In great excitement, we wrote about our first cruise into France on Catharina Elisabeth the day after we actually achieved it. So, at the time, the post was out of sequence. Here it is again (but updated) to keep the story flowing. If you want to read the original – click here.
We have posted this blog a bit out of sequence but it is a special occasion for us.
This morning we awoke on Catharina Elisabeth after our first night in France.
This has been our dream (described here) for some forty years and, in this specific form, for about the last four. Lots of steps along the way; we’ve had to learn a lot and be patient to achieve this milestone but it has been a truly wonderful experience throughout.
We have been cruising southwards on the lightly travelled and picturesque Haute (upper) Sambre – first in the Belgian section from Charleroi to the French border and yesterday into France.
We’ve been fortunate to have warm, sunny weather while we cruise along the winding river with a mixture of steep valleys, forests, fields of crops, cows and a mixture of small and larger towns. An absolutely delightful cruise in beautiful weather.
Yesterday we wound our way along the narrowing river from the last Belgian town of Erquelinnes upriver into France. Michel and Rebecca had left to catch a train to pick up their car from Marchienne leaving Panache with us as we started into France.
Our first French lock was a new experience (something that delights and challenges us nearly every day!) – there was nobody there! We soon worked out that we were facing a series of automatic locks. We tied up and got off to check it out and found a little hut beside the lock with a placard and a speaker box. After discussing it amongst ourselves and, following some competent interrogation in French (by Lisette) on the loudspeaker system, a wireless lock-control device popped out of the slot.
With nothing more to go on we cruised on several kilometres to the next lock – it would no doubt become clearer in time. (Favourite line from “Shakespeare in Love” – “It will all work out. I don’t know how, but it always does”.) When you are about 100 m from the lock, one button wakes it up and one of two other buttons tells it you either want to go up (montant) or down (avalant). Lisette has the unit with her at the bow while Ian is at the stern. Waiting for something to happen, Lisette watches the screen which gives her an instruction or a message for each action: telling us we can approach the lock; checking that we are ready for the lock cycle to commence; right through to ‘Safe Trip’ as we exit the lock.
Throughout the day, on the five automatic locks we used, this worked smoothly and speedily. Although it did lack the random and interesting conversations that often take place while in a lock…chatting to the éclusier (lock keeper), with other boats sharing the lock with us and passers-by who often stop to watch.
Rebecca and Michel had picked up their car and we arranged to catch up with them in Maubeuge (FR!).
The Quest: Episode II
Now we were in France, with access to a car, so it was opportune to move onto the next phase of the quest to obtain a working, French-powered barbeque. Michel took Ian in the car on a short jaunt to the nearest Carrefour and, like most supermarkets in France, there was a gas bottle exchange in the car park. Very quickly, Michel had organised a new, full, brilliant yellow gas cylinder and a regulator to go with it. It was a major step forward but, as expected, when we returned there was no way to connect the regulator to the Weber – the Dutch free end of the gas hose from the barbeque refused to join to the French regulator. The EU at work again.
Still, it was a big step forward. We were now equipped with a gas supply for the remainder of our stay in Belgium and prepared for next year’s foray into France.
Our great thrill over all of this Sambre cruise has been finally being able to host our friends and mentors, Michel and Rebecca on Catharina Elisabeth. Even better, to have Panache padding around her deck.
They have been with us all along – from their encouragement when we were on ‘t Majeur in 2013; visiting Neo Vita on our behalf during the middle of the Dutch winter and providing us with the confidence to buy her; for patiently answering our plethora of questions and guiding us through so many issues over the last three years; and for their generous friendship.
When we returned there was time for a quick photo before they headed back to the Netherlands. It was fitting that they were with us when we finally made it to France and to have them with us, ever so briefly, as we dipped our toes in French waters.
Deeper into France
We spent the rest of the fine, warm day winding our way along the pretty Sambre. There were three more locks between us and the next village of Berlaimont. We wished to stop before passing the lock into Berlaimont because we would then have to pay for a vingnette. We didn’t object to the cost so much as that we would not be able to use it because we had to return down the Sambre, pick up our next guest and get past the lock at Abbaye d’Alune before it closed.
We arrived at the small French town of Pont-sur-Sambre late afternoon, passed through the écluse, and moored just upstream on a small pontoon. It was sunny and warm and after a celebratory beer on the back deck, we walked into the town to find a suitably memorable meal.
Most of France is closed because it is August and everyone is on holiday but we found a nice grill restaurant and had a great meal.
The chef was fascinated to hear about what we were doing (mostly in French from Lisette) and even ducked out of the restaurant – leaving our meals in suspension – while he went to check out Catharina Elisabeth moored at the nearby écluse.
The decor featured a vintage motorbike that had belonged to the chef’s father but, more interesting, turned out to be the name of the restaurant.
Le “Stevenson” (in quotes presumably to alert the French to the exotic nature of the name) is named after Robert Louis Stevenson.
His first published book was called “An Inland Voyage” and is one of the earliest books in the modern genre of the travelogue. Robert and a friend cruised along the waterways of Belgium and France in canoes rigged with sails. On their journey, they travelled up the Sambre and down the River Oise. One of our treats was to read of their experience of staying in Pont-sur-Sambre, over 140 years ago, here.
His account of their finally finding a place to sleep ends with a reference to a meal similar to what the modern Le “Stevenson” provides:
“The place was in total darkness, save a red glow in the chinks and ventilators of the stove. But now the landlady lit a lamp to see her new guests; I suppose the darkness was what saved us another expulsion; for I cannot say she looked gratified at our appearance. We were in a large bare apartment, adorned with two allegorical prints of Music and Painting, and a copy of the law against public drunkenness. On one side, there was a bit of a bar, with some half-a-dozen bottles. Two labourers sat waiting supper, in attitudes of extreme weariness; a plain-looking lass bustled about with a sleepy child of two; and the landlady began to derange the pots upon the stove, and set some beefsteak to grill.”
but then moves on to an eloquent and insightful treatment of the class system as it existed in Britain and France. The whole book is available from Project Gutenberg in several electronic formats.
Well, unlike Robert, we had ready lodgings a short walk away so, after our repast, we retired to our first night in France on Catharina Elisabeth. No street or house lights, completely silent – just us and a family of anxious but patient waterbirds whose nest we appear to have moored beside.
We awoke next morning to a fine but cloudy day to start our return to Belgium.
Unfortunately, this will be our last day in France for a little while. The river Sambre used to be a major route into France but an unsafe pont-canal (canal on a bridge) and silting about 30 km upstream has blocked the route for many years.
Also, we do have to head back to Belgium as one of the Sambre locks behind us is closing for maintenance in a few days for a week so we have to get through it by Monday evening or we would be stranded on this side of it. Not a bad thing, normally, but we do have a (loose) schedule to try to keep to.
Only the first day, but a memorable one, of what we hope will be many, many more in France on Catharina Elisabeth.