Our Barge, Odysseus

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meandering Toward Paris June 23-29

Meaux (pronounced moe) is at a large bend in the Marne River, just about 50 river kilometers from Paris. It was founded over 2,000 years ago as a capital city of the Gallic Meldes tribe. Now it's city center contains a majestic 13th century church and bishop's house and very nice marina within walking distance of the city center. Again, free with water and electricity.

One of the first stops had to be the Saint-Etienne Cathedral, built over 300 years from 1180 to 1540.

We chuckle over the fact that the black tower (tour noir) on the right was intended to be replaced by a tower similar to the one on the left. The "temporary" tower has lasted only 400 years!
Inside, another gothic masterpiece.

Right behind the church is the Bishop's Palace, Old Chapter House and the Bossuet Garden, unusual in that, when seen from above, it is the shape of a bishop's mitre.

Another feature of Meaux is the Canal de l'Ourcq. The River Ourcq was originally canalized in the 15th century and used by barges carrying firewood into Paris. Over the years it has had it's ups and downs and is now used as a cruising grounds for hireboats. There is no direct connection betwen the Marne and the canal, even though in some places they're very close. From here we'd have to go all the way into Paris and double back. One of it's best features is a towpath, originally used by the horses that towed the barges. It now makes a great bike path and we put it to good use.

The weekend coming up features another festival (as I've said before, there's no shortage of fetes during the summer months), this one, the Festival d'Eau, all about the water. The marina in Meaux will be closed for the weekend because they'll be using the pontoons for the fete so we have to move on. Toward Paris!

The Fete and the 4 Course Lunch June 19-22

As promised, the village of Ferte sous Jouarre had a full schedule of events for the Fete de Musique in it's own small town way. Friday night featured a "rock and roll" concert at the village theater. We walked across the river to check it out but the looks of the crowd on the steps outside and the flailing and wailing coming from inside convinced us this was not our tribe. We headed on back to the boat. Saturday night featured the "old guys with guitars" local band in the park; also featured was beer and sausages. The band wasn't bad as long as they stuck to their music but when they tried to improv it was painful to behold. Sunday featured a special market in the main town square complete with authentic French chansons and then some jazz along with the usual assortment of vegetables and local goods. We like that the best. The afternoon featured a trumpet and organ concert in the local church; the organ having just been restored.

Friday evening we heard some peculiar sounds coming from just down the river; it sounded like a lions roar. A little walk along the river path led to the winter quarters of a small circus. They must have had time between shows so they were letting the camels, lamas and ponies graze in the field along the river. Luckily they kept the lions in a cage. We didn't see them, only heard 'em.

The village has a really beautiful "halte fluvial," about 100 meters of pontoons with free water and electricity.

The pontoons are behind an island and the river bank is nicely landscaped.

Monday morning it was off to our next stop. We'd been told that just about 20k down the river was a pontoon out in front of a restaurant. The restaurant featured a 4 course lunch, including wine and coffee, for just 11 euros. Sure enough, when we arrived just before lunch the pontoon was waiting just for us. After the lunch we weren't about to go anywhere but back down to the boat. A nice nap and a walk were all that was managed for the rest of the day.

The sign says the pontoon is reserved for pleasure boats and swimming is not allowed.

The view from the dock to lunch, just a short stagger away.

The next morning it was up and off to Meaux.

Things We Love About This Place (but not sure why pt.1)

There are no words for seventy, eighty or ninety in French. Showing their superior math skills, eighty and ninety are spoken in multiples of twenty, seventy as additions to sixty. Therefore seventy five it soixante (60) quinze (15); ninety two is quatre (4) vingt (20) douze (12). I thought I was all prepared for this until the Madame in the boulangerie told me the total for my two baguettes was "une euro quatre vingt douze" and I totally froze. Cathy Jo, at my shoulder, said "Just give her two." Next time I'll be ready!

We rented the car, a Renault Clio, from Hertz in Charleville; set it up on the internet before we left. In most places they'll charge you extra for a diesel. Imagine my surprise when we got the car and it was "gasoil." We drove the thing for over 500 kilometers, used about 25 euros worth of fuel and that was only half a tank. That's about 50 miles to the gallon! Nice little car too with all the extras.
Gas stations aren't everywhere like in the US but they aren't hard to find. They all have gasoline and diesel and many also have lpg for cars. Prices are high but not as bad as last year; about $7.50 a gallon for gas and about $5.50 a gallon for diesel.

BREAD!!! Oh my god the bread is great and it is everywhere! Just about every little village has a boulangerie; maybe two, and the bread is usually made right on the premises. Since bread is part of the "patrimonie" in France, the price is subsidized. A baguette is less than a euro. They also make these desserts that look like jewels. MMMMM, eclairs!!! It seems a shame to eat them but they taste better than they look.

Please don't get us started on the wine. Enough said!

Don't plan on getting anything done on Sunday afternoon or on Monday in the smaller villages; almost everything is closed. LUNCH IS SACRED. Most businesses are closed from somewhere around noon until somewhere around 2, or 3, or 4. I'm not talking about just little shops, either. We were shooed out of a Home Depot equivalent at noon one day because it was lunch time!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Down the a Marne June 16-19

And rain it did! It began Sunday afternoon and progressed to the thunder-and-lightning stage by the evening. It stopped later that night but started up again around 7 Monday morning and didn't let up until shortly after noon. By now the river was full of debris washed out of the fields and flowing faster. Tuesday turned out better so we set off. Our first lock of the day, just a couple of kilometers down the river, was staffed by a VNF lockkeeper who provided a "telecommand," a new remote control for the locks. He told us that the river was closed to navigation, and would be for a couple of days, between two locks about 55 kilometers downriver. Trees had fallen into the river and there was so much debris it would take that long to clean things out. Luckily, it would take us a couple of days to get that far so we didn't figure it would hold us up, although we would have to be careful traveling so we wouldn't get junk in the boat's propellor.

Tuesday night we stopped in the town of Dorman, a nice little village but unfortunately the tie up was just across the river from the railroad tracks and it was pretty noisy. Dorman also features heavily in World War I history as one of the principal locations of the Battles of the Marne, the first in 1914 and the second in 1918. Hundreds of thousand died in old-style warfare; practically no ground was gained. After the war, a memorial was built above the town. Money was raised from the citizens of France and the land was donated by Marshall Foch.

Climbing up the tower allows a panoramic view of the Valley of the Marne

The next night found us in Chateau Thierry, most notable for a giant ruined chateau/fort above town and a large grocery store with gas station located close to the tie up. Fuel docks are few and far between in France so fuel has to be carried by jug to the boat and the cupboards were looking a little bare so a big shopping was called for.

As promised, VNF had cleaned up the canal so two days later found us in the beautiful municipal tie up in the village of La Ferte sous Jouarre.; power and water provided for free. This weekend is the solstice and all over France that calls for the "Fete de Musique." Every town in France will have some kind of free music and Ferte is no exception. Let the fete begin!

Champagne Country June 11

After a night moored to the wall above the lock in the village of Tours-sur-Marne, we headed down the Canal Lateral a la Marne toward Epernay; with Reims, the champagne areas principal cities. The tie up in the city is quite expensive so we opted for a free mooring in the nearby village of Cumieres. There's a 40 meter pontoon with water and electricity provided but, when we arrived, there were already two boats tied up, one about 24 meters and the other 17. Both were owned by English boaters who didn't mind if we rafted up so we settled in for a couple of days.

Epernay was just a 10 minute bike ride away but we were also only about a 3 km walk up a very steep hill to the village of Hautvillers. Those of you up on your wine history will recognize the place as the 17th century home of Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who "invented" champagne. He's buried in the local church.

Dom Preignon is, in many ways, responsible for wine as we know it today. He was in charge of the abbey cellars for 47 years and in that time he pioneered the idea of blending grapes from different areas into "vintages," the method of pressing black grapes to make white juice, the first use of thick glass bottles with corks to contain the bubbles and the digging of chalk cellars to keep aging wine at the proper temperature.

On the way back down the hill we had a beautiful view down to the mooring in Cumieres.

But isn't this what it's all about?

The hills are alive with the sounds of ... grapes ripening!

Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier are the grape varieties used in champagne.

Friday night we decided it was time for a dinner in town so we visited Le Caveau, a restaurant in Cumieres that the guide book said was known for its regional specialties. The dining room was in a cave carved out of the local chalk mountainside, just like the champagne cellars. We were thoroughly stuffed.

Saturday was market day in Epernay so we bicycled into town and made our way through the vegetable stalls, stocking up for the week. The afternoon was devoted to a walk around Cumieres that included, you guessed it, the purchase of some champagne.

In the US we treat champagne as a celebration wine, reserved for special occasions. Since it's the local product, it's the everyday drink around here. The woman who poured for us at one of the tastings said, as we discussed the wine, that we must know something about champagne, but she preferred to drink it, not talk about it! At yet another tasting, one provided for tourists at the tourist office in Epernay, we were assured by the nice lady at the desk that you could not get drunk drinking champagne. I think she believed it!

Sunday began hot and humid so we stuck around the boat taking care of some chores. By the afternoon, huge thunderstorms built up and the heavens opened. We had planned to head on down the river Monday morning but the rain was still coming down in sheets and the river was full of debris so our departure would have to wait.

How the Locks Work Here

The first day out of Pont a Bar we had to give up the garage door-type clicker that triggered the lock mechanisms. The trigger for these locks is a pole that hangs down in the center of the canal. The boat driver creeps up on it slowly and the crew grabs the pole and gives it a quarter turn.

A yellow light flashes at the lock to let you know the lock senses you. Once the doors open, the boat is tied up and, just like before, the blue rod is lifted to close the doors

Don't pull on the red rod. That's an emergency stop, just in case there's a problem. If you pull it, you'll have to call a VNF technician to come reset the lock.
Depending whether you're going up or down, the lock fill or empties, the doors open and you're on your way.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Souterrain de Mont de Billy

Rather that go up and over the top of the hill, the tunnel of Mont de Billy goes about 2.3 km through the hill.

We have the green light so in we go!

The tunnel is lighted so it's not completely claustrophobic in there. A half hour later we were out and this hotel barge shoehorned it's way in.

After the tunnel there was a chain of eight locks down and we entered the canal alongside the Marne River. In about 15 k we'll enter the Marne itself.

Sillery and the Montagne de Reims June 7-9

About two hours after leaving Reims we were snug in the small marina in the village of Sillery in the shadow of the Montagne de Reims, one of the major champagne areas. We would use this as a base for walks and bike rides around the north side of the Montagne.

the Sillery marina

It's early June so the berries are very small. Someone will be drinking this in about 4 years.

The view over the hillside from the village of Verzenay.

The bike ride up the hill was pretty grueling but after a brief stop at the Etienne LeFevre champagne house for a little taste (and the purchase of a couple of bottles), the ride down the hill was fun!

Since just north of Reims, we have been on the Canal de l' Aisne a la Marne. After Sillery we'll pass through three more locks up, then through a 2 km long tunnel then drop down to the Marne River. That circuit will take us around the Montagne de Reims and to the other capital of the champagne region, Epernay.

Reims, again June 5-6

Last year after we left the boat at Pont a Bar, we stopped in Reims for a couple of days on our way to Paris. This year we visited by boat. The town marina is in a very loud place, right across from one of the main highways in France and the traffic noise never stops. We found a free bankside tieup just a little way down the canal; it was still loud but the traffic was much lighter at night. We arrived on Thursday afternoon about 4 but our chores began in earnest on Friday. We had to visit a grocery store for some provisioning; the wine stock was getting low, and there is the great market on Saturday. The weather on Friday was pretty good so after the supermarket trip we visited the other big church in town, the St. Remi Basillica. The church, begun in the 11th century, is named for the bishop who crowned King Clovis, the first of the French kings. Many of the ancient French kings are buried there.

Also, of course, Reims is the headquarters of some of the largest and oldest champagne houses in France. We didn't actually taste any champaign in Reims (that comes later), but we did walk around the grounds of the Pommery house. As you can see, it's not the least bit ostentatious.

Sunday the weather had deteriorated and we decided to move on deeper in to the champagne region. We weren't exactly wearing champagne flutes around our necks as they do on some of the vineyard tours but we were mighty thirsty!

The Montgon Valley June 1

After leaving Namur last summer, we headed up the Meuse River, climbing into northern France. We left the Meuse and joined the Canal des Ardennes and climbed some more. Now it was time to go down, and I do mean down!

Decending the Montgon Valley would entail 26 lock in 8.5 kilometers and since they're all automated, there's no stopping.

Lock 1,2 AND 3 were very close together

Down we go!

We entered the first lock at 9:15 and exited the last at 2:30; not even a stop for lunch ... in France!
About 4 pm we were tied up in the village of Attigny. Hopefully that would be our toughest day for awhile.

Canal des Ardennes

We're traveling through northern deciduous forests in spring. Along with the beautiful green foliage, the trees are full of songbirds; their singing is constant from when the sun comes up around 4:30 until it gets dark around 10. We don't think we've every heard a real, live cuckoo bird 'til now but they're here and they sound just like the clock!

Underway - May 29

We rolled out of bet Saturday morning, had a couple cups of coffee and decided we'd get going. There are always a thousand reasons not to go but we felt now was the time. We had only planned a short day for the first one; we wanted to make sure everything was in order so we'd only be traveling about 2 1/2 hours. Of course there was a problem at the first lock we approached. The locks in this area are all automated; a garage door opener-type device triggers the sequence and there are lights to let boaters know what's happening. One red light means do not enter, a red and green means the lock is getting ready for you (either emptying or filling, depending on whether you're going up or down) and green means enter. The doors were open but the light was red. A trip to the call box at the lock and about 10 minutes the helpful VNF (Voies Navigables de France) technician arrived, pushed some buttons, and off we went. We found a nice bankside mooring about 16 kilometers later and the 2009 voyage was underway!

Our first night mooring.

The lawnmowers at the mooring.

Pont a Bar Services

Just a small boatyard at the beginning of the Canal des Ardennes. Dominique and Cedric are really trying to make it a great place for boaters. If you have a problem Cedric can't solve, he always has a "specialist" that will help out. He got Odysseus' cooling water pump, a true antique, rebuilt, something I thought impossible! They are always helpful and the prices are reasonable. New this year, a shower! One of the best we've used, too, with plenty of really hot water. Highly recommended!!!



The Fete - May 29

In the United States, yacht clubs have "Opening Day," a day of festivities in late spring that signifies the beginning of sailing season. At Pont a Bar this year, they inaugurated their Opening Day with a blowout fete on Friday night.

Activity began on Thursday afternoon when the trucks arrived with the tent, tables and chairs. Friday morning the setup began in earnest with the tent going up and places being set for the 150 people expected for dinner and entertainment.

The festivities began around 8 pm when a plastic garbage can filled with homemade sangria appeared.

This served to get the crowd prepared for the bagpipe club from nearby Sedan which performed.

The drummer cut quite and impressive figure.

And Cathy thought one of the pipers was "the typical Frenchman."

After a few tunes, everyone proceeded to the tent where we took our places and waited for our chance at the food, a delicious paella, and of course, the wine that could be purchased to accompany the meal.

Several people have kept their boats for many years at Pont a Bar. There was a woman from Cologne, Germany who owns a converted Dutch barge called "the Royal Gigglish," a man from Luxembourg who keeps his small Dutch cruiser there, and the collection of boaters like us who are transient or completing major projects. One couple, Andy and Petra Busse, are German but have lived for the last several years in Spain where they were sailboat riggers. They bought a boat last year and intended to cruise the canals but decided it needed some interior work. After the destruction was finished, they needed a whole new interior. They are performing the work at Pont a Bar. All the boaters were in attendance, as well as a lot of people we didn't know. Much wine was consumed and everybody became good friends!

At the conclusion of the meal, a local singing group appeared and kept us well entertained. You might remember the "shanty koor" we attended at the end of our first summer in Holland. This certainly reminded us of that.

By about 11 pm the singers were done but one of the local boaters brought out his "squeeze box" and kept everybody going for a little longer.

About 1 am, we had finally had enough. We were supposed to be leaving in the morning (oops! it already was!) but we weren't sure our heads or bodies would permit it.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

If this is Wednesday, May 27

Last year during our week stay in Namur, Belgium, we rented a car and did a little trip around the southern part of the country. One of our stops was in the village of La Roche, known far and wide for it's Ham de Ardennes. But before we could get there, the Abbey d'Orval was in the way, home of one of the last authentic abbey-brewed beers and some really great cheese.

The monastery was founded in the 9th century by Italian monks. It was almost totally destroyed during the French revolution but rebuilt in the 1920's. Remnants of the old building still remain

and the spring that has always supplied water for the beer is still running strong and clear.

After the abbey is was off to La Roche to stock this years supply of the delectable pig product (here's last years picture)

and then it was on to visit the town of Bullion.

The town is on a bend in the Semois River, glowered over by The Chateau de Bullion, mainly built by Godfroid de Bullion in the 9th century. Like every other major fortification in this part of the world, it was rebuilt many times over the years, most recently by Vauban in the 15th century. It's supposedly one of the finest feudal castles in Belgium.

The days touring complete, we returned to Pont a bar for our final big shopping trip and Friday nights big fete at Pont a Bar.

Ugh! Another Haulout! May 19-23

We had arranged for Odysseus to be stored on dry land this year; we had discovered some problems with the bottom coating during last summers cruise and wanted to get a good look at it. Unfortunately, the very expensive paint we had applied when we bought the boat had failed completely so a new bottom job was in order. This is about the hardest, messiest job in boating. All of the old paint (nasty, toxic stuff) had to be scraped off, then the bottom water blasted and recoated with two coats off more nasty toxic stuff. This time, however, the nasty, toxic stuff was much less expensive so the damage was physical instead of financial.
We were really lucky that the weather was beautiful the whole time we were working on the boat. In fact, some days it was downright hot! This was a big contrast to last September when we traveled through the Ardennes in the mostly pouring rain.
Cleaning off the old paint took all of Tuesday, the water blasting was done Wednesday morning and the first coat of bottom paint went on that afternoon. While I was painting the bottom, Cathy Jo was putting a coat of paint on all of the green topsides, which meant some prep, undercoating, filling and fairing. By Friday morning the painting was complete and Odysseus was ready for launch. Saturday morning she was in the slings.

The first bottom coat is applied and the green topsides are ready for a final coat.

Putting the slings is place.

The boat was maximum length and weight for the crane so there were some tense moments during the launch but all went well and by 11 am she was floating.

We spent the next several days traveling about the area collecting supplies for the summer's journey and finishing up a few projects. By Tuesday we were basically ready to go. Since the car had to be returned Friday morning, we thought we would take Wednesday to make our pilgrimage to Belgium for the Ham de Ardennes (and a little look see around the area), do our final big provisioning trip Thursday (you need a car for all those bottles of wine!), return the car Friday morning and get underway Saturday morning. So on Wednesday, it was off to Belgium!

London to Charleville, May 18

Love those trains.

Boarded the Eurostar in London about 7:30 am for our 2 1/2 hour trip under the English Channel. Walked about 10 minutes from Paris' Gare du Nord to Gare de L'Est and boarded the French TGV for our 120 mph trip to Charleville. We left Paris at about 1 pm and arrived in Charleville about 2:30, picked up our rental car from the nice people at Hertz in the train station and headed for the tourist office in Charleville.
One thing we've learned is it's really easy to find a place to stay in France. Go to the local tourist office, tell them what you're looking for and Voila! you have a room.
Since Odysseus was stored out of the water this year and it would be several days until she could be launched, we were going to need a place to stay, preferable with kitchen facilities so we wouldn't have to eat out every night. There are numerous "bed and breakfast" type places in rural France and the tourist office set us up with one that was about 10 minute drive from Pont a Bar in a beautiful setting.

The view from the gite kitchen.

Mssr. Lamberty didn't speak any English but he had our petit dejeuner ready for us every morning and for E45 for 2 people per night, the price was right!
After getting our room set up it was off to Pont a Bar. We needed to tell Dominique and Cedric we had arrived and would be hard at work the next morning.

A Trip to London, May 14-18

This year's European adventure began with a flight via British Airways from Los Angeles to London. No screaming babies on the 9 hour flight this year but without a doubt the worst airline food ever!

We knew we were in for trouble on the ground, however, when the pilot cheerfully advised us on landing that it wasn't raining "for now." We were only there for the weekend but we managed to take in some of the city, despite the terrible weather. We arrived on Friday just before noon but had made dinner reservations before we left at a place Cathy Jo found mentioned repeatedly, the Giaconda Dining Room. It was pretty cloudy when we left our hotel for the 20 minute walk to the restaurant and we thought we wouldn't need our umbrellas. Wrong! The skies opened up about 5 minutes after we left. Luckily the walk took us down a major shopping street so we could duck in and buy some really cheap umbrellas. The dinner was excellent!

We stayed at a small hotel in the Kensington District, not far from the famous park and palace of Princess Diana fame. One of our first excursions was to the Saturday morning Borough Market, the oldest food market it London, begun in 1756. At the south end of the London Bridge under the railway line, it's stalls and small stores sell mostly organic produce, meat, fish, spices cheese and the like.

You also don't want to miss the tower of chocolate brownie!

Later we walked down alongside the Thames River to the Tate Modern Art Museum to take in a little culture. The activity of the day was a citywide "treasure" hunt for photographers. Museum staff had put together some sort of list and teams of photographers were to fan out across the city and take pics to illustrate the items. From the balcony above, we watched the teams plot their strategy.

Sunday was another cold blustery day. We visited the Kensington Palace and Gardens and visited a rooftop garden. I don't know what flamingos are doing in a rooftop garden in these northern climes but there they were.

Monday morning bright and early (well, early, anyway) we got a taxi ride to St. Pancras Station. It was time for our train ride to eastern France!