Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sadly we turn our backs on the French Ardennes for this year, hand our remote control in at the last French lock and make for the border.
Leaving aside the sad theft at Amiens,we have had a wonderful time in northern France and leave it already making plans to return next year when we are determined to reach Strasbourg and then Switzerland.
And I will tell that tale on the blog this time next year.

All alone at Givet, the frontier town with Belgium. Where is everybody? We expected commercials here as well as perhaps a couple of hardy pleasureboaters. We liked this ancient place with its foreboding citadel high on the hills in front of us, it's little streets and stone houses.
The weather's turning cold and we've been very lucky with the lack of rainfall on the Meuse at this time of year. Time to push on and get off this unpredictable river while it's still behaving.

Slate quarrying has scarred the Meuse valley for centuries. This working quarry was buzzing with trucks and machinery. When it's exhausted the trees will gradually get a tenuous hold again, softening the stark cliff face.
Another walk takes us to the medieval hilltop village of Hierges, built solely to service the castle. Have a much appreciated beer in the cafe here that the owner opened specially for us and carry on into the woods. We did get lost that day and all three of us were relieved to eventually find Snail again.

Ofcourse we had to climb a hill or two. Thankfully there are many signposted trails or we would still be trying to find our way out. This is the Meuse at the slate quarrying town of Fumay.

The Ardennes scenery along this valley is stunningly beautiful. Villages are hemmed in by densely forested hillsides. Lovely to pass through but we both felt it too claustrophobic to consider living there.

There is a wooded hillside behind the moorings at Charleville with this view of the town from the top. It wasn't a bad place to be stranded.
Enforced stop here at Charleville-Mezieres when a scheduled stoppage on the next Meuse lock overran by a few days. This town has gorgeous golden sandstone coloured 17th century buildings and a famous puppet museum. The marionette built into the wall outside comes to life on the hour.

A couple of 'misty' shots on the Meuse - this little camera does try hard. Skipper got a soaking going down in that lock.

Sedan boasts the largest castle in Europe but what is more emotive for us are the shell marks in the walls of the 17th century Jesuit college and the memorial tablet to the thousands of civilians who were deported from here or shot by the Germans in WW2.

Most of the moorings we come across now in early October are closed for the season with electricity and, more worringly, water turned off as here in Sedan. Not sure we would have felt safe on those wriggly finger moorings anyway. With all the space to ourselves (most other boats are already tucked up cosily in their beds for the winter) we moor up on the wall instead.

A lot of locks in France are done automatically without lockkeepers, instead using a boater operated remote control.
First as you get nearer the lock you have to spot the 'target' on the bank, often cunningly hidden, to point the remote at. Then, if you're lucky, the lockgates will swing open in front of you and in you go. Next you have to grab the blue rod on the lockside and hoick it skywards. If you're lucky, the paddles will open, the water level change and the gates open to let you out again. If you're lucky.
The Meuse can be a fast flowing river. Near every lock there's a correspondong weir that is used to control the height and flow of the water. The Meuse in Belgium is controlled hydraulically. In France they still use ancient 'needle' weirs, bits of 2"x2"wood that are manually put in or taken out across the river as needed. Dangerous work.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

There's also plenty of opportunities for glorious walks in the extensive forests here although we had been advised to avoid Sundays when the 'chasse', the hunt, was around. Lots of natural twisty sticks growing in the woods to choose from too and the excuse to stop for a glass - if we're quiet we may see wild boar!

The Meuse was the site of many WW1 battles and we often passed bits of bridges.

We arrange for the locky to take us on from Verdun and said "au revoir" to him where our guide book said there was a rural mooring after the lock near Sivry. Off he went for an unexpectedly early tea without thinking to tell us what we needed to know about the pontoon. It was too late to get him back when we saw it.

There are plenty of reminders of WW1 in this area such as this German hide-out we stumbled upon in a woods and dismal, depressing Verdun which has not managed to shrug off its past. It looks a little better at night but was deserted and closed after 7pm even at the week-end.

It's October and we are now on the Canal de la Meuse which will take us to the Ardennes and the border with Belgium. But there's plenty to see on the way first such as here in St.Mihiel, a town noted for its floral displays and beautiful sculptures by the 16th century artist Ligier Richiers.

Throughout our trip we had enjoyed finding a local boulangerie and sampling the various styles of bread in each region. Some were more value for money than others....

Many of the villages on this canal feature 19th century public wash houses. Normally they're simply large troughs under a timbered roof. This one at the end of the tunnel in the small town of Mauvages was an amazing Egyptian inspired edifice.

The canal also has a long tunnel but this time as we are the only boat we are allowed to do the 4km run under our own steam, simply following the towboat through incase we get lost. The little train is a left over from how it used to be done

The hilltop town is a Rennaisance period jewel, preserved largely intact from when the duke had it built in the 16th century for his courtiers and clerics to live in while he resided in the castle.

Now on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin where we stop at Bar-le-Duc. The mooring is on the industrial edge with no hint of the wonders to come. We walk in and climb the hill to the historic part. There are panoramic views and a modern sculpture when you reach the top.

Autumn mists greet us in the morning at our next stop by the ruins of an ancient chalk quarry. The pole and wire structure hanging over the waterway is the 'twisty stick' that sets the next lock. Fun positioning Snail for me to reach it when it's windy.

This is what we found in one of the cathedrals. Answers on a postcard please.
Not wanting to get a name for hogging the best moorings we move on to Chalons with its timbered houses and two cathedrals as well as yet more champagne houses.

It's a beautiful mooring here at Cumieres and we are reluctant to leave. This trip boat passed us so often during the day that he incorporated us into his commentary.

A lovely if steep climb through the vines brings us to the hilltop village of Hautvillers, famous as the home of Dom Perignon. It was here at the abbey he perfected the technique of champagne making that is still followed today although the English claim to have done it first! The village is also known for its old houses all adorned with wrought iron signs, 140 of them,advertising their trades.

On one of the forest walks in this region, Skipper making good use of a stick he's carved.

Moving on to yet more free moorings at the champagne village of Cumieres we stop near these delightful metal sculptures depicting the making and enjoying of champagne.