No-Barge Rally at Briare
We had long planned to take a week out of cruising to attend the DBA barge rally in the French town of Briare Le Canal. We had an absolutely fantastic time.
As we always knew we could not attend the Rally with Catharina – it was too far to cruise given the time we would arrive back from Australia, so we had booked a gite in the town very early on and hired a car to drive from Veurne. The drive would take between four and six hours depending on how much Paris traffic held us up – using the périphérique (ring road). Ours was the six-hour version, but it was all worth it when we arrived in sunny Briare Le Canal that afternoon. The weather remained warm and sunny for the entire visit. Delightful. This was in contrast to that of the previous month – one of the wettest in the history of Belgium and France. The floods had been very severe around Briare, to the point where it destroyed a section of the canal leading to the port from the north.
This stranded nearly half the barges that planned to attend as it was not possible to take the alternative routes in the time available. And the one possible route, would only be navigable to some of the barges. Undeterred, many of them took the same option as us and came by car, either renting accommodation, or being hosted on one of the thirteen barges that eventually made it to Briare from the east and south.
Our gite was in a wonderful location, right next to the port bordering the waterway, a stone’s throw from all the action. The gite itself was run by Madame who spoke no English but understood Lisette’s French perfectly and vice versa.
We were soon welcomed aboard the ‘party boat’ of the meet, Francoise, crewed by the Budds – the convivial Graham “step aboard for a beer” and irrepressible Jill “let’s have a go at that dearie!” We follow their blog ‘Contented Souls’ avidly – and they are one of the few that we know who cruise continually, twelve months of the year and so we can continue to get our barging ‘fix’ even when everyone else is hunkered down for the northern winter.
The port soon filled with the thirteen barges and in the brilliant sunshine, with the baskets of petunias and pelargoniums bursting all over the bridge and the around the lock that are a feature of rural France, it made for a very fragrant and pretty sight.
We had arrived on the Wednesday afternoon, and because the Rally did not officially commence until the Friday afternoon, we had plenty of time to wander around, familiarising ourselves with this pretty French town and admiring the barges. The warmth of everyone we met as we strolled along was responsible for very slow progress around the port. Everyone invites you onto their boat. Wine and beer is promptly offered all around, and the very real risk of staggering from one boat to the next, and back to our gite late every evening, loomed large. We were raised to be polite and kind, so we partook of every offering – and slept unsurprisingly well every night.
Just after we had registered at the Capitaineries, we finally caught up with our email/facebook Canadian pals – Jonathan and Jeannie with whom we were going to cruise in a few week’s time. We could immediately see that they would be perfect cruising buddies. Over the duration of the meet we came to know them well and were soon looking forward to having them to ourselves.
Adventures at the Rally
The Rally started with an official welcome from the Mayor, who was accompanied by a troop of French Coronet players. They played several fanfares while we had our mixer and, to our ears, sounded very competent and impressive. It was hot work for them in the late afternoon sun, dressed in their thick red coats, and high black boots – all done for free, just to show off the town. Here’s a short (40 sec) excerpt from one of their pieces.
After the BBQ we retired to the party boat, and by the time Graham had finished inviting passers-by aboard, there were fourteen people, three dogs and a cat noisily engaged in communing. Fortunately, Door Maas, the harbourmaster, was one of the company and so there was some latitude in the requirement for quiet – until she left with the parting comment to ‘be careful of the neighbours’.
Next day we were treated to an English language tour of the Musée de la Mosaïque et des Emaux (mosaics and enamels). Situated in a pretty park, surrounded by trees, the museum occupies a large 19th Century building, which was the home of Jean-Félix Bapterosses, the founder of “Emaux de Briare”.
The museum houses collections of porcelain, buttons, pearls and mosaics from the 19th and 20th Centuries demonstrating the varied products that have been made in the factory at Briare. The mosaics his factory made included tiny ‘square’ tiles as well as shaped ones essentially styled on cocks’ combes which allowed for more intricate portraits to be made.
Totally fascinating. At one point, Jean-Félix invented a machine that could manufacture several hundred buttons at a time, and this gave him a serious edge over other button manufacturers of the time. Jean-Félix was very keen to try new things, and so he began experimenting with cameos and beads.
The beads part of his business was very successful. If you have seen pictures of Africans dressed with brilliant swathes of colourful beads, then they may well have been made in Briare. In a third transition, the factory began to make tiles for kitchens and bathrooms. It is this business that continues until today, with Briare tiles in demand world-wide.
The next bit of excitement was a display by a local dog rescue squad – who had chosen to show off their expertise by attempting to drown one of the the organisers of our Rally, John Best, and attempt a rescue with one of their Newfoundland dogs.
Fortunately, this went off rather well, with the chosen dog making an efficient retrieval, while his/her mates on the grass barked their displeasure at not also being allowed to have a swim in the lake. And plainly desperate to be allowed to take part in a ‘rescue’. They were mostly beautiful Newfoundlands, large and strong and devoted to their training.
Keeping the watery theme, the next event was the canoe race. Our original understanding was that this was to be a rowing competition, so Ian volunteered. Just before the event, the ‘canoe’ bit surfaced and so Lisette also had to front up for a bit of paddling. Six canoes and one rowing dingy started the race and because we were not in a competitive mood (Ian had never had any intention of trying to win), the Aussie boat was soon well behind (with Lisette periodically calling back to Ian to at least pretend to make an effort!).
As a bit of pride surfaced, we tried to catch up and were making good gains, until Ian cracked the beers we had on board. Ever alert to a drinking opportunity, the Budd’s also ceased forward progress and joined us for a very relaxed drift to the finish line, which, in a cruel twist of fate, they passed last – and so later won the snail trophy for the slowest boat. Enormous fun!
Last event on this hot day was a game of boules/pétanque with the local pétanque club, who graciously took us in hand and guided us through the game. Each participant has two solid, heavy metal balls. Each pair has a different pattern inscribed on it to identify its owner. A jack ball is tossed nearby (no more than ten steps) and players in turn get to try and get as many of their balls close to the jack, without any opponent’s balls nearer. We never managed to work out the playing sequence but we played several rounds with other DBA’ers and the locals forming mixed teams. At one point Ian’s team won their round, and at another, Lisette’s team won a round.
That evening there was a cocktail reception in the nearby Musée des Deux Marines et du Pont-Canal. The food and drink was plentiful and again we were treated to a fascinating tour of the exhibits with English commentary, including a history of barging on the River Loire and how it interacted with the Canal de Briare once it was created, in order to link France’s two great rivers (the Loire with the Seine and thence Paris). At one time there was a canal on the southern side of the Loire, and the Canal de Briare was on the north side. To get from one to the other, there was a four-hour, very difficult river crossing – basically they had to throw an anchor forwards, drag up to the anchor, and repeat the exercise until they could get across.
This all changed in 1896 when they opened a big Pont Canal (canal bridge) over the Loire. It is the biggest in the country and barges simply cruise across the water-filled bridge between the two canals. It is the most famous bit of canal engineering in Briare. People come from miles around to view it. Eiffel (of ‘that tower in Paris’ fame) was responsible for the design of the massive pilons that support the bridge.
We never saw it. More on that a little later.
The Rally would close the following day (Sunday). Lunch was preceded by a talk from the local representative of the VNF (Voies navigables de France), the administrators of the internal waterways) and the distribution of prizes: from the best dressed barge to the slowest participant in the canoe race.
A little later, we viewed an impressive display of radio-controlled replica model boats. Then watched as some of them pottered around on the lake.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon catching up with a few of our new friends on their barges, always interested in seeing how others have set up their boats and swapping stories.
From Shipwright to Mill Owner
The next day we took off on a short trip to the village of Saint-Privé. We had learned that the engineer, Willem de Vries, who had worked on Catharina in Groningen during the winter before last, had moved to France with his partner Janet. Around six months ago they had purchased a 400-year-old old watermill on the banks of the Loing River. After a bit of searching around the village, and with the help of a delightful man in his garden, providing quite clear instructions in French, we found them.
The location is splendid – fields and river around, trees and flowers and all the old farm and mill buildings. Their land runs along the river for several kilometres. The enormous potential of the property is obvious, but the place was quite run down, although structurally sound.
It turned out that Willem and Janet had only been living there for three weeks and had just fixed up the water and electric power. It was clear they had already made huge strides in this little time, but there is a tremendous amount of work to do in the future.
They intend to fix up the mill house as a guest house, offer a variety of horse-related experiences with Janet’s horses while living in a renovated section of one of the other farm buildings nearby. They have the rights to any power produced by the mill and they plan to put in some simple hydroelectric generation to make use of the water flow.
Hopefully by the time that we get to Briare on Catharina (in two or three years) we will be able to see the site in its full glory.
Arriving back in town we were hailed (Jill, of course) as we passed a large group of our new friends, having dinner outside a restaurant facing the canal and the barges. We joined them for one last group dinner before we would all start to leave Briare.
Our plans were to leave on the Tuesday morning to drive back to Veurne and Catharina, so that we could unload the car and then drop it off in Oostende by 5 pm. Jill and Graham had invited us to come aboard Francoise and cruise across the Pont Canal with them. We were very tempted, and thought there was just enough time to do it and still make it back to Belgium in time. We were looking forward to our first sight of the Pont from aboard a barge while crossing.
Unfortunately, come the time to leave, Francoise’s prop appeared to be caught on a stone outcrop on the edge of the canal. Ultimately, it took three barges and several folk pushing from the quayside, using various maneuvers, to get her off.
By then we knew it was too late for us to consider travelling aboard her, and too late to go and view the Pont-Canal as tourists. So the Briare Pont-Canal will have to wait until we get back with Catharina.
After the long drive back to Belgium we were back on board Catharina late that afternoon, eagerly anticipating our first cruising day of the season to start the next day – with a short jaunt to Nieuwpoort.
Straining on the leash, we slept well in anticipation.