The Marne, Champagne and Verdun

The Marne


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Vineyards in Champagne


Having done all our dhobie and pumped the bilges dry, we left Meaux on 4th August and sailed sedately up the River Marne to a little place called La Ferté-Sous-Jouarre where we found another new pontoon with free water and electricity.

On checking the bilges we had made quite a bit of water during our journey so I again pumped the bilges and dreamt of unscheduled dry dockings to find the leak. The problem dated from Compiegne when I had fitted a tee piece into the overboard discharge pipe of the exhaust water injection supply. This pipe had been fitted originally to provide a visual indication that a water supply was present. I connected the bilge pump discharge pipe to the tee piece and in order to prevent water returning to the bilge when the main engine was running I fitted a non-return valve in the line.

I now disconnected the pipe between the non-return valve and the bilge pump, started the main engine and guess what?? The non-return valve was allowing water to pass. So every day when we were cruising we were filling the ships bilges! Relief was my main reaction to this discovery as we were not slowly sinking after all!

Hotel de Ville at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre
1914 war memorial to 3900 Brits

Ferté was where the Brits crossed the Marne using a floating bridge in 1914 during WW1. A memorial records the loss of life of nearly 3900 soldiers who perished and have no known grave. We cycled up a long hill to the village of Jourre where there is a 7th century crypt but, that apart, was singularly uninspiring, then a long walk in search of a foot pump which was unsuccessful for the umpteenth time. I don't think anyone sells them in France!

Continuing on up the river we arrived at Chateau-Thierry to grab the last berth on the quay. Dry bilges confirmed the solution of disconnecting the bilge pump discharge a success after a full days cruising. I will fit an isolating valve to the line in due course.

American monument to first battle in 1918 WW1

Chateau-Thierry was the location of the first American offensive in 1918 and a very large memorial sits on the top of hill 204. This place is one of the most cherished battle honours of the Marines of the 2nd and 3rd divisions who took part in fierce fighting and committed themselves well but with great loss of life.

At Chateau-Thierry you quickly arrive in Champagne country with vines covering the hillsides right down to the river. We had intended to stop at one of the small towns and villages along the river to investigate the local Shampoo houses but every mooring was occupied so we ended up on the last berth at Epernay where the Port de Plaisance was almost as expensive as Paris. Epernay was largely destroyed in WW2 so is fairly modern and relatively uninteresting. The main attraction here are the tours of the various Champagne Houses. We did the one next to the Port with the 60 metre high tower, Castellane, but prior to that we cycled out about 5km and all uphill to Hautvillars.

Champagne fields above Epernay
Castellane Champagne House in Epernay

You climb up through the vineyards to this delightful little village, famous because of a certain monk, one Dom Perignon, who was responsible for perfecting the blending process for Champagne in the local Abbey. We visited the local wine co-operative and tasted several of their products. They make Champagne for 192 of the growers in the area and have been doing so for over 75 years. We bought some Blanc de Blanc which is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and some of their top of the range Brut Prestige, a blend of the best cuvées of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Having tied our purchases onto our bikes we freewheeled down to Epernay for some more Shampoo at Castellane!

The view down to Epernay from Hautvillars
Hautvillars Marie

We left Epernay and retraced our steps down the River Marne to its junction with the Canal lateral à la Marne and climbed steadily up through several automatic locks to the village of Tours-sur-Marne. This was to be the last Champagne making place on our chosen route and we had been told there were many Champagne houses here including the famed Laurent Perrier. There are apparently three Perrier families in the Champagne business who are all unrelated. We found them in the midst of redecoration of their office and no tastings were available so we crossed the Avenue de Champagne and directly opposite walked into the courtyard of the Chauvet Champagne house.

There we met M. Chauvet who explained he had an appointment with his bank manager but would collect us from Harmonie in a couple of hours, if we were interested in visiting his cellars, which he subsequently did. The Chauvet family have been making champagne since 1848 and are relatively rare in that they only make the wine from their own 10 hectares of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The grapes are hand picked, the various stages of the wine making process are done in the traditional way, no machines for turning the bottles for example, and the wine is bottle aged for at least 4 years. We tasted the Carte Blanche in their Salon made from 66% Pinot Noir and 33% Chardonnay and it was the best yet. We were entertained by M. Chauvet and his mother, a grand lady of considerable age who claimed to live purely on Champagne! She has become a cat collector and we were asked by her son, who was at his wits end to curtail the growing feline additions from a neighbour whose cats are not neutered, if we would like to give a home to the latest offspring. We had to decline due to our forthcoming trip down under.

The lock at Tours-sur-Marne
A magnum of Chauvet Champagne

The next morning we returned to purchase a couple of cases which were duly delivered with us back to Harmonie. Altogether a lovely experience and a visit we will repeat the next time we are in Champagne, maybe collecting a ships cat in addition to more Shampoo!

We set off again up the canal following the course of the River Marne to Chalon-en-Champagne, a pleasant town full of half timbered buildings which in England would be black and white but for some reason in France are brown and white. One of our readers has since informed us that they used to be brown in England until it became a Victorian custom to paint the wood black and the rest white.

The next day we began to get problems with our engine. It stopped when we were about to come out of an automatic lock. We did not want to risk the lock closing when we were in it so we jumped off and pulled Harmonies 55 tonnes out of the lock - no joking!

Cat in Hautvillars

I went below and bled the fuel system, re-started the engine and we set off again. A little later the engine stopped again as we approached a lock. This could get serious if it stopped again during a critical manoeuvre. I went below again, opened two valves which allow fuel to bypass the primary fuel filter and once again bled the system. The engine now ran much smoother and it was obvious that it was continually being starved of fuel. I began to suspect the engine feed pump to be the cause of our problem.

At Vitry-le-Françios we moored behind the barge "Histoire d'Eau" and shared a couple of bottles of M.Chauvet's excellent shampoo with Steve and Peta from dear old Melbourne. We resolved to visit them in January and taste their 25 year old Port wine. The next day Histoire d'Eau turned right and we turned left onto the Canal de la Marne au Rhin and commence our climb through 70 locks to the summit level. The first day we did 17 locks and the second 24 locks up to Bar-le-Duc where we stayed for three mainly rainy days. The lock keepers travelled with us by motor scooter, a miserable job in the pouring rain. They are all young, students I guess, earning some pocket money and we tipped them generously for their hard wet work!
St Etienne Church - Bar-le-Duc
Upper Town - Bar-le-Duc

Bar-le-Duc has, like Edinburgh, a new town in the valley and an old one on the hill. The old one has many buildings dating from the renaissance period of late 15th early 16th century. The town is at the end of the only road to Verdun that was out of German artillery range during WW1. The reinforcements, ammunition and supplies went up the road to Verdun, called the Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way), and the injured came back.

Our next port of call was Ligny-en-Barrois, another nice little renaissance town with a very helpful tourist office who found us a diesel mechanic who might source a new fuel feed pump and we arranged to meet him in Commercy. The mooring with water and electricity was free so we stayed a couple of days where Tom and Tricia in the barge "Elizabeth" caught us up. During our stay some local fishermen in the basin were rewarded with a catch of a large Carp weighing 12kg which they paraded around for all to see!

We resolved to reach the summit level in one go and had a surprisingly easy day climbing through 22 locks although most were of the automatic chain type where each one is set for you once you start the chain. One lock keeper buzzes up and down in his little van making sure you are making good progress. The locks are computer controlled so that any failures to operate properly are reported and dealt with quickly.
Barge Elizabeth at Demange - the summit level
Aquaduct across the River Meuse

The canal water here is crystal clear, so clear that you can see the bottom and it is teeming with fish. Unfortunately it is also thick with weed and this caused us a lot of problems. The next morning we were towed through the nearly 5km long Mauvages tunnel by the antique electric tug similar to the one on the St Quentin canal but this time our car escaped damage although the wheelhouse roof was again scraping the tunnel roof on occasions.

Down through 12 locks to Void, the canal was thick with weed. At one point, both suction pipes were blocked and we had to repeat the deck pump hose trick to clear the obstruction. The second time we found the deck pump suction filter blocked and had to clear that first. In the end we were stopping at every lock and cleaning the filters so progress was slow, adding to the problem of the engine continually failing.

At Void we spent our last night with Tom & Tricia downing a few bottles of local wine which we had purchased at a local speciality Lorraine boutique then the following morning they turned South towards Toul and we turned North down the Canal de l'Est.

Chemist shop in Commercy
The chateau at Commercy

Commercy was our next stop apart from the involuntary ones when the engine failed. The mechanic turned up and agreed that our problem was probably the feed pump and ordered one from Paris. We stayed for three days here and found Commercy an interesting town. A walking route around the town was marked out in French and English. The huge château was rebuilt after a fire and was the home of Stanislas, former king of Poland, father-in-law of Louis XV and the last Duke of Lorraine before it was annexed by France in 1766. There was even a bit of Art Nouveau in the guise of a chemist shop on the main square.

A British barge, the "Mooi Ark" joined us on the mooring and we met Chris and Sheila Ries who recruited us to the Barge Association. An ex Royal Fleet Auxiliary skipper of fleet tenders, he knew and loved the Blackstone E type engines of my old firm. He is also known in the association as Mr DAF for his knowledge of these engines and he kindly presented us with a CD containing a pdf file of the English language workshop manual for the DAF 1160 engine that powers Harmonie. Makes life easier than trying to decipher the Dutch language manual on board!

The feed pump eventually arrived and we set off down the canal only to discover the new pump had not resolved the problem. We berthed alongside Chris and Sheila that night. On arrival at La Croix-sur-Meuse they had a running battle with two Dutch boats (Chris calls then "Noddy Boats") to get them to move up so his barge could squeeze into the last berth. Most Dutchmen are fine in our short experience but there seem to be an increasing number of new owners who have no consideration for others. The joke is if you see one Dutchman on a mooring it's free, two it has water, three and it has electricity! If there are no Dutchmen then it's expensive!

To try and resolve the engine problem I decided to remove everything between the fuel tank and the engine and checked there were no leaks or restrictions in the pipework. I discovered that a sealing ring in the pre-filter assembly was proud and could have been letting air into the suction line, then spent half an hour trying to bleed the system without success until Chris discovered I had forgotten to re-open the tank shut off valve!!!

The next morning the engine started at the first turn of the key and ran very smoothly. It looked good, then I noticed the exhaust note and saw that there was no exhaust cooling water. I stopped the engine but it was too late. I had forgotten to re-open the valves on the suction pipes after I had cleaned out the filters and the pump impeller had burnt out. A quick change of impeller with our last spare and we were on our way with the engine running perfectly at last.

Throughout all these trials and tribulations, Chris and Sheila gave us helpful advice and assistance including a list of all the good moorings to the Belgian border. This typifies the camaraderie amongst the barging community here and we have continually met with help and instant friendship apart from one narrow boat owner who refused to let us moor beside him.

The harbour at Verdun
Sue, Tim and Anna at Metz

We arrived at Verdun and grabbed the last mooring at the excellent Port de Plaisance right in this classy town centre. The next day our friends Tim and Anna arrived by car and stayed for three nights. The weather was awful the whole time but we managed to visit the Cathedral, an exhibition of WW1 3D photographs, Verdun Citadel, Douaumont Ossuary containing the remains of 130,000 unidentifiable French and German soldiers killed in the battle of Verdun together with 15,000 known French soldiers graves.

Douaumont cemetary

We also visited the Douamont Fort where 679 German soldiers were killed when their ammunition dump exploded and the Bayonet Trench where two companies of French infantry were buried alive in their trench by exploding shells leaving just their bayonets poking above the ground.

On our visitors final day with us we decided to drive to Metz. It poured with rain and we were soaked through to the skin but determined to visit this city again on a nice day as it is a really beautiful and interesting place. The cathedral looks as though it was built yesterday and the stained glass windows simply stunning. The French call it Gods Lantern. The whole old city centre is built of a golden sandstone which does not seem to have weathered or eroded over the centuries.

Metz Cathedral window
Mouzon on the River Meuse

Tim and Anna returned home and we set sail down river to Duns-sur-Meuse where we once again grabbed the last mooring but this time were charged. You stay in the centre of Verdun with all facilities for best part of a week free of charge and then have to pay to moor in a little tin pot town without even a decent food shop. On 30th August we sailed downstream through increasingly beautiful country to the lovely old town of Mouzon. We were now approaching, possibly, some of the best river scenery in France which deserves its own page.

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