Thursday, April 28, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 25

Read about this trip from the start - here.

Shangri La headed across the canal and through one last lock on the Burgundy Canal toward H2O to undergo her winterizing. As we approached the lock a car came hurtling around the corner and crashed into the railings on the bridge just before the lock bashing a section of the railing into the very space of water we were about to pass. A minute or two earlier and we might have been bumped on the head. He was lucky most of the railing held in place or he would have ended up in the water. The lock-keeper looked like an 80's rock star - long hair, lean and a few piercings.
The very last lock.
The bollards had been painted to look like toadstools. He indicated to take the ropes and wanted to place us right at the back of the lock. But with davits poking backwards we preferred to sit in the middle of the lock. He did as we asked and gave the Gallic shrug. Then opened the manual locks. The water came through with such unexpected ferocity we had to hang on for dear life and fend to prevent our poor boat getting flung against the side of the lock. The lock-keeper said he knew better but did as we asked. Lesson learned.
 St Jean-de-Losne
We had a lady mechanic at H2O who spoke great English. Slight trouble with words for engine and motor parts but a few gesticulations and noises helped clarify what was meant. She had a look at our engine and agreed there was a bit of smoke. An early oil change would be wise and the auxiliary engine functions like fuel injectors could possibly do with an overhaul. We had no idea when that was last done. If ever. Winterizing is done to prevent pipes freezing and bursting. All water is drained from the main tank. She used a food grade anti-freeze for the shower, basins and loo.  An engine anti-freeze went into the engine parts that use water. Only thing was, we still had two nights left of the boat and no water.

We always deliberate whether to check into a B and B or stay on the boat. There's last minute cleaning, taking down of awnings, putting up of winter covers, packing away fenders and deck furniture, getting the dehumidifier tubs going and a good few other jobs that need to be done. It's easier to be on the boat. But not having water to wash hand or clean dishes and not being able to use the toilet is a huge inconvenience.
H2O marina St Jean-des-Losne

That evening we watched rugby Rugby World Cup Brasserie de Port that night. France was playing and South Africa was out so we supported our host country. Early the next morning we heard the H2O blokes knocking on our boat. They had already started dragging her toward the slipway. I was still fast asleep but woke up and got dressed super-fast. I grabbed a hoodie and a bowl of breakfast and watched from the quay as Shangri La was towed out the water by a tractor. They guys hosed her down and took her to a spot in amongst all the other boats either being wintered or repaired. It's such a weird feeling not really on the boat - but not yet off her. It's always so hard to say farewell to our holiday home.

Shangri La coming out the water.
My other half had gotten us a train time-table from the Tourism Office so we could travel from St-Jean-de-Losne to Dijon. And from there to Paris. We planned our morning doing last minute things with our train time in mind. Then we set forth with our wheelie suitcases along the little road toward the local Garre (station). You know how sometimes you think you have your day planned - and it turns out NOTHING like you expected? This was one of those days if ever.
My other half doing the oil change.
At the station it emerged that the train time-table - is actually subject to a whole lot of conditions. Not sure who the guy was who helped me as he wasn't in uniform, but he pointed out that the train times indicated had a digit at the top of each column, which unbeknown to us indicated the limited dates the service actually occurred. As it turns out there were NO trains until significantly later.

The next thing to do was race back the 1 kilometre plus along the tiny road toward the Tourism Office and explore our options. The woman there apparently spoke English. But actually didn't. She mentioned one bus in three hours time but seemed to think we had to go all the way back to the train station to catch the bus. All she could tell us about the train service was what we now knew. The one and only taxi service wasn't open. Luckily for us our lady mechanic drove past us and stopped to chat. We explained our predicament and she kindly offered to help.
St Jean-des-Losne
She phoned a guy who travels from Dijon to St-Jean-de-Losne daily to find out how he does it. He confirmed there are very few trains. Then offered to ask someone to drive us to Dijon. Or - if we could hold out - she would take us when she went on lunch. I cannot begin to explain our immense gratitude to this woman. We were more than happy to wait at the local café for her. The minutes felt like hours and when she arrived in her van I could have kissed her feet. But first, this is France, she invited us for lunch. Lunch was a surprise. We had to tell her that we don't eat meat and an uncomfortable look flashed through her eyes. As we arrived at her vintage Dutch barge she explained it to her partner. Who had made a meat stew. Awkward moment if ever! But these two so rose to the challenge. They rustled up an amazing meal. Home-made humous. French bread. Pickled peppers. Shredded beetroot salad. We picked out the meat and ate the veggies from the stew. I wouldn't normally do that but in situations like this I do. And we had a lovely glass of Burgundy wine. Of course.

Then we dashed off for Dijon. Oh my Word! It's a HUGE place. We got a bit lost but my husband produced MapsMe on his Smartphone and yet again we were saved. Some modern inventions I can do without. Fast food is one of them. But life without MapsMe is unthinkable. I don't get paid to say that.

The Captain.
The next train to Paris was a few hours away so we had a little wander about Dijon before we finally got to Paris and checked into our hotel. Not sure how we are going to get to St Jean-des-Losne next year? But that was the end of almost three months of the waterways. I've said this before, I would never have imagined traveling on a boat, let alone on the waterways of Europe. This holiday had some stressful times but we have had the most amazing experiences on our beloved Shangri La. I have to thank my other half for this.

Shangri La is getting some much needed upgrades and Summer 2016 we will be boating in and around the Burgundy region. We want an easy year and have less time. You can read all about those trips on my blog.

Au revoir.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 24

Read about this trip from the start - here.

Once on the Saône River we had one last lock to Pontailler-sur-Saône where we planned to spend two nights. We had mountains of washing and were desperate to catch on communcations. We found a lovely hire boat marina with everything - except - laundry facilities. And a guy who spoke perfect English. The relief at getting this far, being able to buy food, have wi-fi and take a day or two out was immense. We dashed up to the marina office with our lap-tops but alas, mine did not want to know this marina. I had to transfer all my important stuff onto my husband's portable hard-drive and of course I had forgotten my password. By the time we got sorted the shops had closed and the heavens opened. Rain came down in sheets. The last thing we wanted was to move. We had plenty wine, a few cracker biscuits and half a jar of red sauerkraut. That was supper. Both of us were in bed and asleep by 21.00pm.
Laundry on the back of the boat
With a free day we did a mini walk around Pontialler-sur-Saône. Gorgeous place. It's also a hub for hire boats so there was a lot more going on in terms of boats and boating stuff. We found all sorts of things to buy at the marina. An extra long boat hook and some water-proof gloves for me. More maps for my husband. We also contacted the previous owners to find out a bit more about the engine. One thing we did not want was to be scrutinised by lock-keepers on our next holiday. If it meant an engine overhaul - or even a new green engine - then we would have to be open to that. Luckily for us the previous owners have always been generous with information regarding our boat. It was their home for a good few years too. I cannot bear to think of the day we have to part with Shangri La. We also found a nice big supermarket with lots of yummy things so did a stock up. There was a laundry at the camp-site across the river so we took a walk there to find out what the procedure was. It's a 2 kilometre walk, hardly a hardship. But carrying a big bag of clothing made it a touch difficult.
Our next morning we got up really late. The marina is so quiet it's easy to oversleep. It was so nice to have time to just be. We did a quick catch up on commms again and got chatting to one bloke working at the marina. We asked about the problem we had with locks not working. He was saying that it's as much of a problem for hire-boat companies. They get calls from customers stuck in locks. They also have to get boats around to fit the needs of clients and cannot afford to wait for a lock to open. He said he often waves his jacket in front of the sensors to re-set the lock. Or if a lock won't open, as a result of filling due to leaks, he gives the lock gates a gentle nudge with the boat. Not sure we would want to use our boat to open a lock but the jacket idea might come in useful.
We piled our washing in a big blue IKEA bag, strapped it to our wheelie shopper and took it to the camper site. The washing machine was able to take big loads but the dryer was a disaster. I ended up with a heap of wet washing. But one thing did work. My lap-top happily connected to their wi-fi. I was grateful it worked and that I didn't have a serious problem. I also had the Gerald Morgan-Grenville - Barging into Burgundy - book with me to pass the time whilst doing the laundry. As I said earlier, he wrote this book forty, maybe even more years ago. It's amazing how not much has changed. He certainly gets himself and his crew into all sorts of messes. It's a light, fun read. My other half in the meantime gave Shangri La a much needed clean. He scrubbed the awnings and muck on the sides of the boat from the fenders and moss in the locks. She was gleaming when I got back.
The following day we got going for Auxonne. There we bumped into another boat we passed a few times on the waterways and got chatting. Lovely couple from Australia. Auxonne is just like many of these old villages. The French are known for being resistant to change and I guess in some ways it's a good thing. A person can walk the streets of a town and imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago. We did a wander about and found a place to have something to eat. Then stocked up on food as well as a detour into a Boulangerie. They are SO hard to resist.
Leaving Pontailler
The other boaties invited us for a drink on board their boat and we were happy to accept. They also have a Valkkruiser but theirs is a touch bigger. We were keen to see how that translated into layout. They have a lovely boat and like us are very happy. From Auxonnne it was off to our last stop and the place where we planned to winter Shangri La - St-Jean-de-Losne. My husband had pre-booked for our boat to come out the water. One nice thing about meeting fellow boaties is they share information and it would seem our apprehension at leaving our boat in the water during winter was possibly unfounded. We live in South Africa which is far away and we would rather she was up on dry land but we may re-consider this approach in time.
Back in the locks
St-Jean-de-Losne was nothing like I imagined it would be. It's one of THE boating places in France but the town is so small. The marina wasn't all that. The floating ablution block could have done with a clean. But the wifi was excellent. We arrived on a Monday when nothing happens anyway and the day was taken up locating all the various people my husband had been in contact with and finalising arrangements for the boat.

We also made contact with the world again letting people know we were still alive. The next day the cafés opened and the town looked a whole lot busier. We piled yet more washing into our IKEA bag and set out for the Laverie. How does a person generate so much laundry? Once the washing was going my husband tempted me into sharing a pichet (carafe) of vin de table (house wine). We sat under vines at a café next-door looking over the River Saône watching myriad boats floating up and down. St-Jean-de-Losne is a major juncture for a whole lot of canals and waterway routes. It's goes back eons. What's nice about this area - and handy for the next few years of boating - is there are relatively few locks, lots of lovely old towns and the area is geared for boats and boating.

The story continues - next week.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 23

Read about this trip from the start - here.

As we were about to enter the tunnel we discovered that - contrary to the French guide book - the height was NOT 5.7 metres but only 3.5 metres. We discovered this as we were about to enter the tunnel. My husband switched gears and headed backwards fast so we could drop our awnings while our boat drifted in the water. Once we got that sorted, we made a second attempt to enter the tunnel. I had the torch shining forward. Inside the tunnel we saw they had installed huge big fans overhead. The trip through the tunnel takes just over an hour. Our boat had a metre clearance on either side. The guide book mentions there is debris, logs and litter floating in the water. This we could see. After 20 minutes the torch light started fading and we now faced doing this transit in complete and utter darkness except for the glow of our navigation lights which was by no means sufficient. Have I mentioned I am claustophobic? I was terrified.
Balesmes Tunnel
At first we were bumping the sides of the tunnel so went very, very slowly. It could also have been logs floating in the water bumping into us. After a while our eyes became accustomed to the darkness. My husband figured out that if he lined up the hand-rails of our boat with the middle rung of the towpath in his line of vision as he was driving, he would be more or less in the centre of the tunnel. My job was to try and see if we veered too close to either side and fend with my hands if need be. I tried to take some photos. The flash popped up scaring the living daylights out of my other half. It was too dark to get a decent pic. We knew there was another boat ahead of us and we thought we were catching up on them as we saw a light getting bigger and bigger up ahead. We went slower fearing we might bash into them. In such darkness any light is bright. You can't make out what it is. Turned out it was actually the light at the end of the tunnel and not another boat. We were glad when that was over.
Light at the end of the tunnel
We stopped at Piépape that evening and went for a walk. It's a teeny, weeny little town with a handful of houses. Some run down. All beautiful. Centuries have passed but not much has changed in Piépape which only adds to it's charm. The sign next to our mooring and the French guide indicated there was a supermarket nearby but it had closed some time back. I love the French word for a picnic spot - Halte Pique-Nique. There was an apple tree laden with fruit so we stopped and filled my bag with a good few wild apples. We slept in total darkness that night. No street lights, no nothing. So peaceful.
Each day we set out hoping to have a problem free day. We could ill afford delays. It had been arranged the previous day that we would kick off at Lock 12. By 09.05am we phoned to find out when the lock would open. At 09.30am a lock-keeper arrived and got things going. Things were looking good. Then a large barge came out a lock and never saw us. We hooted but it was too late. He pushed us aground. We struggled to get going again. There were three more barges passing at the next three locks so we had to wait for them. We weren't willing to risk getting stuck again. And there isn't much space to pass comfortably on the canals. These barges are huge and have to drive extra slow as they are scraping the bottom of the canal. You can see mud swirling behind them as they pass. How do they fit in the tunnels?

The other difficulty we encountered was low bridges as you exit the locks. The guide book has one height, the warning sign for low bridges has another height and the actual height we found is something else. We had a system where I would stand on the fore-deck and hold my hand up. If it touched the bridge we knew we were in trouble. We decided to take everything down and rather keep our precious boat safe.
The rest of the day our remote control operated at whim. We could never figure out why sometimes it worked and other times not. Was it wind, rain, the distance or direction we pointed that affected it? We stopped being shy and kept pushing the button until we got our "Get Ready" lights. These locks leaked so badly that as fast as they emptied they started filling again. That caused the lock gates to refuse to open. We hoped to keep going until closing time which is 18.00pm - one last lock - before we tied up. We got there 17.30pm and the lights were off. Had it been switched off or was it broken? It would have been nice to get that last lock under our belts but we were dog tired. We tied up outside the lock. There was nothing for miles and we knew it was going to be a quiet night. We love those. There is something particularly special about being in the middle of nowhere, in nature, in total darkness, the only sounds that of trees or birds.
Wild stop with not a soul around
The following day we decided to phone VNF early to make sure we could get through the lock by 09.00am. They assured us a lockie would be there by 09.00am. Five minutes past nine, a lady lock-keeper arrived and we got going. One thing that did concern us was graffiti scrawled in black marker pen on the sides of the locks saying "H2O = Voleurs" (H2O are thieves) We had pre-booked our boat to be wintered there. Hopefully it wasn't true. At the very last lock on the Canal Entre Champagne and Bourgogne we got stuck in the lock. Again. This was probably our fault. A person is supposed to drop the remote control in a box, pull the gadget, jump back on the boat and it should all work perfectly. We were too scared to part with the remote control and were pushing the button furiously.
Finally a woman spoke from the call box which scared the life out of my husband as he hadn't called the Help Centre. She could see him via surveillance camera which scared him even more. She asked him to please put the remote in the box. Which he did. They activated the lock and let us go. Phew!

The story continues - right here.

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 22

Read about this trip from the start - here.  

We were aiming for Langres as our next stop. The route has manual locks - no remote controls. Our lock-keeper drove past our boat as we were loosening our ropes which was most encouraging. We met him at the first lock. He was a rather serious looking bloke who had a habit of muttering to himself. I kept thinking people were walking past on the towpath and only later realised it was our lockie talking to himself.
En route to Langres
He of course spoke no English and was - we think - trying to ascertain what our travel plans were. If the language gap is hard for us it must be as difficult for the French people we talk to. Trouble is, we think we're speaking French. We understand each other but we're learning from the same source. We resorted to writing what we needed to convey in the hope that would make it easier for people to understand us since our pronunciations must be atrocious.
Condes Tunnel
The lockies in this section of the canal wear full VNF overalls and a life jacket. It's hard work winding these ancient locks and coaxing them into action. Fortunately these blokes work right through lunch time and Sundays so we could keep going. Next thing a youngster arrived on a scooter in regular clothes to take over from our lockie. This bloke had some incentive for sure. He had prepared the upcoming locks before meeting us and worked the locks with Olympic speed. He had no time for small talk. I wondered if they were being tested as future candidates or perhaps were paid per lock?
View from the boat
We found Langres easily and tied up to rings. Nice not to have to use our stakes as we never got around to buying a hammer. The service was free but electricity was limited to 3 hours per day - an hour in the morning, one at noon and a last hour at night. There was water - but no hoses. They provide hoses at most places in Holland but not in France. And there was a toilet minus a seat. No toilet paper. Not the best facilities.
Facilities in Langres
Langres is built up on a hill 3 kilometres from the little port. It's a hellava steep climb. Both of us needed to stop and rest every now and again. We saw a bus go past but never thought to look for a stop. It is exactly the sort of place we hoped to see on this trip. An old walled village with towers and gates, many still in tact. Langres is apparently one of the 50 most beautiful places in France. We had to sneak another day out of our hectic schedule to see more of this lovely place.

One thing that really irks me is some people have unlimited travel time on the waterways. Yet I have a 90 day limit. We met some Brits who had been in France for 18 months. It comes down to where you're born and has nothing to do with your character or integrity.  EU, British, Australian and a few other nationals are free to spend as much time as they wish in France. The rest of the world need a visa. So Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama would have restrictions despite their humanitarian efforts and the Yorkshire ripper or any other criminal born in the right place can roam France indefinitely.
We made a slow start to the next day and ambled back up the steep hill toward the old city. En-route was a local supermarket. We popped past to check what they had and what time they closed so we could shop on our way back to our boat. Supermarkets in France often have restaurants where you can get bargain meals. There was a brasserie there but I suspect it was privately owned. Locals were standing around the bar having a café or a glass of wine and buying Lotto tickets. An elderly couple were having an early lunch. We decided to have a café and something to eat. I was surprised that the staff were drinking wine along with the customers. Before noon as well.  Things work differently in France.
Map of panoramic view from Langres
The cheery waitress came over and rattled off a whole bunch of stuff so fast. My other half and I looked at each other and tried to decipher what she had just said. Then it dawned on her - we were Anglais. We quickly mentioned that we don't eat meat and she picked up the menu and tried to find something for us. Every suggestion she made had cheese. In the end we let her go off and get creative knowing our meal might have have cheese. I got a big plate of salad and tomato with diced potato and baked goats cheese on French bread. It was tasty and she tried to accommodate us which we appreciated. Our waitress was thrilled to get a tip. They don't seem to expect a gratuity in France.
Lac de la Liez in the distance
Back up the hill we found the outer wall that circles Langres and set about walking it. The circumference is 3 kilometres long and the views are incredible. On a clear day you can apparently see the Alps. We hoped to see the Des Vosges mountains which are a little closer but I think it was too cloudy. There is a map showing you what you can see and where. Then we popped into the Tourism Office to catch up on Internet related stuff like e-mails. And bought some sinful foods at the Boulagerie/Patisserie. Which we devoured with a cup of tea back at our boat.
Old wall and towers around Langres
We had some catching up to do after a day out so made an early start. We followed a French boat toward the first lock. The locks are supposed to open at 09.00am but nothing happened. We saw the French lady the boat in front on her mobile phone. At 09.20am a lady lock-keeper arrived to get the locks going. She helped us through the first and the second lock. Then she mentioned that there were no lights in the 5 kilometre long Balesmes Tunnel. Did we have a searchlight so we could make our way though? This we did not have. She gave what we have come to know as the Gallic shrug and left it at that. My other half managed to connect all our extension leads together and plugged in our re-chargeable torch to make sure it had power. Then he turned on all our navigation lights.

The story continues - on this link.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 21

Read about this trip from the start - here.  
Lock house en route to Joinville
Joinville was lovely. We arrived on a Tuesday evening when they have late night shopping - until 19.00pm. We stayed on the banks of a hotel. Good facilities, electricity, water and yes - they had wi-fi! There was space for about four boats. One of which was a beautiful old wooden Dutch barge with four similar looking barefoot, long haired, bearded French blokes in scruffy clothes and one elderly lady. Not sure if she was the matriarch or a sugar mommy. Our initial  impressions of them were not favorable I'm ashamed to say but they rushed to help us tie up, offering their own mooring stakes. I felt so bad for judging them on appearance. They were heading for Montpellier and ultimately Las Palmas. Wow! That was ambitious boating if ever.

It had become now routine to get going as soon as possible and keep going as long as we could. We knew one thing, we did NOT want to be behind the old Dutch barge. Lovely as she is, and benevolent as her occupants were, she would be going very, very slowly. We couldn't afford any additional time delays. As we were leaving Joinville, who should we see moored at another spot further along? The Belgians! They who caused us so much grief with their fuel leaking into the water. That made us even more resolute to keep going as much as we could.
The canal en route to Joinville
We managed to get the remote control to work. Even if it meant pressing it a few times until we got a green light despite dire warnings never, ever, to do so. Only twice did we encounter no lights at the locks. Both times the lockies were actually doing repairs and had disabled them. These lockies saw us coming and were most helpful. In fact this pair of lockies were fabulous. VNF should clone them. They were furiously greasing hydraulic arms, clearing weed from the waterways and opening bridges for us. The one guy spoke English willingly and they even helped us tie up our boat that night. They also pointed out that we were required to pre-book a lock-keeper to take us through the manual locks the next day - before - 15.00pm. However they would take care of it. We had heard this before. Time would tell.
Our stop that night was Viéville. Also shrouded by tall trees and a beautiful and peaceful spot. We had hoped to get a little further but an almighty wind came up and blew our boat all over the place. Rain plus thunder and lightning helped us make the decision to stop. We didn't want to risk entering or exiting locks in those conditions. Fortunately we had been doing this continuous boating in perfect weather. Not too hot. Nor heavy rain or cold. The weather forecast had predicted rain but we had been lucky to avoid the worst of it which helped us get that little bit further each day to catch up the extra distance we had incurred. Further inland weather changes are not as drastic or as extreme as they are closer to the coast. Which is probably why boating in Champagne and Burgundy is so popular.
The next day we were full of confidence that we had - at last - got the lock thing mastered. As we entered our second lock, it would not close behind us. Another phone call. Luckily the number to call was stuck with tape onto our remote control. It was also on a leaflet given to us when we received the remote for this section of the canal. To be fair, VNF always send someone to sort out issues. Usually within half an hour. But half an hour here and ten minutes there add up to an hour plus a day. Something we never anticipated. We wondered at times if we were stupid or plain unlucky. Each time we asked other people if they had difficulties with the locks, without exception everyone had experienced some degree of problems.

When the eclusier (lock-keeper) arrived he had more bad news. The wind from the day before had blown a tree down blocking the canal after Lock 28. His suggestion was for us to stop at a pontoon just before Lock 29 and tie up, then phone the control office after lunch. We did as advised and got ready for a walk along the tow path to see this great catastrophe, but also hopefully to find out when we could get moving again. The weather had turned and rain was pouring down. I was glad for a change of clothing. Five metres away from our boat a VNF van passed us and we flagged them down. According to them the canal had been open for some time. We tied up for nothing. One can only conclude these guys don't speak to each other.
Stuck in a lock
Motoring at a brisk walk or slow jog pace along the canal is mesmerising. I saw faces in the trunks of the trees and clouds. It was early autumn and the tips of the trees were turning golden and rust coloured. Leaves were floating softly to the ground. Blue cranes lurched from just ahead to further ahead as our boat approached them. One wonders why they never fly away. Ducks, a Kingfisher or two and even the odd water rat darted in front of our boat. Yes, our fate was in the hands of VNF and their locks but at this point they were our only worries. Without Internet we had no idea what was going on with our families and in the world. The banking system could have collapsed or a third world war could have broken out and we would be blissfully unaware.
VNF trying to fix the lock
Our boat passed sleepy little villages and old lock-keeper houses. Some empty and lonely. Some were homes. I have no idea if the occupied lock houses are for VNF staff or are sold off to gain income. We noticed quite a few quirky ones. There is a tendency to place pots or wheel barrows or old ploughs over the front and fill them with bright coloured plants. Garden ornaments are another popular feature at these houses. One had a plethora of gnomes but just two of them were flashing their private parts. Another home was a shrine to the French star Johnny Hallyday. A giant cut-out of him loomed in the upper window and he was painted on the wall at the front of the house.

The story continues - here.