01 September 2013

Continuing Into France

On Wednesday evening, 21 August we had secured along the wall just above bridge in Givet. A block in from the river is a Carrefours City, a small urban version of the huge chain supermarket and in it we had found more than ample supplies for our celebratory dinner. On Thursday morning we walked across the bridge to Notre Dame and headed through the town and out beyond it following directions to the BricoMarché. 

We needed a floodlight for the two tunnels that were just ahead of us at Ham and at Revin. The FluviaCarte states: “these tunnels have no illumination, so a floodlight is needed”. We had found several great rechargeable lights at Canadian Tire the previous week in Moncton, but they were all 120 volt only, not 120/240. After a three kilometre walk we arrived at the shopping plaza to find that the BricoMarché was closed, so we went into its sister, the Intermarché, but found no lights.

While we were in the supermarket, we bought some fresh produce, baking and groceries so that the trip wasn’t wasted. Back onboard, I dug out two LED flashlights and decided they were sufficient. The longer of the tunnels was only 500 metres. At 1350 we slipped our lines and continued upriver under the ramparts of le fort de Charlemont. The fort was built in 1555 by Charles V and remodelled by Vauban in the seventeenth century.

The size and complexity of the works tell of the strategic importance of the site. The Meuse has been a major trading route back into prehistory.

We arrived at the next lock, Les 3 Fontaines, which was manned, and again l’eclusier took our lines from the lip of the chamber with a hook.

Immediately out of the lock we came to Tunnel de Ham, and as we approached it, we could easily see the light at the far end of the tunnel. Having no floodlight seemed now to be of even less concern. I simply stood on the centreline with the tiller behind my back and aimed the mast at the light at the end of the tunnel.

After 500 metres we were through.

Within another half kilometre we came to the next lock, which thankfully at 3.2 metres in height, was manned. Madame l’eclusier came out and took our mooring lines on a hook and placed them over bollards.

We thanked her for her assistance as we were leaving the chamber. 

She confirmed that we had a remote-control, telling us that the next fifty or so locks are all automatic unmanned.

We headed out of the lock and along the 800 metre derivation toward the river. The chart showed a pont levis méchanisé, a mechanised lift bridge just before regaining the river, and I wondered whether the remote control worked for it. As we approached, I saw there was no concern; the bridge had been jerry-rigged in a partly-open position to give the 3.5 metre  required clearance.

Once we were back out into la Meuse, Edi brought up a tray with a selection of salami, paté, pears, olives, cheeses and bread for us to nibble on as we continued upstream.

After twenty-four kilometres and six locks, at 1802 we stopped for the day at the Halte Nautique de Fumay. 

On Friday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we walked to the tourist information office and made use of their free wifi connection to catch-up. Then shortly before 1300 we slipped our lines and continued upstream. La Meuse describes a rather winding course through this area, and during the first four kilometres after leaving Fumay, we steered every point of the compass.

After two locks we came to the Revin Tunnel, the second unlit tunnel for which we were warned to have a floodlight. 

Since the warning was written in the chartbook, lights have been installed, though likely these are to illuminate the cycle path that appears also to have new guardrails. 

After we had cleared the tunnel and the lock following it, Edi went below and prepared a tray of nibblies for lunch and we enjoyed them as we made our way toward the next lock.

As we waited for ecluse Dames de Meuse to cycle, we were entertained by swans, which eagerly posed alongside or with a gracefully arched railway bridge as a backdrop.

At 1728 we secured alongside at the halte nautique de Laifour. It is a very small village, and a placard next to the mooring suggested that bakery goods be reserved the day before, so I walked up to the depot de pain in the small tabac across from the Mairie in the centre of the tiny business section. I ordered four croissants and a baguette for the next morning and madame said they would be available from 0800.

We relaxed onboard in the peaceful little moorage, enjoying glasses of Blanche de Namur, biere sur lie, the 2012 winner of the title “World’s Best White Beer”.

It began raining just as I returned onboard with the bread and croissants on Saturday morning, and after espressos and croissants in the dry of the cabin, we donned our rain gear and continued up river. Our destination was Charleville-Mézières, our first large community since Namur.

Mézières was founded in the ninth century and half a century ago it amalgamated with the new town across the river, Charleville, which dates only to the seventeenth century. With la Meuse taking a very winding course through the city and offering over six kilometres of riverfront, we were looking forward to a pleasant scene. Among the places we wanted to see is Place Ducal, reputed to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. 

Twenty-seven kilometres and four locks along from Laifour we began winding our way through industrial slums and crumbling canal-side infrastructure, which continued unrelieved by any pleasant scenery for over four kilometres. Adding to the glumness was the persistent rain. We passed through ecluse Montcy and followed signs to le Port de Plaisance, the pleasure boat port and found the mooring places filled with residential barges. We continued along to the marina, where we saw only a dozen or so boats scattered around the eighty mooring pontoons. We also saw notice that the marina was restricted to boats under 14 metres in length.

We turned around just above the weir and found a spot on a concrete abutment below a pedestrian bridge. There were already two boats on it and the remaining space was sufficiently long to take almost two-thirds of Zonder Zorg’s length, leaving the stern hanging out. As we were securing, the heavy rain turned into an intense thunderstorm. Thus far we had seen nothing of the city except crumbling industrial areas or a solid screen of unkempt heavily vegetated riverbank, beyond which we could see no attractive buildings nor any pleasantness.

While we sat comfortably below in the torrential downpour, I searched the Barge Association forum and waterways guide for information on Charleville-Mézières. I found warnings of bicycle thefts from boat decks, of loud late night drunken partying by local youth in the park next to the moorage and of a barge having its moorings undone in the middle of the night and left to drift downstream toward the weir. Because of the heavy rain we felt safe from vandals, so we spent the night. Nonetheless, we decided to move on first thing the next morning.

At 0841 on Sunday, 25 August we slipped and continued up la Meuse, arriving after two more kilometres of bland scenery at ecluse Mézières, just as the lock system was turned on for the day at 0900. The lock has a lift of 3.4 metres, and the flood wall at the top of the chamber adds a similar height. There are no bollards in the walls of the chamber, so while I stabilised the boat, Edi took the bow line up the slimy ladder, which had been soaking in the filled chamber overnight. The rungs were all bent and twisted out of shape, likely from barges using them to secure on the way up.

Edi secured the line to a bollard and then tried to find a way to take the stern line. The new lock house had been built directly on the edge of the chamber and safety fencing had been placed to make it dangerous for lock users and impossible for boaters to toss a line to a bollard. Lying next to the lock house was a long pipe with a hook on its end, but it was too heavy for Edi to safely use. I resorted to using the ladder rungs, just as their distortions attest to many having done in the past. 

When Edi had activated the chamber, it seemed that all the sluices opened at once, sending great torrents of water flooding in. The lock seems to have been designed by non-boaters.

We continued along the river for another fifteen kilometres and two more locks, where at 1227 we passed through ecluse Meuse and entered le Canal des Ardenes. After one more lock, at 1330 we secured on the canal bank just beyond Pont-à-Bar. There are bollards along both sides of the canal for 250 to 300 metres, but they were filled with the bangy-boats of a rental base on the one side and half the other side was taken-up by a boat repair company’s works-in-progress. The remainder of the bollards were occupied by long-term and semi-derelict boats. We dropped the spud pole to secure the bow and pounded a steel pin into the bank to take our stern line.

In a light drizzle on Monday, we raised the spud pole, retrieved our mooring pin and at 0810 we headed up the canal, our departure timed to have us arrive at the first lock as it opened for navigation at 0900.

As we motored, Edi went below to prepare some breakfast panini, which we enjoyed with cups of espresso.

While we ate we watched the passing scene as we glided through tranquil rural villages and past pastures of grazing cattle. The drizzle had abated to light mist and there was a growing warmth from the sun as it worked at burning through the dissipating clouds.

The first lock was followed immediately by a right-angled turn into a second lock, which led into a short tunnel leading through a narrow ridge. The canal here follows the course of a small river, la Bar, which wanders off eastward in a long loop of a dozen or more kilometres around the end of the ridge. 

While it is doing that, the locks and tunnel take about half a kilometre to make the same progress along the river.

Fourteen kilometres and two more locks brought us to ecluse Sauville, the final up lock on the canal. From here, a 9.6 kilometre bief de partage, connecting reach or summit pound takes us to the beginning of a steep descent down into the vallée de l’Aisne.

At 1315 we secured to the wall at the halte nautique in Le Chesne. This consists of a 40 metre indentation in the stone walls on each side of the canal next to the narrow bridge opening. There is no fee and the moorage is supplied with free electrical outlets, water points, garbage bins and recycling containers. We decided to stay a couple of days, relaxing and getting ready for the twenty-eight locks in the next leg.

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