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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.