Verdun is a place steeped in its pivotal role in the history of the Great War, filled with monuments, surrounded by war cemeteries, and playing host through the year to many acts of remembrance great and small, but all poignant and important.
Along our journey though, we also see the beauty and quirkiness of France.
The time came to wave goodbye to Mimosa after a couple of months cruising together from Gent to Sedan. A couple of hundred miles or more of fun, spectacular landscapes (especially on the Dender), and much eating and drinking. It also marks the end of one of the greatest barren patches in the history of fishing – neither Trigger or I caught a fish for around 4 weeks (and we were trying).
Anyway, I digress. Mimosa turned north heading back towards Belgium and we turned south in the general direction of St John de Losne, still nearly 300 miles away. We also need to plan in a 7 day stay at Nancy to allow Nicola time to get back to the UK to check on the house and pick up a few essentials. So we set off on Monday morning with the intention of getting to Verdun by the weekend.
Our route keeps us on the Canal de Meuse as it wends its way from the craggy hills of region 08, Ardennes, into the rolling countryside of north Meuse, region 55. We caught fleeting glimpses of spectacular chateaux set into the golden hillsides of ripening wheat fields; of acres of sunflowers, turning their heads with well orchestrated timing to enjoy the rising sun; and a myriad of greens from a seemingly endless variety of trees and bushes lining the canal and denoting the boundary of fields and farms.
Also though, on a remote hillside, we caught side of a war cemetery filled with row upon row of grim black crosses placed at the remains of so many German soldiers, victims of war.
This was a reminder that we are only a day away from Verdun, a city of extraordinary beauty and poignancy, filled with monuments and displays commemorating conflicts of the last century. More of that next time.
No, this isn’t a long lost Leonard Cohen masterpiece, more of a soliloquy encompassing our return to travel on the waterways after our extended stop at Montherme due to the devastating floods in this part of Europe.
After much indecision from the French waterways people (VNF), and a couple of false dawns we set off from Montherme on Wednesday morning, the 28th July, exactly 14 days since we arrived there. Motherme was a very accommodating port-in-a-storm (quite literally), with a very helpful harbour-masters office staffed by the local tourist office. Because of our forced stay they waived the mooring fees and gave us free electricity and water for our stay. This was most unexpected and gratefully received.
Eventually though, as the water slowed down a little and the number of trees and amount of debris rushing past lessened, it was time to haul anchor and continue our journey. With two weeks travel lost we figured we would have to make a decision about our plans for routs and maybe even winter moorings!
After a few hours pushing against a considerable flow on the Meuse as we continued our trip up river we found ourselves mooring at the lovely large town of Charleville-Meziers. As with most towns in this part of France, there seems to be huge walls dating back to mediaeval times, lovely local markets and boulangeries to die for.
Alfie looking not too impressed with his homemade French lead in Charleville!
From here with an inclination to make up time we pressed on the next day to Pont-a-Bar which is a small settlement at the junction of the Meuse and the Canal des Ardennes, which was our intended route west into Champagne country and onto Paris and Auxerre.
Popping into the local chandlery / boat hire base / workshop we were greeted by the news that the canal was closed about 35miles along due to a landslip. Asking when it might be open we were answered with a shrug and “monsieur I ‘ave no direct call to God!” Apparently the landslip, although not huge, was not a priority and therefore was on the list of ‘anything between 2 weeks and who knows when’ work.
Over a coffee with our travelling companions Trigger and Julie (and Smudge the Labrador) on Mimosa we had to have a resit and look at our plans. Either Mimosa or Anticus could get to Bruges or Auxerre respectively if our preferred route along the Ardennes was not available for longer than two weeks. It would mean too much rushing – too many miles and hours travelling every day, not enough two or three night stays in towns and villages and, in short, a bit too much stress.
So a decision was made, we would move to Sedan for the weekend; eat, drink, and be merry, and then Mimosa would turn around, head north in the general direction of Belgium and we would continue south. Our plans though took a turn, looking at maps and river conditions it became obvious that trying to go the long way around to Auxerre was just too many mile in too short a time. (This was not helped by the first two locks of the day malfunctioning, necessitating a wait for the VNF engineers to fix the things). So, after a number of emails we managed to change our winter moorings from Auxerre to St Jean de Losne! This was a saving of about 200 miles – 20 days or so.
There we have it, a great example of how our travels have to be under review always to cope with the many things outside our control, especially it seems in France (as I write this we have just been notified that VNF staff in our area are taking strike action through August).
Here we are, settled in Sedan for the weekend. Plans made, that may or more accurately, will, change and a leg of lamb from the local market in the fridge ready for our Sunday lunch – Trigger is on roast potato duty. A trip to the local market produced a beautiful piece of cod, and a fabulous boulangerie supplied us with cakes and bread, including Nicola’s new favourite, raspberry macaroon. Next update, hopefully, from somewhere closer to St Jean de Losne. C’est la vie.
Well, dear reader, here we are. Where? I hear you ask. Well, let me inform you – still the same place we were last time I updated you – Montherme.
Let me explain, because I’m sure you are just about to consult my last edition to check whether I said we were going to be moving on Wednesday last. Save your fingers – I did, and we didn’t. To cut a long story short, we were informed by our local lock-keeper that Wednesday was moving day, only to be informed by the lock-lockeeper’s lock-keeping boss that “Non monsieur! Pas de moving zee bateau” which is a rough translation of ‘no mate, your going nowhere tomorrow’. Ho hum, ce la vie. Apparently the flooded river washed down all sorts of detritus including trees and small building which have inconveniently come to rest in a number of lock along our route, so we are again (or still) stuck, probably till next Wednesday. Ho hum, ce la vie.
We are starting to feel like we are locals, regular order at the boulangerie, favourite seat in the bar, and free topping at the ice-cream kiosk!
We have also partaken of some tourist activities, mainly consisting of fishing. Oh and a ride on a 4 wheel cycle, which I am sure should be classified under the Geneva convention as a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
And so it’s a case of sit back, relax, and wait for the river authorities to do their thing. Hopefully we will be moving soon (or else I’m going to have to find a hiding place for 2 dozen machines of torture)!
To misquote Helmuth von Moltke, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, in our case the enemy has been the devastating floods which have hit Europe and which we were lucky to have been only slightly inconvenienced by. Our plan was originally a nearly 700 mile cruise from Bruges to Auxerre taking nearly 4 months.
But now we have a new plan!
A plan so cunning that you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox, a fox so cunning he has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University (Baldrick; Blackadder).
Because of our ten day forced lay-up at the lovely Montherme on the Canal de la Meuse, we have revised our route to Auxerre. Our preferred way of cruising is to chug along at just over walking pace for two or three hours and then moor in time for lunch at a promising little town or village which we hope, like a fine wine, will improve over time. We often just stay a night, but like to visit markets and brocantes (a French flea-market), eat and drink local produce and let Alfie explore the local area. So any schedule we come up with has lee-way to stay a few nights in an improving town. As we have lost a week or so due to floods, and Nicola will be returning to the UK in August to check on the house, we have cut a hundred odd miles off our journey.
North and mid-France have many thousands of miles of navigable rivers and canals and this makes route changes fairly easy with more often than not many different routes to get from A to B.
For those of you who would like to follow us on a map – here is the plan:
From Montherme, we will head south on the Canal de la Meuse; turn west onto the Canal des Ardennes at Port a Bar; south at Berry au Bar onto the Canal de l”Aisle a la Marne; west onto the Marne to Paris; south onto the Seine; onto the Yonne and to Auxerre.
This route has a few things going for it not least appealing is the fact that it goes through the heart of the Champagne region of France, including the capital city of the fizzy stuff – Reims. Now as you all know by now it is unusual to find a picture of Nicola or I without a glass of something or other clasped tightly in our hands, looking like wild horses couldn’t drag the vessel from us. So the thought of spending a lazy few weeks travelling along the valleys from one Champagne house to another is difficult to better (well I suppose a few patisseries could do it for Nicola).
The route being around 370 miles cruising from here and us travelling at around 10-15 miles a day and having to be in Auxerre at the end of September we have plenty of time to eat, drink, (recover), and explore.
After the last cliffhanger of a post, where the water levels were rising fast and we had lashed poles to the side of Anticus, I am pleased to report that the river is now receding. Not quite at is benign, non-threatening, tranquil best, but certainly not pushing huge tree trunks and other detritus past at 10mph (14kph). Unfortunately though we still cannot move as the VNF (French river authority) has placed a navigation ban on the whole of the Canal de la Meuse.
STOP PRESS: We have just been told by the local lock-keeper that navigation re-opens on Friday.
After the 10 days enforced lay-up in the beautiful Monthereme, we are now considering altering our planned route so that we don’t have to rush our journey to reach Auxerre. So the next couple of days will be spent cleaning the boat and route planning – more to follow.
Good morning all. Here a I am at half past two in the morning updating our blog after just checking our boat (and the other half-dozen) on the quay at Montherme on the Canal de Meuse in the Ardennes region of Northern France.
If you have caught the news over the last 24 hrs of catastrophic flooding in western Germany and eastern Belgium, you will recognise that our location is just on the southern edge of the affected area.
Two days ago we were instructed that navigation on the Meuse was closed due to imminent increase in speed and level of water, so we pushed against a strengthening stream to our present mooring in Montherme where we tied up with a few extra lines!
Over the last 24 hours the river level has steadily risen to within about 3 inches of flooding the quay. This necessitated the VNF (French waterways authority) delivering 3 metre long poles to each of the boats moored here, in an attempt to stop them being washed up on the quay should the river rise more.
Trigger, from Mimosa, the other Piper barge we are travelling with and I then summoned our collective firefighting knots and lines knowledge and lashed the poles to the side of our boats. The idea being that the poles would add extra draught to the boats by effectively sticking down from under the boat by a metre or so, and thus making it more unlikely that the boat should be washed ashore.
We have not been able to find out what the level of the river is forecast to rise to, even though weirs along the river are controlling flow and levels, hence the fact that the poles are in place and I am patrolling the waters edge in the middle of the night.
Friends of ours who are downstream of us in Namur have been evacuated from their boats at the insistence of the local Police and firefighters and moved to a local hotel. Namur is on the northern Meuse and not far on the river to Liege which apparently is under grave threat of flooding.
Anyway, I’m off for another torch-lit walk along the quay! Hopefully a more cheery update to follow when the rains have stopped.
I could try and wax lyrical about the beauty of the River Meuse as it winds it’s way timelessly through steep hills covered in tress in a myriad shades of green, with occasional cliffs of various stone and slate, forcing their way to the sun like holiday makers fighting for a spot on the beach. However, even armed with a bundle of thesaurus’ I couldn’t do the scenery justice, so instead, dear reader, here are some photos.
Below are a series of images of an extremely poignant memorial to atrocities carried out in Dinant on 23 August 1914. Carved into metal are the names of those who perished.
The beginning of July sees us continuing our journey to Auxerre from Bruges, and finding ourselves moored for a couple of days in a beautiful small town of Profondeville on the River Meuse, still in Belgium but only 17km from the French border.
So far, since leaving our last winter base at Flandria Yachthaven in Bruges we have travelled 192 miles, in around 60hrs of actual cruising time – to save you doing the maths, that works out at about 3mph – slightly slower than walking pace. Just to explain though, the hours referred to are engine running hours, so include ‘hovering’ in the middle of the waterway waiting for locks and bridges to open, and also running time in the large locks, which can take 30 minutes to operate. It is often far safer to keep the engine running when sharing these giant locks with giant commercial barges.
Talking of locks, so far we have been through 51 locks, 31 lift bridges and one barge lift. Any guesses what the total will be when we have arrived in Auxerre in September?
Here are a few photos from our journey so far.
And finally, best wishes to Derek – a high seas mariner, good friend, and reader of this blog.
On lonely river, stands a village with no name, surrounding a bar run by an octogenarian, Gina. Yes, I know this sounds like a newly discovered Bob Dylan song, but it’s true. Well almost true – the village is called Ladeuze and is towards the southern end of the Dender, Blaton-Ath Canal which on which we had been travelling pretty much since leaving Gent nearly two weeks ago.
Chez Gina is a substantial looking building a minutes walk from our mooring, it has been a bar since the war, and probably a drinking house long before that. It is legendary amongst boating folk, not for it’s architecture, and not really for a fine selection of bottled beer, but for its eponymous host, Gina. Sat in a chair next to an electric heater in a bar full of curios, memories and memorials, Gina nodded as we came in, easing her back in the chair to get a better view of our dogs. We surveyed the menu and ordered 4 different beers, at which point she sprang into life, dressed all in black, apparently still in mourning for a husband who died ten years ago, and produced beer matching glasses and a smile. For the next hour we sat there, drinking, chatting in pigeon Franglaise, wishing we had a greater command of French as we quizzed her on the walls and ceilings full of memorabilia. Many have been there before us and I hope many will still visit and revel in the memories at Chez Gina.
Trigger and I at Chez Gina
After Gina’s we untied our lines and headed south, towards our ultimate destination of Auxerre, France in a few months, but more immediately towards an area containing a selection of engineering masterpieces, and a UNESCO world heritage site to-boot. Strepy-Thieu (pronounced Strepy two – which caused confusion for me as I scoured maps looking for Strepy one) is a boat lift build over the course of a decade to replace the historic ascenciour lifts nearby. In case you missed the significance of that, this is basically a tub of water, into which you can drive a 1350 ton, 85m long fully laden barge, and a couple of pleasure barges such as ours, press a button and open a valve or two and the whole lot is lifted, in 7 minutes a height of 73 metres (240 ft). Phenomenal! There was even the nest of a bird of prey, complete with three chicks in one of the pillars.