|Going uphill means it's back to the roof for me to slip the ropes round the bollard - and yes, that's a goat!|
We wanted to stop at Ay again, just a short hop from Cumieres, to visit some different champagne houses to those we’d done the previous year so set off under a cloudy sky, through the lock at Epernay arriving at Ay around lunchtime. We took advantage of the Leclerc nearby to top up on Diesel and some groceries, had some lunch and got ourselves ready to go into the town. Meanwhile the local lock-keeper had appeared to do his checks on the section of canal he’s responsible for. We asked him about all the commercial traffic and he confirmed what we thought, that there was a breach on the Marne/Aisne up towards Rheims and so the commercials were coming this way instead.
Then, looking forward to an afternoon of tastings, we headed into the pretty town. Our first stop was Bollinger. Although we like the small independent houses, which tend to be cheaper, it’s such a famous one that we thought we should visit while we were here, and it would be good to see if there is a difference in the champagne or are you really just paying for the name? We found Bollinger easily but couldn’t find the Reception, or Accieul. We did find an electrician working in an electrical room so asked him and he pointed us to the main gate, which had looked locked, but when we tried it, opened and we went in and crossed the courtyard.
|The pretty town of Ay with the unwelcoming Champagne houses :(|
We headed towards the open door to the left of the staircase and a lady came out to assist us, but on asking if we could visit and taste/buy some champagne explained that they are not open to the public and it’s only wine professionals that they take on appointment only for visits. We must have looked suitably disappointed though as she then said that there was a small group in the ‘shop’ just now, but if we waited a couple of minutes for them to finish, she would let us in for a look. So we waited, but it wasn’t really worth it. There was a showcase with bottle-openers and other Bollinger branded kitchen things, and bottles of champagne displayed around the room, the cheapest of which was 43 euros! The most expensive was 960 euros (a 2007 vintage) and the special 007 (James Bond) edition 160 euros. She said they are in the process of opening to the public to do visits and tasting but it’ll probably not be up and running until next year. We thanked her and left, not taking to long to decide that whilst we might have treated ourselves to a 43 euro bottle, we weren’t prepared to do it without a taste first.
So with our thirst unquenched for the moment we headed on to the next house on our list, Champagne Geoffroy. There was a lot of clinking and lorry noises from the yard of this house, but there was an Accieul sign saying it was open, so we went in. The little office was empty, but computers were on and jackets over chairs so we ventured into the room opposite to find ourselves in a tasting room. We hung around, coughed loudly but no one appeared, so we went out and hovered around the yard, spotted by the men busy with the lorries and bottles, we returned to wait in the tasting room. A few minutes later a harassed Geoffroy came in and we said we’d like to taste and buy some champagne. That was fine, he’d get his wife to come and help us, however, he reappeared a few minutes later, with the wife apparently busy, and rushed us through two tastes, sold us two bottles and quickly got back to his bottling. Well, at least we’d had a little taste but we’d been keen to try the rose as well but weren’t offered anything more than the two whites. Ah well, never mine, there were plenty more to try.
Back in the centre of the town we entered the courtyard of Pierre Labouef Champagne, passing the Open sign on our way in. The doors were open but before we could get in and make ourselves comfortable, a girl appeared and on hearing our request to taste and buy explained that they were actually closed and in fact, she should really close the doors…… which she did, behind us as we left………… She’d suggested the guy across the road or around the corner, so we went in around the corner and hung around another deserted tasting area waiting….. Eventually a burly wine grower arrived and on hearing the now well-formed words, “Nous voudrons deguster et acheter du champagne s’il vous plait?”, looked at us like we had horns and declared in great horror, “I’m far too busy to do that, you have to make an appointment, no, I’m too busy.” And ushered us out. We must have looked despondant because he then thawed slightly and asked where we were from. When I said Scotland, he said we had done well in the rugby. Yes. But I wanted to taste your champagne and you said no, so fuck off. Was how I felt but clearly I smiled and bid him Merci, Au revoir……..
I’d suffered enough rejection for the day, Mike was keen to continue trying but we headed out of town and back to the boat via Leclerc, where we bought a dozen bottles of various champagnes that were all on offer for under 20 euros a bottle.
Slightly soured at Ay’s attitude to us, we were tempted to just leave and go on to Mareuil-sur-Ay to our favourite house from last year, Philippe Benard, but it’s a nice mooring at Ay, so we stayed the night and continued on to Marieul the next morning.
One of the hotel boats was on the quay at Marieul when we pulled up early afternoon so we moored just at the entrance to the port on a grass quay using one bollard and a pin at the front. We headed up to Philippe Benard, passing Champagne Saumon, who Mike had emailed but they’d said they had no tours on that day, sorry. Our haven of champagne tranquillity at Benard was closed. We were absolutely gutted. Our vision of loading up the boat with champagne for the next few months was quickly disappearing and tainting our love for the region and stretch of canal. There are no other champagne makers in Marieul, well, within walking distance, so we resigned ourselves to the fact our dozen Leclerc bottles and the three bought at Cumieres would have to be it. In a last blast of determination (or desperation – you decide), Mike nipped up to Benard’s at 6pm and successfully shouted to someone in the yard behind the locked gates and booked us a tasting at 9am the next morning!!
We didn’t quite make 9am, but were through the gates by 9.30am and warmly welcomed by the delightful Lucy Benard, the daughter of the couple we met last year. Mum and dad were on holiday and brother Johan was out on the vines so Lucy would attend to us today. She didn’t speak any English, but we had a lovely hour or so with her tasting the champagne and then had a tour around the cave, which we hadn’t done last time. Their caves go 2 metres below the main road of the town, quite fascinating. The thing we love about this house is that it really is a truly family affair. Lucy and Johan are the fourth generation to take over the business when their dad retires and they and their mum and dad do all the work in themselves, apart from some helping hands at harvest time. Even Johan’s 12 year old twins help out and one was driving one of the tractors into the yard as we left.
After our tour, we stocked up and Lucy kindly drove us back down to the port with our boxes which we stashed away and got ready to leave.
A couple of locks on, we caught up with the hotel barge and sat behind them until they turned off at the junction with the Marne/Aisne and we continued on the Lateral towards Vitry le Francois. It’s not the most exciting bit of canal, less so the second time around, but we were getting excited as at Vitry we’d turn onto new ground and enter the Marne au Rhin, which would take us all the way to Strasbourg.
|There are lots of old lime kilns along the final stretch of the Lateral de la Marne as you approach Vitry|
|Hmmmm..... which way I wonder.......|
|Last year we turned right, this year we turned left. This is looking back where we came from.|
|Leaving the industrial outskirts of Vitry le Francois|
And of course each canal has its own style of lock huts…..
Unfortunately at our second lock we got a longer look at the hut than we wanted when we entered the lock, which was automated, activated the blue pole, the gates closed and then nothing happened. I buzzed the buzzer on the lock hut but it crackled and nothing happened. Luckily the phone number in the du Briel guide was, for once, correct and control at Bar le Duc said someone would come and help. Little did we know that calling Bar le Duc would become a regular occurrence…….
The lock-keeper arrived after 20 minutes or so and got us up and through the lock. He laughed when I said it was our first time on this canal as the second lock in causing a problem wasn’t exactly a good impression. I should have been warned when he shouted, maybe see you later, as we left……..
After a long day, we were pleased to reach our mooring, which was slightly tucked away meaning we didn’t see the elderly fisherman’s line until it was being pulled under the boat……… He and his daughter managed to hold the rod as we went into neutral to try and stop it pulling, but she ended up cutting it free. He was remarkably nice about it, well, he was on the public mooring so….. We chatted briefly about where we were from etc as they packed up as they were just finishing for the day anyway.
We had another long day on Monday 21st May so were fairly quick off the mark at 9.30 only to get held up at first lock. Lock problems were to become a stand-out feature of the Marne au Rhin, which was a shame as it is an absolutely beautiful canal. We also began to recognise when we would have a problem as some of the locks were very unkempt with overgrown grass and the mechanisms covered in what looked like years worth of slime and it tended to be those that the gates wouldn’t open/wouldn’t close or the pole mechanism wouldn’t start the lock operating. I was getting quite chummy with the chap at Bar le Duc………
|Cute abandoned lock-keeper's house just waiting to be snapped up!|
|Goat on Lock Patrol|
|Thankfully the lift-bridges are operated by the lock keepers allowing us into the lock.|
|Another nice rural, if slightly overgrown, mooring on night two at Mussey.|
|We spotted quite a few of these little trains along the way, this one was at Bar le Duc (where we waved to our friends at control!). They used to pull the boats along.|
|I only realised just how rude these gnomes are when I looked at the photograph!!! Tut tut Mr Gnome - put it away!!|
We finally reached the port at Ligny-en-Barrois, where I gladly accepted a glass of wine from the Australian couple next to us on ‘Parce-Que’ even though it was Monday and a non-wine night – it had been a long day.
Worse was to come.
The next morning it was a strike day in France, the National Sport, as one lock-keeper had put it on the Loire. I had called my mate at Bar le Duc the previous evening and he confirmed the locks would be open but if they broke down there may not be anyone to come and sort it and we could be stuck, but suggested I phoned at 10am that morning and demande, “Quelle est le situation?” and they would be able to advise whether we should go or not. I was knackered and really fancied a day in the nice town taking time to stock up as we had no food apart from two baguettes the Australians had given us as they had excess, so was hugely disappointed when at 9.40am the French couple in the cruiser across the port honked, waved and went on their way the same way we were going. Clearly they had phoned already and been told it was okay to go, so a few minutes later we made our way out of the port and waited for the lock to set. Mike had spotted that there was a mooring above this lock right next to the Aldi supermarket, so we’d stop for shopping there. Well, there were two yellow bollards to moor onto, but only about a foot of water at the side of the canal and no way we could pull in. So, foodless we carried on the hundred yards to the next lock. The lock set, gates opened and up we went. Waited at the top for the gates to open to let us out and nothing happened. Waited, waited and eventually Mike went off to the supermarket and I phoned my mate and waited for the lock-keeper to arrive. The lock-keeper’s first attempt to open the gates didn’t work, so he went into the hut to try a more complex button to press and it worked and I slunk out, going as slowly as possible as I was still waiting on Mike coming from back from the shop. I finally saw him in the distance and hung back, but couldn’t get into the side to get him, so he had to continue up to the next lock, where another lock-keeper had arrived (thinking we were having a problem hence the hanging about), but this time we got through no problem. Looking back, the last lock was still on two red lights and the second lock-keeper went back to help his mate while we continued on. We were now well behind our schedule to reach our mooring for the night but as more locks broke down and we waited for the eclusier to come we figured they would keep us going until we were out of the chain of locks we were in. At one lock only one gate opened to let us out, but being just a wee thing, we slipped through!! As it neared 6pm, we still had at least an hour’s worth of cruising and locks to do and normally the lock-keepers will say to you that it’s time to stop, especially if there are no moorings further on. Unfortunately the nice, chatty friendly eclusier from the morning had been replaced by Mr Grumpy doesn’t speak at all, so as we pulled out of a lock with a nice mooring next to it, nothing was said and having had words with Bar le Duc earlier about all the problems we were having and what was now a two-hour delay to our day, we thought they would just keep us going through, as usually they are quite diligent about boats being able to moor up safely and won’t leave you in the middle of a chain, or on a pound between locks where there are no proper moorings.
Not up north it seems. We got up one more lock, with no sign of the eclusier, and as I looked back as we left, the lights went out, meaning it’s now shut. So when we reached the next lock 10 minutes later it was in darkness and we stuck, with no suitable mooring. And in fact, a sloping side to the canal which meant we couldn’t pull in. Mike phoned Bar le Duc, explained the situation and said they’d need to keep the locks open until we were through the chain, but eventually getting nowhere, the chap hung up. Mike rang back. Different guy. Hung up on us. Tried again, no answer……….. They weren’t interested that we were in a pound, couldn’t pull in, no mooring. We looked around and saw a bit of the side had been cut back, probably by a fisherman, so made our way back to that and although we couldn’t get right in to the side due to the sloping wall, got in close enough for Mike to leap off and secure the rear line round and EDF pole. We then pinned the front rope on and Mike made some temporary fenders from old bottles attached to mooring pins to sink and stop us banging against the sloping wall all night. It was a really pretty, rural location, but I was fizzing as I’d thought we shouldn’t have moved at all today and now that had been proved – but just a bit too late. I went for a walk to chill out a bit whilst Mike worked on the temporary fenders. When I returned, his shoes and socks were drying on the stove as he’d slipped in going between the land and boat at one point. Naughty VNF leaving us there and not telling us to moor up earlier on a proper mooring!!
|The beautiful scenery did its best to pacify us as we had problem after problem with the locks :(|
|I bumped into these lovely cows on my walk.|
|Our non-mooring mooring for the night on a sloping wall and tied to the EDF pole at the back!|
We didn’t even have to call the next morning to get them to set the lock for us. It was open and on a green light at 9am exactly and we continued on until we got stuck at the next lock and waited for the eclusier to come and help. It was the nice chatty eclusier and I told him what an awful day we had yesterday with all the problems and he agreed and said they were having lots of problems with the gates. However, we continued on and were soon going through the Tunnel de Mauvages, the second longest tunnel in France which you used to get towed through, but now are accompanied by an eclusier on a bike.
|Approaching the lock, the old cables are still overhead from when they used to tow the boats through.|
|And safely out the other end - you can just see the eclusier's bike outside the hut on the right.|
|Straight after the tunnel is a manned double lock which is really deep - this is looking back to it.|
From here we were back to downhill locks, and having been going uphill for a month now, were looking forward to a slightly easier cruise. However, at the first lock nothing happened, clearly the sensor hadn’t picked us up and Mike had to buzz the control to get it started………sigh………..
However, we arrived in Void, thinking we might just stay a couple of hours and continue on, but the rain came, so we stayed, moored alongside a large barge as there was no room on the quay.
|We managed a quick walk around Void until the heavens opened.|
|And when they did, they didn't half!!! We sheltered in a little tunnel between buildings for 15 minutes until the worst was passed.|
Void was a nice wee town and we bought some lovely nougat in the shop selling local produce of the region, and a lovely cake of soap for my birthday – my significant birthday that was the following day.
As a birthday treat, on Thursday 24th, Mike made the morning tea (assisted by post-its giving instructions, left by me the previous night) and went to the bakers for some pastries and croissants for a birthday breakfast. Then we headed off on a two-hour, lock-free cruise – wooohooooo – another birthday treat!!
|Opportunity for a 'Jump' shot going over an aqueduct.|
|Reaching the junction where turning left takes you through this lock onto the Meuse|
|We remained on the Marne au Rhin heading for Toul|
|Happy Birthday to Me!!!|
|Birthday mooring at XXXXXX|
The next day took us to Toul where there is a lovely port and we booked in for two nights to give ourselves a bit of a break. After a wander around the town, we had my birthday dinner at Table de Victor, which is close to the port and a great little restaurant.
Saturday was a day to relax and the furthest we wandered from the boat was about 20 metres to the little bar bistro where we whiled away a few pleasant hours with a bottle of Chablis and some charcuterie. Back at the boat later on, we saw that our neighbours had returned back to their boat Liberte, and we met with Flora and Doug, originally from Gareloch, now from Hawick, and after chatting between boats, for some 20 minutes, then joined them on board for a drink. They have been boating in France for 11 years, so lots of experience and had just returned from visiting their new and first Grandchild Sophie. We had a lovely evening with them and might see them later in the season as they are also heading south this year to the Canal du Midi.
After a good long spell of shorts weather, Sunday dawned a bit drizzly and overcast as we left the port for our last couple of days cruising for a while.