We came to Chalons-en-Champage after a couple of days in the small but important village of Eparnay, the capitol of the Champagne region. We have been planning to go north from there to Reims and then to the Sambre and into Belgium. Our previous plan was from here to head east to Strasbourg before ending the season in Toul. With the drought, however, we had to change to our current plan. Now we have to change again. The canal Marne-a-Aisne has been closed for two weeks because of a rupture in the water supply.
Chalons-en-Champagne is a lovely village. Near the inexpensive but very good marina, with a friendly and efficient harbor master, there is Chalons Plage, Chalon Beach. There are places to eat, summer fun for the kids, concerts and general lazing about as appropriate for a summer holiday. We can hear the concerts in the evening, topping well before midnight. This is not Spain, after all.
We are heading north through the only remaining route, back down the Marne to the Seine, then north on the Oise to connect to the Sambre. It’s an extra 300 kilometers, another 40 hours on the move.
The Marne empties into the Seine, joining its journey past Paris and into the sea. We are ‘amont,” and thus uphill through many locks as we head in the direction of its source some 500 km in an easterly direction. It wobbles and weaves past small towns, villages and mere settlements as it finds its way through the Champagne region. There you can see more vineyards than you have likely ever seen in your lifetime.
The first canal on the Marne was created in 1235, making it the oldest in France. Canalization started in 1837, arriving in Eparnay some 30 years later. There were two ferocious battles along its banks in WWI. In the Battle of the Marne the German advance on Paris came to a halt.
We entered the Marne after another quiet night at the lock in Soissy sur Seine. You make a sharp right into a short channel and then immediately enter a small lock. We fit in with a barge. On the other side of the lock is a lovely shaded mooring. Then you enter a short, traffic light controlled tunnel before exiting onto the river itself.
We made our way to Bonneuil Sur Marne, which is just 13 kilometers from the center of Paris, so small and quiet that you would not guess you were so close. We are at the beginning of a large loop here, so you go many kilometers before you find yourself nearly back where you started from when you arrive at Joinville-le-Pont. This river is about as loopy as they come.
Loopy, yes, but all the more beautiful forests line our way, here in the middle of nowhere seemingly. We pass the occasional fisherman whose long lines sit out of the main channel, or if not, we see them vigorously reeling in. There’s a small craft from time to time. There were very few our size all the way to Épernay.
After a night in Lagny we moved to Meaux. There are nice docks in town with water and electricity. We can go about 5 days without electricity, depending on the sun and how many hours we run the engine. In France so far there have been copious sources for electricity as well as water.
Meaux comes from “Meldi,” the Gaulish tribe of the area. There is still a section of the medieval defensive wall. A small museum is housed in the Episcopal Palace. The Cathedral, began in 1175, is well worth a visit. The original structure was Norman in style. Due to defects in the structure it was mostly removed. A Gothic structure was built in its place.
At the docks was a lovely 16 meter barge. Two Americans from Louisiana were aboard. They own a 25% share of the boat so are here for 3 months, which is about to expire. A Dutch couple was moored on our starboard side. She came by to tell us that someone stole her husband’s handicap modified bike the night before. After a while another nice boat came in, this one occupied by a Aussie couple. We went to help them in as it looked like they needed assistance. As it turned out they did not, they were just avoiding a log that was floating next to the dock.
Meaux, with about 50,000 residents, is the home of the famous Brie de Meaux. We first tried a Brie de Meaux in 2001, when we were aboard our other Dutch boat, Caprice. We’d gone to a restaurant. The owner was serving us and provided it as one of the cheese course offerings. Not all of these are of equal flavor and overall quality, he said, even if coming from the same producer. Some are far stronger in aroma and flavor than others. He was right on the mark.
The French make a big deal of cheese. They even have a have a cheese course., it’s that important to them. That course comes toward the end of the meal that starts with Champagne, perhaps with the amuse-bouche, small mouthfuls of this and that, so delightful apparently that a dash between the two words is required. Then comes the entree. Then the main course. Then the cheese. Then the dessert. Then coffee. Then the cognac.
Mon dieu! How does anyone survive these meals?
We took our bikes up a long steep hill or two to the Meaux Air Show. Biplanes, single wing and a rocket powered jet performed tricks for the crowd sitting and standing in the increasingly hot sun. Some planes performed in duo. There was plenty of smoke in the sky as they looped and spun. The rocket zoomed from near ground level to where it became a tiny point in the sky.
The Hotel Dieu (hospital) in Chateau Thierry offered a guided tour in French. The hospital began as a nunnery endowed by a wealthy couple. Women wishing to enter had to post a dowry. They took vows of poverty, unlike the nunnery itself which was quite well off, and lived in silence in the humble chambers we visited. After the Revolution the structure was turned in a hospital, the purpose it served until the 1980’s. When it was set to close the last nun took a local to the room where the treasury was stored. A vast collection of jewels, paintings, objet d’art and more became the basis of the current collections. We also visited the impressive Bishop’s Palace, which houses a small museum.
The Aussie couple is friendly and sociable, so we all got together on the aft deck. Mixed drinks came out, as well as wine, cheese and baguette. The last of these my grand daughter kept from going bad by quickly downing what I could not get to first. Stories were told, some of mine might have been true even, once you shaved off the exaggerations and savings of face and other motivations only historians, those ferretters of truth, know about. Our new Aussie friends, we learned, got stuck over here during Covid and don’t seem quite ready to leave just yet.
On our way to the Cathedral we ran across a 5 piece band playing as they walked through the streets. We followed them to the Cathedral where they were joined by 5 other bands who then played together. It was quite festive and any deficit in musical skill was more than made up for with enthusiasm.
The construction of Cathédrale Saint-Etienne de Meaux began in 1175. It was Romanesque. Due to defects in the structure it was largely removed in the next century, then rebuilt in the Gothic style, magnificently rising to 33 meters in slender height above the choir.
The next town we came to of interest to us was Chateau Thierry. During the 8th century, King Theideriv IV was a prisoner in the castle of Otmus, as Chateau Thierry was known at the time. Thierry is a derivation of this King’s name. Before Chateau Thierry we stayed just before Lock 3, moored to Duck Poop Quay. Granddaughter made her way through the forest of duck gifts to explore the small wooded island. There’s always a weir- barrage in French- at the locks. It’s where the river descends, where there once were rapids.
It’s a weekend. Atop the cliff a few hundred steep steps at the main town’s edge a medieval fair is on-going. Birds of prey land on gloved arms, recorders play gentle songs, sausage sits on grills, and vendors sell costume jewelry imported direct from 1399 or thereabouts, I am sure.
In the evening, when it cooled off a bit, we ate at a place called Billings or something like that, one of those strange uses of English foreigners sometimes employ to stand out, or be chic, or something. This is rather like the American restaurant term ‘Entree.’ In French it means first course, after which comes the main. It’s an appetizer, for Christ’s sake, not the main course. I figure it was someone being chic or something. Despite the odd use of English, the food was good and a far cry from Paris prices that start at 20 euros.
We visited Champagne Pannier https://www.champagnepannier.com/, atop the village but reachable by bike if you have a decent bike and good legs. It’s a typical tour. You walk through the cellars as they explain the Champagne process. It’s a complex process invented by the monk, Dom Perignon. Three grape varieties are used throughout the region: Chardonnay, Pinio Noir and Pinot Meunier. The percentages are usually equal. A varietal is normally made from 100% Chardonnay. After the wine is bottled sugar is added to increase the alcohol and carbonation. As the wine ages the bottles are turned and gradually made upside down, nowadays by machine in many Houses. After the wine has aged long enough in that position, the neck is frozen and the precipitates removed. Then the wine is corked and aged longer. These last steps have also been automated. Cava is the Spanish version and made using the same basic method. Prosecco is the Italian, however the champagne is not bottled until the very end, a much less complicated process.
In the next entry we visit Eparnay, the capitol of the Champagne region.