Dramatic Rescues and Giant Rats

Main picture: Fraser and the statue of a young Lieutenant Napoleon. They could be twins!

Having made good progress through the canals and the endless systems of locks we decided to treat ourselves to an extra day at Auxonne (7th to 8th June). We tied up on a quay close to the town as I had somehow convinced Kerry that this was a better idea than going to the marina, which had showers! I think she regretted it later, as the boat shower, although effective, is somehow a lot harder work than a marina shower. Plus it’s over in a flash to save water, so there is not really a chance to cool down, like there would be in a marina shower (which we have cold of course).

Spoiled for choice after surviving the green desert. We tucked into kebab and frites.

After surviving the ‘green desert’, where no food or drink could be found, Fraser got a bit over excited about the prospects for such in Auxonne and told Kerry to hold him back if he got carried away. It was a short walk into town where the famished couple quickly located a kebab house and promptly consumed kebab and chips. After that no time was wasted in finding the local drinking den, where they ordered ice cream and beer. Not sure if this is a common combination, but it seemed to work well for them on such a hot day. Kerry had ‘brain freeze’, but then that’s normal for her.

So many historic buildings in every direction. Auxonne was a beautiful town with friendly people, and didn’t feel at all touristy.

Auxonne was a lovely town, with lots of French character, having managed to retain a lot of its old buildings. Some of these were timber framed houses with what looked like wattle and daub infills (a woven lattice of wooden strips filled with soil/clay/dung/straw). So different to Northern Ireland where the buildings seem so modern and characterless in comparison. The church in Auxonne was also amazing, with the bonus of being really cool inside — maybe the first time I have been inside a church by my own choice!

The church in Auxonne: beautiful on the outside and blessedly cool on the inside.

The town was also famous for the fact that Napoleon spent some of his younger years here. The barracks where he trained is still here and very much active. There is a statue of him next to the church, standing in typical military pose, with his hand on his heart.

Street life in Auxonne, taken from our favourite brasserie.

Auxonne has also retained some of its old fortified walls. Kerry and Fraser dug out the folding bikes and had a cycle around them, peering through the windows to find dungeons that time had seemingly forgotten. There were even tunnels through some of the thicker walls that we could cycle through to keep cool.

Cool tunnels beneath the city walls. These ancient walls still show the stellate shape of the original fortified town.

Our boat stocks had run so low while travelling through the green desert that we were nearly down to our last wine box and Fraser had completely run out of nuts — that’s how dangerously close to starvation we got. So we cycled to the supermarche the next day, which was really close, although Fraser lost his sense of direction (blaming the heat), so the cycle was further than expected. Kerry was worried in case her battery went flat and she might actually have to pedal!

Trying to hide the fact that she has an electric bike…

We were now all stocked up after the green desert and ready for off again, so set off on Friday for Seurre, a reasonably short distance along the river, so we estimated arriving by early lunchtime (Fraser likes to time things by meal times). Unfortunately our estimate was wrong and lunch was late — all due to a couple of unexpected incidents.

Aha! The electric bike on full display!

Firstly, only half an hour out of Auxonne, Fraser spotted a hire boat on the bank, half buried in the trees. He commented that it looked like a nice secluded spot, but then noticed the body language of the man standing on the bow. Fraser said to Kerry, “He looks like he could be in trouble. I’ll keep going and hope they don’t call us”. At that moment the man waved his arms frantically using the internationally known distress signal. “Oh no!” Fraser exclaimed. “Now we have to help them,” inwardly thinking, “this might make us late for our lunch.”

A boat very similar to the one we rescued. Sadly, we were too busy rescuing to reach for cameras.

Kerry seemed hyped at the thought of an actual rescue and took the helm, calling all crew (Fraser) to their muster stations. Fraser got ready at the bow for whatever disaster was about to reveal itself and Kerry slowly edged to the bank, keeping half an eye on the depth, as Barberry is a keel boat and normally runs aground before reaching the bank. Communications with the stricken vessel were established and it seemed that they had lost engine power and had been stuck in the trees all night. There were 3 people on board to be rescued.

The French rivers and canals are teeming with life. Not a great photo, because it was moving very fast, but we saw several water snakes.

Kerry thought fast and decided a tow was appropriate, Fraser agreed but wondered how far until we could dump them off again. Ropes were thrown and made fast to both boats and we dragged her out of the shallows before tying her alongside Barberry and making our way to safety. The skipper of the stricken vessel managed to contact the boat hire company, and they dispatched a repair man. We found a drop off point further up river that was close to the road and the repair man found us there, so we let off the lines and allowed our rescued vessel to safely drift ashore. Good deed for the day done! It turned out that the rescued family were from Greece and offered us a stay at their holiday apartment when we eventually sailed there — how lovely (or would have been, if we’d thought to exchange contact details)!

French military/gendarmerie exercise by helicopter, dropping men into the water and then fishing them out again.

The second incident (making us even later for lunch) was further down the river, when a boat came speeding towards us and Kerry muttered under her breath that such bad boating manners should not be allowed on the river. They must have read her mind as the next minute they had sirens on and telling us to stop. It was the police! Kerry duly obeyed, now looking a little chastised. Fortunately they had not pulled us over for a boating offence, but rather to warn us of a helicopter exercise going on ahead, where they were retrieving police trainees from the river. We stayed and watched with ‘ringside seats’ as more and more victims jumped from the helicopter to be later recovered by winch line. Eventually they ran out of steam and were able to pass and make our way to Seurre and a late lunch. You can watch some video of the helicopter action here.

We had visitors in Seurre. Very protective parents.

Seurre was another lovely old French village. This time there was no talking Kerry out of a shower, so we headed into the marina. It was very tight, but with our finely-honed boat manoeuvring (Kerry) and jumping skills (Fraser) we made light of it. We sat down to cool off, only to be told shortly afterwards by the capitainerie lady that we were in the wrong place and visitors were around the corner. So off we went again, untying then retying all lines on a pontoon a few yards away. Not sure of the point but the French like things doing their way and I guess we may not have understood the explanation even if it had been offered.

Ice cold beer in Seurre while we watched other boaters struggling to moor. Hire boats are especially good value!

Opening hours for French capitaineries (the marine office) on the rivers are short, sometimes only a couple of hours in the morning and similar in the afternoon. As it was mid-afternoon by now we rushed there to gain access to the much needed showers and washing machine. Booking in to the marina is often over complicated with a need for a computer and big excel spreadsheet- dear knows why. So this took a while, after which we gained access to the washing machine (their biggest one) and stuffed in bedding, towels and assorted smelly items. The lady in charge then switched it on and told us it would take a couple of hours. We realised that this would mean retrieving the washing at 6pm, when they closed, so have no time to tumble dry it — therefore wet bedding. After some garbled communication between Kerry and the boss lady a deal was struck and she agreed to extend her opening to 6.30pm. That was just about enough to dry the bedding, but everything else had to be dried on the boat, with rain forecast, so not much fun!

Fraser on the booze again, in the folk museum. Sadly, the bottle was empty (before he started, not after!)

The next day we had a cycle to the local folk museum, that was located a little out of town. If you have ever been to the Ulster Folk Museum, then this one is a similar idea, with old buildings being reconstructed on the site, in exactly the same way they would have been originally. It was free entry, which made us suspicious and Kerry only scored it 3 out of 10, which seemed a little harsh to me, as it was still interesting and we had the place to ourselves, even though it was a Saturday. Maybe the reason was the lack of a café?

“Anyone home?” Fraser invites himself to tea at the local boulangerie in the folk museum.

After the museum visit we cycled through town to find the market in full swing. This was a proper village market, not like the silly tourist one that we got ripped off at in Honfleur. Everything was really cheap. Kerry tried to buy two peaches, but had no change and could not use her fancy Apple Pay on her watch. The marketeer offered them for free as Fraser had nothing smaller than a €10 note and the poor stall holder didn’t want to lose all his change. With good intentions, Fraser added 4 bananas to the purchase, but this still only added up to a few cents. Kerry then offered to go and find change, but he was having none of this and eventually gave us change, all his change. We felt a bit bad about it all but the experience made up for Fraser being charged €21 for dried tomatoes in Honfleur.

On the way back from the museum, we chained up our bikes and explored the Saturday market. Great atmosphere.

For lunch that day we ordered burger for Fraser and cheese bites for Kerry at a nice wee riverside café. Fraser forgot to specify ‘well done’ so his burger was a little raw, but this seems the norm in France, so he felt he should force it down. Kerry bought him a large beer and her a small one. He was then in great form and didn’t even complain when an Australian boating couple randomly invited them onto their boat for tea. We got on really well and shared life stories while Fraser got distracted by watching a coypu scratching itself on the riverbank. We had heard that these ‘giant water rats’ existed in France, but this is the first one that we had spotted. Let’s hope that they can’t climb onto boats!

Giant water rat, AKA a Coypu. Non-native species that now proliferates in France. These critters are not as shy as the otters and this one sat cleaning its whiskers while people walked only a few metres away from it.

On Sunday we got a little further down the river to a little place called Gergy, which has a restaurant right next to the quay, which we tried in the evening. It was very French, with local specialities like grenouille (frogs’ legs) on the menu, but we both went for beef skewers in the end. They don’t like to over cook their meat in France, that’s for sure! The service was really bad, but we did get our food eventually, although only one glass each for managing both our water and wine — but I guess life’s not so bad if that’s all we have to complain about!

The restaurant at Gergy

We set off for Tournus on Monday, with the forecast again for sun all day, so aimed to arrive there in the early afternoon, before the real heat hit. It turned out to be a lovely town, built next to the riverbank, with amazing narrow streets and old buildings. It was a popular stop for the hotel barges, too, which take up rather more than their fair share of pontoon! Fraser went for a wander around the town centre, keeping in the shade of the tall buildings and alleyways, but not able to resist taking lots of photos of all the many historic buildings — it seemed like a time capsule.

One of many narrow, winding streets in Tournus.

It really feels like the Mediterranean is getting much closer now and its been a real achievement getting through the canals, which stretch all the way through the centre of France and then back onto the rivers again. After the Saone river it will just be the Rhone left and then we will reach the sea!

Ancient church in Tournus

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