Day 9: Caves

July 11, 2008

So the plan was to head out and then take a detour on a side canal to Vermenton. From there we would grab a cab and then head off to see some prehistoric caves. Then it was back to the boat, back to the main canal (Nivernais) and then on to Vincelles. Busy day ahead.

Today was one of the few rainy days we had. It started out ok, but I think C must have pissed off the swans and their associated gods because it got gradually worse. We steered from inside for a while, although I did brave the rain for a bit after we turned down the Canal d’Accolay to Vermenton. It was a pretty leg, with lots of interesting things to see.






The rain really started after we turned down the side canal. Vermenton is where France Afloat has their base. I really like their big steel boats but they were always just a bit pricey for my stingy ass. But if you are ever shopping for a canal boat holiday, they are well worth considering. Friendly too. After we tied at the dock we popped into their office and they helped arrange a cab so we could visit les Grottes d’Arcy-sur-Cure.


The caves were another tidbit I had turned up in my research. These caves had paintings in them 4 or 5 hundred metres in dating back around 28,000 years. And apparently these massive limestone caves had been used by man for at least 200,000 years. At 28,000 years old, these are the second oldest cave paintings in the world; over 140 separate units. One of the truly sad thing about them is that they estimate that over 80% of them were destroyed in the 70s when the walls were cleaned of soot by a high pressure solution of hydrochloric acid. Apparently no one imagined that there were paintings hidden by centuries of carbon produced by torches. Pictures were forbidden so of course I took some hidden video of the caves. All I got were a few blurry stills of the caverns themselves.

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An image stolen from their website

 Apparently the  archeologist posit that the paintings were part of a spiritual journey into the darkness. That’s why they are always hundreds of metres into the caverns where no light seeps in. The tour was in English, but I recall there was a lot of French too. Cool beyond measure though. We exited after the tour and lazed around waiting for our return ride.


Back at the boat the rain had let up, so we tootled off back to the Canal du Nivernais and downstream a few more clicks to Vincelles. There we continued past the town and tied up right on the outskirts across from a campground. We unshipped the bikes and headed off for supplies and more wine. Back at the boat, Carmen cooked us up some vittles and later in the evening we were entertained by some sort of party or celebration in the park. The music was pretty damn good.

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Day 10: Booze walk!

July 12, 2008

After we rose and shone we moved the boat back into town to fill the water tanks at the local marina. We dumped Zak on shore with the camera to take some action shots of the boat and met him back where we had moored. Back on board we loaded up and headed up the canal a very short distance to the Quai de l’Yonne à Bailly, home of Les Caves Bailly Lapierre.

Espaliered roses.




Les Caves Bailly Lapierre are a massive old limestone quarry where they produce Crémant de Bourgougne, a renowned sparking wine. Huge underground caverns had been carved out of the limestone rock over the centuries to build some of the biggest monuments and edifices in France including much of Paris. Because of its location, its natural moisture and its constant temperature of 12 ° C, in 1972 it was converted into a wine cave (pronounced cav remember!). The fermentation process takes 16 to 18 months and the inverted bottles must be constantly turned as the sediment settles into the necks Then the necks are frozen, the sediment removed and the bottles corked.



The visit here included a tasting, free wine glasses and a guided tour. Unfortunately it was all in French so Leslie was the only one quick enough to catch most of it. She translated as much as she could but I am sure we missed a lot. At some point, local artists had come and carved whimsical statues into the limestone. No idea why but they were pretty cool.


C in her happy place.

Machines for automatically turning the millions of bottles fermenting underground.


After we left the quarry we turned up hill and headed for what I was anticipating would be the pièce de résistance for the trip. My reading had turned up a small winery in the nearby town of St Bris that had some magnificent cellars. So up,up up the hill we went and at last emerged in vast fields of baby wine (vineyards) for as far as the eye could see. We had reached heaven.





We walked about 3.5 km before we descended into town and started wandering aimlessly looking for the winery. I had an address but that did us little good. I did remember it being somewhere near the church so we wandered around that for a bit. Below is the Google Street View shot of the entrance. I think we walked by it a couple of times before someone read the small sign by the entrance.

There was no one there but someone (or was it a sign?( told us the proprietor had just popped out to the boulangeire so we waited in the courtyard. Over in the corner was an old outhouse that had a hole in the ground and two foot prints to tell you where to squat. Very cultural! But alas no one was willing to go for the full cultural immersion.

Eventually a young man showed up and talked wine to us for a bit. Then he said in perfectly lovely English “Do you want to see my wine?” Oddly enough we all said yes. So he led us off to the side and down the dark stairs into his literal cellars. Apparently the family had bought up most of the cellars of the church and surrounding homes and used them to store their wines. He showed us a broad stone trough which was where the monks used to dump the grapes and then mash them with their feet. The cellars were filled with nooks and crannies full of dusty, web-covered bottles of old, old wine.

Our guide, who was one of the household scions, told us that one of his jobs was to go into the fields and decide when the grapes were ready to pick. We learned Burgundy wines are all about terroir; if you got the good field, you got the good wine. We learned that all the best wine barely leaves the village. France gets the second best wine and the lowly thirds are used for export. We learned more about wine in this little visit then we have in any of our trips to France; it was glorious. The winery, which is Domaine Bersan had a particular label called Bersan et Fils (Bersan and Son). We were currently talking to the Son part of the equation. For some particularly brain-dead reason I kept saying to Bersan et Filles (Bersan and Girl) and then asking him if he was the Girl? Until that is Leslie told me to shut up. So I did. Always a good plan in my case. 🙂





We had a lovely tasting and then emerged once again into the sunlight to visit his shop. We bought several bottles of wine (I think it was 4) and chatted about our boat trip. He was surprised to hear we had walked from the canal and offered us a ride back to the boat. I had just opened my mouth to agree when both L and C piped up and said no thanks. Sure it was late in the day, we had 4 bottles of wine to carry, C’s ankle was still sprained and we had 3 and a half kilometers of hilly territory to cover, but why would we want a ride? I still haven’t forgiven them.



Hours later when we arrived back at the boat, footsore and weary, basically crawling the last few inches, we collapsed bonelessly to the deck and tried in vain to recover after our arduous trial. then C made dinner and gave me wine to try and make it up to me. It mostly worked.



Day 11: Bastille Day Eve

July 13, 2008

When I had been planning this trip I had known that Bastille Day was a holiday and that the locks would be closed, but I really put no thought into it other than we should spend it in Auxerre as it was a big city and should have lots to do. So the day that follows was a fortuitous choice rather than a planned one.

We got up in the AM and cast off heading to Auxerre.  We’d barely gone a kilometer before we left the Canal de Nivernais and entered the Yonne river proper, where we were to stay for the rest of  the trip (except for a few side canals with locks). We had company most of the way, motoring along nose to tail. I know now that it was because most people had the same plan as we did and were trying to get to Auxerre early and beat the rush. As we motored along it became apparent were leaving the countryside and heading to an urban center and the shifting nature of the canal banks reflected that. There were more (and larger) bridges, riverside homes and mansions and lots of well kept grounds. The bridges were so large that they had multiple spans, and it was important to check the guide book — and the bridges themselves — to see which spans you were supposed to go under. This became even more important as we approached the city itself.








As we exited the last lock, the area had turned distinctly industrial and then, moments later, we turned a bend and saw a huge church rising above us on the left bank. Then we tore our eyes away and saw dozens of boats tied up along the right bank and more milling about.

We slowed down and watched for a bit, trying to scope the situation out. The left bank was empty and had lots of room, but the right bank had boats rafted 4 or 5 deep. I think we eventually pulled up to the docks by the harbourmaster’s office on the right bank and were told to wait.  Anyway a pilot eventually boarded and took us off into the melee and tied us up 4th out from the docks and then hurried off to take care of yet one more of the ever increasing number of boats arriving.


That’s us, 4 out, with our neighbours for the next day or so.

It was still cloudy, dreary weather and raining intermittently, but we geared up (C had even brought an umbrella) and wandered down to one of the bridges to explore. There were three major churches here, but I wanted to leave them until tomorrow. There were some great views from the bridges and man, were there a lot of boats. We wandered around for a while and then settled on a place for dinner. It was a good meal, the highlight of which was C trying the Escargot de Bourgogne, which is escargot (snails) in a parsley butter and white wine sauce, complete with shells. I had grown up with my Mom’s buttery escargot goodness, but this was a first for C. The look of scepticism on her face was priceless. But she ate them and declared them good.






Back on our side of the river, the open area by the docks had filled up and there was a stage with music and fun. Further down there was an area set aside for small fireworks and a ton of pyromaniacs-in-training were setting them off and making Zak jealous. We wandered back to the stage and spent an hour or so drinking in the festive mood and watching a choreographed, karaoke sort-of-thing to all the greatest Abba and Madonna hits, complete with light show. A great time was had by all.





As the evening wore on we eventually settled in back on the upper deck of our boat with some Chablis and watched the lights of the city. We had discovered why the left back was empty of boats; it was because there were to be fireworks and we had the best seat in the house. Seriously, they were right over our heads. We found out later that Auxerre has some of the biggest Bastille Day fireworks in France. Best show I’ve ever seen. And a grand and glorious end to a great day.






Day 12: Breakfast of (French) Champions

July 14, 2008

WooHoo! It was Bastille Day!

We roused ourselves and clambered over our neighbours’ boats to shore, then headed into town for the parade. Yup, there was a parade. It ran along the river road, complete with Foreign Legion-like soldiers and really cool fire trucks. Oh, and free wine and pastry. Yup, you heard me. Free wine for breakfast. Ain’t France grand. All in all, a cool way to start the morning.



Auxerre is an old city, dating back to Roman times and stuffed full of history. Today was church-a-polooza. Auxerre has three major churches and a number of small — but still pretty damn big — ones to fill our (my) ecclesiastically voracious architecture brains. I can’t really describe them so I will let my pictures do most of the talking.

Cathedral of St. Étienne (11th–16th centuries).  Gothic style, with 11th century crypt houses the remains of the former Romanesque cathedral.










After we left St. Stevens, we wandered up through town (chock full of medieval buildings), saw a medieval clock tower and checked out the exterior of the Church of St Eusèbe which dated back as far as the 7th century with a Romanesque tower and a Gothic nave.



See the round Romanesque arches in the tower?

More wandering ensued. We spied a printer with modernist typefaces, some cool topiaries and a Louis XIII style mansion on Rue Soufflot that had a passage knocked through it in 1907 to make way for a road. Then we headed for the town square for a much needed beer in an outdoor café. At some point Zak had declared enough is enough and wandered off to do his version of tourism: the hunt for fireworks. We wished him well and headed for the next church.

This was also the point where we learned a key difference between  Canadian french and France french. Because Quebecers are (overly?) consumed with preserving the language, they insist on translating everything into french. Thus iced tea is translated into tea glacé; makes sense right? We’ve read it on the side of a can millions of times. Well it turns out that since iced tea is not a culturally French drink, the French in France are not all that concerned about it and have never bothered to translate it. So when Leslie ordered a tea glacé at the cafe, she was met with blank stares. Turns out the natives pronounce it iced tea (with a French accent). Huh.




Then it was on to Abbey of Saint-Germain (dating from 9th century). The website has some great info. The crypt has some of the most ancient mural paintings in France, and houses the tomb of the bishops of Auxerre. The site includes the chapter room (12th century), the cellar (14th century) and the cloister (17th century). This was an abbey (where monks hang out), so it had our first real example of cloisters. One of the more interesting (to me) thing about this edifice is the approach to it is very unassuming. I suppose since it wasn’t meant for public-facing worship the facade was not as important as it would be on a similarly sized cathedral. It was pretty damn fancy from other angles though.

The excavations of the crypts dating from the Carolingian era under the foundations were absolutely fascinating.










Afterwards we we met up with one of the local French greeter cats and C & L got their fill of cat snuggles. Oh and Leslie found her fellow socialists’ association. Then it was on to St. Pierre en Vallée (17th–18th centuries), established over a 6th-century abbey. A neo-Gothic church, it has a tower similar to that of the cathedral. We didn’t stay long.




Then we met back up with the boy and wandered back to the “fireworks” area so he could let loose his pyro.


Afterwards it was dinner, where Leslie confirmed her love for the anchovy pizza (Actually a Neapolitano with anchovies and capers. Can you say salty?). Whole anchovies. Stinky anchovies. I still suspect every time she mentions she wants to go back to France, it’s really for the anchovy pizza. Then it was back to the boat and more wine and crib by candlelight on deck. We were treated to live music from a club across the river, the most memorable of which was a very Vegas-like rendition of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Another make-me-smile memory.


C’s frozen sock art.

Day 13: The Long Road Home

July 15, 2008

And so we say goodbye to Auxerre and head along the River Yonne for Migennes. It’s an early start. Last day travelling on the boat and first day of the long journey home; at least for Zak and I. L and C are staying over a few more days in Paris by themselves to see what kind of trouble they can get into.

We are on the river for the rest of the trip except for about a hundred yards at the end when we turn into the basin at the head of the Canal de Bourgogne. River travel is subtly different. Of course it’s a wider body of water and the banks are wilder and less manicured, but much later I realized that life tends to cluster around the banks of rivers and so a feeling of civilization and development underlies the scenery. The canals were much more like tree-lined farmers’ fields — mostly because that’s what they were.






We cast off our neighbours fairly early in the morning. It was one of the longer days ahead for us, and as well I didn’t want to inconvenience any fellow travellers inboard of us. And predictably after the holiday, it was busy on the river. Most of the day we travelled along in a convoy of 4 boats with us in the lead; the locks and speed limits tend to make groups like that. Most of the river locks were huge with enough room for boats on either side of the locks and three or four boats long. I guess that would be for the big river barges coming from (or going to) Paris etc. As well at every lock there would be a weir to help keep the river under control. The rivers of France, and indeed most of Europe, have long been tamed and bare little resemblance to our North American (or at least Western Canadian) idea of what a river is.




One type of weir was made of vertical boards, like 2 x 12s, laid along a rail. when they used to move logs by the river they would pull the boards out and allow the logs to float over the weir then replace the boards to reestablish the weir. An old technology but still in use today.

Gradually we began to hit more and more industrial territory and even passed through a small shipyard with all sorts of boats docked to piers or up on the hard. Eventually we arrived at the last lock to turn onto the the Canal de Bourgogne and waited for it to open. There were a few boats already waiting and it looked to be the biggest (and by that I mean deepest) lock yet. Eventually the huge sluice gates opened and we followed two other boats slowly into the lock. The lock keeper lowered a hook for us to attach out dock line to as the climb would have been impossible.



And then we waited as the lock slowly filled.

Just outside the lock was our ultimate destination and a few minutes later I slowly backed the boat into the pier for the last time. It had been a fabulous trip and I knew then were were definitely going to do it again.

So all that was left was cleaning and packing. We all cleaned up a bit and then Zak and I kicked the girls off the boat and started in on giving it a good scrub down. They headed into Migennes to explore. Later when they returned they were full of tales of double J cups and French lingerie saleswomen so I have some idea of what they were doing. Before we recycled our bottles we lined up the whole trips worth and snapped a few pictures. It was actually hard to let some of them go as we knew we would never see their like again.




That night we ate dinner aboard to use up the last of our supplies and drank the wine we didn’t plan on bringing back to Canada. It was a lovely night with a full moon and a melancholy air.


Day 14: Last Train to Home

July 16, 2008

The leisurely holidays were over and it was back to schedules, big cites and tourist traps for us. We packed up the rest of our belongings and precious booze cargo and disembarked with one last picture of us and our boat. Then we headed along the canal bank to the foot bridge so we could cross to the train station we had been at a scant 11 days earlier. Along the way we stopped and had a little picnic, checked out the cool topiaries and visited an old wash house. These wash houses were where traditionally the village people would bring their clothes and wash them. Most of them have been converted to pretty ponds and we would see many more of them on subsequent trips.






At the station we boarded our train, a double decker commuter, quite unlike our previous train. After a short wait in the mostly empty car,  it started to move and we waved goodbye to our boat, looking sad and forlorn across the basin. Then L settled in to read Madame Bovary and the rest of us sat back and watched the countryside roll by.





Paris. We disembarked and crossed the street to our hotel; it was much easier to find this time. This was our (Zak and I’s ) last day in France and we had some major sight seeing to do, so we dumped our bags and crossed the Seine to start getting to it.

We wandered by the Museum of Natural Heritage but then ducked down into the Metro. One of my first experiences with big city transit, I was was suitably impressed with how easy it was to navigate (once we figured out the ticket machines) and soon we were off scurrying across underground Paris. We popped up somewhere near the Eiffel Tower, although we couldn’t actually see it, and eventually came across the long grassed green (Champs de Mars) that leads to the base of the tower. We took our time and meandered along and soon were directly under Mr. Eiffel’s amazing edifice. No one particularly wanted to wait in the long lines to ascend so we read the signs, admired the legs and ate a couple of baguette dogs.





Then we crossed the Seine again, stopping along the way to watch the illegal street vendors and tourists interact and of course the Sûreté who would eventually arrive to chase them off. The river itself was full of tour boats and industrial barges, with seemingly as much traffic as the roads had. Across the river we looked back to admire the Tower once more before we then struck off to the Arc de Triumph. Some of the building architecture along the route was breathtaking and a real insight into the cultural history of the city and its inhabitants. I love old cities.




We toured the Arc, read the signs and admired the construction and sculpture, taking a moment to appreciate its dedications to soldiers past. But once again we  decided against the lines and did not pay to climb to the top.




Then we were off again on our whirlwind tour of Paris’ must-see sights. We hit the Metro again and travelled under the Champs de L’Elysée: shopping was just not our thing. We popped up again (with a few mishaps involving wrong stops and missing tickets) at Les Invalides, home of a war museum and Napoleon’s tomb. We were still on a time budget so we decided not to visit this trip. After sitting and admiring  for a while we walked down embassy row and checked out the Canadian embassy. The we turned and followed the river walking by all the best buildings like the Musée d’Orsay and the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères.




Then we crossed the Pont Royal and came out near the Jardin des Tuileries right across from the smaller Arc de triumphe du Carrousel and of course, the Palace des Tuileries, home of the Louvre.

We wandered the Gardens for a bit and a seemingly delightful man offered to draw a picture of Zak. We didn’t realize at the time this was the beginning of his tiny scam to separate us from our money, but figured it out when he then tried to insist that we owed him for the drawing we hadn’t asked for. Picking the kid was his ploy to make us “want” to have it despite the cost. In the end we paid him something to avoid the scene and thus justified his little game. Sigh. Tourists. We are all the same…

Wednesday evening is cheap night at the Louvre. All right, I don’t think it was actually cheaper, but it is open late on Wednesdays and the crowds were smaller So we headed in to see what we could see. Outside the little glass cleaning robot was clinging to the sides of the glass pyramids so I snapped a few pictures of that. Most famous art museum in the world and I am taking pictures of a robot. Huh.




We bought our tickets and decided it was every humanoid for him/herself. So we split up and went. I decided bulk was more important than individual appreciation, so I managed to cover pretty much the whole museum in the few hours we had. I think everyone else tried to concentrate a bit more on the experience. Still I saw what I wanted and discovered a few things that still amaze me.









We met back up at the end of the traditional closing-time-visitor-herding-manoeuvre and posed for a picture by the inverted glass pyramid. Then we took the Metro back to the hotel and sat on the street eating and sharing one last glass of French wine. Bonne nuit Paris; it had been a hell of an introduction to travelling abroad.




Day 15–16: Endings and Beginnings

July 17, 2008

Up early, we said our goodbyes and Zak and I hit the bus back to CDG. The line-ups at the airport were a bit different than anything I had ever experienced at the Edmonton International, but eventually we figured it out and even managed to use the unfamiliar (at the time) passport-scannie-thing. Zak and I snacked in the boarding lounge and eventually boarded our plane home.



July 18, 2008

Back at home Zak and I did laundry and started packing again as we were off right away for another week camping our way across southern BC with my brother. Then Leslie was supposed to meet us in Vancouver and we were going to do some climbing in Squamish.

The Girls in Paris

L & C took a couple of days to see more of Paris. I am not sure what all they got up to, but I do know they took in Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay, the Père Lachaise Cemetery — where all the best people are buried, and The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore, another famous English language bookstore.






Thus ends the account of our 2008 trip to France. Most of my pictures of the camping trip with Doug were lost in a crash. The three of us hit Jasper and Wells Grey and did some canoeing before splitting up. Then Doug took his truck home and we headed for Squamish. Later we picked Leslie up at Horseshoe Bay.

We climbed Squamish for a few days, did a tour of Howe Sound by jetski and then drove back across BC on our way home.