Frogs and French Food

It really was a Menu Unique!

Fraser’s blog left us in Joinville, an idyllic little halte next to a hotel/restaurant. We spent two nights there, enjoying the shade beneath the trees that overhung us, and also caught up with Helen and Steve, a couple of fellow boaters. The only drawback of Joinville was the froggie chorus that went on all night, and was unbelievably loud.

Chance friends well met. L to R: Fraser, Helen, Daisy the beagle, Steve and Kerry. The WOB flag is just visible below our tiny Irish flag. And to the right of our laundry.

Helen and I “met” through the Facebook group, Women on Barges (I know Barberry isn’t a barge, but they made an exception and allowed me in). WOBs, as we call ourselves, often fly a flag to identify ourselves to fellow WOBs, and both Helen and I had known we were going to be in the same area, so when they rocked up behind us that Tuesday morning, we were glad to see them. It turned out that we have identical senses of humour (poor Steve and Fraser). We decided to try out the hotel restaurant for dinner that evening.

These are a couple of the guides to the canals that we use to decide how far to go each day and where to stop at night It’s a bit out of date, but we still manage. All our guides are covered in pencil scribbles, noting any changes.

There was a set menu in the restaurant, which was fine, because luckily we all like surprises and none of us possessed sufficient French to understand what the menu consisted of. However, when it came to wine, there was a problem. The wine list was extensive, with a good choice of whites and reds, but every time we asked for a wine, it caused consternation and the waiters (there were two of them, both very young) ran off in a flap only to return much later to say they didn’t have any of that particular wine in stock. Both Helen and I had agreed we’d like anything but a Chardonnay, but eventually, after several false starts, we ended up with two half-bottles of Chardonnay.

It was great to see Helen and Steve’s boat heading upstream to join us.

However, the meal made up for it in quality, so we’re really not complaining. Although we did wonder how on earth the place survived, especially with so many staff, since we were almost the only people there. I suggested it must be a money-laundering operation (typical crime writer), but Helen was equally sure the owner had recently been divorced and was just sad and without enthusiasm for the venture.

This sign, notifying canal users of repairs to the towpath, put a crimp in Fraser’s strategy for managing the really deep locks. No towpath = no bike, so we had to develop a new technique.

The next day, we waved goodbye to Helen and Steve and set off on our travels again. We made it to Froncles, where the guide book had promised showers, toilets and laundry. We arrived to see a couple of Dutch people swimming in the canal wearing flesh-coloured bathing costumes. Actually I’m inventing that. I’m not sure there were any bathing costumes, just flesh. The capitainerie was closed with no sign of opening hours, and guess what? The showers and laundry were inside the capitainerie. We checked several times, but it remained closed throughout our short stay there. Still, looking on the bright side, we had a free night’s mooring with electric as there was no-one to pay.

Tied up in Froncles. Carefully taken with the photographer’s back to the swimming Dutch couple, in the interests of everyone peace of mind

The next stop was Chaumont, where we finally found showers (€2.75 each on top of the cost of the mooring and the electric, and a charge for water, so we made up for the free night at Froncles!). Sam, the lovely young man in the capitainerie, made us welcome. We didn’t have time to do a load of laundry as the washing machines and tumble dryer are in the capitainerie, which is only open 0900-1200 and 1600-1900, which would have meant a late start the next day Instead, I hand washed a load of essentials and hung them out to dry, which takes no time at all in the current heat wave.

Another day, another concrete quay. Chaumont was memorable for the rough concrete bollards that were difficult to tie up to.

The next day we had the choice of a short run and a peaceful rural halte, or a mammoth run to Rolampont where there was meant to be a good stopping place near a village with bakery, cafe, etc.

We passed over several aqueducts as the canal crossed and recrossed the River Marne, barely a stream in places by now.

We were very lucky that day. Between Froncles and Rolampont we negotiated 15 locks, one tunnel and a lifting bridge. Every lock until the last but one was working, and we managed them in record time, our sights set on reaching our destination before the full heat of the day caught up with us.

Fraser looks very cheery about this tunnel, but he’s not the one trying to drive the boat in a straight line with the walls and roof closing in on us!

Then we saw the red traffic light turn into a double-red instead of going green, and we knew our luck had run out. I had to phone the VNF (Voies Navigables de France), the government organisation that maintains the canals and locks. My French face-to-face isn’t great, but on the telephone or VHF radio, I descend into panic mode. Luckily the operator was understanding, and I actually almost understood his reply. An engineer was on his way, but he had no idea how long it would take.

Some of the lock keepers cottages have incredible gardens. This one even had a naked man in it. I didn’t ask him if he was Dutch.

Waiting for a broken lock is a frustrating exercise. On the Canal enter Champagne et Bourgogne there are no stopping places near the locks, so you have to hover the boat in one place for maybe an hour or more while you wait for the engineer. On this occasion, we were in a narrow section with thick weed on both sides of us, and there was a nasty little gusting cross wind that kept trying to push us into the weed.

Fraser doing his Sir Lancelot impression as he hurtles along the towpath with his trusty boathook!

A boat isn’t like a car, where you can put the handbrake on and turn the engine off. It’s constant forwards and backwards, a touch of bow thruster here to correct for a wind gust, then another touch (the other direction) to compensate for the propellor, which kicks to the left in reverse, also trying to take us into the weed. And I don’t mean the recreational variety of weed either. That wouldn’t have been so bad. This sort fouls the rudder and propellor and gets sucked up into the cooling water intake for the engine, causing it to overheat.

Weed that has been sucked up into the engine intake, partially blocking the flow of cooling water. Fraser removed it with a special hooked tool. There’s also a water strainer in the system, which also needs to be checked and cleared of weed, but this is the pipe before the strainer.

Eventually the little white van appeared, rocketing along the towpath in a cloud of dust, and we knew we were saved. First, all the traffic lights go out, because the VNF engineer is over-riding the automatic mechanism, then the lock begins to empty, as demonstrated by the gush of white water at the bottom of the closed gates. After that, he opens the gates for us and we chug slowly in, very conscious of professional eyes on us as I try to keep the boat straight in the crosswinds, and Fraser balances precariously on the cabin roof, stretching to his full ability with a long boat hook and a line to try to snag a bollard that’s up to 4m above us and set back from the edge, so out of sight from the boat.

This is what the inside of a lock looks like before it fills. Fraser has to lasso bollards along the upper edge — the bollards that you’ll notice are currently out of sight!

The engineer was lovely (they almost always are), and soon had us on our way. He asked us how far we were planning to go that day, and again the next day, and we told him. I think we was running his locks under mental review to decide if it was likely he’d be called out again to rescue us. He drove past us a few minutes later, but he waited at the next lock until he was sure the traffic lights were behaving before raking off again in another cloud of dust.

As we rise up the lock with the water, a lovely view often appears, like this lock keeper’s beautiful garden. Sadly, no naked men in this one, but something that might be a church instead.

We were especially lucky at Rolampont. There’s only space for two boats there, and as we approached we could see two boats tied up. However, the owner of one of them shouted to us that he was just leaving, so we hovered again (it was easier this time, as the canal was wider and less weedy). A lovely Dutch couple (fully dressed, thank heavens) caught our lines for us and greeted us. We walked to the local supermarket (disappointingly small) and garage for fuel for both humans and boat. Google maps had promised us a 12 minute walk. It lied. 48 minutes later, we staggered back to Barberry with two heavy rucksacks and a trolley with 20 litres of diesel.

The halte at Langres had a lovely little cafe that opened in the evening to serve food, beer, ice cream, etc. It would surely have been rude not to buy some! Ps. The beer and ice cream were earlier. This was dinner.

There were only 7 locks to do before we stopped for the night at Langres, and we were lucky with them, so we arrived late morning after an 0800 start. Langres is the last bit of civilisation before the “green desert”, a 74km stretch with no facilities or shops at all. We broke out the folding bikes and cycled (uphill) to the nearest supermarket, stocking up on essentials like wine, salad and cheese and, of course, wine. The way back was much faster. I wasn’t sure if my brakes would stop me at the bottom of the hill, and had visions of ending up in the canal, wheels gently spinning, but we both survived.

Fraser locking up our folding bikes outside the supermarket in Langres. We were pretty hot and bothered after the steep hill. Or at least, Fraser was; mine’s the electric assisted bike!

We were a little anxious the next morning as we set off off for the Balesmes Tunnel, at the top of the Langres Plateau. The tunnel is almost 5km long and is supposed to take about an hour to transit. We were mostly worried about the height of our radar arch, which has narrowly scraped under every low bridge so far, but it sticks out a long way either side, where some of our solar panels are mounted, so we were afraid it might not fit into the tunnel, with its rounded roof

The sinister-looking entrance to the 5km long Balesmes Tunnel.

We needn’t have worried, as there was plenty of headroom. As we approached the gaping, dark maw of the tunnel, we were startled by a racket of birds screaming and shrieking all around us. It felt like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie as we ducked and stared, searching for the source of the noise. It wasn’t until we reached the other side and chatted with the VNF staff at the next lock that we realised it was actually an alarm designed to scare off the birds who nest in the tunnel.

The far end of the tunnel is a tiny white speck in the distance. Water dripped from the roof, and ran down the walls.

The first kilometre or so of the tunnel was unlit, so Fraser broke out his trusty flashlight to show me the edges, but as we passed a CCTV camera, the lights suddenly came on the entire length, almost as if the VNF man on duty had been napping and not noticed us entering the tunnel!

There was an emergency phone every couple of hundred metres. Glad we didn’t need to use one!

I should say a few words here about the support we’ve received from the VNF. I mentioned the difficulty of speaking French on the telephone (or more the difficulty in understanding the reply), but it turns out one of the phone operators speaks perfect English, with an Irish brogue. When he realised how much I was struggling, he finally took pity on me and spoke English. Turns out his name is Sean and he spent much of his life in County Mayo, where all my maternal relatives come from, although he’s very quick to say that he’s French, not Irish. It was great to actually meet him in person at the lock of Heuilley-Cotton and thank him face-to-face for all his help He looked exactly as we expected, very Irish but with more of a suntan than you generally see on Irish skin.

Barberry cut a swathe through floating white petals for long stretches of canal. It was a magical journey.

After that, we started going down again, which makes locks far easier, as Fraser no longer needs to reach at full stretch to lasso a couple of bollards. Now, he just drops a single line over a bollard to control the boat as we descend gently for anything from 2 to 5 metres. No turbulence, no rushing water, no tossing around like a cork. It’s so easy that we now swap jobs from time to time, allowing Fraser to tune up his boat handling skills while I practice line handling.

Going down is so much easier. You can see the bollards, for a start (tiny blue mushrooms-shaped objects along the edge of the lock).

The green desert was much as it sounds. Beautifully green, shaded by tall trees that cast their dappled shadows across the water, but with few places to stop. No little sleepy villages, no supermarchés, no boulangeries, and not even a pizza machine to keep hunger at bay. Lucky we’d stocked up so thoroughly in Langres, because not even the wine ran out. We left Langres on the 4th June and joined the River Saône on Wednesday 7th, stopping in Auxonne for a couple of days to enjoy this ancient town’s lovely ambience. During that time, we negotiated 2 up-locks, 43 down locks, a 5km tunnel, and a lifting bridge on the last section of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne There have been a couple of extra locks on the River Saône, and we’re seeing far more other boats now, including hire boats and hotel barges, but it’s a pleasant change to be back on a wide river again after weeks of canals. It’s rivers all the way to the Mediterranean now, but Fraser can fill you in on the next stage of our adventure next week.

A rare oasis in the green desert. Lunch stop at Cusey.

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