Hello and welcome to the latest blog on July 16th 2021. We began our week moored up in Epinal on the Canal des Vosges. This will be our fifth year of cruising and in that time we have visited so many towns and villages and stayed in so many ports and rural moorings, that I have lost track of many of them. Some will stand out in my memory, others are hard to recall until I see them again and then it all comes back to me.
Epinal was a case in point. We spent a couple of nights here in 2019 and I could vividly picture the quayside but remembered nothing of the town at all until we went for a stroll. As soon as I saw the European flags arranged along the river, and started to walk up to the chateau it clicked into place, like snapshots in a photo album, and I remembered it all with perfect clarity.
You may recall in the last blog that I mentioned that the canal had been closed further down towards the southern end. We heard rumours that a tunnel under the canal had collapsed, which would be a huge job and that they couldn’t find anyone to even begin to start the work, all of which sounded dire, and then we got an e-mail from the VNF saying that it would be re-opening on July 13th. So much for rumours! That still gave us some time to kill however and so we decided to put the bikes on the train and head out to a town called Rémiremont thirty minutes away where we could join a voie vert that led up into the hills. The cycle trail followed the route of an old railway line, slowly climbing through leafy forests, and it was if we had suddenly been transported into the mountains, a very different vista compared to the views along the canal. We stopped at the Gorges de Crosery for a look at the bridge and a snack.
We came back to find that three French people had arrived on their bikes. Two of them had wire baskets on the front with miniature dogs in them. The third had a trailer on the back of his bike, out of which popped another two dogs. The dogs, although I am not sure that something so small can really be called a dog, were fitted with pretty little harnesses and the party descended to the river. I had visions of the tiny creatures being swept away if they went for a swim, but they returned with dry feet, were swept up into their carriages and soft cushions, and the bike ride continued.
Our bike ride also continued and I noticed these charming sculptures in a garden next to the cycle trail.
Sunday was our last day in port and the intermittent rain which seemed to be a feature of summer this year disappeared, prompting the locals to come out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. Sitting on a boat in a port is a great way to people-watch. I sat there with my feet up on the deck rail and watched as a cross-section of humanity passed before me. Grandparents with the grandchildren for the weekend, lovers strolling hand in hand, young girls with long hair and short skirts, teenage boys doing wheelies on mopeds and finally a group of middle-aged men on gleaming Harleys parking up outside the restaurant, enjoying a drink on the terrace before putting their leathers back on, donning their helmets and leaving in a stately convoy. I am sure they must have been well aware that they were turning heads. I’m not a great lover of motorbikes but there is something about a Harley that puts it in a different class.
Unfortunately, people watching runs both ways and people love to look at boats. I can’t blame them, for I do the same thing myself, always finding time to wander along and look at the other boats whenever we moor up, but I do try not to stare and to keep my distance, particularly if the boat owners are on board. However not everyone feels that way so we had a steady procession of people lining up to take selfies, or have a group family photo, usually by the bow where my flowers are. They would have a good peer in as they passed and occasionally we would be taken aback to find a face in our doorway. After so many months of being starved of human companionship, I found myself being commendably mellow about it all for a while, but then normality re-asserted itself and I found my fingers twitching for the fly swatter, ready to use it on the next nosy child who stuck their head into the wheelhouse.
Four days in port was quite enough and so we left the next day in search of the isolated rural moorings which are the real joy of this boating life, for us anyway.
The rain came with us, the weather incredibly different from previous summers. Looking back in my diaries I saw that we had been enduring temperatures of 38 degrees in this area on our last visit, now we were down in the low teens. Where the waterways are usually running dry at this time, now they were overflowing, to the point where some of them were shutting due to such high waters. It felt as if the weather was determined to add to our sense of a world out of kilter, as if the pandemic were not enough by itself.
We had a staircase of locks to climb out of Epinal and in the rain that means getting wet. For those readers who are not boaters, the system here in France is very different to that of the UK. I am afraid I don’t know much about cruising in other parts of the world so can’t comment. The waterways here are largely automated, so we prepare the locks using a hand-held remote control. Once inside the lock, there are a set of two poles, a blue one that we push to empty or fill the lock as required, and a red one to stop the process if there is an emergency.
A single lock keeper manages a stretch of locks and can be telephoned when things don’t work properly, the most common problem being that the gates don’t open.
The staircase out of Epinal covers just three kilometres and consists of fourteen locks, one after the other, so that means being consistently outside throwing ropes onto bollards. I am unashamedly a fair-weather boater, so spending two and half hours in the rain crawling along at a snail’s pace is not my favourite way to spend the morning. However, one has to take the rough with the smooth and rainy days are not the norm so we can smile through them.
But then it rained the next day, and the next… and the next. My smile became a grimace. Where had summer gone?
Notifications from the VNF with details of canal and river closures due to high water and fallen trees were coming thick and fast: the Canal de la Meuse, the River Seille and even the Moselle, the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne, the Canal lateral à la l’Aisne, the Canal des Ardennes and the Canal du Rhone au Rhin and, lastly, two emails that affected us directly: the Canal des Vosges was blocked ahead of us due to fallen trees and the Petite Saône, two days away and the next part of our journey, was closed due to high water from the 14th to the 17th July. We squeezed ourselves into the port at Fontenoy, with two red lights at the lock confirming that the canal ahead was temporarily closed until they could remove some fallen trees, and reconciled ourselves to waiting out the delay.
This trip was beginning to feel like someone had placed a curse on it, but then we saw the news of the floods in northern Europe, particularly Germany and Belgium who were having a terrible time of it, and had to be grateful that our situation wasn’t anywhere near as bad as theirs.
Fontenoy is a one-horse town, with a boulangerie open only in the mornings, a small pharmacy and not much else about it, but it was also a hire boat base for Le Boat, one of the major French companies for holiday boating.
Given that we are now in the middle of July, this picture tells a sad story. These boats are supposed to be out on the water, full of families and groups of friends, ploughing up and down the canal and bashing into locks with gay abandon. They’re not supposed to be sitting idle in port. The pandemic will have had a catastrophic effect on business for these hire companies and a series of closures due to maintenance and flood problems is the last thing they need.
And that brings us to the end of another week, albeit a rather trying one. There is the promise of a bit of sunshine over the next few days and hopefully we will manage to get onto the Petite Saône next week, although cruising on a river after floods brings its own set of problems. I hope you have all had better weather than us this week and that I may have pictures of blue skies and sunshine from France for you soon. I plan to open a bottle of Prosecco this evening – I feel I need one!