This has been the summer of being flexible, of rolling with the punches. And of things, as they seem to do here in France, working out just fine. Eventually. Here’s a summary. Hoop Doet Leven spent a month at the town mooring in Lutzelbourg, a picture book pretty town in Alsace, while we explored this semi-French, semi-German, mostly just plain Alsatian region and waited for our friends Dick and Beth to arrive from Massachusetts. Lutzelbourg was the first town to the east of the mechanical marvel of the Arzviller Inclined Plane Boat Lift, a gigantic bathtub into which you motored your boat and were slowly slid up or down the side of a hill, duplicating a vertical journey in 15 minutes that used to take barges a full day through a series of locks. The Arzviller Lift was dramatic, thrilling, scenic and efficient. When it worked.
Last summer the gates closed when a loaded passenger boat was half in and half out of the bathtub, jamming the works for the next ten months. But all was well. Arzviller was repaired and it reopened a month before our arrival. Lutzelbourg was the first town to the east of Arzviller.
The German side. Not the French side.
That was a distinction soon to assume significance.
In the mean time, however, we spent a few nights in Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament and a city that declares, on pretty much every vertical surface from the sides of buses and trams to half the city’s billboards, that Strasbourg is The Europtimist. Oh, if only saying so could make it so. But it is a magnificent, historic city nonetheless. For a person such as myself for whom the most significant annual celebration is the Annual Boston Science Fiction Marathon – a 24-hour orgy of viewing sci-fi films – even more important than the European Parliament is that Strasbourg is the home of the International Space University (www.isunet.edu), offering a Masters in Space Studies degree, among others. Courses are offered in English, French and Klingon.
Dick and Beth arrived. We spent a few days canalling between Saverne and Lutzelbourg, a few days driving through Alsace in their rental car, and a night at a dairy farm high in the Vosges Mountains at which the fourth generation dairy farmer churns out kilograms of munster cheese every day. We’d been anticipating his family-recipe munster for weeks. We were surprised, which is a polite word for grossly disappointed, when at the farm dinner he served we went straight from the main course to the dessert. Where was the cheese course, we wondered. Sandra asked, politely, of course, if at a farm where the principle product was munster cheese it was at all possible to have a cheese course, for which we would gladly pay whatever additional charge might be imposed. The farmer smiled in embarrassment and, moments later, delivered a platter of three munsters – young, middle-aged and elderly – and a brick of his own butter. He apologized. He’d never had American guests before. He did not think Americans ate smelly cheese. He was wrong. We ate everything. Including the butter brick. He brought a pie stuffed with that afternoon’s munster curds for dessert. Breakfast included more munster.
The farm was nearly perfect. But we’d mistimed our visit. Two days later the Tour de France cycled right past. We didn’t see the actual Tour de France – meaning guys riding bikes – but we walked the route past the farm in the Vosges Mountains and thought about collecting an official Tour de France trash bag. Here Sandra translates the bag, with cow bells tinkling in the background. Click the image to play it.
Nonetheless, after five weeks in Alsace as soon as Dick and Beth left for America we were more than ready to do a demi tour – a 180-degree turnaround – and head the barge back to what we referred to simply as “France.” Scoot up the Arzviller Lift, down the canal and we’d be in Lorraine, eating quiche instead of sauerkraut. Alsace was nice, good wine and lots of it, nice cheeses. Heavy food. Interesting history. But enough was enough. It was time to go “home” to Bourgogne,” Burgundy.
But we’d forgotten that most basic of French phrases.
Non, non, non.
Recall how the Arzviller Lift broke down last summer. Recall how they spent 1.6 million euros and ten months repairing the Lift, the tracks, the cables, the supports, the gears, the gates, the moving tub. Pretty much everything that moved was repaired or replaced. Pretty much everything. But not the wheels. Which fell off. Two days before we were due to ride up the Lift and back to France. VNF – the Voies Navigable de France, the waterways authority – announced Arzviller would be shut down for three days. Then three weeks. Then three months. The present target date for reopening is July.
We were trapped, trapped between a broken boat lift that blocked the only water route back to France to the west, and Germany, to the east. We had about 15 kilometers – nine miles – of canal in which to cruise. Back and forth. Forth and back. Until next July. Maybe.
Ah, but all was not lost. There was a way out. Sort of. Right smack between France and Germany is the Rhine River, the largest river in western Europe. If we went south on the Rhine, against the current, for 72 kilometers we’d come out at the French city of Mulhouse (rhymes with Toulouse, figure that one out). We’d been on some big rivers already, the Seine, the Saone, the Yonne. Big currents. Big ships. Big locks. But no big deal.
But those were big French rivers. The Rhine, being half French and half German was managed by the Rhine River Authority, an international body that operates independently from French and German regulations. We had to comply with the official Rhine Regulations, a set of rules created partly by the French and partly by the Germans. Most likely, the French contribution was the accordion playing in the background while the Germans dreamed up licensing schemes, inspection standards, rights of way regulations, and designs for the rubber stamps that must be slammed on each document before a boat can possibly float on the sacred Rhine.
It turned out that our barge absolutely had to have a Rhine certification before it would be allowed through the lock from the French canal onto the international Rhine. The boat already has a six-page safety certification, written in Dutch, good for pretty much every canal, stream, river and lake west of the Ural Mountains. But not the Rhine. We would have to weld two steel bulkheads isolating the engine compartment, for starters. That wasn’t going to happen.
Fortunately, while the Germans were in charge of the regulations, the French were responsible for the exceptions. A few hours at the Strasbourg VNF office and we had in hand an official one-time-only permit good until the end of August to take Hoop Doet Leven on the Rhine, duly stamped, embossed and executed by Le Chef himself, all in French. Voila, we thought.
Not quite voila, it turned out.
Besides the boat needing a Rhine license, so did the Captain. While we’re both licensed by the European waterways consortium to operate Hoop Doet Leven on pretty much every drop of European waters, that license isn’t good enough for the Rhine. My American commercial license, which permits me to carry an unlimited number of paying passengers on any boat up to 50 tons up to 200 miles offshore through hurricanes and fog, past rocky shores and crowded harbors, similarly would not open the door to the Rhine. And besides, I hadn’t had a Rhine medical examination proving I had the physical, mental and emotional toughness to captain my barge on that river. I could get a medical certificate, I was told. In Switzerland.
The boat could travel on the Rhine. But we couldn’t. This was frustrating, to say the least.
The only remaining option, we were told, was to hire an Official Rhine Pilot to guide our barge up the river for a couple of days. At 250 euros a day. Now there might have been some justification for all this regulation if the body of water we were considering navigating was some raging torrent with whirlpools, sandbanks, random rocks. Sharks. German U-boats. But the Rhine from just south of Strasbourg to just east of Mulhouse, the 72 kilometers we wanted to travel to get back to France, is more a canal than a river. It isn’t even called the Rhine, but is officially called the Grand Canal d’ Alsace. The river banks are sloping concrete. Every ten kilometers or so a dam crosses the river, slowing and controlling the current, and generating electricity. At every dam is a wide lock that lifts boats up or down. Basically all you do, all you can possibly do, on this stretch of Rhine, is drive straight ahead when the river is straight, drive around a curve when it curves, wait for the lock doors to open and drive your boat in to a lock that is the size of a football field. It isn’t all that difficult. It staggers the imagination to come up with what the certified, licensed, Official Rhine Pilot would have done for two days except say to go straight when the river was straight and to turn when the river turned.
But we did try to find a Rhine pilot. They aren’t listed in the telephone book. They aren’t even listed on the internet. The Strasbourg Port Authority had no idea what we were talking about when we asked to hire a pilot. Finally, in desperation, we followed the only advice we received from VNF about how to find an Official Rhine Pilot. I stood at a canal lock next to our mooring in the town of Soufellweyersheim – see why we were desperate to get back to the French part of France – where two commercial barges passed each day traveling to and from a cement plant, and when they stopped at the lock I asked the captains if they knew of any Rhine pilots. They did. Good. They wrote down their names and telephone numbers. Better. We, meaning Sandra, called and was told that, yes, I am a Rhine pilot and I will call you back when I can take your boat. Fantastic.
We’re still waiting for the call back. Bummer. It is summer and that is when Rhine pilots, being French, are on vacation. Perhaps we could go in February.
Well, enough was enough. Bonnie and Clyde. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. We would just go. What’s the worst that could happen?
The German Wasserpolice, that’s the worst that could happen. Fast, gray boats stuffed with men aching to utter those words that sent icicles into the hearts of American spies in World War II movies. Show me your papers. Wasserpolice prison.
Our solution? We slipped onto the Rhine on a Saturday and continued at dawn on a rainy Sunday, with thunder clashing and lightening flashing, confident that the Wasserpolice were tucked under their eiderdowns sleeping off Friday and Saturday night’s schnapps and schnitzel. And it worked. Although we were surrounded by commercial barges that barely squeezed into the locks, ships that were wider than we were long, the biggest problem we faced for two days was the current running against us at about six kilometers an hour.
We burned through a lot of fuel and ran our engine higher than we’d ever run it. But neither the giant river squids we probably would have learned about had we attended Rhine Pilot University nor the even more dreaded Wasserpolice captured us.
We escaped from the Rhine at the Niffer lock near Mulhouse unscathed and unincarcerated. We puttered onto a canal on Sunday afternoon. And celebrated. And now we are heading west on the Rhone au Rhin Canal at sedate canal speeds, through fields and villages, up and down in gentle locks. Where the wonders and mysteries that are France continue to puzzle and delight. Here are a couple of examples.
We’re back on a sedate canal, the Rhone au Rhin Canal, which doesn’t quite link the Rhone River with the Rhine River, but does link the Rhine with the Saone River, which is pretty nice in its own way. And this canal has its own fascinations.
The barge is facing the west and we are heading downhill now. Toward the River Saone. Toward Bourgogne. Toward the French part of France.