Saturday, July 24, 2021

Movin', Movin', Movin'

On Tuesday morning, July 20, we left Vieville and 5 hours later reached the Halte Nautique in Donjeux. At that point we decided to phone the vnf in hopes of getting information about the status of the canal closure ahead of us. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, we were told that the Champagne et Bourgogne would be opened up the next morning. Not long after that conversation we received a notice to mariners in our e-mail with the official announcement of the opening of navigation. Good news indeed. The halte in Donjeuex was a nice enough place--quiet, peaceful, and a free mooring with electricity--but our time limitations and the distance yet to travel are always on our minds, so we were happy that we were going to be able to move on.

Weeds in the canal are occasionally a problem again.
This mass/mess was in the canal as we passed by the
halte nautique of Froncles on our way to Donjeux.

Maybe the bird lovers out there know what this bird is.
All I know is that its colors were stunning.

The French canal version of a branch library.

As small a village as Donjeux was, it boasted the 
lovely Chateau de Donjeux in the vicinity. The current
chateau is of 18th century construction and is built on
the site of the feudal fortress of the 11th century. The 
gardens would have been open for viewing, but we didn't
have enough energy to attempt the hill.

A short cruise on the 21st brought us to the now-accessible-to-us town of Joinville. In the Middle Ages it was the site of an important lordship in Champagne. Its medieval chateau-fort was demolished during the Revolution of 1789, but the 16th-century Chateau du Grand Jardin survives, has been restored, and is open to the public. 

Enjoying a self-guided tour of the chateau gardens
and the first floor of the chateau

Very formal gardens in Renaissance French style. The
chateau had several gardens; this one was at the front
of the building.

One of the gardens in the back.

The Chateau du Grand Jardin and some of its gardens

Looking from the Chateau du Grand Jardin toward the hill upon
which can still be seen the remnants of the medieval fortress

The Peceaux docks along a canal running through town.
"Peceaux" refers to wood stakes that were used to support grape
vines. Until the phylloxera infestation decimated French
viticulture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the
hills in the area were covered with grape vines. Until the 17th
century, the canal was used to fill the moats surrounding
the city's fortifications.

The Eglise (church) Notre Dame dates to the 12th century, although it was much restored in the 19th century (and the facade reflects that). 

One of the church's treasures is "St Joseph's Belt", 
brought back from the Seventh Crusade (mid-11th C) by
Jean de Joinville

The timing of our visit to Joinville was good, in that July 21 was the date of the first concert in a "Festival d'orgue" held in the church with music played on the church's 1688 organ. The artist that evening was Juan Paradell Sole, organist emeritus at the Vatican in Rome. Two comments about the concert: 1) the music was enjoyable and 2) the pews were the most uncomfortable we have ever sat in. The seat was at a 90-degree angle to the back, and the top of the pew back had a strip of wood that forced us to lean forward. 

The old organ, placed as organs usually are, up
high and in the back of the church.

No neck-craning needed: a screen was erected in
the front of the church for our viewing pleasure.

We set an ambitious cruising schedule for ourselves on July 22nd. To take advantage of the continuing good weather, and with the prospect of a day in port on the 23rd, we decided to put in a long 8-hour day to go directly from Joinville to the city of St. Dizier. This would entail about 30 kilometers, 13 locks, and several lift bridges. We started relatively early, and for the first 3 hours things were great. But as the exit gates of Lock 50 just started to open they suddenly stopped. A call to the vnf was followed by a 30-minute wait for someone to show up to get us out of the lock. While waiting, we had the opportunity to contemplate the difference between regular time and "boat time" with respect to distances travelled.

As water poured over the back gate . . . 

. . . we contemplated the partially open doors
in front of us. Ah, freedom! So close and yet so far. 

And then we contemplated the sign on an adjacent building
 that said the Super U supermarket in Joinville was 10 minutes
 away. We had left Joinville (moored close to the Super U)
 3 hours earlier. And that is the difference between
 "regular time" and "boat time"

Despite the unexpected delay we still planned to end our day in St. Dizier. That is, until a recalcitrant lift bridge in Bienville sapped our will to continue and we stopped for the day at the village of Chamouilley, about 9 kilometers shy of St. Dizier. It turned out to be a restful stop and great for our frazzled nerves. The quay was spacious and the village had created a lovely park environment for residents and visiting boaters and campers.

There was one boat (not occupied) behind us on the quay, so we essentially had the mooring to

Our bike ride that evening took us to the neighboring
village of Roche-sur-Marne. For such a small village,
the church was a wonder.

A short cruise during the morning of July 23 and we are now in St. Dizier. 

As we sit at the Halte Nautique this Saturday morning, we are mulling over a potential Plan E. It may seem strange that Plan B was mentioned in the blog about two weeks ago, so how is it that we are already to the point of possibly implementing Plan E? It's simply that events and decisions to be made are oft-times moving faster than these blog entries are created. In this case, Plan C was our decision several days ago that we would not be making a trip to the UK this summer. The covid situation is changing so rapidly that we did not feel comfortable travelling out of the EU to a current "hot spot" and not knowing if we'd be able to re-enter the EU. We have not yet changed our return flights to the U.S., but that will happen soon. October 6 will become September 14 to keep us compliant with the 90-day Schengen limitation; we have yet to finalize our departure city. Plan D related to our proposed routing to the Netherlands. We had been hoping to go north to the Canal des Ardennes and from there to the Meuse and into Belgium. The problem is, the Canal des Ardennes is currently closed to navigation. It had a problem with its Lock 2 even before the flood, but according to a contact at the vnf, the recent flooding caused additional damage on the canal, which will likely keep it closed for several weeks. This leaves our only east-west option as the Canal de la Marne au Rhin (Quest), which then would intersect with the Canal de la Meuse to take us north. Because of the recent flooding, the Canal de la Meuse is still closed in its more northern sections, so we have to hope that it will soon reopen.

Covid uncertainties and canal uncertainties aside, another factor at play is the truism that boating and schedules are not a good mix. Our experience this summer is confirming that truth. Being limited to a 90-day visit this year and having a rather ambitious cruising destination is not allowing us to relax and explore the way we are accustomed to. All factors combined add a level of pressure to the journey that cannot be fully overcome, even as we glide through some beautiful areas and have enjoyable experiences. We feel the need to keep "movin', movin', movin'," but at the same time we fear getting too far and then being stopped short of our goal and in a less-than-optimal location for our needs.

Hence, exploring a possible Plan E seems wise. We recently became aware of a boatyard in the city of Vitry-le-Francois that has a dry dock and works on large barges. Vitry is at the beginning of the Champagne and Burgundy canal (only 30 km from St. Dizier), and we are making arrangements to stop by this yard and talk to them about the variety of projects that we were hoping to have done in the Netherlands. If we are comfortable with what we see and hear, it is entirely possible that we will decide to take the Netherlands out of the equation for this year and leave our boat in Vitry for the winter. We could then spend the last few weeks of our summer in relaxed cruising before leaving France.

Plan E? We may already be in Plan "punt" territory.  How exciting! 


Monday, July 19, 2021

Cruising Toward a Stop?

That is the million dollar question of the day. The rain has ceased for now, the sun is shining, and we're still not sure when the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne will reopen between the towns of Joinville at lock 44 and Vitry-le-Francois  at the beginning/end of the canal. We've not been able to find an official update on the canal status--and any prospective resumption of navigation--since the original announcement of the closure at the end of last week. So on Friday, July 16, we set off from Langres, figuring that the water levels had to drop sometime, and that we may as well be as close to Joinville as possible when the closure is lifted.

It was still grey and foggy on Friday (16th) and most
of Saturday (17th). Vnf staff has to operate the
lift bridges for us.

The bicyclist on the tow path was surprised to meet
a herd of cows being led to who knows where. 

They were an orderly group.

Our first two stops were Rolampont and Foulain, two small villages with old churches, but not much else going on. As with some previous areas, we were having trouble with internet and cell phone reception. As we briefly explored each town, we became aware of how out-of-date our Waterways guidebook was with respect to services offered in various towns. For example, Foulain has a Halte Nautique that had been rated relatively highly, and the town was said to have a restaurant, a bakery, and a grocer. The reality was that the park with the boat quay had not been mowed in a very long time and we had a great deal of difficulty locating the mooring bollards (but at least the neighbors were quiet--we were adjacent to the town cemetery!) and there wasn't much happening for shops and services in the town center.

No more boulangerie (bakery), an apparent
victim of ongoing changes in France.

We couldn't find a grocery store, not even a small
superette, but we could buy eggs from a vending
machine 24/7

The restaurant choices in town were a British
tea house (opened in hopes of getting British boaters
from the canal?) and this pizza vending machine. We've
seen a lot of these vending machines in France.

On Sunday, July 18, we stopped at the port adjacent to the relatively large hilltop town of Chaumont. The town was built in the 10th century on a rocky spur overlooking the Marne and Suize valleys. The "rocky spur overlooking" aspect of things deterred us from using our bicycles to go exploring the old center of town, but we're not sure the walk up the hill was much easier. 

The city is the current administrative capital of the department of the Haute-Marne. The center of town has maintained a lot of the medieval atmosphere from the time when its chateau was built.

Overlooking old Chaumont to the Suize valley. The
only remaining part of the original fortress, a relic
of the Counts of Champagne, is a square tower,
 the top of which can just barely be seen at the far right.

Pat and another perspective on the old city. The bell
towers of La Basilique
St. Jean-Baptiste (13th-16th C) can be seen

The "tourelles", the circular staircases with 
the lower steps visible on the building exterior,
are a characteristic of Chaumont architecture. Lon
just calls them a potential "head banger"

Created a bit closer to the present is Chaumont's most imposing monument, a huge stone railway viaduct. The viaduct was engineer Eugene Decomble's solution to the problem of how to get a train to the center of Chaumont, situated on a hill as it was. His idea was to take the railway line over the Suize valley on a viaduct 50 meters high. Amazingly for the times, the project was completed in 15 months. The structure is 654 meters long, has a slope of 6% and has 50 arches spread over its 3 levels. It suffered bomb damage during WWII, but was restored and is in amazing shape. Whether due to COVID or some ongoing repair work, the lowest level is currently not open to pedestrians.

Chaumont's railway viaduct

A slightly different perspective, but still not able
to see the end of the viaduct behind the trees

Maybe the walkway will be reopened
in the near future

Last, but not least, we were made aware of an American war memorial in the cemetery of the St. Aignan church (14th/15th C), located on the side of the canal opposite the port. From 1917 to 1919 Chaumont was the headquarters of the WWI American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) led by General John J. Pershing. From 1917 to 1921, an American cemetery existed in the St. Aignan churchyard and contained the remains of nearly 600 American soldiers. In 1921 the bodies were removed for return to the United States or to one of the permanent American cemeteries in Europe.

St Aignan church

The American memorial in the churchyard. The
inscription reads, in French: "1917-1921. This simple stone
will recall to future generations that here has been a cemetery
containing the bodies of more than six hundred American
soldiers who fought at our sides for right and liberty."

Our mooring at the port in Chaumont. The boat in
front of ours is that of Tom and Lyn Lewis, and we
had an entertaining "catch-up" with them last evening.

We moved on today, and are currently at a lovely, park-like Halte Nautique in the village of Vieville. Below is our cruise plan altitude profile, with our current position in Vieville denoted by the intersection of the purple lines.

We're coming down! Lots of locks on French canals

 The portion of the canal that is closed is now only 30 km ahead of us. The last town with a decent mooring option on this side of the navigation stoppage is Donjeux, a mere 21 km down-canal. We can cruise to Donjeux in one or two days, and then we may be stopped. We're hoping any stop will not last too long, but we are currently at the mercy of Mother Nature and the vnf. C'est la vie!

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Rain, Rain Go Away

I almost hate to express the sentiment in the title of this posting, given that so much of the U.S. is suffering from extreme heat and drought. But it has been a wet couple of weeks here, the current week particularly so. After a lovely weekend the clouds and rain moved in and we don't seem to be able to shake them. There has been flooding in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, and we have received numerous advisories to mariners in the last two days regarding navigation stoppages on various rivers, canalized rivers, and canals in the French waterways network. The Petite Saone (which we left just a week ago), the Canal de la Meuse, and the canal des Ardennes have been affected by navigation stops due to high water, to name just a few. In fact, the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne-which we are currently on-is also closed to navigation starting about 90 kilometers ahead of us. As of this writing we can still cruise for a few days before we reach that specific area, so we hope and pray that the sun comes out soon and stays around long enough for the water levels to drop. What is unknown is the amount of damage that will be left in its wake.

Monday, July 12, was spent off-and-on driving in the rain--and completing a sequence of 8 deep locks--to get to the village of Heuilly-Cotton at the summit of the canal and the entry to the Balesmes Tunnel. We walked around briefly, and decided it was an attractive village, but there wasn't a lot going on there.

The Church of Saint-Loup D'Heuilly-Cotton,
parts of which date to the 15th century

A memorial in the church graveyard states: "French remember
eight heroes martyred and slaughtered by the Germans on 
the 28th of June, 1944 so that France may live". The eight people
shot were in a railway convoy taking prisoners to Germany.

We walked toward the tunnel entrance to get an
idea of the approach.

We moored for the evening just prior to the signal for
 the tunnel. A great spot, except for the house nearby
 with several very noisy watchdogs. The Rottweiler
in particular was a true "Hound of the Baskervilles" 

On Tuesday morning, as well-rested as we were going to be, we tackled the 5 km/3 mile long tunnel. 

Approaching the tunnel on a gloomy morning, but
at least it had stopped raining

The green light giving us the go-ahead. It's not
obvious from the photo, but we could just barely see
the light from the tunnel exit 3 miles away.

Looking ahead: It certainly wasn't bright as daylight,
but at least there were lights along one wall. It might
have been more nerve-wracking if the only light
came from the boat.

Looking back to where we'd been. Lon did a great
job of driving, and my role was to tell him how far
we were from the walls so that he could make the
appropriate adjustments.

The beautiful view that greeted us after one hour and
15 minutes in the tunnel. Still gloomy, but not raining.

We knew that the tunnel would require intense concentration--and it did--so we were pleased with our decision to make it a relatively short cruising day and stop just a few kilometers down the canal in the port for the town of Langres.

Miracle of miracles, the sun came out for a while
in the late afternoon. Lon takes advantage
to relax in his bare feet with a cold beverage.

The port is in a lovely park-like setting. And we
have all the benefits of electricity, water, and a relatively
short trip to a supermarket (although the hill on the
approach to the store was rather steep)

All good things must come to an end, and the rain moved in with a vengeance. We haven't seen many other boats on this canal, but one came cruising in after the heavy rain started, so Lon went out to assist with the landing and we ended up having docktails in the CARIB salon with Tom and Lyn Lewis. Tom is of Irish descent, and has had an extensive post-military career as an itinerant singer and composer of sea shanties (see A  very interesting and fun couple. 

We knew that heavy rain was coming, so our planned stop for the town of Langres was timely, insofar as it's nice to have electricity and a secure mooring when the weather is bad. The shame of it is, however, that Langres seems to be a very interesting town, and the rain made it impossible to explore it to the fullest.

Langres is a medieval city surrounded by 3.5 km of wall and sits on a rocky promontory high above the canal (and over 1500 feet above sea level). The wall contains towers from the 15th and 16th centuries, gates from the 16th-18th centuries, and a Gallo-Roman gate from the 1st century. Its Cathedrale Saint-Mammes was constructed in the 12th century and updated in the 18th century. It was the birthplace of Denis Diderot, a French philosopher of significance during the "Age of Enlightenment." We taxied to the center of the town this morning and walked to the cathedral and a few overlooks along the city wall before surrendering to the elements and seeking refuge in a restaurant for lunch.

A very wet Langres town center

Tom, Lyn, and Lon on the city wall

17th century gate and guardroom

Tour Saint Jean, the last artillery tower constructed
at Langres (circa 1538). In the late 19th century
it became a communications center--for pigeons! The
birds, which could cover 100 km in 80 minutes, were
used to deliver messages up to World War I.

Our lunchtime view overlooking Place Diderot.
Yes, those are raindrops on the window.

We're planning to leave Langres tomorrow morning and continue north, but we will have to see how the canal situation is in the morning and make a final decision then. The rain seems to be lessening and the weekend forecast looks relatively good, so fingers crossed that the canal closure won't spread further south to where we are.

It continues to be a year of "sort of" plans.