France 2016, Charente (Day 17)

Pont de Merpins – Port d’Envaux

Wednesday 10.08.2016

1 lock 43 km

Soon after starting the day, we pass the confluence with the river Né. At the end of the 19th century, an attempt was made to canalise the river. But not much came of it, apart from a 2 km or so dead straight channel. The confluence also marks the border between the departments Charente and Charente-Maritime.
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The river and its valley widen out, settlements move further away. So it takes a while to encounter some signs of civilization: The ferry at Dompierre-sur-Charente.
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The lock at la Baine is one of the two mechanised locks on the Charente. Why this is the case appears to be a miracle. First we have to find the student lockkeeper, whose only qualification is, that he knows were the only button is well hidden, that is needed to start the lock.  After this the lock takes for ever to empty, while we are watched by the passengers of the local trip boat. Feeling useful…
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Attraction of the day is going to be Saintes with his roman ruins. But before cultures comes food and we stop at La Table du Maroc. Great Moroccan food right by the river at a very reasonable price. Distance between boat and table less then seven steps. Very recommendable.

But now to the real stuff:
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This triumph arch was was built 20 A.D. to honour emperor Tiberius and his son Germanicus. I know this, because thoughtfully they wrote it onto the arch. So my Latin came to use, the first time since I left school almost 30 years ago. Latin is the most important thing one learns at school. True story.

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In the almost 2000 years since this arch was erected culture and architecture took quiet a dive. Exhibit A:
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Nearby there is a little museum with more hewn stone from the Roman period.
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The proud citizen of Saintes don’t seem to be so keen of their Christian past and made a good effort of making good use of the cathedral by saving on the back walls of their houses.
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In turn Christianity inside makes a real effort to keep the citizens away. Scary stuff.
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The other big attraction are the ruins of the amphitheatre at the outskirts of town.  We get slightly lost on the way and detour through what seems to have been an old hospital or a barracks. By the looks of it, all ready for being broken up, but in the meantime used by the younger people of the town. Some great graffiti.

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Plenty of ruins left.
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The moorings in Saintes are modern, but very busy and exposed, next to noisy streets, so we plan our exit and leave. Passing the Bernard Palissy II the second time today. This time under full steam.

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And then we have fire on board.

Some ($())(°”§ going full speed in his half glider passes us at 2 metres distance. After a few seconds the fire alarm comes on. To make sure its really fire, it shouts “Fire,Fire”. Usually it shouts “carbon monoxide, carbon monoxide !!”. At the middle of the night, when nobody is at home in the marina, till the neighbours ring, or smash a window. So naturally I’m confused, believing its a false alarm, just of the wrong kind. But then the lad joins the alarm quiet hysterically. So I reach for the grab bag, point the good ship towards the shore and prepare to empty 3 kg of fire extinguisher foam into the cabin. Meanwhile the IO, quiet witted, throws my brand new thermos cup over board. The cooker was on to boil a kettle and the wake tipped the thermos onto it, where the plastic handle caught fire. The Charente now is emblemised with a piece of rubbish and we end our fire drill. Bugger.

At least we are rewarded with some lovely cruising scenery.
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For the night we stop at at Port d’Envaux most delightful little harbour. We have a quiet night, even so the boat next door is occupied by a geezer who looks like a spitting image of Donald Trump, and two lassies who are clearly not in his age group. Maybe I should have taken some pictures…

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France 2016, Charente (Day 16)

Châteauneuf-sur-Charente – Pont de Merpins

Wednesday 09.08.2016

9 locks 38 km

Châteauneuf’s friendly baker supplies us with fresh bread in the morning. Proceeding downstream we notice that there is quiet a current pushing us with an extra 1,5 km/h or so the GPS tells us. Together with a relatively wide and deep river, this makes for a quick passage. Soon we reach Vibrac, where the river fans out in a lot of arms big and small. But the only available mooring is taken up by a maintenance vessel.

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In a rather dull morning we pass Graves with its 12th century church watching over the river.

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A glance down the mill arm at Saintogne.

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The sun is breaking through, while we pass the most beautiful weir at Gondeville.

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The navigation is marked very well and to almost anoraky precision at ecluse Gondeville.

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Jarnac is the first  town of any size we encounter on the Charente. The lad is working up some thirst for the Cognac tasting we are going to have at Courvoisier.
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Jarnac it the number two in Cognac production, only superseded by Cognac itself. Cognac, the drink, we will learn, is made, from wine especially grown for the purpose. The best wine is grown right around Cognac and Jarnac on shallow clay-limestone, over limestone and chalk. Further away, soils from clay, flint or even sand produce wine with different tastes. The Cognac producers have long standing contracts with the wine growers. The wine growers produce the grapes and also do the fermentation. The wine then goes to the distillers who distil it and store it in oak cask for a minimum of two years. Longer storage times producing higher quality tipple.

Not having made any arrangement, we are delighted that at Courvoisier an English speaking tour is just about to start. We agree to join, but first have to decide about the price of the tour. The tour is always the same, but depending on the price you will be offered different drinks for tasting at the end. We take the 12€ tour, but could also have paid 180€.
The tour itself is interesting, but really it is a marketing exercise for the product.

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At Jarnac long quays at either side of the river indicate the importance of water freight in the production of Cognac.

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At some château near Cognac the owner went to great length, to show…
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…that money can’t buy taste.
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Having had enough sightseeing for today, we decide to give Cognac itself a miss and rather make a passage of it. We still can revisit on the way back.
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In almost total seclusion we moor up a Pont de Merpins. Slap bang in the middle of nowhere. BBQ and a quiet night.

France 2016, Lot, Charente (Day 16)

Luzech – Pont de Sireuil – Châteauneuf-sur-Charente

Monday 08.08.2016

280 km by car

5 locks 10 km

 

We get up early in order to haul out the boat and deliver it to Sireuil on the River Charente.

(Skip this bit if you are no slipway aficionado: The slip way at the Canalous base near Luzech is perfectly usable. Also it is quiet long and steep, there is no problem if you are happy to get your feet wet when retrieving your boat. It is important that you reach the base on the D9 coming from Luzech, as there is no space to turn the rig around.  We rang them upfront on 05.65.22.21.91 to make sure we are welcome and can leave our car with them, as parking space is limited. Launching is free as the slip way is public, but we paid 20€ for a week’s parking.)

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Once packed up we set of towards the Charente near Angoulême, via Cahors, Brieve-le-Gaillarde and Périgeux. This route is slightly longer than the direct route, but its mostly motorways and saves us on a lot of D-roads. The voyage is free of any events, but the very hot weather makes it a bit of a drag.

(Skip this bit if you are no slipway aficionado, really sorry: The slipway at Pont the Sireuil is possibly the most perfectly laid out I have ever encountered. Still I managed to damage the trailers mud guard… The slipway is right next to a hire boat base, but again is public domain. There is no secure parking at the base, but here is a large grass field, were car and trailer can be parked. If you are looking for something more secure, there is a campsite just a few meters up the road.)

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We arrive at 15.00 and after a quick refuelling and restocking trip to Super U at La Couronne we are oiled and watered up at 17.00 and start down the river.

It is said that Francis I called the Charente “the finest stream of my kingdom”. And it becomes immediately apparent why he did so. The water is crystal clear and the bottom, plants and fish can be seen even were the water is several meters deep.  The locks are all (but two) manual, but very well maintained and easy to use. The lock islands are also locked after and are almost an attraction in there own right. The weirs often give the opportunity for a bit of messing about in the water. All very quaint.

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We don’t last long and decide to try the English pub at St-Simeux, which supposedly offers the best Ales in France. But the place seems deserted, so we sail on to Châteauneuf-sur-Charente. Early bed after a hot day.

France 2016, Lot (Day 15)

Luzech – Luzech

Sunday 07.08.2016

plenty of km by car

Being back at Luzech, we have the use of our car. So today we are going to use this opportunity to explore the Causses du Quercy. Very much a limestone upland as the Quercy Blanc, the only difference seems to be that we are north of the Lot now. And not towing the boat we are much more flexible of what lanes to go. And mostly lanes there are.
First we climb up to the Col de Crayssac, a dizzy 291m above sea level.
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More interesting than the actual height is the road we came up to get there. It can be seen clinging to the cliff side on the right. Below the river and the vineyards on the alluvial loop.
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The view upstream.
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First mayor stop today is the cave system of Pech Merle. Not only is it one of the most amazing show cave I have seen, but the real attraction are the murals painted by cave men between 25.000 and 16.000 BC. A truly amazing  experience. Especially as you get the chance to see the real stuff, while some other caves in the area are only a mock-up of the original cave. So a total recommendation, but one that needs a bit of planning. There are only 700 visitors permitted to the cave every day, so reservation is highly recommended. The website was so poor that I didn’t manage to book a ticket and could do only with the help of the Tourist Office in Luzech. Meanwhile they have got a new and very professional website, so that might have changed. No pictures, as photography is strictly forbidden.

Caving makes hungry, so we had a lunch break at the Restaurant La Roue in nearby Cabrerets.  Delicious, quaint, great service, but no website to link.

It seems to be obligatory to take the lad to at least one zoo every holiday. So we set of towards Gramat along the highways and mostly by-ways of the Quercy.

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Finally we make it to the Parc Animalier de Gramat. The concept of the park is to present animals that live here or have lived here in the past. Not a bad concept, but most of the animals seem to be as badly adapted to the heat as ourselves. Most of them are just hiding or are very phlegmatic.

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The lad still is happy and makes sure we don’t take a shortcut. But eventually he has seen everything and we are allowed to retire to the car. Two hours later, after many more by-ways, we are back at the boat. Just in time to go for a spin and a swim. A quiet and early night prepares us for our portage to the Charente tomorrow.

France 2016, Lot (Day 14)

Cahors – Luzech

Saturday 06.08.2016

5 Locks  30 km

When we wake up, our friends are already gone, as they have to return their boat. We settle for a morning of sight seeing in Cahors. It is a damn cool town, that names its streets after chefs.
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The main attraction obviously being the 14th century Pont Valentré which we have seen already from the boat. It is said to be one of the most beautiful fortified bridges in France.
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Legend has it, that the architect went into a contract with the devil to get the bridge finished. But he managed to trick the horned one and so there is still a little demon trying to rip out stones from one of the towers.
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Thankfully inclusion has come a long way since this institution has been build.
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The old town is full of small alleyways.
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But even here the citizens in the renaissance made a statement of their pride.

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Even better it is market day today. We buy a rôti (roasted chicken) together with potatoes roasted in the chicken drippings for tonight and stock up on spices.
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We do have an agenda today. We need to get back to Luzech, back to the car, as we have booked our visit to Peche Merle tomorrow. The first obstacle is the ecluse Coty. This is the only mechanised lock on the Upper Lot and needs a key to be operated. On the way up this wasn’t a problem, as there was a gentleman locking through the trip boats. But no trip boats today, no gentleman. So we decide to wait for another boat we could join.  But even after an hour no sign of any relief. So out comes the bike and of to the tourist office in town, they shall know. And they do: For a 50€ deposit one is handed a key. Back to the boat, locking through the IO. Just as she drives out there is a boat coming from downstream…..
Anyways, back to the tourist office to get my cash back. Having left the IO with strict instructions to wait for me just after the next bridge down on the left hand side (one bridge, left, the real left, not the other left, one bridge) I see the boat disappearing around the corner while speeding over Pont Louise-Phillipe (the one bridge !). Back up the hill and down past the next bridge (2 bridges!) to find here mooring up on the right-hand side of the river…
Apparently the IO wasn’t sure if the first bridge (massive stone pillars, loads of cars driving over the water) was a real bridge, and its my fault, as I know that she tends not to be sure about left and right…
Once those self driving boats come on, they might be worth considering.

All this asks for a bit of refreshment …
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… overseen by a Mr Putin who seems to have swapped bear hunting for fishing.

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Next stop Douelle. Painted by the artist Didier Chamizo in 1992, the Mur de Douelle depicts the history of the Cahors wine as well as Chamizo`s history as a political activist.
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The lad needs to do some equipment shopping and the village shop has got a small tackle department. The real attraction turns out to be the little bar by the quay were we we are served from a real vahine from Tahiti complete with Bougainvillea flowers in her hair and all.

Then we are finally on the homeward leg to Luzech.

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After we had enjoyed our wonderful rôti we spend the evening with a family from Kent/Swasiland talking Brexit. Reality always lurks just round the corner.

France 2016, Lot (Day 13)

St-Géry – Cahors

Friday 05.08.2016

6 Locks  20 km

 

We decide to join forces with our new found friend. They have to return their boat at Cahors tomorrow. So we have a leisurely  day down the Lot with the lad swapping boats, finally having found companions.
Yesterdays rain has disappeared without a trace and the temperature is up to the usual level in the high thirties. It can hardly get more pleasant.

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Every now and then  a boater on the Lot encounters one of these fabulous girder bridges. They are part of the disused railway line from Cahors to Capendac. Finished in 1881 it contains a huge amount of bridges and tunnels. SNCF traffic ended in 1989. 1993 it was taken over by a company called Quercy Rail. They were running tourist trips along the line until 2003, when the actual track was declared unsafe by SNCF. There is a video on YouTube, that shows what must have been one of the last travels along the line.

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A quick technical stop at Vers is used by the kids for a bit of water fun.
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The little church at Savenac, with an old English caste underneath it.
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We moor up for an extended communal lunch at Arcambal. Sharing food and wine is fun. Afterwards we get out the DiveBoard, towing all that are interested up and down the river.
While on to Cahors we have a few drive-by shootings.
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In Cahors we moor up at the public pool, as this is by far the most quiet mooring. Disappointment when the kids are not allowed into the public pool, as they have got no speedos. Regardless there is more fishing and swimming in the river. A decision is made to go out posh tonight. Our friend are fluent in French which helps with settling for a restaurant an will show useful during dinner. ARGO is employed as a ferry to shuttle everybody to Port Bullier, which is much closer to town.
We are lucky in getting one of the last tables outside at Bistro de Lisa. Clearly the place to be in Cahors. A vibrant place by the main road, great ambient, fabulous food. But the real attraction was the  maître d’. A real professional waiter, that lives and breathes his profession. I have never experienced such a good service in a restaurant.
Back to ARGO we cross the river again and fish the day with a bit more Cahors wine. Thanks for the great evening guys.

France 2016, Lot (Day 12)

St-Cirq-Lapopie – St-Grey

Thursday 04.08.2016

3 Locks  28 km

I do get a bit special, when it comes to getting fresh bread in the morning when traveling in France. As the reader might have noticed. So it is quiet a disappointment, that the fresh baguette we ordered yesterday at the campsite, turns out to be of the pre-bake variety. Another hind that St-Cirq is a tourist trap. Where else in France could you get away with it and live to tell the story. So time to seek out adventure somewhere else.

Upstream, there is half a day of river left, but we made arrangements to go canoeing after lunch at Bouzies, which is just 5 km and two locks downstream. So we idle the morning away with a stroll to Tour-de-Faure, where the epicerie sells proper bread, take on water and then set of downstream.

There is a bit of a delay at ecluse St-Cirq. But that isn’t too bad, as the lock come with its own mill and even a parking lot.
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Inside the mill, some of the old gear can still be seen.

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The cause of the delay. It’s nice to see some commercial traffic. Sort of.

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We stop for lunch at Bouzies. Also stopping is a pizza van. By the time we have decided, if and what pizza we want, a very extended family group turns up and orders three dozen pizzas. So that is that.

We trod over the bridge and along the main road to the little hamlet of Conduché. Here we find the base of Kalapca Loisirs. They offer all kinds of outdoor activity like potholing, canyoning, abseiling, and most important for us, canoeing. There whole approach is very professional, yet friendly. We booked a three hour trip down the Célé, a tributary to the Lot.
We are equipped with life jacket, helmet, paddle and boat. Then we are ferried up the valley in an old Peugeot transporter at breakneck speed. Free adrenalin thrown in.  After some instructions we are of on our own.
The geology of the Célé is the same than that of the Lot. But the scale is very different. The Célé cuts more through a gorge than a valley. With huge rock faces overhanging the river. Sorry, no pictures, I didn’t dare bringing the camera.
The whole excursion is well worthwhile. There are plenty of shallows, rapids and even a canoe slide, to keep us entertained. Great fun. Even the lad likes it and is totally exhausted.

It starts raining while we make our way back to the boat and keeps like that for the next couple of hours. The first coolish moments in a good while. So nice. As getting a bit wet is actually fine, we pull pins a proceed downstream.
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The rain just stops as we tie up for the night at St-Géry. Here we meet a lovely couple from Switzerland. They have two boys in the lads age. First the kids play a bit of soccer, do a bit of posing, sorting out the pecking order. Here the lad makes a big mistake, styling himself as the biggest fisherman and boater for miles. This is all good and well, till the Swiss boys decide they want to go swimming. Now what choice does the lad have to keep his hard worked for street cred? He has to bite the bullet and head for the water. So after all, the three years of hard trying to get him swimming, are resolved within three minutes by peer pressure. 
So we are very grateful and repay the Swiss in red wine. A very nice evening all had.