Our return to Valence from Britain was quite late in the day and we were welcomed by our friends Mike and Jacqui who are moored across the dock. They prepared a lovely dinner and plied us with wine – which was quite easy! Shortly after we arrive back from the UK, they decided to go to Britain to sort out some business issues. We were only in the port for about a week together before they took off on that seemingly endless drive back to Blighty.
The week was somewhat interesting, firstly we discovered the Rhône is not quite as benign in August as we first thought. We had a northwesterly wind blowing most of the time – this wind is the Mistral. The Mistral can blow quite constantly from the Alps and brings with it all kinds of turbulent weather in the form of rain and storms, including huge pyrotechnic light shows that scare the b’geezes out of Kerry. She literally quivers for hours while the storm is passing over. The cracks of thunder, the heavy rain and the flashes of lightning are very frightening to a dog. They hate fireworks and firecrackers and the natural versions are equally uncomfortable for them.
Out week in Valence was also a work week – we were near a ‘Leroy Merlin’ – the largest and probably best stocked hardware stores in France. Martin bought a lovely piece of wood and made a great new table for the dinette.
Then he worked on organizing a haul out of the boat so he could paint the bottom. Bottom painting is a very important part of boat ownership and needs to be undertaken every two years, so this was the second time around for Martin. Last time was in Sneek in the Netherlands, where he had to complete the task in a contained area. There were no such limitations in France. Martin booked the boat lift and power washer for a day when we prayed the Mistral would not blow. We had sat on the back of the boat for many evenings enjoying the breeze/wind, which gusted to 45kph every so often, keeping the temperatures moderate and the bugs (mosquitoes) away, but we did not want it to blow dust onto the new paint job.
The lift out was very successful. It always amazes me that all the stuff on the boat hardly moved as it was swinging in the cradle and moved around the shipyard onto a boat stand. It meant we were living nine feet in the air and had no running water for about 36 hours. Martin worked in the hot sun with a guy he had hired from the shipyard to power-wash, clean scrape and then paint the bottom third of the boat. Our draft is only 90cms but there is a lot of square feet to paint on a 12.5meter boat that is 3.6 meters wide. Martin did a herculean job making sure the boat continued to be water-worthy with a French blue bottom.
The next task was getting the bimini from the Niverais, about 380 kms from Valence. The new bimini (the shade cover over the back deck) was being made for us for a company that could not actually transport the finished product. So we set off in Scarlett (our trusty tiny non-air conditioned Toyota) in 30C heat towing a trailer we had rented. It took about 6 hours to reach Corbigny, a tiny town in the Niverais where we stayed the night before picking up the bimini the next day. The bimini was long thin and quite awkward to fit into our little trailer, but Martin the Amazing got it onto the trailer and we slowly made our way back to Valence arriving within the 24 hour rental period so we didn’t have to pay an extra day’s rental.
Trailer and bimini and Martin
Martin proudly fitted the new bimini – but had a bit of a problem about what to do with the old one – so it is currently strapped to the back of the boat. We had a day to prepare for our visitors from Canada, shop, clean make beds etc. Lori and Jere are very dear friends of Martin, from his younger days in Ontario. They live just outside Toronto and had made a big decision to leave their beautiful country home in the summer and come to France. We were delighted that they came via a direct flight from Toronto (on Air Transat) to Lyon then train to Valence. Luckily it was market day when we picked them up and walked around Valence. Market days are always a fun introduction for visitors.
We bought a few bits and pieces in the market and then headed to the supermarket to pick up more food. Jere was like a kid in candy store – the wine and cheese choices were so wonderous to him that we had explain that we had a fridge that is the size of postage stamp and consequently we needed to limit our purchases. French supermarkets (the big ones) are a sight to behold; they are very large and sell everything from soup to nuts to clothes to wine and have a deli counter about a mile long (well not quite, just a km!). As a cheesaholic I do appreciate Jere’s delight in the variety and price of French cheese. Lori on the other hand, was much more interested in pain-chololat. They had both been to France before, but at least 45 years ago. Jere who was also an architect, had worked in France during the late 1960’s. He still had a good command of the language, and Lori gave French the good old college try!
We all piled into Scarlett and headed back to the boat, where I performed a great ‘Tetrus’ game trick fitting all our purchases in our tiny fridge. They settled in and had great staying power given they were a bit jetlagged. The next day we took them up to the Chateau de Crussol. The castle is ruin on the top of an escarpment that we had been watching from our boat for the last week.
Martin and I had driven up there the week before and had lunch in the delightful restaurant at the base of the Chateau du Crussol. We had planned to walk up, but just as we started out it started to rain – and I mean rain, precipitation worthy of my Dutch rain gauge. It continued for the next 24 hours.
So we thought we’d try again (a week later) with Jere and Lori in tow. This time the weather was kinder and had a delightful lunch in the creperie (restaurant) and walked up towards to the castle ruins. It was a quite a steep climb to the top on a hot day, so we satisfied our curiosity and interest in the view by walking half way and then learning more from the visitor centre. The limestone ruins had stood watch over the Rhone valley at Valence for almost 800 years. Its commanding position facing the river valley made it an important military post for the crusaders moving up and down the Rhone, and was supplied by the village built within the ramparts.
We did not leave Valence until Tuesday by which time the Mistral was starting to blow. It did blow that day – up to 50kph. We had several big locks (around 15 meters) to negotiate as we cruised at a steady 14kph down the Rhône valley. After fuelling up in Valence we travelled about 25kms to the next port at Cruas. Castles dotted the hillsides as we drove downstream with a following current of about 4kph.
Le Rhône is not under the jurisdiction of the VNF, it is administered by the CNR Compagnie Nationale du Rhône. The CNR was set up in 1933 and now operates the locks, barrages, dams and electrical generation plants, and is responsible for the maintenance and canalization of the river. There were some commercial barges on the river but nothing like the traffic we had seen on the Rhine.
The human landscape was changing and looking distinctly Mediterranean. I would say even Italian, terra cotta roofs, and white limestone buildings and shuttered windows with the odd turret or tower thrown in for good meaure. Our overnight stop in Cruas was uneventful after we had negotiated the difficult entry into the port. We did meet an exhausted Dutch couple who had come upstream, battling against the current and the wind for twelve hours. They told us about the ports (or lack of them) lower down the river, and the need to make a big jump between Cruas and the next safe location at L’Ardoise, 80kms down stream.
We saw very few pleasure boats on the river, which was understandable as we felt the Mistral wind building. We travelled for half a day with the ‘Gillian B’ – a British registered custom designed 15meter Piper barge. It was too big to get into Cruas so had to continue down stream and ended up tying up to a dock beside a lock for the night. As I said the wind was building and reached gusts up to 90kph and shelter seemed hard to find.
Given we are subject to Murphy’s Law, these big gusts of 60 – 90 kph) always seemed to occur when we needed to tie up and wait for a lock. This made the wait and entry into the lock very tricky as we were subjected to some massive winds tossing us about. Happily Martin is a sailor (on sail boats) and understands the dynamics of boats and winds, so we had no serious bumps or loss of control. At this time we also entered the largest lock of our five summers on European waters at Bollene. It was a 23meter lock (around 70 feet) and felt a bit like descending into a massive tomb. We did come out of the bottom of the lock, and had a few kilometers of sheltered waters until we hit the wind again.
We had thought to stop at a small port along the river, but the wind and waves (yes there were lots of whitecaps on the river) were so strong and seemingly unending that we gave it a miss and pressed on a further 20kms to L’Ardoise, a safe port off the main river. The wind was still howling as we docked and settled in for the night, after one of the worst days on the European waters I had ever experienced. We were sheltered and safe but still subject to the Mistral’s power and might.
The ‘Gillian B’ pulled into port at L’Ardoise the next morning, the boaters looked harassed and exhausted. They told tales of wind and waves that were still evident in our safe port. After a conversation with the Gillian B and a check of the weather forecast we decided to stay in port to avoid another blustery day on the Rhône. The river is known for its strong currents and turbulent floods, add to them a wicked cool wind that follows the water down from the Alps through the valley, you have a waterway that commands respect.
We planned to make use of our day in port and take the bus into Avignon our final destination for this section of the trip. After some discussion Martin decided to take the train to Valence and pick up Scarlett and install the car at L’Ardoise. We also decided to make this our winter moorage as it was a safe harbour at a reasonable cost (for the south of France). The area is very interesting and fairly central for our plans for 2017. It will serve us as winter location for Skookum as it includes such gems as Chateauneuf de Pape, numerous vineyards of the Cote de Rhône, Avignon, Arles, Nimes and many ancient sites.
We took a delightful €1.50 bus ride the 28 kms from L’Ardoise to Avignon, this was a great scenic tour through the villages and vineyards. Lori, Jere and I took Martin to the train station where he caught the train to Valence, then we headed inside the city walls (Avignon is a walled city) to scout out the town and get a sense of this famous place.
Famous Avignon bridge
More about Avignon in the next blog, but yes it does have a bridge – well half a bridge with a legendary history as well as an ancient but very interesting Papal Palace.
Modern Bridge in Avignon
When Martin came back in Scarlett, we drove back to L’Ardoise. The next day the winds had calmed so we took the boat to Avignon – about 2 hours and one large lock (15meters) later. Jere was delighted with the architecture of Avignon, its Roman base, Papal history, winding streets and higgle-dee-piggle-dee streets and houses within the impressive city walls. Sightseeing in Avignon, an Algerian dinner followed by the evening sound and light show in the Papal Place filled another day.
Treed square in Avignon
Another friend from Victoria – Janette – was in the area, so we had arranged to meet on Skookum. She was staying with another friend of hers; Finian who owns an ancient house in the area (about 60kms from Avignon) that he has converted in an amazing Air B&B. It is always a bit of a thrill for me to meet friends from home, when we are so far away from Victoria (about 10,000kms).
Janette and I
So the six of us set off the market and to look around Avignon. After lunch in town people went in different directions to enjoy the various sights and sounds of the city.
Lunch in town
Martin and I headed back to the boat early to do some tidy-up and get to host everyone for dinner. With six people aboard, our boat is quite full but we managed an early dinner before Janette and her friend Finian drove off to see a concert in some small town nearby.
Papal Palace Avignon
That was Lori and Jere’s last evening with us. We walked them to train station the next day and they were very effusive about their time with us. I was a little worried as we had some hairy experiences, but it was for them, a new way of seeing France. My hunch is that they will be back in Europe again within the next few years to see more of the architecture and experience more of the culture.