Condé-sur-Marne - Châlons-en-Champagne

Last week we ended up with our mooring space at Condé-sur-Marne, reached on the 18th of August. We stayed there for five nights, not only because the visitors we mentioned last week but we are also (involuntarily) slowing down because of a brief visit to our home country and an agreed safe place to leave our ship/house during our absence. Furthermore we are awaiting a visit of our trusted engineer Peter from the UK. On the 21st of August, two hot air balloons, the yellow one seemingly the same as we photographed on the 17th were coming down (gently) in front of us. Should they be secretly following us???

We told you about having negotiated a tunnel of 2.302 meters (almost 1,5 miles) in the last blog. During days long gone the boats were hauled through by horses. This was substituted by a chain-system as explained in week 37 of last year ‘Douai – St-Quentin’. From 1940 until 1972 the ‘chain-system’ was replaced by small, electrically powered, locomotives (‘tracteurs’), pulling up to seven(!) fully laden boats (‘peniches’) in one go through the tunnel at a speed of 4 to 5 kilometers (2,5 to 3 miles) an hour. It happened that the locomotive derailed… Or the driver fell asleep… The locomotives weighed up to 12.000 kilogrammes (1.900 stones), partly due to being ballasted. Next to the lock at Condé-sur-Marne this restored original one is on display.

Curious as we are we had a look at the inside of this mini locomotive. The small uncomfortable wooden tip up seat for the driver is visible at the left, as is a wheel on the right. A wheel? The thing is on rails! It must be an accelerator-wheel, don’t you think? Of course the most interesting discovery was the name of the maker: ALS.THOM, as it is written exactly. Now the name has changed (modernized) into Alstom and they build the Pendolino train (used, among others, by Virgin in the UK) and the TGV-family (TGV, Talys, Eurostar). Quite a difference!

A nice drawing of the system as it looked like in the old days. The rail track has gone, the path on top of which it was laid out is still there inside the tunnel. All boats are allowed now to do the passing on their own power. There is a well working ventilation system, so fumes are removed quickly. Nowadays cameras and traffic lights do the job. Some change!

On Friday the 23th of August we finally left Condé-sur-Marne, leaving Le Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne and entering Le Canal latéral à la Marne at the same time. As we had not moved for several days and because we’d had visitors our water tank, although pretty huge, was on a bit too low level for our comfort. Lucky us, the first lock we would encounter, offers the possibility to take in water. Bingo!, we thought. Alas, unlucky us, after about 15 minutes in the lock other boats were approaching from either side. Although turning a blind eye to them is one way of handling this situation (even ‘legal’, we think) we do not feel comfortable doing that so we left . Many, many times we have witnessed long periods without passing any boat at all –half a day is normal- but every time that we have tried to take in water while being in a lock -the facility is often inside a lock, most likely because of avoiding the ponderous commercial boats to manoeuvre unnecessarily- other boats were approaching within minutes. It seems this system is just not for us.

During our journey that same day we finally spotted the quay where the commercials we saw, mostly Dutch, take in their load. It is just outside of Châlons-en-Champagne. Because we have spoken to some owners we now know what their load is, namely barley for the Bavaria brewery at Lieshout, The Netherlands. Every load, a skipper told us, is good for the producing of 50.000 liters (nearing 100.000 pints) of the well known Bavaria beer. We are told that transport by water is still cheaper –and environmental friendlier- than transport by road. The boat on this picture is called ‘Evolutie’, only a few years ago bought by a Dutch couple, with all due respect: an elderly couple, from the estate of a deceased family member. The captain had worked on boats all of his life as an employee, his wife had always been a chiropodist. Most people of their age would retire. Not them! Their boat is even not equipped with a bow thruster, can you believe it? (By the way, ours does not work already for almost two months.) Another owner of a commercial boat had been a journalist for NOS, Dutch television. And again another one had been a bank manager. Obviously several people start a completely new way of life after many years of having done something totally different. As an answer to our question about the wrong sort of competition –by ‘amateurs’- the former journalist simply answered ‘the more the better, it would be on the road in a container without us’. Point taken!

The third lock we climbed this day is now officially called Ecluse no. 9 ‘Châlons-en-Champagne’ and is situated only a 100 meters, yards if you like, downstream of our present mooring. This little town, around 45.000 inhabitants, was called Châlons-sur-Marne from the French Revolution until 1998. Before the revolution the town had the present name. As you can see the modern board on the right hand side of the picture mentions the present name; the nice old fashioned sign on the front of the lock keeper’s house still reflects the past. This canal was brought into use in 1845, so both names reflect history perfectly!

On Friday the 23th of August we felt lucky to find this space at 12:40PM to moor in Châlons-en-Champagne, after having done 3 locks and 3 hours of cruising. Lucky because Châlons’ ‘Halte Fluviale’, though being modern and ran by friendly people, is mainly designed for smaller cruisers and does not offer much space for the bigger boats. Almost anywhere in France the typical thing is that, having found a space, there is no limitation to the duration of the stay. If we’d prefer to be here for, say, six weeks nobody would instruct us to buzz of. But we won’t. The six weeks, we mean.

Some pictures of Châlons-en-Champagne now. This of course is Châlons’ cathedral Saint Etienne. In case you think we mislead you: see the sign underneath the flagpole in the middle of the tree. One of us has seen the interior, too. She was not as impressed as with Reims’ cathedral. Or Strasbourg’s. It’s not all ‘hors catégorie’.

Châlons-en-Champagne not only has got La Marne and Le Canal latéral à la Marne within its boundaries. There are a few smaller rivers, called Mau, Nau and Le Canal Louis XIII. It is possible to book a boat trip and explore the system. These small waterways even pass underneath the streets. We skipped this possibility. Not because we are afraid of the dark. One just has to skip something, sometimes. The seats in the boats are funny, we have to admit.

The rather impressive town hall, guarded by four equally impressive lions. On the left hand side the twin towers of the Notre-Dame-en-Vaux. More about it 3 pictures later. Family and friends are eagerly awaiting a couple, soon to be newlywed.

There they are, beaming all over. It is always nice to be a witness of a scene like this, isn’t it? We had a good laugh about the man visible next to the groom’s head – we mean the man wearing the light coloured pair of trousers. No woman within 1,5 meters distance from him could avoid to be greeted and kissed enthusiastically. After every round of kissing he cleaned his mouth conspicuously. His victims, the women, did only air-kissing. He tried to be more direct and wiped his lips afterwards. Haha.

On the photograph before this one you already must, apart from the bride, have admired the car that had delivered the couple. This picture reveals it is a Citroen – a proper French car-make, still going strong.

The Notre-Dame-en-Vaux again, now in full(er) glory. Both spires are constructed of wood, covered in lead. Building started in the XIIth century, using the remains of a much older structure. This ‘collegiate’ is part of UNESCO’s world heritage and embedded in the pilgrimage towards Santiago de Compostela – in the northwest of Spain.

This striking statue is erected in the middle of a roundabout just next to the Notre-Dame-en-Vaux. We have tried to discover who or what it is – to no avail. We might be looking at a man, standing at the front of his boat and braving a strong wind. The flowers symbolize the splashing water; the hedges the waves. Could we be mistaking?

After sightseeing Châlons-en-Champagne we arrived back just in time to see another Dutch Barge ‘Zofia’, clearly hoping for a space to moor. The woman on the outlook in front of the ship already made a disheartened gesture: ‘no room’. Then she and her husband, the helmsman, saw our gesture – universally recognized among boaters about breasting up. Here they come.

This is what it looks like when breasted up. On an earlier occasion, Verdun to be precise, we have uttered some comments about helping fellow boaters. It just is so very, very nice if another boater is capable of stepping into your shoes, so to speak. We always try, especially if another barge is involved. The cruiser community is most of the time more than capable to take care of themselves - and looking at you as if you are an alien when desperate to moor. That’s enough for now…

Our new neighbours turned out to be very friendly Belgians from Antwerp and looking for a possibility to leave their ship for a few weeks. As explained before (picture 8) that is not a problem, as long as one pays the price for it. We had told them that we’d leave on Sunday but we changed our minds and are planning now to leave on Monday. That was a bit difficult for our neighbours because they wanted to leave on the Sunday and have their ship securely moored. The solution was simple: we changed positions. After some tight manoeuvring everybody was happy. À bientôt!