From Chalons to Chalon
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This page describes our journey from Chalons-en-Champagne to Chalon-sur-Saône via the canal latéral à la Marne, the canal de la Marne à la Saône and the river Saône. We stopped briefly at Chalons-en-Champagne last year but did not see it properly so this time resolved to do it justice. Unfortunately we picked a Tuesday when everything was closed! The city is full of old half timbered houses, has two cathedrals, a Neoclassical town hall and many parks bordering its various rivers and canals. To compound matters it rained hard all morning but in the afternoon the sun came out and we ate dinner in the main square in blazing sunshine listening to an al fresco performance from the Stoke-on-Trent youth wind orchestra!
The canal latéral à la Marne runs as straight as a die for much of the way up through 9 locks for 32km from Chalons to Vitry-le François and the junction of the canal de la Marne au Rhin with the canal de la Marne à la Saône. Turning right onto the latter canal from Vitry you climb up through 70 locks over 150km to the summit level at more than 340 metres altitude near Langres. I think this is the highest point on the French canal system.
At Vitry we were stuck behind a loaded Dutch commercial barge travelling at 4km/hr and taking half an hour through each lock so we called a halt at Ecriennes where there was a new quay, a picnic table and rubbish bin next to a pretty lock on the canal side and a lake on the other. The only snag was the big oak tree blocking the satellite signal so we tied the attenna to a plum tree (unripe fruit unfortunately) for a perfect TV reception.
The next day was glorious so we took breakfast at the picnic table and did a few jobs on board until I noticed another laden commercial slowly moving towards the lock so we cast off quickly and proceeded up the canal towards St Dizier where we arrived mid afternoon. The commercial barge arrived some three hours later, phew! St Dizier is quite a smart town with some impressive public building around a central square and attractive gardens.
From here the scenery becomes progressively more attractive with the wooded hills of the Marne valley beginning to close in on each side. The canal follows the twists and turns of the river accompanied by road and railway. Our objective was Joinville but we soon found ourselves behind that same dreaded commercial which had started out a full two and a half hours before us. The result was that it took us 9 hours to travel 31km through 14 locks, an average of 3.4km/hr. Most of the time we were stationary.
At least we could enjoy the scenery at leisure. This part of the Haut-Marne used to have many iron foundries and most of the canal bridges display this legacy. We passed many bascule and lift bridges winched up by nice little lady eclusiers who followed us up the canal on their little Peugeot scooters.
At Joinville the Halt Nautique was full so we moored by the town bridge. We had decided to stay here the next day which dawned wet and were joined in the evening by a Belgian peniche who moored up to us.
This is an attractive little town situated in a narrow part of the valley where the Marne splits in two to surround part of the town. We cycled round to find an Aldi then walked round to see the town and buy our bread. On our return we spotted a Lidl so we were well stocked up with the essentials of life and pretty wet into the bargain!
We had informed the Eclusiers that we wished to start again at 9am on Sunday. There follows a section of the canal where all the locks are all manually operated so you have to book your eclusier who travels with you operating the locks. If you miss your slot you may have a long wait for another.
From 12 noon to one o-clock the eclusier stops for lunch and so do you. On this occasion it was at Villiers-sur-Marne and a pleasanter spot you never spied but the weather put a damper on the occasion. It rained for most of the day and when we arrived at our mooring at Froncles the rain became torrential so we were pleased to have finished for the day.
Another 9am start the next day for the 25km and 11 more locks up to Chaumont, the prefecture of the Haute-Marne. We awoke to thick mist which augered well for a good day and sure enough, as we came through the first lock the sun broke through the mist. This canal just gets more attractive as you climb up to the summit pound or perhaps it was something to do with the sun shining at last!.
We stopped for lunch at Riaucourt, mooring alongside a couple of plastic hire boats full of about 40 French persons who filled the adjacent pique-nique shelter and proceeded to enjoy their lunch, washed down with copius quantities of wine. I think our eclusiers were timing their lunchtime to coincide with this party as we stopped at 12 noon and did not resume until 1-30pm. We had plenty of time to stroll around this lovely place. The river Marne runs alongside spanned by an arched bridge decorated with many boxes of red geraniums. There was a series of rapids downstream of the bridge and iridescent blue Kingfishers flashed low over the water - a magic place.
Chaumont is a town situated at the top of the valley side hill some 2km from the bottom but well worth the cycle ride up, or in Sues case walk up. The old centre is full of gracious buildings with many carved porticoes and facades built of white stone. It is famous for its railway viaduct which has 50 arches on three levels over 50 metres high and spans the valley for 600 metres, a triumph of railway engineering in the nineteenth century.
The last day of July and our young male eclusier arrived 10 minutes late looking as though he was suffering from a hard days night! After winding a few locks he seemed to recover and became quite communicative. We had planned to travel to Rolampont but he informed us there was no room at the quay there so we stopped at Foulain. We cycled around the village then up the towpath of the canal for 6km. On our return we had been joined on the mooring by Paul and Margaret in the barge Andreas, two Brits in their first year of life afloat in France. We swapped paperbacks and watery incidents while their two dogs, Maggie the mongrel and part whippet/lurcher Ruby, revelled in their freedom chasing balls thrown by local teenagers in between jumping off the bridge into the canal, the teenagers, not the dogs.
We arrived at Langres the next day and moored up at the last place on the quay with very little to tie onto. We therefore pressed into service our spudpoles fore and aft.
That evening we ended up in the local restaurant along with seven Australians. During the night a violent thunderstorm woke us and kept us awake for over an hour but the day dawned reasonably fine.
We caught the bus up the Langres and walked around the ramparts. The city sits on a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 470 metres and commands splendid views down the Marne valley and across to the Vosges mountains. The city within the ramparts is reckoned to be one of the 50 most beautiful in France but I suspect it will be a bit "parkie" in the winter! It is of course famous for its cheese which has a delicate orange rocou (annatto) washed rind and is mild flavoured when young. Marc de Bourgogne or even Champagne is sometimes poured into the concave top of the cheese called a fontaine so we bought a cheese and intend to try the Shampoo soaking job when our friends the Hockeys arrive in a couple of weeks.
One evening an interesting fellow from Great Yarmouth stopped to pass the time of day. He had arrived in a funny looking barge called Catch 22 which he had built himself. Battery powered and charged entirely from a bank of solar panels which covered the cabin roof from stem to stern, it had a top speed of 4km/hr and stopped completely if the sun didn't shine. He asked me where I was from as he detected a southern accent and was gratified I was not from Suffolk whose inhabitants he didn't speak to! He then presented me with a bottle of Woodforde's Admiral's Reserve Norfolk Ale, brewed with Maris Otter barley which he claimed to be better than a pint of Devon Otter! It was certainly a nice drop but it would be hard to beat a good pint of Otter.
The Langres plateau is the watershed of the river Marne which flows north west to join the Seine in Paris and the river Saône which flows south to join the Rhone in Lyon. The summit level of the canal includes the Balesmes tunnel which crosses this watershed and is 4820 metres long. The canal drops through 43 locks for 63km joining the Saône at Maxilly. It is very rural and there are very few places where one can obtain provisions so we sailed from Langres with a full water tank and plenty of food.
We entered the tunnel and promptly scraped along the port side losing two fenders in the process. It was difficult steering a straight course as there seemed to be a tendency for the ship to keep her stern into the port side, maybe an exaggeration of the propeller windmill effect caused by the narrow confines of the tunnel and the shape of the canal bottom. Whatever the reason we tended to "crab" most of the way through which took almost an hour. Emerging into daylight you soon begin the descent to Burgundy.
This canal gets prettier and prettier and is quite one of the most peaceful we have yet travelled. At Oisilly we robbed the farmer of 4 ears of maize and barbied them. Not very sweet and the entrecote was a bit over cooked but we enjoyed a nice bottle of red and the hot evening sun. The scenery included large areas of mainly beech forest with arable and dairy farmland interspersed. Large fields of sunflowers turned their heads towards the sun as we proceeded down to join the river Saône.
Those readers who are not interested in the technicalities of gas bottles in different countries can skip this section. Propane bottles in Belgium are different to those in France but we discovered that if you buy the "Grande" size then the pipe connection is exactly the same. Belgian bottles are 10.5kg and French ones are 13kg and it nearly ended me carrying one back from the supermarché where they charged me the princely sum of 52 euroles as I did not have a "vide" (empty) one to exchange.
At St-Jean-De-Losne we replaced our lost fenders, bought some black paint to touch up all the scratches we suffered through all those locks, refilled our fuel tanks at the bunker boat and sailed on south, over 1000 euros poorer.
After arriving on the river we encountered large numbers of hire boats and had a few problems finding good moorings. We spent the night at Verdun-sur-le-Doubs and moored against a rough quay covered in mud and rotting mirabelle plums from the tree high above. The next day we decided to motor down to Gergy for a better mooring and arrived at a rickety pontoon about 11am just as the rain started. A delicious aroma of beef stew emanated from the restaurant above us so we were lured in for lunch. It turned out to be veal stew which was as delicious as the aroma, washed down with a carafe of red wine we returned to Harmonie for coffee and Armagnac and watched England getting stuffed by India on the telly.
It continued to rain for the next 24 hours and we awoke to the river level having risen over a metre with large amounts of trees and other detrius floating downstream. Paul and Margaret in Andreas had also arrived on the pontoon and after some debate we decided our best option was to get off the river ASAP in case of further rain and more problems. We decided to travel downstream together so that if either of us fouled any of the tree trunks floating past the other could assist. As we progressed downstream the amount of flotsam became less and we arrived at the junction of the Saône and the canal du Centre in under two hours on August 10th, the subject of the next page.