One of the features of cruising in Europe is that most towns have access to good public transport and so, if we want to visit somewhere more distant from our mooring than is convenient to get to by bike, then it is often a simple matter to hop on a bus or train. While at the Resort, we took two such side-trips.
We had long been in contact with a couple of our British friends, Don and Maureen (who cruised with us in 2016 on the Belgian Meuse). Maureen is a member of a choral group near their home in England, and we knew that the choir was to present several concerts in France, themed to WW1 including one in Amiens on the river Somme. Originally, we had planned to cruise there to meet her but our stay in the Resort clearly prevented this. Not to be beaten by a little thing like a non-cruise, we decided to visit by train.
The trip started inauspiciously as we cycled the 20 minutes to Douai in plenty of time to catch the train but delays at the ticket office meant we missed it by a matter of seconds – as the guy was printing our tickets, we were devastated to see our train quietly leave the station on its way to Amiens. Ordinarily, public transport is great in Europe, but it turns out that after the last of the morning commuter trains at around 8.30 am, there is a very long gap until the next one, at 11.30 am. So we had three hours to kill! While we could have gone back to Catharina Elisabeth (where we might have felt obliged to whip out the heat gun and a paintbrush!) we would have spent an hour of that time cycling backwards and forwards. So we decided to hang around Douai, and instead of an early arrival in Amiens, it was more like lunch time. But the weather was gorgeous so we had a leisurely walk from the train station to the Amiens Cathedral punctuated by a light lunch.
A striking feature just outside of the station is Europe’s first skyscraper – still the tallest in France. The ‘Tour Perret’ is 110 m high – it was not allowed to be any taller because architect (Lous Perret) was required not to exceed the top of the spire of the Amiens Cathedral. Completed in 1954, it is a residential tower of 25 stories and is a highly sought after residential location. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to enjoy the view over the city from the building unless you are friends with the owners of the penthouses or have deep pockets for a tourist rental on the 23rd floor (but to see a blog post of someone who had a short visit there – and has those photos – click here).
After making brief contact with Maureen to confirm the arrangements for the performance we left for a short walk around the locale of the Cathedral. A striking feature was a large collection of wall murals made from black and white photos taken during WW1. As most of you will be aware, some of the fiercest battles of that war were fought along the Somme and, in particular, as British and Empire troops were responsible for this sector, there are strong links for Australians with this theatre of war.
The concert was impressive and the setting spectacular. The Cathedral at Amiens is the largest in France, twice the size of Notre Dame in Paris and is unusual in that it is architecturally homogeneous. Construction was completed over a relatively short period, from 1220 to 1270 and there have been no significant additions since. This is in contrast to most other large churches that have had additions made over time and can have quite different styles across the building. Expecting that we would return to Amiens later in the season on Catharina, at least twice, we did not take time to explore the Cathedral in detail and allowed ourselves to be enthralled by the performance.
After the concert, we had a short stroll around the environs, paying close attention to the mooring in town that Catharina would be using in the future (confident that we would eventually cruise away from Courchelettes). There was time for a drink with Maureen and one of her chorister friends after which we made our way back to the train station for the trip back to Douai.
On the way, we paused at this impressive clock.
It is the ‘Horloge Dewailly’ named after a mayor of Amiens who bequeathed 25,000 Fr for its construction. Part of the clock was sculpted by Albert Roze who included a nearly naked spring goddess as part of its base. This caused a huge scandal but overwhelmingly the citizens of Amiens took it to their heart and gave her the name ‘Marie Sans Chemise‘. Today, it is a traditional place for lovers to meet and kiss. The clock was dismantled and hidden during WWII and not fully replaced afterwards. The city undertook refurbishment and reconstruction using the original plans, which ended when the clock was restarted at midnight on Dec 31, 1999 as part of Amiens’ Millenial celebrations.
When we chose to cruise down the river Lys through Armentières, we passed up the opportunity to cruise through Lille, the largest city in the region. But now, with time on our hands and the prospect of a shop that sold wool on offer (Lisette had a couple of projects in mind, for grandchildren back home, and was keen to get supplies), we elected to make this another of our side-trips by train. We took advantage of another glorious day to cycle into Douai and head for Lille.
Originally a Flemish city it was conquered by the French in 1668 and thus became part of France. Vauban was immediately commissioned to build one of his characteristic forts which served well in 1792 when the town resisted the Austrians who invaded while France was in the turmoil of the industrial revolution. A prosperous city especially during the period of industry driven by coal it has suffered recently as heavy industry has decreased.
We arrived at Gare de Lille Flandres, the older of Lille’s two main stations. This station is notable because the front of the station was originally that of Gare du Nord in Paris and was taken, brick by brick and erected in Lille during its construction.
Again, we had perfect weather and we walked in warm sunshine down the long wide boulevards to the centre of the town. This is dominated by the neo-Flemish Chamber of Commerce building constructed early in the 20th century.
We went inside and found a spacious, ornate interior decorated with frescos and a spectacular skylight. Around the hall displays covering the ongoing refurbishment of the hall and also information on various aspects of industry and commerce in the region.
Nearby was the impressive 17th century ‘Old Stock Exchange’ building and the ‘Column of the Goddess’ commemorating the resistance of the town to the Austrians.
A little further on was the memorable Notre-Damme de la Treille cathedral. Architecturally this church was in complete contrast to the Amiens Cathedral. The Lille Cathedral has accreted over seven centuries. Most obviously, the northeastern part of the cathedral, which was constructed from 1854 until the end of the 19th century, is in Gothic style.
The southwestern aspect of the cathedral was constructed late in the 20th century in strikingly different modern style.
Both inside and out, this edifice seems spectacularly schizoid.
We walked down towards the canal that cuts through the town so that we could check out the moorings should we ever have cause to bring Catharina to Lille. A DBA barge, Lumacona was one of the occupants on a pretty mooring next to the citadel and a park in what looked to be a very pleasant location.
Pretty well exhausted by all the walking and with a deadline to get to the wool shop before it closed, we sauntered back towards the station. Satisfied with the wool purchase we boarded the train back to Douai and then cycled back to Catharina.
So, all this work, touristing and side trips were not entirely to plan. Remember, we had dropped Plan A as soon as we arrived and were unable to get into France via Dunkirk and instead had to swing right around through Belgium. Our current plan (B) had us going to the Somme and then across Northern France, the Ardennes canal and up the Meuse/Meuse canal to Toul.
However, that was clearly not going to work. The time we would need to make that journey feasible was fast running out. To reach our winter mooring, we would have to drastically curtail our cruising on the Somme. More importantly, the route we had planned to use was now impassable because low water had closed the canal on the Meuse that would take us to Toul. The other route we could take was longer and was also suffering from low water.
After some discussions with Malcolm and Debbie on Janna II, we decided to see if we could stay in the Gare de l’eau Lahure where we had moored when we first arrived in Douai a month ago. The deeper part of the mooring was already occupied by a group of regulars but a section against the wall was deep enough for Catharina. So, we took a ride down the local VNF offices and with her French under full test, Lisette negotiated a quite cheap winter mooring. We were very pleased with this outcome as we knew several of the regulars who wintered there who could keep an eye on Catharina when we returned to Australia. The other big advantage was that as we now didn’t have to travel east, we could spend some time on the Somme and even, perhaps, travel back up to Calais, Dunkirk and Bergues with sufficient time to retrace our steps back to Douai for our wintering. Thus we would recapture parts of Plan A that we had been forced to drop. We very particularly wanted to see Bergues.
So this became Plan C – cruise south on the Canal du Nord and then down and up the river Somme. Back north on the Canal du Nord, past Douai and up to Calais/Dunkirk/Bergues, leaving plenty of time to return south along the same canals to Douai for winter. We could then head eastwards next year at a leisurely pace when, hopefully, the water levels would be more normal.
So, as we described earlier, after Malcolm and Ian’s long trip to the Netherlands, the next morning Ian fitted the water pump and it tested out perfectly. It was 10:30 am on the 11th of August, 25 days after arriving in Chantier Despinoy, “Courchelettes Resort”, when we cast off Catharina and commenced the next stage of Plan C – our trip towards the river Somme.