Winter in Briare
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Briare is a chic little town about two hours drive by autoroute south of Paris or one and a half hours by train from the Gare de Lyon. The town is situated on the river Loire and well provided for most shops but the large town of Gien, famous for its porcelain, is just 10km downstream where there is a bigger and better selection. One and a half hours drive further brings you to the city of Orleans where Joan of Arc gave the English a thrashing some years ago. Our forefathers were therefore not 'appy with 'er so they burned her in Rouen the following year after which the French made her a saint!
About half an hours drive south on the autoroute is the large town of Cosne (pronounced cone) and a little further south are the seriously good wine areas of Sancerre and Pouilly, famous for its flinty Pouilly Fumé.
To the south east there is the city of Bourges, the regional capital of Berry, a medieval city rich in architectural splendours and on the "must visit" list of any serious tourist.
Briare has two ports, one for pleasure boats and one for commercials. The port de plaisance is situated on the canal de Briare in the centre of town and is extremely attractive but is full so we are berthed in the commercial port on the canal lateral de Loire just above where the canal crosses the river Loire on the famous 662 metre long aquaduct, one of the marvels of the canal age. It is but a short walk into town, there are no commercial craft any more apart from hotel boats in the summer so apart from a few camper vans who park on the quay there are only pleasure boats here and most are from the adjacent hire boat base, Charme Nautique, apart from Tom, another Brit who has a cruiser and a mad Scotsman.
Down in the port de plaisance there are Les and Sally Harper on the barge "Nancy May", Keith and Jenny Riley with dog Billy on "Gulliver", Mike and Rosaleen, Irish folk on the cruiser "Aquarelle" and Dominique and Nicholas who are the only French live-aboards in the cruiser "Pedro". The Capitanerie is staffed throughout the year by Christophe and Pascal, both of whom speak English and offer their services for translation if we get stuck for anything important.
We are attending lessons twice a week to improve our limited French along with Mike, Keith and Les together with a guy from Nigeria, a Finnish lady and numerous Turkish ladies who insist on being separated from us blokes by Sue! Something to do with religion we think as we have not attempted any serious seduction so far! Our teachers are a bunch of local femmes volontaires led by Natacha, who is Briares mayoress I think, and who speaks very little English which is good as we have to speak French to be understood. Much time is spent on meeting with shaking hands, kissing both cheeks (but not the Turkish ladies) and ça-va'ing before we get started on the lesson; which is like being back at school - who would have thought I would be conjugating the verb avoir at 66!
November was generally a cold and miserable month with the odd fine clear day thrown in. With France in the grip of a general transport strike, Jenny Riley, on a lone visit back to the UK, could only get as far as Paris on Eurostar so we went up to Paris in the car to collect her. It took two and a half hours to get to Gare du Nord then an hour to drive around to the back of the station to the underground car park. After meeting Jenny we then trudged around the area trying in vain to find a Chinese restaurant that met with Keiths approval so decided to stop on the way back to Briare. Another hour was spent getting to the periphique then we were stationary in torrential rain on the A6 for another hour so we ate in a service station just north of Briare very late. Keith insisted we ate properly later that week in the St Trop restaurant next to the Briare canal basin. The next evening was spent in Church; not that we have found religion but a concert by the choir of the cathedral of Tchernivsti in Ukraine. Our French teacher, Natacha, the daughter of parents who had fled the Russian revolution, seemed to be one of, if not the organiser and greeted us in the usual French fashion. Briare church is enlivened by the entire floor being covered in Mosaic patterns provided by the local factory for which the town is renowned.
Keith Riley had taken dinner with us when Jenny was away and the compliment was returned with dinner on board Gulliver. Jenny is a great cook and the wine flowed freely to the extent that Sue and I both needed each other for support on our way back to Harmonie and awoke feeling the effects of the night before. This was the day of the Christmas market in the leisure complex where we purchased a case of Pouilly Fumé on Sue's tasting as alcohol was strictly off bounds to yours truly. Les and Sally kindly provided lunch on Nancy May then in the afternoon we again went just next door into the leisure complex where there is a large modern auditorium for a sell out flamenco concert. Once again, there was Natacha, collecting the tickets at the door! She seems to be a great asset to the community.
Towards the end of November, Keith and Jenny on Gulliver decided to return to the UK to renovate their property and we were honoured by a visit from Anna and Tim who came by train via the newly refurbished St Pancras station. Sir John Betjeman, who fought to save the station, is honoured with a statue on the concourse.
We met them from the train at Briare and celebrated Tims birthday with Champagne, Puligny-Montrachet with Coq au Vin and Muscat de Rivesaltes with Rick Steins Gateaux Lyonaisse. This over indulgence had the result of us all being a little slow in turning too the next day which was dry so we drove to Auxerre, wandered around the town and Cathedral, adjourning to a nice little bistro for lunch of salade de crevettes, canard dans le vin rouge avec tagliatelle and various puds all washed down with a pichet of rosé for about eight quid each! Then on to beautiful Vézelay, situated on the crown of a hill overlooking the Cure valley and the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan. The town was in the process of Christmas decoration with many fir trees and brightly coloured gift boxes being tied to all the buildings. At the top of the hill is the Basilique Ste-Madeleine dating from the ninth century and containing the relics of Mary Magdaline retrieved from Provence where she died. The basilica is built in the Romanesque-Gothic style. The Tympanum above the great doorway is regarded as a masterpiece of sculpture and dates from 1140. On the south side of the hill are vineyards mainly of chardonnay grapes from which the fruity local wine is produced and a couple of bottles were purchased for later consumption.
The next day we set off following the Loire valley upstream to the Pouilly Fumé wine growing region. Just before Tracy-sur-Loire there is a glorious view across the river to the Sancerre hills and we noted a couple of hunters with rifles sitting beside the road at the edge of the forest. We stopped at Tracy to take a photograph of the chateau and heard gunshots shortly followed by a group of wild boar running through the adjacent vineyard and across the road in front of us.
At Pouilly we called in at Domaine Masson-Blondelet for a small degustation of their Pouilly Fumé and Tim purchased a case for us to bring back for him on our next UK visit, then on to La Charité for lunch and the lovely old Romanesque abbey, returning via Sancerre back to Briare. In the evening we walked about a mile to the local posh chateau on the other side of town for Tims birthday treat from Anna.
December proved to be very cold indeed with weeks of sub zero temperatures.
The canal froze over, our shoreside water supply froze but we kept warm and were rewarded with many clear bright sunny days. On the 12th December we paid a visit to Bourges with Les and Sally, it being the 67th birthday of a very famous person. Bourges is a spendid old medieval city with the impressive cathedral of St. Étienne dominating it from the top of the hill. The girls enjoyed themselves Christmas shopping while the blokes resisted all attempts to force the purchase of various articles of male attire.
In mid December, the remaining floating residents of Briare met in the St. Trop restaurant for lunch. There was Mike and Rosaleen from "Aquarelle" who are Irish, Les and Sally from "Nancy May" who are Brits, Dominique and Nicholas from the cruiser "Pedro" who are French, Rex Mackay the mad Scotsman, Tom Baker from the cruiser "Commodore" who is from Dover and Pascal from the Capitanerie. They all came aboard Harmonie just before Christmas plus Natacha, our French teacher, for mulled wine and mince pies where Dominique impressed us all with tales of their deep sea sailing days. Someone they met round Cape Horn asked about the French canals and they were ashamed to admit they knew nothing of them despite having sailed twice around the world so here they were getting to know their own back yard!!
After our traditional Christmas breakfast of scrambled egg, smoked salmon and Champagne, we spent the rest of the day preparing and cooking turkey with all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding and custard. The meal was consumed in about 20 minutes washed down with a nice bottle of St. Aubin premier cru followed by a few glasses of LBV Port. The washing up took several hours more before we collapsed onto the couch to watch telly. On Boxing Day we entertained Les and Sally to lunch. They arrived at 2pm and after a leisurely bottle of Pouilly Fumé we demolished some roast beef with Roquefort sauce washed down with a premier cru Santenay. Our guests had bought some Amarone which they had kept too long. The first one we opened was 1965 vintage and well over the hill which we poured down the sink. The second was a youthful 1986 which, when opened, tasted acidic and past its best but drinkable. After half an hour in the jug it had improved no end (maybe pouring the other down the sink was a little hasty?) and made a good accompaniment to the cheese board of Brie de Meaux, Roquefort and some local charcoal coated fresh chevre. The piéce de résistance was a fresh fruit salad spiked with liqueur de pomme verte, garnished with vanilla ice cream, washed down with a sweet Muscat de Rivesaltes. This lunch terminated at 8pm and the washing up took up the rest of the evening!
The new year was seen in aboard Aquarelle, another mulled wine and mince pie affair but it is the custom in France to eat a celebratory lunch on new years day so we again assembled at noon in the St Trop restaurant for a formidable meal. We began with Champagne and cheesy light as a feather pastries then an hors-d'oeuvre of salmon mousse topped with salmon eggs presented in an empty egg shell on a bed of coarse sea salt - delicious. The fish courses consisted of langoustine and redfish with a green salad garnished with slice mango and mango coulis followed by perfectly grilled scallops with mashed potato arranged on a bed of mixed vegetables and Champagne sauce. The potato was arranged in the shape of a boat and had a wafer thin pastry "sail" in it covered in poppy seeds. I don't know if this was just for us boaties benefit but I wouldn't be surprised. The dish looked and tasted magnificent and we demolished a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc Menetou Salon with it. They gave us a rest at this point and cleansed our palette with an apple sorbet before the meat course of beef filet with fois gras de canard, cooked to order, potatoes, carrots, baby broad beans and chopped leeks. The vegetables were all cooked in different ways and the sauce was to die for, in fact my mouth is watering while I am writing this! A bottle of excellent Cabernet Franc St-Nicholas de Bourgueil washed this lot down admirably by which time we thought we were full when along came the fromage. Goodly pieces of Crottin de Chavignol, Coulommiers and Bleu d'Auvergne definitely caused pressure on the waistband but the dessert was still to come. This consisted of a raspberry mouse topped with creme fraiche, a puff pastry apple tart and vanilla ice cream topped with a filo pastry flake and a crème brûlée, and all on one plate - phew. I gave up on the coconut macaroons with the coffee! We all fell out of the St Trop about 4pm with much bonne annee'ing to chef and staff and walked over the pont canal to assist the digestion.
We had thought this would complete the new year celebrations but we were not finished because a few days later we were invited on board Pedro for drinks and Gallette, another French custom and they apparently eat thousands of them in the early days of the new year. Inside these gallettes is a tiny porcelain figurine on which it is perfectly possible to break a tooth, much to the delight of the assembled congregation! If you are fortunate or unfortunate enough to find one of these in your piece of pie then you get to wear a crown provided with the gallette. Great fun?!
On 6th January we set off from Briare in our car. Four hours drive found us at Calais, through the tunnel and dropped off our passenger, Tom Baker, at the other end and proceeded for a further 3 hours to dear old Somerset.
After waving the Hockeys goodbye on their world trip we travelled down to Exeter for lunch with my Son, Steven and then on to Helston for a couple of days to see my Daughter and Son-in-Law, Becky and Tom plus the three grandchildren, Eliza, William and Henry in descending order of age. For Beckys birthday treat we shouted lunch at the Norway Arms. On the way back to Petherton we had lunch with sister Sue and her husband John. Sister Sue decided some time ago that she preferred to use her middle name Elizabeth, but having called her Sue all our lives we can't get out of the habit so our extended family now refer to her as Aunty Sliz so we all know who we are talking about!
From Petherton we drove up to Edinburgh for a hogmanay dram and stayed with our friend Murdo McCleod. At dinner in the Bar Italia we discovered it was under new management but the food was still of high standard. It stopped raining the next day so we walked into town along the canal in bright sunshine. We just can't seem to get away from canals! Princes Street has gone down-market since we lived here and the quality shops have moved up into George Street. The city fathers are in the process of messing up St Andrews square and have plonked a huge toilet block in the garden, further despoilment was in the process of enactment. What with the Scottish Parliament Building monstrosity it seems those in authority are hell bent on spoiling one of the worlds most beautiful cities.
Our old neighbours the Ingrams were out of town as were the Hendrys but we gathered in the Foon Lung for a feast with Murdo, Brian Melville, Leslie Florence and Andy Reid and talked over old times. Brian has now retired and has taken advantage of a Scottish government grant (not available to the English), to install central heating in his house after many years shivering! He took a lot of teasing but our Scottish friends took great delight in telling me of all the goodies the elderly Scots get that the English don't. They did seem concerned that the "West Lothian question" (referring to a question by Tam Dayell, the West Lothian MP, who posed the question in Westminster as to what might happen if Scottish MP's in Westminster voted on purely English matters when their brothers in Edinburgh were voting the opposite way) might be alienating the English and may herald the break up of the Union?
We took the A68 south over Carter Bar into Northumberland. We were fortunate as the following day it snowed and we would not have made it. At Scotch Corner we detoured to a small village pub nearby for lunch. The drive south turned into a bit of a nightmare with heavy rain and long delays through road works but we eventually found ourselves in an Amersham pub with Tim and the lovely Anna eating Thai food and competing in the pubs quiz. We think we came bottom!
The London boat show held little interest for us bargees but Sue managed to buy a much reduced pair of boat shoes and I discovered a handy new product. Its from the USA and called Rescue Tape, made of silicone, it fuses and seals permanently when you stretch and wrap it round a leaking pipe. They claim it will seal up to 700psi, resists temperatures up to 260 degrees C and insulates up to 8,000 volts. It will resist fuels, oil, acids, solvents and salt water, in fact its taking over the world! They told me that Chandlers will be selling at for £10 a roll whereas the special boat show offer was 3 rolls for £15. How could I resist such a bargain!
On Saturday it rained again so Tim and I went down the pub and watched Munster knock the Wasps out of the Heinekin Cup. On Sunday it rained again so we went walking round the Chilterns and got wet and muddy. And so to Sherbourne hospital where Sue finally had her cataracts on one eye removed successfully with no pain and all done and dusted in three hours. She had an inspection on 7th February and we must return in November for a further one. She must also have the other eye done so we will have further visits for that which is why we are not heading south this year.
We left Petherton on the 10th February and headed down to Hailsham in East Sussex to see our old friends Norman and Mary Veit where we had a lot of catching up to do since we last met. Our Eurotunnel frequent users ticket is only for off peak travel and the first off peak train was 4-20pm so we had plenty of time to get to Folkstone from Haialsham. We stopped for lunch of Fish and Chips in Rye, a super little olde worlde town set on a hill overlooking the marsh and the channel coast. We wandered round the quaint narrow streets in warm bright sunshine, only wishing we had more time to spend in this delightful town.
An uneventful journey back to Briare had us arriving at 10pm since when the springlike weather has continued. Tom and Trish dropped in for lunch on their way back to Roanne from the USA, their flight having been delayed 24 hours and then their luggage a further 24! The aquaduct has re-opened and the only commercial we have yet seen on this canal passed by us and that was the only waterborne traffic in a week. Several boats have left and we presume they have returned to moorings vacated as a result of the various winter closures. We plan to leave here on 1st April but are again reviewing our cruising plans and have decided to sail as far as Moret, retrieve our car then collect our Oz guests from Paris by car rather than undertake the long trip by barge. We would then head up the Seine and Yonne to Auxerre as our original plans.
We drove across to Nancy to investigate a winter mooring. Unfortunately they were unable to confirm a reservation until October and we do not fancy waiting until then to perhaps be told they are full and have to find somewhere at short notice so Auxerre is still favourite. Nancy is a splendid city with spectacular architecture and arts venues. We found the covered market which was a gourmet paradise. It was one big deli with speciality stalls selling food from all over Europe plus fruit and veg of superlative quality, Butchers, Confectionery and cafe bars.
On our return we visited Troyes, the ancient capital of Champagne. You used to be able to sail up the Seine to Troyes but the navigation is now closed. Another fabulous city full of half timbered buildings and somewhere we intend to return in the future.
At the end of February the weather became springlike with lots of warm sunny days. England beat France in Paris for the first time in the six nations competition for eight years, Wilkinson dropped a goal to claim a world record for the most ever (27 I think) and 19 year old Sale scrum half Wigglesworth scored the final try in his first international game. Cristophe, the port capitain, actually shook my hand and congratulated me!
A trip over to Auxerre confirmed our choice of a winter mooring. Its about the same cost as Briare but it is at the heart of a beautiful city and comes with free WIFI internet and a big Le Clerc supermarché within walking distance so we should both be happy!
Briare is starting to look springlike with cherry blossom much in evidence and magnolias beginning to bloom. Tom Baker has aquired a new ships dog he has called Winston who we are teaching to bark English. He is a Brichon rescued from Montargis dogs home and behaves much like a spring lamb when he meets you!
Les and Sally entertained their friends Sue & Colin for a long weekend and cruised Nancy May to Chatillon with them, mooring up alongside for lunch with us on the way back. Colin is the image of Clinton Rogers, the BBC TV Somerset correspondent. Thats how important Somerset is; it even has its own correspondent! After lunch Tom & I settled down in front of the telly to watch Wales beat Ireland. As if that wasn't bad enough we then had to watch Scotland beat England and Gloucester beat London Irish which put them back at the top of the premiership ahead of Bath. Wilkinson did kick himself into the record books becoming the highest points scorer in the world but that was no substitute for a dismal team performance against a side that hadn't won a game in the six nations competition. Had Scotland played out of their skins, as they can sometimes do against England, I could understand it but this time England just didn't bother to turn up!
As I was writing this someone galloped across our deck. I opened the door and a young man explained that his rather attractive girl friend was the culprit and she did not think the barge was occupied. He "desolé'd" profusely then she appeared again a little later with a gift of some apple crumble, apologising again for disturbing us.
A few days ago a woodworking business just along the quay caught fire. It burnt all night and our electricity supply was cut off. The next day, Collette, one of our French teachers, knocked on our door to check we were unharmed! Nice people the French.
Together with Mike and Rosaleen we have been investigating French internet providers Orange & SFR so if you are not interested in the saga of trying to get on line in France you can skip the next few paragraphs! The first problem is that both want a French bank account they can debit. In Belgium, Proximus will happily charge to my credit card but with roaming charges it costs 8 Euros a month plus 5 Euros a Mb. We have a Belgian bank account but that is not acceptable. So much for the EU and the Euro zone, however, the EU are putting pressure on the telecoms companies to reduce their data roaming charges! SFR now only have a USB modem which you have to take but you can remove its SIMM and it will work in my Vodafone data card. This means that I can use the same software which is in English. Orange provide a new data card for 30 Euroles but their software is in French. Prices are better with SFR if you are a big user (more than 500Mb) but 251 to 500Mb would cost you 39 Euros a month with SFR and only 32 Euros with Orange. You are limited to evening and weekend use or 62 Euros for use any time and a limit of 1Gb. 1 Euro/Mb over these limits. SFR is only 49 Euro for 1Gb then 0.10 Eurocents/Mb.
Orange do allow a max of 60Mb/month extra at any time of day in addition to the 500Mb basic. Both offer similar contracts over 12 and 24 months. I concluded that SFR is the one for us as the 1Gb download, low price per Mb charge, and being able to use my data card and English language software swung it.
We opened an account with the Banque Postale as you can usually find one in most places. You can no longer get from them a Carte Bleu which is often the only card accepted by the automatic 24 hour petrol stations. They say there is no demand and only supply Mastercard and Visa for which they charge. We will be maintaining this account solely so we can pay our phone bill so I don't suppose it would take much upkeep but French banks charge for most transactions, unlike British banks where it is free if you keep the account in credit. La Banque Postale charges each time you pay cash or cheques in and each transaction plus a small quarterly charge. They accept your winter mooring address and require a copy of an Inland Revenue letter to your UK address to prove where you are paying tax. Your address is printed on your cheques and we discovered that the telecoms companies required this to be a French address and would not accept a UK address. When you ask French people why things are sometimes so difficult here you get the classic gallic shrug and the excuse "c'est France!"
Nicholas Sarkozy has his work cut out to simplify the bureaucracy that seems to be endemic in France. The Euro zone, for example, should mean that financial transactions throughout the zone should be seamless but it is just as difficult to transfer between banks in Euro zone countries as those outside the zone.
In 2008 we explored the canal du Nivernais.