Canal du Centre

Canal du Centre

Friday, September 29, 2017

Bar-le-Duc, August 24-27

By about 11 am we were tied up in the moorings in Bar-le-Duc. A couple of pontoons and a long bank with a few bollards is right next to a popular camping car spot and it seemed like right in the train station. We were so close we could hear the familiar 4 tones that precede the arrival and departure announcements. Luckily there’s not too much traffic at night and since it’s going through a busy station, it’s going slow. There is supposed to be a very small charge for tying up and a little more for water and electricity but the collection was sporadic. We think somebody was on vacation, like everybody else in France in August. Finding an open restaurant can be a trial.

As with most of the towns in the area, Bar began at a Roman crossroads on the Ornain River but didn’t grow to it’s real importance and gain defensive walls (and the upper town) until the mid 900’s. It escaped WW I with little damage but was an important logistics center for the battles taking place around Verdun. 

Bar-le-Duc is two towns, the lower and the upper. The lower town consists of mostly shops and restaurants and the upper town contains the restored old quarters with its mansions, museums and the clock tower. The Ornain runs through the lower town and is crossed by the picturesque Notre Dame bridge.

Martin would be leaving for Paris on Saturday so we had all of Thursday afternoon and Friday to explore the town. That meant climbing the stairs to get up to the upper town and that clock tower.

Across the river and canal and up behind Cathy Jo and her father on the stairs, The Côte Sainte-Catherine district sits on the hill. Built in response to the post WW II baby boom of the 1960’s and replacing vineyards decimated by the phylloxera pest, the massive residential project was constructed using the egalitarian housing ideas of Le Corbusier.

The upper town sits on a ridge and the old buildings spill down the other side.

One of the more impressive structures of the upper town is the Eglise Saint-Ètienne.

It contains one of the more, um, interesting sculptures we’ve seen on our travels. Renè of Chalon, the Prince of Orange, was killed in the siege of Saint-Dizier in 1544. In 1547, his wife commissioned a statue from Ligier Richier, a prominent artist, to depict what her late husband would like three years after his death. The result is just a little macabre.

The town is also famous as the home of Pierre Michaux. A monument on a lower town street corner honors the inventor of the bicycle. While repairing a draisienne, a sort of bicycle without pedals, he decided to add a crank and by 1862 his company was turning out 200 bicycles a day.

During our stay in Bar we also got in touch with Duncan Flack, the operator of Lorraine Marine where Oldtimer will be spending the winter. He operates a “breakdown” service and made the hour-long drive from Toul to Bar-le-Duc on Friday to bring us a new throttle cable. All was made like new.

Saturday morning Martin set off on his trip to Paris and we made preparations for the final leg our our 2017 journey; over the top of the western branch of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, including the 5 k long Mauvages tunnel, and on to Toul.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Vitry to Bar-le-Duc, Aug. 20-24

It was about 20k to our first planned stop, Pargny-sur-Saulx. The first section of the canal follows the River Saulx and the canal is a pretty straight line from Vitry. The locks are also pretty close together, a feature of the Marne au Rhine canal that boasts 97 locks in 131k. We pulled into the moorings about 1:30 to find the pontoon full but a very nice English couple allowed us to raft alongside. They would be leaving the next morning and we decided since it was a nice spot and we were in no hurry, we’d take their spot when they left and spend Sunday at the dock.

The old school post office in Pargny

We walked into town to discover that, being Sunday, everything was closed but there was no great loss. The boulangerie would be open in the morning and fresh bread was about all we needed.
Tuesday was a little more work, 12 locks in 3 hours to  a pontoon provided by the VNF, the waterways authorities, in the village of Revigny. It’s a very long hike into town but Cathy Jo went anyway, gathering a few supplies. 
A signboard at the lock in Revigny also detailed the very elaborate means used to get water into the canal. Pumping stations on the Moselle and Meuse Rivers lift water into Bief 13 (that’s the canal section 13 locks above Toul), nearly 100’ up from the Mosell and about 30 ft. up from the Meuse. Then a big pumping station in the town of Vacon lifts the water from Bief 13 the nearly 120 ft. up to a reservoir that supplies the Bief de Partage (that’s the summit bief; the canal goes down each way from there. It’s also the site of the Mauvages tunnel. Later.)
Another 9 locks took us to the village of Fain-les-Sources on Wednesday. Along the way we were able to give Martin a true taste of the boating life, a minor breakdown. As we pulled into the fourth lock of the day, we discovered that the cable from the engine throttle control in the wheelhouse to the engine room had broken and we could not get the engine above idle. Luckily, the boat has a second, outside, steering station so that could be used. However, at the next lock we discovered that the transmission would not engage from the outside station, giving us throttle but no propulsion. A pair of pliers on the end of the cable solved that problem temporarily and we cleared 5 more locks to Fain. The moorings were full but there was good bank available for stakes and we were tied up about 1:30. Unfortunately, just on the other side of the canal is a very busy set of railroad tracks. A restful mooring it was not.
Adjusting the transmission cable from the outside steering station allowed the pliers to be stowed and on Thursday it was just 4 locks  and about 1 1/2 hours to Bar-le-Duc. Martin would be catching the train back to Paris on Saturday morning so we settled in for a couple of days.

Friday, September 22, 2017

On to Vitry-le-Francoise, Aug. 17-20

Vitry is at the junction of three canals. It’s at the southern end of the Canal lateral à la Marne and the end of both the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne and the western branch of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. It also has good train connections to Paris. Cathy Jo’s father would be traveling from France’s capital to join us for five days and that was a good place to pick him up. We had two days to get there from Chalone; that would still put us in town the day before he was scheduled to arrive, giving us time to do the inevitable chores necessary before guests, like clean up!
We had read about the village of Saint Amand sur Fion and it’s 13th century church in some tourist brochures; it was halfway between Chalone and Vitry near the moorings at Chaussèe-sur-Marne so we planned our Thursday night stop there. It was only about 18 k and 3 locks so our usual 9 am start got us to the moorings just about lunch time. 
We came out of the Chaussèe lock to find a nice long bank backed up by a large grassy area with a couple of picnic tables and conveniently spaced bollards and all for us; nobody else about. That was kind of the story for most of our trip this summer. Between the closures for the drought and canal maintenance, things were very quiet on the northern canals.
After lunch we set off for St. Amand, about 7 k away and only a couple of little hills. Along the way we passed a small champagne house. We noted that for the return trip.
Situated on the banks of the Fion River, Saint Amand’s original claim to fame was it’s vineyards, but the phylloxera disease in the 1770’s put an end to that and the residents moved on to farming and livestock. Mostly now it’s a grain growing region, although vines were replanted in the late 80’s and the first harvest from the new plantings was in 1994.
The town has retained over 100 of it’s half timbered buildings and they are very picturesque.

A chambre d’hôte in St. Amand

But we had really come to see the church. It’s an unusual design with a front porch that resembles a cloister. Original construction started in the 12th century but most of what we see today is from the 13th.

That’s our patron Saint Nicholas on the right stained glass window and St. Eloi on the left.

On the way back to the boat we stopped in at the Bertrand-Lapie champagne house. The madame, Marie-Josèphe Bertrand, was more than willing to leave her riding lawn mower and give us a taste. We had a nice chat and took home a couple bottles of their very excellent product.

Friday morning it was off to Vitry, arriving at their very small marina about noon.The “harbor” consists of one longish pier in a very narrow channel to a few finger pontoons. A hotel barge takes up most of the pier leaving (luckily for us) just enough room for a smaller boat at the end. That leaves even smaller boats to push through the trees to access the finger piers and just enough room to turn into the dock amongst the weeds. And it’s expensive. And not very close to the center of town. And the train station is all the way on the other side of town. We were not impressed. Oh well, at least there’s a big grocery store close by.

The hotel barge was gone for this “Google Earth” shot.

Saturday afternoon Cathy Jo’s father, Martin, arrived and he quickly settled into Oldtimer mode.

Sunday morning we were off, headed east on the Canal de la Marne au Rhine.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Chalons en Champagne, August 15 and 16

After several consecutive days traveling we thought it might be nice to take a day off and explore the town of Chalons en Champagne. We arrived at the moorings about noon on Tuesday to find a marina with all services right next to a free bank mooring. Since we were fine without plugging in and the water tank was almost full, the bank was just fine and there was just enough room for us.
Like Noyon, Chalon was founded by the Romans at a crossroads of a major road and the Marne River. It became an administrative center in the 4th century but it’s big expansion came in the 11th and 12th centuries with it’s integration with the Hanseatic League towns of Flanders and northern France and the expansion of the cloth trade. Chalon was a major source of tapestries. Unfortunately, the 14th and 15th centuries saw infighting among the guilds, plague epidemics and the Hundred Years War cause a gradual decline in the towns importance. The major focus of activities today is agriculture including, you guessed it, grapes for champagne.
One of our first stops was the magnificent St. Etienne Cathedral with it’s beautiful stained glass windows.

A detail from a window telling the story of Adam and Eve; 
their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Something else we’re seeing more often in this area: half-timbered buildings. The framework is wooden beams and then the gaps are filled in with limestone cement. This building is across the street from the tourist office.

There are several bodies of water in town. The Marne is the furthest to east then the lateral canal. Two smaller rivers snake through town to join the Marne, the Mau and the Nau. There are also three nicely landscaped public gardens, the Grand and Petit Jard and the Jard Anglais. The Grand Jard, just around the corner from the moorings, was the site of Chalon’s summer plage, complete with kayaks and pedal boats, all kinds of kids activities, ping pong and badminton, chairs for just lazing around but, surprisingly, no buvette; no place to get our sandwich American.
Wednesday was market day so we wandered into town to find out what fresh produce we could buy. Our visit to the covered market revealed that the mirabelle plums were ripe and there were plenty to be had.

This was just one of a half dozen stands with giant mounds of plums.
Yes, that’s about 4 1/2 pounds for 5 euros.
We’d also picked a bag full from a tree along the Somme.

One day of rest was enough although Chalon is a very nice town and we can see ourselves returning. 
Thursday morning we set off further down the canal. We had two days to reach Vitry le Francoise, the beginning of the western branch of the Canal Marne au Rhine, with it’s train station. Cathy Jo’s father would be joining us for a few days.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Headed South and East, August 9-15

It was back out onto the Grand Gabarit, the wide gauge commercial canal, heading south. There wasn’t that much traffic but it’s any easy canal anyway, wide and deep with bigger locks. As a bonus, both days we traveled alone with those big locks all to ourselves and with minimal waiting. We would call the first lockkeeper of the day in the morning and the others along the way would be alerted; the locks waiting for us when we appeared.
It was also time to “make some kilometers”. We had reserved winter moorings in Toul and the easy way to get there, north on the Canal des Ardennes and south on the Meuse River, was closed because the drought had caused low water levels on the river. That meant we’d have to use the western branch of the Canal de la Marne au Rhine, with it’s 97 locks in 130 kilometers and the 5 kilometer Mauvages tunnel, to get to Toul. We didn’t have much of time to linger.
After 5 locks and one 15 minute tunnel we arrived in Noyon about 3:30. All of the locks have moorings on both sides so we alerted the lockkeeper we’d be stopping for the day and tied up to the bank above the lock. There was time for a quick stroll around town before wine time so we saw the church, of course, and the usual old architecture.

Noyon started as a trading crossroads in Roman times. It was first fortified in the 3rd century and expanded in the 12th. WW I caused the destruction of 80% of the town with only 23 of the 1800 homes still habitable after the violence, but the town used the reconstruction as an opportunity to upgrade its infrastructure while meticulously restoring the town hall and other old buildings to their pre-war appearance.
Thursday morning after just two locks we left the Canal du Nord for the Canal Lateral a l’Oise, beginning our travels to the east and Toul. We followed alongside the River Oise for just 18 k until we turned onto the Canal de l’Oise a l’Aisne, a connecting canal between the Oise and Aisne Rivers. We were now off the wide gauge canal, back onto the Freycinet-sized locks (39 by 5 meters). From here on we would find several types of lock operating systems. Some used the telecommand, some used the dangling twisty pole, others used an electric eye to actuate the lock. Most of them worked well and the occasional hiccup was quickly solved by a phone call to the central control and a quick visit from a technician. Some of the locks that were very close together operated as a chain. Once the first lock was entered, the rest in the chain automatically operated in sequence. Some of the chains were as long as 15 or 20 locks.
After an 8 hour day with 9 locks we found a nice spot for the night in the village of Pont de Pinon and the next morning headed out for the end of the canal, 8 locks and one half-hour tunnel transit away. By 2 pm we were tied up at the junction of the l’Oise a l’ Aisne and the Canal Lateral a l’Aisne near the village of Bourg a Comin. There was a pontoon with free water and electricity but it was occupied. Luckily there was lots of available bank space with well placed bollards so we set up for the night. It was early enough in the day we could make the hike into the village a restock our bread supply; there wasn’t much else there.
Saturday after just one lock, we headed south on the Canal a l’Aisne a la Marne where it was 10 locks to the village of Courcy. Sunday we traveled through Rheims and it’s very poor and noisy mooring to the village of Sillery, where we spent a couple of days in 2009.  Unfortunately, the boulangerie we considered one of the best in France was closed Sunday afternoons and Monday so we missed out on a chance for their delicious baguettes.
Monday, after 11 locks and yet another tunnel we spent the night in Conde sur Marne and Tuesday we started down the Canal Lateral a la Marne to an early stop at Chalons en Champagne. It was time to take a rest.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Back Up the Somme, August 2-8

As we came down the Somme we kept an eye out for good places to stop on the way back. Wednesday morning we were off to our first stop, a pontoon just a couple of k upstream from Long. After an hour and a half lunch stop we arrived at just a little after two to find a fisherman with his gear all over the dock. As we came in we told him we would share, only using half of the pontoon and our stern in the weeds but that wasn’t good enough for him. He wished us a sarcastic “bonne vacance” as he stalked off. We used the whole pontoon. Our timing was good, too, because as soon as we got settled it started to rain.
The next morning we were off back to Amien, this time staying at the moorings just above the Amien lock. There was just enough room for us on the bank but everything conspired to make it very difficult to get the boat alongside. When reversing the boat pulls to the right (starboard). Of course we had to moor on our left (port) side. The wind was blowing from left to right and there was no room to back up to get the boats head to the dock. Luckily the very nice Belgians on the other boat moored there gave us a hand and we did eventually get tied up. When we mentioned we had spent a couple of months in Belgium and enjoyed the beer we were invited over for a tasting. The two couples were from the French-speaking part of the country and spoke very little English but everybody speaks beer. We had a couple.

We stopped for lunch one day at the approach to a lock.

Friday was a very trying day, 9.5 k and a hour and a half to a mooring at the Lamont-Brebiere barrage. There is a little cafe there that is trying to be a tourist spot with some “unusual” lodgings, a teepee, a yurt and small cart but things were not busy at all. We did have a beer. We also discovered that right across from where we had moored was one of the power and water points that have been installed. In the morning we shifted across the channel and spent the 2 euros for power and water to do a load of laundry. We shoved off about 10:30 for a stop at Corbie. Sunday morning we headed out for our last stop on the river, just past the lock at Eclusier Vaux.

Looking back at the lock from our mooring, the third of the three platforms along the river.

The mooring from the lock bridge.

Phoenix and Tango, the two barges we’d seen on the Scarpe had been tied up there when we went by down the river but the docks were empty when we arrived about 3pm. The weather was going to be good for the next couple of days so we decided to hang out a little.
This area is in a big “buckle” in the river; part of it makes a big curve while part keeps a pretty straight line down the valley. We decided to ride our bicycles around the outside of the buckle. It only took us a couple of hours but there were hills involved so we got the heart pumping.
It also took us past a couple of informational signs about the freshwater eel fishery on the Somme. Who knew that the eels were born on the Somme, swam all the way to the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean and then migrated back to the river for spawning? We didn’t. Overfishing  and habitat destruction have caused a major decline in the population so much work is going on now to study their life cycle and bring them back. They use this “eel box”, sort of like a sluice used by gold miners, to count the young ones as they’re heading for the ocean.

In the afternoon we hiked up to a park on a hill overlooking the river. This was a major battlefield site in WW I and the remains of trenches and mortar craters still scar the area. It also provides a great vantage point to view the “buckle”.

The navigable portion of the river is at the bottom of this shot. 
You can also spot the old dikes used for medieval fish farming.

Tuesday morning, after just 3 locks and about 3 hours we left the Somme, moored up at the town of Perrone, once again on the Canal du Nord. It was time to start making our way south and east for our winter mooring in Toul.