The day started for me with my morning trip to the local boulangerie in Sillery for une baguette et deux pain au chocolats. Cy had a few jobs to do before setting off, so once we had enjoyed our pastries, I did a grocery shop and a diesel run. Fortunately the supermarket here was very close to the canal so not too much of a mirthless trudge.
We got going at around midday, weather was fair and we had a busy day ahead with a few more ascending locks, then a tunnel at the summit and then the descending locks. The tunnel and most of the locks went without incident.
The locks were still of the variety that required catching the twisty pole to activate them. We reached our last one for the day just before 6pm. I had read in the guidebook that this was the time that the locks stopped for this section of canal (different sections have different hours of operation). The lock was activated, the red and green lights showed, the gates were already open and we patiently waited for the light to go to green. And we patiently waited, and we patiently waited and then we just waited. Eventually, in a bit of a dither of whether to give it a try or give up and tie to the bank for the night, we got a bit too close and kind of ended up being sucked in by the flow anyway.
Lots of the locks seem to have overflow sluices by the entrance which can make for some interesting currents on entering or leaving. Once we were in, we threw our lines onto the bollards, and lifted the activation rod inside the lock. Nothing. We tried again, optimistically, but with the same result. It was now just after 6pm and our assumption was that the mechanism had been switched off. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would spend the night here and settled in. We were back onto ascending locks, so the idea of spending the night at the bottom of a concrete chamber wasn’t too appealing, but never mind.
I was starting to prepare dinner and Cy had one of the engines apart to clear the cooling water intake. Imagine our surprise (and embarrassment) when half an hour later a lady from VNF pulled up in her van to activate the lock. When I looked a bit more closely at the book, the canal actually operated until 7pm. Once released, we motored along to the next lock and arrived dead on 7 and saw the lights switched off. This time we did tie up to the bank. There were no mooring bollards, but the banks were in a good enough state that it was safe for us to hammer in some stakes (thank you Simon) and tie up. This isn’t always the case, sometimes the banks are collapsed, full of rubble and rocks or very shallow and generally unsuitable for mooring, thankfully this section was fine. We were not far from Chalons-en-Champagne so decided to head off early the next morning and stop for a bit of a look at the town in the morning.
Next morning arrived, and as intended, we left at 7am. We arrived at Chalons at around 08:30 and tied up just in front of the lock in town. We had planned to go through and tie up on the official moorings the other side, but there were no lights on, indicating that it was not operating. The canal here is wide and there were bollards so it was a perfectly good place to tie up. Being market day we headed in that general direction, via the lock-keepers cottage just to find out if we would be able to get through later. This one was a bit unusual, in that there was a resident lock keeper. Most of them are looked after by roving eclusiers. Anyway, from what we could establish, there was no problem and it looked like the lady has just forgotten to switch it on. We wandered happily into town, and a delightful town it proved to be. A cup of coffee and croissant, a mooch around the market and a cruise around the cathedral and we were ready to move on.
Being in the Champagne region of France, there are lots of tours available but time and budget did not really permit. I did half heartedly suggest to Cy that we could go on one of the tourist boats that take you into underground caverns and so on, but he was of the opinion that we had already been through enough tunnels and why would we want to pay to go on a different boat. This seemed like fair comment, so off we went. The weather deteriorated during the afternoon and the rain became quite heavy at times. We got stuck in another lock in the afternoon, but this time had the sense to phone the VNF and were rescued quite quickly.
This canal was unfortunately very weedy indeed and we lost the use of Suzy in the late afternoon as there was so much of it wrapped around the prop. We intended to stop at Vitry-le-Francois for the night and tied up at one of the suggested places at around 18:45. It was pretty grim; the moorings were next to what looked like some sort of burned out factory or garage unit, the tow path was littered with beer cans etc. and it really didn’t seem like a great place to spend the night. Light was fading and the rain was falling pretty heavily. As soon as Cy had got the props and the water intakes clear, we headed round the corner to the official port at Vitry. By this point, visibility was a significant issue and the umbrella arrangement was doing little to prevent the rain hitting the windscreen. This left me perched outside in my waterproofs with a sopping wet cloth trying to keep it clear enough for Cy to be able to see. We got to the port and the entrance looked tiny, with a large barge blocking most of it. With the conditions as they were and our previous experiences with weed we didn’t dare attempt to go in. There was an abandoned-looking barge opposite that we perhaps could have tied to, but in the end we decided reluctantly to head back to the other spot.
A slightly anxious night ensued and we were grateful to wake up and find that we still tied up OK, not on fire or covered in graffiti. I headed off to the supermarket, primarily to purchase a squeegee as the one I had previously bought worked brilliantly the previous day, but was only used once before it broke! Cy got on with engine checks and prepping to get going. Not quite sure how, but I completely failed to locate the supermarket. This was very frustrating, as I had actually seen it from the boat the previous evening. I arrived back to the boat cold, wet and squeegeeless. Also, a bit overwrought (she was! -Cy). Cy and Doris were ready to get going and we really wanted to leave as soon as possible so off we went.
The weather was not as bad as the previous day and a new tarpaulin arrangement was a great improvement. We were now on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin which will take us all the way to Strasbourg, onto the Rhine and then into Germany. During the course of the morning we passed through our 100th lock. The canal was proving less weed-infested than the previous section and really pleasant, although mooring only seemed possible at designated stops due to the condition of the banks.
The guidebook described Pargny-sur-Saulx as a pleasant mooring, and although it wasn’t a great distance away, it seemed like a sensible stopping point. When we got there, we were delighted. It is a beautiful spot near a lovely little village. Mooring fee was 5 euro a night and water and electricity were included. We arrived at around 14:30 and thought we may get a few jobs done.
About an hour later, another boat arrived, Aroja. The couple onboard were Joan and Pete, an Aussie couple who spend three months every year on the French canals. They invited us for drinks and we spent a most enjoyable afternoon/evening in their company. They could not have friendlier and we had a brilliant time with them. Socialising 1 – Jobs/Maintenance 0, quite right too.
The next morning, I wandered up to the village for the usual une baguette et deux pain au chocolats.
Over breakfast, we decided to take a day off from travelling to get a few bits and pieces done. The frequency of locks on the forthcoming stretch of canal means that the days are likely to be quite busy for both of us. With the electricity and water supply and safe, pleasant surroundings, it seemed like a good place to stop for an extra day. We both got on well with our respective tasks. We even showered…
We said goodbye to Joan and Pete around mid morning. Joan had very kindly written down some information for us about stops and places of interest for the next stage of our journey for which we are very grateful. Later on, a UK flagged boat pulled in and we ended up having a couple of drinks with the English couple in the evening. This was Alan and Sharon who live six months in Spain and six months on their barge. This was turning out to be the place to be!