River Meuse: Ancient churches, lavoirs, history and people

Somewhere recently we read on the Blog of another bargee, that he was a bit frustrated as his photo album seemed “all early morning shots and photos of ancient churches”. We know (sort of) what he means, but we’re lucky in that we are seeing and discovering lots of other  memorable things as well.

Haymaking, early June, all along the banks of the river Meuse.

Soft colours of the countryside here on the Meuse in early June - and the ever-present reminders of war.

Top of mind at the moment along with the waterways would probably be church organs (not just churches), lavoirs (wash houses), wars past, meeting people and the thrill of the journey (a bit tricky to capture in photos).

La Meuse (France and into Belgium)

What began as a trickling stream running beside the canal 399 ks, 66 locks and 4 tunnels ago gradually grew bigger.

We are now descending .. no more locks on the rise despite the occasional tunnel, this one into Givet.

The Meuse is very broad and very windy now, with sheer sides cloaked in fir trees. It’s a spectacular waterway we will not forget – this section of it is the second time for us (last visit was in 2009, see our comments here).

The river Meuse on the way into Revin.

The French section of La Meuse (http://www.european-waterways.eu/e/info/france/meuse_et_canal_de_la_meuse.php). And the Belgium section: http://www.european-waterways.eu/e/info/belgium/maas_meuse.php.

We find it hard to imagine just how big and busy it will be soon when it’s the Maas, flowing
through The Netherlands.


A long way back we discovered what we later learnt was our first lavoir; very old communal wash houses.

Beautiful lavoir at Commercy opposite the Stanislas Palace.

Their water sources are either springs or there’re built by streams or rivers.  At one time there was at least one in every town and village in France.

Inside the lavoir at Commercy - you can see the regular channel of wear in the flagstones where washing was vigorously done by hand.

If you keep an eye out as Lesley does, you will find many are still there, and often although rarely used, in a good state of repair.

Stewart outside the lavoir at Vireux, this one built into the hillside around a natural spring.

She has become fascinated with them, so we tracked down a book on them via Amazon, written by architect and teacher Mireille Roddier entitled Lavoirs: Washhouses of Rural France.

Inside the St Mihiel lavoir (washroom) - still used by someone.

The book well puts it: Lavoirs dot the landscape in rural France, where until 40 years ago
running water was not always a feature in the daily life of the home. It is in these structures – now abandoned  – where women gathered to wash their laundry and exchange local news. The lavoirs were beautifully designed and executed [They have a] functional beauty that can date back as far as medieval times, a place for uncensored gossip, and legends.

It could be argued that while the modern washing machine may have made life easier , it’s broken part of the communal fabric of rural France, isolating women in their private
home laundries.  Rarely is dirty laundry (actual or anecdotal) aired in public in the lavoir these days!

Churches and church organs

And while every town and village might have a lavoir, it certainly has a very, very old church. We’ve recently visited some spectacular ones.

Basilica at Mezieres where we heard Elisa and others in an organ music recital.

Mouzon is not a big place by any means but proudly boasts a church of the size fit for a big city. It was built for a Benedictine monastery.  Everything inside was in pristine condition,
in marked contrast to a couple we visited in Burgundy.  Visiting them made us feel little if nothing had been changed or cleaned for hundreds of years.

The tiny 'anchorage' beside in the Joan of Arc chapel Notre Dame church at Mouzon - you can just see the stone doorway and tiny window on the left.

The Abbey Church Notre-Dame in Mouzon will live on in our memories for two reasons.
The guide-book (in English) drew our attention to a tiny door leading into a stone-walled chamber with a floor space not much bigger than a coffin and no external window.  It was one of the last remaining “anchorages” in France. In them lived a person who had committed their lives to solitary prayer, interceding on behalf of parishioners.  Thankfully we felt, the practice is now banned and many anchorages have been blocked up and others removed.

Elisa at the massive organ (the tiny blond in the middle) and the arms of helpers pulling and pushing stops. Meanwhile her feet are dancing on the keys on the floor.

The church also had a wonderful 300 year old organ which we could listen to on the CD included with the guide-book.  A few stops down the river Meuse in Mezieres we had the
opportunity of going to a concert at the Basilica.  About 80 of us sat facing the back of another  massive old building with a screen projecting the image from the organ loft way up above.  A tiny young woman, Elise Leonard, slid onto the bench after several youngsters of 10 or so had played short pieces and was soon almost lifting the roof off the church, assisted by two others who pulled out the stops and turned the pages for her.

Stewart, underneath the ornate and ancient organ at the church in St Mihiel.

A fantastic experience!

Wars past

Bloody battles have long been waged for control of the strategically important Meuse valley. The Romans built a fort on the hill overlooking Vireux 2,000 years ago  and on
our first visit to the town two years back we went up to the top and along the ridge to try to see what remained.  It was rough going and little to see.  Next time we pass, we might try again as it sounds as if work is being done to improve things for visitors up there.

Monument to Victory at Verdun.

Louie XXIV had his engineer Vauban build great forts along this river too, citadels high up overlooking the Meuse at Verdun, Sedan, Givet and Namur when he fought the Spanish and the Burgundians.

The terrible sight around Fort Vaux of barren land and craters left from bombing during WWI.

Napoleon III fought and lost to the Prussians near the great castle in Sedan in 1870.

In WWI great battles were fought close by. Some of the most ghastly ever though, were around Verdun.  For control of a relatively tiny area of land, almost a million lost their lives.

Old bunkers at Fort Vaux.

We learnt the shelling from both sides was so intense that the land, the trees and whole villages, along with hundreds of thousands of people were pulverised and blasted into nothingness.

Under the great Douaumont Ossuary our taxi driver took us to one of the windows at ground level.

The Douaumont Ossuary - the monument was under repair when we visited.

Inside we could see a tiny part of a great mound of human bones, the  remains of countless numbers (they estimate 130,000) of the unidentified from both sides. It was a stark, grim reminder of the utter carnage which had gone on in what are now green leafy hills 90-odd years ago; one of the most gut-wrenching experiences we have ever had.

A memorial to the last pigeon used to send messages from Fort de Vaux and the Citadel at Verdun.

The translation of a plaque at the isolated Fort Vaux, known as the Guard Dog for Douaumont, tells a terribly tragic story. “We always hold.” (In other words they were not retreating). “But we are under attack by very dangerous gasses. Enormous difficulties resulting from excessive fumes, last message was relayed (using the last pigeon). Strong intoxication arrives, dying at the dovecote.”

We rode back to town in the taxi in silence.

People we meet

Along with all the delights of live organ recitals, discovering charming lavoirs and learning more about the senselessness of war, we have also met some lovely people during the past month.

In the distance we see the young lock keeper trying to chase the swans out of the lock before we arrived.

One such person was Kevin, a medical student working part-time as a lock-keeper on a rare stretch of manually operated locks coming into Verdun from St Mihiel. It was his first day, and he’d had a terrible time up until we arrived (we were the ninth boat that day, all the rest heading south). He said everyone was aggressive and snappy and in such a hurry.

One of the more relaxed lock keepers waiting for us to arrive .. his Land Rover leaning towards him as he reads his book.

One man got off his boat and started operating the sluices and damaged the system – he had to call his boss, who wasn’t at all happy, telling him crossly that he shouldn’t let the boaters touch anything except their ropes! So he got a hiding all round and was very happy to have our happy smiling faces and encouragement.

He asked, as we were staying in Verdun for a few days, if he could call in to see us .. of course we said yes. Sure enough he called in bringing with him two beautifully presented gifts of sweets made locally. He stayed long enough to join in the conversation with other ‘new’ friends we made in Verdun.

Our mooring at Verdun, we're on the right, behind Owlpen (the gorgeous tjalk) whose crew joined us for drinks one evening.

Next to us was a lovely old tjalk (traditional wooden Dutch sale barge) with a crew of four. They wanted us to come on board and share a drink but as that wasn’t possible (with the wheelchair) they came to us and brought the wine with them. They were all characters .. and got on very well with our young Kevin.. he was looking forward to them passing through his lock in a few days.

In Charleville, one of our favourite places, we moored in the quiet port which for some reason most boaters avoid preferring the long pontoon outside on the river. Finally we had a neighbour, very fortunately as it turned out. We returned from our day’s outing to find them carrying our huge (the Mighty) ramp along between them. We had left it bridging the gap across from the pontoon to shore (folded up and out-of-the-way).

They told us that while we were away a young deer was found swimming desperately around in the port trying to get to dry land.. some young men saw our ramp, grabbed it and tried to get the deer to use it .. but it wouldn’t. Can you believe this story .. we couldn’t. Finally the young men gave up on the young deer but left the ramp floating in the water and walked away .. the deer meanwhile found dry land further along! Anthony and his wife were very kind (apart from rescuing our ramp) .. a bit surprised to find us here using a wheelchair .. and gave us excellent advice on which waterways offered the best services in their home country of the Netherlands. They always leave their waterways in summer they
said because they are so crowded .. so we are better prepared for a pretty frantic time ourselves.

The jagged rocks ahead form the 'four brothers' in this land of myth and folklore.

We’ve met many other people, briefly .. like the Capitains (Harbourmasters, who can be male or female) at various marinas, the tourist office staff where many will go out of their way to get further information on what is accessible or where to find the nearest  supermarket (some, like in Nancy, are not at all helpful), even bus drivers can make our day all the merrier when they are so helpful. One bus driver, in Charleville, couldn’t get
his automatic wheelchair ramp to work but luckily Stewart called out “we can use our own ramp” so we popped the short ramp from the bag hanging on the back of his chair and in we hopped to the surprise of our fellow travellers and the great relief of the driver!

Early morning mist lifts at our favourite mooring below Laifour.

We usually find buses good fun. It seems wheelchair users don’t often use the buses and so we are a bit of a novelty.. as we attempted to enter one bus the driver was one of those in a hurry and was cross when I asked if he could move the bus to a position where Stewart could get on via the bus ramp.  He moved the bus forward somewhat crossly, but he’d stopped where the bus shelter was in the way of accessing his ramp! We needed him to take the ramp inside again, Stewart to move inside the bus shelter, and then he had to extend the ramp again .. he was by now getting very cross. Meanwhile, his busload of passengers were peering through the window following every move. One man, using a crutch (can you believe), came out to help push (never of any use with such a weighty
machine but a kind thought) and offer support .. inside a lady was standing
translating my poor French to tell the bus driver what to do.

Finally we got on board and then the doors wouldn’t close because something on the ramp was not retracting fully .. so I had to stand on this bit and jump on it and finally he
could close the door. By then he was almost thankful and more relaxed as he could see his passengers were totally on our side and enjoying the entertainment. However, he did pointedly look at his watch as I paid for our two tickets.. as if it was all our fault he was now late!

Couldn't resist a 'tinkle' on the grand piano at La Plage d'Amee, near Namur. There is a great restaurant here.

You can see how much fun it is when we use public transport .. similar to ordering the occasional take-away, queuing at the butcher or baker, trawling through the markets,  visiting the TABAC/pub, or buying the basics from the supermarket .. we briefly get to see life from a local’s perspective. And hopefully they get a little bit more educated on  accessibility issues in their area.

About Lesley and Stewart

Loving great waterways of the world.
This entry was posted in Accessibility, History, Waterway life, Waterway services and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to River Meuse: Ancient churches, lavoirs, history and people

  1. Love that you are following the wash houses around France Lesley. oh the gossip that would have been disseminated. Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall?

  2. Peter Sinclair says:

    Once again you save the laugh ’till last – I could see it all happening in front of my eyes cranky driver, man with crutch and peering passengers – what a great life it can be.
    And les Lavoirs? (very much the beginner) will be on our list they are beautiful.
    Love the off road capability of your chair near Vireux too Stewart.
    Happy travels.

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