Tuesday, 10 July 2012

France: Canal Boat Trip, Day 6, Ménétréole-sous-Sancerre to Lere

10 May (my Grandad’s birthday – Happy birthday, Pop)

From the journal:

After breakfast we went over to the bar/bistro opposite the tie-up point and the helpful own called a taxi for us to take us up the hill (read semi-mountain) to Sancerre. When we picked up our boat in Decize we were told that we simply must visit Sancerre – and as a wine drinker that’s a given anyway – and we are assured that it is a pleasant bike ride. Right, yes; it’s probably on the Tour de France itinerary. 
Near the tourism office

Anyway, the taxi came along really quickly and zapped us up that long, long climb in no time, overtaking a veritable palaton of heavy-breathing lycra-clad American retirees off the Anna-Marie IV bravely pedalling their bicycles up the slope as we went past.

Barracks gates

It would have been a tragedy not to make it to Sancerre. The views were just superb out over the Loire Valley, with the canal quite close and the river off slightly in the distance, with little villages and towns dotted here and there on that greener than green landscape. Just beautiful.

The taxi kindly dropped us right near the tourism office, and so that was our first stop. The staff in there were just fantastic, and this town could give lessons to so many other towns in other places on how to provide for tourists: they gave us a walking map with all sorts of interesting information on it, special sites highlighted and numbered, and – here is the really good thing – all you have to do is follow a red line which is painted on the footpath, road, cobbles, and it will take you in a lovely walk around this gorgeous town, covering all the “must sees” and offering lots of photo opportunities, up and down little streets so you don’t miss the quirky, the unusual or the breathtaking.  

Follow the painted red line

How wow is this?

There was only one little let down, which we got a good laugh from but I need to mention. About halfway around the walking route there is a delightful little park offering superb views, and so we loitered there for a short while. The man needed the loo, and we noticed that there was one marked on the map just very close to where we were. Talk about a convenient convenience. Except, the light in there didn’t work, and as there was no window it was pitch black in there, and – here’s the good bit – it was a Turkish style toilet. Yes, a squat toilet. Mental note: go before you go.

No, not the site of the squat toilet -
just a great local house (and
sometimes I'll swear there is a face at the window)

We saw a couple of gates along the way that really stood out. One magnificent pair of huge gates, on a monastery, have been there, opening and closing and doing their duty, since the 11th century. Wow. And they look sooo good for their age. The other was a sign nailed next to a gate, and it has been there for quite a short time, since the German occupation in WWII. It was awful standing there in this beautiful village, surrounded by this beautiful countryside, exchanging smiling “Bonjours” with people we passed, and seeing this “Verboten” etc etc, the sign of the Nazi tyrant, thinking of jackboots and deportations in such a place. I think it’s as important that that sign of the invader stay there as it is that the ancient gates stay.

The ancient gates

We had a late – but great – lunch at a café in the central square: one delicious Croque Monsieur and one even more delicious Croque Madam. Ah, and of course we washed it down with the obligatory Sancerre wine, light and fresh and lovely as the town itself. As we sat in the gorgeous sunshine, we were served by an awesome female. She really was just wonderful. Her hair was dyed almost yellow, her skin was parchment ochre, her eyelids were generously coloured with the brightest of bright blue eye-shadows, and she was wearing a goatskin jacket laced together above a white gypsy skirt and roman sandles that wove around her feet and ankles. She was magnificent. The brightest thing about her wasn’t all that colour, it was her personality. She really was fantastic, and just to watch her interacting with the customers made for a fabulous time. The American cyclists had seemingly not expired coming up that hill, and were also sitting in the town square, scattered amongst various eateries. She would steal a cap or a hat from an elderly man and flirt outrageously with him, making him probably happier than he had been for 40 years. I’m sure that they will long remember her just as we will.

Great town square, but mind those steps.

After lunch we went to an epicerie where we picked up a few supplies, and then, of course, bought ourselves some of the wonderful wine which Sancerre is so famous for, together with some goat’s cheese, which is also one of their claims to fame.

The kind ladies in the tourism office called a cab for us when we had done wandering, buying postcards etc, and we headed back to the boat to set off for our next port of call, Lere.

Of course you want some canal-side scenes, I know.
Isn't this just fabulous in the extreme.

Just love the variety of architecture

Hollywood circa 1950? Fantastic.

At the second lock along, at last it happened, the thing we had been told to expect: a lock-keeper offering to sell us something. We had read so many accounts of people entering a lock and finding items on sale, but hadn’t yet come across it. Anyway, there you are, standing on the deck of your boat holding tight to the mooring lines, and that lock-keeper really has you in his control so that when he asks you if you would like to buy some eggs, you realise that saying “Ah, oui, monsieur, absolutement” is the only way to go. You can’t help but wonder, you see, whether the lock mechanism could suddenly develop a failure if you refuse to purchase whatever is on sale. We only have a couple of days left on board, but you eagerly say you would like six eggs. He brings you seven eggs. Perhaps he thinks you should eat three and your man should eat four, who knows, but you decide that seven is exactly what you want. No price has yet been discussed. He then goes back inside and reappears with some postcards. He asks would you like to buy these postcards, three different scenes. Of course you would like to buy them, and so you find yourself with seven tiny, tiny eggs and three postcards, and you have paid €4.50 for the pleasure. When you look at the postcards, you then find that they aren’t even of this canal, but are of a different region and show a very different waterwayl. Ah well, you get a laugh out of it. And they may be tiny, but those eggs were fresh and delicious.

You wonder, though, if this guy sends a message down the line that a couple of pushovers are on their way through. Yes, I think you are correct to be suspicious because no sooner have you secured your lines in the second lock than the lock-keeper offers to sell you some wine. He assures you it is an excellent Puilly-Fumé from this region and he can offer it to you at a real bargain price at only €11.  Considering that the wine we pick up in supermarkets and bottle shops is usually no more than €8, you do wonder what sort of mark-up this guy is adding on. You also have to think about all the wine you already have on board and that you only have tonight and tomorrow night left on board, but you reluctantly, albeit feigning excitement, agree to buy one bottle of his wine.  He then asks if you are staying the night in Lere, and you tell him that that is indeed your plan. He enthuses over a particular restaurant to be found there, La Lion D’or (which was actually recommended by Susan at French Travel Connection also), and hands you a card for the restaurant. On the back of the card he has written his name, and stresses that you should show this card when you dine there. You wonder if he is being kind and passing on a recommendation to an excellent restaurant, or if he gets a little kick-back on this. Who knows, and who cares really – these lock-keepers are fantastic people who no doubt have to put up with some real jerks at times, and this little bit of entrepreneurship is fine by me.

Is this more like it for you?

And so we come to Lere, a quite sizeable and pretty town and one with a really well equipped and well-lit mooring area, which is really fantastic when you’re on the canals. This town instantly looks different to the other towns and villages you have been through – it looks more affluent, as though people have work here, as though the young people have stayed here because there are jobs to be had, which, sadly, has not been the case for some villages we have enjoyed visiting. Ah, of course there’s work: look at that huge nuclear power plant hovering over our shoulder.

We went for a good wander around the town, and found our ears assaulted by something we hadn’t actually heard since leaving Australia: the unmistakeable sound of youth – doof doof music being played LOUD. They were gathered around the square outside the tourism office, listening to their music. I have to say, they were very unthreatening, just kids having a good time. There is justice in the world, though, because at 7pm their music was absolutely drowned out by the sound of the bells on the church, which is right next to the square. Those bells started up and rang, and rang, and rang, and rang, and it pretty well brought the al fresco disco to an end. Ah, peace.

Thanks, Quasimodo

We were still both way too sick to even contemplate taking up the recommendation of the restaurant, although I’m sure it would have been great. We also had quite a bit of food on board which we needed to polish off before handing the boat back, so we “settled” on a meal of pates, cheeses, olives, the tomatoes that actually have a flavour, delicious ham (I love Paris Ham), lovely little hard boiled eggs, washed down – of course – with vino, on the front deck as we watched the sun go down.

As soon as darkness sets in, we head to bed, hoping for a good night’s sleep so that we will wake feeling on top of the world for our last day on the canal. No such luck – we cough, we sniff, we sneeze, all under the eerie glow of that power plant.”

See you tomorrow, when we head out on our final day of this wonderful canal boat trip.

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