Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Finding a Winter Mooring

Since we purchased the barge in 2013, we haven’t spent winter in the same place. Our aim is to see as much of the waterways of Europe but mostly France, before we decide to base the barge in one spot. So far the barge has wintered in Uxbridge UK, Cergy Pontoise France, Bruges Belgium, Strasbourg France and Pont de Vaux France. Mostly we have chosen our winter moorings based on either recommendations and, where possible, personal visits. As good winter moorings get booked early or have a high percentage of regulars you need to do your homework and put your name on a waiting list at least 12 months in advance.
Next year we plan to cruise down the Saône and Rhone to the Canal du Midi and associated canals in the south west of France. To that end we drove to the Canal Deux Mers region to check out potential winter moorings for 2018. We had 3 possibilities - Buzet sur Baise, Moissac and Castelsarrazin.
Buzet sur Baise had been recommended by a number of people mostly, though, for the great restaurants in this small town. The marina would be great for a stopover during summer or in winter if you had a smaller boat but for us it really wasn’t suitable. The moorings for barges, unfortunately, didn’t have any facilities. Another private marina also didn’t suit us.
Typical tree lined vista on the canal Lateral a la Garonne - private marina at Buzet
Marina run by tourist bureau in Buzet
Not much space in this marina in Buzet
From Buzet, we headed to Moissac on the Canal Deux Mers. We had visited here before on our quest for a barge. On that day it had been raining so we hadn’t formed a very good impression of Moissac. However, this time the sun was shining and the town, canal and river looked very inviting. A fellow Aussie who was moored in the marina for this winter commented that it was one of the best run marinas he had stayed in. High praise indeed. After speaking with the harbour master we decided to make application to stay here. Unfortunately, placements aren’t allocated till February.
The Tarn River at Moissac and the summer Quay
The summer moorings in Moissac
Autumn colours at the Moissac marina

So as not to be disappointed and maybe find ourselves without a mooring for 2018 we ventured on to the next town on our list,  Castelsarrazin.
Castelsarrazin is only 7km by road from Moissac but a good hour by barge. The main marina (J Y Cousteau) here, also run by the tourist bureau, has finger pontoons, mostly suitable for cruisers and smaller barges. There is, however, a Quay a little further away from the office that caters for larger boats especially those that are permanent, and the quay has water and electricity. Speaking to a local who has lived aboard here for 20 years, we found out that this area was quieter than the main marina but did run the risk of petty theft. Not exactly what we were wanting to hear but we still decided to register here as there are plans for video surveillance and the town itself has a number of services, and supermarkets and commercial zones etc are a short drive away.
Canal at Castelsarrazin

Sculpture at J.Y. Cousteau marina Castelsarrasin

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Digoin to Pont de Vaux

Fortuitous indeed! Our next town was Paray Le Monial. So glad we missed Digoin for this gem. In the DBA (Dutch Barge Association) waterways guide someone had mentioned that this town had the most moorings they had seen for a town of this size. We certainly didn't have a problem finding one. As we were entering the tree lined canal that runs on the edge of the town we were bombarded by a thunderstorm so made the decision to tie up to the first suitable mooring. As it turned out this was a good choice given that the next few days were hot and we were mostly under the shelter of the trees.
Sacre Coeur

Once we had settled in and the rain had stopped we strolled into Paray Le Monial. What a lovely maintained town this is. Kevin commented on how prosperous it looked and I said it was probably due to the number of pilgrims who visit here. He scoffed at this idea saying that it was an old fashioned notion. Well it obviously isn't because when he enquired at the tourist office they informed him that just in July and August alone 50000 people visit to attend services at the church. There was also a huge tent area where many multi denominational services are held. I read somewhere else that about 1000000 people visit Paray Le Monial every year. A nun, Marguerite Maríe had several apparitions in 1671. These were verified as true visions of Christ, hence the reason Paray became a popular pilgrimage site and it is also a stopping point on the route to Santiago de Compostella. She was canonised in 1920.
The town had lots of people wandering the streets and the restaurants and cafes were also busy. Paray is also noted for its mosaics with classes conducted at the museum. The old church of St Nicholas also had an amazing display of mosaics by talented Italian artist Giulio Candussio and Thomas Denker.
Some of the amazing mosaics in St Nicholas

It had also been suggested that a wander into Paray once the lights came on would be a treat. So on our second night here we waited till about 9 pm before heading into town but it doesn't get dark in this part of the world in summer till about 9.30. On the dot of 9:45 the lights came on and revealed another aspect of this lovely town.
Old St Nicholas Church at dusk
Sacre Coeur by night
The rear of Sacre Coeur
While we were here we noticed a barge coming up behind us and thought it looked familiar. Out came the binoculars and we saw it was Friesland, the barge we did our ICC licence on. It has since been bought by fellow Aussies, Steve and Kim, who we met in Verdun last year. They moored behind us and once they had settled in we had drinks and caught up on their travels over the last 12 months.
After being in Paray for three days we decided it was time to move on. The canal du Centre is a pretty canal and what you expect when you first think of canal cruising - bars and restaurants along the route, picturesque small villages, pretty moorings. So we took our time cruising along this section, sometimes only doing 10 kms a day. We weren't in a hurry anyway.
Church ruin
Pretty garden at lockkeepers house
Quiet mooring
Villages make an effort to entice visitors with lovely gardens
Another quiet mooring spot with a restaurant just over the bridge
Hanging garden in a lock
When we arrived at St Leger sur Dheune we managed to get a good mooring on the Quay outside the harbour masters office but just far enough back from the turning point. Apparently 19 hotel barges come up the canal du Centre from the Saône with St Leger as their turnaround point. So boats moored here have to make sure they leave enough room for the 38m freycinet style barges to turn so that they can complete the return journey to Dijon. St Leger is another nice little town with an excellent restaurant right on the canal. "Au p'tit Kir" is run by an Englishwoman and the food was really good. 
Once again we weren't in any hurry to move on so stayed for 3 days as we knew some other barging friends, Stella and Simon,  on Grizzled Skipper were planning on staying here. When they eventually arrived they rafted up to us as by then spaces were limited. We had a very impromptu drinks and dinner in the adjacent park. It's so convenient having a park next to the boat where you can sit under the trees having dinner and watching the marathon boules game. Unfortunately I didn't get any photos but the three guys would have played for 6 hours -drinking, smoking and chatting. 
From St Leger, it wasn't too far before the deep lock that heralds the end of the Canal du Centre and entrance onto the Saône.
Inside the last lock
The guillotine type gate that you go through to get onto the Saône
Looking back at the last lock or the first depending on which way you're going
We were now on the Saône and heading south through Chalons sur Saône, Tournus and then onto a side canal to our winter destination of Pont de Vaux.
Flower beds commemorating the link between Chalons sur Saône and the USA in 1917
One of several bridges over the Saône at Chalons
Commercial lock on the Saône - we're about halfway along so it's a biggie !
The locks on the canals are mostly only designed to fit a boat of a maximum of 38m, however once you're onto the big rivers the commercial barges can be 120m long and so the locks are designed to fit at least one of these but sometimes 2 or 3 commercial barges of varying size. When there isn't much commercial traffic we can be in one of these huge locks on our own. Seems a bit of a waste of water but it's the only way to get around rapids etc.
The marina at Tournus - boats over 15m have to moor further upstream
Tournus church
Marina at Pont de Vaux - home for the boat this winter
Our first day in Pont de Vaux was market day and we were suitably impressed by the size and number of vendors and the quality of produce
Some of the specials at the markets
A large number of stalls and plenty of people
We stayed at Pont de Vaux for a couple of weeks before we picked up our car at Lyons airport so that we can explore further afield and away from the canal system. Pont de Vaux is a lovely town and quite a lot bigger than we were expecting with all the services that you need within walking distance from the port. It even has a Michelin 1 star restaurant which we have yet to try.
A lovely lake and park on the outskirts of town
Weir over La Reyssouze
Colourful bridge from town to the lake
Scattered throughout the town are these unusual water pumps
Pretty little wildflower garden in an allotment near the port

Monday, August 14, 2017

Canal Lateral a La Loire

After leaving Briare we crossed over the aqueduct and left the Briare Canal behind. We were now on the Canal Lateral a La Loire. This area is most noted for its chateaux and wine. Two areas are particularly well known for their wines - Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Our plan was to stop near Sancerre, go up to the village, taste some wine and buy heaps. There are, however, some very enterprising lock keepers who probably have family in the wine industry and offer bottles of wine to boaties as they are tied up in the lock. So at Ecluse 36 we were tempted by the 11 different varieties of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume and ended up buying 6 bottles of 2 different vintages of Pouilly Fume. We still planned to go to Sancerre so figured it was better to buy the Sancerre variety there.
Some of our purchases in the Sancerre region

What we hadn't counted on was how popular this section of the canal was with hire boats, so when we arrived at Menetreol sous Sancerre there weren't any spaces to moor. As it was lunchtime and the locks were closed we bashed a couple of pins in and tied up on the bank. Then Kevin walked back to the quai. Some of the hire boats were only stopping for lunch and filling up with water so we were able to move onto a very precarious mooring with one bollard and a couple of pins in the bank as well as a rope around a power pole. It was also quite shallow and as one boat cruised past quite quickly we felt the boat shudder and noticed we were at quite a slant. Kevin loosened off one of the ropes and with a thick pole managed to push the hull off the rocks and into deeper water.
 We had been told that you could catch a taxi up to Sancerre but after phoning 3 companies with no luck we decided to walk the 3.5 kms up to the town. Unfortunately that would make it more difficult to buy anything. It ended up being quite a pleasant walk as it was cool and we took a cheeky shortcut through someone's vineyard. 
Short cut through the vineyards with Sancerre in the background
 The town has some magnificent views across the Loire River and I commented to one cellar door rep that I was surprised that it didn't have UNESCO listing like St Emilion. She said they had applied but the prospect of windmills being built nearby was contentious and could block the application. We did eventually buy one bottle but the thought of lugging a carton down the hill stopped us from trying more.
 There are some lovely buildings in Sancerre and there are plenty of opportunities to sample both the wine and the chèvre that this area is also famous for.
This chateau is now home to a language school
Museum in Sancerre
From Sancerre we were now heading for Nevers where planned to catch up with some friends we'd initially met in Belgium, Torild and Nils with their barge Passe Lagom. But before reaching Nevers we had to go into a very deep lock. What I hadn't realised from the map is that it was actually 2 locks in a staircase style. As we approached the lock at Le Guetin we were met with the strange view of a sloping path alongside the lock. It wasn't until we moored the boat at the quai below the lock (it was lunchtime so the lock wasn't being operated anyway) and walked up to the lock that we realised that it was actually two locks with the first lock only filling to half way from the second lock, the doors opened and then you went into the second lock which was filled up from the canal above. It was also quite a magnet for tourists who walked alongside the lock and stopped to watch boats entering. 

As soon as 1pm arrived the lights on the lock turned green and we were allowed to enter. Apart from a very high bollard where we had to rely on the lockkeeper to put the rope on all went smoothly and we were soon crossing the aqueduct over the Allier River, which empties into the Loire. We were surprised to find a hotel barge waiting at the other end of the aqueduct. Pleasure boats like ours are hardly ever given priority over a commercial boat. Having said that, the hire boats that had been waiting on the other side before the commercial arrived did have to give way to the hotel barge.
It was now fairly easy going to Nevers, which is on a side canal of the Canal Lateral a La Loire, and before too long we were pulling into the jetty where a place had been saved for us by Tori and Nils. With the boat moored safely and greetings dispensed with, we organised to meet for drinks and then go to the local marina restaurant for dinner. We had an excellent meal at great value and sat there till dusk catching up on events since we had last seen them at the DBA rally. As we arrived back to the boat I managed to capture an amazing sunset.

The marina at Nevers is about 1.5 km from the centre of Nevers so not so easy to pop into town but we did go in a couple of times to view the historic centre. It is quite common in France to turn sections of river into plages (beaches) for the summer, sometimes importing sand to make it more inviting. It is usually set up with deck chairs, lounges, beach umbrellas and pop up bars. Nevers kept up the tradition.
The "beach" on the Loire River in Nevers

Staircase inside the ducal palace in Nevers

The Ducal palace in Nevers

Very colourful modern lead lights in Nevers Cathedral gives lots of light

Towers - part of the old town wall of Nevers

Part of the old town wall
After leaving Nevers we were heading for Decize, which lies at the junction of the Loire River, the Nivernais Canal and the Canal Lateral a La Loire. It was a long day and we decided to stop about 2 km outside of our proposed mooring to ensure, hopefully, that we would be able to secure a mooring near the supermarket. It was one of the few mooring places where there was a decent supermarket within walking distance of the canal and we were sure it would be popular. Our mooring for the night was the first entirely wild mooring with us using pins hammered into the ground and an obliging tree trunk. There wasn't much chance of us moving very far once the locks had closed anyway.
Wild mooring

The next day we arrived early at Decize just as a barge was departing so managed to snaffle a spot under a tree as it was quite warm. We then went off to the supermarket to stock up the fridge and pantry. We then set up our deck chairs and table under the trees waiting for the weather to cool off before strolling into Decize.
Bell Tower in the square at Decize

St Aré church, Decize
Font and stained glass St Aré Church, Decize

 After leaving Decize we were approaching the end of this canal. Digoin is also a point where three canals meet - canal ateral a la Loire, canal de Roanne and the Canal du Centre. The Roanne Canal is a dead end canal terminating at the town of Roanne and is a popular spot for many people to leave their boat over winter. We had originally planned to stay in Digoin but there wasn't a suitable spot for us as there were many hire boats and it was Friday afternoon when rentals terminated. Also the town didn't look that appealing so we made the fortuitous decision to continue on even though it was threatening rain and we normally don't do rain!
Loire River from the Pont Canal Digoin