We have all sorts of adventures and experiences to recount but time slips away and much of it, as is often the case, will have to stay in our personal diary and heads. But through a combined effort here’s an update of our journey from Rouen, in Normandy, to Pontoise, Ile de France, on our way for Champagne (country).
We have just left Pontoise and the journey from Rouen (our last blog took us there) is as follows:
- From Rouen in Normandy up the tidal river Seine to Poses (the lock at Amfreville) – 43 kms, 1 lock
- Continuing to Conflans-Ste-Honorine, on the non-tidal river Seine, using two excellent moorings at Vernon and Mantes before turning off on the river Oise – 130 kms, 2 locks
- At Conflans-Ste-Honorine we left the Seine (73 kms from Paris by water) and headed up the river Oise, first stop Pontoise – 14.5 kms, 1 lock
This was a relatively easy and thoroughly enjoyable run in our view but of the few people we met along the way half of them thought it was not a pleasant area of the French waterways. We disagree.
They were right there are only a few good moorings for boats our size but those we found were a reasonable distance apart (around 40 kilometres) and with very few locks to get to them. The mooring facilities were accessible of course and at interesting towns for us to explore. We also loved the numerous islands, chalk-edged hills, châteaux and ruins of fortifications on the stretch from Conflans-Sainte-Honorine to Rouen.
First to Rouen – a favourite mooring partly because the city to us and millions of others is one of France’s most interesting (historically and today), and because of our Harbourmaster, Francis. When we left our precious ‘Endellion’ moored there on the tidal river Seine for two weeks (while we toured further afield in Normandy and then Brittany) it had to be good and safe. Thanks to Francis, who lives at the port, it was. All up we spent a month in Rouen (two weeks spent touring in our hire van) and loved every minute of it.
During the few weeks back on board in Rouen we didn’t rush around to see the many historic sites – it wasn’t necessary as we’d stopped there on our tour by road back in January (see our blog Winter Travels). This time we could enjoy the occasional jazz session, the markets, just sitting around on our boat or climbing (well, wheeling up) St Catherine’s Hill to look down on our mooring on the Seine and the city’s suburbs.
Then we turned around and headed back up the Seine looking forward to revisiting places we’d experienced on the way down river. The first being Poses which is just above the Amfreville locks into (or out of) the tidal section of the river. They are large (and we used one going down and the other going up):
- The Big Lock, (220 m X 17 m), is equipped with rolling doors (15m). The filling operation takes between 12 to 15 minutes for a total volume of 30 000 m3.
- The Medium Lock, (141 m X 12 m), allowing the filling or emptying of the lock chamber in 10 minutes.
There is nothing special about the mooring at Poses although it’s a nice feeling to be off the tidal section where we had to manage tide times so as not to get caught out with too much current restricting progress. Poses is one of those idyllic moorings: quiet, tucked away off the main river between an island (Ile du Trait) and the left bank of the river where heavy commercial traffic runs day and night. The small village of Poses has a very nice restaurant (L’Auberge du Halage) only 100 metres from the shady mooring along the public jetty – their Lamb Tagine was excellent. All around there are many lovely accessible walks including over a long bridge that crosses the Seine at the Amfreville weir and locks. We could join the ‘Gongoozlers’ (a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals, it’s in most dictionaries) looking down on the commercial barges coming and going: Only a few hours before we were one of the boats in the lock – tiny though we would have been compared to the usual traffic.
Once crossed, on the other side of the lock (the right bank) there is a Guinguette, common in the Paris region around the time of the Impressionists. It was a drinking and dancing establishment usually found down by the canal or river: they became almost extinct through the 1960s and this one, ‘La Guinguette’, is one of the few to survive. The website is worth a click just for the audio and images.
Then on up the river just 40 kilometres or so to our next stop at Vernon, famous in our blogs for the huge Cruise Ships (see Down the River Seine) that moored on the quay behind us. This is a delightful old town within four kilometres of Giverny, Claude Monet’s home where he grew and painted the water lilies and fabulous flowers in many of his masterpieces. It’s a beautiful journey travelling from Vernon using a cycle path all the way to the village where these days every building seems to be making a living out of ‘Monet’. Unfortunately, almost every one of these businesses hadn’t bothered to put in a ramp for wheels. The exception being a fabulous life-saver of a restaurant, le Jardin des Plumes, on the outskirts of town which did everything right for wheelchair users. We say ‘life-saver’ because we had become so down-hearted at the experience in the town (see Stewart’s piece following) that we needed something uplifting and this place absolutely did the trick!
Talking of restaurants, back at Vernon a restaurant we wanted to revisit (l’Envie, we sampled their food on our way down to Rouen) set the trend for many others as we progressed up the Seine and now on the Oise; we found their doors closed with a note stating something like: ‘Fermeture pour Congés’ (Closed for Leave). We often travel out of ‘season’ (March, April, October and November) so we’re used to finding many places closed or open but with reduced hours.
Here we are in August, the height of summer and during a heat-wave, and everything is closed because it’s summer! Luckily there were (and are) enough places open to keep us happy and very well fed!
For boats of our type there aren’t many suitable and safe moorings along the Seine (between the coast at Le Havre and Paris) so on our journey down river we had kept a close eye out for any potential moorings not in our DBA guide.
We’d used the guide to find Meulan but it was tricky negotiating the shallows and the bridges with the current of the river and a little wobbly pontoon (much smaller than our length) was all we had to moor to. Plus, it was not accessible and rather inhospitable so we decided we would not be going back there on our return journey. Instead we chose Mantes-la-Jolie, 16 kilometres down river from Meulan, for our stop on the return leg.
Mantes is one of those ‘undiscovered’ cities of France (like perhaps Pontoise where we were heading next): it hasn’t been swamped with ideas to attract the tourist trade, and ticks along comfortably looking after its own. The city spreads up the hill from the river and was, especially in the Middle Ages, a humming centre of commerce and vitality as it sits between Paris (in those days in the hands mostly of the Franks before France was the country we now know it to be) and Rouen (held by the Dukes of Normandy). It was here that Philip Augustus (the King of France from 1180 to 1223, and the first to use this title) died on 14th July 1223.
We arrived on a Sunday and set off to the centre of town where we found the cathedral of Notre-Dame’s doors open and accessible so in we went and were very pleased to see a large seated congregation. Mostly the churches and cathedrals we visit include a few tourists like ourselves but rarely do we see churches full and in action! A few minutes later, as we gazed around at the vast nave, the organ directly above our heads heaved out a wonderful tune and we thought we could also hear an accompanying brass instrument. We craned our heads, looking up, and sure enough a man standing above us in a smart suit was confidently and professionally playing the trumpet. Beautiful. Later we learned the city had been for many centuries (since Louis XIV, in the seventeenth century) and still today a major centre for the manufacture of musical instruments. Well.. how lucky we were!
The Mantes museum, right next to the cathedral, was also a successful visit. At first we were put off by the inaccessible step into it and the Tourist Office (sharing the space) but it seemed we were observed and, as if by magic, a large wooden ramp was manhandled into position by a petite French lady. We were immediately asked if we’d like to visit the museum, (we hadn’t decided) and before we could reply we were told that the lift wasn’t working so we wouldn’t be able to visit the main exhibition space. Perhaps we could see the lower floor, right beside us, we asked as we could see it had no steps and it looked interesting. Well, she said, if you go in there you have to pay the full amount. That seemed a bit unfair to us but we said nothing .. and the two women exchanged a few words, resulting in the official (we assume) museum cashier covering her eyes with her hands and saying to us through her open fingers “I can’t see you going in .. go quickly”.. so we could visit the ground floor of the museum with no charge! And we hope to return to see the full exhibition – only 35 minutes by train from Paris – once the lift is repaired of course.
Our next stop was Pontoise (also known as Cergy-Pontoise from the 1960s) turning off the river Seine at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and only 14 kilometres up the river Oise. It’s almost 90 kilometres from Pontoise to Paris by water, but only 30 kilometres by car – a demonstration of just how many twists and turns there are in the snaking river Seine. It was our third stop at Pontoise which has a superb mooring facility beside the modern Tourist Office (opened less than two years ago).
We love this city which is a little like Mantes (above) as also it is not a town with a focus on tourism, and proving this point it was another city where most businesses take their annual holiday of around four weeks during late July and August!
One of our aims on this visit was to make our way to Pontoise’ sister town Cergy where we wanted to see in detail the intriguing Axe Majeur which we’d passed under four times now.
The very helpful Tourist Office (a rare experience) told us the best way to travel the six kilometres or so was by bus no. 45. This was a bit tricky to find as major building and road works were taking place all around the railway station where the stop should have been and so it was diverted. Eventually we found it along with a very friendly bus driver who came out to put down the manual, dirty old ramp (but it worked). After a few stops, we arrived at a junction with another railway line and the bus then became completely packed by mostly women and little tots whose origins were not France but all across Africa, Asia the Caribbean and elsewhere we’re sure. This should have given us a bit of an idea as to what was in store for us, but it didn’t.
Innocently we continued on to the Martelet stop (twenty minutes journey) where the helpful bus driver had told us was the best for Axe Majeur. No-one else got off there so we were back on our own and followed the bus driver’s instructions: straight on. Soon we were at the Axe Majeur which from what we can understand is, more than anything, a giant architectural installation involving twelve “stations”, the most obvious of which especially to us using a boat is the bright red bridge that stretches across the river Oise and way up the hill.
We don’t want to make fun of it, at all, but when we try to describe it, especially reading the scant information we can find about it, it does seem to be a bit of a folly. From our point of entry via the bus stop at Martelet we faced vast open spaces, mostly concrete paved in patterns edged with grass and weeds. To our right we could see the Tour Belvedere (more here: http://www.ville-cergy.fr/uploads/media/parcours-axe-majeur-horloge.pdf – map and details but all in French), a ‘stick in the ground’ white column standing in the centre of curved buildings (La Place des Colonnes – Hubert Renaud). We could see from the nearby sign we’d arrived at the Parc des Impressionists (but we couldn’t see the link with this naming). To our left was a panoramic view out across the ‘Esplanade de Paris’ with La Defence and Paris on the horizon. This whole complex was quite bizarre with a few people walking around but the feeling of vast open spaces and of being somewhat deserted.
We decided first to get lunch and headed into the Place des Colonnes and admired (or were slightly dismayed with) the column itself. Still very deserted in there .. we could see a Fried Chicken cafe (smelling horrible) on one corner towards the street and headed there. Next was a Boulangerie closed .. and more restaurants either closed or certainly not serving food. Across the road before us we could see a massive marketplace stretching away, how far we weren’t yet sure. We’ll investigate that first we said.. and off we went into another world. Packed we realised with people who we’d already met (some of them literally) on the bus.
At one point we sat and had a beer in amongst the multi-national mayhem of the market stalls and shook our heads at each other wondering what it was all about; how could this vast area of modern, high density housing be swamped by markets completely packed with people keen to buy anything but what one would expect from a market in France?
Then when we returned to what we had to come to see, the Axe Majeur, we again shook our heads saying “what is this all about .. what were they thinking”? We have to let the photos and a few web links do the talking, if you are interested in more! And despite our Googling for more information the best we can find is a piece written by Philip Coppens, author, radio host, and commentator whose writings, speeches and television appearances focused on areas of alternative and fringe science and history: ‘Mitterrand’s Great – Unknown – Work’: http://www.philipcoppens.com/axemajeur.html.
Phew, we were exhausted by the time we were safely back in our little haven Endellion but absolutely all the more enthralled and exhilarated by such a day. In a way this experience was yet another day in the life of travels with Endellion. It took us three trips to Pontoise, over four years to see for ourselves what was this ‘Axe Majeur’ all about, and we are none the wiser but had a fabulous time trying to find out! And we discovered a thriving community pulsing away on the edge of an architectural masterpiece (arguably).
If anyone has thoughts on the Cergy/Pontoise new age story we’d love to hear from you.
Meanwhile .. we have pottered on up the Oise to another glorious location we’ve passed many times before, Auvers-sur-Oise, but never stopped at (for various reasons). More on that to come soon.