Monday 9th June
After a very misty start, the sun burned away the clouds and we were soon cruising along under practically cloudless skies. This canal (Lateral à Loire), meanders alongside the river Loire through some of the finest wine-growing areas of central France. There are rolling fields and occasional forested areas, and it is very beautiful. The locks here are quite well spaced out, so there is time to do things in between locking.
They are also relatively unspectacular locks, so not too many deep-sided chambers, and no sloping locksides. In the shallow ones I can practice my lasso-ing, which is slowly improving. The deepest one was 3 metres, but the lockie put a hook down to take our rope, so no problems there. The scaling of slimy lock-ladders, as I had to do in the Canal du Loing, now seems to be a thing of the past. For the moment, anyway!
At the second lock the lock-keepers were more intent on selling us some wine from the region than seeing that we were safely in the lock, and we had a couple of hairy moments when Neville had to yank the flagpole out of the stern before it got caught in the lock gates. Then we had a couple of surges which took us perilously close to the gates at the back of the lock, with Neville having to leap into the wheelhouse to start the engine and take us forward a bit. We bought three bottles of Pouilly Fumée at 7euros each, which is cheaper than in England, but still not incredibly cheap.
We cruised for close on 30 kilometres and negotiated 5 locks. A very nice lock-keeper (they can be so variable in temperament) told me (in excellent English) that the name of our boat (Désormais) is the name of a famous song by the French singer Charles Aznavour. Eventually, as we’ve travelled through France, I’ve lost count of the number of lock-keepers who have treated us to a rendition of this song, some of them on bended knee with outspread arms!
We moored up in a tiny village called Ménétréol, which is close to Sancerre (with its famous vineyards). The moorings looked pretty crowded as we approached, but a friendly American in a huge barge called out to us that there was room at the end of the mooring, and very obligingly went to take our rope as we came in. He tied a very efficient spring-line, and gave us a quick run-down on the location of the nearest restaurant, bakery, and taxi service.
We will probably eat at the restaurant tonight, as we can sit outside and watch the activities in the port area. The village has a number of 12th century cottages, and was originally the site of a monastery where the monks tended to the vineyards that already existed at that time. It was a thriving village with more than a thousand inhabitants until the 19th century when, according to the notice by the moorings, it was ravaged by the advent of Phyloxera. (Hmm, I’d never heard of that illness, but then Neville informed me that it was a disease of the vines which wiped out a huge chunk of the wine growing activity in France and other neighbouring countries.)
We were moored just opposite the Mairie, (the Town Hall in France). I stopped to read the notices, which were all in French. One notice was addressed to “dear clients” and went on the say that after weeks of conflict, the hens that had been on strike had now started to lay again, and eggs would be available at the Mairie from 9.30 onwards on Saturday!
Another notice was the banns for the forthcoming marriage of Gerard Salmon, a bank employee, and Juliette something or other, “agricultrice” – lady farmer!
Another notice advised the inhabitants of the village that the pumps at the purification station (sewage works) had had to be overhauled yet again due to deterioration caused by rags and underclothes being flushed down the toilet! Whatever turns you on!
It was a hot sunny afternoon, and we put down the front and back windows on the wheelhouse to get a breeze through, and raised the hatch windows in the roof to cool the lower cabins. This was our first taste of just how hot it can be in France during the summer months.
Later on the skipper of an old renovated dutch barge dropped by and we had a very informative chat with him. It seemed he knew just about everybody on the canals, everyone in the Dutch Barge Association and their present whereabouts on the canal system, and had an in depth knowledge of a lot of the marinas.
In the evening we wandered off to the local restaurant, Hotel Floriane, and had a beer outside whilst looking at the menu. The American who had helped us moor came along with his wife, son and another couple, and the wife recommended the “scampi” with “espices”. We duly ordered it, went and claimed a table and waited quite some time for the food. The madame must have felt a bit guilty about it because soon a plate of fried whitebait arrived, free of charge.
Luckily we both like the tiny little things that resembled for all the world a plate of greyish chips. Then came the scampi with some chunks of French bread and a plate of French fries each. The “scampi” was in fact prawns cooked in their shells and coated in spices. Didn’t seem a lot of point unless you were going to eat it them with the shells on, as most of the spicy coating transferred to our fingers, but we enjoyed them nevertheless. We were too full to have starters or desserts, and the meal, together with two beers and a bottle of wine came to 45 euros. Not cheap, but not bad.
Tuesday 10th June
Two of the boats had left by the time we got up (we didn’t get up late!) and the other two left before we had finished breakfast and the morning chores. Caught up with one of them waiting at the first lock, so don’t know why they had set off so early. I think they were dutch. We did maybe three locks with them before we stopped at Herry. This was one of those days when the navigation books we had purchased (which one guy we met had claimed were frequently wrong) turned out to be grossly overstating the incidence of good moorings. Some of the photos in the book had been taken to disguise the fact that the moorings were in fact overshadowed by great grain silos, which are very prevalent in France. (Don’t know what we must do with the grain in England as you hardly ever see them by the canals or anywhere else for that matter).
And some of the moorings just simply weren’t there, or were so overgrown that we passed them by without even noticing. So after leaving Herry (where the facilities were disappointing and the “multi-service” shop offered fruit and vegetables well past their best plus a handful of tins of different things. We pushed on as soon as the next lockie came back from his lunch and then began a long haul where the advertised moorings were scarce non-existent or undesirable. We had one place, at Beffes in mind but when we got there we found that there was only one place and that was occupied by a small plastic craft that had run aground. (I understand this mooring has been greatly enhanced since the time of this visit.) We carried on to yet another lock, this one supposedly automatic but needed starting off by a lockie, who was not in sight.
The trouble with locks in France is that unlike in England, where every lock has a mooring place either side of it to let crew on and off, there are some canals where you hardly ever find such a thing. We ended up with Neville pushing the nose of the boat up to a narrow ledge on the bridge, where I, hanging on to an electric cable for back-up inched my way along the bridge support to the bank. There I found a passerby who advised me that the lockie looked after this lock and the next, and that currently he was up at the next.
In due course, he came back, and we were let through both locks and fortunately into a large basin where we were able to moor at Marseilles les Aubigny. No services, but a quiet and pleasant mooring. Very limited space but as no-one was watching, Neville managed to moor it perfectly. Ain’t that always the way?
With thunder and lightening all around, we prepared dinner and retired to bed early, exhausted, only to be wakened throughout the night by endless thunderstorms and rain drumming on the roof of the boat. In the morning we found out that we had left the roof lights open and one of the settees and cushions was soaked. Lucky we hadn’t left a computer on the settee!
Wednesday 11th June
We decided that after the long hours and hard work of yesterday, (32 kilometres and 9 locks) that we would simply move to the next serviced mooring point at Cours-les-Barres which was just less than an hour’s cruise away and advertised, righly or wrongly, as a picturesque mooring with gardens, spring and all services.
We timed our departure so that we could arrive after the overnighters had moved on from this mooring, and also before the flood of incoming boaters. We arrived around 11.15 to find that the last available place was occupied by the cruiser that had been moored next to us further downstream last night. They seemed to be filling up with water at the water point, but we couldn’t tell whether they were intending to moor up. As we levelled with them I shouted out in hastily constructed French, “are you mooring up or just filling with water”. To which they replied in English “sorry we don’t speak French”. We all laughed, and they awarded me “top marks for the French though”.
I had seen one member of their party yesterday evening, sitting on the top of their boat, reading. She looked determined not to be communicative. I didn’t realise that there were in fact six of them, three couples, until I saw that whilst they were filling up with water two other girls had gone up the hill to check out the situation re shops and boulangerie. The same remaining girl, was sitting down below, again reading a book whilst the chaps were all milling around by the water-point. We guessed that maybe she wasn’t enjoying her holiday and had just decided not to join in! How joyful that must be on a small boat.
As it turned out, they were only filling up with water, so we were able to take their mooring space. To say the mooring is much praised, it is very small and was soon full with ourselves and just three other boats, we being the longest. It is a nice mooring though, with water gardens descending from a small hill down to the quay, and a nice pond alongside the quay with a sandstone cross with a small rowing boat serving as a garden in the middle of the pond. At the top of the hill there is a shower block (together with an unappetising ‘hole in the ground toilet’) and there is the mairie – the town hall. I had to go up to the mairie to tell them that the power was not working, and very shortly a man came down to switch it back on again. Maybe it shorted out the night before in the thunderstorm.
Early in the afternoon the dutch couple from a stylish cruiser called Eva, with whom we had locked up early yesterday returned to their boat, having been out on their bikes. We exchanged a few pleasantries and later in the afternoon we were amused to see the pair of them take a brush and pan together with a box of something to one of the picnic tables at the mooring. The man then proceeded to razor cut the woman’s hair to within ¼ inch all over. She in turn then razor cut his. Now she looks like a young lad, but I expect she feels nice and cool. Not for me though!
The “spring” described in the navigation booklet runs down from the top of the hill by the moorings, into two or three artificial ponds and then out into the canal, right by our boat. When we retired to bed, we lay there reading with the running water sounding like someone was taking a continual pee in our bathroom. Worrying prospect for the night! But the “spring” must have been on a timer as around 10.30 it magically tinkled away into nothing and peace reigned.
Thursday 12th June
Up early, hoping to get underway before the other boats all of whom were pointing in our direction. Today we have a double lock in prospect, with a rise of 9 metres.
We left at 8.30 at the same time as Marijke, a steel cruiser belonging to yet another Dutch couple. We agreed that we would go into the locks first, something for which they were extremely grateful, particularly as we were locking through the 9 metre double staircase at Le Guétin, which was extremely over-facing and let out directly onto an aqueduct. Here again the lock-keeper drops a hook on a rope to take your rope from you, see photo. The first lock of the double was not too bad, but the second one took just about all the energy I had to control the bow with the ropes.
It was with some relief that we emerged from the bowels of the lock chamber and out onto the aqueduct.
Then we went to Nevers, through two automatic locks that had a kind of gallows structure with a dangling rope on the approach. You are supposed to pull on this rope and that starts the lock mechanism working. The boat ahead of us did this. We got in the locks with the boat ahead, and Marijke got stuck in the lock behind us when VNF turned off the power because it was lunchtime! So they arrived at the Port du Plaisance a full hour later than us, but there was a space close to us which they managed to get in.
We went into Nevers on our bikes to find a cash point, and luckily came across a Champion supermarket and were able to load up with supplies. The supermarket was closed when we got there. You can’t believe it, a busy city centre and the supermarkets close from 12.30 to 14.45pm. The lunchbreak is certainly a sacred interval here in France.
As we came out we bumped into the couple from Marijke, just arriving on their bikes. Later that afternoon they (Dick and Marijke – the boat is named after her) invited us around for drinks (Kir Royale, blackcurrant and champagne).
We stayed about an hour or so, and heard some interesting stories. One of these was about the time when he came to the confluence of the rivers Seine and Marne, to find a boat bobbing helplessly about in the middle of a busy shipping lane, with the skipper standing at the front of the boat waving his hands helplessly. Assuming that the engine had failed, he immediately got into rescue mode and drew alongside to offer assistance. “What’s up” he said. “Can you tell me which one is the River Marne?” replied the (navigation chart-less) skipper.
This reminded me of the man we moored up next to at Nemours, who in his large yacht had set out without the relevant navigation charts hoping to pick some up at the moorings at the Arsenal in Paris. He turned up there, not having made a previous booking, to find they were full and had to carry on, low on fuel and minus any navigation aids.
So we gave him the old version of one that we had inherited and wished him the best of luck. This was also the guy who had hired a crane to take down his mast and lay it along the top of his boat, only to find when the crane had departed the scene, that it had been positioned too far forward and was projecting well beyond the front of his boat. This was making mooring, not to mention locking, quite difficult, as it increased the length of his boat by some unquantifiable measure, and we were glad we weren’t locking up with him or we might have found his mast joining us through the back of our wheelhouse!
It was interesting to see the inside of Marijke, which was small but very well kitted-out. They, like so many of the people we have met, are going down to St Jean de Losne to moor there for the summer. That will be quite some get together when we finally get there. 22 kilometres and 5 locks today, in the best of the weather. Around teatime the heavens opened and we had torrential downpour for about half an hour. During the evening the skies were very dramatic, and I guess we have bad weather still to come. When are we going to have the endless sunny days that we had imagined? Maybe next week, as one forecast Neville surfed said that temperatures were going to rise to the late twenties and early thirties! Glad that we have broken the back of our journey to Paray-le-Monial for the Dutch barge rally – we don’t need to do full days cruising now and can afford to cruise only during the cooler parts of the day.
Friday 13th June
We woke up late (7.00am!) and very stiff from the battle with the second of the staircase locks yesterday. There are 2 locks on the arm of the Canal Lateral à la Loire leading to Nevers and they had seemed unspectacular as we descended into the mooring basin, but going back up them was a different story.
I decided to cycle up the towpath to be on the lock side to take the ropes at each of the locks, and as I left, another small plastic boat headed out before us. The went into the (automatic) lock first and as the paddles raised it was clear they were in a lot of trouble, swinging this way and that and being drawn rapidly forward. The woman was up on the quayside too, and hadn’t wrapped her rope round a bollard so taking the strain herself.
Eventually things calmed down, and as we were leaving we suggested that we went into the next lock first, being heavier. They rapidly agreed, and we changed places. This too was a very savage lock. The gates opened with almost a “smack” and a huge jet of water shot up into the air and smacked into the bows of our boat. (We learned it’s a good idea to keep the front cabin windows closed whilst locking upstream.) We were both struggling, but we coped, and the other couple were very glad they had swapped places as it was much calmer at the back of the lock.
The canal from thereon was uneventful, despite the fact that the navigation book warned about the “violent turbulence” of Lock 19. In fact it was no worse and in some respects a lot easier than others we had done. We just missed the last lock before our scheduled stopover at Fleury-sur-Loire, (lockie’s lunch hour again), and came in at around 1.30pm.
This is a lovely mooring, with a log cabin serving snacks, lots of picnic tables, umbrellas, plus (unadvertised in the book) a full range of services, showers, electricity and water – a real tribute to the French waterways. And only 2 euros including the services, compared with our mooring last night in Nevers which offered no services and cost us 9 euros!
The family running the cabin were very helpful. The young boy (who spoke a bit of English) came to take our rope, and when I asked the woman if there were any shops close by where I could buy butter, she said no but she was going to Decizes that afternoon and would bring me some back! (I refer to these conversations as though they were routine interchanges, but the reality is that they took several minutes with a lot of head-scratching on either side and a wide range of expansive gestures to get the point across!)
We moored next to an old, but very well cared for barge. At first there was no-one around, but later the owners came back. They had two dogs and a beautiful Persian cat. They let them all out on the grassy area, and one dog was crippled and could not move its two back legs. It dragged itself around by using its two front legs – heartbreaking to watch. I wondered why you would let an old dog (it was a black and grey mottled Labrador mix) get that bad, but when I showed an interest in the dog, the man from the boat showed me a contraption which he lifted the dog into, with wheels on the back and a kind of harness, with a bar at the back covered in carpet over which he draped the dog’s paralysed back legs.
The dog then careered off happily on his wheels while the other dog chased after him. They spoke no English and it was a trial for me to understand them but I learned that the crippled dog was only 2 years old and had been chasing a cat when he was run over by a car. The other dog was its mother. We talked for about a quarter of an hour (I was exhausted by the end of it!) but I learned that the English are very well liked around here, that their boat was sixty years old, and that our destination (Paray-le-Monial) was a lovely place.
We talked about French food and they wanted to know if we had eaten frogs legs and snails. I said no, and told them about our experience of “andouilletes” (the sausages made from the gastric linings of pigs). They thought they were lovely, and remarked on the unusually piquant aroma from them, which I had previously described as smelling like a farmyard. ‘Chacùn à son goût’, as they say. Each to his own taste.
Later in the afternoon “Marijke” came into the moorings, and they came round to us for drinks. He brought a couple of boating magazines in which he had written articles (in Dutch, of course) but we looked at the pictures and followed his journey.