Canals and Rivers of France – August 2018

Wednesday 1st August – Thursday 9th August

We left Pointillier for our second day on a river and headed for Auxonne.  We needed to get through the lock at Ponce-Les-Aires which took ages and was rather a surprise after the speed of the locks over the last few weeks!

 

Auxonne has a little marina (H2O) with a barge as the Capitainerie with a reading room, loos and showers.   Very sweet and a lovely marina with lots of flowers and vegetables at the entrances to the pontoons.   The town was very interesting from a military point of view with walls, ramparts and gun positions.   We did our laundry at a very swift and convenient launderette (very much easier than the last laundry run at Langres) – we really enjoyed our stay.

St Jean de Losne was our next stop (only one lock) with a great chandlery and a fuel pontoon so we could get fuel alongside without having to carry Jerry cans from a fuel station, but not much else that convinced us we needed to stay more than one night!   We did meet with David and Lesley Kitson, fellow Cruising Association members, so joined with them for supper ashore.   Lots of tales to tell and information to swap.  Always very useful.

 

From St Jean de Losne we went to Seurre.  Again only one lock – a real luxury!    We moored alongside a finger pontoon which worked very nicely although our keel was just touching bottom.   It was here we really became acquainted with the holidaying cruise boats.   One skipper/father, after finally managing to berth his boat with help from us, said ‘it’s not as easy as driving a car’!!    We have no idea what tuition is given on handover of these boats but it can’t be more than 5 minutes worth.   Two boats have handed us lines without having one end attached to their boat.   Another managed almost to ‘T’ bone our stern in his endeavours to get into his berth (no damage, just a bit of pushing and shoving) and another hapless father was tying his boat alongside a pontoon using a line from the forward starboard cleat alone.   He was getting more and more anxious as his boat refused to stay still and kept swinging back out into the river and potentially onto OR, as it attempted to turn 180º.  He hadn’t appreciated that the river current would affect his parking nor had he taken into account the breeze and his answer to the problem was to tie his one line ever tighter!   After a bit of help from us he was securely fastened and a little bit wiser.   No wonder these river boats are fendered to the hilt!

The frustration of Seurre for us was the locked church of St Martin.   Shut all Friday and Saturday and only open at 10.30 on Sunday by which time we had been told to leave the pontoon to make way for the town’s firework display and river show!   In the church was a very rare and beautiful example of a 12th Century organ.   Ah well, plenty of other places to visit except it’s never good to be in a town at the weekend when a lot of places are shut.  We didn’t manage to get inside the Hotel de Dieu either.  However, we did enjoy swimming in the river and James found a boulangerie that sold the best bread yet!

And so we made our way to Verdun sur Le Doubs where we were extremely fortunate to get a finger pontoon and could park ‘bows to’ and stay afloat.    Had we arrived an hour later we may not have been so lucky as holiday boats came in their dozens for a lunch stop with some even being turned away.   The capitainierie is run by a very efficient couple but the prices are a little higher than we’ve been used to.     The town is small but does have a number of restaurants that serve the local speciality of pôchouse.   The combination of 4 fish (pike, tench, eel and bass) in a creamy garlic laden sauce is delicious.  It’s served with garlic and parsley toasts on the side.   James’ dish of frogs’ legs in a creamy garlic sauce was equally delicious and, followed by a selection of local cheeses, we felt we had made the most of our opportunity to eat out.

Next stop was Chalon-sur-Saône.    As the town was large, we thought we would spend a few days in the marina.  Unfortunately WiFi was extraordinarily poor, the weather was so, so hot and there was very little air channelling through the pontoons which made our stay rather uncomfortable.  We did visit all the sites we could, including cycling all round the town park (with very dubious zoo ….  a few deer and some absent goats!) and fishing lake, but found that we’d ‘done’ Chalon-sur-Saône in two days and so moved on to find a more comfortable spot to moor up.

We had a wonderful trip down the river to Tournus.    The colours are fabulous in the sun and there is always something to see so, although the wider, straighter river could potentially be a little monotonous we are loving the whole experience.   

Tournus is old.  It has a very  Mediterranean feel to it, with terracotta rooftiles and narrow cobbled streets lined with colourful houses.    At the northern end of the town is the magnificent Abbaye Saint Philibert, complete with crypt and cloisters – dating back to the Middle Ages.  From there, we visited the Hotel de Dieu (mediaeval hospital) which has three wards remaining (with original beds from the 17th Century); a pharmacy, which is one of the finest in France; and a chapel. Then on to the Romanesque church of St Valérien which is now used as an exhibition hall and finally to the square with the Hotel de Ville and a statue of Tournus’ famous artist: J.B. Greuze and the Palais de Justice.    

However, the highlight of Tournus has been our visit to Domaine Denderes and the Caveau du Moulin Mutin which also included a tour around a ‘pisciculture’ farm.    As we are now in the land of great burgundy wines, we wanted to find out more about the various different labels etc.    Well, after a visit to the Tourist Office this proved a bit more difficult than it had been in the Champagne region.   We went along to Cave St Valérien on the rue Tonneliers where we met Romain Bayet who showed us numerous wines from the region and explained the different appellations.  A great introduction but not quite what we were looking for, until we cycled up hill and down dale to Moulin Mutin where we met Stephanie Denderes who gave us a private dégustation, explaining the wine making process, the areas from which the grapes are harvested, the type of soil and the pressing of the grapes – by foot – for the red wine!   We’d no idea that anyone would still be using this method.   Apparently you can only press the grapes for about 30 minutes at a time otherwise you get overcome by the fermentation fumes and collapse in the vat!!  The family produce about 5000 bottles a year of ‘bio’ wine which is divided between their Mâcon Mancey Grands Champs, matured in oak barrels, Mâcon Mancey Les Laines which is matured in steel vats and Mâcon Rosé.   It’s easier to make the rosé because the pressing of the grapes is not done by foot (the juice would be too red) but by machine.   

Once the grape harvest is over (it starts normally during the first week of September) the family then concentrate on the pisciculture.    Their fish are sent all over Europe to help restock rivers and lakes with ecologically raised specimens and, if we understood Stephanie correctly, they have tench, pike, bass, carp and trout. While we were there the heavens opened and we were offered a ride in her car back to OR.  So clutching a case of red and one of rose, we were delivered safely and dry back home.  It then rained the rest of the day!!

 

Friday 10th – Saturday 17th August 

We had a lovely trip to Mâcon and moored alongside the town quay which was a deliberate choice as it was central to the town.  We could have gone into the lovely marina on the outskirts but that would have meant a bike ride into town and we thought it would be nicer to be central.   As it turned out there wasn’t much to keep us in Mâcon so we only stayed one night having visited the St Pierre Church with its beautiful painted chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St Vincent Cathedral which is tiny, the Square de la Paix and Hotel Dieu, we cycled around the old streets, checked out the wooden house and its ‘lewd’ carvings and finally returned to the boat.   Mâcon is one of the oldest cities in France but it suffered badly during the wars and, for us, had none of the magic we found in Tournus. 

We decided to head out into the countryside for the weekend and found a lovely mooring at Belleville.   We chose to raft alongside an old barge as it meant we were cushioned from the passing wash of barges and, on Sunday, speed boats!    We explored the town (didn’t take long!), found a boulangerie with excellent bread and we did go to church on Sunday and heard some lovely organ music but once the priest got stuck into his incomprehensible sermon we slipped out quietly!   It really was  a very relaxed weekend!

Monday dawned misty and surreal.   The vapour trails off the river were so beautiful but, sadly, not caught on camera although we did try our hardest!    What a lovely run down to Villefranche sur Sâone and what a disappointment when we got there!   Our guide book had led us to believe that we would be mooring near a campsite with all facilities and just a short walk to a town with history and a ‘visit worthy ’ main street.      The reality of it all was an abandoned campsite, no facilities and industrial surroundings.   Well, not to be beaten, we got on our bikes and went into town.   Luckily busy roads don’t worry us, dusty surroundings and industrial estates don’t worry us, but  ….. where was the town and, more to the point, where was the Main Street with all the buildings we were hoping to see!    A 15 minute bike ride from the pontoon we found the church which we couldn’t really see as there was a funeral in progress, then we found the main street, then we went home!   We cast off our lines and went in search of more sympathetic surroundings.    

So very, very pleased we did as we came across Trévoux.    A lovely mooring next to a campsite where we could use the nice facilities (including the swimming pool had we so wished), where we enjoyed a Beaujolais dégustation (Chateau de Montmelas) and from where we mounted our investigation of the town.    Mondays are very bad days to see anything in France as it’s normally a ‘rest’ day.   Trévoux was no exception but we did see the Chateau fort, the Parliament and the Eglise St Symphorien and cloisters from the outside which was better than not at all!    The cobbled streets, narrow passageways and old buildings just added to the charm of the town and made our visit very memorable.

From Trévoux we moved on to Lyon.    This is where the Sâone joins the Rhône and we move onto a very big and busy river with serious sized locks.   Fortunately the locks all have bollards that adjust with the height of the lock so once we’re secured to a bollard we won’t have to adjust our lines.   Good job as the biggest of them all is 23 metres!    Before we started on the Rhône we took 3 days to explore Lyons.

We were so surprised with what we found.   We stayed at the little marina at Port Rimbaud which is just metres from the confluence of the rivers.   First we explored the new buildings around us and visited the Musee des Confluences which is an extraordinary building that represents earth and space.  Not 100% sure we quite understood but we won’t forget it in a hurry!  We got a bit mixed up with the serious business traffic and narrowly avoided joining the motorway to Marseilles but we soon got the hang of it all.  

Then it was off to the left bank of the Sâone to the Place Bellecour, Place des Jacobins and Eglise St Nizier to mention just  few places!    The wide open spaces were wonderful after all the small piazzas and cobbled streets of so many of the previous towns along our route.   

On the right bank of the Sâone is the oldest part of Lyon dating back to Roman times with two theatres and the remains of the first Christian church.   The streets are narrow and cobbled with ‘traboules’ (narrow and semi-secret passageways) leading off them.   The Cathedral is being refurbished so although magnificent from the outside the only photo we took of the inside was of the astrological clock.  Without a doubt the most astonishing building is the Basilica, Notre Dame de Fourvière.   It is striking from the outside but it is inside that is extraordinary with all the ceilings filled with mosaics, the walls and the floors too.    It really is too much to take in on one visit.    Photos just don’t do the building justice.   

And to the gastronomic reputation of Lyon.  There are restaurants everywhere but it is in the old quarter that you find the ‘bouchons Lyonnais’.     Much as we love to try new things we drew the line at twice fried tripe, entrail sausages and other such ‘delicious’ offerings!   Instead we chose a fish restaurant and enjoyed a selection of dishes from carpaccio of salmon to grilled octopus.   We have been trying local cheeses along the route too.    There was a gentle sheep’s cheese made in Villefranche, a very tasty goat’s cheese from Condrieu and some delicious Camembert cheeses.   We did buy a cheese called ‘Chausse aux Moines’ with its secret inimitable recipe and decided the monks could keep it!!   

Although we could have stayed in Lyon far longer than three days, time is marching on and we still have a fair distance to cover to be reunited with our mast so off we set for Les Roches de Condrieu.    The weather wasn’t so good with bad light again and the threat of rain but the trip was easy.   Two locks negotiated, the first one had a 9m drop but that’s fairly tame compared done we still have ahead of us.   Although the marina is in Les Roches de Condrieu, it is Condrieu town that is of more interest with wiggly streets, mediaeval remains and history dating back some 2000 years.    Condrieu is also known for its white wine, made from the Viognier grape and its ‘rigotte’ of goat’s cheese.   

The right bank of the Rhône valley produces some delicious wines.   In Condrieu we learnt about the appellation know as Coti-Rôtie, Condrieu and St Jospeh.    Condrieu is a white wine made from Viognier grapes grown in a small area stretching from Semons to Chavanay.   Coti-Rôtie is a red wine made from a mix of Viognier and Syrah grapes harvested from another small area that stretches from Vienne to Condrieu and St Jospeh comes as both red and white and the grapes are harvested from a much larger area stretching from Chavanay to Tournon.   All the grapes are grown on terraces accessed by little stairways with the Coti-Rôtie areas at the top of the hill.   All very interesting information that we have now added to our increasing knowledge of wine!!

Sunday 19th  – Thursday 23rd August

Now that we’re on the Rhône we need to take account of the Mistral which is the wind from the NW that blows down the Rhône and can make life a little tricky when entering the locks and mooring up for the night.   The wind dies down at night and only starts to blow around midday so, with our tendency to leave early in the morning and find place to stop around lunch time we have t had any problems.    On Sunday, when we set off for Tournon, things worked out rather differently as we were delayed entering a lock for two and a half hours because of commercial traffic (which takes precedence over ‘pleasure’ boats).   By the time we were allowed in the lock the Mistral and had set in so everything became a little less relaxing!   We were very pleased to find, on arriving at Tournon, that the visitors’ pontoon allowed us to turn into wind to moor up!

Tournon is another mediaeval town with a great castle that has been restored sympathetically.  There are great views of the Rhône from the top of the tower and the artefacts and paintings on display allow one to imagine life in the Middle Ages.   St Julien’s Collegial Church has its original 15th Century bell tower and there are more higgeldy-piggeldy streets to meander along.

After an overnight stop we continued on to Valence.   We didn’t stop on the town quay as the wash from passing barges makes it a very unpleasant experience.   Instead we went to the marina at Épervière which is just 2km outside Valence and an easy bike ride along the towpath.     Valence is pretty and worth a stop but so much of the history was destroyed at various stages it’s necessary to use quite a bit of imagination to visualise the old town.    The big success of Valence was the huge superstore outside Épervière where we finally found an electric fan!!    With so many of our stops allowing us to plug into mains electricity we decided we’d treat ourselves so now, when we’re moored in a marina, we will be able to sit with coolish air circulating around the saloon.   We won’t know ourselves!

The next leg of our trip was slightly longer than ideal but we needed to stop off the river to avoid the barge wash and we needed to find a place that had enough depth for us to enter.   After 3 locks (one of which has a 16.7m drop) and 39nm we arrived at Viviers to find new pontoons, lots of space, water, electricity and showers.   What’s more the pontoons were positioned so that we could look out of the back of our boat onto the river.   A lovely place to spend a few days.

Viviers is an amazing mediaeval town built on a limestone hill overlooking the Rhône.  There are buildings dating back to the 11th Century and, on the outskirts of the town, a Roman bridge from the 2nd Century.    The Cathedral of St Vincent is the smallest Cathedral in France, the original Bishop’s Palace (18th Century) is now the Mairie and one of the old merchant houses has become the Bishop’s Palace.    Maison Sampzon dates from the 14th Century and has been beautifully restored.    The cobbled streets are not for bicycles and the twists, turns and gradient make it a challenging place to drive a car!  A fascinating town that requires at least a couple of days for a proper exploration!

 

Friday 25th – Friday 31st August

This leg of the trip brought us to the deepest lock, the Bollène which at 23m, is an extraordinary experience.   The floating bollards creak and groan as the water level goes down and the boat gradually disappears below ground level into the bowels of the lock.   From the bottom looking up towards the top you almost overbalance it’s such a long way.    An amazing feat of engineering and a very weird experience.   There then followed two other locks, tame by comparison, before we reached Avignon.

What a fabulous city.   We motored past the famous bridge, built by St Bénezet, to the Halte Nautique which was so full we had to raft alongside.   Although it meant we had to clamber around another boat to get ourselves and our bikes on and off, we were cushioned from the wash of passing barges and the waves created by the mistral which blew quite strongly during our stay (the Friday fireworks were cancelled).    

We had a slightly extended stay in Avignon as there was so much to see.   We did do laundry chores but mainly it was sightseeing.  5km of walled city meant the bikes travelled a fair distance – as did we!    In the four days we were in Avignon we think we covered every inch of the walled city.   We popped over the bridge (Pont Edouard Daladier, not Pont d’Avignon, as that only has 4 of its original 22 arches remaining!) to investigate île de barthelasse, we went to the Sunday market, we spent an entire morning touring the Palais Des Papes with an interactive guide and excellent commentary, we sauntered along the Pont d’Avignon and sang the nursery rhyme, we walked a little way along the ramparts, we visited the Palais gardens, visited Notre-Dame Des Doms, watched the laziest couple of statues strike the bell of the L’horloge and we went out to dinner in the old town with friends (Richard and Janee from Kepple).   

As with all things to do with boats the weather determines what you do and canal boating is no exception.   Some very windy weather was due at the end of the week so we really wanted to be tucked up in Port Napoleon by then so, with a fond farewell, we bid goodbye to Avignon and made our way downstream again.     

Another lovely trip on the river and no locks!   We almost felt robbed!!    What’s more we were so lucky, when we arrived in Arles, to find loads of space alongside La Péniche for us to raft on.    The Halte Nautique has disappeared and the only place to stop is alongside the restaurant barge.   The owner was very kind helping us to moor alongside and, yes, we did have dinner with him that night.    Before we did that though, we cycled another marathon – in search of Roman ruins.   Arles has a Roman theatre and an amphitheatre dating from 1AD …. well, tiny little bits still remain but it’s impressive all the same.  And, we had the added ‘thrill’ of a ‘gladiator fight’!   Well, it was interesting to see the costumes and watch some mock fights, as well as walk and climb around exploring the vomitaria (entrance and exits in an amphitheatre!).    The theatre didn’t have such good accoustics as the one in Lyon but we did step on the original marble tiered seats!    The town didn’t ‘grab’ us in quite the same way as Avignon but it was very interesting.   We visited the Roman baths, enjoyed the atmosphere of the streets and popped our heads into St Triomphine but we didn’t sign up for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (having already done it!!).

Our evening was also lovely as we climbed up the sides of the barge into La Péniche and enjoyed a delicious dinner.  What a great last night on the river.

So, to our last day as a canal/river boat.   We’d been warned at dinner that the weather was going to take a turn for the worse (exactly the reason we’d left Avignon) so thinking it might set in earlier than we’d anticipated we set off at 7.30 to get to Port Napoleon before midday.    What an absolutely blissful last day.    No wind, mirror-flat river, beautiful sunshine, stunning scenery, noisy birds, a couple of barges but otherwise the River Rhône was ours and ours alone!     A fantastic end to an amazing three month adventure down the canals through France.

Our last lock into Port St Louis saw us moving from fresh water back into the sea.   The lock itself was a bit of a surprise as there was a strong current and we had to run the engine in reverse to hold Ocean Rainbow steady!    A final surprise for us as we ended our trip!!   

Then it was only a matter of gently motoring out into the Golfe du Fos, where we turned down through the salt marshes into Port Napoleon and the marina where Ocean Rainbow will spend the winter months.