One of our intentions for this season was to try and travel a little more slowly and spend more time in places that interested us. While we were still operating to Plan A while here, even this involved a little less travelling than previous seasons (around 900 km as opposed to our usual 1,000+ km) and as circumstances changed over the next few weeks, this fell back to less than 500 km. So we started our life in the slow(er) lane with a long stay in Auxerre, a city where they make an effort to cater for tourists. This was no problem at all as it had convenient moorings, accessible for lots of sightseeing and plenty of opportunity for socialising.
The view across from our town mooring was splendid as it was dominated by the Abbey of Saint-Germain and the Cathedral of Saint-Étiene overlooking the river and the medieval townsite.
We toured on bikes and on foot, crossing the river on the pedestrian bridge (passerelle) to get to the old town. First stop was the tourist bureau where we collected a number of brochures about local sights and events and then on to the Abbey.
Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre
We visited the Abbey on three separate occasions while in Auxerre – partly due to our incredibly bad logistics. The Abbey was free to enter, but hours in the morning were only from 10 am to midday (although there were more extended hours in the afternoon from 2 to 5 pm) and worse, we always seemed to arrive around 11 am. However, we built up a pretty fair appreciation of the place over several days and what follows is a composite of those serial visits.
The abbey was founded about the year 500 and the oldest parts that remain date from the ninth century. The church part of the abbey was not particularly striking but led into a room where you could look down onto stone sarcophagi dating from the 6th to 9th century.
The various support buildings have been converted into a museum of the history of Auxerre and the region and into a gallery for art displays. Taking the latter first, we were very impressed by an art installation that combined static works with computer enhancements. So, for some exhibits, you could view the artwork through a camera view using an iPad. This was then augmented by graphics that responded to the movement of the iPad as you changed viewing angles and over time. Only videos can give you an idea of what this looked like:
There was also a wonderful, immersive virtual reality piece which involved donning a headset and then using your hands to control and shape streamers of light that seemed to emanate from a ball in front of you.
The other major feature was the old accommodation building that had been converted into a museum. It stretched over three floors – starting at the top with the earliest material, the next floor down being more post-Roman artefacts.
On the ground floor was a mixture of a display of how illuminated books were made using vellum (sheepskin) and another historical section linked to it by a corridor with a short piece of text describing the lineage of some of the early French kings.
Just next to the main abbey buildings was the tall, impressive spire of the tower Saint-Jean built in the 12th century. It was all that remains of a part of the abbey that had earlier burnt down. This is the spire clearly visible in photos of the abbey from the river.
It’s is a very impressive edifice and full of fascinating material, far too much to do it justice here. We visited it on several occasions. It is famous for its many marvellous stained-glass windows,
including one devoted to Joan of Arc,
a striking organ,
a display on the life and importance of the much-loved local poet, Marie Noël.
and a statue inside
as well as a memorial outside to Joan of Arc who passed through the town in February 1429
– there is always a commemoration if ‘Jeanne had been here’. We have started to make it a competition in any church to see who can find Jeanne’s statue first.
Église Saint-Pierre d’Auxerre
The church of Saint Peter looks somewhat unloved from the outside, clearly in need of some cleaning and restoration although the architecture of the front of the church is pleasingly symmetrical and ornate – a mixture of classical and gothic forms. Inside it is also relatively sparse, lacking any significant stained glass windows and again, there was clearly need for some restoration works.
Pleasingly, there was a nice sculpture of – you guessed it – Joan of Arc! Actually, this one was one of our favourites for the season
Towards the north of the old town is the church of Saint-Eusèbe which was rather more ornate inside than Saint-Pierre. There are ten splendid stained glass windows in the choir dating from the mid-16th century.
One, on the left side, tells the story of Saint-Laurent, who you may remember is the patron saint of comedians and barbeques.
Read from the bottom upwards, the story culminates at the top with Saint-Laurent being grilled to death.
Walking the old town
Of course, to visit all these churches we had to walk across the town (and occasionally cycle). Fortunately, the old town of Auxerre is a fairly easy one to walk. The distances are not great, the traffic is not too busy and the streetscape is constantly interesting – narrow streets intersecting at odd angles and opening up suddenly onto parks, squares and churches.
A similar graphic adorns a chain of brass triangles that lead you around the old town. So who is this chap, Cadet Roussel?
Natives of Auxerre celebrate Cadet Roussel (a variety of spellings are out there) at any opportunity. As a person in history, he was not terribly interesting – a bailiff in Auxerre during the French Revolution but not especially controversial. Somehow, he attracted the attention of one Gaspard de Chenu who, in 1792, wrote a catchy (read ‘earworm’) tune which soldiers from Auxerre carried out into revolutionary France as a marching song.
This rapidly moved into French culture generally. Most lines start with “Cadet Roussel à trois …” (“Cadet Roussel has three <insert item>”) and probably allowed lots of ribald versions to cheer up marching soldiers, much as ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’ did two centuries later.
Walking around, unable to get the tune out of our head, we did, however, enjoy the tour of the town although it was sometimes hard to follow the route even though there were brass triangles pointing out the direction of travel embedded in the pavement. We didn’t accomplish the tour in one hit as each time we hit a church or public building we took time to explore – so we came back and restarted the tour on a couple of occasions. Still, it was a great way to experience the town.
Some of the notable features were the clock tower, dating from the 15th century,
and a statue commemorating Louis-Nicholas Davout, ‘The Iron Marshal’, born near Auxerre and one of Napoleon’s most effective generals.
It wasn’t to be our last visit to Auxerre and we enjoyed it on this occasion and each time thereafter. The town has made a special effort to welcome tourists and it boasts many interesting features, activities and plenty of degustation. With all that, it’s not crowded or ‘in your face’ so enjoying it can be done in a relaxed and contemplative fashion – quite the style we slow-moving cruising folk appreciate.
The Nivernais, and Auxerre especially, is highly social. Virtually all the waterway traffic is recreational and we already knew some of the people who were moored locally. Indeed, even on a short visit by car earlier, we had been hosted on Lenny and Diane’s splendid barge Elysium for drinks. Now that we were moored in the town, it was full on!
Immediately as we arrived we were greeted by West Aussie friends, Peter and Ellen from Vlinder and popped over for a coffee as soon as we were tied up. Their barge was only a few boat lengths behind us and that evening we wandered over again for a delightful dinner, with Peter and Ellen and Ian and Sue who had just arrived from Australia to boat-sit Vlinder for a few weeks.
Ian and Sue had been long-time cruisers in France and had been instrumental in connecting a large, active group of European cruisers in Perth. More recently, Peter and Ellen have taken over the running of the ‘Canal Capers‘ group. Although we’re now east coasters, we grew up as Sandgropers and kindly, we’ve been allowed to join their group. So, with our local links and a shared love of waterways, socialising went on well into the evening!
The intensity of socialising can be judged from one single day, the Sunday after we arrived.
The number of girls on the hire boat beside us had grown to six and eventually ended up as eight by the time they had to leave. Early each morning they would go out to buy bread and pastries and it became a kind of routine, that they would lean across to our aft deck with a tray of goodies, and ask us to take our pick for our breakfast. On this particular day, we reciprocated by loaning them a couple of our bikes to supplement the four they had on their hire boat so they could cycle to visit the wine cave at Bailly.
A little later, English friends, Sarah and Alan arrived. They were travelling by car from their barge, Rotterdam Diena, in Belgium to their house in the Loire Valley accompanied by their two dogs. We had met them two seasons previously in Bergues. They had kindly gathered two clay figurines from the art installation at De Palingbeek when it was decommissioned. Obviously, it would not be possible to identify our own figurines amongst the 600,000 or so on display, but after we received an email from the organisers to say we could pick up a figurine – any two could be taken – Alan and Sarah had kindly offered to collect them for us – before we could ask. We placed these precious reminders of this memorable art installation on display in the wheelhouse and had a lovely lunch on the aft deck.
As we were finishing lunch, an Aussie chap stopped by asking if it was possible to recharge two electric scooters. They had hired them some distance away and, having made it to Auxerre with their wives, now needed a recharge to get back to the town where they were staying. Long story short, they tried to use the shore power (and went off for lunch while the charge started), even paying for it but some officious person unplugged them on the basis that power was for boats, not vehicles. We offered then to charge them from Catharina’s 220V supply so they had to wait for a while for the batteries to charge up.
By this time it was blazing hot and girls next door, who had returned from their excursion, were all about to jump into the Yonne from their boat and cool off. As Sarah and Alan had to leave to continue their journey, we put on bathers to have a swim as well. The two Aussie guys waiting for their scooters to charge decided to join us, emptying their pockets and removing their shirts. Their wives dangled their feet in the water from the girls’ boat and we all socialised while swimming around.
Then we noticed a forlorn figure on Catharina’s aft deck holding a bottle of wine. It was Lenny from Elysium whom we had invited over for afternoon drinks. When he noticed the watersports, he also stripped off his shirt and jumped in. More watery socialising.
At some point, we cooled off enough to come out and had a chat with Lenny and the scooter Aussies took off shortly afterwards. Ian and Sue joined us and Lenny for afternoon drinks. Over the course of the day, we had socialised, in the Yonne and on Catharina, with 15 people and two dogs!
We had been told that sometimes it was necessary to go cruising in order to get a rest from the hectic pace of socialising. We now fully appreciated that could be good advice! After the girls (whose numbers had now increased to eight!) left to return their hire boat
and continue to Lyon and the soccer finals and, as the music festival had finished in the park, we left our town mooring and cruised under the Pont Paul Bert, through the first écluse on the Nivernais and settled in next to the trees there for a few days anticipating a more relaxed lifestyle.
Even there, we were constantly chatting with passersby and those who moored nearby. The social pace, however, did drop off a bit. We had a return bout on Vlinder with Ian and Sue and Aussies, Robin and Peter, whose boat Joi de Vie is one of the very popular (particularly, it seems with Aussies and Kiwis) ex-hire, Connoisseur cruisers.
We had managed to squeeze some maintenance in between the socialising but we really wanted to get cruising. The fly in the ointment was that Lisette had arranged for us to attend a concert in Paris in a couple of days time and Auxerre seemed a good place to leave Catharina overnight and convenient to get to the city. So, we thought we’d take a short cruise to Bailly and back to fill in the time before the concert.