Au revoir to Auxerre and France.

The weather during our final few weeks in Auxerre, before we headed down the Yonne (locks due to open not before March 24th partly on account of flood damage) to Migennes to be craned out, had indeed brightened up from the previous months of grey dullness and rain.  In equal measure we had some very cold, some warm, and some very sunny days, but only one day of snow and no more flooding.

A light covering of snow in Auxerre.

I started to remember all the things that we had, in November, intended to do in town but somehow not yet got around to. The Leblanc-Duvernoy Museum (tapestries, pottery, art and history) remained closed from October to April except to pre-arranged groups. I did manage to book a tour of the Eckmuhl Room in the City Hall (treasures once belonging to Marshall Davout, one of Napolean’s loyal generals) but it turned out to be a long 1 hour talk, in French, standing in a small room with very few items of much interest to us, although it is nice to learn some more French history – I hadn’t realised how relatively short a time it was that Napolean 1 ruled as Emperor. I visited the garden of the Natural History Museum but not being that much interested in fossils etc never made it inside. The CGR Cinema with Cinemanie ran another batch of Original Version films and we watched Wonderstruck (La Musee des Merveilles). We thought that we would enjoy a Sunday afternoon ‘Escapades Celtiques’ at the Theatre with the Dunbrody Duo but arrived to find it sold out and had to content ourselves with a brief visit to look at some modern art ‘Fragments d’une collection’ – part of a local private collection being exhibited in the small gallery Hors Cadre across the street. The Silex Theatre just across the roundabout from the Port seems to feature some rather more alternative concerts but we didn’t notice one that looked like it was our ‘truc’ (thing). The 5eme Salon Vins & Terroirs put on by the local Rotary Club also proved to be a short visit with nothing of unusual interest although a few choice tastings were on offer. The Saint-Germain Museum however warranted several repeat visits and I enjoyed their special changing exhibitions as well as repeat visits to the permanent displays.

Temporary exhibits at the Saint Germain Museum.

And then there are the things that one finds out just as one is about to leave. We already knew about the location of the Grand Frais Market (for those in the know, by far the best French chain offering of fresh food) out on the furthest away retail park but only in March realised that it is at the terminus of the #1 Bus route which also runs near the Port – and so only a short walk and an easy 25 minute bus ride (€1.20) away.

Le Meilleur Marche – Grand Frais.

It was during a couple of emergency runs (thanks to Bob, nb Lazy Notes, and his car) for compressed logs to the Brico Depot next door that I spotted the bus stop. And more galling still was to find that the integral Marie Blanchere Boulangerie there sells my favourite ‘Pain Nordique’, for which I have been pining all winter. Bob and Penni also drove us on a day out to Avallon, a trip that had been on our winter list four years ago, some 50 km (26 miles) south – site of a Roman citadel and believed to be (by Bob and others) the Isle of Avalon from Arthurian legend. We had a light lunch at Dame Jean, a Salon de The recommended to Penni by local friends for its desserts, and a wander through this very picturesque town to view the Cousin Valley from the old ramparts.

Lunch in Avallon.

On board entertainment has been expanded after our introduction, by Bob and Penni, to Mexican Train Dominoes. Having practised a bit we thought we’d try this out on John and Rosemary (Forty Roses III) who were still beating us at Six Qui Prend, only to find that John, an ocean going sailor of long-standing , was not only more than familiar with the game but had his own set of ‘house rules’. Yet another defeat or two ensued.

Seasoned games players – John and Rosemary.

We were not tempted to try any new restaurants and that included Les Cocottes gourmet burger van which is soon going to be facing some stiff competition from the new restaurant now being built just the other side of the Ibis Hotel – Burger King – which we would definitely have popped into frequently for a Whopper or two.

We’ll miss the opening of this new Burger King.

Otherwise we watched life passing us by on either side – joggers, walkers, with and without dogs, and cyclists on the town side, shoppers, workers and camping vans parking on the station side and more curiously a steady and regular parade, one at a time, of an assortment of people who scavenge though the public rubbish bins which are situated in the side road along the car-park/ port/park/ fence. Over the winter I have been trying to figure out what they are scavenging for. One man drives up in a small white van and simply takes whole unopened black bags out of the bins and puts them in his van and continues on – I recently learned that he was in fact from the council doing an interim pick-up due to the high use of these bins by recreational vehicles. An old lady, with a purple woolly hat, takes everything out and seems to be placing things into piles, including stale baguettes and books, but I realised that my binoculars were revealing more than I needed to know when she squatted between two bins and appeared to be peeing into a bottle which she then used to wash an old piece of uncooked meat found in the bin. Ever since, I have relied on the naked eye, and am perhaps confusing the old lady with an old man in a red hat who takes his plastic bags of booty over to feed the pigeons on the town side every Sunday. There are others, some in cars and some on foot and I can only imagine that they are looking for certain materials that they are able to recycle to some good use or profit. We observed the same activity from an old man on a bike in Clamecy who, whilst we were there in October, would go through the bins by the port every morning and evening, obviously looking for some particular items. Perhaps it is time to be moving on! VNF have been busy, in their workboat, clearing logs jammed across the bridge piers and on the weirs in preparation for opening the river to traffic, then scheduled for March 26th. The Nivernais Canal though will remain closed for repairs at the Vaux barrage, which will not be complete before May 15th, so we are lucky to be heading North this year.

VNF work boat salvaging tree trunks from the river.

On the weekend before Easter the port sprang to life with owners arriving and many out in the glorious sunshine de-winterising and preening their boats ready for a new cruising season. I managed a very thorough wash down of Xenia – her first this year – after having a major hiatus with our Sanimarin loo which had finally petered out. With advice on the phone from Leesan in England and the technical muscle of Jean-Philippe we managed to strip the whole system down and clean out the calcification clogging every pipe and part. Lucky that it happened in port with nearby toilets, as the process took a couple of days but fortunately needed no new parts – not bad after 9 years of trouble free service! Charles and Sally who had driven out to de-winterize BlueGum in Roanne stopped by for an evening on their way back home – the first we’d seen them since we both left Frontignan on our separate ways to the Rhone.  On March 26th Forty Roses iii set off early heading for Paris, only to be turned away at the La Chainette lock (PK1) in Auxerre and they had to moor on the opposite quay for a night before being the first to get away the next morning – but as the Epineau lock (PK 25, just before Joigny on the Yonne) was not due to open until March 31st, they only went as far as Gurgy (PK 10, nice jetty with water and electric – not normally turned on until April 3rd).

Lock #1 is just beyond the bridge but Forty Roses can only get as far as the opposite bank.

I was getting nervous about the timing of our departure from Auxerre, wanting to be sure to be able to get to Migennes (PK 23) before April 3rd and so we moved it forward from April 1st to 29th March and decided not to overnight in Gurgy but to get to Migennes in one day. Jean-Philippe and Christophe came round for ‘aperos’ on our final night and we headed off on a bright sunny Thursday morning getting to Gurgy in time to be invited aboard Forty Roses iii for a lunch of soup and croissants and cheese and claret. What a nice start to the new cruising season!

On our way. Lunch at Gurgy.

After lunch we both cruised on the 3 hours to Migennes, where we squeezed two 18.29m boats into the 38m Laroche lock and moored up on the Burgundy Canal on the quay just beyond the busy Le Boat base above the lock (free mooring, €5 a day for water or electric – we were the first boats of the season to moor here). To round off a great first day John and Rosemary joined us for a convivial dinner aboard Xenia and beat us again at Mexican Train Dominoes.

Le Boat base at Migennes, just above the Laroche lock.

Next morning, John needed French-speaking help to look for a mechanic – we were lucky to find Mark, an Englishman, at Evans Marine working on Good Friday, not a holiday here, but Friday is always a half day at the Evans – only to discover that the diaphragm on his 11 month old combined grey and black water tank German-made pump had split. His tank was full. The Germans obviously take Easter more seriously than the French as they would not be available to even take an order for a replacement part (not available anywhere else we could find) until Tuesday. I thought that I had seen the last of our manual pump-out kit when I put it away the previous week – but out it came again, and after some initial difficulties with priming it sufficiently, we spent the afternoon, rain and windy spells, emptying the tank – so that he and Rosemary could carry on to Paris (and the nearest pump-out machine) with at least some of the comforts of home (perhaps foregoing the use of the dishwasher and the washing machine in favour of the bathroom). It was Friday night pizza, salad and rose wine, on the Teeds at the nice little Calimero pizzeria near the port.

John ordering a tattoo with his pizza, after a long hard day.

VNF (Voies Navigable de France) were as good as their ‘Avis’ notices and opened the Epineau lock on Saturday March 31st and Forty Roses iii was on its way again that morning making it to Sens (PK 67) that night – only 138 km and 16 locks to go to get to a Tuesday rendez-vous in Paris with their transatlantic guest.

And finally Forty Roses out of the Laroche lock and the race to Paris begins.

Just when we thought we could relax – having got to the crane – an email came through from Eurostar cancelling our Wednesday train booking on account of the SNCF strikes now being held two days a week for the next six weeks or so. That afternoon nb Lazy Notes arrived from Auxerre, having fairly flown down river. Bob was expecting trouble with the port electrics – live and neutral reversed – and he got it, taking us with him (tripping out the whole Le Boat base) just before getting up for breakfast on Easter Sunday! It didn’t prevent us all from enjoying Pam’s hearty Cassoulet for Easter lunch and whilst Bob worried about electrical fires, and menaced the bornes with a screw driver, Pam managed to beat Penni and me at –yes, you guessed it! Mexican Train Dominoes.

At Migennes with Lazy Notes.

By Easter Monday the Yonne was closed again – strong flows – from Auxerre to Le Pechoir (PK 29) until April 9th. I worried that they might not let us back down the lock – memories of getting stuck for a week in Leeds in Clarence Dock on the river just before the first Leeds and Liverpool Canal lock – to get round the corner to Evans boatyard. I worried about my mobile phone losing all signal towards the end of each day. I managed to re-book a Eurostar train for an hour later on the 4th April, but then I worried about how I would get to Paris if there were no trains running, and no-one would know what trains were scheduled until 5pm the night before.

Something French about Simon Evans’ boatyard!

Well I needn’t have worried. We went down through the lock at 4.00pm on Tuesday and got to Simon’s yard where he had almost completed moving boats about to fit us onto the quay by the crane, which was already in place. In quick succession the CPL transport and safety car arrived as did Andrew and Debbie, wb Nounou on blocks in the yard for blacking before they set off on their French adventure, and we exchanged our French propane gas cylinders for their English ones.

Nounou and some blacking in progress.

Next morning, once Simon had finished breakfast, the crane roared into action and we were loaded up, €350 bill paid, and ready to go by 10.00am.

Out of French waters and onto a flatbed for Xenia’s trip home.

There was only 1 train running to Paris from Migennes on April 4th and it had left at 6am. Bob came to the rescue and most generously drove us to Paris, Place d’Italie, from where we were able to complete our journey to the Gare du Nord by Metro, arriving in time for a leisurely lunch at the Terminus Nord Brasserie. A farewell and very typical good French lunch before taking the Eurostar back to St Pancras, London.

Lunch in Terminus Nord Brasserie.

Xenia had an un-eventual journey back too, arriving at Caversham the night before and being craned off the transport by 9am on Friday morning – with only a minor delay, before being lowered back into the Thames, for welding on 4 new 2.5kg Magnesium anodes (once we noticed that the 8 much smaller Magnesium and Aluminium anodes put on in Toulouse in Oct 2016 had very little life left to give).

A little detour for new anodes at Butcher Marine, Caversham.

And so we have come full circle – having set out from The Thames and Kennet Marina in June 2011 to first explore the English wide canals and rivers before moving on to France in 2013. We eased into our new annual mooring here on Pontoon D, between Valiant and Big Baloo and started the clear up of the inside of the boat – the wardrobe had decided to topple over, as had the desk, spilling contents across each cabin – but nothing was broken and we were back to normal by 6pm in time for a Pastis and an early night!

Gently does it – back into the Thames.

Posted in 2018 season, Auxerre, French Cruising - north and central | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Looking on the bright side

It is the light of the Midi which we are missing most here in central France. But the sun did shine for the day on Saturday Feb 10th after 3 months of at first rain and floods and then snow and cold. One soon forgets – Xenia was launched in the snow on Feb 5th 2009, with us wearing our skiing clothes, followed by three weeks of floods and the River Thames in Abingdon on red boards.

The quay under water.

Here in Auxerre, the odd meal out – La P’tite Beursaude’s rich traditional Burgundian fare nearly sunk us without trace – and films – God’s Own Country (translated here as Seule La Terre) screened by Cinemanie, made for powerful but sometimes uncomfortable viewing – have helped to alleviate our otherwise rather damp and dull reintroduction to winter in northern Europe.

Life goes on.

As soon as it changed from rain to colder snow our Webasto diesel-fired central heating system, temperamental at the best of times, decided to go completely on strike. Fortunately we have an electric immersion water heater and a wood burner and Jean-Philippe, the port mechanic and Aquarelle general factotum, offered to drive us to Brico Depot for a bumper load of compressed wood logs. We are now getting through up to 50 logs a week from early morning till bed-time whilst the outside temperatures hover around freezing all day and night. In good supermarket tradition the nearby Leclerc has decided to let its, up till now well-stocked, wood supply run out.

Jean-Philippe and Christian check the mooring stakes.

John and Rosemary (Forty Roses 111) have introduced us to the card game ‘Six qui prend!‘. ‘Les Cocottes’ have returned, after a few weeks’ absence, for their Friday lunchtime gourmet burger slot in the car park but we have not yet been tempted away from our traditional ‘Whopper Wednesday’. Old habits die hard and the unexpected discovery of an organic vegetarian buffet La Jasette in the town centre hasn’t impressed us sufficiently either – although I really enjoy a good vegetarian meal, the previous one being three years ago in Toulouse at La Faim des Haricots.

Les Cocottes – gourmet burger van.

What a difference the sun makes. On that one sunny day I was motivated to spend time in the engine bay tightening the fan belts, taping and securing the loose and frayed Travelpower alternator wiring connections, and running the engine – for the first time since the beginning of November. All seems to be in order – no flat starter battery so far. We’d rather avoid the embarrassment, as happened to us one April in Carcassonne, of saying our winter goodbyes to all and sundry on the day of departure only to find the engine won’t start. Our neighbour Christian (Libellule 5) even supplied a Chinaman’s hat, something I’ve spent the last 4 years looking out for in various Bricos (DIY Stores), to fit on the chimney and to keep the rain out. He happened to have been given it by another boater and has no need of it himself.

Lock-keeper’s cabin at Bartardeau (closed till March).

Our plan made in March 2017 for being back in England before the Brexit Divorce is agreed, or not as the case may be, still seems to be on target despite us being 3 months behind our original schedule. The good news is that The Thames and Kennet Marina in Reading have now been able to offer us a rarely available annual wide-beam mooring as from April 17th this year – so we will be able to get all those fair weather boat maintenance jobs done at our leisure (for which read, probably no time soon) whilst catching up with friends and family locally and settling back into English life generally. We are looking forward to being back on the Thames – despite our reservations about getting used to dull English summer weather.

Alfresco dining at The Trout Inn, near Oxford on the Thames, June 2010 with Kathy and Charles. Note the jackets!

For cruising news I read other boat bloggers – some who through the winter post blogs of their last summer’s cruising, Elle on  , Catherina Elisabeth on , L’Escapade on, and some with more up-to-date news from Francoise on , and Quaintrelle on  . They make a pleasant diversion from the continuous news diet of Trump and Brexit and occasionally just to remind me how much I love the Thames I dip into Still Rockin on . Other blogs that I used to enjoy, Esme on , Rangali on and Zonder Zorg on , have fallen very far behind or stopped altogether but still contain excellent cruising notes for those interested in following the same routes. I also enjoy news from Joli Roger on who manage to keep up to date in the season but retire home for the winter and give boating and blogging a rest. I get a great sense of community as I read the accounts of others, going places that we have been and meeting other boaters that we have met on our travels, and indeed hearing about canals that we have not yet travelled and boaters that we have yet to meet.

Alfresco dining on L’Escapade at Frontignan, Rhone a Sete Canal, with David and Evey. July 2017.

The first signs of Spring are poking their heads through our plant pots on the roof and on the bow deck – daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, Star of Bethlehem, tulips and grape hyacinths. And there are daffodils emerging in the local park and through the winter pansies in the street plantings in town. We missed having spring flowers whilst in Carcassonne – they don’t seem to go in for them much there (in fact, unusually in France, one of the few towns we have visited that doesn’t maintain colourful floral planting displays in their parks, gardens and along their streets). But there is still rain and still more cold to come according to the forecast. So it will be back to the library for yet more films – we are getting quite an education from the documentary section – Inside Job, Capitalism – A Love Story, Darwin’s Nightmare, Food Inc, We steal secrets – amongst others, none of which are casting our global economy in a particularly bright light. Maybe we need to get out more – I always reckon that mid-February is Cabin Fever season.

Remembering warm sunshine. Montferrand in April 2017.

But after a night of listening to the bumps of floating logs against the hull and water over the quay again, and waking to a dense fog in the morning – the sun has come out and stayed out all day, warming the boat and making me think that maybe, just maybe, Spring is round the corner.

Posted in 2018 season, Auxerre, French Cruising - north and central, Winter moorings | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Winter in Auxerre, and possibly in need of therapy.

After two winters spent in Carcassonne in the south of France I am now beginning to wonder if boating pal David – who after two winters in northern Europe, France and Holland, has returned to Toulouse – was right in suggesting that I might need therapy after deciding to return north to England. Although we didn’t actually make it back to England as planned this year, we might as well have done from a weather perspective. Since November we have had no more than a few hours of sunshine on a handful of days and rain on most of the days including those with some sunshine. The temperature has steadfastly fluctuated somewhere between -2C and 12C – this week being no exception with rain forecast for the next seven days and winds between 30-80 kph today. The river is rising and flowing faster with each successive day of rain and will most probably flow over the quay once again this weekend. Just as well we kept our old gum boots in the hold!

Gum boots needed.

So, bearing in mind that it has been dull, damp and fairly (but not yet very) cold we have been making the best of what Auxerre has to offer by way of entertainment. Christmas festivities here were on a noticeably more downbeat scale than we had enjoyed in the South and we did rather wonder if Father Christmas had lost the plot whilst using Google Maps.

Is this a reindeer I see before me?

We returned by train to England to spend Christmas with family and friends – on our way, stopping off for a night in Paris with Bruno and Miquette at St Cloud. Champagne, fois gras and coquilles St Jacques for dinner put us in good festive spirit.

Paris as seen from the Parc de St Cloud.

Maurice and Lauren did us all proud for Christmas lunch in Kidlington, Oxford, with roast Goose and more accompaniments than would fit on one’s plate and later gave us all a family outing to the Pantomime, Peter Pan at the Hexagon in Reading. In Wiltshire we had a nice stay with my mother in Lacock, a somewhat eccentric and unexpected communion service with Syb Pryor in her ‘home’ in Mere, and an excellent lunch at The New Inn, West Bay, Bridport, Dorset with Eddie and Deborah.

Maurice, Louis, Pam, Charles, Paul and Caroline Henney, Lili, Ollie and Lauren behind the camera. Christmas lunch.

In Purley-on-Thames, our home for most of the 1980s, Ros and Gregor lent us their comfortable home complete with old lady cat Patches, whilst they were away for Christmas, and we also looked after Humphrey, Marianne’s old lady cat at Old Rectory Garden House, whilst she too was away.

Ivy Cottage, Purley-on-Thames.

It was a nostalgic visit to a village very little changed over the years – although the C of E Infant school attended by all three of our kids has now grown up into a Primary School with a large rear extension beside our old garden at Lane Cottage. Happy memories of our annual New Year’s Eve parties, epic Epiphany parties and ribald Rabbie Burn’s nights with Syb next door – in those days we had the energy to liven up an otherwise dull period of the year! A gentle stroll down to Mapledurham Lock on the Thames with Lili and Ollie was all we managed this time around.

Boxing Day walk. Ollie at Mapledurham Lock on the Thames.

Back in Auxerre we are making new discoveries. Before Christmas I spotted a wonderful (board) game shop (Cartes sur Table in Rue Fecauderie) so we added the Inns and Cathedrals extension to our game of Carcassonne as a present to each other – and for New Year the Merchants and Builders extension. So, at least one hotly-contested game, now requiring the whole of the kitchen table, has been part of our daily routine – except for the three days it took us to complete the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle Woodland Friends, a Christmas present from my mother.

A walk in the park at St Cloud.

In addition to his ‘therapy’ suggestion David recommended La Pause Gourmande which proved to be excellent therapy in its own right. Their menu of this month featured: (Pam’s choice) Meurette d’escargots; l’onglet de veau poele, crepes de pommes de terre et jus de veau legerement chocolate; crème brulee maison; and: (Charles’ choice) Filet de thon roti, tartare de pommes et mangues, vinaigrette passion vanilla et tuilles aux deux sesames; le dos de lieu noir, ravioles de chevre et figues, crème de cepes; assiette de mignardises (8).  This €25 menu is all served up in the small dining room, with open kitchen, of this unpretentious restaurant, salon de the, patisserie fine et traiteur at 1 Rue Fourier in the town centre.

La Pause Gourmande, Auxerre.

We have become very regular visitors to the library and are steadily making our way through a treasure trove of music and films and getting a bit of an education into the bargain, mixing new with old. This week’s chosen film director has been Francis Ford Coppola – we visited his Inglenook winery in the Napa Valley many years ago, but were not that familiar with his films, apart from The Godfather – and found his latest releases Youth without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt relatively puzzling. I enjoyed them perhaps more than Pam, but made up for my film choices with some old Leonard Cohen and Beatles CDs; although my CD of the month is Raising Sand (Robert Plant/Alison Krauss). The only problem with the library is that it mainly opens in the afternoons and on each visit we have to pass the Boulangerie Patisserie Maison Eric Roy at about tea time.

View across the river from beside the fire – about tea-time.

It is just as well that we have also discovered (thanks to Google Maps) a nearby Coulee Vert cycle and footpath along an old disused railway line running from the station and across the river by Batardieu Lock and on round the south-eastern edge of town, passing another new discovery the Germinal BioCoop, providing much needed exercise and some excellent healthy organic food choices! Our latest acquisition is a Germline Salad Sprouter and we eagerly await our first couple of boat-grown trays of organic Alfalfa, Cress, red Cabbage, and Fennel seed sprouts. We still visit the Friday market for our weekly purchase of fresh watercress and exchange boating pleasantries with the friendly stall holder there.

View crossing the river on the Coulee Vert.

Putting aside all thoughts of remedial works, this is the time of year, with no actual boating under-way, that I tend to review our progress to date, and it seems amazing that we will soon, in February, be entering our tenth boating season aboard Xenia: so here is the statistics log as it stands so far;

  Licence fees Mooring costs Insurance Diesel – litres used Engine hours Km travelled
2009 £900 £3,800 £380 487 228  
2010 £1,000 £5,600 £400 328 140  
2011 £1,100 £3,700 £420 856 450  
2012 £1,280 £1,500 £440 1,070 500  
2013 £1,341 £1,348 £479 1,146 550  
2014 £206 + €509 £474+€1,339 £582 1,333 550 2,280
2015 €540 €1,890 £501 1,252 450 2,100
2016 €560 €2,168 £528 715 250 1,100
2017 €532 €2,557 £542 1,000 265 1,500

Provisional bookings have been made with Evans Marine in Migennes to be craned out on April 4th, with CPL Transport to be picked up and driven to Reading and with Butcher Marine to be craned back in on April 6th and with Thames and Kennet Marina to moor long enough to get ourselves a Boat Safety Certificate and Boat Licence – so, with estimated costs running at about £6,500, moderation on the patisseries and some belt tightening is about as far as we have got with our New Year’s resolutions.

Early one morning.

Meanwhile we continue to enjoy our winter mooring here in Auxerre, despite the dull weather!

Posted in 2018 season, Auxerre, Winter moorings | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

In Auxerre, with thieves, saints, and a bailiff.

A frail and stooping old lady in Monoprix, after asking me to reach down the cheapest bottle of water from the top shelf, told me that there were a lot of thieves about in Auxerre. I didn’t let on that, even though this was only the second day of our winter sojourn in this lovely town, we had already been relieved of four garden chairs from our stern deck at 1.30am the previous night.

On our way into town on Rue Sous Murs.

We were moored on the old passenger barge quay (people and goods to Paris several times a week in days gone by) in Place St Nicholas – 270-343 AD, Bishop of Myra in Turkey, patron Saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, the falsely accused, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students (amongst others) – and under the gaze of his polychrome statue on the old inn we felt that despite being rather exposed to passers-by we would be alright here for a couple of nights whilst waiting for our mooring space in the port on the opposite river bank. I momentarily considered whether to secure the chairs but after four years of not having done so didn’t bother. Pam’s bicycle, as always, was securely D-locked to the steel tiller arm – and that remained; although we took no chances on the next night and brought it inside.

St Nicholas in his Square.

A passer-by, on learning that we were English from Reading, gave us the rather surprising news that Auxerre is twinned with Redditch – not a Midlands town that I have ever visited, nor would have thought to have anything at all in common with this “Town of Art and History” with a wine growing and gastronomic heritage. The Petit Square de Redditch is not post-card material on which to write home about. Perhaps the French thought they were getting Reading – like itself, an important trading and ecclesiastical centre in the medieval period with one of the richest monasteries in the country with Royal connections and situated within 100 miles upstream of the Capital city on a major river. Although Redditch had its own Roman Road and its own Abbey founded in 1138, it only had the Tardebigge canal built in 1807 and is better known for its manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution – needles, fishing tackle, batteries, springs, motorbikes and other light industrial products. But I gather that the exchange visits are very cordial.

Petit Square de Redditch.

By the weekend we had moved over to the Port Quay (Quai de l’Ancienne Abbaye), run by Aquarelle France, and settled in to enjoy the splendid and much photographed views of Saint-Germain’s Abbey, Saint-Etienne’s Cathedral and Saint-Pierre’s Church across the water – sometimes lit up at night and often with bells ringing and clocks chiming or striking, particularly so at 7am and 7pm. Our view across the river, a little upstream of the footbridge, to the well landscaped and maintained Chemin de halage and the Quai de la Republique is very pleasant , with the only boat in our line of vision being Hotel Barge Luciole further downstream.

A fine view from Xenia of St Etienne Cathedral.

Hardly had we secured our mooring ropes in Port before we were regaled with tales of more thefts from boats – including chairs (surely November is not the peak season for garden chairs?) and bikes, two of which, very expensive carbon-fibre models and shipped by their owners from Australia, had incurred import duty of €3,000 on their arrival in France.  The police were called and did more than just due diligence – but there is little hope of recovering them. Pam’s bike has had its time overnighting in the kitchen and is now up on deck taking its chances! We are enjoying the openness and space around the quay and the easy access all around so will just have to take the rough with the smooth. Boaters’ talk of clubbing together to buy an old car and take turns to keep watch in it overnight on the quay I thought was taking things a bit too far.

The Port de Plaisance, Auxerre.

We arrived equipped with a ‘must do’ list from boating friends of things not to miss – “lovely food market by the cinema (fish stall) – delightful bistro by the theatre (Oeufs en Meurette) – Les Cocottes en Roulottes (gastronomic burger van ladies) – Maison Eric Roy (cakes, pastries, bread and more cakes) – the new Cheese shop” – and so I armed myself with street maps and guides courtesy of the tourist offices. Two of our staple winter retailers in Carcassonne are nowhere to be found here – La Maison de la Presse (for daily English newspapers, other than the Daily Mail, and for a Free mobile phone terminal) and La Mie Caline (for my favourite Pain Nordique). This is disappointing as they are both large national chains and we have been unable even to order The Saturday Telegraph from any of the rather indifferent newsagents in town – leaving us very light on both good crosswords and puzzles and decent fire-lighting paper. However, compensation has come quickly in the form of a vegetable stall in the Friday market (covered halls almost under the cinema) selling large and plentiful bunches (€1.80) of locally grown water-cress (the freshest and pepperiest I have ever found) with the leaves keeping all week and the stems making great soup. And another stall selling Cox’s Orange Pippin apples – but I have already exhausted his home-grown supply for this season.

On the ‘must do’ list. Maison Eric Roy.

The weather has been dull and really quite cold – most nights getting down to around 0C and days often not up to 10C and with very little if any sunshine – and so getting in a stock of logs became a first priority. The local Brico (DIY) stores are all situated in Les Clairions Retail and Trading Centres, some 3 km away, and we found did not have the logs we wanted in stock. The LeClerc supermarket just near us sometimes has stock and sometimes not, but usually only in small quantities. Cousin Paul came to our rescue when he stopped off to see us, en-route from Kent to Bergerac to Perpignan, and we were able to pick up a pre-ordered car boot load at a good price from Cora Drive out at Moneteau, and so we should now be good for at least another month.

Getting the fire lit.

At the start of the season our plan had been to spend November in Auxerre before having Xenia shipped back to Reading in December – but the Thames & Kennet Marina have been unable to provide us with a mooring. So our now revised plan is to stay here in Auxerre until the end of March before, river conditions permitting, shipping back from Migennes, a day’s cruise down the Yonne, to Reading in early April when hopefully there will at least be a visitor’s mooring available whilst we get the boat re-certificated and licensed for UK waters.

XVth century Clock Tower in town centre.

So we have the unexpected bonus of spending another winter in France (our fourth). We have joined the library where for an annual subscription of €17 we can borrow at any one time 10 books, 10 CDs and 2 DVDs and there is a good English book section. We make full use of our allowance every few days and are currently working through ‘L’ in the film section with quite a few Loach and Lynch films still to go. The film club Cinemanie, using the local CGR Cinema, has been screening a programme of original version films and we were just in time to catch Sally Potter’s new film ‘The Party’, which we very much enjoyed.

The market hidden between the car park and the cinema in the background.

Auxerre (then Autissiodorum) lay on the Via Agrippa Roman road, which crossed the River Yonne just a few paces from where we are now moored. Germanus, warrior, statesman, man of God, was born here in 378, to a noble Gallic family. He went on to practice law in Rome before being appointed one of the six Dukes of Gaul by the Roman Emperor, but in 418 “despite himself” was persuaded (forcibly locked in the cathedral and given a tonsure by the Bishop) to become the next Bishop of Auxerre, and was then “totally transformed”. His links with Britain were extensive (countering The Pelagian Heresy) and he possibly trained St Patrick too. On his death in Ravenna in 448 he was beatified and his body brought back to Auxerre and buried in an oratory overlooking the river, just outside the Castrum (fort) walls. This then became a site of pilgrimage and a burial place for bishops and was developed in the C6th into a Basilica (an early example of the Cult of Relics) and by the year 1000 had become one of the most important pilgrimage-churches of Europe. Saint-Germain’s tomb still rests in the exact spot where he was buried, although his mummified body was desecrated by the Hugenots in 1567, and the abbey church building around him became immense and makes for a fascinating Museum visit including Roman foundations and some C9th murals in the crypt.

Saint-Germain Abbey (and Museum).

Little bronze plaques in the pavements mark a pedestrian route, ‘In the steps of Cadet Roussel’ which, with the accompanying leaflet (€1.50), guide one through the historic town centre. Guillaume Joseph Roussell rose from being a footman to a wealthy bailiff in Auxerre and joined the Jacobins (Society of Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality founded in 1789 – closed in 1794 following the execution of its president Robespierre). In 1792 Gaspard de Chenu, song-writer and political opponent, wrote the popular song that satirized Cadet (middle son) Rouselle and one can read the lyrics on the wall in the corridor leading to the toilets in the Geant Casino (hypermarket) out at Les Clairions. Cadet himself, “a good revolutionary”, after a year in prison in 1794 then stuck to his bailiff duties and was able to continue his jovial and somewhat eccentric life as a bon vivant and “good boy”, dying in Auxerre in 1807.

Statue of Cadet Roussel in the town centre.

As far as I can tell, neither Saint-Etienne (St Stephen) nor Saint-Pierre (St Peter) can claim such personal links to Auxerre as does Saint-Germain. There is a fourth more distant spire in our view which belongs to the church of Saint-Eusebe, classed as an historic monument and named after the Bishop of Vercelli, 280-371 AD and a contemporary of St Nicholas, and whose work no doubt influenced Germanus born some 7 years after his death. At first I thought that this church, looking rather boarded up from the outside, was closed but the entrance is hidden from the street and inside it proved to be fresh and bright with many rather splendid 1540 stained glass windows. It originally formed part of a monastery built outside the city walls, 623-659, some 75 years after the building of the St Germain basilica on the other side of town.

Inside the church of St Eusebe.

I got to wondering just how many saints there are – and learned that all of the above are members of an august body of 1,067 Early Christian Saints from before 450 AD. After that it becomes more complicated. The list of boats with owners aboard for some or all of the winter is more modest – Forty Roses 111, Come what may, Elodie, Liberdade, Deae Icauni, Carrieanne, Libellule 5, Anthonia, Lazy Notes – and we are slowly getting to meet some of them. We missed the DBA (The Barge Association) 25th Anniversary Rally held in Auxerre earlier this year with its weekend of socialising, wine tasting, games, tours, competitions, buffets and BBQs, but I daresay there might have been a saint or two amongst the 31 visiting boats. Anyway, it looks as though we will find plenty to do to keep ourselves amused during these cold winter months.

Thanksgiving dinner for two – no thieves, saints or bailiffs.

Posted in 2017 season, Auxerre, French Cruising - north and central, Uncategorized, Winter moorings | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A quiet October on the Nivernais.

“To enter this waterway is to step back in time, to gentleness and relaxation” wrote John Liley in ‘France – the quiet way’ published in 1975. In 2017 I am happy to report that the Nivernais, which he calls “possibly the most beautiful French canal of all”, still remains just that and it was fitting to find ourselves, when in Clamecy, moored opposite hotel barge ‘Luciole’, still owned and run by the Liley family.

On the Nivernais in October.

Our time since entering the Nivernais on 27th September at St-Leger-des-Vignes (Decize) now seems a bit distant – the details lost in early morning mists and days of cruising in glorious autumnal sunshine through rolling hills, lush fields of fat white cattle or sheep, wooded hillsides, occasional Chateaux, farms, and small villages.

Fat white cattle, horses and a Chateau at Isenay.

This is our third passage along the Nivernais, but for the first time heading from Decize in the south to Auxerre in the north, with the advantage of only having 32 uphill locks to climb over 70 km to the summit at Baye with the remaining 80 locks over 100 km then all downhill. We have had the pleasure of cruising on this canal in early spring, in mid-summer and in autumn, but whatever the season we have provisioned the boat well in order to progress comfortably, at a slow and gentle pace, as there are only few and far between opportunities to reach a grocery or supermarket.

A typical farm on the Nivernais.

Our first stop therefore at St-Leger-des-Vignes was at the Supermarket jetty (PK 1.5, free, no services) where we spent two days stocking up at the Carrefour, LeClerc, BricoMarche and Lidl stores all on our doorstep. Time too, with a decent 4G phone signal, to catch up on my blog, get my blocked Vodafone SIM restored, and reboot my Free SIM which hadn’t at all taken to its prolonged lack of signal at Gannay-sur-Loire. I remembered from our previous trips that the Nivernais also has long stretches with little or no mobile phone signal.

St Leger des Vignes and our first stop for provisions on the supermarket quay.

On our way to Cercy-la-Tour (PK 16, free mooring with services) we passed wb Avalon, last seen by us in Ely Cambridgeshire, and stopped for a brief chat with Kevin Wade before mooring up there on the pontoon. Kevin, who had shipped his wide-beam over to Nieuwpoort, Belgium, in the same month and year as us and whose progress we have been following since, came back the next day, between heavy showers to pick up his campervan, and we were able to say ‘hello’ properly over a cup of tea. Here we sat out five days of dull and frequently wet weather, waiting for our order of paint to arrive at Entente Marine and for Sid to kindly deliver it to us.

Waiting for paint at Cercy-la-Tour.

The paint did eventually arrive, 10 days after being ordered, and the weather brightened up, and so onwards and upwards we went. Leaving Cercy-la-Tour and attempting to share the lock with Bodecia (10m cruiser + dinghy) we had a timely reminder that the locks between here and Sardy (PK73) are ‘sub-standard’ at only 30 metres in length.

Old lock-keeper’s cottage at Isenay.

The experiment was not deemed to be a success (we are 18 metres), neither by us boaters nor the three lock-keepers, and so then we followed at a respectable distance locking through separately and mooring up for the night at a favourite spot just above Anizy lock (PK 31, free bankside mooring no services).

Moored above Anizy Lock.

From Anizy we set off early next morning in more of a fog than a mist, which was slow to clear, but after a sunny lunchbreak at Pont (PK 47, bollards no services) we pulled in to Chatillon-en-Bazois (PK 51) just after 1.30pm only to find the port full and with no access to the free services.

The Chateau at Chatillon-en-Bazois.

We had thought to stay here for a few days, as we had done on our two previous visits, but without water or power and with a couple of fine days forecast we decided to press on to the summit the next morning. On the Nivernais one has to let the lock-keepers know of one’s plans in advance – or risk arriving at an untended lock – and we were given a choice of a 10.00 am departure, along with two other boats, or a very long wait for the lock-keeper to return! As it turned out Jane and Bill, moored up on the serviced quay in wb Lazybones, left at 9.00 am heading downstream and we were able to nip in and take on water for half an hour before our locking time, slowly following Lundy and Kate again on Bodecia, and stopping for lunch in a full Lock 11, Orgue.

1826 Lock-keeper’s cottage; now another nice private home.

Pottering along quietly, with the two boats ahead of us always out of sight, it seemed as though we had this lovely stretch of canal all to ourselves. We reached the summit at Baye (PK 66, free mooring, no services along the wall for larger boats – small hire boat base only for smaller boats) by 4.30 pm, lit a fire, and settled in to a cosy Friday night in this scenic mooring overlooking the Etang (lake) de Baye.

At the summit; early morning mist over the Etang.

Saturday was forecast to be sunny but Sunday to be wet and dull so on arrival we had opted to carry on, leaving at 11 am the next morning. This gave us an hour to get through 3 tunnels on the 4 km summit pound (one way and controlled by lights – the lock-keeper had forgotten to turn them green for us!) and conveniently placed us at Port Brule (Lock 1) by 12.00 for lunch.

Lunch break at Port Brule on the summit.

We found ourselves in company with Sanguetta (10 metre Linssen cruiser) and before the lock-keepers returned, from lunch and locking a boat up, at 1.30pm we had made inspections and measurements of the lock and conducted detailed discussions around not being talked into sharing the next 16 locks in the Sardy ladder, but that we would perhaps agree at least to try it initially. The lock-keeper was fairly persuasive, reassuring me about leaking gates and the location of the cill, and letting us know that a shortage of keepers could lead to long delays.

A tight squeeze all the way down the Sardy flight of 16 locks.

I can’t say that it was an entirely comfortable ride down being within a metre of the upward gates and most of the time, through lack of a suitably placed bollard, with a rope around the gate railing and the engine engaged to both keep us off the cill and away from the waterfall coming over the top of some of the gates. But we settled into a good routine with Stuart and Lizzie and enjoyed their company all the way down for the next 4 hours.

Colourful lock gates and our two keepers.

The lock-keepers were assisted by Pam and Lizzie, on shore on bikes, to help with gates and ropes, and we all had quite a sociable time – with my contribution to any conversation being severely limited by the deafening roar of falling water!

Lizzie, Pam and eclusier Kevin have time to chat.

Although overcast, that evening was just warm enough for aperos on the picnic table at the Sardy mooring (PK 74, free no services) with Stuart and Lizzie and they then joined us for dinner aboard Xenia. The next morning Sanguetta headed on whilst we opted to sit out a dull and possibly wet Sunday in this quiet and peaceful spot.

Dull day. Quiet Sardy mooring.

We covered the next 16 km from Sardy to Monceaux-le-Comte in just under 5 hours, passing through 16 more locks and 4 lift bridges and seeing only one other boat. The mooring at Monceaux (Dirol) (PK 90.5, free no services – possibly water in season) is beside a large and continuously watered wood pile which had put us off stopping on our previous trips. But a friend had told us about a decent restaurant here, so we thought we might try it – no such luck on a Tuesday (when it is always closed) and it is only open on weekends from October 1st until April.

A large wet woodpile at Monceaux (Dirol).

Next day, after a walk around the attractive little village sitting on the banks of the River Yonne, and a quick look at the very small general store, we ambled on in the afternoon to Flez-Cuzy where we moored opposite the Locaboat base (PK 96, free no services – but the base has services, now including diesel, if you want to pay for them). Although we had stopped here before we had never taken the time to visit Tannay – where there is a supermarket and we hoped perhaps a restaurant for lunch.

Views around Tannay.

From the canal, Tannay is a long 2 km walk uphill – a relentless incline that made us wonder if perhaps electric bikes might be a good idea – and by the time we had enjoyed the spectacular views all around as we walked up, pushing our bikes, we felt quite ready for a decent lunch. But, not a single restaurant left open for business at any time could we find here. The Super U supermarket came up trumps though with some decent hamburger meat and a few bottles of Bombardier Ale and we fairly whizzed down the hill back to a pub lunch on the boat.

A long walk uphill to Tannay.

Our next overnight stop at Chevroches was another first for us but the popular little port here (PK 110, free with services, I think) had shut off its services for the season, so we had the place to ourselves except for two empty English narrow-boats, one of them the Book Barge. A ten minute walk around the pretty little village revealed only that a bakery van calls in twice a week. I later learned however that it is a site of considerable archaeological interest having been a centre for early gallo-roman metal working between the 1st and 5th centuries.

At Chevroches; port closed in October.

We arrived in Clamecy in time for Friday lunch to find the port (PK 114, previously €6 including services, but this time free) empty except for hotel boat Luciole moored on the right bank opposite. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, most of which we spent in the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire Romain Rolland; learning about the Chevroches Zodiacal ‘curved disc’; studying the paintings and drawings of Caruelle d’Aligny (1798-1871); admiring the posters of Charles Loupot (1892-1962); seeing the study and books of writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944); and visiting the exhibition on ‘flottage’ – the Morvan timber trade for which Clamecy became the log floating capital and the commercial centre for the supply of firewood to Paris. We had earned our drinks that sunny evening in this lovely little port.

The port in Clamecy. Moored opposite Hotel Boat Luciole.

First order of the day for Saturday – after café au lait, bacon and eggs, and toast and marmalade of course – was the covered market, on this occasion for oysters and organic fruit and veg. The Clamecy Saturday market is a relatively small affair but with some very good quality local (not the oysters!) produce and on each visit we have found something special. We popped in to the Tourist Office but there are no longer ‘tourist’ bus trips to Vezelay – we had so enjoyed our trip there in August 2014. There was however a ‘Rendez-vous du Blues’ pamphlet which I idly picked up.

Atmosheric old streets of Clamecy.

An Indian summer had arrived and we moved over to the sunnier side of the port to get a full day’s benefit of 24C temperatures. Our search for a meal out continued but Trip Adviser left us uncertain as to whether any of the listed 12 Clamecy restaurants would come up to snuff on our price/value/location equation. Pizzas are OK even if not #1 rated on TA but not really what we had in mind. We did a walk-by tour, and that ruled out a few more. On Sunday evening we went to see and hear ‘Vicious Steel’ (a two piece, electric guitar and drums, French blues band) playing in the Mairie (in the rather grand ‘salle’ where I imagine weddings are conducted) and enjoyed it. Now we have to work out how to get back to Clamecy for the next concert in this series of three to hear Brummie Steve “Big Man” Clayton, with his quartet, playing boogie blues on piano.

On the sunnier side of the port at Clamecy.

The fine weather continued unbroken for a week and on a cycle ride to the Auchan supermarket on the other side of town we spotted ‘La Grenouillere’ – well down the Trip Adviser list at #7, but Moules Frites for €9 seemed good value, it looked nice inside, and I was feeling bad about having spent four years in France without sampling any frogs legs, their specialty. The fact that the lady patronne had been consistently criticised for not smiling seemed to be a minor blemish set against the prospect of a good meal out. So mid-week we lunched there – Pam had a huge and delicious pot of mussels in a creamy wine sauce with a vat of string fries and I had a huge bowl of frogs legs in a provencale sauce (I should have opted for the ‘persillade’ – it would have been less messy) with a more modest basket of string fries. As I was the first that day to be served with frogs legs I was unable to take a steer from other diners on the etiquette of eating these tasty morsels, full of little bones. I assumed that as I had been given two generous paper napkins and a moist towel sachet that fingers were the only way to go – I later read that it should be thumb and forefinger of one hand – and I sucked my way through a good dozen, sometimes resorting to two hands, without getting provencale sauce all down my shirt. Delicious with a nice half bottle of house white – and topped off with the largest tulip Coup de Glace we have seen in a while – all for just under €50 for the two of us. We left pleased with our choice and got at least two half smiles from the patronne.

Parc Vauvert, Clamecy.

The Nivernais Canal closes every year for the winter, from sometime in November to sometime in March, and wanting to allow at least seven days to cruise to Auxerre we needed to know the exact date of closure this year. The Port Capitaine at Decize had told me that the Canal was not closing this year, that it was all changed now – but I didn’t believe a word of it. At Clamecy I asked the ‘matelot’, busy swabbing decks, touching up paint, and filling the water tanks of Luciole, but he wasn’t able to enlighten me. The lock-keeper also didn’t know the answer and said he would call the boss, but didn’t come back to me. I called Zoe at the Port in Auxerre and although she didn’t know either she said she would find out and called me back to say that it would be early this year on Sunday 29th October – just over a week away. The 50 km downstream from Clamecy is a particular favourite of ours with the canal intertwining with the River Yonne all the way to Auxerre and passing through rocky outcrops, wooded hillsides, open fields and very pretty villages on the wider banks of the river.

Lovely countryside.

We had time for one more week-end in Clamecy and one more concert; this time in the Collegiale St Martin church with its splendid Cavaille-Coll organ. The concert, a Lion’s Club fundraiser, featured a string quartet, the organ, and a choir – performing music from Beethoven, Vivaldi and Mendelssohn. It was a good note on which to end our very enjoyable 9 day stay in town, and we headed out of port, between rain showers, that Sunday afternoon to reach Pousseaux (PK 121, free no services) for the night.

Concert at St Martin with the splendid organ.

Dull weather followed us for the next couple of days. We stopped at Lucy (PK 126, bollards but nothing else!) for lunch and possibly the night but we found only cats and some very noisy geese around and so moved on.

Lucy. Nobody about.

At Chatel-Censoir (PK 132, we moored beside rather than in the little port, so free) for the night. I walked up into town to the small Proximarche here and then on up to the very large church of Saint Potentien, with a singing janitor and a C13th crypt, on the hill top. I checked with the lock-keeper for the last cruising day this year and he seemed to think that there had been an extension to the Oct 29th deadline, but he hadn’t yet had a chance to read the bulletin.

View of the port from the top of the hill at Chatel Censoir.

At Les Rochers-du-Saussois by Merry-sur-Yonne, where we stopped for lunch (PK 137, pontoon no services), we were joined by a hire boat and then three house-boat-loads of excited and vociferous children who disembarked and headed for the Saussois rocks – a limestone wall popular with rock climbers.

Lunch break at Saussois.

We left them to it and carried on to Mailly-le-Chateau (PK 142, free mooring with electric and water) where we had the place to ourselves for the night. Our last visit here had been on a Monday and we had walked up the very steep hill into town only to find the shops closed. So, on a wet and misty Tuesday afternoon I thought that I might have better luck. But no; the COOP grocery is permanently closed; the bakery closed on Tuesday afternoons and all day Wednesday, and the Tabac I found firmly closed but with no opening hours listed. The Le Castel restaurant, despite many canal-side posters, was not open at lunchtimes and this left only the church to visit and in which to rest my weary legs before once again heading back downhill empty handed.

Nothing open at Mailly-le-Chateau.

In another burst of ‘Indian Summer’ and confirmation that we did indeed have a couple of extra days cruising time I was in shorts by the time we stopped for lunch at Ste-Pallaye (PK 152, free bollards only) and almost sunburned by the time we reached Vincelles, where we stopped on the main quay (PK 160, free but no services in October). By the time I had cycled off to get a gas cylinder refill from the nearby ATAC service station we had been joined by 5 other boats (4 hire boats) for the night – almost a traffic jam!

Vincelles. Port closed but cat still at home.

In the morning, soon left on our own again, we stocked up at the ATAC supermarket but after lunch decided to move on whilst the sun was still shining. The lock-keeper had warned us that over the weekend there would only be three of them to cover the 50 km 30 lock stretch from Coulonges to Auxerre and that we would be better off staying put. So we made a stop that night at Bailly (PK 163, free no services) to pick up some wine at the Bailly-Lapierre caves. I skipped the fun tour on this occasion and took the sack-barrow to wheel back a case of their Cremant de Bourgogne (Pinot Noir), a case of their St Bris (Sauvignon Blanc), and a case each of their 2016 Irancy and 2016 Cotes d’ Auxerre.

A sack barrow of wine from the caves of Bailly Lapierre.

The next morning, grey and drizzly, we opted for a 10.00 am start and got to our ‘as planned and glad to find it vacant’ pontoon at Toussac (PK 166, water (30 minutes) and electric (12 hours) by €3 token each) in time to cycle in to the Champs-sur-Yonne ATAC and the bakery (to get tokens as well as bread) before lunch and much heavier rain. On our last visit here in October 2014 the tokens had only cost €1 – and I still had three left over! We were visited on Monday morning by the vnf eclusiers (lock-keepers) asking about our travel plans and decided to stay for Monday, now brighter, and booked our next lock for Tuesday afternoon at 1.30pm. We had a cheap and cheerful lunch that day at the Bar St Louis in Champs-sur-Yonne and enjoyed the re-appearance of the sun.

A misty morning at Toussac lock.

Tuesday 31st October was indeed the last day this year for cruising on the Nivernais Canal and we set off in bright sunshine under clear blue skies filled with the cries from V formations of flocks of migrating cranes passing overhead – only slightly wishing that we were heading south too, to a warmer winter.

Cranes heading home for winter.

We savoured the river and surrounding countryside at a slow pace – the only boat – reaching Auxerre by 3pm that afternoon to a port so full that we had to moor on the only space left on the Town quay. It will take a while before Mike moves all the boats around in order to create our winter mooring space on the Port quay.

Batardieu Lock 81 -our last of the season as we enter Auxerre on the River Yonne.

We always experience a sense of relief on entering a port for our winter mooring – a chance after 32 weeks to reflect on yet another year’s cruising; for awhile no more daily decisions to be made about when and where to go next, and with 24 hour access to most of the comforts of life,  like crumpets, English bacon, and oatmeal crackers from Monoprix.

Posted in 2017 season, French Cruising - north and central | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Canal Lateral a la Loire and a protracted break for repairs.

On Sept 8th, entering the Canal Lateral a la Loire at Digoin, which runs from here for 196 km to Briare, we left behind any pretence of dry warm sunny weather.  At our first overnight stop at Pierrefitte-sur-Loire (PK 19, free, water) it rained overnight but was dry enough in the morning to continue and we stopped for lunch at Diou (PK 25.5 free, no services). However, that afternoon we were caught in a couple of very heavy showers on our way to Beaulon (PK 38, free with services if you look hard and moor in the right place). It was a bit of a scramble finding warm and waterproof clothing – last seen on our visit to England in May!

The Halte at Beaulon for boats and campervans.

We only had a further 14 km and 3 locks to reach (Vanneaux) Gannay-sur-Loire, where we had booked in to Entente Marine for that night, and so decided to spend a quiet Sunday morning walking into Beaulon to visit the arts and crafts market (advertised for that day on a poster by the port) and generally stretching our legs. It was back to the boat, empty handed, for a hearty Sunday lunch followed by a dry, with a sunny spell or two, cruise to Vanneaux where we moored at the end of Entente Marine’s long stretch of quiet and peaceful bank-side moorings (PK 52, €15 with full services). On our two previous visits here we had moored at the Halte Nautique just above the lock (free with services) – in August 2014 the Halte was full, so there was no service point available and it rained overnight, and in early April 2015 we spent three nights, fully serviced on the quay, over a wet and cold Easter.

Remembering Easter 2015 spent at Gannay with steamboat Vulcania.

The weather forecast for the week was not looking that good but Mark, resting up a bit after a busy summer season and only available on Mondays and Thursdays to undertake our repairs, was able to make a start on Monday morning. He located the incredibly badly placed and almost inaccessible fuse to our Vetus bow-thruster and drilled out the mounting on the alternator to take a larger bolt, which he then went off in search of locally. But the fuse he needed to order – along with the correct size and type of fan-belt which he discovered that we needed to replace the already fraying spare belt we had installed on the Rhone – and, with a couple of false starts, secured a 48 hour delivery from Paris. After an oil and filter change that afternoon there was nothing else but to wait for parts to arrive – hopefully by Thursday. The recent heavy rain had demonstrated that the external resealing of the windows undertaken in the Toulouse Dry Dock last October was proving ineffectual, and I mentioned this to Mark who said he might be able to help.

Entente Marine Moorings.

We were not in a hurry and so were more than happy to take it easy. We moved the boat a few metres to avoid being directly under the very nice oak trees which showered us with acorns during our first night and we borrowed a few books from the Port’s book exchange shelves. On Tuesday morning we cycled into the little village where we were disappointed to find that the butcher was on annual holidays for two weeks, the small and very limited grocery had run out of lettuces, and the bakery had only empty shelves (although I later learned that it was actually open).  Ham eggs and creamed spinach it was for lunch, but the store cupboard and fridge were both getting alarmingly low. Other local handicaps are the almost complete lack of a Free (or other) mobile phone signal here, and no internet, with not even a bus to get to the nearest supermarket. So this was going to be more of a break than perhaps we had anticipated. It was dull and very windy on Wednesday and we sat and read and ate pasta.

The Halte at Gannay for boats and campervans.

On visiting the port office first thing on Thursday morning I found Mark trussed up – from having put his back out behind a computer earlier in the day – and in no condition to get down and dirty on the boat. The good news was that the parts had arrived despite a national wild cat strike on Tuesday and the office being closed on Wednesday and Sid would be able to finish the repairs on Friday. Another day of pasta looked inevitable although the Vacanciere bar/restaurant beside the port, which had changed hands since our last visit, was open daily and beginning to look more attractive. We discussed the practicalities of re-sealing the windows and decided to accept Mark and Sid’s offer to get them done the following week, weather permitting. Removing 10 windows, cleaning off any rust and re-sealing the internal joints, and then riveting them back in was going to take about 20 working hours of unencumbered dry weather. With the help of the next week’s forecasts from Meteociel and Meteo France we agreed that Wednesday and Thursday would be our best chance. It was back to more reading that afternoon and another pasta meal that night, even the epicerie was closed that day, and forming a plan to get away for the weekend.

Out walking and looking for a phone signal.

Sid was as good as his word and by 11.00 am on Friday we were fully mobile, with working bow-thruster and TravelPower generator, and in the Vanneaux lock heading for Decize and the supermarket. Despite some looming dark clouds we had a dry run, stopping for lunch before LaMothe Lock #14 (spelled La Motte in Du Breil) reaching Decize at 3.00pm and mooring up on the quay (PK 68/69, free no services) just beyond the lock leading down into the port. From here it is an easy five minute walk to the nearby Intermarche Super and we were back, with bags full, for a late tea, more rain and our first wood fire of the winter – followed shortly by generous aperos and steak frites for dinner.

Filling up the larder in Decize.

On Saturday morning we cycled in to Decize town centre and did a little sight-seeing and some more food shopping at the butcher and a veg shop. On our way we briefly said hello to the new owners of Freisland, with whom we had shared the mooring overnight. ‘Freisland’ had been Tam and Di Murrell’s ‘Bateau Ecole’ for many years, and we had had the pleasure of spending 10 days moored beside them in Cambrai a week after our arrival in France in 2014.

Decize mooring above the Port on the Canal.

There were more showers in the afternoon but we managed another trip into the supermarket for bulkier essential household items. We spent 3 nights here and although getting a slightly better phone signal I was only able to get enough of an internet connection early on Sunday morning to complete a blog post before more showers and another trip to the supermarket.

The quay on the Vielle Loire in Decize – but unreachable by boat.

As forecast, the weather was due to be clear on Monday and wet on Tuesday with dry sunshine for Wednesday and Thursday and so after checking that Mark was recovered we turned around and headed the 16 km and 4 locks back to Gannay. It was a very pleasant stretch along this wide and fairly straight canal with gentle curves through meadows and fields on either side. The sun even made brief appearances – but nothing to take off my jersey for – and I was reminded of September 2013 cruising through Northamptonshire, England, on the River Nene.

Memories of the River Nene, Northamptonshire in 2013.

We squeezed into the dock beside the slipway and crane at Entente Marine and Mark came to check out what type of fixings he would need to order for the windows. Tuesday was wet as forecast and in order to get off the boat we opted for lunch at La Vacanciere – €13 Menu, generous plate of charcuterie, bread, generous entrecote steak and chips, cheese plate or fromage blanc, generous chocolate mousse, and 50cl red wine between us, with coffee an extra €1 each – followed by a generous siesta in the afternoon. Later Sid came knocking on the boat to update us – the particular aluminium self-sealing rivets needed were not available anywhere in France and were being ordered from England on overnight delivery, but whether or not they would arrive in time to start work tomorrow remained to be seen.

Lunch at La Vacanciere beside the port.

Wednesday came and went with no sign of Mark or Sid or the rivets, and neither a phone signal nor internet. It was damp and misty in the morning and although quite a nice afternoon I had begun to lose the will to live. It is surprising how dependant my daily routine has become on a good phone signal – emails from friends, family, forums, updates, promotions, international news, goings-on with family friends and DBA group on Facebook, boating blogs, weather forecasts for the coming 10 days, google maps of what shops are around, and even occasionally BBC radio.

A tight squeeze at Entente Marine getting into position for window repairs.

It was sunny on Thursday, but still no delivery of rivets, and Mark had two other customers in port champing at the bit so it wasn’t until the afternoon that we got going on taking out the first windows. Mark drilled out the old rivets, I scraped off any rust around the shell and coated it with Vactan before painting with a primer, whilst he cleaned up the frames and stuck on new insulation strips, before screwing them back in (as a temporary hold). On Friday Mark and Sid both made an early start and we had completed the first side of 5 windows by lunch. Sid completed, with our help, the second side by that evening. The insulating tape was about to run out at 2pm, but the delivery of that order, then overdue, showed up in the nick of time – but still no rivets, now not expected until Monday. Sid ordered us, from the UK, spare supplies of the paint and Vactan we would need to patch up round the windows and other areas of the boat which might arrive early the next week. We hoped for a fine dry weekend and we got it!

Work starts on the windows.

Things had looked up on the provisions front too, with the butcher back from his two week holiday and the grocery taking orders for fresh veg for Friday – so no need to make the three hour boat trip into Decize to the supermarket this weekend. On Saturday morning, after my phone had appeared to have lost all its will to live, I was able to sit on a bench outside the Vacanciere bar and get a good enough signal for long enough to reboot, re-sign in to Google, recover a new password from Dropbox, pick up emails and even see some news on Facebook and get a weather forecast -rain due on Monday. So we settled in to enjoy a fine weekend of not getting anything else much done.

An old guy lends a hand. Rust removal, Vactan and primer.

Monday morning was dull, but dry. The rivets arrived at midday and Mark got started on the first window but before he could finish it the rain came and stopped play for the rest of the afternoon. Sid arrived the next morning, ominous dark clouds overhead, and after waiting an hour or so for the heavy dew to clear he was able to make a start. Progress was good until the rivet gun jammed on the third window and the spare gun had too fat of a nozzle to fit into the narrow frame – until it was drilled down. The gun was made to work, although it has left its mark on some of the frames, and Sid finished the tenth window just before it started to drizzle with rain. What a relief – but no delivery of paint. Arranging the payment by foreign exchange bank transfer turned out to be problematic as my UK phone decided to go onto emergency calls only and was unable to receive the security code text from Visa to confirm the payment – but we worked around that one eventually on a landline and Mark offered to drop off the paint to us somewhere near Decize or Cercy-le-Tour and we were good to go the next morning.

Windows all riveted back in and good to go.

And so, after a 16 day break at Entente Marine, we set off in a heavy mist, headed back to Decize where we stopped in at the Port for a top-up on diesel, and reached the Carrefour supermarket quay (PK 2, free no services) on the Nivernais Canal by tea-time. Whilst loading our shopping in the check-out queue that evening I heard the gentleman in front of us saying “all that chocolate isn’t good for you” (70 & 80% dark bars on special offer – 2 for €1.50 and I limited myself to 6). It was Mark from Entente Marine – then adding “so you got away then”.

Back on the Nivernais at Lock 35, Loire. PK 1.

Posted in 2017 season, French Cruising - north and central | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Canal du Centre – 113km from Chalon-sur-Saone to Digoin

Once moored up in Fragnes, PK8 on the Canal du Centre, we had less than 24 hours to prepare ourselves for Lili’s arrival. Her friend John was giving her a lift in his camper-van from Oxford, England, and her ex flat mate Joe, who is on a cycle tour of Europe with just what he can carry, happened to be passing by and that would make us five for dinner. Joe arrived after a heavy rainstorm in time for tea and a hot shower.

Thomas Beckett clearly needs to settle after a ride on Joe’s bike.

The weather had turned, as though to welcome us from the warm dry south, and we spent a wet Thursday in Port playing games and ‘chilling out’. Joe’s plans for pitching his tent nearby were shelved in favour of a dry bed aboard for two nights and John set off for Corsica the next day. Meanwhile I had to give some thought to our mechanical problems and our travel plans with Lili. A sheared alternator bolt meant that we would have to manage without our TravelPower generator – so we would be dependent on finding shore electrical supply should we want to sit for more than a day without moving, to keep the house batteries charged, and for running the washing machine. I unbolted the alternator, to stop it banging about with the engine vibrations, so we could continue cruising but I would need to find a mechanic to replace the bolt and hopefully to fix our fused out bow-thruster. Lili needed to be able to get to a station to catch a train to Montpellier at the end of her 6 day stay.

Wet weather and a game of Carcassonne.

Joe and Lili cycled off to the Leclerc, 4 km away, for a top up of essential supplies and I worked out that we could get to the summit of the Canal, 50 km away, in five days in order to walk to the TGV station at Le Creusot, between Montchanin and Les Sept Ecluses. I had time to pick apples and raspberries in the little public garden by our mooring – on our last visit here I had harvested an early crop of rhubarb – a real pleasure to find a garden full of herbs and fruit for anyone who wants to enjoy them. Joe used the self-serve bicycle service centre (the only one I have ever seen) located beside the port to get his bike in top condition for his next leg to Geneva.

Joe and Lili on the supermarket run from Fragnes.

We left port on Friday morning in the clear knowledge that there were no hotel boats to slow us down travelling that day on the next stretch. We had cruised this canal twice before, both times in the opposite direction, and not without long delays caused by both hotel boats and the automatic locking system not always doing what was expected, but had heard that the locks to the summit were much tougher to go up than to come down. Lili wanted to gain some more experience at the helm and so with 34 locks to go, and no bow-thruster, we entered the lock at Fragnes to find ourselves, at the last minute, joined by another boat from the port.

Lili dons a captain’s cap.

The configuration of these locks with the only ‘activation’ cord by the ladder almost up against the upstream gate meant that in the deeper 5m locks, with floating bollards in the centre, we needed to put someone ashore as we entered the lock. There are no lock-waiting pontoons, only steep steps just before the downstream gates as you enter. Without Lili this would have made it extremely difficult for Pam and me to manage on our own. At the third lock, 32, the gates failed to open fully, but enough to allow us to squeeze through and leave our rather unfriendly and fatter Dutch cruiser companion behind. Three locks later we came up against closed gates and no lights and as it was lunchtime (no lock assistance available between 12pm and 1pm) we moored up on pins to the bank, had lunch, and called the central control at 1pm. Help arrived in twenty minutes and we continued on, unable to get the cord pulls to activate on locks 25 and 24 where we waited for the Dutch cruiser which had now caught us up. Unfriendliness had turned into downright hostility as they blew their horn to pass us as soon as they were out of the lock. We decided that we would not risk sharing a mooring with them and so were relieved when they continued on past the nearly empty port in Chagny at PK19. We had not stopped here on our previous visits but found a good mooring (free, no services) just before the long hotel boat quay and pontoons (paying with services) for smaller boats. After five hours of doing 11 locks over only 11 kilometres it was time for a walk into town.

A walk into town. Chagny and a large cockerel.

Despite the rather uninviting appearance of its port the town of Chagny is very attractive and it has a three star hotel/restaurant, Lameloise, to boot. We made do though, after visits to the butcher and the supermarket, with a nice steak frites aboard.

Decorative features in Chagny. Live willow basket weave.

It rained again overnight but cleared by midday and we decided to move on and at least have lunch at Santenay. This hour’s cruise has become one of my favourites, the canal winding gently along the steep valley with great views across the vineyards and fields to wooded hills beyond. On arrival at the very picturesque Santenay Escale Nautique (PK 24/25, free no services) we found it empty and so decided to stay for the night. After lunch Lili and I walked into town in the hope of a wine tour. There are more than thirty establishments in Santenay selling mainly locally grown and produced wine, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, Cote de Nuits, with too many other famous names, and fabulous pricetags, to mention. We found our way to Chateau de Santenay and waited for the 4pm tour (€8) to begin.

Decorative burgundian roof at Chateau Santenay.

It was a great tour and we were able to see the early arrivals of this year’s ‘vendage’, which had begun on Sept 1st, of pinot noir grapes from 1er cru vines. Last year the harvest had begun on Sept 30th and I was amused to note later that our first visit here in 2014 was on the exact same day, Sept 2nd.

The first of this year’s ‘vendage’. Premier cru grapes arriving.

The tour concluded with a tasting of two reds, and two whites and we came away with a full ruck-sack of Mercurey 2012 (red), Mercurey 2013 (white), Saint-Aubin 2015 (white) and a special addition to the standard tasting, at my request, of Marc de Bourgogne (Hors d’Age), which turned out to be Lili’s favourite. We left, as the Chateau was being readied for a wedding reception, to return to a light Chinese supper and ‘Life of Pi’ on DVD and a quiet peaceful Saturday night, still alone on this lovely mooring.

Enough barrels of Mercurey to make one’s eyes light up.

The weather was a lot brighter in the morning and we had a very pleasant and trouble-free 4 lock, 7 km, cruise to St-Leger-sur-Dheune where we moored up on the left bank (PK 32.5, 3 small yellow bollards, no services, before the hotel boats and then the port) for lunch. Mike and Aileen (nb Quaintrelle) had let us know that they would be passing nearby on their way back by car from the south west and we were in the messaging process of working out where and when to rendez-vous. Somehow my recollection of moorings got muddled between St-Berhain-sur-Dheune and St-Julien-sur-Dheune and so we ended up at 4pm with them parked beside Lock 15 with us tied to the safety barrier just beyond. There is a road which runs along right beside the canal almost continuously for 70 km from St-Leger-sur-Dheune to Paray-le-Monial which somewhat spoils the otherwise very pastoral canal route through this verdant Charollais beef countryside. It was lovely to see Mike and Aileen and to get news of their house hunting but they were all too soon on their way back to their boat moored in Vitry-le-Francoise. Earlier in the year we had planned to meet up on the Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne but due to our change of plans this was no longer to be, although we will look forward to hearing from them about a canal that we have now missed. In the Du Breil Guide there is a mooring marked in this pound but we couldn’t see it and as it was too late to carry on that evening we opted for a flat bank on the non-road side at PK 39 where we were able moor up on pins.

A ray of sunshine. Lunch break at St-Leger-sur-Dheune.

The next day we had planned to stop for lunch at the nice moorings at St-Julien-sur-Dheune (PK 45), beside which there is a bar/restaurant, but as we prepared to leave Lock 11 at 11.30am the gates failed to open fully, only this time not leaving us enough room to get out. In between talking to the resident of the lock cottage who was wanting to sell us cucumbers and courgettes from his garden and getting no response from the emergency button/intercom on the lock-side, then finding there was no phone signal to call the central control, then hearing a garbled voice on the intercom but not being able to get back to it through the railings quickly enough, we managed to throw sticks for the old man’s dogs, visit his sheep and a donkey, and eat lunch before being rescued at 1pm.

Lock 11. Gates not quite open far enough. Lunchbreak.

After lunch we managed to complete the 12 km and 14 locks for that day, with no further delays but disappointed to find the Canal Museum at PK 46 now permanently closed, to reach the summit where we moored up on pins at PK 51 in a nice spot away from the road and beside a large lake and public park.

Lock 1 Mediterranee. We are now heading towards the Atlantic Ocean.

From here it was a 45 minute walk the next morning to take Lili to the very modern station at Le Creusot where she was able to catch the Paris to Barcelona TGV, needing to change at Lyon only 45 minutes away, to get to Montpellier in just over three hours. As I cycled the 15 mins back to the boat I reflected on the time and effort, a month of long hard days of travelling, it had taken us to make the same journey by river and canal.

Lili gets an upstairs seat on the Paris to Barcelona train. Le Creusot TGV station.

My search for an English speaking mechanic had resulted in a booking with Mark at Entente Marine at Gannay-sur-Loire on the Canal Lateral a la Loire, on our route to Decize to reach the Nivernais Canal heading north to Auxerre. But in my eagerness to get things fixed as soon as possible I had only allowed 6 days for us to complete the remaining 63 km and 26 locks (all downhill) of the Centre and then the further 52 km and 11 locks (still downhill) of the Lateral. By my reckoning that would be an average of at least four hours cruising each day, without delays, to complete 20 km and 6 locks each day. So after lunch we set off on a three hour trip to Blanzy (PK 61, free mooring, water and electric) and couldn’t quite believe our luck on finding a space next to the only services point. We were able to fill up our nearly empty water tank and run two loads of washing.

Blanzy 2014. Same spot this year but facing the other way.

On a quick sortie to the nearby butcher and baker to get something to eat for supper (our larder now very low on supplies) I spotted the little garage forecourt just by the bridge and was able to top up our Jerry cans with 40 litres of diesel, all we needed since our last fill in Macon. A most productive evening, but we would need to do a big food shop the next day and as we approached Montceau-les-Mines we had a choice of the Leclerc (PK 63, very small wooden platform mooring – but big signs advertising it!) or, our preference, the Grand Frais on the other side of town. There are really no moorings for larger visiting boats in the port at Montceau-les-Mines and it is this year in the process of being emptied out for dredging works to take place over winter. In the morning we carried on through town, and the three lift bridges, and were pleased to find a useful mooring (PK 65.5, free, no services) just beyond the Grand Frais. We came back heavily laden and had a leisurely lunch before moving on.

Grand Frais, Montceau-les-Mines.

Our next overnight stops were both familiar. Genelard at PK 82 (free, with water and electric if not already taken by other boats, some left here long-term) then Paray-le-Monial at PK 102 (€13, water and electric – but plenty of other moorings, no services, free) where we popped into the Friday market before heading on and passing through Digoin at the end of the Canal du Centre and the beginning of the Canal Lateral a la Loire.

Paray-le-Monial, April 2015, with L’Escapade.

We spent 8 days cruising the 113 km and 61 locks of the Canal du Centre – just as we did on our first trip in 2014 when we were under time pressures from the early closure of the canal that year in the middle of September due to water shortages. Our trip through in April 2015 had taken us a more leisurely 10 days, without any mechanical problems, and only the slightly daunting prospect of getting down the Rhone to the south. This year we are still feeling somewhat tired after our return up the Rhone and Saone – we are in need of a break!

Posted in 2017 season, French Cruising - north and central | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment