Hello and welcome to the blog on July 9th 2021 – From Basse-Ham to Epinal
There’s something magical about the phrase ‘slipping the lines’. In practical terms it means letting the ropes go but on an emotional level it means freedom, escaping, starting a new life. For such a momentous event I felt we should be leaving under a blue sky and a warm sun, but I don’t always get what I want and so we left under glowering grey skies. So be it. What mattered was that we were off.
We began our journey on a section of the Moselle that we had covered many times before, going backwards and forwards last year in our various unsuccessful attempts to cruise into Belgium and then into the Netherlands. We’d put that plan on hold for yet another year, saving it for 2022 in the hope that things would be back to normal, and instead would spend our much reduced time of cruising this summer to bring Olivia Rose a bit closer to home and also to find a port where we could get her lifted out over the winter for remedial work and a paint job. By the end of August we planned to be in Gannay sur Loire, on the Canal latéral à la Loire and that was where our cruising would end for this season, leaving us in a good position to head north in 2022.
The Moselle has an industrial past, and although there are nowhere near so many commercial barges as there used to be, they still have a strong presence. They carry coal, wood, sand and grain and as we made our way slowly south we passed commercial quays with piles of coal, stacked up like a series of ebony-coloured pyramids, and could smell the acrid dust in the air. I seemed to be more aware of the pollutants of our industrialised society than in previous years and wondered if it was because we have spent the last ten months in the clean mountain air.
Our first mooring was in Metz and by the time we arrived the sun was out. Glorious, elegant, affluent, and immaculate Metz. Although I am generally no lover of cities I make an exception for this one. It is small enough to easily be explored on foot and is a feast for the eyes. Gracious architecture and manicured parklands are a joy to wander through and each time we visit I find something new. The port here is a five minute stroll from the city centre and costs 15€ for the night – considerably cheaper than a hotel.
Unfortunately it is also a noisy place. The motorway, so often an unwelcome companion on these big rivers, runs right across the opposite side of the lagoon in which the marina sits, and the 24-hour roar of traffic can make sitting out on deck an unpleasant experience. The marina is situated in a beautiful park, which has its downside as the youth of the city like to congregate here. We had one group with a loud beat box thumping for hours, and another group sitting on the grass playing a guitar, so much nicer, but unfortunately no match for the combined might of the motorway and big speakers. And then we were woken up at 3.30 am by a group of youngsters daring each other to jump onto the pontoon right by our boat. They didn’t take it the logical step further of jumping onto the boat itself, which I know fellow boaters have had the joys of experiencing, and they didn’t stay long. This is one of the realities of this life, although thankfully it doesn’t happen too often, and you just have to get used to it. Perhaps we should have bought our neighbours gun from Le Shack with us…… tempting.
The next few days saw the welcome return of a different set of creatures as kingfishers and herons became our regular companions. There seemed to be more herons than ever this year, regularly visible in trees along the river bank, perched in the foliage like scrappy bits of storm-tossed rags, but then the rag would ponderously flap its wings and lift off, glaring at us through beady eyes for disturbing it.
At the bottom of the Nancy embranchement we joined the Canal des Vosges. This was another one of those ‘moments’ for this was the point we got to last year and then ground to a halt at the mooring in Richardmenil. What was supposed to be a short-term problem on the canal had turned into a bigger issue and they were forced to close it for the year, so we had to turn around and head back. I had been looking forward to mooring here again but surprisingly it was full and so we headed on past and found ourselves a space on the bank a few kilometres further on.
As you can see from the picture above, we didn’t stay on our own for long. A thirty- nine-metre-long hotel barge arrived just as the locks closed for the day, owned by an English couple who were on their way to Strasbourg to begin their season. A quick internet search showed us that their three en-suite cabins were fully booked for what was left of 2021, their passengers wealthy Americans who could afford to spend $14,000 for two people for a seven day cruise.
The weather continued to be unpredictable, wet and sometimes cold, and very different to previous visits to this part of France where we had flung ourselves into any stream we could find just to cool down. Now we passed by old bathing spots and wrapped our fleeces tight around us.
Only three days after joining the Canal des Vosges a lock-keeper came to tell us that there had been some structural damage, possibly a slippage of the bank, although details were scarce. The problem had occurred down at the southern end so we could keep cruising until we reached it but the canal was closed at that point, hopefully for no more than two weeks until they could repair it. This felt horribly like deja-vu and, although a different problem in a different part of the canal, the story could easily turn into a re-run of last year.
However we are choosing to believe that they will fix it until we hear otherwise and have been lucky enough to find a good mooring with electricity in the port of Epinal. Normally it only cost 9€ to moor here, but they are in the process of handing the management of the port over to the bike-hire office and haven’t worked out their fee structure yet, so we can stay here for free for at least a week. Sometimes I just love French inefficiency – although other times I don’t.
This port was also full, which we didn’t expect, our fellow boaters French, Dutch and German, and most of them were staying here until they knew what was happening with the repairs approximately fifty kilometres away. They told us tales of the mooring spots further down already being clogged up with boats who can’t get through, so we have decided to stay here for longer than we expected. The Frenchman on the boat next to us is heading off to Paris for a week and asked us to keep an eye on his boat. He said that he had been cruising in France for ten years and this would be his last. He was heading north to Belgium and the Netherlands, exactly as we have been trying to do for the last two years. Sadly, he felt that there were just too many problems now on the French waterways system, too many things breaking down or waterways blocked, and that it was much better further north. This mirrors our experience, and not all of the problems can be blamed on the pandemic although it certainly hasn’t helped.
A sad state of affairs because seeing this beautiful country from her waterways has been a privilege. Nothing stays the same forever.
But for now we shall enjoy our free stay and not look too far ahead. We will cycle up the canal to look at the next mooring and see how blocked up it is for ourselves and there are plenty of nice days out from here on the bikes, particularly if we take the train as well. Now that we have shore power again, we have the use of our proper full-size oven, which means we are going to enjoy roast chicken tonight with all the trimmings. And I might even make a cake tomorrow – unless I can persuade Michael to do it as it will taste better if he makes it. Despite all this uncertainty we are still overjoyed to be back on board and, if anything, it makes us realise how important it is to enjoy each day and make the most of it.
Hope you are all well and see you next week.