A world of water
Wet weather can’t dampen the spirits of committed boaties on the canals and rivers of northern France
MY wife mutters and sinks her head deeper under the duvet as rain patters on the roof of our fibreglass boat. ‘‘One fine day. Just give me one fine day,’’ she pleads.
It is spring in the Champagne-Ardenne region of northern France (average seasonal highs from 20C to 23C) but the lush green countryside is blurred by the rainstreaked and fogged cabin windows. The weather is hardly conducive to early rising and strolling to a village for croissants and baguettes. ‘‘I’ll go,’’ I tell her in a vain attempt to paint a bright picture. ‘‘It’s only a sprinkle.’’
I pull on most available items of clothing and my waterproof jacket (it’s about 12C) and trudge along the towpath beside the deserted canal and through earlymorning mist to the village of Asfeld.
Ah, the warmth and cheerfulness of the bakery with its crispy-crunchy, freshly baked bread and pastries cooling in baskets. I arrive back on the boat to be greeted by the smell of just-brewed coffee in the cosy saloon. Maybe things won’t be so bad after all.
Our vessel, named Le Poncay, is a bluff-fronted and homely-looking 10.2m Locaboat penichette (a peniche is a working barge; a penichette is a little barge designed for pleasure). Ours has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and two steering positions, one inside, the other outside and upstairs on the flying bridge. And, I should add, a brilliant heating system for all cabins.
Champagne-Ardenne, near the French-Belgian border, is not much favoured by hirers of boats. It’s an area of deep forests, long stretches of waterways, remote flights of locks, and with few villages. So why our 500km circuit on rivers and canals with 200 locks and a pastiche of lifting bridges? And why have we chosen to live on a boat for four weeks?
It is the comparative unpopularity of the area (for pleasure boating) that perversely appeals, with the temptation of historic cities such as Reims, Verdun and Sedan piquing interest. And from a boating point of view, the prospect of travelling little-used canals such as the Ardenne. And sharing waterways and locks with busy commercial traffic on the Canal de l’Aisne a la Marne, joining the less-travelled Canal de la Marne au Rhin, tackling the 4.8km long Mauvages Tunnel and finally joining the River Meuse, a waterway used by Belgian, Dutch and German boaties chasing the sun on their way south to the Mediterranean.
And four weeks (one more than suggested by the Locaboat hiring people) gives the flexibility to spend more than one day in appealing places.
We are to start and finish at one of the few hiring bases in the region, at the little village of Pont-a-Bar, a 10km taxi ride from the railway station at Sedan.
The countryside doesn’t disappoint, with the canals sometimes following contour lines around hills, one moment bordered by dense, overhanging forests and then giving way to rolling green pastures where well-fed charolais cattle idly graze.
Vineyards stretch out in severely regimented and pruned rows. Luminous yellow canola crops provide stark contrast to the verdant surrounds. The vistas reveal themselves at a sedate pace as Le Poncay’s diesel engine burbles along, occasionally disturbing busy families of ducks, white swans and stick-figure egrets.
The towns and cities are delightful. There’s Rethel, with its steep streets, busy market and its speciality of white sausage; and Reims, a bustling city with trams, pedestrian precincts and the home of the major champagne houses (do a tour, taste the product, buy it at the supermarket). Then delightful Chalons-en-Champagne, with its staggering cathedrals; the split-level town of Bar-leDuc, with its charming medieval upper level; and bustling Verdun, all but decimated during World War I.
There’s something smugly satisfying about having cosy accommodation in the middle of urban places, sometimes with cafes and restaurants a few steps away. Most towns offer good mooring facilities, many with floating pontoons and the availability of power, water and PICTURES: BOB JENNINGS; ALAMY WiFi access. Mooring costs are a maximum of about $15 a night but in some places are free. Friends join us in Reims and the following day we have the best meal of the trip at the superb Le Relais de Sillery just outside the village of Sillery, 12km southeast of Reims — three superb courses, a nice bottle of wine and brilliant service for the same price as we’d pay for a pub meal at home.
Unlike the manual locks on many of the more popular canals to the south, those in the Champagne-Ardenne are mainly automatic, operated either by a remote control ( like a garage door opener) or by twisting a pole suspended from a cable spanning the canal about 200m from the lock.
The 2km-long Billy Tunnel, southeast of Reims and controlled by radar-operated traffic lights, is our warmup for the longer Mauvages Tunnel. Fluorescent lighting reflected in the mirror-like water is disorienting and the narrow canal provides a challenge to arrow-straight steering — plus it’s bitterly cold.
The Mauvages presents more of the same. Despite the instruction manual’s assurances that we would be towed through by a tugboat, a cheery pair of lock-keepers tell us just to drive through. One escorts us while cycling along the towpath, whistling in the gloom as he goes and waving us on our way as we head toward the junction of the Canal de la Meuse, which later joins the River Meuse, which is in flood, thanks to the heavy winter and spring rains.
From the placid waters of the slim canal we are launched into the swift river, whisked past overflowing spillways and I must spin our steering wheel to correct swirling eddies while keeping a wary watch for trees and logs being swept downstream towards Belgium. ‘‘Such fun,’’ we agree, grim-faced.
A hair-raising, midstream U-turn in Verdun sees us safely parked alongside a floating pontoon with waves gurgling around our bow.
The rebuilt Verdun has a plethora of galleries, shops, welcoming restaurants and helpful information centre staff who point us in the direction of a hop-on, hop-off bus through the sombre battlefields, fortresses and museums a few kilometres away. Nearly a century after World War I, the countryside is still pock-marked with shell craters and the remnants of trenches.
By this stage we are travelling in loose convoy with a German family in their solid-looking boat and a lone Dutchman who spends his summers wandering the European waterways in his steel- hulled 32- footer. Their bush telegraph signals the Meuse is closed to navigation between Stenay and Sedan, 50km short of our final destination.
We all make it to comfortable moorings in a quiet branch off the main river at Stenay. Lock-keepers are delightfully vague about when the river might reopen.
Wehope for a minor miracle but, alas, Le Poncay has to be left, tucked up and secure, waiting to be fetched. We donate our leftover food to the Dutchman and take a taxi to Sedan. It is still raining but we would not have missed this trip for quids.
Le Poncay moored on the Canal Lateral a la Marne, top, and tourist boats on the River Meuse at Le Quai de Londres, Verdun