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.

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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.

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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

The River Saone. 140 kilometres from Lyon to Chalon-sur-Saone.

It was both a relief to be safely off the River Rhone and a pleasure to be back in Lyon on the River Saone some 28 months, and 1000 hours of cruising in the south, since our last visit here in April 2015. The little port at the Confluences (PK 1) was not busy but we were given a mooring space (€27 per night) against the long high quay opposite the pontoons and beyond the footbridge and sat there in splendid isolation for two nights.

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Halte Fluvial Lyon-Confluence.

Our first call was for lunch at Burger King, at the far end of the quay housing the large retail and leisure complex which runs its length, before some serious retail therapy (Pam) and food shopping (Charles) in the Mall. We were conveniently able to hop off our roof and across the quay into the covered centre during an afternoon of sudden and rather violent downpours. The rain was quite a relief, after such a long dry hot spell for us, and would hopefully rinse off any last vestiges of salt water spray left on the boat from our trip along the Canal du Rhone a Sete some three weeks previously. To mark the completion of our ascent of the Rhone we dined out at Hippopotamus Steak House on the Mall’s roof terraces – finding ourselves at the next table to an Ohio State University (Pam’s alma mater) T-Shirt wearer – and suddenly felt as though we had come back from a far journey to the world as it really is.

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Moored in splendid isolation at Lyon-Confluence.

On our previous visit here we had taken the Le Vaporetto ferry from the port into Lyon centre, to visit some of the old sites, so this time we decided on Saturday to stay with the new and to visit the Museum of the Confluences, a one-stop trip on the tram. We had spotted the ultra-modern building from the river on our way into town but were not sure what to expect on the inside.

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The Museum of the Confluences. Lyon.

This rather heartless amalgam of steel and glass delighted and surprised us with a really beautifully displayed permanent exhibition of the soul of humanity. It wasn’t described quite like this in the brochure but we found it to be an eclectic mix of displays highlighting how life and humans and their societies have evolved and developed over the years – lovely to look at and thought provoking too. The temporary exhibition of the work of the Lumiere family and business, Lyon based, in the very early development of photographic processing and then the first moving pictures was also very well done and all new to me. The other temporary exhibition on Poison in all its forms throughout history was surprisingly in the most frequented hall but of less interest to us. We looked at the shop and Brasserie, also located in the Museum building, but decided to head back for lunch to the wider choice of restaurants on the top floor of the Mall and tucked in to a hearty meal at Go Mex.

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View from the Museum of the Confluence of the Rhone with the Saone.

Pam still had an appetite for more shopping that afternoon and I returned to the boat for a siesta but before settling into a comfortable armchair I thought that I had better just check the engine bay for water as the stern gland had started to leak more during our trip up the Rhone and I had attempted to stem the flow with more grease and extra tape (don’t ask). When I saw the foot of water throughout I had visions of the boat sinking forthwith and us staying in Lyon rather longer than planned. Then I remembered the torrential rain from the day before – and sure enough, the drain off from the engine bay hatches (poor and slow at the best of times) had become completely blocked and had diverted all the rainfall directly into the engine bay – no siesta then, but two hours of pumping, baling and sponging left me tired, wet and greasy. Such is life!

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View from the Museum towards the Port (2 curved white rooves of the shopping mall).

Tired as we were from our two weeks on the Rhone we did not sleep well in Lyon. On both nights we were subject to the noise from quayside late night revelling (cinemas and restaurants in the centre stay open till 1 am) and one particular group sat right beside the boat, easily stepping on and off our roof at intervals, until gone 2am. So on Sunday morning we left port in the morning in search of some peace and quiet and started our journey up the River Saone.

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A quieter mooring, at Collanges.

By midday we found a nice small pontoon at Collanges-au-Mont-d’Or (PK 12.5, free, no services) and settled in for lunch and then dinner. This is a well-known gastronomic spot with the famous Michelin starred Restaurant Paul Bocuse within sight. We went to stand and stare – but didn’t dare go in! We certainly slept better here for two nights but during the afternoons and evenings we were subjected to frequent rocking and rolling as speed boats roared past and water-skiers made their seemingly endless circuits.

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Restaurant Paul Bocuse at Collanges-au-Mont-d’Or.

On a glorious sunny and calm morning with the river to ourselves we moved on 9 km to a pleasantly sited wooden jetty (PK 21.5, free, no services) at St-Germain-au-Mont-d’Or described by friend David as “a lovely little mooring beside an imposing house on the Right Bank…..Water lilies, swans”. No mention of speed boats and water-skiers! Here we could barely pour a glass of wine in between violent lurches without spillage and our appetites were seriously impaired. We felt completely at sea and in rather rough weather to boot until after 9pm when the last of the water-skiers packed it in. The waves created by the wake of these small speed boats are fiercer by far than the wash from the many passing cruise liners and commercial barges.

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A nice mooring but too many speedboats at St Germain-au-Mont-d’Or.

After another really lovely morning cruise of 19 km we had better luck at Jassans-Riottier (PK 41, free, services not connected on our visit) where there is another restaurant of some repute, L’Embarcadere by Paul Blanc.

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Another tempting restaurant. L’Embarcadere at Jassans-Riottier.

The long pontoon and small port is right at the end of a water-skiing stretch of the river so we only bore the brunt of a few turning boats that evening. During the very hot afternoon we cycled the short distance into town and a convenient and air-conditioned Carrefour supermarket.

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Finding a little shade for a game and a drink on the pontoon at Jassans-Riottier.

A short two hour trip the next day took us to Belleville (PK 55, free water and electric) where we spent a couple of quiet relaxing days and we discovered the Intermarche hypermarket a short cycle ride away on the right bank. On our last visit we had crossed the dangerous road bridge to go further to a Simply supermarket I had spotted from the roof. We were still experiencing very hot weather, well into the 30s every afternoon, although a thunder storm and heavy rain lasted as long as it took us to moor up, and we got very wet in the process.

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An unexpected arrival at Belleville disembarks 3 coach loads of passengers before moving on.

From Belleville we cruised three hours to Creches-sur-Saone (PK73, pontoon with services by arrangement with the campsite) but only stopped here long enough to eat lunch aboard. The little riverside café didn’t tempt us with its rather limited menu and so we continued on that afternoon to Macon, this time passing by the town pontoon and mooring up in the Marina (PK 83, all services, €27.80 + €2 electricity a night).

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Lunchbreak at Creches-sur-Saone.

As we edged into the pontoon at Macon our bow-thruster clicked and died – and a shout from the bow announced that our mooring rope had found its way along the 4ft underwater tube and into the propeller – and was firmly stuck. What I needed at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon after 5 hours cruising was a nice cup of tea – but instead I spent the next hour dashing round to the nearby Concept Boating to borrow a ‘tournevis a frapper’ (to get the screws on the bow deck hatch undone), getting the rope unjammed (with one hand and no sight down the narrow hatch), and returning the tool to the shop before it closed at 5pm. By that time my tea was cold and I was hot and bothered! Our toilet ‘tank full’ red light came on which was timely as the port had a pump-out machine – so at least I’d be spared having to do a manual pump-out the next morning – but the bow-thruster, now free of rope, had obviously tripped out and refused to switch on and I have no idea where the fuse and or the trip switch is and can’t find either.

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Access panel to the bow-thruster weed hatch.

Before leaving in the morning we pulled over to the services quay and whilst connected to the pump-out machine (free and usage required by all the boats in the Marina I was firmly told by the Capitaine) filled up with diesel. I ran the pump-out cycle a second time as I couldn’t be sure that the tank was actually empty (I hadn’t been paying attention whilst at the diesel pump) – but nothing more was appearing in the sight glass. As we left the marina, making what felt like rather sluggish progress, I realised that I had forgotten to check the weed hatch and so at the first opportunity we stopped at a nice little pontoon at Port de Vesines (PK 87.5 free, no services). There were no weeds round the propeller – but the toilet ‘tank full’ light was back on! You win some, you lose some.

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Pastoral scenes on the River Saone.

By lunchtime we had reached the entrance to the Pont de Vaux Canal (Lock at PK 97.5) and turned into the entrance only to find ourselves aground. A second attempt closer to the bridge got us to the lock waiting quay where we tied up and during our lunchbreak did a manual pump-out whilst reconsidering our plan to go the three kilometres up this dead-end canal to Pont-de-Vaux. We backed out and carried on upriver to Tournus (PK 112) where the pontoon moorings were all full and there was only a 40 metre gap on the town quay (free, water and electric if you can reach) with a 10 metre penichette moored in the middle. It took a while to negotiate with the French couple, who protested that they couldn’t move one way because their electric cable wasn’t long enough, nor the other way because of a jutting-out part of the quay, and once the three fisherman behind them had volunteered to vacate the quay we managed to get the penichette moved (inch by inch) all of two metres needed for us to get between them and a huge steel post in front of the barge behind. Then they told us about the very smelly drain at their stern and by our bow!

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A tight squeeze getting onto the Town Quay at Tournus.

It was a pleasure to have another walk round Tournus and we had time to stop into the nearby Simply supermarket a little walk down the right bank before heading off for the Old Lock at Gigny (PK 123, €18 including electric and water) where we spent the night. We needed to agree a rendez-vous for meeting Lili in two days and it was also the time, as we approached Chalon, to make a decision about our autumn cruising plans. We had originally intended to continue up the Saone and onto the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne, onto the Canal Lateral a la Marne, onto the River Marne down to the Seine and then up to the Yonne and back to Auxerre by November, but after an arduous month I was worried that this was being too ambitious. As it turns out the Marne will be closed for most of September and the Yonne for most of October, making it impossible for us to complete the loop in our timeframe. So we opted to turn off at Chalon-sur-Saone, onto the Canal du Centre and meet up with Lili at Fragnes, where we booked ourselves in for 3 nights.

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The Old Lock, Gigny.

Our final day on the Saone started out with the toilet not flushing, needing prompt maintenance, and the door to the safe coming off its hinges, soon fixed, before we set off on a really beautiful morning for the 22km to the entrance to the Canal du Centre (PK 145), passing through Chalon (not needing to stop for diesel at the port) and reaching lock 34b in time to go through before its midday closure for lunch and then on to moor up outside the Leclerc supermarket at PK 4 (convenient but dreadful mooring in a parlous state). It was a relief to be back on the relative calm of a canal. After lunch we pottered along to Fragnes (PK 8, €12 a night including water and electric) and despite it being Capitaine Celine’s day off there was a mooring space taped off for us along the bank by the hotel barges. As we pulled in I heard a rather ominous noise from below. It turned out to be a sheared bolt on our TravelPower (domestic power generator) alternator.

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The Port at Fragnes, Canal du Centre, the morning after we arrived. It soon filled up again.

When celebrating our arrival in Lyon, having come 300km up the Rhone, I had rather forgotten that we still had before us at least another 145km of river to navigate. And although the Saone proved to be a gentle ride compared to the Rhone it still involved long hot days standing out on the stern deck and we found it tiring. From Lyon to Chalon took us 10 days, 8 days cruising with 2 rest days, and from southern canal (Rhone a Sete) to central canal (Centre) took us 25 days from August 5th to August 29th. On our way down in 2015 we had left Fragnes on April 22nd and arrived in St Gilles 22 days later on 13th May, but this included an enforced stay of 7 days in Valence when the river flows were too strong.

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Distant memories. Jet skiing on the Med in hot sunshine. Charles, Maurice and Ollie.

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

Stress and Strain coming up the Rhone, 300 km from St Gilles to Lyon.

After a restful night near the St Gilles Lock on the Canal du Rhone a Sete we decided on the morning of Saturday 5th August that there was a good weather window of opportunity to make our first long day’s start up the Rhone. Once through the St Gilles lock (PK 300) at 10.00 am there was nowhere to stop for the next 46 km on first the Petit Rhone River for 22 km and then the Rhone, which was at its strongest flow of around 900 cubic meters per second (about 3 kilometres per hour) at the Beaucaire/Tarascon Rail Bridge (PK 268), and it took us until 6pm that day to reach the little Port at Aramon (PK 254.5), averaging a little under 6 kilometres per hour, at a steady 1500 rpm, against the current and wind.

A stormy looking sky at Aramon.

We had tried for 3 days to contact the Port to make a reservation but were only able to leave messages on an answerphone so took it on faith that we would be able to moor there. On arrival we found a space on Pontoon B but no sign of any port management, and only one fellow boater who had pulled in just before us, so we tied up and made ourselves at home. The next day’s forecast was for very strong winds (Mistral) and we knew we would need to stay put so we were relieved when early the next morning the Capitaine, Olivier, appeared to welcome us. He had not received any of our messages as the phones listed in the Fluvial Guide are no longer in use but he could not have been more helpful. I was worried about having sufficient diesel to reach Valence, nearly 150 km away, without needing to make a detour into the very difficult to access pump in Avignon so he kindly drove me and four Jerry cans to the nearby supermarket service station for a much needed top-up. It seemed that the increase in revs on our 70hp Isuzu engine from our usual 1200, using about 2.5 litres per engine hour, to 1500 had doubled our fuel usage to 5 litres per hour – and we only have a 160 litre fuel tank.

On Pontoon B at Aramon.

We were badly bounced about by the wind and waves on Pontoon B for two nights and a day and despite Olivier’s offer to stay (€25 a night) and sit out the Mistral, which he said never blows for less than 3 days, we decided to move on as another day and night of noise from the slapping of the water under the cruiser next to us would have driven us mad. But not before we became the first boat ever to use the port’s pump-out machine, installed four years ago at a cost of over €75,000 and a condition for permission to open this then new port. It worked a treat, but whilst we were using it a commercial barge went by so fast that the waves nearly capsized the cruiser on the pontoon next to us, spreading their breakfast and crockery about the deck, nearly threw me off the roof had I not been holding onto the pump hose, with us losing some crockery too and suffering two broken castor joints on the PC desk, and leaving the PC monitor toppled over but mercifully not broken once righted.

Olivier at the pump-out and spotting the speeding peniche.

Fortunately windfinder.com suggested correctly that the Mistral would be less violent than the 50 kilometre per hour gusts that Olivier’s phone app had forecast and we had a very pleasant four hour cruise to Roquemaure, PK 225, where we tied up to an old concrete town quay just made for us and with a beautiful view. We had a blissfully wave free quiet and peaceful night. Rain was forecast the next morning but after cycling in to the nearby Lidl for some essentials we decided to move on anyway.

Our view at Roquemaure with cruise liner and peniche passing.

We knew that along the next 100 kilometres the only moorings would be on lock waiting pontoons, which with permission from the lock keepers pleasure boats can use over night, but they are only about 20 meters long and so one has to hope that not too many other boats have the same idea at the same time. We were lucky at Bolene, PK 190, passing through this enormous 22 metre depth lock on our own, and mooring for the night on the upstream pontoon.

Sunset at Bolene Lock.

Above the Bolene lock we entered the 20 km canalised Donzere Mondragon reach and this proved to be hard going against some strong flows and was rather dull scenically until we reached Viviers, PK 166, where there is a Port which is still, after several years, apparently completely silted up. On the 2 km approach to the Chateauneuf Lock (PK 164) we barely made 3 kph against the flow and we found this to be a pattern at all the locks as we ascended. After 7 hours on the move we decided to at least try to get into the little port at Cruas, PK 145, officially restricted to 13 metre length boats, as I could see the 18m reception pontoon was empty, so we tied up and then rang the Capitaine, who was happy to bend the rules and let us stay for two or more nights (€21 a night).

Cruas port and the power station.

We needed a break from the relentless routine of standing out on the stern deck in the often very hot sun and wind for hours on end without a break. There are better designs of boats than ours for cruising long distances on large rivers! Cruas proved to be an oasis of calm. From the river it appears to just consist of a large nuclear power plant with a mural painted on a tower but on closer inspection the town has much more to offer. We had never visited the Ardeche region, whose eastern boundary runs along the river, and so helped ourselves liberally to pamphlets from the friendly Tourist Office.

Cruas, old and new.

After shopping, including eventually finding with some difficulty and a longish bike ride, the ‘not to be missed’, weekly Organic Growers Market, my first stop was the Abbatiale Sainte-Marie de Cruas – a church, now a Historic Monument, built mainly between the C11th and C13th by Benedictine monks who founded a monastery at Cruas in 804. Recent archaeological work has revealed older layers dating back to a Roman Villa and has uncovered a beautiful and well preserved C12th limestone monk’s ‘Tribune’.

Abbatiale Sainte Marie de Cruas uncovered.

From here it was a short but steep walk up through the very picturesque medieval town streets, with some renovation work being undertaken to bring buildings back into use as houses and gites, but with most of the buildings higher up the hill, topped with a fortified monks’ chapel, still in a ruined state.

The Medieval town, Cruas.

My last visit was to the Town Museum set in nice gardens and opened in 1987 as the Andre Auclair (1893-1976) Art and History Centre. It shows a retrospective of this painter’s very varied and wide ranging work and I very much enjoyed getting to know some of it.

River scene by Auclair.

The weather forecasts for the next 10 days were still looking favourable with only occasional days of higher winds and we decided to push on to Valence despite the Capitaine’s prediction of several days of a strong Mistral ahead and a gentle reminder that his port fees were cheaper than in Valence! We made the 33 km trip in just over 6 hours and before mooring filled up with 112 litres of diesel from the self-service pump in the Port de L’Eperviere (PK 112). We had averaged just over 5 litres per hour for the last 22 hours of cruising, and would have been very close to running out had we not been able to fill up at Aramon.

Sunset at Cruas with rainbows.

There is a 3 km cycle path from the Marina into the centre of Valence which we had visited on our way down when we had an enforced 1 week stay here so instead we spent the day cycling to the nearer Geant Casino and took time to just relax and plan the next stage of our journey. After Valence there are more frequent mooring opportunities and fuel stops and with only 112 km left to go to Lyon we were thinking of taking it in short hops of a few hours at a time, perhaps visiting some of the possible sites of interest temptingly described in the Ardeche tourism leaflets.

Tree of Life tapestry by Auclair.

We left Valence on a bright sunny Sunday morning with our sights only set as far as a lunch and possible overnight stop at the pontoon at La Roche de Glun (PK 98). On arrival there at midday we found several cruisers already double breasted on the pontoon so we had to carry on to Tournon (PK 91) where we hoped to be able to moor up and spend a day to take a ride on the scenic Ardeche Railway. The barge quay just outside the port was already taken and so we nosed in gingerly to see if we could tie up to the quay just by the port entrance – but we never reached it, and found ourselves firmly aground.

Firmly aground in Tournon.

After lunch I engaged in a conversation with some local bystanders on the pavement who suggested the sailor on our other side should pull us out. Udi, the Israeli owner of Va Bene, sent his youngest daughter and three of her boarding school friends over in a dinghy to fetch a rope which he then attached to his winch, and slowly the stern started to slide off the mud.

A jolly Israeli boarding party comes to our rescue.

This all worked very well until there was a nasty cracking sound from his winch – but enough was left of it to complete the job and after exchanging emails, so that I would be able to compensate him for the repair costs of any damage, we backed out onto the river and carried on upstream.

Udi at the winch aboard Va Bene.

The next possible mooring was another 15 km away at St Vallier (PK 76) and shortly before we reached it at 6pm we had watched as Va Bene overtook us and moored up beside the boat already on this small 25m pontoon. I hovered and Udi was quick to invite us to breast up which we did with some difficulty and many defensive fenders on Va Bene’s curved hull and ropes to each end of the pontoon with help from the French cruiser Thalie on the upstream end. Serge, on Thalie, who had come downstream, told us that the nearest upstream pontoon, over an hour away, was already taken. After checking with Udi and learning that he wanted to leave at 8am the next morning we set the alarm clock and had an early night – it hadn’t been a good day.

An early night at St Vallier.

At 8am we were up and looking forward to moving onto Udi’s space on the pontoon and visiting the local supermarket – but Udi, who was reading on the stern deck, announced that he was letting the young sleep in a bit. As it was a lovely morning we decided at 8.30am just to press on and who knows, maybe get to a mooring before anyone else.

Thalie, Va Bene and Xenia at St Vallier.

We passed the pontoon at Andance (PK 68) where we had moored on our downward journey in 2015 and thought we recognised the Dutch cruiser Voet, with whom we had moored in Aigues Mortes and at Aramon, and continued against a strong current up to Sablons lock (PK 61) where we had only a short wait. Above the lock we picked up a bit of speed and were moving nicely along this canalised section with sloping concrete banks when at PK 53 I heard an unfamiliar alarm buzzing. It took me awhile to locate the broken fan belt as the cause after switching off the engine. The boat, now adrift, seemed to be staying put on the left bank  which was a relief, after experiencing strong currents earlier in the day, but I wasn’t sure what might happen if a commercial or a cruise liner came by. Just as I was taking a deep breath, and about to get the spanners out, I spotted Voet coming up behind us and Hannes was good enough both to ask if we were OK and then to offer help with replacing the fan belt. He tied alongside and we drifted together. I did have a spare belt but I wish I knew then what others have now told me that a good pair of ladies tights can make a temporary fan belt repair (and are quick and easy to install).

Hannes to the rescue.

It took Hannes a hot and tiring hour to work out with a shared collection of tools how to get the belts off and then put on a new one (neither of us sure that it was the correct belt or sufficiently well tightened). The least we could do was to give him lunch whilst we cruised along gently with his boat in tow.

Pam holds us steady with Voet attached so Hannes can have lunch.

Fortunately I had already reserved a mooring at Les Roches de Condrieu (PK 41) for that night and it was with huge relief that we limped into Port by late afternoon. The mechanic mentioned in the Fluvial Guide was on annual holiday so the Capitaine gave me the phone number of an English mechanic based in Lyon, but he was away in Monaco fixing luxury yachts until the following week.

Safely moored on the outside pontoon at Les Roches de Condrieu.

Later that evening Va Bene came into port and moored on the end of our pontoon and it wasn’t long before Udi was telling us his own tale of woe. Shortly after we had left that morning he had started up the engine in readiness to leave but found that he couldn’t get it into gear. Serge, on the French cruiser Thalie, had stayed with him all day ringing round until he found a mechanic friend from Valence who was able to come out and fix the problem by late afternoon. Udi gave me the number of the mechanic but as I was writing it down Serge appeared on the pontoon – this was his home port and he had only passed his French Boat Driving Permit three days previously and so had been on his first outing on his newly acquired (30 year old) cruiser. When he heard our saga for the day he rushed off to his boat and came back with an armful of fan belts – it turned out that he is a salesman for a company that sources and provides manufacturing and agricultural mechanical spare parts to customers whose needs are urgent!

The port at Les Roches de Condrieu.

It took Serge two days (one of them a public holiday) to find a mechanic – neither of us thought it was safe for us to continue without a professional check-up as the new belt was definitely too loose, and Hannes had emailed to say that he had just remembered that he hadn’t tightened a bolt that he had loosened in error – but in the meantime Serge found time on his holiday to run us to the supermarket to stock up on heavy goods. It was such a comfort having a local Frenchman working so tirelessly on our behalf to get our problems resolved in the holiday month of August. Matthieu, the mechanic, was quickly able to redo the belts and make sure that we had the correct sizes correctly tensioned – he found that a second belt was badly worn and about to go – so we ended up with two new belts, sourced at a moment’s notice by Serge. We didn’t know how to properly thank Serge for his saintly behaviour but he accepted an invitation with his partner Cathy to aperos and dinner with us on our third night in port. Unfortunately I didn’t have any of his favourite local wine Guigal Cote Rotie aboard, but now I know.

Condrieu bridge linking Condrieu (right bank) to Les Roches de Condrieu

So we set off from Les Roches de Condrieu determined to take it easy over the final 41 km up the Rhone and to keep the revs to 1200 and hope to avoid causing any further undue stress in the engine room. Our plan was to break the journey at Vienne (PK 29) where we knew there was a good pontoon and we reached there by lunchtime only to witness a downstream cruiser turn and moor up on it. As we approached they very kindly made efforts to make room for us but were not open to suggestions that they move to the upstream end of the 25m pontoon to allow us to hang off the downstream end. It proved to be impossible to tie up securely in front of them with only the stern half of the boat roped and in the middle of a rather messy disentanglement who should appear on the pontoon but Serge. A hurried hello as we extricated Pam’s bicycle basket from the cruiser’s bow anchor and he let us know that there was a jetty 200 yards away which we than tied up to.

Serge takes a snapshot of our failed mooring attempt at Vienne.

He didn’t come down to see us there, but we texted, and we stayed for lunch only, as it was clearly designed for larger trip boats (no mooring prohibition signs though) and we were unable to fender the boat satisfactorily. So we carried on in what was turning into another very hot afternoon. I had thought that there might be a mooring opportunity at Givors (PK 18) but it proved to be a no go and there was nothing for it but to tackle the fast flowing stretch leading up to Pierre Benite lock that afternoon. Fortunately we were making good time, even on the reduced revs, and although the final kilometre was a real struggle, we were through and moored up on the upstream lock pontoon by 6.30pm – another tiring 8 hour day.

Working our way up the final stretch to Pierre Benite Lock.

We had booked into the Port at the Confluence in Lyon for Friday and Saturday nights so took our time on Friday morning leaving the Pierre Benite Lock at 8.45 and making our way slowly up the final 4 km to the junction with the Saone and then continuing on for a further kilometre to a petrol station jetty on the Rhone upstream of the junction. The Rhone is actually navigable for a further 7 km but there are no moorings or facilities for pleasure boats. We were able to fill up with 80 litres of diesel at petrol station prices (€1.27 per litre) and also get a propane gas cylinder refill (€35.50) before turning round and heading back to the Confluence and then up the River Saone for 1 km arriving at 11am as the Capitainerie opened for the day.

Dawn at Pierre Benite. The locks are open 24 hours a day for commercials.

In total it took us 14 days, 9 travelling and 5 resting to travel the 300 km up the River Rhone from St Gilles to Lyon. The engine ran for just over 50 hours using 231 litres of diesel. Our travelling days averaged 6 hours of actual cruising covering 36 kilometres at an average speed of 6 kph, excluding locking time which in most cases was little more than 30 minutes although we did have a two hour delay at one lock. Only one day of rest was enforced due to strong winds so we were very lucky with generally favourable weather conditions on wind and current.

At the Confluence of the Saone (left) and Rhone in Lyon.

We passed through some spectacular scenery and although the Rhone is managed as an industrial river it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to stop more frequently and to visit many more of the places of interest along its path. But the moorings for pleasure boats are few and often far between and their availability is somewhat of a lottery on the day. There is also a sense of urgency felt by most boaters to get up and off the Rhone whilst they can – make good whilst the going’s good! All the boating advice we had taken about making this journey in August or September when the river flows are generally at their lowest ebb for the year had paid off but I have to admit that there is a big sense of relief now that we have made the journey, which at one time I had wondered at the wisdom of attempting.

Posted in 2017 season, French Cruising - north and central, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rest and Relaxation on the Rhone a Sete Canal (part 2) – St Gilles to Beaucaire and back to Frontignan.

Throughout its 98 kms the Canal du Rhone a Sete runs in straight lines for miles ahead and the stretch from Sete to Gallician affords wonderful views across the etangs (saline lakes), on one side towards the hills behind Montpellier, and on the other to the sea and occasional seaside resorts. Everywhere there is a profusion of bird life and fishermen, it is often very windy, nearly always very hot, and we have enjoyed this unique Camarguais landscape more each time we pass.

Somewhere near Montpellier.

Beyond St Gilles the canal continues its straight course but heads inland and is bordered by trees obscuring any views across the surrounding countryside for the remaining 28 kms to Beaucaire. After a couple of quiet nights on a small wooden pontoon at PK 28 (a popular overnight stop for those wanting to make an early start through the St Gilles lock down onto the Petit Rhone and on to the Rhone) we headed into St Gilles and found a space on the old quay.

Town Quay, St Gilles.

We called ahead to make sure that we would be able to get water and a mooring once we reached the canal terminus in Beaucaire. The port Captain had just come back from annual leave (conges) and wasn’t sure but could tell us that there was absolutely no chance of a mooring at Bellegarde, the only other port on this stretch from St Gilles. We very nearly didn’t bother to make the trip as when we called back we were told that it was impossible, too difficult, no room – but I persisted with a few questions about this and that and suddenly Didier said he would call me back, which he did in 5 mins with an empty Le Boat base quay (abandoned) at our disposal. So after a long hot walk into the old town of St Gilles (no worthwhile grocery) and then out to the supermarket we set off that afternoon making an overnight wild mooring at PK 10 where we found a reinforced stretch of bank to climb and secure to pins. We saw no commercial traffic at all after St Gilles but plenty of birds and insects crossed our path, some of them biting Pam very badly as she climbed up onto the bank to secure the pins. The frequent kingfishers, a flock of European Bee Eaters and the Rollers (a first sighting for me) were rather more welcome company than the hornets, large horseflies and an assortment of weird and rather dangerous looking unidentified flying insects (not to mention the odd mosquito).

Wild(life) mooring.

On arrival in Beaucaire we found ourselves in splendid isolation behind fencing and locked gates and apparently forgotten by Didier who had said he would be down to see us – this was before lunch. After lunch I checked out the rather vandalised looking services and found that we had both water and electric but by tea-time I did have to telephone to be let out! We later discovered that there was a missing panel but this was after Didier had brought us the keys and taken the wire off one of the gates. Amazingly an English boating couple appeared on foot that evening (through the missing fence panel) having heard about us on the grapevine and wondering if we had services as they were in the main port without any electric supply.

Splendid isolation, Beaucaire.

We ended up spending three nights (small boat daily rate of €29 with a night thrown in free) on our quiet and peaceful quay and thoroughly enjoyed a chance to clean the boat, water the plants, shop and go sightseeing.

Full port, Beaucaire.

Beaucaire lock and junction with the River Rhone has been out of service since the mid-1970s but the Port still remains crowded and popular, although during our stay we saw only 3 boats on the move.

Another angle of the Port at Beaucaire.

We headed by bike across the Rhone Bridge to the mighty fortress of Tarascon, mainly built in the C15th but with C11th origins, guarding the eastern border of Provence. We were able to look down over the River Rhone and get an idea of what we may be up against in a few weeks’ time when hopefully we will pass underneath the two bridges here. The Chateau/Castle was a most enjoyable visit.

View of the Rhone from the Tarascon Castle Turret.

We wandered the quaint old streets of Beaucaire which in its day held each July one of the largest of Europe’s fairs, with ships arriving from around the Mediterranean and crowds of up to 300,000 people.

The Friday Market Beaucaire.

The Friday market was a somewhat smaller affair – but we were leaving town just before the Estivales began that night, which apparently are worth staying for, but we had places to go, people to meet, and only a week to retrace our steps the 98 kms (only 1 lock at Nourriguier PK 8) back to Frontignan.

Looking for the Tourist Office in Beaucaire.

On our return trip for our first overnight stop we opted for a high cement wall with rings near PK 18 – avoiding the need to get off the boat and the risk of getting bitten again! All the other flying suspects were still much in evidence though.

Wild mooring with less risk of leg biting insects.

At St Gilles PK 25 we had noticed a sign advertising the sale of diesel at the Le Boat base so dropped in (on a Saturday morning) and were promptly and courteously sold 77 litres (the amount we had used since leaving Frontignan) at €1.60 a litre. This and the supermarket up the River Lez where we had stopped previously, are the only waterside locations for diesel pumps on this canal. We made a two night stop at PK 28 on the small wooden jetty and once again watched quite a number of boats passing and coming and going over the weekend. From here we decided to make a second attempt at getting moored in Aigues Mortes, PR 23, having failed to do so on Bastille Day. The nearly four hour trip took us into the commercial section of the port just after lunch but the quay (some of it Hotel Boat priority) was full with three private cruisers and a hotel boat. We spotted a gap on the other side between Rinanbe (we have passed them often on the Midi) and a trip boat and so pulled in on the off chance we wouldn’t be seen off. We weren’t – Quentin and Denise (Rinanbe) had put in the night before to discover that this bit of quay was not currently being used by its normal occupant – and so we stayed the night.

Opportunistic mooring in Aigues-Mortes.

As always the cobbled and narrow main streets in the old walled town were crowded with tourists that afternoon, but on the next morning before 10am we found them much less so and a visit to both the excellent little fruit shop and the butcher cum delicatessen gave us sufficient provisions to be moving on.

Tour de Constance, Aigues-Mortes.

We spent another two nights at Maguelone before heading in (an hour and a half trip) to Frontignan to catch the 8.30 am bridge lift. This turned out to be a smart move as the winds over the previous few days had caused a log jam of boats waiting in the port and they all cleared out that morning to cross the Etang de Thau, leaving the serviced quay empty just as we arrived. We had two days to get ready for family arriving on Friday night but first it was lunch with Charles and Sally (Bluegum) at Fanny’s Bistro before they moved on that day. Other familiar faces were Richard on Allegretto moored along the quay and Clive and Elaine on Cochon Noir passing through on their journey south. Lyneve arrived and we finally got to meet Steve and Lynda whose empty boat we had breasted up against in Buzet for a couple of nights last summer.

Another sunset moored at Maguelone.

Having successfully found a taxi to meet Maurice, Lauren and Ollie at Sete on their delayed train from Paris we got them a’board by 11pm on Friday. Next day, after a visit to Frontignan’s large Saturday street market, we headed out that afternoon to Maguelone in time for an evening visit to the beach. The port soon started filling up again, this time with boats arriving for a music festival a’board an old touring peniche (barge) due in – which arrived just as we were leaving through the 4pm bridge opening.

Ollie – from Disney’s Buffalo Bill Wild West Show to Nature on Maguelone Beach.

Two full days of beach activity included swimming, sunbathing, a trip on the other Petit Train from the Cathedral to the Camping at Palavas-les-Flots, to find even more nudists and a jet-ski rental, a nice informal lunch of salads, mussels and oysters at the Cathedral cafe/bistro, games on the boat, and sunset watching.

Beach entertainment for hire at Palavas-les-Flots.

On Tuesday we headed off, on an unusually overcast day, to the Carrefour supermarket pontoon on the River Lez to get milk and diesel (€1.19 a litre) before stopping for lunch on the pontoon by the camping ground up river. We found we were able to turn round here without any difficulty and then retraced our steps and continued along the canal to the wild mooring at PR 36 for a quiet night of more games – Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Phase 10.

A favourite wild mooring at PR 36.

From here it was a two hour sunny morning cruise into Aigues Mortes where the Capitaine greeted us in his little rib and escorted us through the port to a mooring on the reception pontoon. Visits into town in the fierce afternoon heat, and lounging about on the now very hot boat, were followed by a very nice evening meal at the Bistrot de Paiou where in one form or another we enjoyed the local speciality of ‘Taureau’ (bull) meat along with some good seafood and local wines.

Young Camargue bulls being selected for ‘bravery’.

Our much looked forward to Camargue Sauvage 4×4 Photo Safari, hoping to see Flamingos on the ground rather than just flying past the boat in the evening, turned out to be something of a 4 hour endurance trial. We were driven backwards and forwards to various spots, nearly all along the now, to us, very familiar canal, to see black Bulls, Cowboys, white horses, and more black Bulls and white horses and Cowboys – but no birds to speak of and not a flicker of a flamingo. Sitting on the bench seats in the back of an old Land Rover, with extremely poor visibility unless you stood up through the open roof (but nothing to hold on to), and being jostled about over hard bumpy dirt tracks was in itself not a pleasant experience. Add to that no ‘comfort facilities’ and no available water on a very hot afternoon and by 7pm it was a relief to get back to the hot boat!

Camargue horses – they like bread.

The Safari brochure promised “tasting regional products” and I could hardly believe it when we headed down the canal to Gallician and stopped outside La Laupio – the shop I had already visited twice before! At first the lady proprietor was nowhere to be seen and then had to be coaxed into giving us a thimbleful of wine and a slither of sausisson – far less generous portions than I had been given on my previous visits as a customer.

“4×4 converted for your comfort”.

We had paid a bit extra to witness “mares with foals galloping in the marshes” and at the end of the tour we assembled beside a canal side-branch to watch a ‘gardian’ (cowboy) and his family swim a group of horses across the 20 meters of water and back. The talks with the gardians were incomprehensible to me (fairly strong local accent) and so the advertised ‘unique moments’ of the Cowboys remained a secret to us.

“Mares with foals galloping in the marshes”.

But all too soon it was time for ‘au revoir’ and we saw Maurice, Lauren and Ollie off at Aigues-Mortes station on the €1 train to Nimes to get their connection to the Eurostar from Avignon TGV to St Pancras, London. They were safely out of the scorching southern heat and back in cooler Kidlington, Oxfordshire, by midnight.

Au Revoir at Aigues-Mortes station.

For us it was a baking three hour afternoon trip to our favourite little wooden jetty at PK 28 near the St Gilles lock to enjoy a Friday night Pastis in the relatively cool evening shade (90F, 32C) and to plan our ascent up the Rhone by checking river flow levels (pretty modest) and wind predictions (some gales forecast for Sunday). We decided to decide in the morning, after a good breakfast, whether or not we would leave the safe confines of the Canal du Rhone a Sete the next day.

A Camargue Gardian (cowboy).

Posted in 2017 season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rest and Relaxation on the Rhone a Sete Canal – from Sete to St-Gilles and up the River Lez.

After a rather damp squib of a departure from the Midi Canal (see my last post) we’ve had a lot more fun since arriving at Frontignan-la-Peyrade on the outskirts of Sete, and having settled in on Friday lunchtime to our somewhat rough concrete quay mooring, right at the entrance to the Canal du Rhone a Sete from the Etang de Thau, we accepted our neighbour’s kind offer to ride into Sete with them that evening.

Mooring at La Peyrade.

Dominique and Jean-Luc told us about the annual local fisherman’s fete Le Grand Pardon de Saint-Pierre and we cycled into town (about twenty minutes) to witness the parade starting at 9.30pm, complete with firemen’s marching band, taking the statues of St Peter from the Penitents Chapel.

At the Penitents Chapel – boats ready to be lifted onto fishermen’s shoulders for the parade.

Following the crowds up through the old town to the church La Decanale St Louis we managed to lose our guides so had a good rest in a pew before deciding that, with no sign yet of the statues arriving, it was late enough already and, without any bicycle lights and needing to remember the return route through the maze of canal bridges and one way streets we had better head for home. Sete is known as the ‘Venice of Languedoc’ – the port being constructed in time for the completion of the Midi Canal in 1681.

Waiting in anticipation in St Louis church.

An important part of the weekend long festivities was a Tournoi de Joutes (jousting tournament in boats) and so on Sunday we cycled in for more sightseeing and after checking at the tourist office for time and place for the competition that afternoon we headed up the very steep Mont St Clair to visit the Musee de Paul Valery (Local Poet, 1871-1945) where I had heard that there were some good paintings. It was the first Sunday of the Month (July 1st) and this Musee participates in the scheme that runs throughout France in many museums to allow free entry on this day. For some reason though it only applied to their permanent collection, some nice paintings over the years of the old Cette, as the town was known until 1927, and not to their special exhibition of the work of El Greco. So we coughed up the €9 each only to find that the El Greco exposition consisted of one painting, The Immaculate Conception, and four small rooms showing films of different aspects of his work and his life. All very well, but somewhat disappointing on the value for money front.

Musee de Paul Valery, Sete.

However we were rewarded with a wonderful view across the bay and port as we came out of the museum which is high on the hill above the cemetery and this was enhanced by the fact that we were witnessing another part of the Le Grand Pardon festivities – the fishing boat procession to sea in homage to lost sailors.

View from Mont St Clair of Sete Harbour and the procession of fishing boats.

Once back down the hill into the main town we had time for lunch, Vietnamese fish cassoulet, and more of a look round before finding no sign of any official preparations for jousting activity around the stand set up for spectators on Quai Licciardi – only a few spectators. I checked back with the nearby tourist office who assured me that I was in the right place but after half an hour we decided to give it a miss and cycle home. We discovered later that the event had been moved to another quay – a sign at the stand or knowledge of the change at the tourist office would have been nice!

View from the cemetery, Mont St Clair.

We stayed at La Peyrade, PR 5, for four nights and found it not only convenient for cycling in to Sete (a cycle route for much of the way) but also for shopping at a nearby Lidl on the industrial estate and with shops in La Peyrade itself, a short walk/cycle ride away and on a good bus route between Sete and Montpellier. But, running low on water, we decided on Tuesday to move on the 4km into Frontignan, where we found a space, with water at €2 per 100 litres and electric at €2 per 5kwh, on the quay before the low road bridge. This bridge is raised only twice a day to allow boats to pass underneath, at 8.30am and at 4.00pm, resulting usually in quite a melee to both get through and to secure a place on the serviced quay. Having timed our arrival for 10am we were able to sit comfortably and watch that afternoon’s activity of twelve boats passing upstream and twelve passing downstream and the quay filling up for the night.

Melee at the Frontignan lift bridge and L’Escapade in the middle of it.

And as good fortune would have it David and Evey, on L’Escapade and whom we knew were heading down the Rhone, were due into Frontignan the next day – we last saw them in Burgundy at Fragnes in April 2015. Their arrival occasioned impromptu and joint-effort aperos in the shade on a quayside bench and then dinner under L’Escapade’s generous mid-deck dining canopy.

The dinner deck on L’Escapade beckons, at Frontignan.

The next morning, with David safely sent off to Paris on the train to pick up their car, Evey, Pam and I headed off from the station in the opposite direction to Sete in search of seafood treats and lunch; taking the free shuttle bus service from the station into town our first stop was at Les Halles for a mid-morning plate of raw oysters washed down with a glass of the local Picpoul de Pinet.

Finding oysters in Les Halles, Sete.

Tielles, pies of octopus morsels in spicy tomato sauce, are a local Setoise speciality and after lunch at Les Delices de Jade, on Quai General Durand, Evey collected her pies, ordered from her favourite artisan, on the way home. Our 8 minute train journey back turned into an hour’s bus ride (accident at Montpellier station) but David only made it home just before midnight and so the pies lived to see another day.

According to Evey, the best Tielles in town.

The moorings at Frontignan are free, but limited to three days and so Friday was our due date to leave. But first David, who had had to make do with eating at McDonald’s en-route the day before, was set on having a good lunch and we all headed into town to sample the delights of Le Bistrot de Fanny.

David and Pam at Le Bistro de Fanny, Frontignan.

More great local food; Seiche a la plancha (grilled cuttlefish – soft and buttery) with bottles of Muscat de Frontignan Sec (the sweet version is popular as an aperitif and was enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson on his visit here in 1787). David got a bit carried away (almost literally) by a school of laughter ladies who wanted hugs and more hugs (according to David).

Evey takes a snap – David and the ecole-de-rire.

By the time we’d finished at Fanny’s it was almost bridge opening time and when we set off somewhat reluctantly at 4pm David accused me of approaching the bridge sideways – I had observed that this was the way to get into pole position but was somewhat surprised when the man under the bridge in the little booth, whom I had not noticed before, accused me of running a red light, which I had also not seen.

Leaving Frontignan at an angle.

The two hour trip in hot sunshine, when I should rightly have been having a siesta, to Maguelone, PK 51, was hard work. We moored up well before the motorised pontoon bridge, on the sloping concrete quay with bollards but no services, and refreshed ourselves with Pastis and the wonderful views all around us.

Moored at Maguelone.

This is a magic place with an old cathedral standing on an ancient isthmus between the Etang de l’Arnel and the Golfe de Lion in the Mediterranean.

Rainbow over the Cathedral at Maguelone.

We listened on CD to George Brassens, 1921-1981 singer-songwriter, poet and a native of Sete, singing ‘Je m’suis fait tout petit’.

Full moon at Maguelone.

At one time there was an important town here, the first record of a bishop in 589, but it suffered changes in fortune becoming a mosque under the Saracens, and being destroyed in 737 by Charles Martel. It was rebuilt in its current Romanesque style in 1030 but the bishopric was moved in 1563 and the buildings were again ransacked after the Revolution with stones being taken to build the nearby canal.

Vineyard at Maguelone overlooking the thin strip of canal running between etangs.

But the island with its few remaining buildings and unspoiled beach has retained a timeless charm with access only on foot or by bike over the canal bridge. There is a ‘petit train’ running all day, to take those not up to cycling or walking, the 1km or so to the beach or cathedral with cafe/local products shop and a restaurant.

Le Petit Train will run you to the beach.

For nature lovers there are plenty of birds about and a stretch of beach for nudists too.

Pam in proper attire on the beach.

We spent three nights and two full days here despite the moorings being signed as limited to 24 hours. The three short 12m pontoons on the other side of the bridge are good for three days. We were surprised to see two large commercial peniches pass by in addition to a big Croisi-Europe cruise boat.

Commercial traffic, even at the weekend, on the Rhone a Sete.

At Palavas-les-Flots we made a sharp left turn at the Four Canals intersection, PR 46.5, and headed up the River Lez to a small pontoon, PK 9, provided by the Intermarche supermarket for boaters wanting to shop and/or buy fuel. There is a petrol hose actually on the pontoon but for diesel you do have to carry your cans to the regular car service pumps just a few feet away. We made good use of our visit and once fully supplied, and as turning space is a bit restricted at the pontoon, we decided to head on up river to explore and to find a mooring for lunch. A 20m pontoon at PK 7.5 fitted the bill so well that we stayed the night and enjoyed the company of a nest of Storks on a custom built post between us and the camping/holiday home park on the other side of the embankment.

Storks at the mooring on the River Lez.

We took advantage of the river water to both wash the boat and water the plants – the Rhone a Sete Canal is brackish water as it runs between the etangs (lagoons) along the coast – but in the whirl of evening activity our old watering-can sprang a leak. So next morning, in need of buying a new one, we decided to chance our arm, having read that we wouldn’t be allowed through the Troisieme lock, PK 6, and into Port Ariane, and cruised up river arriving at the lock as two boats were descending. As chance would have it the lock-keeper cum Port Capitaine was in attendance and he agreed to fit us in (one of only four spots possible for boats over 15m) to the Port for that night only. We thought that it was too good an opportunity to miss even though, not particularly needing water and electric, we initially baulked at the inclusive overnight charge of €35.

Entrance to Port Ariane, Lattes.

Port Ariane is a new development in Lattes and it brought to mind a rather exotic interpretation of Milton Keynes. We found ourselves surrounded by quayside restaurants and next to the main office of Fluvial, the French Waterways Magazine, who had a well-stocked shop/library of all the river and canal guides you could want (just when I don’t need any more!).

Port Ariane, home to Fluvial Magazine.

The local shops did not produce a watering-can but I was assured that if we took the Tramway towards Montpellier (only 6 km distance) I would find everything I needed at the Grand Sud, a modern shopping centre and retail park at Boirargues, which we did the next morning returning in time for lunch at A Tribord. The €13 lunch menu was excellent value for three good courses and we were able to sit out within a few feet of Xenia and so let some air through the boat on this extremely hot day (over 100F, 40C, on the stern deck) before setting off in the afternoon.

Lunch at A Tribord in the port and keeping one eye on Xenia.

We only travelled 2.5 km back downstream to the still empty pontoon, tied up, had a siesta, and then in the evening watered the plants and washed the other side of the boat, trying to benefit as much as we could from the breeze. Apparently though, during our one night absence, the Storks had flown the nest, which had been looking somewhat overcrowded with three large young in addition to an adult or two. Next morning, with even hotter sun forecast, we moved on to explore the downstream end of the Lez at Palavas-les-Flots – only to find that there are no suitable moorings available for our size boat and we had to turn round at the bridge which marks the change from canal to maritime port authority and leading directly into the Med. Back on the canal it was a similar story at Carnon, PR 42, where the Halte and mooring marked on the map led us into a narrow cul-de-sac where we had to jostle with low bridge heights and small boats moored up in order to turn. The left turn back onto the canal proved equally troublesome and we were relieved when we were able to pull into a rough collapsing bankside with a few embedded rusty old steel joists to tie to at PR 36.

A make-do mooring after Carnon at PR 36.

There was a nice breeze, a nice view across Etang de Mauguio, but the sun was getting hotter and once again a lunch stop turned into an overnight stop – it really gets too hot (115F, 42C on the back deck at 6pm) to carry on cruising comfortably in the afternoon, so we prefer to move in the morning. Again, we were surprised to be passed by three heavily laden commercial peniches in less than two hours.

More commercial traffic.

From here we made an unsuccessful assault on Aigues Mortes on Bastille Day. I should have known better. David, L’Escapade, had told us about mooring in the commercial port on a quay with hotel boat priority, so we decided to check it out. Turning right off the bypass canal we cruised past the railway bridge, closed, through the port de Plaisance, full, to turn round and find the railway bridge still closed, and so back up to the by-pass. The pontoon moorings listed here by the two bridges look barely suitable for fishermen let alone a large boat and in preference we ended up tying to some rickety railings under a bridge, PR 21.5, for lunch. Realising that I had spotted a funfair beyond the railway bridge in the commercial port we decided to carry on to Gallician, PR 12, rather than take the third leg of the triangle back into Aigues Mortes.

New posts in the little port at Gallician.

I rather like Gallician. It is where we arrived in May 2015, tired from a long day down the Rhone from Avignon, to find ourselves truly in the Camargue. It was a bank holiday then and it was again, on Bastille Day, this year. David had sent us some cruising notes then and we had struggled to identify the stretch of bank with trees to tie to opposite the port, but we found them this time and gained both some precious daytime shade and a free mooring. The little port here (€36 on our last visit) has installed steel pillars making for very limited space for larger than 12m boats to moor. There are no bollards elsewhere, so in view of passing large commercials and Croisi-Europe hotel boats, a tree to tie to is advisory!

Finding the well placed tree at Gallician.

We visited the boulangerie and the little epicerie and the rather nice Le Laupio local products shop and, partly out of nostalgia, I repeated my previous purchases of Saussison de Taureau (bull), and Costiers de Nimes wine, but managed to refrain from buying another hat – despite rather fancying one of those black Camargais cowboy’s trilbies. Sitting on the bow deck that evening I thoroughly enjoyed watching the ever changing bird flights all around. A kingfisher in the bank a few feet away was coming and going, a young flamingo was rather noisily being harassed, all kinds of swallows and swifts were darting around the boat, sudden flocks of gold breasted birds flew away too fast to identify and others, gulls, egrets, stilts and herons were up and down and all around.  Earlier in the day, but not here, we had seen my favourite European Bee Eaters which are so common around Aigues Mortes.

A bird watching evening at Gallician.

To avoid next day’s evening sunshine we moved on for 11 kilometres to just past the St Gilles Lock (leading down to the Petit Rhone) staying on the canal and mooring up to one of three short pontoons at PK 28 (the changes from PR to PK is a bit confusing along this canal!). Not easy for us to tie an 18m boat to a 5m quay with a stiff wind blowing us off and it took a while to work out which ropes to tie where. But we were rewarded with shade, loud cicadas too, and a peaceful setting although frogs croaked up after the cicadas quietened down later on in the evening. There’s always something – even a great sunset.

Sunset near St-Gilles.

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