Strange but true: the King of Patagonia from Reims

We’re now in the Champagne capital of the world: Reims. This is the third major ‘R’ in our 2013 travels. We started with Roanne in the Loire region (232 kms south of Paris) arriving there in April. Then to Rouen (via Paris) in July going as far west as we are interested in going with Endellion (219 kms from  Paris) and now in September we’re here  in Reims only 86 kms north-east of Paris.

PC Navigo map: Roanne to Rouen to Reims.

PC Navigo map: Roanne to Rouen to Reims.

Our journey from Auvers here to Reims covered new waters for us from Choisy-au-Bac along the l’Aisne arriving just over a week ago. That section was around 110 kms, with 21 locks – more than we’d been used to for some time, since the Nivernais in fact. It was very quiet with many narrow and some windy stretches of water with greenery reaching out to us and changing colour every minute of the day. We were finally seeing signs of autumn and the grain silos were active at last with péniches on the water side, trucks on the road side and clouds of dust everywhere. The colours of the fields were a constant delight: everywhere shades of green and brown.

We had visited Reims before, by train from Paris, back in January 2012 when it was very cold and the fabulous interior of the Cathedral was even colder! But last week temperatures reached 30 degrees, almost too hot!

Locked gates to the now demolished chateau Grenouilles Vertes, Reims.

Locked gates to the now demolished chateau Grenouilles Vertes, Reims.

During a slightly milder day as we wandered along the towpath of the canal we came across a ‘curiosity’ which stopped us both in our tracks. It was a plaque attached to a tall ancient stone wall beside locked gates which read ‘Site du chateau des Grenouilles Vertes, demoli en 2001, residence d’Achille Laviarde (1841-1902) 2eme roi de Patagonie’.

Plaque relating the story of chateau Grenouilles Vertes, Reims.

Plaque at the site of the demolished chateau Grenouilles Vertes, Reims.

Translated this states the chateau Green Frogs was demolished at this site in 2001, it belonged to the second King of Patagonia.

We were intrigued. Was there really a King of Patagonia? If so, how come he was French? What was the ‘Chateau of Green Frogs’ and why was it demolished? What did the building look like? We had to find out more.

The usual finger search through Google came to the rescue. We found that in fact Patagonia (and neighbouring Araucania) had a king who was French. The Mapuche people lived in Araucania and Patagonia but in the mid-1800s their land and culture were aggressively under threat from the Chileans and Argentines. In the hope of retaining their land and culture they decided (or were persuaded) to create a constitutional monarchy expecting to gain European support for their cause.

D'Achille Laviarde, the second King of Patagonia who lived at the old chateau.

D’Achille Laviarde, the second King of Patagonia who lived at the old chateau.

The nominated and elected first King was a Frenchman named Orélie-Antoine de Tounens,  a ‘lawyer/adventurer’.  Some records state this constitutional monarchy was officially recognised by Spain, Britain, France, Peru and many other nations although today the disputed territory is ‘occupied by’ (is part of) the Republics of Chile and Argentina. Dispute continues through Phillipe Paul Alexandre Henry Boiry (Philippe I) the incumbent monarch (the sixth King) who assumed the throne in 1951.

Site and buildings of the now demolished Château des Grenouilles Vertes, Reims.

Site and buildings of the now demolished Château des Grenouilles Vertes, Reims.

We found a photo of the old chateau des Grenouilles Vertes (Green Frogs) which was bought in 1867 by King Gustave-Achille Laviarde, (Achille I). As the plaque stated d’Achille Laviarde was the second King of Araucania and Patagonia who reigned from 1878 until 1902 when he died without ever visiting his ‘Kingdom’. It seems some time after his death the chateau and grounds were used as a public garden and nursery named “Chalet des Rosiers.” And then, in 2001, the entire site was closed up and the chateau/chalet demolished.

That was a very interesting piece of trivia .. if you would like to know more visit this website: http://www.steelcrown.org/  .. or just get Googling!

However, more than trivia, one of the reasons this sign stopped us in our tracks was the connection to Patagonia, Stewart tells this story.

Both Lesley’s company Toshiba Australia and mine Garner MacLennan Design had provided support for the Museum of Contemporary Art in its early days.  So in around 1993 we were independently invited to a VIP preview of an exhibition focussed on old photographs of scantily clad Patagonians (quite possibly Mapuche Indians amongst them) who seemed to be struggling to survive in such a cold and inhospitable place.  What all this had to do with Contemporary Art, we weren’t sure then and still aren’t!

Never-the-less, then curator, Bernice Murphy enthusiastically escorted us and the rest of the group around expanding on the works.  All was going well until we got to a cabinet with a human skull inside which had an illuminated Perspex tube sticking out through its top.  Bernice explained this was the skull of one “Mad Red MacLennan” who had apparently been shot after going off the deep end attacking and killing a number of hapless Patagonians.

I must have asked for further details as glancing at my name tag, she suddenly realised I was a MacLennan.  Then she saw that there was a Lesley MacLennan there as well. “Oh what a coincidence” she remarked, quickly changing the subject and moving us all along.

Chief Ruairdh from his Facebook Page

Chief Ruairdh from his Facebook Page

Whether this actually was the head of a member of the clan MacLennan is open to speculation.

The Ancestry Boards website confirms there was an “Alexander MacLennan, known in Patagonia as the Red Pig due to his killing of natives. He died in Punta Arenas, Patagonia, in 1917, aged 45”, it says. However Alexander is said to be buried on the Black Isle near Inverness Scotland.  With or without his noggin we don’t know, but it will certainly give us something to talk about when we meet up again with clan chief Ruairdh MacLennan of MacLennan when he and we visit Sydney in November won’t it?

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Giverny to Auvers-sur-Oise, or Claude Monet to Vincent van Gogh

In just over a 100 kilometres of cruising and only three locks, we’d chugged up the Seine and then the Oise Rivers, we had travelled from one famous artist’s world to another.

Towns along the rivers Seine and Oise much loved by the Impressionists.

Towns along the rivers Seine and Oise much-loved by the Impressionists.

From tourist-jammed Giverny with all its wonderful flower gardens and lily ponds so central to the paintings of Claude Monet, to quiet, quaint little Auvers.

We were able to tie up on a floating pontoon at a mooring on the edge of town.

Accessible Auvers, but quite a steep ramp as you can see.

Accessible Auvers, but quite a steep ramp as you can see.

We soon set off on shore and what unforgettable experience it was for us to explore and retrace Vincent van Gogh’s time there.

The very useful walking guide to Auvers.

The very useful walking guide to Auvers.

It was the rustic shape of its buildings; the houses, town hall and church, together with the people of the time, and the countryside and the wheat-fields which had inspired him. In an explosion of creative energy Vincent produced no less than 77 unforgettable works of art created in just 70 days (listed here) followed by his tragic, self-inflicted death.

Despite van Gogh’s stature up near the very pinnacle of artists, Auvers (thankfully) lacked the crazy swarm of tourists of nearby Giverny. Small groups and couples like us followed numbered maps stopping at fifteen or twenty large signs displaying copies of the paintings created at these spots around the town and its outskirts.

Like so many others, we love his paintings. Over the last few years here in Europe we’ve had the opportunity to see many of them at the d’Orsay in Paris, the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and at several other exhibitions too.

As well as being a brilliant artist, he wrote the most wonderful and evocative letters, over 670 of them largely to his brother Theo.  The story of his life they tell is the centre of the book The Letters of Vincent van Gogh which I’d read along with others, adding further depth to our visit.

Some of the highlights:

1.    The Oise

Vincent Van Gogh - L'Oise. The Tate Gallery, London (but our photo of the sign!)

Vincent Van Gogh – L’Oise. The Tate Gallery, London (but our photo of the sign!)

We were moored right in the middle of this painting. The trees have of course all grown, but little else seemed to have changed.  In the book, Vincent van Gogh; Portrait of an Artist it tells of his first feelings of the place.  “Vincent described Auvers as “very beautiful, having among other things a lot of old thatched roofs.… It is real country, characteristic and picturesque.” The first day he set off down the long slope dotted with cottages to the Oise River to draw. The sky was filled with crows circling the wheat fields, and the pink-and-white almond trees were in bloom”.

2.    The Auberge Ravoux.

Our photo of a postcard of the Commerce de Vins restauraunt, 1890.

Our photo of a postcard of the Commerce de Vins restaurant, 1890.

Stewart outside the restaurant which is part of the Auberge Ravoux.

Stewart outside the restaurant which is part of the Auberge Ravoux.

Van Gogh apparently came to Auvers at the suggestion of Pissaro who lived nearby in Pontoise.  Vincent would have known that fellow artists Gauguin, Cézanne and Daubigny had enjoyed working there.  It was also home of course for Dr Gachet, who had a special interest in treating melancholia.  Vincent rented a room up on the top floor in the little inn where he died three months later.

Visitors can access the room from the back of the building.  Around at the front it’s still very much a traditional restaurant aimed at the broad market. Groups of what seemed to be locals as well as visitors. All arrived around 12:00 as we did.  The decor looked as if little had changed since the 1920s. The menu was good, but what could be called “unadventurous”.  Our host took the orders from us all without much banter and two young assistants then took over.  About an hour and a half later the patrons as one all started calling for the “l’addition s’il vous plait” and suddenly departed.  Still little dialogue from our host who had brought our bill along with a postcard with a photo of the Ravoux family.  Vincent had got on well with them had painted 3 portraits of their 13 year old daughter Adeline.

3.    The Town Hall.

The Town Hall at Auvers today.

The Town Hall at Auvers today.

Looking across the street behind the photographer and his camera, the family would have been looking straight at the hotel de ville, which then looked very much as now. So well captured on canvas. Though since Vincent’s time, the chain on the little fence in the foreground seems to have been stolen.

4.    The Church.

At the Auvers church painted by Van Gogh - one of the paintings we saw at d'Orsay in Paris.

At the Auvers church painted by Van Gogh – one of the paintings we saw at d’Orsay in Paris.

The Notre Dame Auvers is not far away.  What surprised us, comparing the painting on the sign with the actual building in front of us, was how Vincent had captured its colours, textures and dimensions so accurately while at the same time been able to make the church almost come alive on the canvas.

5.    Wheatfield with Crows.

Vincent Van Gogh's 'Wheat-Field-with-Crows', the original is at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Wheat Field with Crows’, the original is at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Few of van Gough’s paintings have created more comment or discussion than this, one of his great masterpieces. He painted many of wheat fields but this is generally agreed to be the best.  123 years later, there we stood in exactly the same field.  It had probably been created in a single day, a month or so earlier in the season.

The harvest had now been completed and the crows must have moved on.  But the green weeds along a rutted red dirt track still disappeared over the ridge. Some have mistakenly suggested this was his last painting, but it’s certainly one of his greatest.

Brilliant historian and TV presenter Simon Schama devotes a whole one hour documentary to it in his series “The Power of Art”.  He says – as only he can; “So what are we looking at with this painting? There’s suffocation, but elation too. The crows might be coming at us, but equally they might be flying away, demons gone as we immerse ourselves in the power of nature. It’s a massive wall of writhing brilliant paint, in which the colour itself seems to tremble and pulse and sway.” There is an extract from the film to download here.  We have the series on DVD and thoroughly recommend it.

6.    Auvers Cemetery

Vincent beside his younger brother Theo at the Auvers Cemetery.

Vincent beside his younger brother Theo at the Auvers Cemetery.

Vincent died up in his room in the Auberge Ravoux only a couple of weeks later.  What we hadn’t realized til our tour was how compacted the various locations there all were.  Vincent’s and his brother Theo’s graves are poignantly side by side in the Auvers’ graveyard.  It’s less than 100 metres from where he’d positioned his easel that day.  The book The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, tells the story;

Vincent was buried in Auvers, in the little cemetery behind a stately Gothic church he had painted. Artists, family, and friends gathered for the funeral. In his eulogy on the hill of the cemetery, with the blue sky and the wheat fields beyond, Dr. Gachet said through his tears, “He was an honest man and a great artist. He had only two goals, humanity and art.”

We also had a great side-trip whilst in Auvers. But rather than Vincent, the presentation in the Chateau Auvers concentrates mostly on telling the story of the other Impressionist artists using videos, photos, models and sound effects.

As a wheelchair user I could see it too and even scored a dedicated guide who took us around its three floors, through secret doors along dark passages and up and down lifts.

We’d learnt up ‘til their time picture painting was all done in doors in studios.  So as we’d spent so much time this year on the sections of the Seine and the Oise Rivers which had inspired those artists back then, it was the perfect way to end this part of our journey

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Go to the bottom of the class! Disability Unfriendly Giverny

If you haven’t read “Up the River Seine onto the River Oise” (just posted) then you might want to return to it to get the full story related to Stewart’s experience at Giverny, below.

We’d long been looking forward to visiting the home of famous Impressionist Claude Monet in the town of Giverny, to visit the wonderful garden and lily ponds he’d t captured so wonderfully in the series of paintings at the Orangerie in Paris.

I’m sorry to have to report it was one of the few very disappointing excursions we have done over here.

But what’s important in the telling of this, is that the town and the house could easily be made accessible to all.

Go there today and you will find steps outside just about very shop and restaurant as well as the area outside the tourist office.  I couldn’t even get in to the bookings office to buy our tickets.  Lesley had to go in and arrange for a guide to escort us across the busy road as the tunnel everyone else used was not built with wheelchair in mind.

Once we got in yes, the ponds were superb as were the flower beds in front of the artist’s house.  But nothing has been done to make it possible for people like me to enter his house – even to the ground floor.

All that’s needed is a standard platform lift just like the one we used when we went for lunch in the little hotel, Le Jardin des Plumes, on the outskirts of town.

It appeared at the Monet house no doors or walls would need to be altered.  So if Le Jardin des Plumes could do it, surely the Monet Foundation which gets hundreds if not thousands of visitors each day during the season, each paying €9.00 can.  The attitudes of the person at the Tourist Office said it all.

“I’m not a magician” she haughtily and unsympathetically replied when I complained.

Go to the bottom of the class I say.

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Up the River Seine onto the River Oise

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:

PC Navigo shows our route from Rouen to Pontoise.

PC Navigo shows our route from Rouen to Pontoise.

  • 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.

Stewart points to Endellion moored way down below on the Seine at Rouen.

Stewart points to Endellion moored way down below on the Seine at Rouen.

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.

"Fermeture pour Conges" - closed for summer holidays!

“Fermeture pour Conges” – closed for summer holidays!

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.

Mooring at Meulan (on our way down river) was very pretty but not accessible.

Mooring at Meulan (on our way down river) was very pretty but not accessible.

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.

Endellion moored on the quay at Mantes-la-Jolie, beneath the huge cathedral.

Endellion moored on the quay at Mantes-la-Jolie, beneath the huge cathedral.

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!

Moored at Mantes overnight: the view from our window.

Moored at Mantes overnight: the view from our window.

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).

Looking down on our mooring at Pontoise from the chateau.

Looking down on our mooring at Pontoise from the Chateau.

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.

Axe Majeur red bridge from the river Oise.

Axe Majeur red bridge from the river Oise.

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?

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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.

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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.

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‘Off boat’ adventure: Normandy and Brittany

During the last two weeks we have had a rich and extraordinary “off boat” adventure, driving around Normandy and Brittany in north-western France.  Due to Lesley’s strong family roots in Cornwall, all things Cornish are very much in her mind and of great interest to both of us. We’d read Brittany (in particular) was a delightful part of France, we have always thought we MUST go there at some stage.

Google map showing our route from Rouen.

Google map showing our route from Rouen.

On top of that the Bretons speak a language closely linked to the old Cornish language, and welcome the Cornish as “cousins”!

Our key points:

    • 1,361ks via Google maps though probably a couple of hundred or so kilometres more with our exploring, going back and forth etc.
    • 70 metres of Bayeux Tapestry
    • A music festival – who’d have thought bagpipes could be so groovy!
    • Thousands of ancient megaliths – the world’s largest collection
    • Great beaches, rivers, ports and coastline
    • Eight hotels, mostly good as long as you thoroughly do the research and take some bits to aid accessibility
    •  Some very memorable meals, especially lobster and oysters
At the Trouville home of Robert and Nicole (L to R): Nicole Stewart Robert Gilles and Annie

At the Trouville home of Robert and Nicole (L to R): Nicole Stewart Robert Gilles and Annie

What better way to start our touring adventure, just south of our mooring at Rouen, Normandy, than by meeting up with our Parisian friends Robert and Nicole. We’d often chatted with them about their Normandy home at Trouville which has been in the family for more than 50 years.

Trouville and neighbouring Deauville

(twin towns butting up to each side of the  River Touques) are seaside resorts made enormously popular partly because of their easy access from Paris, less than two hours by train.

Horse training early morning on Deauville beach.

Horse training early morning on Deauville beach.

Stewart slightly overdressed on the celebrity boardwalk at Deauville beach.

Stewart slightly overdressed (or underdressed) on the celebrity boardwalk at Deauville beach.

Deauville is a very smart town, but very hard on wheelchair users with poor ramps.

Deauville is a smart town, but with poor or no ramps making it very hard on wheelchair users .

The sumptuous Hotel Normandie, Deauville, typical architecture of this resort.

The sumptuous Hotel Normandy Barriere, Deauville, typical architecture of this resort.

Deauville beach ready for the crowds.

Deauville beach ready for the crowds.

Deauville (where we stayed) is extremely smart; it has a huge casino, horse racing track, polo fields and attracts all the big global brands to their very smart shopping centre.

Trouville pier and an exhibition of Impressionists paintings of the region.

Trouville pier and an exhibition of Impressionists paintings of the region.

The busy port of Honfleur.

The busy port of Honfleur.

Saint Catherine's church clock tower, Honfleur.

Saint Catherine’s church clock tower, Honfleur.

Across the River Toughes lies Trouville (and the home of Robert and Nicole) which became popular in particular with artists and writers from the mid-1800s onwards. But of course it was dinner at the Doridot home and guided tours of the two towns and region, including the historic Honfleur, that were so special.

Then we were on our own driving further across Normandy, heading west and then south into Brittany.

Bayeux Tapestry

Depending on which experts’ view you go with, the tapestry – which is actually embroidery – was either made in Normandy or more likely England around 1070 AD and took 10 or 30 years to make. Either way it’s a wonderful piece of art, a great register of the history, culture and war-craft of that era all combined. A link to their museum here

A small section from the Bayeux Tapestry.

A small section from the Bayeux Tapestry.

A true vivid time capsule

It was probably commissioned as a piece of propaganda, for the literate and the illiterate alike, explaining how “lucky” the Anglo-Saxon English were to have been “liberated” from their “young pretender” King Harold by the Scandinavian Normans under William, invading  from their relatively new base in France. 

What we do know is that it’s an amazing work, depicting “623 people, 202 horses and mules, 55 dogs, over 500 other beasts both real and mythological, 37 buildings, and 41 ships”.  Even Halleys Comet can be seen, though no one today is sure whether it was regarded then as a good or bad omen.

The illustrations were all crowned by a running commentary in Latin describing the scenes as they unfold. Looking at the shape and style of their vessels shows how close the Normans still were to their Viking “grandparents”. The horses apparently easily stepped in and out over the low sides of the boats.

A never-ending line of visitors streamed along the 70 metres of tapestry listening to their audio guides which automatically played the relevant commentary in front of the panel on view. 

We discovered there was an exhibition on level 2, far less crowded and more informative; how they made their armour, what were their weapons and their invasion plans.  Most of us know of the date of the Norman invasion, 1066, but we forget (at least I did) that The Tower of London and Winchester Cathedral were both built by the Normans soon after their arrival – as was the tapestry which is still so well-preserved with colours so vivid that it’s hard to believe is almost a thousand years old.

From Bayeux we crossed into Brittany and explored the wonderful north coast starting at St Malo before heading to the south coast basing ourselves at Quimper (told in photos below).

 

Quimper and the Festival de Cornouaille

The French word Cornouaille translates to Cornwall and Quimper is in the heart of the region called Cornouaille in Brittany (more about Cornwall and Brittany here). Music and all things Celtic have been celebrated big time for 90 years in this city:  250,000 visitors and hundreds of performers and acts over six frenetic days.  Our stay was planned to take in the first two days and we were lucky enough to see and enjoy some wonderful performances. Here is the Festival website.

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    • Carlos Nunez was described as being the “Jimmy Hendrix of the bagpipes”.  Now that might sound an unlikely combination – as it did to us, but it was a great night.  More than a thousand of us enjoying Carlos on all kinds of pipes plus his great band, including his brother on the drums, and a young group of Scottish pipers and drummers, and when Paddy Malone from the iconic Irish group, The Chieftains, came on stage, we and the rest of the crowd could hardly believe it. See more for yourself here.
    • The other really exciting band we saw was called Konogan an Habask & Peverlamm KH.  Yes, as a Scot (of Scottish origins technically at least), I thrill to the sound of the traditional pipes.  However these guys (and Carlos’s band) lift the rhythm and dynamics to a new, modern level.  More on this band here on YouTube.

Bagpipe troops also marched in the streets with energy and drive that blew us away.

Carnac and the Megaliths

A thousand years (Bayeux Tapestry above) sounded a long time until over on Brittany’s southern coast, we headed out from the little seaside town of Carnac  to explore the biggest array of ancient stone megaliths in the world; more than 3,000 stone columns or tables (dolmens) installed in the Neolithic Period between 4,500 and 3,300 BC.  Putting all this into a historical context, Otzi the Iceman is estimated to have died up in the Alps 3,200 BC; Stonehenge was constructed in or around 2,200 and the pyramids from 2,600 to around 600 BC.  They were excavating, shaping and dragging huge slabs of local rock here before the Iron Age, and even the Copper Age, well before the Celts arrived. Some we learnt since had been carted off and used in buildings and have now been taken back and set up again.  Even more were recently located off-shore installed there before the seas rose at the end of the last ice-age.

Brittany also has its own local versions of the King Arthur mythology.  It’s been claimed the reason they stand in such perfectly straight lines is that they are a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin. What they were actually built for no one yet positively can say though studies suggest they might be related to the worship of the dead, though the best guess seems to be that they might relate to seismic or astronomic observations.

 

There are also funeral mounds in which like in the pyramids wonderful green jewellery and other fascinating relics have been found.

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Carnac Plage (the beach) itself is more like “France does Bali”.  The sea is the thing, swimming in it though there are no waves to surf. At low tide there are vast acres of beach for sun-baking.  The town is jam-packed with bars, clothing shops and hotels.  We made friends with a gifted guitarist, Nicholas who had a regular gig at a bar playing all the lead guitar parts from the rock icons of the past; Garry Moore, Jeff Beck etc.  Nicholas told us he was excited he would soon be returning to his regular job; not as a musician he said but teaching maths!

Accessibility

As we often say in the Blog, one of the key reasons we first started thinking about basing ourselves on a boat over here was to ensure we had an accessible base.  We were reminded of precisely what that means in all senses during our trip.  Because despite all Lesley’s efforts: Googling and phoning to make inquiries, taking our own portable bed bar and loo seat riser and even inventing a method for raising bed heights; it was still not all “plain sailing” particularly on hotter days.  With my legs weakened due to my MS, walking, even standing is not possible.  So the closer bed and loo heights are to the height of my wheelchair of around xxx, the easier it is for me to slide from one to the other and back again.

We stayed in eight different hotels over our 14 nights.  All the hotels had advertised and then assured us they had accessible or “disabled” rooms.  So how did they measure up?

    • In every case I could wheel into the hotel, into our room and into the bathroom in my chair – not always the case back in the UK last year. Although the so-called ramp used by the Mercure in Deauville (a piece of wood 4 x 2 inches cut diagonally) was very difficult to manage.
    • Unfortunately all too frequently either the loo or bed, or both, were not at the correct height – we did have a solution, see below.
    • The grab bars in bathrooms were often not in the best places or angles.  If you can’t use your legs to help, these bars are essential to provide purchase for transfers.  It’s almost as if the hotel should not have bothered with fitting them at all if the bars are not in easy reach or are placed at strange angles. 
    • Sometimes the hand basins were a bit too low to get my knees under to wash my hands or clean my teeth or mirrors in bathrooms were too high so all I could see was the top of my  (ever sparsely covered) head.
    • One of the challenges of having MS, like apparently many kinds of damage to your nerve system, is my sensitivity to warmer weather; it makes me weaker and stressed.  Often the temperature only needs to go above 26 or 27 degrees for any length of time and I’m in trouble. So air-conditioning during our ‘heat wave’ was essential but not standard.
    • Hotel staff varied from the remote and unengaged to those who were very friendly and helpful.

So, putting – as we always try to do – a positive view on things, which was the best we visited?

Drums roll, we struggle to open the envelope,… “and the winner is” ….. count to ten or twenty ….. “Hôtel Le Diana, Carnac!”  Wheelchair accessible as above, fascinating location, super-friendly, helpful staff, excellent value and if that wasn’t enough, there is a super restaurant overlooking the beach (well, sand dune actually).

Our no. 1 choice of hotels: Le Diana at Carnac Plage.

Our no. 1 choice of hotels: Le Diana at Carnac Plage.

Website: Le Diana Hotel, Carnac Beach, Brittany

If any fellow travellers would like to have more details of which hotels, where and how we rated them, please be in touch. And we’d love to hear from anyone with their experiences and ‘tricks of the trade’. 

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Heading down the river Seine to Rouen

We finally left Clamecy after almost two weeks waiting for the VNF (Waterways Service) to allow us through the lock. Luckily for us during this period we had plenty to do. First we had sister-in-law Pammie staying (see our last blog) and then were joined by our friends Di and Michael, also Aussies.

Stewart, Michael, Lesley and Di at Vezelay.

Stewart, Michael, Lesley and Di at Vezelay.

Once the Yonne was safe again, and we could move on, before we knew it we were flying towards Paris, down the Seine which was still a little higher and certainly faster than normal at this time of year.

Stewart at Les Halles café Sens.

Stewart at Les Halles café Sens.

Sens covered market.

Sens covered market.

Paul Bert bridge and Auxerre cathedral.

Paul Bert bridge and Auxerre cathedral.

Cave de Bailly, a literal cave, just before Auxerre.

Cave de Bailly (winery), in a literal cave, just before Auxerre.

Canal du Nivernais another chateau.

Along the Canal du Nivernais yet another chateau.

Stewart beside Endellion at Courlon.

Stewart beside Endellion at Courlon, the Yonne.

On the Yonne we revisited some old haunts like Villeneuve, and stopped at a few places for the first time, like the delightful Sens.

Waterways map of France, highlighting the Seine Paris to Le Havre.

Waterways map of France, highlighting the river Seine, from Paris to Le Havre.

We are now at Rouen having spent the time since our last blog on these waterways:

River Seine Conflans-Sainte-Honorine to Rouen.

River Seine Paris to Le Havre (only to Rouen with Endellion).

  • From Clamecy on the canal du Nivernais into Auxerre: 61 kilometres and 31 locks, and a few swing or lift bridges
  • Auxerre is the beginning (in our case) of the river Yonne through to Montereau where it joins the Seine: 108 kilometres and 26 locks
  • Montereau along the Seine into Paris 101 kilometres and 9 locks
  • From Paris continuing back down the Seine to Rouen: 242 kilometres and only 6 locks.

Stewart tells our story taking us from Paris to Rouen.

Heading down the Seine through the heart of Paris.

Heading down the Seine through the heart of Paris.

We set off back down the Seine, always a thrilling experience.  The spectacular sites of so many of the buildings that have made Paris famous; the Louvre, d’Orsay, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower so many bridges – all exquisite but different amidst the hurly-burly of the comings and goings of all the tourist boats and commercial freight barges. Then off from the Seine’s main “drag” to a secluded arm (Bras de Marly) into Rueil Malmaison, a favourite of ours as it was for the Impressionists a hundred and fifty years ago.

Before too long we were onto new waterways and with a three kilometre per hour current behind us  “Endellion” was making good time while not using too much fuel.

Monet's house and gardens at Giverny, near Vernon.

Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny, near Vernon.

The medieval village of Vernon is just a few kilometres from Giverny, with Monet’s home with its wonderful gardens and the lily ponds which he captured in those vast canvases we enjoyed at the l’Orangerie  a year or so back.  Along with packed visitor trains over at Vernon’s railway station, on our first pass, we could see a massive cruise ship moored there so found another spot and bided our time until “Viking Pride” had moved on later in the afternoon.

Vernon quay with Cruise Ship 'Renoir' moored beside tiny 'Willow Maid'.

Vernon quay with Cruise Ship ‘Renoir’ moored beside tiny ‘Willow Maid’.

“Watch out for that little pleasure boat when you come in to tie up,” radioed Lesley standing on our roof.  I could see what looked like a small rowing skiff  at the jetty.  So, where was this other vessel?  As we got closer I could finally see that this tiny vessel “Willow Maid”, was a sail boat whose mast had been stepped and sent on ahead, but just 7 metres, around 25 feet!

Richard and Marian on board Willow Maid heading off to Paris.

Richard and Marian on board Willow Maid heading off to Paris.

Not long after we met and shared a coffee with Willow Maid’s loving and brave owners, Richard and Marian.  Richard explained he had owned the yacht for 50 years, so when they had decided to do some sailing on the Mediterranean, he said they could hardly leave her behind, back in England.  But (thankfully!) rather than tackle the ferocious seas of the Bay of Biscay they were taking the “easy route” South, via the heavily locked canals and rivers of France. Although they had just crossed the Channel in through Honfleur and up the tidal Seine to get here.  “Intrepid” was barely an adequate description!

At the other end of the size and options spectrum another huge “mega” hotel barge soon arrived to loom over them, an unexpected chance to get to get to know more about a booming side to the business of waterway holidaying.

Two of the more prominent operators of river cruising vessels are here with us on the Seine;  AMA which presently operates a fleet of 15 or so and Viking River Cruises , with 35 vessels and more being added all the time – 10 this year alone.

AMA line photo: entertainment.

AMA photo: entertainment.

According to its website, Viking offers trips; seven to 23 days on Europe’s Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine, Saône, Rhône, and Elbe Rivers; Russia’s Volga and Svir; Ukraine’s Dnieper; China’s Yangtze; Egypt’s Nile and Lake Nasser; Vietnam’s Mekong and even on Burma’s Irrawaddy.

AMA line photo: on-board service.

AMA photo: on-board service.

Tied up behind us one afternoon in Vernon, was AMA’s Dutch built, Swiss registered mighty AmaLegro. Like all of these river cruise ships she’s 110 metres long, 11.6 metres wide, has 70 “staterooms” and 4 suites. 148 passengers, mostly Americans or on vessels under other flags Germans or occasionally French.   AmaLegro’s passengers are served by a friendly, hard-working crew of 42.  We see they have a BBQ up on the sun deck, complete with a chef in formal attire and a piano accordionist who plays all the old songs of Paris.  We learn that the passenger decks below are called the Violin and the Cello.  Then the crew are further down below in the Piano deck.

Their advertising reads, and we’re sure all the other cruise ships say:

“After dinner, we invite you to enjoy engaging evening entertainment. You are sure to be enthralled as different performers come on board each night. It’s the perfect complement to your daily discoveries”.

Viking line photo: several decks so they have a lift.

Viking photo: stairs and a lift for four decks.

The AmaLegro is almost seven times longer than us, and just a little older as according to her website, she was christened in 2007.  We love the way her décor is described – it sounds like they must have had one of our real estate friends in to write it:

“The AmaLegro’s décor combines beautiful shades of terracotta with golds to create an elegant, yet inviting environment. Most staterooms feature French balconies, and all include amenities such as crisp white bedding, complimentary bottled water, Internet, hit movies and marble-trimmed bathrooms. AmaLegro also features a Massage, Hair and Beauty Salon; fitness room and sauna, plus a whirlpool and walking track on the Sun Deck, for relaxing and taking in wonderful views.”

Viking line photo: style and space.

Viking photo: style and space.

Not to be outdone, the competitors boast:

“With their sleek, Scandinavian design, Viking Cruises’ newest longships evoke a feeling of calm and elegance.  All make fantastic use of light, featuring glass, backlit marble panels rising above a terazzo floor and a grand wooden staircase to create a beautiful, modern space.  French balcony staterooms feature floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, while suites have their own veranda”  “The Aquavit Terrace is a lovely place to enjoy breakfast (which can be cooked to order – we recommend the pancakes) or lunch al fresco”.

Viking line photo.

Viking photo.

The ships boast quiet, environmentally friendly, hybrid engines as well as solar panels and even an organic herb garden on the large sun deck. 

Now we have the solar panels, and could be growing more of our own herbs, have TV, great food and plenty of on-board entertainment too, but unlike those passengers who are all happy to stick to someone else’s timetable, we set our own and can wear whatever we like to breakfast!

We can imagine how lovely it is to travel in such luxury and care, and these cruise ships are wheelchair accessible. Who would want to use the cram-them-in system of aeroplanes, and book in and out of hotels, when you can travel on AmaLegro, or Renoir, or of course .. Endellion?

For a little more information if this approach is of interest, visit AMA’s website here.

 

 

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Roanne to Clamecy: the beautiful Nivernais canal

The floods continue and we’ve had many hold-ups waiting for the waters to recede. Since Roanne we have travelled:

We’re now at Clamecy (60 kilometres up from Auxerre) waiting to cross a section of the river Yonne – but the lock is closed as the river is too high and the current too strong. This is a town with a wonderful history related to the rivers of the Yonne valley, in particular ‘wood floating’.

The colours of the Loire region.

The colours of the Loire region.

The canal du Nivernais is 174 kilometres long with 110 locks and from the summit (at Baye) to Auxerre, where we’re now heading, the drop in level is 165 metres. It was built between 1784 to 1843 for floating wood downstream to supply Paris with firewood. This was a huge trade and the region became wealthy because of it but some of the small towns and villages these days look a little neglected. Since the death of the trade in wood to Paris (which ended around the 1920s) the economy depends mostly on farming and tourism, and the weather is making both quite challenging.

Beautiful farm buildings and Charolais everywhere.

Beautiful farm buildings and Charolais everywhere.

We left Roanne, after an extended stay to have the wheelchair repaired, and as we progressed back down the canal we came across several skippers and their crews setting off for the summer tour. Some of our fellow travellers were heading south and some, like us, north. Soon we all discovered it didn’t matter in which direction we were heading, we were going to experience long waits. Floods all over central France had caused damage to bridges and banks and the rivers were just too fast to enter at the various crossings.

At Entente Marine, Gannay (now back on the canal lateral a la Loire) we needed three small mechanical tasks doing: installing a new pump for our air conditioning; changing the fuel jet in the Kabola heating system (what a contrast of cold and hot); and fixing a blockage in our bilge pump. This meant a long weekend waiting but it made no difference to our progress as at Decize, when we finally arrived there, we joined several boats that’d been waiting almost a week to cross the flooded Loire.

Looking down on the Loire river from the lock at Decize.

Looking down on the Loire river from the lock at Decize.

Luckily for us, the very next day the French Waterways team (VNF) saw a window of opportunity for us. The past few days had been relatively dry but overnight we’d had more torrential rain .. they said, go now before last night’s fall reaches us. There was a little bit of trepidation about this crossing, one of our neighbouring boats had told us “it’s roaring out there, you’d need a big engine and I’d push on at around 16 kilometres to get ahead of the current.” We’d had good experience of rivers before (the Boven Seascheldt in Belgium, the Ijssel in the Netherlands, the Thames in London) but he made us think about this crossing. We could see the swirling water from the banks and thought it looked OK, and of course it was fine.

The many briges along the Nivernais usually have towpaths beneath them making them narrower, these paths are submerged but you can see the grass growing.

The many bridges along the Nivernais usually have towpaths beneath them making them narrower, these paths are submerged but you can see the grass growing.

Just three of us (boats) scooted across the slithery water and into the safety of the canal a few kilometres downstream: the start of the canal du Nivernais. Stewart’s been excited about this particular canal ever since 2008  when Endellion was still sheets of steel in a big shed waiting to be  welded together. At this point of the Nivernais, the southern end of the canal, we were very impressed with the amount of work going on at the locks, in particular grass cutting. However, we realised soon after that these cuttings were gathering in the locks and floating on the surface, then being sucked into our water cooling system for the engine. This is fine, given our huge new filter, but the T junction before the filter is our problem. Happily, thanks to work done by Rousseaus at Moret-sur-Loing, it is now accessible so we can clean it ourselves. Sure enough we had to stop short of our planned halt of the day to clear the cuttings from the T junction .. an easy job, but not one we can do on the move.

We had stopped at one of the many picnic parks along the Nivernais: a green bank, with several good bollards, picnic tables and benches and beautiful shady trees. Not that we needed any shade, the rain just kept pouring down.

Endellion moored at the picnic spot near Pont St Gervais along the Nivernais.

Endellion moored at the picnic spot near Pont St Gervais along the Nivernais.

Almost on dark we heard a tap on the window and a grey-haired, grey bearded man holding his bike peered in. He asked if we minded if he pitched his tent in the trees nearby – of course we didn’t. And so we had a very quiet companion for the night, hidden away in the trees in his tiny green tent. But also we had a bird which sang the whole night through, something like an Australian lyre bird running through a wonderful demonstration of his ability to laugh, whistle, cluck and tweet.. he was a delight. We’d love to know what it was.

Meandering Nivernais as it follows the river Aron beside us.

Meandering Nivernais as it follows the river Aron beside us.

As soon as we entered the Nivernais the countryside seemed very different to the lateral a la Loire: Lusher, hillier, quainter with beautiful soft-toned buildings and farmyards. Sheep and Charolais abound, all looking extremely content with themselves. Little do they know what’s in store (at the abattoirs).

We enjoyed a stunning run into Chatillon-en-Bazois with umpteen loops in the canal which followed the river Aron, arriving just at mid-day at the last lock on the edge of the port de plaisance.

The excellent port at Chatillon with moorings at the foot of the chateau.

The excellent port at Chatillon with moorings at the foot of the Chateau.

This was lunchtime for the VNF so they had kindly let us wait inside it until 1.00pm when lunch was over and they put us through to moor within the footings of the chateau. This was a delightful mooring with electricity, water, CNN wi-fi, and satellite reception. All free.

Stewart giving thumbs down to the Marrionette Show which was cancelled with no notice!

Stewart giving thumbs down to the marionette Show which was cancelled with no notice!

The highlight of our stay in Chatillon was to have been the marionette (puppet) show. Stewart had queued for twenty minutes when I joined him, and just before the starting time of 5.30pm, five under seven-year-olds arrived with mums. There clearly was an expectation of support for this show as there were at least 30 tiny chairs in rows inside the small marquee. We waited until 5.40pm when a lady approached us with the word ‘Desolet’ .. meaning sorry. The show was not going to be on tonight. The little four-year-old that Stewart had been winking at was the most distraught.. after Stewart of course.

Chateau Chatillon-en-Bazois,in a rare spot of sunshine.

Chateau Chatillon-en-Bazois,in a rare spot of sunshine.

Leaving Chatillon we were paired with a hire boat, named Cyrano, to continue the climb. Unfortunately for us we were asked to enter the lock first which put us under the full force of the water as it poured in to fill the lock. At one stage we had a massive water fall roaring out and over our bow onto the hatch doors which normally would have leaked water into our bedroom below. But, luckily, I had taken the kayak off the roof and stored it on the bow across the hatch out of the way of potential low bridges .. it acted as a shield, to everyone’s relief. The lock-keepers were very anxious when they saw what was happening. They must have experienced a few angry boaters in the past who didn’t have such a shield and ended up with floods inside their boat.

Endellion with Cyrano squeezed into the lock.

Endellion with Cyrano squeezed into the lock (lunch break so all below decks).

On board Cyrano was the Skipper with a tobacco pipe (something from bygone days) – often we saw puffs of white cloud following his head. His wife was mostly below decks with her sister (they told us later) taking shelter from the rain. Meanwhile his First Mate, his Beau Frere (brother-in-law), did most of the steering of the boat (which I explain further below). Beau Frere (the First Mate) had two lovely dogs which needed watering quite frequently.

Triple lock at Chavance.

Triple lock at Chavance.

At one stage, right beside the triple locks at Chavance, a utility truck (ute) came along as Beau Frere happened to be walking his dogs on the towpath beside the boat. The truck didn’t stop, it hit one of the dogs and we could hear a prolonged yelp and thought the worst. Meanwhile Beau Frere had yanked open the door of the truck and lunged inside and must have whacked the driver (from what we could see) .. certainly lashed him with oodles of angry sacrebleus.

Day after day the lock-keepers stay positive in the pouring rain.

Day after day the lock-keepers stay positive in the pouring rain.

It wasn’t funny .. but this family are even older than us, and when we realised the dog was OK (a bit bruised) we had to admire the feistiness of Beau Frere defending his chien.  All of this had caused such a stir we had lock-keepers roaring in from all directions as word spread about the altercation. It seemed all was resolved satisfactorily as soon after the dog was walking around again, the pipe was lit and puffed, and Beau Frere took his place on the bow with his boat hook.

We arrived at the summit, Baye, in the constant pouring rain which made it look a rather bleak place. We had climbed just over 74 metres from the canal lateral a la Loire, using 35 locks, most of them squeezed in with Cyrano making it quite challenging.

We don't ususally see water flowing out over the sides of the lock, like here.

We don’t usually see water flowing out over the sides of the lock, like here.

We were looking forward to the descent secretly hoping we would be on our own in the lock .. but no, our travelling companions on board Cyrano stayed with us for the next three days. As it turned out they were great fun and descending through a lock is easy: it’s like pulling the plug in a bath where all the water drains away very calmly.

The way the Cyrano team work their boat is very interesting. The Skipper with his pipe uses the throttle, standing or sitting on the roof at the external wheel (there would be one below decks in the dry but they didn’t use it). His brother-in-law stands firmly on the bow with his boathook in hand. Beau Frere’s job seemed to be to steer the boat with the boathook while the Skipper applied the throttle .. usually at full speed. They were hilarious and lovely to watch all day long as we went through lock after lock in the pouring rain.

Skipper and First Mate in action with the boathook used to steer the boat out of the lock, and for the occasional joust with oncoming boats!

Skipper and First Mate in action with the boathook used to steer the boat out of the lock, and for the occasional joust with oncoming boats!

At one point we met a large hire boat ascending, waiting below to enter the lock as we exited. They slowly and carefully passed us, and then I could see our friends in Cyrano exiting the lock but swirling around like they were driving a bath tub. The poor hire boat didn’t know which way to go to keep out of the way. Standing on the bow of Cyrano was the First Mate with his boathook held out like a lance. It was as if he thought he was jousting! The poor hire boat crawled along in the bank until finally it was no longer under threat and our jolly Rogers skidded around behind us to the next lock.

The thirty-year-old Calvados is shared around.

The thirty-year-old Calvados is shared around.

This very merry crew were made all the merrier by their regular interest in priming the lock-keepers (and themselves) with alcohol. We could see the bottles come out from below decks, magically handed up on a tray. Sometimes they were placed on some convenient ledge or electric box at the side of the lock where regular nips were taken as the locks were operated (all locks along the Nivernais are manually operated by the lock-keepers). We were not left out; at one lock standing on the roof of Endellion as I do to handle the ropes, I was asked if I’d like to partake of the latest bottle of whatever. I declined. What about the skipper, they asked. I thought I should take a tiny sample for Stewart so joined the group and was passed a large wine glass half-full of some golden liquid. I was told it was Calvados .. and not just any Calvados, it was thirty years old. And the First Mate (Beau Frere) held up all ten fingers, flashing them three times, to make sure I really got the message. I took the golden liquid back on board for my skipper, who took a healthy slurp, gulped a bit and we sensibly decided to put the ‘rocket fuel’’ into one of our own glasses to ‘enjoy’ at the end of the day, after boat handling!

Spectacular cascades as we pass through the summit tunnels and deep cutting.

Spectacular cascades as we pass through the summit tunnels and deep cutting.

At lock 28 (Chitry-les-Mines) with a synchronised loud hooting of Cyrano’s horn, and from the First Mate’s personal hand-held horn which could have come from a vintage car, they said their goodbyes as we journeyed on without them!

A viaduct way up high, a very narrow cutting tricky for boat handling but 'never to be missed'.

A viaduct way up high, a very narrow cutting tricky for boat handling but ‘never to be missed’.

For a while it felt lonely after such an enjoyable period travelling with them through some of the most stunning countryside. The three tunnels from Baye and the long, narrow and windy cutting with water cascading down on us, and a towering viaduct overhead were some of the most spectacular scenes we’ve seen. We were back on our own again, travelling solo, and the rain still had not stopped.

We're now in lift bridge territory, luckily this one operated by the keeper (and not us).

We’re now in lift bridge territory, luckily this one operated by the keeper (and not us).

At Monceaux , now only one stop away from our next important stop at Clamecy, we woke to a big slope.

Endellion high and dry at Monceaux.

Endellion high and dry at Monceaux.

The boat was so far over (stuck on the muddy bank) that the pull-string for the light in the bathroom (acting like a plumb ball) was at an acute angle and made us laugh. It was difficult to walk because we were on such a slope and the sliding doors would only fall closed. The night before the lock-keeper had told us to make sure the ropes were left loose as they were going to drain some water from the canal overnight. This we did but it’s the same old story with our dead flat bottom: our bow end sticks to the bank like glue .. it’s a landlubber. The lock-keepers passed by at 9.00am and called out .. don’t worry, we are putting the water back in.

Flood at Monceaux.

Flood at Monceaux.

This delayed our arrival into Clamecy to meet our sister-in-law Pammie, coming from Australia via a lovely stay in the sunshine of Italy. What a contrast for her to arrive here in lovely central France, to barely more than 10 degrees C, pouring rain, flooded rivers and a small country town. Thankfully, Pammie said “what a relief, I need a rest after hectic and lovely Italy”.

As mentioned at the start of this blog, Clamecy has a very interesting history based around the water. It’s known as the capital of the valleys of the Yonne. From the mid-1500s until the early 1900s three-quarters of the firewood supplied to Paris travelled along the river and later canal through Clamecy.

Flooded fields on the banks of the Yonne.

Flooded fields on the banks of the Yonne.

From the Morvan forest logs were cut to a specific size then thrown into the many tributaries of the rivers of this valley where they floated down to Clamecy until they were stopped by a weir used to block their progress. Here they were hauled out and dried through the summer until finally they were built into huge rafts, 75 metres long by 4.5 metres wide (and several layers deep).

Clamecy had a four hundred year history in log floating, to fee the fires of Paris.

Clamecy had a four hundred year history in log floating, to feed the fires of Paris.

Then in the autumn they set off on these rafts for Paris, about 200 kilometres away. By coincidence, having seen our First Mate (otherwise known as Beau Frere) joust with his boathook on our journey down to Clamecy , this town may have been his inspiration. It has an annual Jousting Tournament, held on the 14th July. Apparently the two competing rafts are called ‘Tu Iras’ (you’ll go in) and Toi Aussi (you too)!!  Perhaps this is where Beau Frere learnt how to use a boathook.

Clamecy market day, Saturday.

Pammie absorbing the Clamecy market day produce.

Together (Pammie, Stewart and I) we explored the town of Clamecy with its many charming old buildings, the one good museum (Musee d’Art et d’Histoire) and the church; then all we had left to do was visit the markets. This done it was time to move on and the only way we could go was back up the canal (given the Yonne was closed to us). This we thoroughly enjoyed as we hadn’t dawdled on our way down pushing on for our rendezvous with Pammie.

For the first time in a very long time we had a crew member to help with opening and closing gates, always a hit with the lock-keepers.

Pammie cycling on the towpath, opening lift bridges and helping with locks.

Pammie cycling on the towpath, opening lift bridges and helping with locks.

Pammie with lock-keepers exchaning photos and stories.

Pammie with lock-keepers exchanging photos and stories.

Pammie pointed out how handsome one of the young lock-keepers was, thinking of matchmaking for her nineteen-year-old daughter Claudia. She asked him if she could take his photograph. No problem at all .. Max was more than happy to have his face sent down under to Australia especially when Pammie showed him a photo of Claudia! Tres belle, he said enthusiastically. This was on our way back up the canal a few stops and so of course we had to come back through the same lock the next day. This time quite a group had gathered along our journey, Pammie at the centre of it helping with lift bridges and locks, showing photos, exchanging emails! And believe it or not we even had a glorious day of sunshine.

Stewart and Pammie inside one of the many lavoirs (wash houses) in this area.

Stewart and Pammie inside one of the many lavoirs (wash houses) in this area.

Sadly, it was just the one day of sunshine and Pammie left us today for Paris. We’re back on our own, and in the French words and meaning, we are experiencing Deja Vu: rain, Clamecy and a closed lock.

The VNF say, “peut-être demain” (we’d heard these words for the past week now) .. and we are always optimistic.. perhaps tomorrow they will open the lock and allow us onwards.

Early morning on the one day of sunshine at Villiers on the Nivernais.

Early morning on the one day of sunshine at Villiers on the Nivernais.

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