Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Boat Trip Along The Marne

I thought we'd be on a little miniature flat barge with lace curtains, waving to people in small villages as we went through them. Mom thought we'd be on a smallish yacht, stopping every few hours to visit champagne houses along the side of the canal. John knew better, and said, "We're going to be camping. In the rain. On a boat." And he was right.

It looked bigger on the website ...

But it was a lot of fun, actually. The locks were either automatically opened or controlled by signaling with a twist of a pole hanging out over the middle of the canal, and closed with the lift of a blue vertical rod once in the canal. "Don't lift the red bar!" we were told. "That rings an alarm and everything shuts down!" It took Mom and me several days to get the hang of the ropes and the boat hook, and there was much discussion of vectors and how pulling in on the front rope swings the back of the boat sharply to the other side of the canal, and John sat in the captain's chair trying to compensate for our often random flailings about with said ropes and hooks, but only occasionally having to leap out of his chair to come to the deck and fix things. And he didn't have to fish us out of the canal water once. Which was a good thing, because it was filthy. Dead fish floated by occasionally, and our boat - and probably all of the other boats as well - flushed all waste directly into the canal water. We saw people fishing at the docks and by the side of the canal, and shuddered.

It took a while to drive up from Provence, and the locks close at 6pm, so we stayed the first night at Mareuil-sur-Ay, and had dinner at a little bistro on the corner. The waitress/cook/co-owner was very friendly and nice, but misinterpreted John's request for a medium-cooked steak as "slightly more seared than normal" and it was fairly raw. Mom and I had mussels and fries, and they were good. We all had mussels and fries when we got back to home port five days later, and they were even better the second time. A lively group of friends was at the bar, and champagne corks were popping every 15 minutes or so, though I learned later that the bottles were 30 euros a pop. We drank a nice white wine, and a rosé that wasn't nearly as good as the ones in Provence. We decided to stick to champagne from then on.

The next morning we visited some of the independent champagne makers in Cumières and Damery, two of the small villages in that region that are packed with winemakers. We could have easily spent a week in any of them and still not been able to visit all the local producers; we could have stayed two weeks in Mareuil-sur-Ay, sleeping on the boat, and not made it to all the houses there alone. The boat wasn't exactly an ideal place to spend two weeks, however, as it was cold cold cold at night (the weather was, we were told by everyone, unusually horrible that week). There was only a small space heater that while relatively efficient didn't combat the damp chill entirely, and we couldn't take a shower on the boat because the hot water was really hot and came out in the bathroom shower head/sink faucet alternately boiling and freezing. Cooking was done on two gas burners, and we ate a lot of bread and salami and cheese.

We only went a few hours the next day, up to Condé-sur-Marne, where the canal de l'Aisne à la Marne meets the main Marne canal. It was cold but not raining until the very end, and I enjoyed sitting outside watching the trees slide by and listening to the birds sing. There are only two locks and a turning bridge between Mareuil-sur-Ay and Condé-sur-Marne, and there were no other boats, as it was a holiday Monday and none of the barge traffic was running.

Between Condé-sur-Marne and Sillery, where we went next, there are eleven locks and a tunnel. The first eight locks take you up fairly steeply and quickly to the tunnel du Mont de Billy and then there are three locks that go back down to Sillery. We didn't have to wait going through on the way towards Reims that Monday, but when we came back on Thursday afternoon there were many more people on the water, pleasure boats and cruise barges and freight barges going in both directions. We moored up behind a large boat and a barge, and two other boats pulled in behind us. We waited for two boats to come through the tunnel, and then nearly got smashed between the barge ahead of us and the boat behind us because the barge driver forgot he was running in reverse, or something like that, while he was unmooring his barge (he didn't have anyone else helping, while all other boats we saw had at least two people aboard). I was on the shore holding both bow and stern ropes in preparation for casting off (see how I used those nautical terms?) and spent several tense moments trying to move our boat back while preventing it from slamming into the boat behind us. We had to tie up again because the light turned red, and after another forty minutes (20 for the boats ahead of us to go through, 20 for the boat coming in the other direction) we finally made it into the tunnel. And then we had to stop again at the first lock after the tunnel, because the barge driver who nearly smashed into us earlier had smashed his propellers into the lock gates, and he was stuck in the lock banging on gears with a large mallet. Fortunately the VNF (Voies navigables de France) has people on call, and a woman drove up and offered advice to the driver, and when he finally got clear of the lock mechanism she was able to manually drain the lock and get him down and out onto the canal. She restarted the lock sequence for us, and when we got out the barge had pulled over to the side so we could go by, though when we looked back a few minutes later he'd drifted into the middle and was blocking the canal crosswise. We knew there were at least two boats behind him, and we crossed a barge and another boat heading up to that lock, and were glad to get out of the way. Later that evening, as we were walking from a champagne tasting in Condé-sur-Marne, we saw the barge go by, but this time it was being driven by a VNF official. We speculated that the driver was inebriated, inept, or both. Mom and I were fairly inept at times, but we only became inebriated after the boat was moored - at which point the champagne corks flew.

At Sillery we had expected to be able to take a shower and maybe do some laundry, but the harbormaster never showed up and never answered any of my increasingly frantic calls. Fortunately John spotted two women going in to clean the (closed) shower and toilet facility, and I ran over and said that we were in desperate need of soap and hot water, and they allowed us in for a quick 5-minute cleanse. We were asked to not tell anyone they let us in, so I'm hoping that the harbormaster doesn't read this, or if s/he does there won't be any negative consequences. And it was the harbormaster's fault in any event. It felt so good to be clean and - at least temporarily - warm.

By the time we'd gone through a dozen locks, Mom and I figured that we had the routine down. Well, mostly. Luckily all but three of the locks going back to the Marne canal were "down" locks which are much easier, as you don't have to try to lasso pilings that are six feet overhead. The canal was easy to navigate, unlike the Marne river, which was running fast and flooded. We met a British couple who had come down from Paris on the Marne, and they said it was a scary time, with barges coming at them and having to fight the current. We'd been told that we shouldn't try to take our little low-powered boat on the Marne, and if we had we probably would have been swept downstream with no way to get back. I was content to sit on the green still canal, with the brown muddy river rushing by on the other side of the trees.

We fed bread to the swans, and then fended them off with a boat hook when one hissed and tried to bite my face as I was leaning over to unwind a rope. We drank hot coffee and tea in the morning to chase off the chill of the nights, and read books and took walks, and drank lots of champagne. I would do a boat trip like this again, though perhaps with a slightly larger boat with a working shower. And champagne, of course.

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