Selebrating with Soissons: 03/08 – 06/08

Bourg-et-Comin – Soissons

We awoke about 7 am to find our commercial neighbours had left already, so quietly that they hadn’t disturbed us. We decided the aim for the day was the large town of Soissons, a good candidate for a couple of days’ stay and only a modest 28 km cruise.

The actual cruise was delightful.

Woods, brush, farmland, small villages, hills, quaint towns, churches and imposing buildings.

There was only one set of locks between us and Soissons once we had dropped through the one at Bourg-et-Comin. However, this one was a first for us – a staircase lock. When several locks are so close together that the front gates of one become the rear gates of the next, this is a staircase. Some can be quite extensive such as the eight at Fonserannes on the Canal du Midi.

This staircase was a kindergarten version of only two locks! Still, it was fascinating to be in the upper lock and watch it fill the one below,

The lock below is filling with what is emptying from this one.

then cruise into the second lock, let it empty and then head off.

Entering the lower lock.

These locks marked the end of the Canal latéral à l’Aisne and we then entered the River Aisne itself.

Soissons – Day 1

By lunchtime, we had arrived at Soissons and moored on the long and spacious quay. A very pleasant location although it lacked for shade – and the unremitting heat and sunshine was something that would need addressing. However, we started off on a short walk to get our bearings.

Just a few hundred metres from our mooring we came to an impressive looking building which turned out to be the Mairie. Inside the grounds there was obviously some sort of event – lots of people, canopied stalls and a long red-draped table.

It turned out that this was a commemoration of local soldiers who had participated in the Great War – photographs, letters, personal mementoes and lots of military memorabilia. At each display it featured an extract of the official war record for a soldier either born or recruited in Soissons who had been killed.

Georges Tassin, killed by the enemy on the 7th October 1918 by a shot to the head, (a war injury) near Autry (east of Reims), aged 30.

Mostly it was related to the French but there was also a section on the Americans and the British.

There were also a couple of items of mechanised weaponry including this beautifully presented Renault FT-17 light tank.

This poster shows the dramatic effect of the war on Soissons – the population of nearly 15,000 dropped to under 1,000 after the first few months of hostilities.

At the end of the row of marquees we spotted a poster:

Exposition we were attending today, fireworks tomorrow night, accordion concert on Sunday!

so we had struck it lucky again – we had just arrived at the start of three days of commemoration and celebration of the centennial of the liberation of Soissons from the Germans!

These are the surprises that really make cruising memorable – the chance, unplanned encounters. Well, what better than a fireworks display and to Ian’s great delight, an accordion band performance?

Clearly, this was going to be an extended stay so, first thing back on Catharina Elisabeth was to manufacture some solar protection.

Marianne and Paul (the previous owners) had left a set of shade cloths on board Neo Vita – but we’d only tested them prior to this. One set of covers slides across a track fitted to the outside of the wheelhouse. There were two sets that could be tied to the rails above the salon and draped over the salon windows. And finally a large rectangular sheet that could be tied up to cover the rear and one side of the Bimini.

They are mostly only calico, not sun-block treated, but anything to cut the direct sun from the windows is a bonus. So we set about trying them on – and for the next few days, each morning they all went on one side of the boat, and as the sun moved, we took them all off and tied them to the opposite side. This worked a treat from then on and for all the subsequent, remorselessly hot days that continued for some time.

Sadly, we don’t have any photos to show of this as one of us only thought to take a single set of pictures and, as the other of us was flat out fast asleep and not looking absolutely at her best: these remain in our private collection.

Day 2 – The Fireworks

First, we moved Catharina just a little up the quay. This brought us into a spot where there might be a little afternoon shade at least on the foredeck. The other benefit is that it would move us away from some seating that had been occupied all afternoon and into the night by locals.

They were no bother, not too loud and didn’t disturb us – they always smiled warmly at us as we came and went – we just wanted a little more privacy. In the end, this strategy failed miserably when, the next night, another group of locals set up right next to us on the wall – again, no bother, and it is their town where they are surely entitled to commune on the waterfront in the evening. It was just that they remained there until the wee small hours of the following morning, and didn’t feel the need to play their music more quietly, or indeed, lower their voices. However, we were never kept awake.

The move also bought us closer to the one remaining working bourne and we managed to string together almost 100 m of cable so we could connect to the electricity. At least it was free.

Over the time we were at Soissons, we cycled frequently and walked around often, a town where the main attractions are easily accessible – it was clean and well cared for with varied and interesting architecture.

The church of Saint-Pierre-au-Parvis – part of the now destroyed abbey that was on this site.

All the better for being warm (to hot!) and sunny. A lovely place to stay.

As with many places in France, being visited by Joan of Arc is worthy of commemoration.

Abbaye Saint Leger

This old abbey now houses the Soissons museum. Here we found an interesting archaeological tale of the region, from Neolithic times through to early iron age society. There have been many significant findings from local digs, and the stories were well presented.

Maquette of a neolithic funeral procession that might have led to one of the gravesites they have excavated.

Along with some paintings was a very ornate gilded piece fashioned in the mid-16th century which is composed of models of all the churches and abbeys of Soissons during the medieval period. A superb and intricate work of art that was created as a reliquary to house remains of saints saved when the Huguenots pillaged the cathedral in 1567-68. Rather than being an exact representation – the buildings were not all present at the same time, nor are their positions relative to each other correct and some have been idealised – the intricate piece serves to document mediaeval Soissons.

All the major religious buildings present in the 16th century.

A walk back outside and along the cloistered alley led us to the remains of the chapel, which looks as though it is being set up to display some significant pieces.

View of the chapel from the abbey/museum.

The interior is in good condition, although bare and austere.

It is no longer used for religious purposes but maintains a monastic atmosphere with broken pieces of corbel propped up against the blank stone walls of the church.

Below, you can also enter the crypt which is the only remaining part of the previous Abbey of Saint-Médard, founded around 560.

Fireworks

On the Saturday night we cycled to the site of the ruined abbey of St Jean-de Vignes for the fireworks. It was easy to find as we were joined by many others on bikes and walking along the road, until we all came to the abbey gates, and sat down to wait. The fireworks were not a disappointment – there is nothing wrong with a warm summer evening, sitting with a crowd of similarly expectant families, and being delighted by a colourful and appropriately noisy display.

The entire fireworks performance was broken up into segments: with a narrator describing those last days in early July 1918 of Soissons’ occupation, then the anticipation as Allies came closer and closer until finally, the Germans were vanquished and Soissons was liberated. There must have been about ten chapters, each interspersed with an elaborate display of fireworks. One of the most memorable of such displays we’ve ever witnessed.

Day 3 – The Accordion Concert

We spent the first part of the day on some more maintenance, before the temperature climbed too high into the 30’s, finally finishing removing the last of the varnish and completing the sanding of the second pigeon hatch – ready for staining.

We also watched as the rental dragon boat took a group on an excursion up and down the port.

After lunch, it was time for the accordion concert. It was just a few hundred metres up the quay from us so we carried some chairs into the park area. Here we could see a gazebo set up for a band and a wooden dance floor. We set up in the partial shade and settled back to a delightful afternoon watching the French dance.

It wasn’t so much an accordion concert (although the band had four accordionists) but what we would call in Australia a ‘country dance’. As the music played a mixture of experienced dancers (from some local group) and the ordinary folk of the town, enjoyed various structured dances much as we have done in the many dances we used to attend in Australia. We were sure we saw some that we knew but were too timid to join in. Anyhow, it was enthralling as we watched the good and not so good dancers, all engaged in a wonderful atmosphere of community and shared enjoyment.

We eventually retired the short distance back to Catharina and had a quiet night in the absence of any extended meetings of the locals.

Day 4

Although the commemoration celebrations had finished, we were well aware that there were attractions we had not yet explored in Soissons – particularly the cathedral and the ruined Abbey.

Soissons Cathedral

The Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais dates from the 12th century and is one of the six major Gothic cathedrals of Picardy. Inside, it is capacious, ornate and impressive.

Indeed, the town provides a free guided tour and for a few euros, the tour guide will also take you up to the top of the tower for a few more euros. We were approached by a young French woman with a clipboard who offered to show us around and soon found ourselves on a personalised tour, in English, of the interior. Where she was unsure of the English word or phrase, we worked it out between us, offering suggestions based on our rudimentary knowledge of the structure of cathedrals.

Explanations by our guide – more photos of the interior is the gallery below.

Painting depicting the decapitation of Saint Crépin and Saint Crépinien in around 304 AD.
A reminder of the terrible events that took place during WWI.
Jeanne d'Arc and a painting of Our Lady.
L’Adoration des Bergers (The Adoration of the Shepherds) Peter Paul Rubens (c1618-20)
Detail of the stained glass in the eastern wall of the cathedral.
Painting depicting the decapitation of Saint Crépin and Saint Crépinien in around 304 AD.

After spending the best part of an hour taking us around, we met up with a few others who had arranged to climb the tower and we were treated to great views and descriptions of the town.

Looking over towards the river Aisne – ‘Catharina’ is moored somewhere behind the trees.

The tower we were using as a vantage point was supposed to have been identical to the other tower and spire but while the cathedral was under construction there was a need for stones to construct dwellings for the townsfolk. Rather unusually for the time, the bishop donated the stones that were to be used for the cathedral to the populace and the second tower remained unfinished.

The striking pattern of tiles on the roof.

After the cathedral, it was then off for a short cycle to the Abbey ruins, where we had watched the fireworks a couple of days ago.

Ruined Abbey

The abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, once one of the richest in France, was founded in the 11th century but ruined during the reign of Napoleon I. Works to preserve the remains are taking place and the district in which the abbey is located is undergoing extensive development.

Ruins of the front of the old church with the refectory, being restored, beside.

The most impressive feature is the two towers, unequal in height with the tallest over 70 m high (an excellent, interactive 3D visualisation of the abbey is here).

Refectory with ruins behind.

When we arrived, the young girl at the ticket desk greeted us with “oh, you must be the Australians”. Our friendly guide from the cathedral had beaten us to the site of the abbey and apparently told her colleague about the couple travelling on their barge.

We had a leisurely viewing inside the museum section and then wandered around the site which was dotted with information panels pointing out the functions of the ruined and missing buildings.

Plan of the abbey buildings.

It was clearly a magnificent edifice in its heyday and still impressive today.

The refectory interior – recently refurbished.After a very full day, we rested back on Catharina and prepared for the next stage – heading down the Aisne towards Compiègne.

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