Hoop Doet Leven is all painted and pretty. The engine started instantly after its winter hibernation. We broadcast our departure date for summer cruising as April 29. Farewell meals were celebrated with friends in Auxonne and at the marina. Our winter dock lines were stowed away and the summer mooring lines for use in the locks were coiled on deck. A new boat hook was fabricated from an expanding aluminum pruning pole from the garden store and a U-shaped bicycle-hanging hook from the Bricolage hardware store. Our route was planned down to opening hours at vineyards and tourist bus routes in towns along the way.
And then it started raining. And raining. And raining. After last spring, when it rained almost without stop for all of April and May, traveling through the rain was no big deal. After all, the barge has an enclosed wheelhouse and, unlike in a sailboat with an open cockpit, cold, wet weather simply means running a heater in the wheelhouse. This spring, however, we were on a river rather than canals. When it rained, the River Soane rose. Higher. Higher. Up over the banks so that trees in fields became navigational markers. We delayed our departure for three days while checking a French website that showed river heights at various towns along the river. The Saone had risen two meters – more than six feet – at Auxonne and the high water point was moving downriver, as we planned to do. It became a tad embarrassing day after day walking past people we’d already said farewell to. There was a bright side to the delay, however. After watching five-and-a-half seasons of The Sopranos courtesy of a friendly Estonian web site – Project-Free-TV.com – we had just eight episodes left before we abandoned the world of unlimited broadband wifi at the marina.
Finally the river level began dropping and we gingerly set forth, hoping that passing through locks was a skill like riding a bike that one doesn’t forget. We stopped for a night at St. Jean-des-Losnes (the Barge Capital of France) where we dropped into the marine store and each bought a pair of Jolly plastic clogs (the Official Shoe of Professional Barging, we’d learned over the winter from retired commercial bargees) and we paid a deposit for next winter’s mooring again at Auxonne. The river level was dropping but the current was awesome and our night tied under a bridge facing into the current was exciting.
The next morning we set off. The plan had been to continue downriver to the city of Tournus, passing the entrance to the Canal du Centre, through southern Burgundy, to which we’d return after a week or so visiting Tournus’ famous restaurants. It turned out that the mooring at Tournus was still submerged under water. It also turned out that while the river was neither as high nor as fast as it had been at peak, it was still lively, and still fast. We decided to visit downriver some other time and turn off onto the Canal du Centre. What was planned as two full days’ travel took us only five hours of barreling downstream, white water rafting in a 70-foot iron barge. The river was still well over its banks. We paid careful attention to the navigational marks so we didn’t have to guess whether trees standing in what seemed the middle of the river were actually on the right bank or the left one. We were swept past the canal entrance on our right, executed a quick demi-tour – an about face – and chugged slowly against the current and into the canal entrance.
For the first time since we’d left the Burgundy Canal last Fall we were off the rivers and back into the slow calm of a canal. We ambled at the casual canal pace to our first mooring at Fragnes and settled into summer cruising mode, with white water racing, river flooding, navigation closures and white knuckles behind us and a summer cruise down the Loire Valley ahead of us. Peace. Calm. Bliss. Wine. Cheese. Cows.
For a couple of days at least.
“So, what are you going to do while they repair the canal,” asked an Australian couple on another barge. “Repair the canal?” we responded. “What is wrong with the canal?”
It turned out that the day after we entered the Canal du Centre the heavy rain so saturated the ground that a canal wall ten kilometers ahead of us collapsed, dumping the canal onto a field and dropping a dozen boats into the mud. VNF, the Voies Navigables de France, the canal authority, predicted ten days to repair the breach. Nobody believed that prediction. It took ten days to begin work, and two days after beginning there were two national holidays. Predictions now range from three to four weeks, until the end of May, before we can move on.
If we’d been 10 kilometers ahead this is how we would have spent the month of May.
So we found a friendly canal bank to tie up to just below a lock in the village of Rully, surrounded by vineyards and local restaurants, a four kilometer bike ride along the canal to Chagny, which has a good train connection. And that is where we are, running our generator a few hours a day to charge the batteries. Sandra plans daily excursions by bike, bus and train, or as we did a couple of days ago, by bike to the train station then with the bikes on the train to the nearby city of Chalon-sur-Saone and its bus station, then with the bikes on the rack at the back of the bus further south into Bourgogne to ride over hills and past farms, fields and vineyards through a pair of medieval villages.
We’re spending most of May tied to this canal bank in Rully, Bourgogne.
On one bike ride, a field filled with goats stood in front of a rambling farmhouse with a sign announcing chevre – goat cheese – for sale so we peddled up the dirt drive and knocked on the farmhouse door. The woman making cheese inside sold us three rounds she’d just made, and a bottle of Macon Village, then chatted for a half hour about dairy farming in France while Sandra described the farm at which she milked cows at home in Massachusetts.
We had the chevre – goat cheese – from these guys at dinner that night.
We spent at hour at a church built by the Benedictines 1,000 years ago, comparing it with the vast construction at Cluny we’d visited earlier, an abbey that in its time had been the religious center of France.
The 1,000 year-old church at Chapaize has a stark austerity that contrasts with the grandiosity of most French cathedrals.
Another day we planned to take a bus into Chalon-sur-Saone from the town of Fragnes but since it was a Saturday the bus – the town’s school bus – was not running so the bus company provided a taxi for the usual bus fare of 1.50 euros. We got no farther into Chalon than a collection of tents that turned out to be the local Lions Club charitable gastronomy fair. Three euros bought you a wine glass on a loop of string that you wore around your neck as you walked from table to table sampling wines, cheeses and snails.
We got no farther than the Lions Club Gastronomy Fair in Chalon-sur-Saone.
We met a pair of brothers from Savoie in the French Alps who bottled ice wine, made from grapes harvested frozen in December then helicoptered to 12,000 feet on the mountain to freeze solid for four days before the juice was pressed out, with the alcohol and flavors concentrated and the frozen water discarded. We left with a bottle of this concoction.
Members of our linear village of barge folks were similarly trapped between high water behind us and no water before us so we spent hours on other boats trading stories and information and visiting local restaurants. Today’s excursion involved turning the boat around – a straightforward U-turn – complicated by the fact that our 70-foot boat is in a canal that is about 50 feet wide. Turning around involved a call to VNF to let them know what we were doing, which resulted in four men in two cars to oversee us, then motoring four kilometers up the canal through three locks to a wide spot where we could slowly turn around, then back four kilometers and three locks to the exact canalside spot from which we’d started, but facing now in the opposite direction. Two hours, eight kilometers, six locks. All to do an about face. See why our days are filled.
We knew we’d become part of the local scene when, after nearly two weeks tied to the same spot on the side of the canal, the local fishermen started chatting with us. One man, who we’d seen every afternoon tending his four side-by-side fishing rods for hour after hour, never catching a thing, walked over to chat one afternoon. It turned out he owned a boulangerie in nearby Chalon-sur-Saone. Before getting married and becoming landlocked, however, he’d worked on French merchant ships sailing the world, serving as the bread baker on the ships. Who knew that all French ships carry a baker. Do you suppose a single American merchant ship has a designated baker on board. He told us about baking bread for French soldiers going to fight in Indochina and Algeria, and of visiting Boston, New York, and Miami on ships. This was another conversation in which he assumed we were both fluent French speakers, never slowing down for more than a brief breath. His stories about growing up in the village, and his complaints about modern bread bakers with their computerized ovens and mixers, were charming. Once again, the best part of this experience is meeting people rather than gazing at historic buildings.
Best of all, most days during this waiting time we hop on our bikes and pedal to the vineyards that surround Rully, premier cru Bourgogne vineyards making some of the world’s finest wines. You knock on the door and are invariably invited in for a degustation, a sampling of their wines. At one vineyard – belonging to Jean-Claude and Anna Breliere – when we arrived Anna was under the hedges pruning as Jean-Claude walked into the yard grinning and inviting us inside. Two-and-a-half hours later we pedaled back to the boat and waited for Jean-Claude to deliver the twelve bottles we’d purchased. It took so long because we had to sample our way through four different white wines and then five different reds, from ordinary Bourgogne (which was far from ordinary) up through their premier crus. Just when we thought we were done, Jean-Claude pulled out two bottles with foil-covered corks. “Now for the cremants,” he declared, pouring Burgundy’s version of champagne. Fortunately, vineyards are on the hillsides and boat moorings are down in the valleys so all we had to do was coast home.
Jean-Claude delivered his premier cru Burgundies to the boat.
So, once again, the wonders of living without a schedule and leaving yourself open for whatever happens turned what we’d planned as a four-day cruise through southern Burgundy into a three-week exploration of one of the most beautiful and enjoyable parts of France we’ve visited. The canal repairs will be finished, some time, and our travels will continue, some time. And once again, we are in pinch-me mode in the midst of France.