Day 3: Waterbound

July 5, 2008

We had a few hours before our train so we dropped our bags and went for a wander. This time we headed north towards the Bastille. It was rainy and damp and we took shelter under awnings as we went. Somewhere along there we used our first French bank machine as well, because we were worried about running low on euros.

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The Bastille is now nothing more than a monumental pillar, so we forwent storming it and hung a right back towards the Seine. We came upon a big basin filled with boats and admired them for a bit. Yes, you can canal boat right into downtown Paris. There is even a tunnel (at the end of this particular basin) that runs under half of the old city. It’s on the wish list…

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This is also the first time I ever saw C’s hair curly. Apparently rain does that to a do. Who knew?

Eventually we meandered back to the Gare de Lyon and went looking for our train. French trains seem like a bit of a free-for-all. We tried a couple of cars on our train, hauling our luggage in and out, to no avail and eventually moved forward until we found a nice comfortable set of seats. To this day we suspect we had inadvertently upgraded ourselves to first class, but as no one complained and no one ever checked out tickets, we will never know. Pulling out of the huge glass and iron train station was definitely something out of the movies. I can not say enough about the architecture of Paris; as an amateur architectarian I was in my glories pretty much every moment we were there.

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An hour or so later we pulled into Migennes (our ultimate boat destination) and scooted under the tracks to another platform to catch our regional commuter to Chatel Censoir. This was a much different kind of train: sort of like a fast LRT, right down to the cyclists. Another 30 minutes or so and we disgorged with our luggage into a small town rail stop and blinked our innocent eyes in wonder that we were here in the French equivalent of Beiseker, Alberta. Thankfully, true to their promise, LeBoat had sent someone for us and they quickly zoomed us down the road to the boat base on the beautiful Canal du Nivernais.

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There we dumped our bags, said hello to the local wildlife (giant snails crawling on the shrubs — Burgundy is also the home of escargots) and I proceeded to fill out paperwork necessary to take possession of our Rialto canalboat for the next 11 days. The Rialto was a two-cabin, two-bath, 11.5-metre (37-foot) boat. And it had a flybridge, which was all I cared about. C took one room, L and I the other, and Zak sacked out in the salon. After all the paperwork was filed, stamped, mutilated and mangled, we headed up into town to get supplies from the local store.

Ah, we will never forget the ProxiMarché in Chatel Censoir. To this day, it holds a special place in all our hearts.

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Small-town marketing ensued, the highlight of which was spending ten minutes looking for milk and eventually finding it piled up in a back corner. Milk in France comes in tetra-packs and isn’t refrigerated. So they stuff it in back corners where silly Canadian tourists will never find it. This tiny, hole-in-the-wall, small-town convenience store also had a better French wine selection than any liquor store in Alberta. That was when we could tell this was going to be a good trip. This was also when I discovered that C travelled with reusable bags for a reason. A baguette sticking out of a bag on her shoulder soon became the unofficial emblem of the trip.

Back at the base we were showed aboard and introduced to the vagaries of boat life. Marine heads, propane appliances and arcane diesel start-up procedures were explained and mostly digested. Mostly everyone was confused by it all but we figured we could work it out in a more private moment.  We discussed lock procedures and tying up to the canal banks for a bit. Then our technician (guide?) fired up the motor and let me take the wheel almost right off the bat as we headed off the dock and south down the canal. He let me get a feel for boat, showed us how to do a three point turn mid-canal and then we headed back to the base to drop him off. By this time it was mid afternoon and we wanted to get somewhere before the locks closed.

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We managed to keep the boat in between the banks (mostly) and wandered south under bridges and through two of the prettiest sets of locks in France. I terrified a German fellow in a private boat in one lock by not keeping my motor on and surging forward towards his stern as we rose up the first lock. But eventually I figured it all out. We let him get way ahead so he wouldn’t have to endure us n00bs through any more locks. I also spied some gorgeous Charolais cows and calves on their home turf, this region being where Charolais originated.

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The countryside is rural and familiar, but at the same time very different. I guess we are more used to big red barns than old fortified stone farmyards. We pulled into Lucy-sur-Yonne and decided to tie up to the bollards just before the bridge over the canal. Bollards being the big metal things on the bank you are supposed to tie up to.

I suppose I should take the time to explain the locks as well. Depending on whether you are going up- or downstream the procedure differs slightly but the basic idea is the same. We were heading upstream at this point so as we approached a lock (all the Canal du Nivernais locks have lockkeepers) we would wait for the gates to open and the boats (if any) to exit, then head slowly into the lock. Our boat was much narrower than the lock so we would pick port or starboard to tie up on and I would try to ease that side of the boat along the canal wall without bumping off it too many times. This is the real skill in canal boating. Thankfully the boat’s sides are almost made out of fenders so it’s pretty damn hard to damage the boat.

If the lock wasn’t too tall the line handlers (one fore and one aft) would wrap their lines around the convenient bollards. If it was too tall then someone could step off the roof of the boat or, worst case scenario, climb the slimy ladders built into the side of the locks. At this point the line handlers just hold the boat tight to the lock’s walls without tying anything down (very important!) and the lockkeeper ensures the back gates are closed,  then opens the sluice gates and floods the lock. The boat rises with the water. After the lock is completely flooded you open the front gates, loosen the lines and drive straight out trying again not to bounce off the damn lock walls too much.

Going down is much the same but easier, as you can step off the boat or just flick the lines over the bollards. This system changes in different regions and Nivernais is the only canal we have been in that had full time lockkeepers. So in other places we had to do some of the work of opening and closing gates ourselves.

Anyway, after tying up in Lucy-sur-Yonne, we walked into the tiny town and explored it for the 5 minutes it took to see all 4 streets and the church. There were wild poppies growing in a field and some beautiful light casting shadows on the fields and buildings. It was pretty splendid first evening. On the way back we saw the sign to Misery and amused ourselves taking some pictures and singing along with the Proclaimers.

Back on the boat we had our first meal, some French burgundy (in Burgundy!) aboard and watched the sunset. A great first day.

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