River Yonne and back to Gent

River Yonne & back to Gent


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Harmonie at Joigny


Our journey on the Burgundy Canal continued upstream from Dijon in glorious weather. At Pont d'Ouche the port is managed by Bryony who is English and you can buy all essential foodstuffs in her little shop. She serves snacks through the day but recommended the pub across the road for something more substantial which turned out to be closed. We subsequently discovered that if they have a busy day they often closed the next day for a rest! We then cycled 3km back down the canal to a pub we had noticed was open on the way up where we ate a basic meal as the only customers with the proprietor observing the current business situation as "catastrophé". It had just been announced that France had emerged from the recession but most people think otherwise.

Through the Pouilly tunnel without incident or touching the wheelhouse roof and then down the long descent of 56 locks in just 30km to Montbard.

Hot lock keeper
Descending from Pouillenay

For this chain of locks a team of travelling lock keepers keep you company and we asked the Chef Eclusier what he did during the winter months. His answer was "nothing"! The weather now was uncomfortably hot and we recorded 40 degrees centigrade in our wheelhouse. The deck was very hot to stand on handling ropes and the lock keepers wore very little which in some instances was attractive but in others less so! We waved farewell to the lock keeping team at Veneray and continued the descent to Ancy-le-Franc where we purchased some more wine glasses from the chateau and met David and Janet on their motor cruiser Rosina. We also met Sudy and Eric not forgetting Tallulah the lovely Tibetan Terrier on their barge Oldtimer, American friends who we spent time cruising and cycling with in 2007 in the Loire valley. They followed us down to Tanlay where we ate out in the local bar to avoid the loud live music from the creperie in the port. The following day, after a BBQ we celebrated a fine England win at the Oval to regain the Ashes from Australia with Peter & Caroline from the cruiser Nemesis. Sudy and Eric, being American, could not understand my excitement at the event but never the less enjoyed the champagne! At Tonnerre, David from Rosinda suggested we get together for a drink when we arrived at Migennes but after one night there, what with the goods trains roaring through all night and some horrible fertiliser smell we decided to move on down into the river Yonne and the ancient town of Joigny.

The river Yonne at Joigny

We had navigated the river between Auxerre and Migennes last year so downstream of Migennes we were on new territory. The Yonne continues upstream of Auxerre and the Nivernais canal dips in and out of it for some distance. It has always been a difficult river to navigate but it was improved during the 19th century with new locks and canal cuts. It still remains a difficult river to navigate as it floods quickly and has some unique sloping lock walls. We were going down which is difficult enough but coming up you would be faced with muddy, slippery steps to climb to secure a mooring (which notices say is obligatory) as the lock keepers mostly display a complete lack of interest in assisting you with this task.

Joigny is a quaint medieval town with many timber framed houses dating from the 15th century, largely rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1530.

Half timbered house in Joigny
Half timbered house in Joigny

What makes them unusual are the carvings on the timbers which I had not seen before.

We discovered that the town was celebrating the 65th anniversary of their liberation by the allied armies in 1945 and there were the flags of France, USA and UK flying from all the lamp posts, public buildings and war memorials. The following night there was to be a fireworks display so we decided to stay an extra day and it was well worth the wait as it proved to be quite spectacular. We also visited the museum of the resistance which was not of any great interest to us but probably more so to local residents as it concentrated on the local resistance effort.

The next town downstream was Villeneuve, a city founded in 1163 by Louis VII but with only the two fortified gates remaining at each end of the main street to date from this period. Its main claim to fame is an Auberge on the river front owned by the film star Leslie Carron. It is also infamous for a past Mayor who became the mass murderer of 24 people and was guillotined in 1946.

Fortified gate at Villeneuve
Brocante market at Villeneuve

On the occasion of our visit the streets were full of junk, I believe the French call it Brocante, but more like what we would call a car boot sale without the cars.

The weather continues hot and sunny. We have hardly seen any rain for the whole of July and August while the UK has had yet another dreadful summer with record rainfall. I blame global warming! We sail on downstream to the city of Sens and tie up with more Brit barges plugged into free electricity and not a Dutchman in sight. David and Janet in Rosina finally catch up with us and we are accused of trying to get away from them! Undaunted we scramble aboard for pre prandial drinkies and are introduced to their guests Michael and Christine. Michael is a retired Merchant Marine Master and David ex RN so we swung the lantern a few times recalling life at sea and promised to return the drinks invitation at the next port of call.

Harmonie at Sens

Sens was where Thomas à Becket of Canterbury ended up after he was exiled. The cathedral of St. Etienne was the first of all the Gothic cathedrals dating from 1130 and contains the vestments of Becket. His name lives on as a brand of beer brewed in the city! Sens also has a fine museum with some famous Flemish paintings but in typical French fashion it was closed when we were there.

For the next section of the river to its confluence with the Seine at Montereau, about 40km, there are no good moorings so we resolved to complete it in one go. We were held up for a couple of hours by big commercials but we managed to get to Montereau before the locks closed. During the passage on the locks with sloping sides, Rosina would tie on to us and the crew would board us and fend us off the sides with boat hooks as we descended.

Harmonie at Melun
Rosindas crew fending us off sloping lock walls

We had intended to continue on down the Seine to Moret that night but David kicked up such a fuss, claiming that we were just trying to avoid providing drinks for them that we had to tie up with them at Montereau. Temperature dropped, it rained at last and blew a hooley during the night. When we set off the next morning the wind blew over one of the big plant pots on deck out on the big river and we were punching through waves occasionally coming over the bow. At St Mammes we bunkered white and red diesel plus a gas bottle and arrived at Moret just after lunch. In the evening we had a port BBQ with Rosina and Americans on the barge Madame Leslie who contributed a splendid apple pie. The next day it rained buckets and Rosina set off towards Montargis after we had promised to visit them in Tavistock next time we are down that way. We stay on for a couple of days until the weather clears then we head down the Seine towards Paris.

Our first overnight stop is at Melun where a water jousting match was in full swing and we managed to plug into an electricity supply left from a recent exhibition on the quayside.

Water jousting at Melun

This activity seems to be popular in this part of France and here was the team from Clamecy who we saw in action last year on the Nivernais. Don't know who won the contest but the joust above seems to look like a draw as one is in the water and the other is about to enter! They really seem to take it quite seriously and shout instructions (and abuse) from the bank after each joust.

Chinese Hotel Restaurant in Paris
La Defense

An uneventful trip down to Paris to the Port d'Anglais lock and a provisioning at m. Leclerc was followed the next day by an early morning cruise through Paris with very little river traffic. At the confluence with the river Marne is the largest Chinky restaurant in the world while further downstream they are still building skyscrapers at la Defense. We moored up at Bougival that night and wandered up for a pizza at an Italian restaurant we found three years ago - still alive and kicking. As the beautiful weather was continuing we decided to continue down the Seine as far as Vernon which is close to Giverny, Monet's famous house and garden where he painted most of his better known work. This was a further 70km downstream off our intended route so it added an extra 140km and several days to our cruise.

Pusher tug convoy lower Seine

The traffic on the lower Seine was much larger and busier as you can see from this 180 metre long pusher tug convoy of which we saw many. The scenery, however, was much nicer than the upper Seine and made for an interesting and enjoyable two day cruise downstream.

Cruise ships at Vernon
Old mill house at Vernon

At Vernon we tied up in front of a huge French cruise ship about 160 metres long. We were woken up the next morning about 6am by the arrival of two more even larger ones, one from Holland and one from Germany who breasted up to the first one. Then the first one left about 7am so there was much manoeuvering to let him out from his inside berth. We were up early that morning! These ships are here for Monet's garden and discharge their passengers into coaches which take them to Giverny then meet the ships further along the river.

Vernon around the back of the church
Vernon tower. The house facade is painted canvas

Vernon is a delightful old town of half timbered houses. Most of the medieval fortress has gone but one tower remains. The house next to it is something of a ruin so they have erected a canvas sheet across the facade painted with windows and door to fool you into thinking it is the real thing. On the quay was a commemorative plaque for the Brits crossing the Seine in 1945 having lost over 500 men in the action from German artillery dug in on the top of the high limestone ridge on the other bank. We cycled across and followed a cycle path along an old railway line to Giverny.

Japanese bridge in Monet's garden at Giverny
Water lilies at Monet's garden at Giverny

Most people will recognise Monet's series of paintings of the water lily pond and Japanese bridge in his garden at Giverny and it looks in real life just like he painted it. Monet was a devotee of Japanese art and the house is filled with hundreds of examples.

A Camelia in Monet's garden at Giverny

But the most impressive thing for me was the light which flooded into every window of the many rooms painted in one or two pastel colours. The house itself was a work of art and I hope I was seeing something that the artist himself created and not some local painter and decorator!

Monet's garden at Giverny

From the sublime to the ridiculous or at least for my taste when we visited the Giverny museum who were exhibiting a series of paintings by the American artist Joan Mitchell. Sue thought they were great but I reckon I could do something similar and become equally famous! The important technique I think is to paint it with really thin paint and daub it on thickly so you get lots of runs!! Sue says I'm a philistine!

The City Museum in Vernon was worth the visit as they had many original paintings by Giverny artists including Monet, Bonnard and MacMonnies. There are no original Monet paintings at Giverny so this is the only place to see them locally. They also had a very interesting section devoted to sculptures and paintings of animals.

Back upstream past the chateau at la Roche Guron which Rommel commandeered as his headquarters during his retreat from France and on to Mantes-la-Jolie.

Mantes-la-Jolie cathedral
Cruise ship on the Seine

Mantes has a very "jolie" cathedral which dates from the 12th century and has a Burgundian tiled roof and a nave 30 metres high. Here we passed one of the cruise ships waiting for the return of its passengers, then a few minutes later it swept passed us at a great rate of knots. The lower Seine is a very big wide river bordered on the northern side by a limestone ridge with numerous rock outcrops.

A helmsmans view of the lower Seine

Here is a view from the helm as we proceed upstream to moor overnight at Meulan and invite Nathan and Kerry, a couple of Brits in their little yacht "Serena", to moor alongside. They both work offshore for a month then, unable to bear living ashore, take to their yacht for their month off! This trip they sailed over from Portsmouth to la Havre, up the Seine and Yonne as far as Sens and were on their way back. Yachtie nutters but good company!

Cergy harbour
Cergy church

And so back to where we left off at Conflans-Ste-Honarine where the river Oise meets the Seine and upstream to Cergy where the port has been developed as a residential & tourist attraction, a little like St Katherine's Dock in London. There are several restaurants, an "Old English Pub" which had a bit of an identity problem because it advertised itself as an Irish pub on another fascia! Mooring charges are scaled to fit the environment and we were charged 24 to moor outside the harbour on a pontoon with all the wash from passing barges.

The next stop upstream was equally expensive 50km further at St-Leu-d'Esserent and this time with just a grotty quay wall. Our friends Tim and Anna then announced that they would be visiting us in three days to cruise up the river Scarpe to Arras so we had to get a move on if we were going to make that rendezvous. The next day saw us travelling 84km right up to Pont l'Evêque then into the canal du Nord where there are lots of slow locks and lots of commercials. We managed to share the journey with a loaded 50m peniche crewed by a young man and an older skipper, possibly father and son, and our two ships nicely filled the locks. We managed over 60km that day and stopped after 12 hours as it was getting dark, the peniche continuing into the gloaming. They work hard and long hours these boys whereas we two just ate and collapsed into bed knackered!

Harmonie in Ruyaulcourt tunnel

The next day we voyaged alone into the Ruyaulcourt tunnel, a wide and well lit construction 4354 metres long. It is one way through most of its length controlled by lights and has a wide passing place at the halfway point where we were stopped by a red light to allow a big peniche to come through in the opposite direction.

We still had another 50km and 11 locks to do if we were to get to Brébières where we had arranged to meet our friends and made good time until we arrived at the first lock on the river Scarpe where there was no lock keeper present. A passing commercial informed us that we should have obtained a remote controller from the previous lock keeper back on the Liaison a Grand-Gaberit so we hoisted my bike ashore and I cycled back to pick one up. Once under way again we encountered the slowest series of locks on the French canal system, each taking half an hour from me pressing the button to start the cycle to us emerging from the lock. Tim and Anna had come searching for us as we came upstream through a big steelworks and saw us through the next big lock, however, our mooring for the night was to have been above the third lock but at 6pm prompt they shut off the power so we were stranded below, tied to a crash barrier on an overgrown quay which Tim nearly ended himself on while climbing over!

The Grand Place in Arras

Tims car was left at the railway station and we cruised up the pretty river Scarpe to Arras. They were dredging above the last two locks but the pontoon is situated below these at St Laurent Blagny where there is a water sports centre with a canoe slalom course around a diverted section of the river. As we arrived several rubber boats were white water rafting down it to shrieks from the ladies on board. Here we renewed our acquaintance with Paul and Christine as we breasted on to their narrow boat "Dream On" who we had met briefly last year on the canal du Nord. Paul very kindly offered to run Tim back to Brébières for his car while the rest of us continued to be entertained by the antics of the rafters.

Hotel de Ville Arras
The Belfry Arras

Arras was flattened in WW1 and again in WW2 but they have since repaired much of the damage. The Grand Place is a huge square surrounded by Flemish houses, such that you could be in Holland rather than northern France. We saw it at its very best in glorious autumn sunshine. In the Petit Place opposite the stunning Hotel de Ville with the belfry towering behind, we sat in a pavement cafe for a cleansing ale and resolved to celebrate Tim & Anna's first wedding anniversary and Sue's **st birthday at a seafood restaurant in the Petit Place that evening. Before returning to St Laurent by bus we visited the Cathedral, a "modern" 18th century affair, destroyed and rebuilt after WW1 which failed to impress. Sue and I later visited the museum next door which had removed all its usual artifacts for an exhibition entitled "Napoleon in Egypt" which though interesting enough we would have preferred to see the art work by Reubens and co usually on display.

Hotel de Ville Arras by night
Anna and Sue in Petit Place Arras

That evening we enjoyed a fine seafood meal in The Petit Place where the illuminations made for a fine backdrop. It was late September and 20 degrees C at 10pm as we sat outside in our shirt sleeves enjoying the food and the ambiance. Taxis were non-existent so we again prevailed on Paul who came and picked us up after our meal.

We stayed on in Arras for a couple of days after Tim and Anna left and among other places visited Wellington Quarry. Arras is built of limestone and over the centuries the stone was provided by mining so that there are numerous subterranean passages beneath the city. In April 1917 the British decided to mount a surprise attack of the German front line which encircled Arras, much like the Ypres salient. They bought in New Zealand tunnellers to link up the different mines or quarries as the French call them who named them using cities like Wellington and Auckland to assist in navigation, Auckland mine being due north under the German lines. For several days before the battle there were some 25,000 troops living underground in less than sanitary conditions but safe from shelling. When they launched the attack it was initially a success but in then typical fashion the British commanders inexplicably halted the attack and subsequently suffered huge casualties as a result.

WW1 Latrines in Wellington Quarry, Arras

The then German commander later said that, had they continued with the attack the German army was in complete disarray and the conduct of the war might have been very different as a result. Instead the Germans were able to regroup and fight a successful counter offensive. It was an interesting visit around the old mine workings where you are shown a series of videos recounting the battle of Arras.

We had some difficulty turning round at St Laurent due to shallow water but nothing compared with what happened at the first lock. I pressed the wrong button on the lock remote controller to go upstream rather than downstream with the result that the lock emptied and the bottom gates opened. As there was no boat coming upstream, there they stayed and, to cut a long story short, we ended up across the river with the current keeping us there with the bow thruster not powerful enough to turn against the current and with water so shallow fore and aft that we had no room for manoeuvre! Eventually four VNF men arrived and with Sue ashore they attempted to pull us upstream but to no good effect. Eventually I tied a line onto the steel safety barrier protecting the weir and using full power, dredging the shallow side of the river in the process, managed to get Harmonie round, this after about an hour of trying. VNF men were given bottles of beer for their efforts and we proceeded on our way rejoicing!

The lower Scarpe is closed at present so we continued back along the Grand Gaberit to Bassin Rond for the night where the two of us celebrated Sues actual birthday with a bottle of Shampoo followed by a bottle of very nice 2001 Volnay which helped to digest a New Zealand lamb steak then a fresh fruit salad laced with Triple Sec! We retired early that night!

The busy river Escaut is now followed through mainly industrial scenery until you reach the Belgian border where the scenery improves somewhat. At Antoing we met up with John and Judith on "Treshnish" who, after we had refuelled at the bunker boat, followed us up river to the pontoon in the pleasant city of Tournai where a medieval fair was in progress in the historic centre. There were lots of stalls selling all varieties of costumes, masks, hats etc., a falconer, giant ant like creatures growling at you, bands of wandering minstrels, knights, monks, fierce looking Vikings, cave men, shire horses, ponies and various actors giving impromptu performances. Straw was strewn around and the various restaurant staff were dressed in appropriate costumes creating an atmosphere of antiquity.

The Stadhuis at Oudenaard

At the first lock downstream you get a free permit to transit the Wallonian section of the river which at the third lock becomes the river Schelde and Flanders wants €50 for the privilege. At Oudenaard we found an excellent free mooring in a side arm of the river with coin in the slot electricity and water and the yacht club bar at the end of the 200m long wooden quay.

At the local tourist office we arranged for a guided tour of the Stadhuis which was completed in 1536 and is a magnificent example of Brabantine Gothic architecture. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor often came here due to his diet and love of women! The Hapsburg's had big problems with their jaws which were deformed due to years of incest in the family so his food needed to be swilled down with lots of beer of which the town is famous. The girls were pretty obliging too and Charles sired a few bastards on his visits. A soldier who on one occasion was supposed to keep a look out for this distinguished visitor to arrive, fell asleep on the job so Charles had no welcome. As a result the poor soldier was told he may never sleep again and his gilded brass statue stands atop the belfry of the stadhuis with a pair of spectacles on his head. This is the origin of the silversmiths and tapestry weavers marks, a pair of spectacles, of which the stadhuis contains a splendid collection of both. There is a tapestry in Blenheim showing Marlborough at the battle of Oudenaard which he won 200 years ago.

We had an uneventful trip back to Gent where we tied up for the winter.

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