Saturday 9 September 2023

Mareuil-sur-Aÿ (back on board)

Evening flight over the vineyards

After spending the summer in England we’re back on the boat again having had a great time catching up with the family.  With so many children and grandchildren, it felt like we were living in a whirlwind, but a whirlwind we wouldn’t miss for the world.  On top of that we’d bought a house back in March in a place we’d always wanted to live so any spare time we had was spent settling in with the locals, which of course was made easier by having a great little pub in the village.

Each time we’ve returned to France after a break we’ve caught the shuttle at four or five in the morning so we can arrive back at the boat around lunchtime leaving the afternoon free to sort things out and settle in.  This time, as we only had a three-hour drive from Calais to where we’d left the boat at Condé-sur-Marne we took advantage by booking a late morning train.  We’d been expecting the transit through the dog and human border control to take longer as we were travelling during the day but were pleasantly surprised that it was just as smooth and quick as in the small hours.

It only took us eight hours door-to-door and we had everything organised within an hour of arriving so were able to spend the rest of the day relaxing with rosé and our canal guides planning the next few months. 


We’d noticed quite a stream of commercial boats passing during Sunday afternoon and into the evening and as there were more boats than we normally see in this area we wondered why there were so many.  A péniche called Tonga had moored next to us overnight and in the morning, I met a girl walking her dogs and she happened to own three commercials one of which was Tonga which she was travelling on.  She was able to explain the reason for the increased volume and as she was Swiss, she had perfect English so there was no risk of misunderstanding anything in translation.  It turned out that there was a programme of dredging being carried out on the canal leading down to the river Marne and the boats were taking the dredged material away.  What I found amazing was that they were taking their cargo and depositing it at a site 90km away.  It wasn’t just the distance that I found amazing it was that there were 28 locks to negotiate in each direction which must make the journey quite tedious.  

Tonga off to get loaded with spoil on Monday morning
With the continuing hot weather and the fact that our mooring was shaded for much of the day we decided to stay put and not start cruising for a few days, concentrating more on keeping Buddy cool and getting some jobs done.  During the afternoon we drove over to Châlons-en-Champagne to stock up with food and replace one of the gas bottles that had run out.  We also took the opportunity to pick up our mail from the port in the town and this included our long-awaited carte vitale.  This card contains our social security number and proves we are part of the French health system when needing medical attention or a trip to a pharmacy.  It was long-awaited because we’d been using temporary social security numbers for four years which had caused us some difficulties when using them, not least that we had to re-register each year which resulted in new numbers every time.
Condé-sur-Marne port where we left Chalkhill Blue during the summer
The hot weather continued so once again we had easy days, taking Buddy for short walks early in the morning and late in the day.  I did have to service the engine before we left so that was one unwelcome job to do, especially in the heat.
Other than a boulangerie and dispensers for pizzas, fresh meat and produce there’s no other commerce in Condé-sur-Marne.  There used to be a market but even though it is no longer held, the small hall that housed it has been retained.  As far as other sights are concerned there's the customary church and mairie but anything else is related to the canal: 
Condé-sur-Marne church and mairie
The port was once a thriving commercial concern being on the junction of two canals and the nearby river Marne for the transportation of timber, grain and beet. Nowadays grain is the only freight transported from the village and a large silo dominates the canal as they often do on waterways throughout France.  Just opposite our mooring is a large pumping station built in the 1860s to pump water from the river Marne up to the summit of the canal de l’Aisne à la Marne:
Pumping station opposite the port
There is one lock in the village and that is just north of the port with an old electric locomotive on display.
These engines are no longer used but once towed barges along the northern and eastern canals.  They were taken out of service in the 1970s and we often see them on display in strategic places such as at locks and by old engine sheds.  While looking at old photographs recently I came across one that held a lot of historic interest:
The canal de la Marne au Rhin in 1955
Not only have the towing loco and the steam engine been replaced, but the canal is also no longer used.  The 17 locks on this section of the canal de la Marne au Rhin were replaced in 1969 by the Arzviller inclined plane that we travelled on a couple of times last year. 
While on lost forms of transport here is a second photo I came across showing two horses towing a barge and an electric car towing another at one of the entrances to the Arzviller tunnel.  Also in view, on the far side is an electric tug that used to tow the boats through the tunnel, the portal of which can be seen in the background.  Boats now go through the tunnel under their own steam but an electric tug was still in use when we were towed through the 5.67km long Riqueval tunnel on the canal de Saint Quentin three years ago (see blog entry for details of the passage by clicking this link).

Undated photo of the tunnel at Arzviller

When we start cruising again we’ve decided that we’ll take it slowly down the river Marne which we can join in about 20km at its highest navigable point.  In 2019 we’d cruised up the length of the navigable river from its junction with the Seine in Paris and thoroughly enjoyed it, both the river itself and the towns and villages on its route.  This time we intend stopping at some of the places we missed last time and also make sure we witness much of the champagne grape harvest that starts this week.  The champagne controlling committee publishes the dates that each village can start its vendange (grape picking) for each of the three main varieties of grapes used in champagne production.  Champagne villages occur in five départements of which Marne, where we will be travelling, contains the majority.  Here is an extract of the four pages detailing the start dates for the villages in Marne just to show how strictly the production is controlled:


Early in the morning, Karen moved the car to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, one of our next planned stops, so she could run back the 12km before it got too hot.  Her run took her alongside some vineyards, so she was able to confirm that the vendanges had started and on the date laid down by the authorities.  After her return we set off on a short cruise but first we had to spin the boat around which, as we were on a commercial canal, was very easy as the cut is wider than the length of the boat.  We then took on water before heading onto the canal latéral à la Marne passing the grain silos as we left the port:


We had a swing bridge to negotiate at Bisseuil which in the past we’ve found tricky as the twisty pole was so short necessitating one of us to get on the roof and jump up in order to reach it.  It had obviously been replaced recently as we had no such problems this time.

Approaching the swing bridge at Bisseuil

We stopped for lunch just after going through the swing bridge and as there was shade for Buddy under the trees we decided to stay there for the rest of the day. 

Thursday night mooring opposite Bisseuil mairie

On Thursday we cruised seven km down one lock through one swing bridge and saw four commercials and no private boats. 


Even though we’d cruised through Bisseuil previously we’d never stayed and had a look around so before it got too hot, we had a walk around the place.  It wasn’t very big (pop. c600) but did boast a boulangerie and a little bar. The main square wasn’t really large enough to have such a moniker but the summer decorations on display certainly made it feel like the locals thought it deserved the name:

Last year we visited a town on the Moselle called Pont-à-Mousson which housed a massive steelworks owned by Saint-Gobain.  It wasn’t until then that it clicked with us why so much street iron and steel work had ‘PAM’ emblazoned on it: it was short for Pont-à-Mousson. We knew Saint-Gobain were a large producer of these artefacts as the majority we have seen in France contain the abbreviation or the full name of the town.  What we hadn’t realised, until we saw ‘PAM’ inscribed on manhole covers when we paid a visit to London in the summer, was that they are exported too.  The different designs can be quite intricate as shown by this storm drain and manhole cover we saw during our walk around Bisseul.

Storm drain and manhole cover

When we returned to the boat we took a short cruise to our next stop, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, and managed to find a spot below the town lock that looked like it would be in shade for most of the day:

Thursday night mooring opposite champagne vines

During the day we had a couple of shortish walks along the canal which skirted the town and its port and was also fortunately nicely shaded by large trees. 

Fine display of petunias at canal bridge into town

The vineyards we walked past were all quiet as picking isn’t allowed to start until Monday in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, but the yards attached to the champagne houses were busy with workers.  It seemed that the main occupation was bringing trays out of storage, washing them down and stacking them ready to be loaded onto trailers ready for distribution by Monday.

Trailer loaded with grape crates

During one of the walks Karen got excited as she noticed a couple of ripe walnuts were laying on the ground.  I had to contain her by pointing out that she still had quite a lot of last autumn’s harvest to process.  I think she ignored me but she did say that the couple that had fallen weren’t particularly good and had probably dropped too early. 

As we settled down to watch the rugby we heard the unmistakable sound of a hot air balloon overhead.  It was on a tourist flight over the vineyards and we watched it make its way down towards us and then along the canal towards Aÿ.

On Friday we cruised three km down one lock and saw two commercials, two day boats and no private boats.


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