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Summer certainly seemed to have arrived with a vengeance as we cruised down the delightful river Oise and moored above the lock at Isle Adam then down to Auvers where a large trip boat was taking up most of the available quay space, however, they told us they would be there four hours so Esme could moor on to them while we managed to moor under the bridge with Ebenhaezer breasted on to us.
As we waited to be seated at the (expensive) restaurant where Van Gogh cut his ear off, we were aware of a nasty smell requiring everyone to check their footwear but all were free of contamination. What with the smell and a long wait for a table we decided to find somewhere else for lunch so sat outside a cafe opposite when we discovered the source of the smell was Tilly the wonder dog who had rolled around in some fox poo which is the canine equivalent of Chanel No 5 for Tilly and it was all over her ears! We were all a little hesitant thereafter in patting her!
After a visit to see Vincent and his brothers graves we motored sedately down to Pontiose where new pontoon moorings had been installed on both sides of the river since our last visit with water and electricity on the right bank. Sue and I wandered around the old town and discovered a splendid cheese shop behind the Notre Dame. As we entered the owner offered us a piece of cheese to taste. I looked at Sue and she looked at me and we both said "Cheddar". The proprietor grinned and said Oui. I said "Montgomery" and he said Oui, tres Bon? "The best Cheddar you can buy", I said and he agreed. A bit of a Franco/English mutual admiration society was therefore established with me astonished that a French Fromager would sell such good English cheese and he perhaps thinking "here are some English people who know about cheese". We did of course buy some Montgomery along with the Brie de Meaux which we had intended to buy.
Around the corner a market was in full swing so of course we were tempted into buying fresh fish, fruit and veg, returning to Harmonie with full shopping bags before sailing on down to Cergy. I had telephoned ahead to book Harmonie and Ebenhaezer a space for two nights but the lady had mistakenly booked in two 12.50m barges instead of two 24m. The captain managed to squeeze us in on the pontoon outside the harbour which was fine apart from all the prats in speed boats and jet skis ignoring the speed limit and hurtling past us creating a huge wash. The Frenchman in the cruiser behind us was incandescent and kept calling up the water police from Conflans but each time they arrived the culprits had vanished.
Jan and Peter's guests Toby and Alison arrived by train from the UK and we all ate at the fish restaurant just above us at the harbour entrance. Continuing down the river Oise we passed under a red passerelle which leads to what looks like some sort of memorial high on the hill.
Safely moored alongside Esme we were soon joined by Phil Oakes and Julie aboard their smart luxemotor Philosophe who we had last met in Dijon in August 2009. Finally Lena arrived outside them so we were hemmed in by Aussies, a dangerous time beckoned for our livers!
Sure enough the first event proved to be highly alcoholic which was a wine and cheese tasting. We were divided into teams of seven vessels that were all rafted close together and I found myself elected as team captain. I then collected €20 from each barge and delegated the wine buying to Malcolm Nabarro on Anthonia who seemed to know something about wine. We found an excellent little local cheese shop whose owner was jumping up and down with excitement at the prospect of providing 10kg of cheese for the 35 peniche now moored up in the basin. I purchased a whole Brie de Meaux which turned out to be in perfect nick while Malcolm found 10 bottles of Rousillion Syrah with a 15% alcohol content that perfectly matched the brie, was under budget and blew your socks off! Everyone voted for the best wine and the best cheese and I voted for a blue brebis which I thought just pipped my brie and my other vote was for Malcolm's wine. We did not come close to winning and I was reminded of the advice given me by a supplier to my Deli after me having expressed surprise that we had sold out of one of his products I considered inferior. He said "never under estimate the bad taste of the British Public"!
On the Saturday evening we all wandered up to a little chapel at the Place de Joinville where we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the DBA with a cocktail party. The food we were served was nothing short of sensational and was in prodigious quantities so everyone returned to their barges replete. A crowd gathered on our foredeck and sat drinking wine until the rain sent everyone to bed, thank goodness! A big thunderstorm lasted most of the night and we awoke to an overcast windy day with frequent rain showers. This was the day of our "Big Lunch" to celebrate the Queens 60th jubilee and for a time we thought it might be rained off, however, the rain gods relented for the few hours we needed. The same caterers provided superlative starters while each barge provided a main course, all perfectly organised by Diana and Chris Grant. The Queen was duly toasted, given three cheers and all the Brits sung the national anthem, no doubt to much amusement of the good citizens of the 19th arrondissement who looked on. Oh and a Canadian choir from Toronto happened to be around and asked if they could sing for us all so they did and they were great.
Everyone then retired to various barges to watch the BBC outside broadcast of the Royal Pageant down the Thames where 20 of our members barges were participating. Our Treasurer, Caroline Soper, was interviewed on TV and there were various shots of the DBA barges proceeding downstream. It was one of the poorest BBC outside broadcasts I have ever seen. Very little attempt was made to provide any interesting information about the various vessels taking part such as a well informed commentator should have made.
The last day of the rally was the barge handling competition and five barges entered. John Best roped me in to adjudicate which I did on the two Australian barges, Vrouw Anna Maria and Effort. Esme had a few problems with the strong wind plus their guest Rebecca was completely out of control with her camera and no lifejacket on while Pete on Ebenhaezer was equally out of control in his use of the bow thruster, something you lose points for in this competition. Frits on Shell V was the winner last year but this year could not match the Aussies. Unfortunately Effort had a crew member lean over to pick up the bottle of beer with no lifejacket on which made Anna Maria the clear winner.
At the closing gathering Pete conducted the raffle of some really good prizes including such items as WIFI boosters, GPS and even a free lift out and the proceeds from the raffle paid for printing the programme. Roger Lamonthe was retiring as the continental rally organiser after 10 years and John Best was taking over so we had a collection and presented him with a cash sum to spend on his barge while his wife Louise received a candelabra, Frits and Nell made a nice little speech of appreciation then we all sang "we'll meet again" and there wasn't a dry eye in the house! The event was voted the best rally yet and John Best will have a hard act to follow.
The following night I was woken up at 4am by people moving over our foredeck and the sound of American voices. I went up into the wheelhouse in time to see a bloke and his bird jump down off our deck on to the quay, then was woken again some time later. I was not 'appy by this time and turned the deck intercom up full volume asking them to leave, which they did, quite quickly. I noticed that everyone on Lena, two boats outside us, was up and about and Ian gave us the gory details later that morning.
Barbara was woken first and went up into Lena's wheelhouse to be confronted by a copulating couple on one of their deck chairs, stark naked! She then woke skipper Ian who arrived to witness his table being used in an unusual way and shouted some choice Aussie adjectives at them that were not ones of encouragement. At this the male of the two pulled his strides up and scarpered back over Anna Maria and Harmonie rapidly while his girl friend calmly retrieved bra, panties and other garments, dressed leisurely and sauntered back to dry land completely unflustered which was when I woke up the first time and missed all the juicy bits completely! The second visit they made later was to apparently retrieve a few items they had left behind.
We were invited to visit the Paris Canals control room which they told us was "state of the art" and "the most modern in Europe". Unfortunately it does not translate into speedy transit times judging from the time it was taking most of us to get up the nine locks to the Villette Basin. Lots of computer screens and TV monitors make an impressive sight but it is still the operators that must make the decisions how the traffic will be managed. We watched Ebenhaezer on the monitors going through Ecluse 4 on the Canal St. Denis but what we didn't see was her being pulled out bodily from the lock after an hydraulic pipe fitting had come adrift and emptied a tank of oil over his engine room. In true French fashion, no person from the Paris canal authority came to offer assistance so I contacted a mechanic who promised to find someone to help, meanwhile, Pete and Toby found a digger driver who gave them a telephone number of an hydraulics specialist. By the time we managed to cycle down to them, Michael from Sterna had turned up who assisted in guiding the hydraulics fitter to us with his impeccable French, the mechanic was cancelled, a new fitting was swaged on, the pipe refitted, the oil replaced and Pete sailed away rejoicing if a little poorer!
Our final day in Paris was spent wandering around Les Halles where we had a mediocre lunch during a torrential rainstorm. The Paris Canal control was again put to the test when we left and found wanting. Booked to leave at 8.40am we entered the first lock and 9.30 and entered the Seine four hours later, mooring for the night above the lock at Neuilly-sur-Marne. We experienced long delays with slow heavily laden commercials the next day, arriving at Lagny to find a full port with five of the barges from Paris moored up. We decided to press on to Meaux and arrived at the next lock to find it closed for lunch. The locks on the Marne used to close for half an hour but they now close for an hour, probably a casualty of the 35 hour week. A commercial came up and moored behind us but let us through first when the lock opened. Then we found ourselves behind two slow moving commercials who allowed us to pass so we arrived in Meaux at around 4pm.
Since we were last in Meaux they have opened a new museum "Le Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux". In September 1914 the German army advanced to within a few kilometres of Meaux and the taxi drivers of Paris famously ferried soldiers out to mount a resistance who, with the help of the Brits, fought the historic Battle of the Marne when the German advance was halted and pushed back, saving Paris from occupation. The museum recounts the story of how the conflict really began back with the Franco/Prussian war in 1870 and how the various alliances of different countries inevitably forced them into war. The story becomes a little confused with the outbreak of war and we both lost the thread in the middle until the end when you are bought right up to the present day. They try to cover too much in my opinion with biographies of all the politicians and army leaders involved, propaganda material, weapons, uniforms etc. etc. rather than just concentrating on telling the story of what happened in the countryside of Meaux. There was lots of USA material whereas the Americans didn't really get involved until the very end of the war but the museum is well worth a visit if you are interested in the period.
Summer left us in Paris and the weather remained wet and gloomy as we travelled upstream on the Marne. The weather has meant that there was not much time for painting so far this year but I did manage to get a coat of black on one side of the hull while we were in Meaux so Harmonie was then two toned! We pulled in at Mary-sur-Marne as the heavens opened once again. This is a pretty little village which, judging from the number of substantial houses and chateaux, was quite important in past years. Now it looks somewhat neglected with no shops but still has a restaurant opposite the pontoon where we moored and a more expensive one in the adjacent 18th century Chateau. Hugh McKnight describes Mary-sur-Marne in his book on the French Waterways; "the locals make fullest use of waterside features with plenty of food shops and pedalos may be hired" but not any more.
A visit to the excellent local market the next day resulted in the purchase, amongst many other things, of a farm reared chicken sans feathers but complete with neck, head and claws which Sue insisted were removed! It cost us the best part of €20 so we invited Chris and Diana along to dinner to help us eat it.
We get a lot of favourable comments about our flower display this year and there is a secret which I will now reveal. Phostrogen! A general purpose plant food. My father was a bit of a plantsman and used to swear by this product. It is relatively cheap to use, a small scoop in your watering can once a week and the plants seem to thrive on it. Of course you need to talk to them and remove the dead flower heads but you too can now have a flower bedecked barge. The continentals will tell you that they can always tell a British barge as we so love our flower tubs but I must admit that some of us can be a little OTT!
We were awoken in the early hours by thunder and lightning and experienced a violent storm. In the morning floating debris had accumulated in front of the pontoon and we had to loosen our mooring ropes and work clearing it with boat hooks for a considerable time. Then it was off on our bikes to Régis Gerbaux in nearby Crouttes. Diana couldn't quite manage the hill up to the shampoo farm so Chris drove it while Diana pushed his bike. Madame was very generous with full tasting glasses and presented us with a complimentary bottle of pink stuff as we loaded Dianas trike with a couple of cases and sailed back down the hill to Nanteuil rejoicing!
We stayed a couple more days in Nanteuil and it rained for most of the time but finally the sun shone and we set off again upstream to Nogent. Here we found a nice little jetty on a landscaped bank. Free Water and electricity supplies were locked in a small brick cubicle with the key at the adjacent railway station exchanged for my driving license. We cycled across the bridge to Saulchery where we found Madame Closson and tasted the family produce - Shampoo of course - so another case was added to our stock. On our return we found Effort snuggled up to us so we all set off in search of some more Shampoo. After cycling several kilometres, mostly uphill, we had still not reached the Shampoo farm on the Nogent side of the river so we turned round and returned to our boats, slaking our thirst at La Taverne nearby then consuming a couple of bottles of shampoo on our foredeck, wondering what the poor people of the world were doing!!!
When it came time to leave Nogent on the Friday we discovered that the railway station was "exceptionally" closed so we were unable to deposit the key and retrieve my driving license. As the station was "ordinarily" closed on Saturday but "ordinarily" open on Sunday afternoon we had no choice but to stay at Nogent until then. With a Gallic shrug we motored back downstream to Charly and stocked up our provisions at the Super U supermarket before returning to Nogent for our enforced stay.
Those Ozzies Graham and Bardy on Effort decided that they'd had enough of us Poms so headed upstream taking with them the dreaded key for the water and electric which made it even harder for me to get my license back when the station opened on Sunday. We hopped on our bikes and chased off after them, cycling some 6km to Azy but to no avail. We called Chris and Diana on Esme who managed to find Grahams mobile number from the DBA records of the Paris rally and he called us to say that they had realised what they had done and had returned downstream and left the key on Harmonie in our absence. One day we might eventually leave here!
In fact we did manage to leave the next afternoon and caught up with Effort in Chateau Thierry. The town was in the throes of it's annual fete with a huge fun fair on the river bank and a procession taking place in torrential rain. Floats decorated with strange animals fashioned with paper were accompanied by marching bands, drum majorettes who seemed incapable of marching in time with the music and even line dancers. Despite the rain everyone seemed determined to enjoy themselves with a fireworks display that bought the festivities to a close. Of course, sods law was strongly in evidence as the sun came out next day so we cycled (or rather pushed) our bikes up to hill 204 and the American memorial.
In May 1918 the German army made it's last great offensive push of the war as far as Chateau Thierry which saw the first fighting by American troops. In July 1918 the allies launched a counter offensive in which the Americans were extensively involved and the German army was pushed back to beyond Reims. Both sides suffered great losses in the fighting and of the 310,000 Americans who took part there were 67,000 casualties. The memorial was erected by the USA to commemorate the soldiers who took part.
We sailed on as far as Jaulgonne where we once again moored up with Effort which the DBA moorings guide described as being a "depressed town with a derelict dilapidated mooring". This is Andy Cook's (Bruges Mafia harbour master!) favourite French mooring so let me put the record straight. The town was about average for a French country town, sort of shabby chic and we have seen much worse. There was nothing wrong with the actual mooring which is exactly as depicted in the Fluvial guide, in fact we all sat out on the jetty and BBQ'd that evening. The surrounding countryside is very pretty, the Marie was open and had a very helpful official who spoke good English. Water and electricity was provided for €4 a night so what else does it take to make a happy bargee?
Towards the end of March 1918 the German army began a series of drives against long held British positions in Flanders and the Somme. Politics had dictated reduced strength of British divisions on the Somme and the Germans broke through between the French and British positions. British General Haig had long resisted the appointment of a supreme commander of allied armies but this advance convinced him that such an appointment was now necessary and General Foch was the man chosen for the job.
The Germans knew that this might be their last chance to advance against the allies before the American reinforcements could be introduced. The USA had entered the war late in 1917 when their regular army stood at only 150,000 but its largely conscript army was to rise to two million by the end of the war.
The memorial at Dormans lists all the armies that participated in these battles, French, British, Italians, Serbs and Americans. The different armies are listed along the walls of a cloister like construction at the end of which 1,500 soldiers are buried and the death mask of General Foch. Names of the dead are inscribed on the walls of the monument which consists of two separate churches, one built above the other with very beautiful stained glass windows and ornate architecture. The view from the memorial across the Marne valley to the vine covered Champagne hills on the other side of the Marne valley was very peaceful in contrast to the violence that was witnessed here almost a century ago.
The temperature had risen to the low thirties and it was very humid. We knew it couldn't last so we set up the BBQ on the foredeck, sat in the shade of an umbrella nibbling olives and salami while supping a cool rosé and for the umpteenth time wondered what the poor people were doing!! Sure enough the rain arrived as we began our main meal and forced a retreat to the wheelhouse. More violent thunderstorms kept us on board for most of the next day but the temperature dropped to manageable proportions.
As you sail upstream from Dormans the steep vine covered hills close in on the river more and more until you are confronted with a large settlement high above with a tall statue crowning the hill it is built around. This is Chatillon-sur-Marne which was an important medieval centre with a large fortress, now ruined. In its place is a statue of the eleventh century Pope, Urban II, who initiated the first crusade to the Holy Land in 1095. This was the guy who started something, the effects of which we are still suffering from today.
From Cumiere we continued up the canal lateral a la Marne to Tours-sur-Marne where we discovered that the Chauvet shampoo house was closed until Monday due to the celebrations involved in the visit of the Tour de France so we stayed a couple of days to purchase a case of what is one of our favourite wines of the region, then on to Condé-sur Marne. Our friend Sally Harper had emailed us a big order to collect from Madame Potié where we indulged ourselves once again and tasted their Ratafia for the first time, resulting in the purchase of several more bottles! For the uninitiated, Ratafia is a fortified sweet wine of some 18% alcohol and is very pleasant indeed as an accompaniment to a good pud or blue cheese or fois gras or, well, any excuse really!
From here we joined the canal de l'Aisne à la Marne up through the automatic chain of locks to the Billy tunnel and down to Sillery where we booked in for a week for a mere €34.
It rained hard for virtually the whole week so we did very little apart from drink Shampoo with those Ozzie reprobates on Effort. Her skipper, Graham, claims to have Scottish ancestry and here is a picture of him urging Andy Murray on at Wimbledon on the TV, pretending to be a fellow Scot in my "see you Jimmy" hat!
We watched the local firework display on the Friday of the Bastille day weekend from the comfort of our wheelhouse in pouring rain! For the first time since we arrived in France we were able to connect with a free WiFi internet server and get all our various program updates downloaded. We also finalised our travel arrangements for the following month, booked a mooring in Namur and Holland, booked UK ferry tickets and B&B in Bickleigh, Devon and Sandwich in Kent for our return trip. We also found a fuel supplier located in Epernay who delivered in Sillery to ourselves and Effort.
The sun stayed out and we cruised down to Reims, mooring just below the chain of locks in a very pleasant mooring except for the busy road running alongside. Sue and I walked into town and decided that it was a bit too much of a hike for an evening meal followed by the son-et-lumiere at the cathedral at 11pm so we decided to cycle along the canal to the port de plaisance where we would leave our bikes. This had the advantage of being on a separate cycleway which might be safer for when we came back half pissed with no lights!!
We were first entertained on Effort for a pre prandial shampoo and it seemed a shame not to go for a second bottle on such a lovely summers evening so we did and it was therefore a slightly intoxicated foursome that cycled in for dinner. Sue had chosen L'Apostrophe brassierie for dinner which produced a reasonable meal if a little slow so we did not leave a tip. We then ambled along to the cathedral.
I had heared that this show knocked Amiens cathedral son-et-lumiere into a cocked hat, however, I was unimpressed. It was a clever bit of projection of images of the cathedral using the cathedral as a screen but it could have been done equally well or even better if you had draped a large white sheet over the edifice and projected it on that. Amiens projected colours onto the statues themselves and told you of the history of the cathedral whereas Reims told you nothing of its history and played you loud semi musical sounds instead.
Not my cup of tea I'm afraid but everyone clapped when it finished so never under estimate the strange tastes of the general public who evidently enjoyed it, as did my companions. Sue said I was a miserable git for not enjoying it, well, son-et-lumieres are OK but there is nothing like the real thing as the bishop said to the choirboy, stirring his tea with one hand!
The photo on the right is of the usual floodlit facade of the cathedral before the son-et-lumiere began and is, in my humble opinion, the better of the two.
Cycling back was a doddle and we declined the offer of a nightcap, falling asleep quickly but being woken at intervals all night with noisy traffic.
All good things must come to an end including our collective livers so the next morning we said goodbye to Graham and Bardy, who said they were taking the pledge for a week and sailed away, pausing to restock our larder at Leclerc on the outskirts of Reims.
Our favourite mooring at Variscourt was full of Ozzie barges (the buggers are taking over and when Effort arrived they liked it so much they stayed for over a week!!) so we pressed on to Pignicourt but failed to arrive before the lock closed at 6pm. It required a large amount of gardening including pruning half a tree to get alongside on the quay below the lock but at least it was a quiet mooring for a good nights rest.
The next day Rethel was also full so we sailed on to moor below the lock at Seuil where more gardening was required to uncover two bollards. At Atigny we stopped for fresh bread just before the baker closed at 12-30pm then began the Montgon flight of 26 locks late afternoon with the intention of stopping after the sixth lock at Neuville Day which we did and a very nice mooring it was too. You have to tell the eclusier at lock 26, which is the start, that you want to stop above lock 20 as it is a continuous chain, then call them in the morning when you want to start again. Arriving at the summit pound we found le Chesne full so pressed on to la Cassine where they had a Son et Lumiere in the grounds of the chateau, ruined at the start of WW2 in 1940. We thought WW3 had started at about midnight when we were woken by loud explosions and realised it was a firework display at the end of the Son et Lumiere! We were impressed with a large Billy Goat sporting a long beard and a set of immense curly horns which was tethered on the canal bank. This is the third picture of a goat on this web site so I am beginning to worry about myself!
We arrived at the next lock at 9am, just as they switched it on and sailed on rejoicing onto the river Meuse where the first lock was panne. They seem to have a problem on this river as we had many such lock failures on our way upstream in May which we put down to the flood conditions. Mind you the river had been closed due to flooding a few days previously. The current was still quite fast so we sped down to Lumes and found the pontoon there empty after which it filled rapidly with Dutch cruisers.
We were only an hours cruise into Charleville from here so the plan was to arrive about lunchtime which might be the optimum time to get a space and it was. We bagged the last space on the pontoon opposite that strange replica of a cruise liner we saw last year at Verdun and booked in for two nights intending to visit one of our favourite restaurants the next day. Alas it was fermez en vacances until the 16th of August so we ate at the Brassierie in the main square again. We watched the Open golf on the telly which looked like Australian Adam Scott was going to win easily but he choked on the last four holes loosing his four stroke lead and letting in Ernie Ells.
Chateau Regnault was full of Dutch cruisers as usual then we were stuck above a busted lock at Laifour and by the time we had passed it the mooring there was full of Dutch cruisers so it was on to Revin which was also full of Dutch cruisers. Well at least it was a change from Aussies and Kiwis!! We went back upstream to moor above the lock then decided to head on down to Fumay the next day as we had counted 14 boats at Revin and only two had passed us coming upstream by 10am.
Approaching the short tunnel to the Revin lock a couple of cruisers were just disappearing into it so we decided to have another look at the Revin mooring and sure enough there was a space for us. It seems that the majority of the Dutch were heading homeward. Revin is a good spot with a lovely flower bedecked secure mooring close to a supermarket and a brico (like a B&Q). An empty gas bottle was replaced with a full one and we were soon joined by loads more Dutchmen heading North.
Not for the first time this summer the heavens opened once again and we stayed here for a further three days waiting for a break in the weather while the river rose half a metre and began to flood, not quite as bad as when we came upstream in May but almost. This time though we were not battling against the current so instead of 3km/hr at 1400rpm round Fumay we were doing 14.5km/hr at the same engine revs! We stopped a couple of nights at Vireux Wallerand then back into Belgium and the pretty mooring at Waulsort, our French cruising over for yet another year. Next stop Holland.