(47) Canal de la Marne au Rhin and Canal de la Meuse. March/April 2013

 After adding 400 litres of red diesel, 80 litres of white diesel and replacing the broken impeller on our waste tank pump, we were ready to leave Toul on Wednesday 27th March – a few days earlier than usual. We had intended using the Canal de la Marne au Rhin towards Paris, but Duncan informed us that part of it would be closed during April, so we decided to head north up the Canal de la Meuse and onto the Canal des Ardennes.

Hastily loaded bike in the first lock.

We had dropped the car up at the station, and craned the motor cycle back on to the barge at the lock, waved off by Louise and Alex who would follow on tomorrow. The only word to describe the cruise on that first day is ‘COLD’ and it took me several hours to thaw out once we had finished as I had spent much of the time on deck.  Annoyingly, our long rubber fenders (‘glissoirs’) kept getting caught on the lock gates which broke the ropes and Peter decided to reposition them and reduce the number we are using to four- which is much better.

En route we negotiated our first tunnel of the season at Foug, which was surprisingly smooth-sided; unusual for dark narrow tunnels in our experience and we eventually stopped at Pagny-sur-Meuse on the pontoon.

The next morning was warmer, but I was taking no chances and donned thermal base layers as a precaution. After about an hour, we turned off onto the Canal de la Meuse. We would be heading downhill  for a while and had been given a remote control zapper at the lock prior to the tunnel. It was one of the ones you aim at a receiver which is a couple of hundred meters from the lock.

We stopped at Commercy for a couple of days (known for its rather grand Chateau and the Velodrome which was originally built by German POWs). With electrics at 3 Euros for 8 hours we could top up the batteries. It also gave me the opportunity to take the train back to Toul to collect the car, looking out for Riccall as I went. Later that afternoon she arrived and that evening we enjoyed another farewell meal with Louise and Alex who were on their way to Belgium for a survey.

They left at 10am the next day, and we loaned them one of our spare glissoirs as they had lost one on the lock gates on the way….so we weren’t the only ones having problems. A couple of hours later I drove up to Sampigny to leave the car and was surprised to see Riccall just downstream of the bridge and preparing to moor at the picnic spot near me. They had been delayed at two locks which weren’t working properly. After a quick cuppa and more farewells, I cycled back to Commercy from where I telephoned the VNF to inform them of our plans for the following day.

Louise had kindly photocopied the relevant pages of their waterways guide to the Meuse along with the DBA mooring notes, so we had more of an idea of what lay ahead.

Our cruise to St Mihiel was uneventful and we stopped mid- afternoon on the empty pontoon mooring which had free electrics. A walk through the town the next day to the Tourist Office was useful, as I was able to acquire several leaflets about the nearby trenches and cemeteries which we hoped to explore.

St. Mihiel, looks lovely but still pretty cold.

Next to the bridge and our mooring a monument to the Franco-Prussian War – riddled with bullet holes from the two subsequent World Wars.

That afternoon I had an interesting cycle back to Sampigny. Having struggled uphill by road for a couple of kilometres (which was a more direct route than the canal); I decided to cut back to the flat of the canal for the last few kilometres. At the lock, the towpath was not obvious and after following the most promising path I ended up in long field. Undaunted, I pushed the bike through the field only to discover that it was blocked at the end. Not wishing to back track, I lugged the bike up a wooded slope and with the canal in view continued through the wood. Eventually this became too overgrown and the only option was to push the bike up a steep railway embankment at the side. Fortunately, the railway was no longer in use and I was able to walk along the track. Eventually I reached a field which led to the road I had been on originally. In retrospect the hill would have been easier. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

St Mihiel was an important strategic area in the First World War and the town had been occupied by the Germans until the Franco-American offensive in 1918. We explored the ‘Trench of Thirst’ where French infantrymen went without food and water for several days as they fought the Germans. At Marmotte we walked through the French Military Cemetery before driving up to the nineteenth century Fort of Louville which was well hidden and took some finding in the undergrowth. We ended our day at the American War Memorial high on the hill at Montsec; a fabulous building with a panoramic view of the surrounding area which sadly had been the site of so many deaths all those years ago.

Near the trench of thirst. 15000 men died in the surrounding trenches.

Not too different after a hundred years.

One of the many thousands of shell craters in the area much of which is still too dangerous to walk through.

The rather magnificent American Memorial on top of a hill near Montsec.

Nicci likes maps.

 

Incredible relief map showing where the Americans fought and died.

Our next day’s exploration took us to Fort Troyan (closed) and then to the Fosse Memorial where French author Alain Fournier and twenty compatriots died in mysterious circumstances; their bodies remaining undiscovered for over seventy years. Indications are that some of the dead had been executed by a shot to the head.

Fosse Memorial.

All the locks up to the one above Dun-sur-Meuse would be manual, so we had to contact the VNF to arrange passage for the next morning. We left St Mihiel at about 9.30, arriving at Rouvroy lock an hour or so later. Here we met the friendly lock keeper who accompanied us all the way into Verdun where we moored in solitary splendour at the front of the pontoon. Free electrics once again!

Verdun.

And the same spot during the 1916 bombardment.

Our first day in Verdun began somewhat inauspiciously as we walked around some unsavoury streets with an inordinate amount of dog pooh on the pavements. In fact we felt that the whole town was somewhat neglected and in need of some TLC.

A visit to the Tourist Office provided me with a bus time back to St Mihiel just after midday and the 4 Euros fare was good value. Upon my return I left the car in the free car park at the station and back on board we consulted our leaflets and decided where we would go the following day.

During World War I, Verdun was fiercely defended by the French and the surrounding area is basically a preserved battle ground. Many of the areas are ‘red zoned’ which means they are too dangerous to explore and the countryside still bears the scars of the huge battles that took place there, with shell holes giving it the appearance of a lunar landscape in many areas.

Our first stop was the destroyed village of Vaux (the only one where rebuilding has since taken place and there is now a community). Next we stopped at the destroyed village of Douaumont where all that remains are shell craters and marker posts which indicate which buildings used to be where. Each ‘village detruit’ (there were nine here in all) now has a Chapel of Remembrance too.

The town of Douaumont, this being the main street with houses marked by the green posts.

And as it was.

On leaving the site we spotted a sign to the nearby fort of the same name so we walked to it and had a look around. It had been heavily shelled but the gun emplacements were still intact.

The heavily shelled Fort Douaumont about 100mtrs from the village.

The surrounding ‘moat’ all but obliterated like the town.

We visited the Ossuary of Douaumont which is a massive building containing the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German  soldiers which lie in vaults beneath a crypt 137 metres long. Some of the vaults may be viewed from outside, a sobering experience.

Standing on top of what was a small Fort –  ‘Ouvrage de Thiaumont’ with the Ossuary in the background.

We had lunch at the small restaurant near the Ossuary and suitably fed and watered, we stopped off at ‘The Bayonet Trench’ and another destroyed village – Fleury, before spending the rest of the afternoon in the Verdun Memorial which is a fascinating museum as well.

 

Trench of Bayonets where a group of soldiers were buried alive by shellfire, discovered after the war when their bayonets were seen poking up through the ground with a man under each.

Memorial and museum.

This would make a hole dropped from ten feet, let alone 17 kilometres.

Our day ended at the ‘Ouvrage de Thiaumont’ which was an outpost that had changed hands over twenty times during the war. It was no longer recognizable, simply a few bits of stone and lots of barbed wire and twisted metal and two small gravestones. The craters were so prolific that it resembled a level mogul run on a ski slope. The nearby Jewish and Islamic Memorials reminded us that it had truly been a World War.

Ouvrage de Thiaumont’

The remains of an observation ‘bell’.

The following day we ventured further afield, driving thirty or so kilometres to the hill at Vauquois. It was a strategic spot with commanding views over the surrounding area and had changed hands a couple of times before the inevitable trenches were dug in either side of the hill. The small village and church on top were completely destroyed as the French and Germans tunnelled beneath the surface and began mining the area. The hill was completely bisected as each army blew up sections in the attempt to gain the upper hand.

The memorial in the background; sixty tons of explosives laid in the tunnels underneath created this crater.

The whole hilltop blown apart where there was once a town.

German trenches on the right, French left.

Nicci stands in the crater where the church was.

The sleepy little hilltop town of Vauquois.

We had missed the guided tours of the tunnels which local volunteers provide, but were able to nip into one which was being seen by a group and was still open; an amazing feat of tunnelling. In fact the Germans had an underground citadel on their side for troops, ammunition and supplies, whereas the French soldiers had to live in their trenches. The small museum gave us more insights into the area.

Deep down inside one of the German tunnels, a rather cleverly placed full size photo shows the conditions.

We left Vauquois wondering what had actually been achieved by all the death and destruction; and what had happened to the villagers whose homes were destroyed?

On our return to Verdun, we stopped off at the ‘Voie Sacree’ (Sacred Way) Memorial. This remembers the people who strove to keep the supply route open between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc, without which the French would have been unable to continue fighting in that area. There is a ‘milestone’ each kilometre along the road between the two towns.

‘Voie Sacree’ (Sacred Way) Memorial with the road in the background.

One of the surviving troop carrying trucks that used the ‘Sacred Way’

The next day we prepared for our departure with a quick trip to Lidl before I drove up to Dun-sur-Meuse to leave the car.  I visited a German War Cemetery there, recognizable by the black crosses as opposed to the white stone ones in the Allied cemeteries. Three Jewish gravestones stood out among the black crosses and I thought how dreadful it was that these young men had died fighting for the Fatherland in the First World War and then so many Jews were murdered by their own countrymen in the Second World War.

We left Verdun at 9.30 am anticipating a long day ahead. The locks were longer and wider than the previous ones so we had more room to manoeuvre. They were still manual ones and we had three different lock keepers during the day. Eight hours later with no stopping other than in the locks, we reached Dun-sur-Meuse where Madame la Capitaine was soon on site to collect our 11 euros mooring fee. I was pleased I had used the slow cooker to prepare our evening meal as it had been a long day.

We took advantage of the water and electrics to fill up and do some washing while we were there. The next day we set off at our leisure as we would be using our zapper to work the automatic locks once again.

We stopped at Stenay by the old forge and opposite a weir and I walked into the town to check bus times to Dun-sur-Meuse. The Tourist Office in town was shut but they had thoughtfully posted the bus timetable in the window. One was due to arrive in about an hour at the town centre. With time to kill, I strolled to the port where the Tourist Office/ Capitainerie was open. I took the chance to check the timetable with the lady there and was pleased that I had, as the bus actually left from somewhere completely different from the centre!

The journey to the car took twenty minutes at most, but the 4 Euros was worth it as the towpaths on this canal are not exactly bicycle friendly if in fact they exist at all.

The next morning, after a walk around the town and Lidl run, Peter left the car in the port car park and we set off intending to stop at the tranquil picnic mooring at Alma lock. The weather was milder than of late and we cruised through some pretty countryside.

Sadly, the weather didn’t hold and it rained on and off the following day! Sally and Mike (Chouette) had texted to let us know that the moorings at Sedan had previously been washed away so we hoped to make it through to Pont a Bar at the start of the Canal des Ardennes. This we did, making good time as large sections of the trip were on the very fast flowing River Meuse. The tight left hand turn into the canal was rather tricky, but Peter managed to do it very well despite the flow. By the time we stopped we had been cruising for six hours without a break- another long day!

At Pont a Bar we moored on the quay below the lock where we spent a couple of nights and managed to watch the Chinese Grand Prix – a welcome break from cruising all day.

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