details in case she’s challenged. 

A bit of calm after Karen losing her phone

The last look before the junction with the canal de la Meuse was six metres deep as the lock above it had been removed because it was too close to the tunnel just ahead of it.  There was an éclusier on duty to operate the lock and when we’d ascended, he asked us which way we were heading.  As we were turning off the Marne au Rhin at the junction, he gave us a Meuse télécommande which was bright yellow and quite unlike any other we’ve had before.

Our bright yellow remote-control unit

Immediately after the final lock was a small island followed by the Foug tunnel.  The island had been formed when the lock had been removed.  We’d half thought we would stop at the island for lunch but it wasn’t very inspiring, so we just waited there until we got the green lights to go through the tunnel.

The island ahead

We could hear a boat coming through the tunnel, one of only two boats we saw on the move all day, and as soon as he was out the lights went green and we were on our way.

Going into the tunnel de Foug

Soon after the tunnel we left the Meurthe-et-Moselle département and entered the Meuse département.  There was a mooring soon after the border that we thought we may stop at for the day, but with two goats loose and enjoying the grass we thought better of it as they would’ve driven Buddy mad.

Goats at the mooring

On top of the lock and phone issues I also had five trips to the weed hatch during the journey because the weed had slowly got worse as we travelled west.  It wasn’t all bad news though as the weather was just as we like it, in the low to mid 20s, which it has been for a few days now and forecast to be so for a while yet.  It suits us just fine as we’re still in shorts and tee-shirts and can leave the windows and doors open all night.

About five kilometres from the junction, we arrived at Pagny-sur-Meuse which had a 75-metre pontoon with no boats on it.  We moored up for the day and went for a walk around the village.

Friday night at Pagny-sur-Meuse

There wasn’t much to report about the village that did have a couple of bars and a boulangerie but they were all closed when we went past.  The mairie was quite residential looking though:

Pagny-sur-Meuse mairie

On Friday we cruised nine miles up 13 locks.

We left to join the canal de la Meuse on Saturday morning and were aiming to get to a town called Commercy where we would stop for a few days while Karen did some work.  After a few miles we reached the junction of the canal de la Meuse and the canal de la Marne au Rhin.

Approaching the junction on Saturday morning

There were four locks in quick succession at the start of the canal and the télécommande we had been presented with on Friday worked perfectly.  A huge cement factory could be seen off to the right as we went down the locks and everything was covered in a fine white dust:

These two road bridges and a railway bridge took my eye as we came out of the fourth lock:

We’ve been heading north for a few weeks now and we’ll be continuing northwards while following the canal de la Meuse until we turn left onto the canal des Ardennes about two thirds of the way up. 

Now we’re further north the canal feels like it's in the UK and everywhere is lovely and green too.

We stopped for lunch at Euville and as there were water taps at the mooring, we took the opportunity to fill the tank up while we were there.  At the far end of the mooring was a plastic boat that looked like it hadn’t been moved for several years.

Buddy relaxing while we had lunch at Euville

There was a lock just beyond the mooring and we could see the weed had built up in front of it:

Build up of weed in front of the lock

When we left after lunch, we built up the power and let it off before we hit the weed so we could glide through it and thus save a trip to the weed hatch.  That was successful but there was so much weed caught behind the gates as they opened that they couldn’t open fully and meant the automated operation ceased.  While calling up the éclusier using the intercom at the lock cottage I noticed what I believe was probably a stone-built version of our old WWII Anderson bomb shelters:

Stone built Anderson bomb shelter?

As usual, we didn’t have to wait long until an éclusier turned up in his van and saw us through manually.  After dropping down the lock we were on the Meuse itself until we joined the canal again just before reaching Commercy.  As we arrived in Commercy we were almost overpowered by the gorgeous smell of freshly baked croissants and then we realised the smell was probably from one of the bakeries that make madeleines, the speciality cake that originated in the town.

The river Meuse

Karen had found out there were two moorings at Commercy, the first was a long concrete quay beside an industrial yard and didn’t sound particularly attractive.  The second was a long pontoon by a velodrome and was reported to have very little free space as there were boats just left there.  The first mooring did look a little grim so we continued to the second and sure enough it was full of permanent looking boats but there was about a 16-metre gap.  As we’re 17 metres long it was going to be more than tight; however, we struggled and manoeuvred our way in under the bows of a wider boat and just managed to fit in:

Moored at the ‘better’ mooring in Commercy
This is how tight we were

Having moved on practically every day for the last 12 days, covering just over 100 miles through the same number of locks we felt pretty knackered and fancied talking it easy for the afternoon.  As the tourist office was closed on Sundays, we did just pop into town briefly to see if they had any heritage trails we could follow which they duly did.

On our way we stopped to watch a race from outside the velodrome.  It was the first time either of us had seen such a track in real life and we learnt a track was built on the site in 1895 and replaced by the current Olympic size one in 1946.

The town was bustling, and the bars and restaurants were packed but then we realised it was a Saturday.  There was a real mixture of wide and narrow streets.

One of the quieter streets

We found the tourist office by the massive 18th century château Stanislas in the centre of town.   The château was built for king Stanislas of Poland after he was deposed and became the duke of Lorraine.  There was a series of events going on in and outside the château all weekend.  When we were there the courtyard had been turned over to antique games like table football for a couple of hours which looked very popular with the visitors.

Château Stanislas 

On our way back to the boat we went through the old mill quarter which was built on a branch of the canal de la Meuse.  The mill quarter used to house abattoirs, flour mills, forges and tanneries but very little was left of the original buildings, although we did find our first lavoir for several days.  We’d begun to think that the people in the areas north of Haute-Saône, where every village seemed to have at least one, weren’t so bothered about having clean clothes.

Canal-side lavoir constructed in 1854

We left the rest of the sightseeing until Sunday and were happy to relax back at the boat for the rest of the day.

On Saturday we cruised nine miles down five locks. 

After a leisurely breakfast on Sunday, we decided to move the boat down to the ‘grim’ mooring.  The internet wasn’t that good where we were on the ‘better’ mooring so we’d walked down to the grim place to check the signal there.  It seemed to be stronger which would be better for Karen to work with for a few days.  It wasn’t too far away so we reversed back rather than do a couple of 180 turns in the cut.  To be honest we didn’t find it that grim although clouds had replaced the promised sun which didn’t help. 

On the ‘grim’ mooring

After tying up we set off on the Commercy town trail described by the tourist office as the ‘Stanislas walk heritage route trail’.  For such a small town there were a lot of large buildings including the old hôtel de ville which now serves as a music hall:

The ex-hôtel de ville

Looking at an old postcard, an elaborate covered market used to stand to the left of the music hall but is now sadly an open-air car park.  We could also see a bandstand had been removed from the front of the building too.

Opposite the music hall was one of the many pharmacies that are found in all French towns, but this one was particularly appealing, especially the glass across the top.

Art Nouveau style pharmacy as it says on the tin

After taking a few pictures of what were variously described using terms such as, ‘outstanding 16th century house’, ‘remarkable 17th century house’ and ‘superb 18th century house’, we decided that to us they weren’t really much different to any other houses in the same street and found it more fun deciding which house we thought was the most pleasing on each street.

This is one of the ‘superb 17th century houses’

The house above was on rue des Juifs, a name which we were surprised hadn’t been replaced over the years.  Then I remembered that there’s a Jew Street in Brighton where Jews first settled in the 1700s.

Rue de Juifs leading to the Jewish area

The public baths were closed in 1974 but now house a ceramic and ivory museum:

We found what we thought was a château that was built in the mid-1700s for one of Joan of Arc’s officers:

A little further up the street we came across another building that actually looked like it was built in the 1700s.  Looking around the grounds we found out that it was the château built for the officer who served under Joan of Arc, so goodness knows what the previous building was as it wasn't mentioned in the trail leaflet.

The real château of Jean of Arc's officer

After a walk around an area of old housing that was originally a village called Breuil, where we found another lavoir, we came out on the avenue de Tilleuls.  This road led directly from château Stanislas out to the forest where the royalty had their hunting grounds.

Looking down to the château spanning the road in the distance

Looking down to the château…

…and the other way to the forest

Apparently, the avenue was lined with lime trees planted in 1714 but the current ones were planted in 1994.  We saw plenty of other places on the trail and out of the many trails we have followed we would say it’s worth following but not in the top division.

Of course, we couldn’t visit Commercy without coming away with some madeleines: 

The tin will be handy when the madeleines are finished and Karen’s looking forward to baking some replacements with the baking tin she bought.  


1 comment:

Ian said...

Great stories. Chased away from a mooring by goats - one for the book. And that mooring looked pretty grim to me but, needs must. Enjoy the nice weather and the madelines.