The week in Paris was absolute heaven. Fraser and I hardly ever do the “tourist thing”, so this was a real treat for us. The last time I was in Paris was for my 16th birthday, so that’s a good 5 years ago. Funny how it feels far longer than that. My birthday dinner was at a restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe, called the Hippopotamus. A memorable name. I was under the illusion that there was only one, but it turns out it’s a chain, or maybe a franchise, which I realised when I spotted one at la Place de la Bastille, close to where we were moored.
We thought it might be a good idea to find the original Hippo restaurant and have a celebratory last day in Paris meal there, for the sake of nostalgia. The route was planned carefully, beginning with my favourite #72 bus, then changing to another bus that would have dropped us right across the road from the restaurant. But the best laid pans, and all that. The 72 took us to the Hôtel de Ville (about a quarter of the way we needed it to take us) and then stopped. End of the line. Maybe it was the driver’s lunchtime, but all the passengers (including half a dozen surprised and vociferously annoyed Parisians) were chivvied off the bus and decanted onto the pavement.
Hot and bothered, we decided it would surely be enough to eat a A Hippo restaurant; it needn’t be THE Hippo Restaurant. So we had a delicious lunch outside on the pavement at the Place de la Bastille, steak (me) and some sort of burger (Fraser). I couldn’t remember what I’d eaten on my 16th birthday, but the whole feel of the place was definitely familiar, and I was happy to have made at least some effort.
Finally, on Saturday 20th May, we paid for our week in Paris (£190 for a whole week in the centre of Paris. Beat that!), reluctantly handed back the dongle that opened the doors to the showers, and followed a couple of tiny motorboats into the lock to leave Paris Arsenal Marina. It was quiet on the Seine, as we left the busy tourist areas behind and headed away from Paris. A couple of miles upstream, we came to a fork in the river, where the Seine went right and we turned left into the Marne River.
As soon as we turned off the River Seine, we came up to a lock, but by now we considered ourselves old hands at this, and it didn’t even raise our pulse rates. The next lock after it took us into a canal that cut out a long, shallow 14km-long loop of the river Marne but also passed through a tunnel. Now, this was definitely something new for us. The Souterrain de St-Maur is 600m long, and we discovered that entrance looks far smaller than the pictures in the canal guides. It also gets smaller the closer you are to it.
We survived that tunnel and decided we were becoming canal pros, but you know what they say? Pride comes before a fall. Everything went beautifully until the écluse de Chalifert, one of two locks that bracket the Chalifert tunnel (a mere 300m long this time). All the locks we’d navigated so far since entering Honfleur had been manned by a real human, meaning we needed to contact them by VHF radio to let them know we were coming. Up until Chalifert, all the éclusiers had been lovely, but our luck was about to run out.
This lock was the first one we’d come across with a tall steel pole in the side, around which you can loop line(s) from the boat to keep yourself moored up as the lock fills. Usually, Fraser uses the rungs of a ladder and moves the rope up as the lock fills and the boat rises, but this looked much easier. Until the sluices opened to fill the lock. The éclusier didn’t seem to care, because he just chatted on his mobile with his back to us as he opened all the sluices wide and let the water flood in at full spate. Poor little Barberry creaked and groaned (as did Fraser) as she bucked and twisted with the currents. The pull on her lines put immense strain on her cleats. We even had water spurting up through the pipe that carries our swing keel lifting mechanism through the boat from under the keel to the top of the cabin roof, which I’d never have thought possible.
After that, the tunnel didn’t seem scary at all, despite the fact that it was even tighter than the previous one. We emerged, blinking in the sunshine, shaken and shocked after our lock experience and with all confidence evaporated away. Luckily, it seemed that éclusier was the exception rather than the rule because all the ones after him (so far) have been lovely, opening the sluices gradually and keeping an eye on us.
Altogether, we navigated 8 locks and 2 tunnels on that first day. When we nudged Barberry into a tiny little backwater at Poincy, where we’d decided to stay for the night, the manager seemed very surprised at how far we’d come. He said it usually took most people least two days to get to him from Paris. After a lovely meal of steak and salad, with the remains of a fresh baguette from the lovely little boulangerie in Paris, we did a mini debrief and decided that maybe we needed to readjust our expectations.
We’d spent six weeks (since leaving Bangor) racing against adverse weather, tides, bookings in marinas, etc, but now it was maybe time to make ourselves slow down a bit and take the opportunity to explore this beautiful country. The first day, we’d covered about 31 nautical miles. On day 2, we managed about 32, but we only had to navigate 5 locks and no tunnels. We still needed to slow down a bit more. After spending Sunday night tied up to the bank just after the lock at Charly, we walked to the local supermarché for a few more supplies, and for Fraser to fill a can with diesel, then set off pretty late (for us) at around 11.30.
We’d planned to take a break for lunch in Château Thierry, but as we passed through the lock a couple of miles before it, our luck ran out again. This series of locks are all unmanned, and we’d been given a remote control with which to operate them. The lock at Azy was a bit slow to respond to our button pressing, but eventually the gates opened and let us in. Then they closed — or almost. They seemed to stop a few inches apart, and we watched anxiously in case a log had got jammed between them below the water, but eventually they finished closing about five minutes later. The lock filled okay, then the light started flashing to show that the gates were about open to let us back out. Except they didn’t. They opened a few inches and stopped, and the light stopped flashing.
We checked the canal guide (Fluviacarte) in case even the automated locks stopped for lunch (the French treat lunchtime very seriously), but the guide said they didn’t. I tried the VHF radio, but no reply, so eventually we tracked down a phone number. A lovely man who spoke very rapid and colloquial French (i.e. I didn’t understand a word he said) gabbled at me for a while and then said, “Au revoir,” and hung up. We sat and stared at each other. Fraser asked me what he’d said, and I replied that I had no idea.
At this point, we switched off the engine, and Fraser started passing up our usual lunch of fresh baguette, cooked meats and cheese. Just as the scent of fresh bread reached my nostrils, and I almost had the salami in my hands, the alarm went off on the lock gates and they began to open. We quickly restarted the engine, shoved everything back into the fridge, and left while we could in case the gates changed their minds again. We finally got a very late lunch at Château Thierry, where Fraser went for a slog in the heat up to the ruined castle while I washed up after lunch and then started writing this blog. We were finally starting to deep breathe and relax.
On the third night since leaving Paris, we stayed at a campsite in a town called Dormans. Again, my pidgin-French was called into action as I chatted with the proprietor. After I’d paid (without checking the amount), I checked my phone notifications. It said I’d paid £42 on my Monzo card. That seemed like a lot for a single night, but after we’d both enjoyed the showers and had a delicious meal, it didn’t seem too bad. Then I looked again at my Monzo statement and realised it had actually only cost us €4.24 (less than £4) for the night, and suddenly my cheap French wine box wine tasted far nicer.
Gradually, we’ve slowed down even more. After a lovely lunch stop at Damery (excellent boulangerie), we finally stopped mid-afternoon in Epernay, in the heart of the champagne-growing district of France. For days on end we’d passed nothing but slopes of vines growing in the sunshine, so we decided to do a tour.
In fact, we were given two free tickets for a tour and tasting in the de Castellane champagne house. It looked to be just across the road from the Marin, but we discovered there was a railway line in between, so we broke the folding bikes out of storage to reach it, involving a long loop to reach the nearest bridge.
The tour involved some interesting history of champagne production in the region, and a trip down into the limestone caverns beneath the town, where the fizzy wine has been stored in bottles for its second fermentation over the centuries. I’ll come clean and admit that I’m not a great champagne fan, but the science and history fascinated me. The taste we had at the end (see picture below) was more than enough for me though.
Now we’ve reached a beautiful place called Chalon-en-Champagne, and we’ve decided to stop here for a day or two. Fraser can tell you about that when he writes the next episode of our adventures. Meanwhile, we have some more wine to taste…