Monday, August 8, 2022

We headed north on the Canal du Nord last Wednesday, August 3. The canal is a junction canal that links the large canals of the north to the Oise valley. The information about the Canal du Nord in our waterways guide was a little daunting, talking as it did about the heavy level of commercial traffic on the canal and some of the difficulties for leisure craft. Maybe because it's August vacation season, or maybe it was because we'd motored with big commercial traffic on the Meuse/Maas River (and in previous boating experiences on the American rivers), but we found that neither the level of commercial traffic or the boating conditions presented any difficulties. In fact, we rather enjoyed the rural landscapes and not having our views constantly blocked by trees.

It is true that the mooring opportunities on the Canal du Nord are limited, and are primarily just quays located here and there that don't have the water and electric services beloved by owners of smaller leisure craft. (We like services, too, but we're often not able to moor in full-service ports because of our size. However, we're better equipped to be self-sufficient and quays usually work well for us.)

Our mooring on the "Port d'Erchau", a rather grand name for a concrete
quay with a few bollards in the midst of farmland and small villages
with few-to-no services like grocery stores or bakeries. But it was
a very hot day, and we were happy to be there by noon so
that we could sit out the heat. And we weren't the only ones taking
advantage of this spot "in the middle of nowhere."

The section of the Canal du Nord that we had to travel before getting to the Somme River canal was not particularly long. By the end of the second cruising day we were at the city of Peronne, on the cusp of entering the Somme, again tied along a quay. We'd been hoping to take on some water at our stop, and stay for at least a couple of nights so that we could visit the WWI museum in Peronne. But the water supply we were hoping to access from an adjoining campground was broken, and our mooring was not particularly attractive, so we stayed just one night.

Two things about the Somme. Like some other waterways in France, it is not strictly pure river; it is more accurate to call it a "canalized river", where some stretches are just canal and some stretches include the natural river. Also, management of the Canal de la Somme resides with the local governmental unit--the Departement de la Somme--and not with the Voie Navigables de France (vnf) that is responsible for most of the canals and other waterways in France. 

A vestige of the past--a boat cruising south would think that
they were about to be able to make a choice between the Canal
du Nord and a southern branch of the Canal de la Somme. They
would be wrong. The southern section of the Somme Canal was
closed to navigation in the early 2000's.

Barriers prevent boats from straying from the Canal du Nord onto the closed section of the
Canal de la Somme.

When we turned onto the north/west section of the Somme on Friday morning, we were really pleased with how pretty the waterway was. At first we were quite hemmed in with trees, but that didn't last for long and we had plenty of gaps where we could see the countryside. Weed growth in French waterways has been a problem for some years, and although we encountered some sections with weed, overall it wasn't nearly as bad as we saw on some parts of the canals we cruised on last year.

The river spreads out on both sides of the canal, and creates
bog-like areas and lakes. In some of these areas, residents have been
able to build small structures and create interesting gardens.

We're cruising in the canal (with the weed), and the river is visible in
the top part of the photo.

Approaching a lock. Unlike many of the other French locks that
are automated, we had to telephone to arrange for roving 
eclusiers to assist us with our passages through locks
 and mobile bridges. 

A "weed eater" used to clear weeds from the canals. It's not clear
if this is an effective long-term solution, as it seems to result in
"seeding" the canals with plant material that grows back rapidly.

Our first overnight stop was the village of Cappy. Aside from a church whose 1654 tower is on the monuments list in France, there is not a lot to be said about the town. We stopped there because it has a port that theoretically could accommodate us, but as we moved past the first quay and saw it fully occupied by long-stay boats, we were getting a little discouraged. We were concerned about our water supply, so we pulled into the fuel dock for temporary mooring and filled up from one of the nearby water faucets. Fortunately, there turned out to be space for mooring against a grass bank just before the town's lift bridge, and we had cords enough to be able to plug into electricity. 

There we are, the first boat in line.

While we were filling with water, Lon struck up conversation with two of the resident boat owners. One thing led to another, and after we were settled we were invited onto one of the boats for a "welcome to Cappy" drink. One of the men, Peter Kellett, was an American with a 30-meter long barge and was an avid student of WWI. One of his grandfathers had served with the British army during the days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, not more than a few miles away from where we were. Peter offered to serve as our personal WWI-Battle of the Somme tour guide the next day and we readily accepted. We had spent some time in the area 10 years ago, but it's a big topic and we were happy to see some new things.

The Battle of the Somme was a World War I battle fought by the armies of the British empire and France against Germany. It began on July 1, 1916 and ended on the 18th of November of that year. In the initial planning, the French were going to be the principal army and the British were going to serve in a supporting role, but the demands of the battle in the east near Verdun had diverted much of the French military resources to that area. The British, therefore, became the principal army in the Somme offensive. What was originally hoped to be a strong offensive effort, in the end, became merely a means of relieving pressure on the French at Verdun by requiring Germany to keep resources in the west. When all was said and done, more than three million men had fought, and one million were killed or wounded, for a mere few kilometers of forward progress.

The Lochnagar Crater, created on the first day of the offensive, when the British exploded 27 tons
of explosive in tunnels that had been dug nearly to the German front line.

You don't have to drive far in this area to see a military
cemetery in a field. For some reason, these small cemeteries
seem especially poignant to me, filled as they are with
young men who are still far from home.

The Fricourt New Military Cemetery. Not especially large, but evidence
of tragedy for Yorkshire, full of the graves of men from Yorkshire
regiments, many of whom perished on the first day of the offensive.

Lon and Peter at Maricourt, where the flags mark the dividing
line between the British troops and the French troops.

Having lunch at The Tommy Museum in Pozieres. The cafe's owner had
a huge amount of WWI memorabilia displayed in the dining areas as well
as an outdoor museum behind the cafe building.

The rusted display to the left is comprised of guns, helmets, etc.
recovered from the former battlefields. To this day, farmers continue
to recover war materials from their fields, including 
unexploded artillery shells.

More displays in the Tommy Museum

Peter Kellett told us that he feels compelled to speak for those who died in the war. He wrote a long poem as part of that effort--much too long to repeat here--but it begins:

            We are the dead. Names carved in stone on monuments which stand alone
            on hills where once we fought to save the world, or so we thought.

After that rather intense day it was lovely to be invited to share in an outdoor barbeque dinner with Peter, Luke (the other boater we'd met), and a few of their friends.

How civilized was this? No paper plates for this picnic--nice tableware,
real wineglasses, and quality flatware. 

On Sunday morning we left Cappy and continued down the Somme, stopping in the town of Corbie. The town is larger than Cappy, and was the site of a large abbey beginning in the 7th century. What remains today is the last vestige of that abbey, the abbey church, most of which is a reconstruction after centuries of wars, fires, vandalism, and neglect. Corbie nearly managed to escape the destruction of WWI, but it came under German artillery bombardment in 1918.

John and Margaret from New Zealand preceded us into Corbie by a couple of days, but were still here when we arrived. We all took a little excursion by bicycle this morning to a small, but interesting bit of WWI history--the site just a few kilometers outside of Corbie where Baron von Richthofen, the famous aviation ace "The Red Baron", crashed in 1918 and was killed. 

Margaret with Lon and me in front of a sign
which designates the crash site. The Baron was involved in
a dogfight, but it seems he was not killed in that dogfight,
 but by ground fire from Australian troops below.
(No mention of any involvement by Snoopy)

Our ride also got us to this viewpoint overlooking one of the lakes formed by the meandering
Somme. Google lied to us. They said our bike route would be "mostly flat", but as we were "up here" and our boats were "down there" at water level, "mostly flat" wasn't quite accurate.

A few kilometers in the other direction from Corbie stands the Australian National Memorial, located adjacent to the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery. The memorial stands atop what was designated in WWI as Hill 104, a military objective during the effort to retake the village of Villers-Bretonneux from the Germans in April 1918. It honors the Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium. Lon and I headed over there after lunch.

The British Commonwealth gravestones allow for personal
messages. Most we've seen have been patriotic or expressions
of love and/or pride. This was the first one I'd seen with a cynical message
(and I can't really say I blame them):
 "Another life lost 
   Hearts broken For what"

Cemetery in the foreground, the memorial tower in the background.
The tower contains nearly 11,000 names of unidentified Australian dead.

The cemetery and surrounding countryside as viewed from the tower.
The crunchy, brown grass is evidence of the extreme drought France
finds itself in.

Tomorrow we cast off once again and are headed toward the city of Amiens, famous for its cathedral. We're hoping to stay for a few days, and then, rather than continue down the Somme, will head back the way we came and slowly work our way to the port near Paris where CARIB will spend the winter. Canals continue to be closed in other parts of France, and the drought is so severe that a number of towns have to have water trucked in, but for now our cruising route is still open. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Deeper Waters

On Friday, July 28, we left the Sambre a l'Oise Canal and entered into the southern section of the Canal de Saint-Quentin. In doing so, we left behind some of the anxieties we had been feeling about the depth of the water and the possibility of a canal closure. It's not that the part of France we have entered has been getting any more water, but the Saint-Quentin and the Canal du Nord (which we will be taking to get to the Somme River) have a fair amount of commercial barge traffic. As commercial waterways, they are going to benefit more than waterways with mostly leisure traffic when decisions have to be made about maintaining water depths via the allocation of a scarce resource--water. For at least a few days we will enjoy the deeper waters, but all bets are off when we get to the Somme. It used to be an alternative commercial route for getting to Paris, but these days it's primarily used by leisure craft. It's not managed by the vnf, so we don't get advisories as to navigation issues there. We'll soon know.

Must have been a frustrated user of the quay on which this 
water/electricity bourne resided.
Our first lock on the short section of the Canal de Saint-Quentin. We cruised on the SQ until
it ended at the town of Chauny and the Canal Lateral a l'Oise began. The locks became 
slightly wider here.

We moored along a quay in the town of Chauny just before noon, across the canal from the marina (Port de Plaisance). It would have been nice to have been able to access the electricity and water of the marina, but 15 meters (49 feet) was about the size limit for their docks. 

Chauny is a town of about 12,000 people, and is big enough to have a train station and a movie theater (French language only, unfortunately). Although the site has been settled for many hundreds of years, there isn't much in Chauny that is over 100 years old, thanks to being close to the front lines in WWI and suffering nearly complete destruction during the process of its recapture by Allied forces in 1917. The community was rebuilt after that war and these days has a nice "feel" to it.

Lon crosses the town square in front of the "new" Hotel de Ville
(Town Hall)

Notre-Dame of Chauny church. The traffic circles in the town, like the one by this church, were
beautifully planted with flowers and figurines, in this case, apes.

Probably some of the oldest artifacts left in Chauny,
tomb markers from the 1600's embedded in the walls of
Notre-Dame church. 

Being in the part of France that it is, it's not surprising that Chauny had a military cemetery. Some French military graves were contained within the main civic cemetery, but an adjunct to the cemetery contained separate sections for British, French, and German war dead. Most graves were those of soldiers from the First World War, but there were a few from WWII.

French war dead in the main cemetery. There are just under
500 French military graves.

Around 450 British soldiers, many unidentified 

1500+ German soldiers. Each headstone bears the name
of (usually) 4 men. There was one mass grave with 187 dead,
171 of them never identified

We had a New Zealand-American reunion of sorts in Chauny. John and Margaret and Tony and Sue were in the port with their boats, and dinner Friday evening was a fun affair at a nearby Italian restaurant.

L to R: Tony, Margaret, John, Sue, Lon. As they say, "a good
time was had by all."

Saturday was a "chores day" for us, but Sunday was for recreation. A search on TripAdvisor turned up a castle in the vicinity, only a 14-kilometer bike ride away. It turned out to be a fascinating day.

Built on the tip of a bluff, the Coucy Castle whose remains now inhabit the site was built in the 1220s. A descendent of the original builder converted the castle into a luxury palace in 1380. The donjon (keep) was huge by the standards of the day. At 35 meters wide and 55 meters tall it was the largest in Europe at the time. Four smaller towers surrounding the site were each as large as castle keeps generally being built in France at the time.

Coucy Castle as seen on our approach to Coucy from Chauny.

Systematic destruction of the castle began in 1652 with some of the building blocks carted off for building projects elsewhere . In 1692, an earthquake struck the area and resulted in a large crack in the donjon. Many of the buildings that surrounded the castle courtyard were gone before the French Revolution. During the Revolution, the ruins were seized and considered national property. In the mid-1850's, the castle and its outer bailey came under public ownership and some renovations were carried out. It became a popular tourist attraction.

A photograph of Coucy Castle pre-1917

1917 was not a good year for the castle. During WWI Coucy was occupied by the Germans starting in 1914, and they used the castle as a military outpost. They even had a "the Kaiser was here" moment. But during their 1917 "strategic retreat", the Germans used 28 tons of explosives to blow up the keep and the smaller towers. 

A German aerial view of Coucy Castle after the explosions.

The French considered this an act of barbarism; the Germans claimed that the destruction had a military purpose in removing potential lookout posts. As early as April 1917 the ruins were declared a "memorial to barbarity." Post-war reparations were used to clear the towers and consolidate the walls, but in the spirit of remembrance, restoration has been kept to a minimum.

The ruins of the keep. The majority of the ruins of the castle were
cleared as of 1925, but this mound was kept as a testimony to 
the destruction.

Remains of the Tower of Avoine. The circular
grated object was the entry to the "inescapable"
dungeon. Prisoners would be lowered down by rope.
No windows, no doors. Horrific.

The defensive southern wall and its towers.

At the base of this defensive tower, a herd of goats currently
being used for landscaping.

The remains of the interior of the Great Hall.

Pat in the basement level of the Poterne Tower

Enjoying our scramble over the ruins. The remnants of the castle
proper are behind us in the distance; the other ruins are what is left of
the walls that surrounded the outer bailey .

Some of the vaulted cellars of the castle, with
photographic displays of the castle's history and 
restoration workshops.

Apart from the castle, the town of Coucy also retains the remnants of the Porte de Laon, an independent bastille that was built before Coucy Castle and served in the defense of Coucy. It also had towers that were destroyed by the Germans in 1917. Restoration work is currently ongoing.

Lon in front of the Porte de Laon

We left Chauny on Monday morning, and in doing so passed from the Saint-Quentin Canal to the Canal Lateral de l'Oise (basically, a canal running laterally to the Oise River). After the last lock we turned north on the Canal du Nord and immediately moored by the town of Pont-l'Évêque. We used part of the day to try to track down replacement fuses and a fuse holder that we've been needing, but it seems we shall have to make do without them for a while longer. Despite there being a shipyard in town and a marina, there appears to be no local source for boat replacement parts.

We've been using our bikes for these errands and sightseeing trips, and every time we do we say how much we miss the Dutch network of bike trails. It's not that the French don't bike--they are the home of the Tour de France, after all--but it's not a part of their everyday culture and most roads are narrow and without bike lanes or any kind of shoulder. Mix that with the speed of the French drivers and it's a little scary. We've encountered some perplexing/amusing things such as: a bike lane that lasted for a total of about 1 block; and traffic circles that had bike lanes on the shoulders of the roads leading up to them, then had signs specifically barring bikes from the traffic circles, and yet no way was provided for bicyclists to get to the other side of the circles where the bike lanes resumed. 

Biking foibles aside, we cycled all of 3 km one-way today to the town of Noyon. Not a well-known name, yet it was in Noyon in 768 that Charlemagne was crowned King of the Franks. It is also the birthplace of John Calvin, one of the leaders of Protestant Reformation. The town's main claim to fame today is that it contains one of the very few complete cathedral districts in France. Despite the town being 80% destroyed in WWI, its 12th-13th century cathedral survived, albeit needing some repair.

Market day today in Noyon--the streets were packed! It also
made it difficult to find an open restaurant for lunch, but we succeeded!

View toward the towers from the courtyard of the 
13th century cloister.

Gothic nave, 12th century

This was our favorite part of the complex, the wooden library
from 1506. It's amazing that it has survived the centuries and
the wars. It still serves as a library.

Lon at the end of the cloisters.

We'll be "back on the road" again tomorrow, making our way north on the Canal du Nord. It's hot today and is predicted to be in the mid-90's tomorrow, so I hope that we are able to get our cruising day done by early afternoon at the latest.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

A Bird in the Hand

It's been a busy week, to say the least, which is part of the reason why it's taken me so long to get another blog post out. But we do finally have a resolution to our dilemma of where we will be putting the boat for the winter. 

The port captain at Hautmont was unable to give us a definitive answer on the 21st regarding whether he'd have mooring space for us this winter, which for us was as good as a "no". Hautmont had a lovely port, but it's not particularly convenient to getting to other French canals, so getting a "yes" after we've already left the port would mean--at a minimum--retracing our cruise of the last week in order to get back to Hautmont, and then heading back downstream again in the spring. Not something we really wanted to consider, so we submitted applications to two marinas in the vicinity of Paris. From Cergy we got a "yes we have space, here is a contract to sign" and from Port aux Cerises we got "received your application, we'll get back to you as soon as possible." We had a slight preference for Cerises, but it was a good feeling to have "a bird in the hand" with Cergy. Yesterday, Port aux Cerises let us know that they would be full for our requested months. So, Port-Cergy it will be as of September 1. It feels good to have that issue settled and be able to be a little more deliberate about a cruising plan for the next month.

Tomorrow we will cover the last 3 kilometers on the Sambre à la Oise Canal, and pass onto the lower reaches of the St. Quentin Canal. Now that we know where we will be wintering, we have come up with a cruise plan for the next month. We will continue to work our way southwest (not too far) and turn north on the Canal du Nord as far as the Somme River. The Somme is said to be a beautiful waterway, so we are hoping to finally be able to take our time as we cruise. The Somme has particular significance in WWI history, and although we saw some of the sights a few years ago during land-based touring, we're hoping to be able do a bit more. After the Somme we'll head back south on the Canal du Nord, and then onto the Oise River, and try to time our arrival into the port at Cergy no earlier than September 1. That's the current thinking, but if our boating summers have taught us anything, it's that change is inevitable. 

In the meantime, Friday, September 22 was departure day for us from Hautmont, but what would life be without a little unwanted excitement? We settled our bill at the marina, did the pre-cruise checks, turned the key and--nothing. No engine, just a dreaded "click." Lon's troubleshooting pinpointed the issue as a battery problem. We were directed to a truck repair facility in the vicinity for a replacement battery, but not having a car to get there made for all kinds of "fun." We loaded up the old battery in our bike trailer, and Lon tested the capabilities of his e-bike to the max toting that heavy battery up the hills between the port and the repair shop.

Lon purchases a new battery and gets rid of the old: we're grateful
we were in a town that had the appropriate shopping options.

 Better late than never, we were able to depart Hautmont in the early afternoon.

Our last look as we were leaving Hautmont. It would have been nice to have been able to 
snag one of those barge mooring spots. Oh, well.

We've been on the move at least a little each day since we left Hautmont. Normally we'd try to stop for a non-cruise day at least every few days, but this waterway hasn't lent itself to that very well. Whether it was cruising the Sambre River (the first two days) or the Canal de la Sambre à l'Oise (the past five days), it hasn't been easy to find appropriate mooring facilities and/or towns that offered an array of services such as restaurants or grocery stores or can't-miss sights. 

On the plus side, the river landscape was beautifully green and curvy. There wasn't much other boat traffic, or the curves would have been more of a challenge.

"Flower people" would appreciate the landscaping in Berlaimont

Our mooring in Berlaimont-just a quay, no power, no water. And stay away from the 
basin by the weeping willow or risk going aground!

The bridges are too low and too numerous for us to
deploy the bimini, so we are at the mercy of the sun

Farm fields and birds . . .

. . . village church adjacent to a cow barn. An interesting zoning plan.

Remembrances of the World Wars are everywhere. This
memorial commemorates several dozen French and Tunisian
soldiers killed in 1940 in defense of the village of 
Catillon-sur-Sambre during the German invasion.

Catillon-sur-Sambre has an impressive "Grand Place", but it
was very quiet village on a Sunday afternoon. We were now off the Sambre River
and on the canal.

Shortly after we left Catillon-sure-Sambre we went through the last "up" lock and cruised several kilometers at the high point, the summit, of the waterway. Still a pretty cruise, but it was a bit nerve-wracking as well. Keeping an appropriate water level at a summit is always a challenge, but even more so in a year as dry as this. The water level was noticeably low, and at times our hull bumped the bottom of the canal, but fortunately we were able to power through those areas. We were more than relieved to get to our mooring at Etreux.

It pays to be rested up for the "down" stage of this canal, because of how numerous the locks are. After the first lock, the following 8 locks are automated and need to be taken in one "go" because they are so close together (all within 4 km). The following 16 locks have to be operated from each lock's control booth by an "itinerant lock keeper", e.g., vnf employee moving along with the boater, so they had to be informed of our starting and stopping details each day. Oh, yes, you can throw several lifting or swing bridges into the mix as well. The locks became automated again at lock 25, so we got a new Telecommande device. Our first day we did 14 locks, the next day 6 (and 3 swing/lift bridges), then 7, and today 7 as well.

Two cute dogs came out to see us at one of the locks

Our interesting mooring in Etreux. To get off the boat we had to walk on the metal top of the
mooring wall--a mere 12 inches wide. Balance beam was never my forte. And the other boat in
the photo caused us all kinds of problems when we were trying to leave in the morning. It stuck out so far into the fairway that we had great difficulty maneuvering around it. We overused the bow
thruster--with adverse results--so Lon has been driving without for a few days, and doing great!

Lots of "straight" on the canal leaves little guesswork for
where the next lock is.

A bike ride away from the canal shows us hills and farm vistas.

This might need an award for most decorated lock house on the canal.
Many of the former residences of lockkeepers have been derelict.

Not to be taken literally. This is the Sambre canal equivalent of last year's
 "Ici" (here) sign. The telecommande device is quite simple,
but if you're going downhill (as we have been), you need to press
the green button.

Lon is up very early each morning, so he is able to 
capture some beautiful sunrises. This is a Sissy
sunrise (the town, not the adjective).

Sunrise at Etreux

What counts for a traffic jam on the canals. After our 14-lock day, we moored in the same spot as the two New Zealand couples we'd met in Hautmont. They preceded us out of the mooring the next day, and all of us had to wait for a swing bridge to be opened. Generally, the Sambre and its associated canal have had very light boat traffic.