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There once was an Ugly Duckling and here they are at Revin after a relatively uneventful cruise into France through the wonderful river scenery of the French Ardennes. The weather turned fairly miserable after we left Belgium and the rain became more incessant as we arrived in Bogny but undaunted I donned walking boots and wet weather gear and trudged off up to the rocks of Aymon. The heavens opened on the way up but cleared as I reached the first summit which is crowned with a statue depicting the characters of an old Ardennes legend.
According to the legend the sons of Aymon incurred the wrath of Charlemagne and were pursued by the Emperor's men riding their horse Bayard to their hideout high above the river Meuse. The four rocks on the ridge are said to represent these legendary figures.
From the rock on the second summit I looked down almost vertically on Harmonie and south across the Meuse valley and beyond. The view north from the highest summit is of Monthermé to the left of the picture with the fourth summit in the centre. It is quite a scramble to get to each summit apart from the first and with the wet weather the rocks were rather slippy, particularly on the descent. It was whilst sliding down in a semi uncontrolled manner that I came across one of my favourite fruit; Whortle berries.
Now I appreciate that most readers will not know what whortle berries are as I believe they are only known by this name in the west country.
You probably know them as blueberries. I spent about half an hour picking them until the rain and mozzies got the better of me and I retreated back to Harmonie in torrential rain where Sue made a whort coulis for us to mix with our morning yoghurt.
Our next port of call was Sedan where we spent a couple of days exploring. Sedan was a principality until 1642 when it became part of France. It has two claims to fame as far as I can tell; the first being its magnificent huge fortress dating from 1424 which has never been taken by force and the second is that it is the place that capitulated three times to invading forces. The first capitulation was in 1870 when France surrendered to the Prussians and lost Alsace and Lorraine in the process; the second was when it was taken by the Germans in 1914; the third was in 1940 when the invading German army simply trotted around the Maginot line and crossed the Meuse at Sedan, resulting in the greatest defeat in Frances history.
The fortress is definitely worth a visit and you are left in no doubt why it was never taken by force. You get an audio guide and it takes a couple of hours to see it all including an interesting museum, one room devoted to the final battle in the Franco Prussian war.
The fortress was used as a prison during the first world war and a plaque records the execution and deportation of thousands to labour camps in Germany.
On this occasion there was the option of a falconry display at the end of our visit in the courtyard of the fortress. After we were seated, in came over 100 infants who were fearless in the face of Vultures and Eagles landing on them! For me the star of the show was a huge owl who had a mind of his own when it came to commands from the falconer squawking a definite "non" on occasions.
The weather turned hot again as we cruised sedately up river to Duns-sur-Meuse and grabbed the last spot on the pontoon with the lady capitain waltzing down the pontoon singing 'armonie, 'armonie! A nice Brit lady in a little luxemotor travelling by herself kindly moved a bit to let us in whilst the nice German man who took our ropes did not seem inclined to move his boat despite it being a lot smaller.
On then to Verdun which I described on our last visit in August 2006. Heavy rain delayed us here and I note that was the case on our last visit. It is quite a big port and was crowded with boats, some breasted three deep so we were fortunate to get the last place, as we also did on our previous visit. My old Mum used to say "If there is enough blue in the sky to make a Dutchman's trousers then the sun is going to shine". There was no blue in the sky but plenty of Dutchmen, Verdun being a free port including free water and electricity!
We had planned to meet up with Margaret and Paull Rowbathan in Nancy, however, VNF had planned for us not to by closing the Moselle for 10 days before they arrived. We anticipated that Toul, being the last town before the closure, would be jammed solid with boats so we stopped short at Commercy to await their arrival.
Our guests arrived on schedule and the next day we sailed on up the canal to its junction with the Marne au Rhin canal where we turned right up to the pretty village of Void where Paull phoned a taxi to collect his car from Commercy. We BBQ'd in the evening and some great steaks were washed down with local Cote de Toul wine while Paull took dozens of photo's of Toul church in the sunset reflected in the crystal clear water of the canal.
On the VNF quay where we were moored was one of the old loco's that used to tow the barges so before they left we all posed for Paulls remotely controlled camera.
Our TV Digibox had died during our last few days in Belgium so I purchased another second hand on eBay and the Rowbathans bought it out with them so Sue is now listening to the Archers again! Not before many phone calls to get the new viewing card working with the new Digibox. We also managed to connect with a wireless broadband at Void so my Norton antivirus and Windoze OS were updated with 130mb of new files. That would have been a bit pricey using a mobile with roaming charges!
Back down the canal and into new territory for us dropping down a long flight of automatic locks into Toul. We found Toul as anticipated, full of boats, and discovered that the Moselle downstream had still not opened but upstream was. We spent some time wandering around Toul which was badly damaged in the last war. The facade of the cathedral is missing most of the statues but is still impressive and there are a few interesting renaissance houses, one being a good example of bad taste renovation with the roof space converted into living space with a huge picture window and a modern front door.
The next day found us steaming up the Moselle in company with Marco from Bruges in his little yacht packed with everything but the kitchen sink!
He travelled with us as he was too small for a lock to be operated for him only so we acquired a new tender!
For contrast we were held up at a lock by a huge 2,500 tonne barge pushing another 1700 tonne dumb barge loaded with steel coils from the steelworks upstream. Note the three cars on the hatch forward of the wheelhouse! The lock was 185m long by 12m wide and this lot just fitted!
It is quite a beautiful run up the Moselle until you get to Neuves-Maisons when a huge steelworks desecrates the scene. Here the canal shrinks down to Harmonie size and you are back in verdant countryside again.
We stop for the night in a great little place called Richardmenil, walk in sweltering temperatures up a very steep hill into the village so the local pub benefits from our custom and shopped in the Supermarché. Back at the mooring we eat dinner on a picnic table under the trees and watch the barometer drop like a stone but still it doesn't rain.
For the next section of canal we have a travelling lock keeper who we had booked for a 9am start and still in company with Brugean Marco who it turns out is actually a Dutchman of Spanish descent, we continue up the Moselle valley. The countryside gets more sublime as we travel. Over an aquaduct crossing the Moselle river and through forests with trees overhanging the canal almost touching each side of Harmonie as we glide though this sun dappled waterway.
We arrived at a lock where someone who looked official was taking photographs and samples of what looked like pollution of the canal. What looked like a white foam was covering the water surface. We had been seeing a lot of seed pods, like Dandelion seeds, floating in the breeze for the last couple of months and it catches in the spiders webs on the boat to show Sue how lax she is!
This looked like something similar but on a scale not seen before and a little further down the canal we were enveloped in the stuff. It was like a snowstorm and it had collected on the canal bank in a thick layer. We had no idea what it was or where it came from and it was over in a few metres?
We stopped for the night at Charmes, a town almost completely destroyed by fire in the last war by the retreating German army and taking 160 inhabitants to the death camps in Germany. Late at night loud music was heard in the town and further investigation revealed a travelling water fountain, computer controlled which changed colour and spray patterns in time to the music. It actually rained here, restoring my faith in the barometer which still continues to drop.
We arrived in the Epinal port which is situated at the end of a 3.5km branch canal which was very shallow. The port capitain later explained that the new silica sand extraction operation which we had noticed further back down the main canal involved three big barges moving up and down locks every day which took large amounts of water from the branch canal which was fed by the Moselle river. We were breasted on to the French owned Barge "Beethoven" whose owner was extremely helpful in every way, even transporting me to a fuel supplier to arrange for a tanker to bunker us. The port is in a basin next to an exquisitely manicured park with a lively brasserie at one end.
We cycled into the city, the old medieval part being on the right bank of the Moselle which splits in two and forms an island on which is the new city. Surrounded by thickly forested hills, the burghers of Epinal seem to have an horticultural bent as everywhere you look there are parks, rose gardens, flower beds and paths through the woods. The old center around the 15th century Romanesque cathedral is teeming with restaurants, one of which we indulged in Sunday lunch before climbing to the top of the hill above to enjoy the view across the city.
The fuel tanker turned up on time on Monday at 8am and by 8.30 we were sailing very slowly down the middle of a half empty canal back to the main line. Then it was up a chain of 14 automatic locks, along a 7km summit level then down another 8 locks where we spud poled with a few more boats in the middle of the forest. We caught up with Marco here and the three of us BBQ'd some lamb chops and Petherton sausages, our last and you just can't get decent sausages outside the UK! Marco travelled with us again down though dozens of locks, never more than a kilometre apart as far as Bain-les Bain where we parted company. The Auberge beside the mooring at Port le Bain serves Italian food so we sat outside next to a little earthenware pot inside which a Blue Tit had a nest with several young. For a couple of hours she flew backwards and forwards with moths, grubs and caterpillars for her young as we ate fettucine et al! Bain les Bain was about 3km distant from the canal so we cycled over early the next morning before it became too hot to have a look.
It was quite an attractive little spa town with old Roman baths and a couple of more recent ones where the hot springs are used to treat cardio-vascular complaints. Our cycle ride continued down to the little village of la Manufacture, now an historic monument with a largely preserved forge and workers apartments dating from the mid 18th century. A 2km cycle ride back up the towpath to Harmonie then a leisurely 6 locks and 6km down to Fontenoy le Chateau, an attractive town which had plastered everything that didn't move with quotations from famous people, mainly French, but not one shop was open and even the bar was closed! A couple of locks further down we found a shady spot and moored for the night, much to the annoyance of the skipper of a commercial peniche who shouted at us several times that we should not moor there and he would report us to the VNF. I gave him the usual Gallic shrug and went back to sleep. That evening the level of the canal dropped so we went aground and repositioned ourselves further from the bank. In the morning we were aground again so we set off early for the next lock which let us in, dropped us down and then the bottom gates refused to open. No response from the lock intercom so called the local VNF office who informed me the locks did not open until 9am. At 9am the intercom was answered and I reported ecluse trente sept non fonction pas to which I obtained a d'accord. After a reminder half an hour later, an eclusier finally let us out of our prison after two hours and we continued downstream to Selles where the eclusier recommended the local fromage which turned out to be Munster and very good it was too with some local bread and washed down with some local Rosé, a meal fit for a sun king (who I seem to remember requested du vin, du pain et du Brie prior to his execution!).
We joined the River Saône at Corre and sailed on down to Port du Saône where we searched in vain for a fruit shop in fact any shop selling food. There is supposed to be one across the bridge but we couldn't find it or the tourist office. The trompe l'oeil behind the war memorial caught my eye but the place was slightly shabby and run down.
The next day we covered over 60km downstream as we wanted to get to Gray and spend some time before meeting up with the Hockeys for their annual cruise at Dole.
At one lock the eclusiers wife offered us freshly cut lettuce and a redcurrant tart whilst at another one local wines were on sale,
an entrepreneurial display we had to encourage by purchase. I don't know if its true or not but George Bush was supposed to have asked what the French word was for entrepreneur! Down river then to Gray where, just to contradict my previous observation, Claudine from the local tourist office arrived on the quay, welcomed us to Gray and asked us if we would like to join a guided tour the next day. We visited her office later and booked the tour of the town with English speaking guide including a degustation of local food and wine for the grand sum of €4.50. She also told us about a brand new port de plaisance which had just opened at Besançon and called them to reserve a space for us. All French tourist offices should be like this one!
Gray was once an important town due to its location on the river Saône. It was no more than a days horse ride from major centres of population that had no access to water transport but with the building of the railways the towns importance declined. The town hall reflects its former importance with a Burgundian tiled roof equal to the famous one on the hospital at Beaune.
Saint Pierre Fourier was a Lorraine priest who fought against the horrors of the ten years war in the first part of the 17th century. He hid here from the French army and the vindictive Cardinal Richelieu. He spent much of his time in the tower of a local house now named after him. He had a study at the very top of the tower where access was protected by a wooden revolving staircase. Invented in Italy it is the only remaining one in France.
At the tasting we were given a sort of Quiche Lorraine but with a Brioch like casing rather than pastry, some local bread made in the shape of a map of France but with the best bit at Franche-Comté, some cream cheese, local goats cheese, patisserie, red and white wines. It was all very good and we would have bought much of what we tasted but, in typical French style, we had to visit the various retail outlets to purchase with the exception of the fromage de chevre as the cheese maker was present with her delicious fresh sweet cheese for sale.
We left Gray in pouring rain and headed on downstream to Pontalier. In improved weather the next day we arrived at the entrance to the Rhone-Rhin canal as the lock closed for lunch so we tied up at the pontoon until the eclusier returned, collected our electronic gismo to operate the locks, then set off for the five hour cruise up to Dole where we spent a few days awaiting the arrival of our friends the Hockeys. The moorings for bigger barges like us were pretty full when we arrived so we breasted up against "Histoire d'Eau" owned by Australian couple Steve and Peta who we met in 2006 at Vitry. We were soon invited by David and Juliet for drinks aboard their 38 metre barge "Jubilant" to meet their guests. We thought Harmonie was big but here was twice the area with an engine room you could stand up in!
Hugh McKnight, the author of the "Bible", "Cruising the French Waterways", calls Dole "a real gem of a town" and that exactly describes it. You moor up beneath the 16th century Notre-Dame collegiate church
which dominated the old city perched on a limestone bluff overhanging the river Doubs beside the remains of the 12th century fortress built by Emperor Frédéric Barberousse. It developed during the 13th century along the ancient Roman road between Chalon and Besançon and became the capital of Comté first under Burgundian rule and then under the Hapsburgs. After Louis XIV claimed it for France, the capital was transferred to Besançon. Louis Pasteur was born here in 1822. His father was a tanner and the house in which he was born sits beside the flower bedecked Tanners Canal adjacent to the port.
The Hockeys arrived on schedule and leaving their car at Dole we set off the next day upstream to explore the scenic river Doubs.