This summer we will be heading off to France to enjoy 11 days on the Nivernais canal on our trusty Rialto 1140. L & C will stay behind for few more days of Parisian delights whilst Zak and I head off to Jasper, Wells Grey and beyond with Doug for some outdoor time.
Stay tuned for more…
It came to my attention when doing some research the other day, that I never blogged our first trip to France. Since one of the reasons I record the trips is so I can look them up at a later date, this is a bit of a problem — as I discovered when searching for the name of the wine cellars we toured in Burgundy.
So I am going to go back and recreate that first trip from memory and more than a bit of research and it will then be recorded for posterity. Thus the next dozen or so entries will be my faulty, memory-rebuilt version of Canal Boating in France 2008. Since it was the beginning of July, I will try and match up the current January-esque dates.
As a preview, here is my (really bad) video compilation of the trip:
July 3, 2008
1:40 pm depart YEG (Edmonton)
July 4, 2008
9:40 am arrive CDG (Paris)
We (Leslie, Zak and I) packed up and headed for C’s rabbit hole to pick her up and move her out. This was a first international flight for all of us (except when I was a baby), so we were somewhat clueless as what to expect. We flew into Toronto for a short layover and then it was off over the great big sea.
As far as I can recall, no one got much sleep and the picture of us waiting for the bus at Charles de Gaulle certainly supports that. I have a note in my journal, and I distinctly remember the bus trip being surreal as it first zoomed down the freeway and then maneuvered among the old buildings on the way to our hotel. The bus was, according to my research, the best way of escaping the environs of the airport, especially as it stopped at Gare de Lyon (the next day’s starting point), which was right across from our Hotel Terminus Lyon. Prior planning etc…
We disembarked at the train station, and wandered aimlessly looking for the hotel that was right in front of our faces. The entrance, squeezed between two outdoor cafes, was less than obvious and it took us 10 minutes of wandering before anyone looked up to see the neon sign on the upper floor of the building. We checked in, C eschewing the tiny, tiny elevator, and all flopped on our beds for a quick moment before valiantly heading out to find food.
Next up: the big wander! So we crossed the Seine on the Pont d’Austerlitz and headed west all agog and more than three-quarters stunned. Ain’t jetlag grand! We followed the river enjoying the sights and the to-and-fro of a major European city until the majestic sight of Notre Dame rose up across the water and we stopped to enjoy the moment. And that was the moment that C decided she’d lost her camera. Imagine 3 (Zak was very much blasé about the whole thing) people spinning in circles searching bags and patting pockets in in the shadow of one of Europe’s architectural masterpieces. Yup, we looked that silly.
We didn’t go in — that thing was sporting some of the biggest line-ups I had ever seen — but we admired the grounds, oohed at the gargoyles and ahhed at the facade. We crossed back over and there, right before our eyes, was Shakespeare and Company. Shakespeare and Company is an English bookstore on the banks of the Seine. The left bank in particular. The left bank was the home of the expatriates and literati of the early Modernist period. Leslie is a Modernist scholar. Yes, there was squeeeeing.
The first was opened by Sylvia Beach on 19 November 1919 at 8 rue Dupuytren, before moving to larger premises at 12 rue de l’Odéon in the 6th arrondissement in 1922. During the 1920s, it was a gathering place for writers such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford.
This location isn’t the original, but it was close enough for us.
After a longish sojourn, we wandered up the narrow streets and crowded alleys of the left bank. Of note was out first sight of the famous Paris Metro entrances. Each line is decorated in a different style, and I lucked out with my first being a particularly lovely example of Art nouveau. We stopped at an outdoor cafe to rest and I shared my first legal glass of wine with Zak, the French having much more reasonable laws regarding wine than we North Americans.
That was pretty much it for the day. We hung out and explored a little as the sun went down and then headed back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep. Tomorrow we were back on the road (rail actually) and off to see our boat.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
July 6, 2008
Morning started with the baguette truck. You have to understand that Lucy-sur-Yonne is a very small town. So small it did not have its own boulangerie, a very serious issue in France although we did not know it yet. As I recall Carmen and I were on deck when a small white truck came screaming over the bridge towards town, honking its horn. Almost immediately people came streaming out from all the houses, heading as one for the truck stopped in the small square. The driver hopped out and threw open the sides and revealed baskets and baskets of baguettes. The residents lined up and soon clutched their purchases to their breasts and hurried home with their prizes. Then the truck closed up and zoomed off towards it’s next destination. It was all over in a flash. This was our first lesson in baguettes.
Then, after everyone was up and about, or perhaps before, I fired up the engine and headed on our way.
Everyone took their turn at the helm as we got used to not over-correcting and driving down the canal like a bunch of drunken sailors. That was for later. Eventually we pulled into the basin at Coulanges and went for a little walk. There wasn’t much canalside except a nice old restaurant so we decided to see if we could have lunch.
I am pretty sure it was a Sunday and the proprietress looked at us like we were nutso, thinking we could just wander in with no reservations; at least that’s what I think she was saying. The place looked empty but I guess church wasn’t out yet. Anyway she found us a spot and we proceeded to test out our French on the menu. C was still mostly a vegetable-arian at this point so she decided to stick with the fish. For some idiotic reason I thought that a steak would be good. It probably was, but being from Alberta, we treat our meat just a bit differently. We ordered Zak something that he looked at but didn’t eat much of…I think it was a sausage or something. Carmen’s fish turned out (we discovered later) to be skate. It had the consistency of semi-raw chicken and tasted pretty close to that. Suffice it to say it didn’t fit in very well with even the broadest-minded pesco-vegetarian’s tastes. The highlight, in my mind, of the meal was the meat and cheese appetizer course in which we didn’t eat any of the millions of cheeses available (because, you know, cheese is gross) and did take a bunch of the charcuterie, but decided that dry sausage is, you know, gross.
All in all it was an enlightening experience and a great introduction to French cuisine. Wouldn’t have skipped it for anything.
Then off we cast and down the canal we went. Beautiful scenery, calm motoring and a more of the same from the day before with a few exceptions. At one point we had to physically crank a bridge up to get under it, which was fun. Later on the canal actually crossed across the river Yonne; sort of like an intersection but with weirs on either side so you couldn’t turn onto the river. But then a little while later we did turn onto the river itself, bypassing an old section of the canal no longer in use.
We travelled a little ways down the river and started to hit a bit of civilization again. The outskirts of Clamency began to show on either side of the river and eventually we saw the lock ahead that would take us back onto the canal and into their harbour. Clamency was our southernmost point on the trip. After we were done here we would backtrack and then go north of Chatel Censoir up to Migennes.
As we were approaching the lock, we saw it was occupied by a huge converted barge that was now a floating hotel. We saw a few of these on the trip. They have 6 or 7 cabins and do basically the same routes as we were doing but had dining rooms and stewards and even vans that would meet them and take them on excursion. These old barges were exactly the size of most locks. There was inches to spare on all four sides when they were in the locks.
After it was out turn in the lock and I discovered that the far end of it was actually a swing bridge, which had a load of people waiting for us to exit so they could cross. We slowly motored in and picked a spot on the old stone quay that was right at the edge of town.
After we tied up and settled in we headed into town to explore. We managed not to get run over as we wandered the cobblestone streets staring at everything, although there were many points at which we we standing in the middle of traffic without realizing it. Damn cobblestone fools you every time. Clamency was wonderful. It had old half-timbered post and beam homes dating from the mediaeval period, examples of pretty much every century of stone and iron work and narrow, winding paths and alleys to explore. We grabbed a pizza for dinner, stocked up on some supplies and toured our first French church.
As churches in Europe go it wasn’t much, but it was our first and we sat and soaked it all in, from worn stone floors to soaring stained glass.
Eventually we retired back aboard and amused ourselves until it was time to sleep.
As a postscript, let it be noted that unless otherwise stated we consumed at least two bottles of local wine pretty much every night, generally up on the deck but occasionally inside if it was cooler. And there was also lots of cribbage.
July 7, 2008
I was up early. I was lounging waiting for coffee when someone banged on the side of the boat and I emerged to find an official wanting to collect a fee. In retrospect I shouldn’t of been so surprised, because we were in fact in a harbour, but we weren’t tied up to someplace with water or power like further up so I guess I had assumed we weren’t in a marina. Anyway I settled up with the pleasant man and had a coffee up on deck in the gorgeous morning light.
Up ahead of us a much smaller hire boat had tied up after we arrived yesterday. I recognized them because we had followed them in and out of a lock or two. It was only one couple aboard and she was less than confident with the locking procedures and he was less than confident with the steering. They had made an impression with the number of times he could bounce the boat off the sides of the lock and the panicked running around once they finally got it alongside. I wasn’t laughing really, those boats had the loosest and most atrocious steering I have yet to experience and if you didn’t wrap you mind around the concept that you had to steer then wait rather than constantly overcorrecting then you were going to be doing that peculiar zigzag. I still do it when I loose concentration for a moment…
Anyway, they were up and ready to go and still no better at manoeuvring their boat. If you are along side shore or a lock wall you can’t just turn the wheel and go as the boat pivots in it’s center. So if you turn the wheel too sharply what happens is the stern bang into the shore and points the bow back to parallel to the shore. If you don’t straighten the wheel it happens all over again until you manage to bounce yourself far enough from the shoreline to actually head in the direction you want to go. Then since you have been over steering anyway, it takes you 4 or 5 undulations to settle the boat down on a heading, that is if you are comfortable with not over-correcting in the first place. This guy wasn’t.
Suffice it to say that they will forever be known as the drunken sailor boat in my memory and I will never feel shame at how badly I handle a boat because I know there is someone worse out there.
After the show, I went for a small walk while I waited for everyone else to get up and going. I walked around the marina and across the lock on the bridge then headed up the road for a bit. On the way back I snapped one of my favourite pictures of our boat, the town’s basin and the beautiful morning light
After everyone was up and breakfasted (at some point someone went into town for baguette… I think), we hit the streets. My research had illuminated a few day trips that I wanted to take and one was from right here in Clamency. Apparently if we could grab a cab we could take a trip out to a Chateau about 15 minutes drive away. Then we could arrange for the cab to pick us up again and deliver us to our boat once again. Simple, right?
Well this was our first of many encounters with “the Taxi” and France. Pretty much every trip we have taken to France we have had at least one adventure involving taxis. We just never seemed to learn. This one consisted mostly of trying to actually get a cab. What we failed to understand is that the towns here are small and not very far apart. So if you want a cab, you generally phone a private operator who might be from or in any of a number of towns within a half-hour radius. Then you have to explain where you are and where you want to go. Oh, and the payphones don’t take cash, just phone cards. This was the pint that my prior planning mantra fails me and I spin into a tizzy wandering aimlessly trying to figure out the system without any clues.
Eventually the girls saved me. With their manifestly superior practicality and Leslie’s superior French, they decided to wander into a local travel agency and ask the lady there for help. And help she did, calling a taxi and arranging the arrangements so all we had to do was wait and then pay a rearranged fee. Seriously, I wonder what I would do if I had been stuck on my own. Probably just walk…
So eventually the taxi arrived and we were off to Château de Bazoches. This was an old Chateau built originally in 1180 and the one time home of Vauban. Vauban (1633–1707) was a Marshal of France and one of the most famous military engineers ever. There are dozens of extant fortifications across France and French territories designed by him, all demonstrating the signature star pattern of 18th century stone works. In fact the plans for the massive fortifications of the Citadel in Quebec City was approved under his aegis.
And we were going to see his chateau! W00t!
One last note on the taxi. It has come to my attention that we in North America know not the meaning of breakneck and, wild as some of our taxi drivers seem to be, they are nothing when viewed on the world stage. Of transportation to Château de Bazoches was a great example of this. We went blasting along small country roads — trails really in some cases — and zooming through narrow streets in the towns we encountered. The taxi’s velocity rarely diminished and the driver was prone to just putting two of the wheels into the field when oncoming traffic made it impossible for him to actually stay on the road. Oh, and C had a mild predilection for motion sickness so she got to sit up front where the stone walls of the various courtyards could come hurtling towards her in a truly 3D fashion. I took some video; it’s still amusing to watch it.
The chateau was grand in pretty much every sense of the word. Situated up on a hill, the views of the countryside were beautiful and the grounds the kind of thing you see in the period movies. Out of the way, it wasn’t inundated with les touriste, it featured secret passages, suites of armour and canopied beds and most excellent of all, it had several books dating back hundreds of years. Seriously, even the furniture was fascinating; at least to geeks like me. It was a self-guided tour so they handed out English-language fact sheets and let us wander: the best way to see anything.
But about the books. With three serious bibliophiles, the opportunity (the first of many as it turns out) to actually see hand scribed manuscripts and early printed books was simply mind-blowing. There were 4 or 5 books in glass cases dating back to the 1200s, including a rare incunable dating to 1486 printed in Strasbourg. Heavan!
Soon enough our time was over and we needed to head back to the parking lot to meet our taxi. The ride back is much more of a blur, because I think we were still a bit mind-blown from what we had experienced. You have to realize the oldest building in Edmonton was built around 1912. Centuries is a bit mind boggling until you get used to it. And I hope I never do.
I am sure we downed the requisite wine and played the requisite cards, but it had been a hell of a day.
July 8, 2008
Tuesday was a travel day. We wanted to backtrack to Chatel Censoir in order to head north into new territory. So we waved good bye to Clamency and headed back onto the river and started going downstream and, as a result, down in the locks, which was significantly easier. You do however, have to remember to get back aboard, if you’ve stepped off, before the boat gets too low. We didn’t, quite, ever get caught out by that.
At one point Leslie decided to break out the bike and rode along side on the tow paths. All of these canals were built before the internal combustion engine was around, so most of the canals have paths along side that were used to tow the barges. People, animals and eventually small steam tractors all laboured along the canal banks and most of the old bridges have little path bits that jut out into the canal so they wouldn’t have to unhook before passing beneath. This tends to narrow the passage beneath the bridge significantly and optically makes it look like you’ll never make it. I looked through all my pictures and I didn’t take a single one of the bridges; likely because I was way too nervous to take my eye off the canal. In a lot of places these paths still exist and have been converted to walking or biking trails. The bike goes significantly faster than the boat, so L would zoom ahead and then come back to see how our progress was.
We pulled over for lunch and drove stakes into the canal bank to moor to. Leslie continued to amuse us and herself by zooming back and forth. I got some amusing video, especially when viewed speeded up. After lunch we cast off again and kept on going.
At some point we had to pull over to the port bank, I think it was after the hand-cranked bridge, and C and Zak had to debark onto a steep bank so we could close the bridge behind us. I had spent 8 days aboard the Naughty Doc, a 39′ Beneteau, the previous summer and most of the first 4 were spent in docking practice. The one thing John Fairweather, our most excellent instructor, had drilled into our heads was never jump off the boat: always step off when you feel its is safe and never listen to anyone who tells you what or when to do it. So naturally I told C to jump off when we got close. And naturally she did what I told her to do. And predictably, she landed on the steep, long-grass covered bank slightly wrong and turned her ankle. It was bound to happen as I was finally getting comfortable with what I was doing.
Now I never got to see the ankle in question, but Zak did and he assures me it turned all the right aubergine colours and swelled up appropriately. So there we were in the middle of nowhere, with no icepacks, anti-inflammatories, tensors and a minimum of painkillers with a sprained ankle and a whole trip to go. I find myself, almost 7 years later, still feeling a bit guilty over what was defensibly, a slip of the tongue. Be sure to engage brain before putting mouth into gear was the message on a small poster my elder brother had given me when I was around 10. I still have never learned the lesson. This was, however, an occasion of one of C’s moments of creative genius. She whips them out every once in a while to make sure that I stay in my place. On this particular occasion she took a sock (several actually), soaked it with water, and popped it into the freezer compartment. A little while later she had a cold compress that she could easily wrap around her ankle. Change and repeat.
Seriously, it was genius; never would have occurred to me.
That resolved, she and Zak amused themselves playing crib while we journeyed onwards. Arriving back at our starting place at the LeBoat base in Chatel Censoir, we broke out the booze and lounged up on deck. I think we wandered up to our ProxiMarché for more supplies and we acquired a tensor that helped out with the ankle situation. I remember sticking our heads in a couple of shops like le boucherie (the butcher) and patisserie (pastry shop). No supermarkets here, everyone had their own space.
We also were schooled in baguette. It was late in the day by then and we stopped at the boulangerie and snagged the last couple of baguettes for breakfast the next day. I can’t remember how the topic came up but we were told in no uncertain terms that is was simply unacceptable to be eating day-old baguette. It was just not done. From then on any leftover baguette went to the ducks and swans and we tried to stick to the rules.
As a side note, looking at the picture I took of the ProxiMarché, I notice there was a road sign on the side of the building. Apparently Clamency was 17 km from Chatel Censoir by road. That gives you an idea of the distances we were travelling. One and a half days to get there and a longish day to get back. Your speed is not supposed to exceed 5km/hr and when you add lock times into it you don’t cover a lot of miles. But it is the perfect pace for a vacation.
As we sat on deck relaxing, a larger steel hireboat, populated with Germans, was having a lot of difficulty backing into the slip across from our stern. I hopped down to lend a hand with the lines. As mentioned I had spent a lot of time practicing docking and well appreciated just how frustrating it can be if you are learning. Anyway I caught a line, got them secured stern-to the dock, waved off their thanks and rejoined the boozers back on our boat. A few minutes later the grateful German helmsman wandered by to say thanks again and passed up a beautiful bottle of German beer as thanks. I took it. I felt it was my duty to get as much culture as possible out the trip and what is more cultural than beer?
Then I drank it. It was good.
I discovered later that apparently there was an expectation that, although I received no help from C in the docking assistance, since she was my “beer buddy,” I would be sharing the aforementioned cultural experience with her. Just another one of those things that just never occurred to me. My work, my beer. Seemed pretty logical to me. Still does. And apparently the expectation of sharing seemed pretty logical to her. And apparently still does. Rarely does a few months go by that I am not reminded of my selfish oversight in the matter of The German Beer in France.
I have in my notes that we played whist that night. Not a game I play a lot of — although I do enjoy it — so I wonder if it somehow was related. I do know the four of us have never played it since. I guess it’s just one of those things that make you go hmmmmm.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Today we were off to Vézelay and the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene, another gem I had dug up in my research. This day trip entailed another taxi ride, but thankfully were at the LeBoat base so it was easy to get someone to arrange it all for us. This ride was much milder and soon we pulled into the town. Our driver wanted to drop us off at the base of the hill as it is traditional to wander up on a “pilgrimage.” After a lot of bad communication attempts, C finally just showed the driver her ankle and we were dropped off at the door with a promise we we make our way back down to be picked up.
The first church here was consecrated in 879 and there are still remnants of it in the current building. Man there are some old things here. I am going to totally freak when I finally make it to Greece or Eygypt.
The Basilique Ste-Madeleine (Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene) in Vézelay is the largest Romanesque church in France and only 10 yards shorter than the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. As it claimed to guard the relics of St. Mary Magdalen, Vézelay was a major medieval pilgrimage destination. It also saw the launch of the Second and Third Crusades.
The basilica was mostly Romanesque — an archtectural style from the late part of the first millennium and the early part of the last millennium — which means, among other things, that it features round arches rather than the pointy ones that typify the later gothic architecture. Apparently the current building was started in 1096 with reconstruction happening 1120–1132.
It consist of several parts, the first of which is the facade with three doors and a matching narthex (entrance hall) with three portals into the main nave. We spent a lot of time here just staring at the doors and their massive wood and iron construction. We were also lucky as there was a tour group passing through and the guide opened the massive main doors revealing the stunning nave as it was meant to be seen. Otherwise would have had to slip though the smaller side doors and missed the impact of the vast, light-coloured nave opening up down the center aisle.
The original choir was destroyed by fire in 1165 and then rebuilt in the Gothic style adding yet another dimension to this wonderful building. This combination of architectural styles and techniques made the journey from front to back a fantastical trip though time and spirituality. Another fantastic feature, which we didn’t get the full effect of was, that the building was constructed and oriented such that on midday of the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight form a path right down the center of the nave towards the altar. They weren’t exactly centered when we visited but they were there.
Under the choir, the crypt dating from the 800s contains reliquaries containing purported small relics of Mary Magdalene. It has been a point of dispute in Catholic tradition about whether Mary’s remains resided her or at the Basilica of St Maximin’s in Provence. Most of the original relics were torched by the Huguenots in the 16th century.
Outside, the use of early flying buttresses of the Gothic choir provided a big contrast in construction techniques to the older square vertical buttresses of the Romanesque nave. Buttresses are the things that hold the tall walls up to prevent them from just falling over.
The vertical romanesque buttresses (pillars) used to support the side of the nave.
The long, flying buttresses supporting the tall center of the Gothic choir
The grounds overlooked a long valley and we could actually see the area where the Château de Bazoches — where we had been two days prior — was off in the distance. It was a grand view and we hung out and admired it for quite a while. When we were starting to head back, I ducked back into the basilica for one last breath of its magnificence and was treated with the sounds of choral singing by the resident monks. The medieval church sure as hell knew what it was doing when they built these things. There has never been anything short of a perfectly dark, incredibly starry night that has so thoroughly put me in my small insignificant place as that moment in that building did. I really recommend anyone ever in the area visit. It is as grand as any big city cathedral, but the 50 or so people that were wandering around inside disappeared and I felt like I was alone with the spirit of the building —not a feeling you are likely to get being herded through Notre Dame with a thousand other tourists.
Then we split up and wandered down the hill through the town, visiting shops and snacking on things. As we weren’t that far from Chablis, L and I stopped in a cave (short for cave à vin and pronounced cav) which is what you called the local wine cellars and purchased a few bottles of Grand Cru chablis for later enjoyment. Then soon enough we were back in the cab and then back on board and ready to hit the canals once more.
Today’s destination was near a small town called Merry-sur-Yonne, although we never actually visited it. The real appeal was that it featured Le Saussois, a French climbing destination, right along the canal banks. Since we were still heavy into climbing at this point I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to experience some overseas rock. It would have been too much for us to bring most of the gear but I did insist everyone tuck their climbing shoes in their luggage so we could at least say we bouldered in France.
As we rounded the last bend, the limestone cliffs seemed to grow out of the banks of the canal and we were even greeted with the sight of other rockclimbers enjoying the rock.
It was late so we pulled up to the small dock and tied up in front of lovely private boat. That evening found us in one of the nicest and more peaceful places we visited in the entire trip and I got one of my favourite shots there. A lovely end to a spectacular day.
July 10, 2008
Leslie, Zak and I got up early and headed to the cliffs while C indulged herself with some alone time. We spent the morning making up bouldering problems and generally having some fun on the rocks. I think it was worth the extra weight of the climbing shoes, but your mileage may vary. When we eventually tired of playing around we took off our shoes and headed back to the boat.
Back aboard we collected C and wandered down to the small store a few hundred metres down the road and had lunch outside at a picnic table. We finished off with some ice cream. Then it was back aboard and on to our next destination. I am not sure if I had it planned out or if it was just a choice we made that day. My notebook has Mailly-la-Ville in several (but not all) of the tentative itineraries I had made up, so maybe it was in the plan. Anyway, it was only like 5 km away and that’s where we ended the day.
All of the locks on the canal de Nivernais have old lock houses where the original lockkeepers lived. Many of them have been bought up and renovated into little cottages where some of the current crop of lockkeepers live. Often they sell fresh produce of trinkets as well. Others of them are private homes and some are used for other purposes.
When we arrived in Maille-de-Ville, we tied up and then Zak and I went for a wander. It was a pretty little town with only a few other canalboats there. As we walked along the old roads — seriously everything is made from stone: sidewalks, curbs, everything! — I got my first sight of an authentic milestone. We used to play Milles Borne a lot as kids, but I never really understood that it represented a real thing. We also found a local restaurant that looked good for later and then headed back to the boat.
It had been a long couple of days, so we camped out under the umbrella and enjoyed the heat of the afternoon, relaxing and reading. Another great part of canal boating.
Eventually we decided it was time for dinner so everyone cleaned up and we wandered into town to the hotel —at least I think it was a hotel, the closest Google gives me is Le Relais de l’Etoile which look familiar:
Be that as it may, apparently the restaurant wasn’t open yet so we were invited to sit in the bar and have a drink while we waited. I can’t remember the game show that was on the tv, but it was sort of a song-lyric/Name That Tune sort of thing. It was music and it was fun. Enjoy the show there was us, a bartender and a waitress. I think that was it, although there might have been a local or two. After a while the bartender let us know that the restaurant was now open and then showed us through a back door into the dining room. Communication throughout this little sojourn had been reasonably smooth with our bad french and his bad english but it was by no means perfect. This was made clear by the transformation of our bartender into our waiter and our waitress into our cook. It was awesome. He made a great waiter.
Fresh baked bread, delicious food, terrific service and a really, really nice atmosphere put this up there as one of the best dining experiences we had on the trip. What tipped it over into The best was the menu. French with english translations, the translations were so bad and so hilarious that we were forced to rely more heavily on the French than the English. I don’t know if they used a computer to translate it or just someone with basic english skills but the absolute literalism of the translations had us rolling in the aisles. Here are a few examples (I’ve included Google’s current translation in brackets):
Le Jarret d’Agneau Fondant au Thym
The Bulge of Found Lamb to Thyme
(Lamb shank with Thyme Fondant)
Les Profiteroles au Chocolat et Crème Chantilly 4 choux
Profiteroles with the Chocolate and Whipped cream 4 cabbages
(Profiteroles with Chocolate and 4 Chantilly cream puffs)
Les 12 Escargots de Bourgogne au Chablis
The 12 Snails of Burgundy to Wind fallen wood
(12 Burgundy Snails in Chablis)
And our all-time favourite:
La Salade Paysanne au Chêvre Chaud
The Country Salad with the Goat Heat
(Peasant Salad with Warm Goat Cheese)
It was so awesome! Check out the menu pic for even more fun.
And that finished off the day except for the usual wine, cards and whatever. It was a memorable meal — I can actually say that, because I remember it well. And not just because of someone’s cleavage.