Thursday, 28 June 2012

France: Canal Boating Day 1

5 May

After breakfast we had a final walk around, popping in to a chemist to pick up some hay fever medication – yep, all those lovely falling white flowers with their lovely falling pollen were having an effect - and a new umbrella before a walk-through of the Tuileries. We left our large suitcase in storage at the hotel, taking only a couple of carry-on size bags, and then checked out of the hotel, grabbed a taxi and zoomed off to the Gare de Lyon to catch our train to take us south, to Burgundy, for the next stage of our holiday. 

We easily found our seat on the train, only to discover some Frenchman sitting comfortably ensconced in one of them, happily reading his paper and sipping a coffee. We checked our ticket numbers and told him that he was sitting in one of our seats. He just smiled, apologised, and moved down the carriage to his allocated spot – he had obviously simply decided that our seats were better ones and had hoped that they were unoccupied. We stored our luggage overhead and settled down into the super-comfortable seats. Right then and there we fell in love with rail travel in France.  

Why would you stress out on the autoroutes when you can sit back, read a paper or book, have a meal, a drink, access to clean toilets, and watch the stunning countryside roll past? Lunching on baguettes and a bottle of wine in our seats, we gave up on reading our books and just relished the views of chateaux, forests of a green we had never seen before, and charming, picture book villages. 

Oh, and one thing I have to share with you: on the train there was a special little area, about half a carriage in length, I would estimate, which was set aside as a play area for kiddies. The walls below window height were all thickly padded, and there were toys on the floor. It was just lovely to see this, and to see children happily spending the journey in there, having fun as kids should. 

Something else which also really impressed us on the train was the stress on respecting the comfort of your fellow travellers, and this means: if you want to talk on your mobile, leave the main carriage and stand in the between-carriage spaces to hold your conversation, or if you must stay in your seat you have to keep your conversation really low. Oh, and no blaring music either. Wow, impressive! 

We had to change trains at Nevers – a famous city, and the one where Julius Caesar apparently had his war chest stolen. What?? Wow, stories and history at every turn aren’t there. The railway station is not the most salubrious of places, but by this stage we were so excited that it could have been a tin shed and we wouldn’t have cared. 

The trip from Nevers to the town of Decize, where we were to start our canal trip, was a short one, and so we were soon there. We were met at the station by Florent, from Crown Blue, now under the umbrella of LeBoat, and driven to the spotless, well-maintained marina. Completing the paperwork with Elys, a member of admin staff at Crown Blue, was completed quickly and easily, and we were then shown our boat, the Cirrus It was love at first sight for us.  While my man spent time learning the ins and outs of the vessel, all the necessary technical “stuff” and how to operate her, I happily unpacked our bags and then checked out the excellent fit-out, opening kitchen cupboards, discovering the clever layout in which not an inch of space was wasted.


Our boat

This was our first trip to France, and our first boating holiday, and we had left all the arrangements to the fantastic staff at the French Travel Connection in Sydney. Susan, who was the consultant we dealt with, had herself done a few of these boating trips in France and so she was able to advise us from first-hand experience. She recommended this particular cruise as being scenic, having lots of little villages to pop into along the way, and with a perfectly manageable amount of locks for a crew of just two people. Susan also gave us details of shops and restaurants along the route, and various other little tips that you only get from someone who has actually been there. For future trips we made all the arrangements ourselves, booking everything direct, but for the first time traveller – cruiser particularly – I think it’s fantastic to have such experienced and helpful staff to rely upon.

Now, back to the boat. David, the engineer who was providing the pre-cruise instructions then got my husband to start up the vessel, go for a little cruise, practise a bit of manoeuvring, and then pull up back at the jetty and  moor the vessel by the necessary method before handing over the keys and all the paperwork and wishing us a bon voyage.

We had been advised that there was a large supermarket almost opposite the marina, and so we took advantage of its proximity and did a fairly big shop, stocking up on cheese, wonderful Paris ham, breads, terrines, butters, etc, and of course quite a bit of wine. We actually thought we’d done a really big shop, but of course it turned out that we really had not bought nearly enough. 

Isn't this gorgeous.

Many people spend their first night on the vessel at the marina, setting out on their cruise first thing the next morning, but we were too impatient to do this, so as soon as I had put away the shopping and got the kettle on to boil, we set off. To exit the port area and turn north towards our final destination, Chatillon-sur-Loire, we had to pass through our first lock. This was an automatic lock, and it opened automatically as we approached, which was great. Into the boat our lock went, the gates closed behind us, the water level dropped, the gates in front of us opened, and we sailed out, out onto the canal, its green banks lined with stunning trees that dropped their blooms all over the water. A heron rose from the rushes along the side of the canal, flew over the Cirrus and headed straight forward in front of the boat, as if to say “Follow me; I know the way”.

It was already quite late in the afternoon, and the sky was darkening rapidly, and so we pulled up to the bank and secured the vessel by way of mooring spikes pushed into the earth. We went for a walk along the tow path, feeling happy enough to burst that we had now actually began this wonderful trip.

Our mooring site.

Sitting on the front deck, we dined on delicious ham and pate, cheeses and tomatoes that tasted the way tomatoes used to taste years ago before we started gassing them and turning them into flavourless red globes. We sipped wine and chatted softly – any volume would have jarred with these beautiful surroundings.  As the evening wore on the sky got blacker, and blacker, and blacker. I had never known such darkness; it was complete. Add to that the silence, amazing silence. It was almost as if we had been picked up and placed in a black box somewhere, isolated from all life on earth.

Getting darker
Did I say silence? All was shattered by the loudest thunder I had ever heard; it sounded as if very heavens were being ripped apart. And just so the ripper knew exactly where to tear, blinding lightening lit everything up with light so bright it almost hurt your eyes. Oh, and of course it rained – no, that’s wrong, it pelted down. So, here we are, night one on the canal boat, and we are smack bang in the middle of a storm of Hollywood blockbuster proportions. It was amazing!


What a place to spend the night - wow.


Catch you later.

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