(48) Canal des Ardennes and Canal de L’Aisne a la Marne – April/May 2013.

As we left Pont-a-Bar the sun shone in clear blue skies for the first time since we had left Toul. The 17km to Le Chesne passed through some pretty countryside with sloping wooded hills, farms and meadows. The mooring at Le Chesne was in the centre of the town and we moored opposite an unusual converted Venetian Passenger Launch (with number 47 on its side).  Unfortunately, the promised water and electrics had not been activated and on discovering that the couple opposite had their tool box stolen during the night, we decided to leave.

We had a flight of 26 locks to contend with and had decided to stop half way down.  Unfortunately, I was distracted when we were invaded by several lively frogs which had been clinging to the sides of the some of the locks as they emptied. The frogs fell onto the deck and jumped around. Peter naturally left me to deal with them after removing only the first one!!

I thought Nicci had entered into a hopping competition and was just waiting to see who would win !

At lock 14 we informed the lock keeper that we would stop just above it and leave at 9.30 the following day. However, the bollards were a bit spaced out for us and we decided to move on. A closer look at our waterways guide made it clear that we had meant to stop above lock 19 at Neuville-Day.

As Peter manoeuvred the barge so that I could jump off to phone the lock keeper, a VNF van drove past and a different chap jumped out to help. A few minutes later, our original eclusier arrived too and was evidently annoyed that we had changed our minds. I was suitably ‘desole’ and told him it was ‘ma faute’ as I had read the book wrong…….I blame the frogs!!

The following day, Peter was unwell and we had to delay our start. Fortunately, we had a new lock keeper who told me to phone when we were setting off. Somehow, Peter managed to steer the barge for another long day – 28 km and 13 locks, including a tricky stretch where the River Aisne crossed the canal in flood.

Agricultural but pretty.

We finally reached the mooring at Rethel where we ended up stopping for nearly two weeks; which was the time it took for Peter to fully recover. We did manage to return to Stenay one day by motor cycle to collect the Micra. On the way we passed through Stonne which was the scene of a major tank battle in WW2 where the Germans were eventually able to outflank the French resulting in the Allied retreat to Dunkirk.

Tank versus Tractor…(Bikers joke)

I had several pleasant walks along the banks of the Aisne during our stay in Rethel while Peter recuperated. One bonus was that the electrics and water were turned on while we were there and with the Capitainerie closed until May 1st, they were ‘gratuit’. We also managed to top up the white diesel using Jerry cans- our new Murphy Switch (Low Fuel Alarm) having signalled that we were getting low.

The weather continued to be unsettled; teasing us into thinking that spring had arrived with a temperature of 27 C one day…. but sadly it didn’t last.  We enjoyed an overnight visit from Paul and Martine Chopping who were en route from their home in Alsace to Abbeville on the coast.

After dropping the car up to Athel, we were ready to leave Rethel for the next stage of our journey. We cruised through the largely agricultural countryside stopping at Athel with its unusual Baroque Church. The following day we carried on on to Berry-au-Bac where we stayed for a couple of nights as the locks would be closed on May 1st.

Designed in the 17th century by someone who didn’t like right angles !

At Berry-au-Bac, we cycled up to the Tank Memorial nearby (where the potential of tanks was first recognized during WW1) and also the War Cemetery. Here we came across our first British graves, two of which were pilots from the newly formed RAF. It is worth remembering that First World War pilots did not have parachutes, which makes their sacrifices all the more poignant.

Tank Memorial.

We left Berry-au-Bac on May 2nd and wondered how we would activate the first lock as there was no obvious pole or button. Fortunately a lock keeper was busy mowing the grass and we were soon in the lock and on our way to Reims.

Leaving Berry-au-Bac passing a grain barge filling up.

The approach to the city of Reims is typically industrialised and dreary and we decided to moor in the unused commercial port to the north before committing to going into the centre. We then cycled along the canal to the plaisancier port which had electrics and water, but was very noisy being sandwiched between a main road and motorway. We decided to stay put and explore the city the next day.

Unfortunately, incessant rain confined us to the barge and we walked in the day after. The Cathedral of Notre Dame, (severely damaged in the First World War) is a huge structure covered in statues and gargoyles. There was an exhibition of religious painting and wood carvings inside, many being of Joan of Arc.

Reims Cathedral.

Joan of Arc.

On Sunday we took advantage of the French Museums being free of charge (on the first Sunday of the month,) to visit the Museum of the German Surrender. This was located at one end of a technical college near the railway station. The college had been taken over by Eisenhower’s Allied War Command in the Second World War and the terms of the Unconditional Surrender had been accepted and signed by the Germans in the map room there. This had taken place in the early hours of 7th May 1945 and the actual cease fire at 11.01pm on the following day. The map room was behind glass panels and exactly as it had been almost 70 years ago. It was Stalin who insisted that the signing be repeated on the 8th in Berlin and it is generally remembered more for that date.

Eisenhower’s Headquarters – museum on the left.

Snapshot 1 (05-05-2013 16-05)

Map Room and signing table.

On the day.

Snapshot 2 (05-05-2013 16-11)

Included in the signing was the immediate handover of all prison camps, uncovering the atrocities therein.
Left of picture – Aurigny (Alderney) which had four ‘Labour Camps’ where many also died.

Back on the barge, we decided to leave our mooring and head for the port at Sillery a few km south of Reims. After a pleasant couple of hours we arrived there as planned and were soon moored up on the quay and enjoying drinks on board ‘Elsie’ with Fi and John who had recently crossed the channel to savour the delights of the French waterways.

We discovered that the electrics and water would be free at Sillery until the end of May and decided to stay for a while and get some of the painting done on the top-sides. Sadly, the unsettled weather continued, with overcast skies, rain and a cool breeze- none of which were conducive to painting.

We spent several evenings enjoying aperros with Ann and Richard (‘Giramondo’) who told us that the Sound and Light show in Reims was worth a visit. After a trip back on the BMW to collect the car we drove into Reims and enjoyed the show. We also visited the nearby Fort a la Pompelle which was the scene of some heavy fighting during World War 1 and had an interesting museum.

The Sound and Light Show.

Youtube video (not ours)  http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DRx3J2aYWzTA&h=SAQHaMPX0

While we were in Sillery the port became busy with several cruisers and we were surprised to find out that although winter mooring was available, ‘live- aboards’ like us were not permitted and all the utilities were turned off.

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