I think I mentioned that August was a bit of a washout – cold and rainy. No complaints about September so far. Since arriving in France on September 1 we have had lots of sunny days; starting with cool, often, misty mornings on the canal, turning into warm (sometimes even hot) sunny days, then cooling down in the evenings after 7:00pm. Perfect weather in fact – and no bugs!
As I mentioned in my last post – we missed the last pull through the 5.6 km tunnel called Tunnel de Riqueval on the Saturday evening so had to wait until Monday morning to be part of the convoy. We spent the Sunday cleaning the boat (a never ending job), a few bits of maintenance (Martin has a long term problem with the alternator on Uncle Lehman – our Ford engine), walking to the village and relaxing in our enforced rest. French villages seem to be going the way of the dodo bird. The agricultural village of Vendhuile had no stores or bars or garages – there was a school and some industrial development but nowhere really to go without a car.
We had a couple of commercial barges with us (they were in front and we were last in the line). The commercial barges are smaller than those on the Dutch and German waterways, and they fit into the smaller locks – but they are still three times the size of Skookum. From what we could see they were mainly used for moving grain around as there are lots of silos on the sides of the canals. France is a highly productive agricultural country and the northern areas can produce lots of winter wheat (planted in October and harvested in July).
The electric barge that towed us slowly through the tunnel was pulled along a massive chain that lay on the bottom of the canal.The VNF and the previous users of this tunnel had decided it was too dangerous to allow diesel engines through as they would probably kill the owners of the boats following them with their fumes.
I am very impressed with the VNF – while I suggested that in Belgium there is no line item in their budget for maintenance, the VNF is quite the opposite. In fact it publishes an annual schedule of works – replacement and repairs of locks and canals that will take place in the year –which will use up the budget.
The problem comes when something disastrous happens and resources are needed to fix it – if it is not in the budget then it throws the system for a loop and may or may not get fixed. Right now there are a couple of major canals out of commission in northern France – the Nancy to Strasbourg canal is not functional, nor is the canal south of Jeumont on the Belgian border. So the system is not flexible on big repairs – that said it is still an amazing waterway authority to keep all of these canals, rivers, locks and bridges operating. We are always glad to see the little white vans with the blue and green logo and the blue/green uniforms of the VNF guys especially when there is a problem with a lock.
The pull through the tunnel took us over the top of a watershed and down to San Quentin.
This is another little unknown gem of a city which we happened to hit on the biggest market day of the year. Martin and I have been to a few street markets in our time but nothing like the size of this one. All the streets radiating out from the Hotel d’Ville and central square were packed with market stalls selling lots of the same Chinese junk. Not much in the way of food, mainly clothing shoes, kids toys, housewares etc. It did not get really interesting until we found the antique market around the back of the square. We wander through checking out some of the items for sale – very interesting glassware, coins and even champagne caps. Unfortunately we have no room on our boat for such indulgences.
We continued down the San Quentin canal – 92kms and 35 locks to the town of Chauny. I am also impressed with neatness and level of civic pride of the small towns and villages along the canal. These villages had lots of flowers (especially on the bridges across the canal), tidy streets without litter and well maintained homes and buildings.
After Chauny we made a swing east, down a smaller canal towards Reims and spent another evening off grid (at one of the boat ‘lay-bys’ on the canal). Another night and we moved east again down on our way. We only travel between 4 and 6 hours per day, at about 4-6 miles per hour and locks that take at least 10 minutes so progress is slow. Some people drive for longer and the commercial barges travel for as long as the locks are open (7am – 7pm).
It took about four days from San Quentin to Reims – slowly floating through French countryside. We moved from the San Quentin canal to the canal de l’Oisne a l’Aisne, then to the Canal lateral a l’Aisne, and onto Reims. Arriving in Reims we tied up in the city marina – which was unfortunately next to a major highway, but close to the down town core. Reims marina was quite interesting as we were moored beside a boat with a very unusual flag.
It took us ages but we could not guess the origin of the flag although the boat was a Dutch Cruiser like ours (only bigger at 14.5 m and newer by 25 years). We looked all over Google but no joy. In the end we saw the owners of the boat called Visa, they and their flag were Chilean! Yes we were impressed – we thought we had come a long way to do the canals but did not expect others who shared our Pacific coastline albeit 10,000 miles to the south, to be in these tranquil waters. We had some interesting conversations about sailing (many of the cruisers were originally sailors) and the problems of a fjord coastline. Pepe was a remarkably fit 79 year old had sailed around Cape Horn in a 30 ft catamaran. His lovely wife Pini was a bit like me; we enjoy summer cruising preferably on flat waters. At the same time we met an interesting German couple Juregn and Gabriel who had also been sailors but were now enjoying the canals. They had a wonderful motto which I thought was very appropriate and worth adopting:
‘Der Weg ist das Ziel’ which means the journey is the destination.
I will talk more about Reims in the next blog after we have had some time to explore the rich history of the city. We had a few days to spare before Ayja (Martin’s granddaughter arrives) so we took Skookum down to a small town outside Reims to scope out our winter moorage. It turned out to be a great place, very convenient, some amenities and a lots of foreign boats settling for the winter. The price was reasonable €100 per month (including power) so we signed up and reserved a spot. Then we headed down the canal to the champagne city of Epernay.
For those that know a lot about champagne you can skip this part but I have learned a lot that I would like share with you. Firstly you are probably aware that only sparkling wine from the Champagne region can be called Champagne and this is strictly enforced. Other countries have their own names – Sekt in Germany, Cava in Spain and Sparkling wine or Cuvee in other places like California and Australia. Other countries produce some very tasty products but they are not produced in this geography region of France. The region produces about 320 million bottles of bubbly per year – now that is a lot of celebrating.
Champagne has been around and has evolved over a long period of time. Champagne is made from one to three types of grapes; Chardonnay to give a lightness and freshness, Pinot Noir for body and good aging ability and Meunier for fruitiness. Pinot Noir and Meunier are black grapes, so the juice is used for white champagne; the pink stuff (which is highly reputable in this region) also uses the skins of the black grapes to produce the colour although lesser varieties provide the colour by adding red wine. Vintage champagne is only made from the grapes of a single year.
Champagne is relatively expensive because it takes a lot of processing and a long time for the bubbles to develop. The grapes are picked by hand, by a small army of pickers who arrive in mid September. They are taken by truck to the cellars where the grapes are crushed (we could smell the grapes across the Ay valley as we floated through). The ‘must,’ as it is aptly called as it does smell a bit musty, is stored in fermentation tanks (usually stainless steel ) or wooden barrels for the more traditional wine makers.
To be clear – this is an industrial enterprise on a grand scale – forget any notion you may have had of young French women and men trampling the grapes with their bare feet. Here there are very large vats of stainless steel and concrete that hold the wine that, once bottled, slowly becomes the most celebratory drink in the world.
The first fementation transforms the ‘must’ to alcohol and the blending of the grapes (cuvee) takes place several months later. The blending is the secret part of the champagne recipe – known only the cellar masters.
After the blending the wine is put into bottles and natural yeasts and some sugar is added. The bottles are then sealed temporarily for the second fermentation (prise de mousse) when they are stored in the cool dark cellars for years as the effervescence and the aromas develop.
The bottles are stored almost upside down and at an angle and rotated on a regular basis (riddled).
This allows sediment to develop in the neck of the bottle which is removed by a process called ‘disgorgement’. The neck of the bottle is frozen, the temporary seal is removed together with the sediment. Some of the wine is lost in this process so the bottles are toped up with a mixture of wine and cane sugar (the amounts depend upon the type of wine that is being made; brut, demi-sec or sec). The wine is then permanently sealed with a cork, cap and wire muzzle and after being labeled it is ready for shipment (and drinking). I was told that you should not keep Champagne for longer than 3 years after shipment otherwise it may go off and we couldn’t have that!!
There are around 500 champagne makers in this area – and we only got to 5 so far. Epernay was our first champagne stop – we visited a few champagne houses including Mercier, de Castellane, Collard – Picard and my personal favourite; Pol Roger.
This is going to be an expensive stay in this area but as we have chosen to winter here ☺ I am sure we will be visiting a few more champagne houses before we leave for Canada and after we return. More about them and the stories of the champagne houses in the next blog.