(38) Petit Rhone and Mighty Rhone – May/June 2012.

As on our previous stop-over we found the wild mooring on the Petit Rhone very ‘Africa Queen’, but unlike before we were ready for the mozzie witching hour of about 8.45pm. There was lots of birdsong and particularly a cuckoo……..do they call them that over here too?

The river level was much higher than before with the pontoon only a few inches above the surface and Peter kept a watchful eye on the mooring lines.

Small pontoon but very solid – recently refurbished galvanised steps too.

The next day I decided to cycle to St Gilles – having spent several days there two yeas ago I knew exactly where everything was.

On my bike, with rubbish bag in one hand and recycling bag in the other, I set off along the raised embankment towards the main road. Within minutes I was being chased by a small (and quick) Jack Russell dog which snapped at my ankles as I weaved precariously along trying to shoo it away with one or other bag of rubbish. Fortunately I neither fell off nor cycled down the embankment into the river!

I was soon on the main road into town and shopping in the Lidl and Intermarche which boasted being at the ‘Doors to the Camargue.’

As I loaded my purchases onto the bike I realised that I had a puncture. Very annoying as it was a good thirty minute walk back to the barge. I stopped in the shade and considered my options. Having never repaired a punctured bike tyre even though I had a spare inner tube, I decided it was beyond me. My real concern was the snappy dog near the mooring. I texted Peter with my plight and said I’d text again when I was nearer so that he could come with a stick and protect me. In the midday heat I walked on and to my relief as I neared the river, Peter was cycling towards me complete with a stout stick.

He replaced the inner tube and we cycled back avoiding the dog by taking a lower route. Spooky……my only other puncture of the entire barging experience so far had been here two summers ago – strong thorns!!

New steps up the steep bank – a quiet spot and easy access to St. Giles.

After that I have to admit to being somewhat reluctant to venture into St Gilles again, in spite of needing to stock up some more before we tackled the Rhone.  My ‘Pooh sticks’ Physics was indicating that the current was reducing slightly and Peter could see that the level had dropped by several inches.

We decided to leave the next day as long as there was no more rain. At this point I should explain that when we cruised down the Rhone two years ago we had been unable to buy a Rhone Waterways Guide and had relied on one page in a general waterways book. We had marked relevant information on the page as we went and decided to use it for the return trip. This and our Rhone Locks freebie (presented somewhat belatedly to us in lock 5 that same summer,) would have to suffice.

The morning of 31st May dawned bright and sunny and we left at 8am. The remaining 16 km of the Petit Rhone were completed in just over two hours so we were averaging about 8km/hr.

At the junction with the Rhone we could see that it was flowing very quickly through the narrow section above Arles. We were only averaging 4-5km/hr and considered turning back and using the other pontoon mooring at Fourkes.

Joining ‘The Mighty Rhone’ flowing faster than we anticipated.

Our scariest moment was at an old stone bridge near Beaucaire where Peter had to fight to get us through the churning, cascading water without hitting the supports.

Not a pleasant experience through the arch – had to fight hard to keep straight.

The relative calm at Beaucaire lock was a relief, although we had to ‘tread water’ for several minutes while waiting to enter. Despite the amount of water shifted, the lock was very calm and aided by the floating bollards which screeched their way up as they had screeched their way down last time. After the lock, we made better time and decided against cruising up the spur to Avignon having spent a week there previously. Instead we opted to make for Avignon lock and hopefully moor on the lock pontoon above for the night.

Fully laden – a commericial headed downstream. Just how long would it take him to stop?

We approached the lock as the light was red and waited on the pontoon below. I had already asked if we could stop after the lock for the night. Unfortunately, something was lost in translation and we waited in vain for the light to turn green after two long commercial barges came out.

After unsuccessfully radioing, phoning and walking up to the lock, we realised that we were there for the night. Peter wasn’t happy and subsequently did all the VHF communication with the lockkeepers on the Rhone and Saone. They seem to respond more readily to a male foreign voice !

Sign on the lock pontoon. English is such an uncomplicated language !

The next morning we were on our way and in the lock by 8.30am, so we had not lost any time after all. As forecast, the wind picked up considerably, producing masses of white horses on the river and a splashy bow wave. I was keeping a note of our speed using the PKs on the banks of the river and we were averaging 8km/hr.

After another lock, we were soon anticipating arriving at St Etienne-des-Sorts which had been a haven for us after a long day on the journey down. As we approached it became clear that the pontoon had gone and so we moored rather oddly to a passenger boat mooring hoping to do some shopping and wine tasting at the local cave co-op we had visited before. The one and only ‘sells and does everything’ shop was closed and as the cave boasted ‘Ouverte Toute l’Annee’, I decided to return later. Nothing else had changed in the sleepy village.

A cobbled mooring on the passenger spot worked pretty well.

The following morning we walked in hoping to replenish both our food and wine stocks. Nothing was open so we cut our losses and left.

The one shop in town that does everything…..except open !!

Just under half an hour into our travels, the temperature gauge on the dash board went into orbit and on examination Peter discovered the engine room smoking and steaming. I was instructed to aim towards a nearby sand quay while he went below to investigate.

We managed to nurse the barge alongside an old working barge moored in the weir stream and stopped. Several expletives (very unusual for Peter) later, it was evident that he had not changed the keel cooler over from the generator to the engine before leaving St Etienne-des-Sorts!

We let the engine cool down for a couple of hours hoping no serious damage had been done then Peter went down to clear up the steamy mess below and check everything over.

I had been wondering how we would manage if the head gasket had gone as we were miles from anywhere and only had the bikes for transport.

Fortunately, St Nick (patron St of Bargees except at Christmas when he is busy elsewhere) was looking after us and we continued on our way keeping an eagle eye on the temperature gauge.

We shared the Bollene lock with a huge commercial barge 135m long, fitting in just behind her and the rest of the day was quite pleasant, the scenery improving. Our only concern was the amount and size of the flotsam which was spread over a distance of 3km and coming downstream towards us. As it was only mid afternoon we pressed on to the lock at Chateauneuf where we stopped on the pontoon above for the night.

Only just room for us in the huge lock once he was in.


A peaceful overnight at Chateauneuf with a reminder of times past on the Thames.

With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee approaching, we hoped to be able to stop somewhere for the weekend and enjoy some r and r. The weather was dull and overcast and the amount of huge and fast commercial traffic was increasing.

After Ecluse Logis Neuf we had about 10 km or so to go to reach a town quay we had marked in our waterways guide on the way down at PK133. To our relief it was available and provided free water and electricity too. We moored up just as it began to rain heavily and were able to watch the River Pageant on our computer, it being too wet to tune in the satellite dish.

Just as I was about to start cooking the evening meal we heard a loud horn and looked out to see a huge commercial barge hovering nearby. Madame explained that they needed to moor alongside the quay in order to crane their car off for Monday’s school run. Unwilling to relinquish our spot, we moved only on the understanding that we would moor outside them for the night. The captain implied that the mooring was only for commercial barges, but there were no signs to support his argument and with a fast current we weren’t going anywhere.

Well you wouldn’t want him moored outside you I guess !

A break in the rain enabled Peter to sort out the TV signal and we were soon settled again.

By 9.30 the next morning Madame was back with the car but minus the children and the barge continued on its way downstream. We resumed our quayside position.

The day was punctuated by my cycling to the shops in what we now know was the town of Le Pouzin, watching the Jubilee celebrations, receiving a visit from a pleasant chap who wanted to take some photos of his group on the barge and helping some French people moor alongside so they could walk their dog. Poor thing must have been desperate for a pee.

They left early the next morning and we watched the final day of the Jubilee celebrations before being treated to an impromptu concert on the front deck by ‘Les Gaspards’ complete with lots of photos.

A little live music on the lawn !

After returning from shopping the next day, we were hailed by a huge hovering hotel barge which wanted to moor up for half an hour. The current had slowed considerably so we decided to move on. Having taken our spot however, he was soon overtaking us at speed and we wondered why he had stopped at all.

The lock at Bourg-les-Valances definitely had the most tuneful floating bollards to date and we were pleased to moor up on the pontoon above. Oh that we had known that the lock moorings were usable two years ago.

We were joined at the pontoon by a Dutch couple on ‘Concordia’ which had been moored at Villeneuve-les-Beziers for several months. They left early the next day continuing upstream.

We had decided on a short day, aiming to stop at Toulon where we hoped to replenish our cave with some Cotes du Rhone wine having been thwarted at St Etienne-des-Sorts. Our appetites were being whetted by the numerous vineyard hoardings on the hills which swept up from the river on either bank.

Steep sloped vineyards.

We reached the Halte Nautique on the ‘Hermitage’ side of the river and were mooring on the pontoon just as our son Adam phoned to share his University results. Once we were suitably tied on, I rang him back and we were overjoyed to hear that he had achieved a ‘First’ in Maths and Computing.

The welcome signs above the pontoon looked promising and a friendly dog walking local told us where the nearest cave was. Unsure whether we were on a public mooring or not I walked up to the adjacent tourist office where pleasant but useless lady couldn’t really help. It seems that the mooring was only for ‘authorised’ boats – ie hotel boats and for some strange reason she had no idea of their itineraries.

Having been turfed off a mooring twice by bigger commercial boats, we were unwilling to leave ‘Aurigny’ for a spot of ‘degustation’ in case we had to move again.

In the end I went off on my own leaving Peter on the barge. The friendly local guided me to what looked like someone’s house and introduced me to Monsieur, a retired chap in trousers, vest and braces. She then left having explained to him that I wanted to do some wine tasting.

A bizarre half hour or so ensued as it turned out this was the chaps home and the cave was around the corner but run by his son who was not there at the moment. He offered me a very nice Cotes du Rhone vin blanc and we chatted. Well he spoke and I nodded sagely putting in the odd (hopefully relevant) comment.

We sat at a huge circular table in a room which was more like a museum than living room and full of wine making antiques and bric a brac. I even recognised the photograph of a very young General de Gaulle, proudly displayed on one wall, thereby guaranteeing another glass of wine.

It turned out that the vineyard had been in the family for five generations. I explained that I didn’t have very long as I was on a barge and might have to leave at short notice. He kept asking me if I was a parent and sadly it turned out that his son had been involved in a car crash which had left him paralysed and in a wheelchair. My companion was evidently still very upset. His son was now collecting his daughter from school and would be back soon.

Still unsure of whether I was actually going to be able to buy some wine, our stilted conversation continued aided on my part by another glass of wine. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get away.

Just before midday; his son returned by car and I discovered that the cave would be open again at 1.45pm. I thanked Monsieur and assured him that if we were still on the mooring by then we would return to buy some wine. After a cheery ‘Vous etes tres jolie’ (you are very pretty) I realised my mistake and said ‘Non. Pas jolie……………..gentil’ (not pretty……….kind)……..and made my escape.

I hoped to be able to return later, but in the event after a quick recce of other possible moorings, we decided to leave. The next lock was too close to stop so early and we needed plenty of time to reach Andance/Andancette which had a pontoon we had used before.

Very choppy with wind over current – glad we’re not going his way.

With a strong following wind we surfed along making reasonable time. As we approached Andance we looked out for the pontoon and were dismayed to see our erstwhile Dutch neighbours moored up. We slowed right down and checked out the passenger mooring opposite while hoping they would come out and offer us the chance of going along-side or move out to let us go pontoon-side with them outside us.

Sadly, although through the binoculars, I could see Madame behind the curtains in her wheelhouse watching us, they stayed well and truly out of sight until we were past when Monsieur appeared on deck, gave a wave and disappeared again! So much for neighbourliness!

Our anticipated ‘short’ day was turning into a marathon. After several more kilometres we reached the lock at Sablons and moored above it just in time for a thunderstorm. We had done 45.5 km…………..upstream!

The rain was still heavy when we left the next morning, but the river was fairly calm despite the flow against and we averaged 8km/hr. We arrived at the pretty riverside town of Vienne at 1pm and moored on the St Colombe side of the river on a pontoon. Not having stopped here before and anticipating an increase in flow after the torrential rain, we decide to stay the weekend.

A nice quiet pontoon mooring opposite Vienne.

Our mooring was very pleasant and much quieter than the quays on either side of the river. The Dutch couple arrived and waved as if nothing had happened, pointing to the quay ahead……………………..as if we would have let them join us on our pontoon!!

Vienne is an interesting town nestling in the space between the Rhone and the adjacent hills.  It has several Roman buildings including a temple, pyramid and amphitheatre all in good condition and the latter used for concerts – as many of them still are in France. There is also the imposing Cathedral of Notre Dame with an intricate façade.

While Peter rested, I went by bike to explore the town and search for a supermarket. Sod’s Law- the Leclerc was quite a distance upstream and the Aldi downstream. I missed the unlit Intermarche hidden in a housing development until after I had cycled to Aldi the next day.

As the weather improved, we enjoyed a walk up to Mont Pipet which commands a splendid view over the town and river, before stopping at a bar near the cathedral for a welcome grande biere each.

The view from the top down to the Rhone and the tiny speck of the barge on the far side.

The Roman amphitheatre below set up for a music concert and the Rhone valley.

All this hill climbing generates quite a thirst !

Saturday is market day and apparently Vienne’s is the second largest in France- although I would dispute that as I think the one at Arles is bigger. (joke) The stalls spread out along roads and into squares bringing the town to life. As always I was amazed to see so many people as the towns are normally quite empty.

As well as the ‘help yourself’ plastic bags on the fruit and veg stalls there were trays of produce for a fixed price- something I hadn’t seen before. I came away with a kilo of cherries for 3 euros, some new potatoes, a tray of four aubergines and one of three melons.

We had been monitoring the state of the current since arriving at Vienne and decided to leave on Monday 11th June providing there was no more rain overnight. I was getting increasingly annoyed and a bit seasick every time a huge commercial barge or hotel ship shot past.

The day dawned cloudy with a few patches of blue and we decided to leave. At first we made good progress, but upon entering the 18km lock cut up to the last Rhone lock at St Pierre-Benite, we slowed to 4km/hr. This made the steering even harder for Peter and having done a half hour or so recently on the much easier River Saone I don’t know how he did it.

Above the lock it was a bit easier and having already decided against mooring in the city, we pressed on. The river split with the Rhone carrying on to the right and the Saone to the left.

We passed the almost completed new marina and then spotted a red light on one of the bridges. With no explanatory signs and nowhere to moor up anyway we continued our cruise through Lyon. The river was very high, almost lapping over the lower quays along the way. We passed one barge whose captain shook his head and pointed at his radio……………should we have been ‘parlaying’ to someone?

On closer examination of our Saone Navicarte Guide I discovered a tiny mark on the bridge that had shown the red light. In equally tiny writing there was a note.  Apparently, in times of flood, traffic moves alternately through Lyon and several bridges upstream there was evidently a green light on another bridge to match our red one. Oh well we were on our way now and as no mooring is permitted between the two bridges in times of flood, we carried on.

A huge commercial barge was soon racing up behind us in the narrow river and Peter moved out of her way, but her huge echo waves stayed with us for several minutes.

The skies darkened around us as we wound our way through Lyon. Eventually the heavens opened and once again we were drenched in torrential rain. Our new navigation lights shone brightly as did our new dashboard lights which twinkled reassuringly to let us know the nav lights were on (even though we could see that from the wheelhouse!)

As the thunder banged and the lightning flashed a fork of lightning struck the bank 500m ahead of us and I wondered at the sense of being in a metal barge on water at such a time.

A Lyon ‘bateau mouche’ roared up behind us as we approached an island mid-stream. Despite poor visibility and the heavy rain he took the wrong route around the island and was soon heading downstream at speed towards us dithering about which side to pass us. Fortunately our new Blueboard flashing light ( wired in by Adam’s friend George only weeks before) was soon doing its job and he passed to starboard.

The rain stopped and the skies brightened. It had been an interesting and tiring day and we were pleased to moor up on the pontoon at Collanges au Mont d’Or for a couple of days.

Once again the current was racing and while Peter enjoyed a well earned rest from steering, I took a bus back into Lyon for a look- see. Well it is the second largest city in France and worth a visit.

The bus followed the river into the city and I got off when the ‘Eiffel’ tower and basilica looked fairly close. They were across the river set on a hill top and with no funicular in sight, I began the steep climb to the top.

View over Lyon.

The views over Lyon from the esplanade were worth the climb and the Basilica was quite interesting with its two separate areas for worship one on top of the other. It was undergoing serious refurbishment and the scaffolding inside looked somewhat incongruous.


I wandered out and found the funicular, deciding I could easily manage the walk down. My route took me past the well preserved Roman remains which included two amphitheatres, both set up for summer concerts.

At the bottom, I explored the ‘Vieux Lyon’ area some more and took shelter in the Church of St Jean during yet another rain shower. It had some lovely stained glass windows and a fine astronomical clock.

A walk across the Saone and I was soon in the administrative and shopping area which is sandwiched between the two rivers.  A short distance away was the River Rhone which was flowing very fast.

It was six hours since I had left the barge so I found the right bus stop and was soon heading back to Collanges reflecting on all I had seen.

We hoped that the river would calm down some more over night so that we could continue our journey north.

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