August 12 2015 is the first day in a long time that we actually went down in a lock. We have been rising since Paris and on this day we climbed to the summit of the canals up a stairway of six consecutive locks out of Rogniy du Sept Ecluses then down the other side in 37C of heat. Our trip over the top takes us to Briare – but more about that later.
We have been back from the UK for a couple of weeks and have spent much of that time wending our way down the Canaux du Centre in France. Our boat was moored in St Mammes while we were away but our first night back made it clear that we needed to move off the Seine and the heavy traffic on the river and head down the Canal du Loing moving south from Moret sur Loing.
Moret, as Martin mentioned in his last blog, is a beautiful small town just off the Haute Seine. It was walled city with two city gates still standing. The Loing river flows on the outside of the La Porte du Bourgogne, outside the town there is a watermill, a prison/dungeon that housed a very famous French accountant, and the beginning of the canal. Inside the town gates there is a lovely Church (Eglise de Notre Dame, a well maintained town hall (Mairie), winding streets, a great ice cream shop and museum dedicated the Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley.
The whole town looks like an impressionist painting with the weeping willows draped on the river bank, shallow weirs with cool water bubbling over them and children playing at the water’s edge. Quite idyllic really.
We spent a few days hanging out in Moret – made friends with our new neighbours (we can get new neighbours every night when we move), V and G were Kiwis who had just bought a 17m Piper barge called Manuka. It was built and registered in the UK and was remarkably similar to Milou – another Piper we met in June. (the one that gave Martin a case of engine room envy).We also met a lovely couple on Cuanna – ocean cruiser (about 13 m) registered in Stornaway (in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland), who we also visited with down the canal. M and J were a British couple but they lived in Turkey. We live in an international environment, and I feel that the French canals are far more social than any other country we have been in so far.
We spent our time in Moret provisioning and running errands, however I wanted to go to Chateau Vaux le Vicomte while we had the car.
The Chateau was near the town of Melun so we needed to drive west down the Haute Seine valley. We also took in market day in Melun and set out in the afternoon to Chateau Vaux le Vicomte, which was about 10kms away.
I mentioned that the prison in Moret was home to one of Frances famous financiers under the reign of Louis XIV – well the Chateau was his other home. Nicolas Fouquet was a brilliant financier who had saved the French monarchy from themselves and financial ruin. He served under Louis XIII and had great influence in court. During this time he amassed his own fortune and built a grand palace between 1657 and 1661. This was Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte – a house grand enough to rival the king’s own palaces.
It has some spectacular architectural features including a central dome, a moat, and oval salon, which allowed the visitor to look straight through the building to the gardens (and well worth a visit if you are in the area).
Louis XIV became king at age 22 and became the ‘Sun King’ who would rule in a dictatorial manner for 54 years. He declared himself to be the sole authority over all matters in France – and used his ministers as administrators rather than counselors.
On August 17 1661 the King and his court were invited a lavish party in his honour hosted at the newly completed Vaux le Vicompte. The young king was very jealous of the grandeur and beauty of Vicompte and the financial power of its owner. According to legend Louis XIV’s mind had also been poisoned by Colbert a jealous colleague of Nicolas Fouquet. The unfortunate Fouquet, who was a loyal royalist, was arrested the day after the party and imprisoned for the rest of his life and his house and lands seized. To add to his degradation the new King employed the now famous architect; Le Vau, the interior designer Le Brun and the landscape designer, Le Notre to build him a beautiful palace. They built a magnificent Chateau and gardens just west of Paris – this was Versailles. The gardens at Versailles were modeled on the Andre Le Notre landscape design at Vaux, even today the classic gardens at both chateaux are admired for their cascades of terraces, ornamental lakes and fountains descending into a Grand Canal. (Personally I think Versailles is gaudy and ostentatious compared to Fontainebleau and Vicomte – but there is no accounting for taste when you are out to impress)
Vaux le Vicomte was spared the ravages of the various French revolutions, although was quite dilapidated when it was bought by Alfred Sommier in 1875. He was another financial genius with an eye for art and architecture. He restored the Chateau and gardens. The Chateau remains in the hands of the Sommier family, who opened it to the public.
Leaving Moret was one of those ‘got to get moving moments’, so we shoved off and set off down the canal. We did not get very far as it was lunchtime and the manual locks were closed between noon and 1:30. So we needed to organize our days around this French schedule.
Our first stop was small town on the canal and river du Loing called Nemours. Lovely park by the river and an interesting very small chateau, but the city looked a bit shabby and rather poor. We stayed in the tiny marina just off the centre of town for a couple of nights – it was free but more importantly the days were hot so moving was not very comfortable We met an Australian couple on a refurbished rental boat (with lovely air conditioning) who gave us lots of tips about the upstream marinas and towns.
The 36C heat is quite a problem on a steel boat. We had to create shade using wet white sheets hanging from the side of the bimini, a camping sunshade over the front hatch, wetting the carpet on the deck so the water evaporated in the heat, and try to cool down inside with a small fan. Of course we took lots of cold showers, and wore very few clothes.
Our next stop down the canal was a quiet spot off the grid, then we moved on to Montargis (pronounced mont-e-gee). Montargis is a lovely city with lots of small canals and the river Loing. As the chief town of the Gatinais region it has the moniker of a little Venice. It is also the end of the Canal du Loing and the start of the Canal du Briare.
The marina was in a quiet spot but very close to the centre of town, the cathedral, chateau and museums. This pretty town had a Venice like feel, with many foot bridges over the waterways, and highlighted by a number of Italian influences in its architecture, and epicure.
For example I always thought that Praline almonds were an American invention. These sweet crunchy almonds were an actually an invention of the Duke of Plessie Pralin’s cook around 1650. They are still made in Montargis and sold as pralines in a lovely sweet shop that reminded me of the Rogers chocolate shop in downtown Victoria.
We spent a couple of days in Montargis and even had a dinner party with some friends from the Piper. Our next destination was Chatillon-Coligny a very lovely medieval commune, which had a vibrant centre – lots of old fashioned shops and even places to tie up your horse outside. We took a bit of a bike ride (mainly uphill) to the local supermarket. Luckily our return trip – full of groceries was down hill.
Moving down the canal du Briare to Rogny les Sept Ecluses we met up with our travel companions (both Manuka and Cuanna) and had a beer (or two) near the old staircase of seven locks. This was a bit of a feat of engineering as the seven locks were built around 1604 – during the reign of Henry II of France.
Going up the six new locks in convoy with Cuanna to the top of the canal had its reward for us. We met a Canadian boat (highly unusual) with a couple from North Vancouver (even more unusual) on the top. We had to stop and say hi – they were equally amazed to see the BC flag on the front our boat. We swapped stories and left going in opposite directions they to the north and we south.
We had climbed to the top of the canal system with the help of the ‘eclusiers’ of the VNF. They were mainly students – employed for the summer by the VNF as lock keepers. They worked hard manually closing and opening the locks using hand cranks and then cranking open the gates to allow the water to fill and empty the locks as we passed through. At the top if this canal system there were a number small lakes that were the feeders for the lock system. We were asked to work in convoy as the shortage of water and the manual system required a more efficient system than moving huge volumes of water for a single boat.
It was a really hot day – about 37C, so we did not quite make it our destination of Briare. We moored for the night about 8kms away and waited for the temperatures to cool and the rain to come. Traveling to Briare on the Loire River meant we had cruised 106 kms, completed 54 locks it was very slowl with lots of stops in the hot weather for maintenance and sight seeing. On our big travel day, just before we got to Briare we climbed up 24.5 m (80ft) and then dropped down the other side another 25.6 m (83ft) which was quite a hike when you are in a 12m (41ft) boat.
We are in Briare in the Loire Valley for about a week and have picked up our car. This is a wonderful region of France, so we can explore in Scarlett (our tiny Toyota). Our plan is to take day trips and return to our homeport in the evenings. We are now experiencing some cooler weather – with lots of rain – ah well the canals are a bit short of water after the months of heat so it will fill them up again ready for our next adventure.