A dreamy summer on the canals of northern France
Samois sur Seine sits behind a small island in the Seine. There was just one spot for visitors, in front of a day tour ship and an 18 meter live aboard barge captained by Blue. Or is it Bleu? She’s a character, as we soon learned as she quaffed the chilled white as we sat chatting on the deck. She told us she has a PhD in astrophysics, five masters degrees and teaches French in Charlotte. Seems like an awful lot of training for that position, but more power to her. She has a captain’s license for the huge ships that barge through the locks on the Seine. I am not sure what is going on there, but she is charming and helpful, a lot of fund, and for us that’s what matters.
The town’s center sits atop a cliff so up you must hike steeply some ten minutes, past walls of charming village homes, bought and renovated by well to do Parisians. There’s a very good bakery at the top, and as a plus a trio was playing some jazzy stuff on the main plaza. We at listening at the bar, enjoying some vastly overpriced beer. Our friends had come to find some glucose free items in the town’s only superette. They asked me to find some good wine, which I gladly obliged. Next day they got two more of the same, a St Emillion, a very good one and a Gran Cru even, for a very reasonable price.
By then I’d noticed that one of our four huge batteries was failing- if one in a bank fails, they all have to go. Bleu recommended a couple of places. At the second we found Carlos, who is the captain of the small port in Valvin, recommended by the French boater we met in Nogent sur Seine. Carlos has been taking care of his boat for 30 years. Carlos proved to be a gem. He had the batteries ready to install after retrieving them himself, as his supplier failed to deliver a few days before on a Friday and was non-committal on Monday, which is when he promised to be ready. He complained about the decline in the professionalism of his suppliers.
While we waited for the work to be completed, visited nearby Fontainebleau via bus. Fontainebleau is one of the three main royal palaces, offering a stunning display of wealth.
One of the battery clamps failed. He fixed that after we came by again, although he had offered to come to us. So doing would make him unavailable to others. He let us stay two extra nights without charge, unasked.
The palace was preceded by the medieval castle, both serving as a residence for the kings from Louis VII to Napoleon III. The site was chosen for its spring, from which the palace’s name derives, and the abundance of game.
After a lovely lunch in the town and the trip back to the bus, Carlos completed his work and we resumed our journey. We spent one night at Lock Dommaine sur Lys, six barges snuggled in with us. There is safety in numbers, or so it makes us feel, so we were happy to see them even as they came just a couple of meters of scraping our sides or crushing us against the dock. They are excellent boaters and almost all are friendly. Everyone on the Seine is obliged to monitor channel 10 on the VHF (marine radio). They have almost all answered our calls, asking to pass or for information. You have to check in with the locks before you enter. The chart gives you the VHF channel for the lock. Most of the time our charts have an out of date channel. The barges know the latest.
Amiens is a small city (pop 135,000) in the Picardie region, just 120km/75m north of Paris. It’s main claim to fame is its Cathedral, a large High Gothic structure overlooking the Somme River. There are extensive hortillonnages (gardens) where people were resting and playing as we walked in the cool May evening. There’s a lovely row of restaurants in the Saint Leu district along the river featuring moules frites (mussels with fries), huitres (oysters), as well as “macrons d’Amiens (almond paste biscuits), tuiles amienoises”, (chocolate and orange biscuits), “pâté de canard d’Amiens” (duck pate in pastry), “la ficelle Picarde”, a baked crêpe with cheese; and flamiche aux poireaus, a puff pastry tart made with leeks and cream. Gone are the Belgian beers, it seems, so readily available elsewhere in the region, so you are mostly getting lighter blond brews.
The first settlement here was called Samarobriva , built by a Gaullic tribe called the Ambiani. The Romans renamed the town Ambianum, which morphed into Amiens. Those marauding Normans wreaked havoc in 859, returning for more in 882. In 1597 during the war with Spain, Spanish soldiers occupied the city for six months. In the 19th century the defensive walls were demolished to allow for larger streets in the center. Rail arrived in 1848.
The 1918 Battle of Amiens led to the Armistice with Germany that ended the war. The town was fought over during both wars, suffering significant damage, including bombardment by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. The downtown streets were widened. New buildings used brick, concrete and white stone with slate roofs.
The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens was built between 1220 and c. 1270 CE, rapid for this type of structure. It’s style is High Gothic. This is a fine example of the stle, with it soaring ceilings and thin walls. It also has some Rayonnant features, a movement that came about in the mid-13th to 14th centuries. This brought more spacial unity, refined decoration, more and larger windows.
While we were waiting for the tour of the choir an English speaking volunteer appeared, so we joined in. The choir was built by highly skilled wood workers from 1809-1819. It portrays stories from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
Jules Verne was born here, there is a museum in his name and the University carries it as well. The Musee de Picardie has a large collection of monumental paintings circa mid 1800’s, including a Lady Godiva. The large rooms with very tall ceilings make a good space for these. The archaeological section is in the basement. There are excellent examples of glass and pottery from the Roman era. In addition there
Samura Parc Nature is an open air museum exploring pre-historic times. We took the boat there, taking advantage of the mooring at the pedestrian entrance. Discoveries in this area include remnants of skin covered tepee-like structures, some with smoke exits, dating from paleolithic times. More sophisticated shelters appear, with thatched roofs with about 30 square meters ( about 400 square feet). Dwellings from the Gaulic era, 5000- 1st century when the Romans conquered Gaul, could be quite large and advanced. They show one example on the site.
The site provides demonstrations of flint starting with a huge piece so you could see what flint looks like before it is worked, and other tool making, including a forge with basic bellows. They demonstrated spear hunting, showing how using a sling greatly increases velocity. They made bread using nettles, honey and water as a starter. Honey feeds the yeast that naturally occur in the environment. There is a display of human skulls starting with Lucy, including a Neanderthal and a modern human so you can readily compare them.
The demonstrations are entirely in French, with explanatory plaques also in English . You can buy honey products, including drinks, at the store you find at the usual places, at the exit.
The boat moorings are very convenient to town. However they are close to the English Pub. On a Thursday night we were kept awake until the wee hours.
We departed our winter mooring of Valenciennes, near the Belgium border, heading south on the Schelde River, known as the Escarpe in France, then to the Canal du Nord. We are now on the seldom traveled Scarpe River, whose ancient locks are too small for modern barges and thus the lack of that sort of traffic. Even few pleasure boaters seek its pleasures, for in France canal boating is not terriblly popular among the French. It’s mostly us foreigners.
We spent the first night in Bassin Rond, near the town of Paillencourt. There’s room for three boats our size on a well maintained pontoon. We were welcomed by our winter neighbors, whom we’d just met in Valenciennes as they were readying their 15 meter barge for summer’s outing. They told us how pleasant a mooring this is so we followed them a day later.
We walked to town of Paillencourt the next morning, a Sunday. The bakery was open, with fresh bread, pain au chocolate, tartalettes and more wonderful treats awaiting. They even had a corn flour baguette-shaped bread. It’s just past the town’s WWI-WWII memorial. There the deaths were numerous during WWI. Several civilians murdered by the Nazis are listed. Down the road there is a plaque to a pilot who died when his plane crashed in May, 1944.
The locals, or at least some of them, were happy to say hello. One in particular wanted to try out his very limited English and even offered to buy us another coffee as we sat outside in the sun. He’s the one who told us about the plaque down the street. His wife joked with us about her husband’s gift of the gab and that he appeared to know everyone. This is not a surprise, I suppose, given that we are in a small pond after all. There are just some 1000 residents.
He tried to remember our names. Mine was the most difficult for some reason. After three efforts I gave him a hint. That did not work. Then I said, “Macron.” “Nooooo” he said. This is the second time I’ve had this reaction, the first in Valenciennes when I joked with the cashier, saying “Macron” as I signed the credit card receipt. I have read that there is a lot of support in northern France for Le Nazi. My take is that people in some areas are more worried about economic issues than being associated with a person with a racist past. They do not want to support any more immigrants- they have many indeed.
After two nights in the Bassin we continued on the Canal de la Sensee, passing large barges being loaded with grain. After a bit we radioed the next lock. He had told us to enter. He returned a bit later to explain that two barges were coming in behind us. Normally the large craft enter first while the smaller ones wait for the barges to completely stop. The two came in behind us very slowly, and given the size of the lock, there was no problem, even given that the one to our side just had the captain aboard. Behind us a woman with purple hair handled the huge lines, gave a big smile and waved hello. That made me feel warmed all over.
The friendly lock keeper gave us the remote control for the locks on the Scarpe River. He said there were additional instructions at the first lock. After we entered the Scarpe River, we came upon the lock and no instructions in sight, or we missed them. The lock did not operate. The phone number he gave us led only to a recording. After 30 minutes we were still waiting for a reply so I wrote to our winter neighbor. He gave us a number that worked. Soon we had a proper explanation. We thought we were supposed to touch “Avalant” not “Montant.” Montant means going upstream, that is going towards the source of the river, and that is what we are in fact doing. Our error. After it would not open I did try Montant but apparently once you make this mistake they have toreset the system. Finally we entered the lock to find the two rods that fill the lock and open the gates. I pulled down. Nothing. Another VNF truck had come by so I looked at the driver. He said you push up. We had not been told that. I supposed I would have tried that eventually.
We went through another lock without incident, but the third would not open at first. After about 30 minutes I tried again. The gates opened, it filled slowly and gently. We stopped for the night in Blache-Saint-Vaast.