On the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne, France
48 18 N, 005 09 E
You know those model train sets that get set up in public spaces around the holidays?
In the center is a hill. There are trees dabbled about. Brown-spotted cows – not so many – graze in a pasture to one side. A few ducks float on a shaded pond, and a fisherman sits on a rock with a line in the water. A small train disappears into a framed tunnel in one side of the hill, and comes out the other. Nothing much seems to exist beyond the framed town, and there are not so many buildings within its self-confined space.
The train tracks cross near a town square, and where the tracks meet the road there is a ringing bell and a swing gate that closes when the train passes. Around the square are a bank, a town hall, a bakery, a butcher shop, some assorted cottagey-looking dwellings, and, playing a prominent role, a steepled church.
A few people walk from one place to another, are stopped in front of a store window, or await the train. A flag-man waits near the track, though his job hardly seems necessary. Everyone is nattily dressed. There is a car or two, but they aren’t going anywhere fast.
This describes what we’ve seen in France to a “T.”
About a month ago, we staged at a placed called Port Napoleon, where the Rhone River empties into the Mediterranean. We removed Leander’s mast and rigging, effectively transforming her from an ocean-going sailboat to a canal-going mini-barge. She doesn’t seem to mind the new look.
As we move north through France’s rivers and canals, the mast has been taken by truck to Dunkirk, on the English Channel. When we get there, in two or three weeks, we will replace the rig and sail 25 miles across the Channel to England. We’ll probably winter at St. Katherine’s dock, near Tower Bridge, in the heart of London.
We departed Port Napoleon on October 3, and spent the first ten days traveling up the Rhone. At the Rhone’s delta, where we began, the river was wide, the locks enormous, and the surroundings marshy. A large portion of the area is protected as a national park, important wetlands for a variety of birds and other living things. After the Rhone delta, there was a good amount of industry, including a couple of mammoth nuclear plants. (Clever French nuclear authorities had painted a gigantic portrait of some contented kids playing on the sides of one of the silos, but it seemed more to accentuate their potential risk rather than diminish it.)
We stopped at Avignon for a few days, to fix up a couple of bicycles that we’d been given. (Paul, who wrote this blog is being modest. He and a friend that we met, David, took two broken bikes and turned them into things of beauty, with new brakes, new gear shifters, new seats, rear and front baskets on mine, and a seat for Alexander in the back of his. They have been a great addition that allow us to see more of the countryside than if we were only on foot.)
From Avignon, we traveled up through the city of Lyon, which sits astride the confluence of the Rivers Rhone and Saone. We moved quickly through that city, which welcomes one with a mélange of modernist buildings, each one seemingly trying to out “avant garde” the next, and maybe the whole city is trying to one-up Paris. For us contemporary art Philistines, it was interesting to see once, but it might tire us to live in a city dominated by crooked buildings. The city wasn’t all like that, however, and warmed as one moved through it. (Please note, we make this detailed critique after having spent all of two hours moving through the city, most of it tied up to a fuel dock! Maybe there was more to see, and if you’re thinking of a visit, you could read Lonely Planet, whose authors seem to spend a more robust four hours in each city.)
At Lyon we bore left onto the Saone, and traveled on it for another week, past Chalon sur Saone, St. Jean de Losne, to a place called Pontailler. We then took a sharp left hand turn onto the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne. Tonight, we are on that canal in a sleepy little town called Froncles. (Rhymes with Honk Leh!)
The locks on the canals and rivers are administered by the “VNF,” or “Voies Navigable de France,” and they do an excellent job at it.. The locks themselves – and we’ve been through more than 150 of them now – almost always function perfectly. When they don’t, personnel are just a phone call, a speeding car, and a hustling helper away. Some of the locks are manually operated, and a VNF staffer accompanies the boat along the way. They speed ahead on the tow path to the next lock to ready it for our arrival, fallen leaves spiraling in their wake. Once we squeeze into the lock, they crank the door on one side close, while we do the other. It’s all great fun.
On the Rhone, when we first started at the beginning of October, we’d see ten to fifteen boats a day going south, in the opposite direction. That thinned to a couple a day after we moved onto the Saone. Now, we see a single boat a day, and sometimes none. So mostly we have the canals to ourselves. (This is expected to change as we close on the larger canals and rivers of the north). We also note that we’ve seen not one other pleasure boat going north, as we are. They’re all going south this time of year! – wonder why . . . .
This journey through the French countryside has been spectacular, and of all the places that we’ve travelled, it wins the scenery contest hands down.
The dwellings that we pass are typically stone-sided with terra cotta roofs, the walls sometimes ivy covered and the roofs sometimes coated with years of lichen growth, which mixes an earthy green shade over the dull reddish orange of the terra cotta. The homes are often surrounded by a small stone wall, a garden, and maybe flowers in beds, pots, or something more fun, like an old dory or a wheelbarrow. Or a WW II machine gun harvested from the garden.
They are almost always incredibly well kept. The lawns are mowed, the shutters on the windows seem freshly if subtly painted, lace curtains grace the windows, a dog lazes out in front, and maybe a horse is tied up in the back.
“Like ginger-bread houses!” said Paul. “Like the houses in Hansel & Gretel!” said Sima. “Look at that one!” It was particularly handsome. As the trees parted, a sign became visible. “A vendre.” Now doesn’t that help formulate a future plan? A summer home in France, halfway between the U.S. and Turkey, a place to live out one’s days, might not be unpalatable.
All of the towns seem to have a church. Many several, and the larger cities have huge cathedrals. (“Jean of Arc stayed here” read a plaque outside of one. That’s old.) They stiffly ring out the hours as we pass by on boat or bike. “Dong. Dong. Dong” goes three o’clock. Alexander sees pictures of churches now and calls out “Dong.”
In the evening, typically at 6:00 p.m., the Angelus Bells ring, calling the faithful to prayer. They are a thing of beauty too, pealing out in long notes, several bells going at once. “Bongggggggggggggggbawnggggggggggggggggtinnnggggggggggggggggbonnggggggggggggggggbawnnngggnntinnnggggggg.” It’s quite a soundtrack.
In the early morning, hunters sometimes walk the wooded fields near us, some in bright orange, others in drab green. Rifles slung under their arms, and dogs sniffing along in front, they wave from the distance. At times we hear a shot ring out from far away.
More often we see fishermen along the rivers, hunkered under bridges when it rains. And boy, do they dress the part, looking like they’ve stepped out of a fisherman’s fall fashion catalog.
And we’ve seen lots of brown-spotted cows in the last two weeks. As Sima said after passing yet another small town nestled among surrounding fields, “It’s beautiful here, but what do you do if you’re not a farmer?!”
The foliage adds to the whole spectacle.
When the wind blows, we pass through a ticker-tape parade of leaves. Curled up and dry, they float like paper sailboats, spinning on the water in the wind. For a while. Then they form a dense mosaic on the surface of the water, and the boat seems like it’s passing on top of a Turkish carpet. After a while, they sink, and the water becomes a soup of decaying vegetation.
Although it looks attractive to us, the boat is less enthralled with all the suspended leaves and grass. Enough of it collected in the raw-water inlet to overheat the engine one day, and kept us pinned to the banks of the canal while we figured out how to clean them out. We did learn that diving into the water to clean out the intake is not an option. Paul has swum in the waters off Boston and Sweden, and knows cold water. This was something else. In the end, a blast from an air compressor into the thru-hull fitting did the job.
There are countless swans, ducks, cormorants, bright blue tits, and herons along the banks. The herons sit statue-like on the banks, seemingly staring at their own reflections but actually waiting for a fish. Only when the boat is few yards from their position do they snap their heads up, becoming aware of our presence. They flap away, often yapping to protest that we’ve disturbed their wait.
We shop for breakfast at the local bakery, picking up croissants and bread. We get to practice our French, and both try our best to speak. Paul is more ambitious, Sima more skilled. Alexander has himself picked up a little. On prompt, he greets others with “bonjour” or “au revoir,” plays with his “voiture,” and is “heureux” when he’s in a good place, and ‘triste” when he’s not.
Certainly, there are some negatives with French cuisine. “No more croissants on the boat!” Sima shouted today, after cleaning up the disintegrated bits that Alexander had once again scattered about the cabin at breakfast. But truth be told, Alexander does not seem to care where his food comes from, and does just a good a job scattering spaghetti or a bowl of cereal.
So, you see, we’re raising a multi-cultural, non-discriminatory young boy.