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We headed into France on 11th June for a months cruising and spent the first night at Vireux Wallerand then on the next day to a mooring just upstream of the lock above Revin beside the weir. Here we were passed by a commercial peniche, a rare sight on this part of the river. Might have been going down to Givet to block the navigation if rumors of strike action were true! For the second night in a row the BBQ was pressed into service and we fell asleep watching the telly.
In the morning the lights were off on the lock and boats were queuing so we were fortunate to be above the lock before it malfunctioned. We set off upstream and joined a little penichette hire boat with a German family in the next lock who were a bit concerned as there was only just enough room for both of us. We stayed together until just past Charleville-Meziere when another penichette cut in and pinched our place in the next lock. We arrived in Pont-à-Bar and found a difficult mooring just below the second lock on the Canal des Ardennes.
Shortly after we arrived a car pulled up and a Dutchman introduced himself in English from the barge opposite. He and his wife breed Abyssinian and Somalian cats and we were invited aboard to see them. There were twelve cats and a dog on board and thousands of cat inspired sculptures, statuettes and pictures in what they called their cat museum!
This canal always reminds me of an English one as it winds up through the six automatic locks to the summit level. The last time we were here was with Paul and Lief Leten on Bastille day in July 2007 when it was full of boats and we were all banished to the silo quay for the fireworks. This time we found le Chesne empty of boats and moored up right in town with free electricity and water and not a Dutch cruiser in sight! The Huit a Huit (8 to 8) was closed in typical French fashion but opened at 3pm so we were able to provision the ship as well as water her. The local boulanger still bakes superb bread and even Sue ate a small piece adding six grams of carbohydrate to her daily total (she is following the Atkins diet with some considerable success).
|Quotes 'wot I like:|
"It's my country but I don't want to know about France - I was born there but I feel English."
Eric Cantona 1966 -
From the summit pound the canal drops rapidly through the 26 locks of the Montgon flight over a distance of only 8km which are chained together automatically so as you leave one the next one prepares itself for your ascent, or in our case, descent. The scenery is delightful as you pass between the locks down a wooded and pastoral steep sided valley. The last time we were here we noticed a picturesque restaurant with a balcony overlooking the canal beside lock 20 and asked the lock keeper if it was still open but alas it had since closed. We only had one lock malfunction which held us up about half an hour so the flight took us about 6 hours to complete and we arrived in Attigny to moor up with a couple of the inevitable Dutch cruisers.
The next sizeable town downstream was Rethel where there is a good mooring slightly spoilt by the local alcoholics who congregate in the toilet/shower block and drink themselves stupid during the day then collapse in a heap in the evening.
|Quotes 'wot I like:|
"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."
Eric Cantona 1966 -
They did us no harm and claimed to have stood guard over Harmonie each time we left on our various shopping expeditions. We ate at the local Chinese called the Village du Dragon which is open every day from 7pm and the food was very good, especially the roast duck.
The canal gets a little boring from here with lots of straight sections through overhanging woodland livened up by a near collision on a tight bend with a motor cruiser from Falmouth where we were both going too fast! Mid afternoon we arrived at Variscourt on one of the loveliest little moorings you could wish for, immaculately kept with picnic tables, water tap and wheelie bins. A stunning tree was in full flower and provided a fragrant perfume whilst in a corner was the well tended grave of one, Lieutenant Albert Brissart, who died in the service of France in June 1940.
On then to Berry-au-Bac where we turn on to the Canal de l'Aisne à la Marne and begin the climb up to Reims.
|Quotes 'wot I like:|
"A woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands."
Lord Byron 1788 - 1824
These locks are not the easiest due to the volume of water emerging from the overflow just at the lock entrance but combined with a howling gale right across the canal they are doubly difficult. We had intended to stop short of Reims but it began to rain very hard so we pressed on to Sillery where we stayed in a full port for several days in more or less continuous rain. We delayed our departure to meet up with Mike and Rosaleen Miller on Aquarelle who were returning from Dublin and joined us in Condé where they regaled us with their recent adventures in Hungary and we toasted our reunion with a bottle of M. Potié's Champagne. Our stocks of said shampoo replenished we set off up the Canal latéral à la Marne while Aquarelle retraced our steps heading for Belgium so the possibility of a further meeting was likely.
After a shopping expedition stop at Chalon we motored on to Soulanges. Here you can see why the canal is so named as it runs laterally to the river Marne!
The weather began to get steadily warmer as we turned up the Canal de la Marne au Rhin and discovered to our delight that they had automated all the locks since our last visit. On that occasion it rained buckets and we felt so sorry for the two student travelling lock keepers that we gave them €10 each at Bar-le Duc!
This time it became hotter and hotter as we climbed through the 70 locks towards the summit level recording 38 degrees C in the shade on two days until at Ligny-en-Barrois a violent thunderstorm cooled things down. We discovered a way of opening one side of our skylights using the canvas covers so we could still get some air through the ship while it rained without letting in water.
The final section to the summit level passes through really pretty countryside and the water in the canal is crystal clear.
We were however plagued with weed which kept blocking the suction pipes of our water cooled exhaust system, causing us to stop and spudpole in the middle of a chain of locks while we cleared the obstruction, holding up some Belgians coming down who were from our old winter mooring at Kerkhoven and who promised to give our love to Harmonies old owners, Koh and Rite! It's a small world in the boating community.
At the summit we awaited the tug boat which would tow us through the 5km long Mauvages tunnel and prepared our ropes for the tow. When the VNF men arrived they suggested we follow them through under our own power which is frankly much easier to steer but to keep quiet about this transgression of the strict VNF rules so if any VNF manager reads this I am lying and we were actually towed through!
It is all downhill now back to Belgium and we dropped down the first seven of many locks to tie up at Sauvoy for the night on the last day in June.
We bunkered at Commercy and had to wait over the weekend for the tanker to deliver so that left us short of time to get back to Belgium before our Vignette expired. At Verdun we could not get alongside due to a cruise ship taking up most of the Quay space! Actually it was a 35 metre scaled down version of the cruise ship "Majesty of the Seas" and imagine it is the latest Verdun night spot?
We actually had no intention of mooring at Verdun having previously experienced the delights of that town on two previous occasions. The quays were full of the usual Dutch cruisers, Verdun being free of charge including electricity supply. We carried on downstream to Consenvoye, a pretty village that suffered a lot of damage during the second world war. It was 34 degrees when we arrived at 6pm so we adjourned to the Auberge Lorraine for refreshments and stayed for an excellent dinner. They deserve the boating communities support and even do breakfast but note that they are closed on Thursdays if you are passing through. We moored just above the lock which has sloping sides and you moor onto a pontoon when you enter. There are lots of these locks on the river Yonne but this is the only one on the Meuse.
A cooler day followed as we sailed serenely on down the river. The further you get downstream the more the navigation uses the river rather than canal cuts. From just after Commercy the locks are all manual with lock keepers but at Duns we get back to automated locks actuated by a "telecommandre" or zapper as we call it. After long straight sections of canal we arrived at Stenay then after the Inor lock, a beautiful section of river for ten kilometres where we arrived at Alma. Nothing here but a grade A mooring with picnic tables and even a BBQ.
Just past Sedan we encountered Aquarelle coming upstream who were intending to visit Sedan for a few days prior to heading north again. Charlesville marina was full so we moored up with the drunks on the other side of the river. Zephyr was still in port so we met up with them for dinner at a smashing little restaurant they had discovered called Au cochon qui louche on the rue victoire cousin. Harvey regaled us once again with a long description of a visit to a local physiotherapist who specialised in "ze massaging of ze genitals"! Harvey thought this was his lucky day, especially as the Physio was an attractive blonde! She explained that it helped incontinence in women after childbirth and in men who had prostate problems.
Revin was also full so we found a mooring the next day at Fumay and sailed over the French border a day before out vignette expired, mooring up at Waulsort again and catching the bus into Dinant to retrieve our car. We had left it on the quay beside the river where there were no parking restrictions, however, restrictions were introduced in our absence for a jet boat festival and our car had been towed away!
After two incorrect directions from locals to the police station we finally found it after walking from one end of Dinant to the other. The nice policemen located our car and transported us in the paddy waggon to the nice people who had removed it who charged us €90 to get it back!
The port at Waulsort is a lovely spot opposite a beautiful chateau and half the price of our previous winter mooring in Gent. It is also very secure as the only way to get there is by boat, bicycle or shanks's pony, so as we were planning a trip back to the UK in August we decided to book Harmonie in and spend the time before we left walking and driving around the area.
There are many waymarked walking paths to explore and we positioned our car at the end of the paved road beside the barrage where we were able to cycle to along the rough track from the port in about 10 minutes.
We were armed with a tourist map suggesting several drives of interest in the Namur region and we selected "La route du Maquis" for our first drive which covered the long strip of glorious country extending south into France including the Semois valley which we had partly explored before. As the route name suggests, this is an area where the Belgian resistance operated in the second world war, the word "Maquis" defined as meaning resistance fighters planning rebellion in a remote area. At Graide we came across a memorial to 20 Maquis and 6 political prisoners, including an Abbot, who had been executed as the Germans retreated in September 1944.
|Quotes 'wot I like:|
"Let him who desires peace prepare for war."
Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus 450AD
We were to discover much more of the Maquis history later in our drive but once we arrived in the Semois valley our attention was diverted to the incredible beauty of the region and the superb views that continually opened up across the valley. We stopped for refreshments in a little pub at Vresse which is a pretty tourist village at the centre of the region then continued following the waymarked route which zig-zagged in and out of the river valley, sometimes in developed tourist areas and then in wild forested lonely country where you were lucky to see another human being.
At one viewpoint we looked out across what they call "le jambon de la Semois" or "the ham of the Samois", presumably because the river makes a huge sweep describing a leg of ham?
Travelling north again we encountered more evidence and memorials to the Maquis. From 1941 escape routes were formed in this area to assist allied air crew who had been shot down return to England. The locals also buried the many dead aircrew.
In the forest north of Willerzie a resistance group was formed in 1943 which eventually numbered 200. This is La Croix-Scaille, the highest point on the Franco/Belgian border at around 500m which was a huge area that did not then have any roads whatsoever so it was ideal for the Maquis. Back in 2006 we recorded above Revin just across the French border, a memorial to 106 members of the Marquis des Manises who were executed in June 1944. The task of this group was to hinder the retreating German army and the surviving members then joined up with the Belgians at La Croix-Scaille which in early September 1944 were supplemented by members of the British SAS parachuting in so that a combined force of over 400 were camped here. A stone memorial and wooden cross marks the position of the camp chapel and they built wooden huts, replicas of which can also be seen.
Maredsous is the home of a Benedictine abbey dedicated to the noble art of making money from the brewing of beer to the making of cheese to selling tourists religous tat in the souvenir shop! From 1909 to 1923 the Abbot was Columba Marmion, who since September 2000 became the Blessed Columba Marmion which means he is now in the queue for sainthood. Born Joseph Marmion in Dublin in 1858, he was ordained in Rome in 1881 and became a monk at Maredsous in 1886. Several miracles have been attributed to him including cures for cancer and mental health and he is buried in the abbey church of which I took a hazy photograph but put the camera shake down to the Doms displeasure of my cynical view of the Maredsous operation! That point of view may be influenced by my recent reading of Hillary Mantels Wolf Hall depicting the life of Thomas Cromwell!
We did stop for a beer and some cheese in the old Maredsous railway station which has been turned into a taverne (and I suspect might be owned by the monks) where you can also hire a rail bike and cycle the old disused line for some 14km if you are feeling masochistic!
We continued down the picturesque Molignée valley to the medieval castle ruins of Montaigle which was formally the residence of a 14th century count. Perhaps his ancestors might own the property just underneath the ruin complete with lake and black swans, or one of the other magnificent houses in the vicinity.
Two or three big (1700 tonnes) barges pass this way each day and most carry scrap from a huge pile at a collection point north of Givet to the steelworks in Charlroi and Liege. Pictured is 'Rubicon', a regular passer by, taken as a backdrop to our splendid flower boxes. Most of the plants were bought on the cheap from B&Q but fed with Phostrogen which has produced the best display we have achieved yet. It might also be something to do with the glorious weather this year, that is until July which was mostly unsettled.
Falmignoul is a nice little village about 2km walk up through the steep forest above Waulsort port. It has an expensive auberge, an artisan boulanger and for the thirsty walker the 18th century Brasserie Caracole (nothing on their web site but there might be one day?) producing several different beers including an organic Alc. 5.5% vol. wheat beer, blonde, brown and a dark Alc. 9.5% vol. strong ale. There is a large taverne area and they will serve you portions of local cheese and Ardennes salami for you to wash down with the beer. A splendid way to waste away an afternoon!
Just across the Lesse valley from the Meuse is the little village of Celles, a plus beaux village de Wallonie where evangelist Saint Hadelin founded a monastery in the seventh century and where he is buried. More recently a Panther tank commemorates a WW2 tank battle in December 1944 between the 2nd Panzer division, the 2nd American division and the 3rd British regiment, the latter two being on the same side!
A little further down the valley towards the Lesse lies the little village of Vêves where, high on a hill above the road is the picture postcard chateau which is a perfect example of 14th century military architecture. The Belgian brewers (never slow to capitalise on one of its saints) local speciality is la cuvée Saint-Hadelin blonde or amber beer and there is an abundance of hostelries where one might sample the amber nectar accompanied perhaps by rabbit stuffed with pâte, L'Ermite cheese with La tarte aux macarons to finish. Celles might be a seriously nice place to spend a couple of nights for the Epicurean walker or kayaker as you can hire a kayak on the Lesse and canoe down to Anseremme on the Meuse, near Dinant, walking or catching a bus or train back.
At the end of July we returned to the UK for Sue to get a new crown on a tooth and an eye appointment. In between appointments we travelled up to the Edinburgh festival (via Petherton of course) and stayed with Murdo Macleod. Quaffed a few ales with old friends "Smeds" (up from Manchester), the Ingram's, the Hendry's, Andy Reid, John & Jill Manchip, Brian Brian (so called because he says things twice) and Leslie. Murdo needed to take a day off as he could not stand the pace but then he always was a bit of a toy town boozer! We managed to see a couple of Fringe shows; Duende, a flute and classical guitar Scottish couple who played great flamenco and latin american music and Chinese American pianist Ang Li playing Liszt's 200th birthday concert who was so good we bought her CD. We also visited many restaurants: French; la Petit Folie as recommended by actor Simon Callow who ate lunch there every day. Indian; Kushies, delectable cuisine at budget prices. Chinese; Loon Fung, still the same after all these years and a newbie in Abercrombie Place equally good.
Edinburgh has about twice as many restuarants as when we lived there over 20 years ago and the Festival Fringe is enormous with thousands of performances every day. The city was really buzzing with part of the high street closed off for performances and city pavements thronged with visitors whose spirits even continuous rain did not dampen. Whereas a night at the Fringe Club used to provide a good selection of shows you might want to see, now the choice is so extensive and diverse that you need the internet to find what you might want to see. Fortunately the Fringe web site allowed very detailed searches to narrow down the choice.
Returning south Sue was told that her laser eye treatment could not be done until October. She told them of our impending world trip leaving in September and on our return to Harmonie she received a letter giving her an appointment for September 5th.
The last weekend in August we met our friends Tim & Anna in Namur, parked their car and transported them back to Waulsort. As usual when they arrive, after a brief sunny interlude including G&T's out on deck, it rained the next day and continued to do so for most of their stay with us. During a weather window, Tim and I walked over to Falmignoul for bread & a fruit tart (We are both partial to a French Tart). Unfortunately the brewery was fermé however the boulangerie sold coffee but no cream for our tart. Another aged gentleman customer offered to get us some and drove away in his car to return later with his cream for which he would accept no payment so we bought him coffee and cake and sat there talking. He was a climber from Brugge and had moved into the area years ago to be close to the Belgian alpine club who climb the rock faces along the Meuse. He had climbed in the Himalayas but no longer climbed severe grade although a fellow alpine club member was climbing severe grade 7 at the age of 94!! He also said that it was a big day for his club as they were rigging an arial ropeway from the top of a 120 metre high cliff right across the Meuse and we saw them going across as we motored down the next day.
We had an excellent lunch at Notre Histoire restaurant in Waulsort where the lady proprietor regaled us with stories of her days as a racehorse trainer. Our main engine batteries were flat so we were delayed leaving Waulsort until a local electrician pronounced them dead. €550 lighter and new batteries later we were on our way rejoicing down to Namur, retrieved our cars and waved goodbye to our guests.
Leaving Namur we resolved to steam all the daylight hours so it only took us 3 days from Namur back to Antoing. On the way the big generator engine, which we only use for powering the bow thruster, lost its raw water supply. Further investigation revealed a stripped neoprene impellor in the Jabsco pump which was replaced. At Antoing we took the train back to retrieve our car from Namur and stopped on the way back to purchase a new galley tap. This time we bought a conventional tap rather than a mixer type which seem to have built in obsolescence but much cursing was required to make it fit!
A quick trip back to the UK where Sue had her final eye operation to remove a membrane by laser. It took only 1 minute 20 seconds which she described as completely painless. All four grandchildren were esconced at Fareham so we took the whole family out for dinner as it is the last time we will see them for six months. On our return journey we encountered a force 9 gale in the Dover Straights and the ferries were only being allowed into the harbour one at a time to manoeuver to their berth which meant our departure was delayed 4 hours and the crossing was a little bumpy!
Back in Antoing we bunkered the ship and moved the car to Kortrijk where we will leave Harmonie for the winter while we travel back to the UK, then onwards to the USA and New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup which will be the subject of other pages.