A world of wa­ter

Wet weather can’t dampen the spir­its of com­mit­ted boaties on the canals and rivers of north­ern France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - BOB JEN­NINGS

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

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