Croatia’s Serpentine Coastline: Part 1- Dubrovnik

Coming into the coastal town Dubrovnik city by car or bus you are treated to views of the vertical-cliff coastline with panoramic views of everything including the walled city you are about to enter. Over-touristed Dubrovnik, originally called Ragusa as in the Italian town of the same name, is best visited outside peak season. Once in and enough bodies out of your way, you are treated to a trip back in time in a town with fine movie set qualities; there was filming ongoing while we were there. Dubrovnik is a World Heritage site. It dates as far back as the 7th century.

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Dubrovnik

The town was under the control of the Byzantine empire in its earliest days, then the Venetians from across the Adriactic Sea. A severe earthquake in 1667 caused widespread damage. It was a free state between the 14th and 19th century, when it came under Napoleon’s thumb. After Napoleon Dubrovnik became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From 1918-1943 it was in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then came de facto rule by the Nazis. It was part of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. The city was shelled during the successful Croatian War of Independence in 1991. What we see today in Dubrovnik is largely the result of extensive restoration projects following that war.

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The main drag appears after descending the steep steps and ramp through the city’s main gate. It is lined with sparkling clean, cream colored buildings several stories high. While the ground level is dedicated to commerce, your initial view is undisturbed by signs or advertisements. Lured by the attractive window displays, you take a look inside to see ice cream, baked goods such as meat or cheese filo dough stuffed breads, as well as alluringly displayed sweets, cafes that feature fine Italian espresso that it seems only the Italians can do, and real cappuccino, absent the whipped cream and chocolate shavings, never included in Italy nor in Spain, for that matter. Elsewhere they usually muddy the waters with calorie rich toppings and other coffee flavor disguises. You see plenty of trinkets and a range of apparel from cheap to price. Restaurants, laden with somewhat odd versions of Italian cuisine and grilled meats (very much a Croatian thing) are mainly off to the side on alleys and side streets, some just barely enough to hold a table with room for pedestrians. I would dine out only by necessity rather than for the cuisine, although the festive atmosphere does add to the pleasure, if not being its greatest measure, not that the food is bad, it’s just unremarkable at best. I’d say the same about the wine except that it’s eccentricity makes it interesting at least. I did not fall in love with anything we tried but since they are not exported it would not matter much if I did.

dubrov coast

Step further in past the first few streets parallel to the main drag and soon you come to steps. Lots of them. Eventually they take you to the ramparts. On ocean’s side you stare down sheer walls, waves crashing below, especially on stormy days like the one we met when we decided to take the spin halfway around the town. We missed the side overlooking the harbor, where the moored boats sloshed about in the waves. It’s not a good harbor if you have to spend time aboard, it’s that turbulent.

Museums, as it turns out, are not a reason to visit this picturesque coast. In Dubrovnik we went into the mildly interesting nautical museum. You’d think with this kind of sea access and a long history would manage at least a bit more of interest. Likewise for the archaeological museum. Not that they are terrible museums, just unremarkable, not surprising given the size of the town just disappointing given the extensive history.

dubrov roofs

We stayed in a third floor apartment in the town center. With very tall ceilings, there are three very long and steep staircases. It was charmingly renovated if a bit cluttered. A leak from the bathtub kept us mopping a few times a day. The landlord igorned our message about the issue.

dubrov steep stairs

It’s a treasure of a town. Don’t miss it.

Liege to Maastricht

Liege is a large city in Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium, close to both Germany and Netherlands. We had family there although most of the people we knew are now gone. We loved its fruit filled waffles, not at all like so-called Belgian waffles, and its tart au riz (rice pie), and it’s fine cuisine more broadly. They make fabulous sauces that area world apart. making pork, beef, chicken and rabbit, as well as moules frites (mussels with fries) special delights.

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The municipal marina in Liege. Photo by Neal Pointer.

A brief rundown:

Dating from Roman times, Liege is mentioned first in 558 as Vicus Leudicus. During the middle ages the bishop of Liege (Luik in Dutch and German) wielded considerable influence. As elsewhere in Europe, guilds were powerful influences on government. The Nazis took the city in three days, but much to the credit of the residents of Liege, the local Jews were saved from mass murder. Well before then the region was wealthy from coal and steel production, which began to collapse in the 1980’s, leading to significant social unrest. Wallonia plunged into steep decline from which it is just now recovering. Liege’s government is still dominated by the left wing.

Today the city has an aircraft and space industry, IT and biotech as well as chocolate production. There is a significant weapons industry as well. We visited the Maison de la métallurgie et de l’industrie de Liège. It has the oldest forge in the region as well as exhibits recounting the long history of metallurgy in the city.

After an overnight in Liege we traveled north on the Meuse, spending a beautiful night on a lake about half way to Maastricht. Friends who joined us in Dinant made this an extra special evening. Along the way the river became the Maas, now a water wonderland of river, lakes and streams, a delight for water sport enthusiasts.

 Maastricht came next. It is the oldest city in the Netherlands. In Roman times it was a settlement called Trajectum ad Mosam Maastricht. The Euro was born here. There is a large international student population. It has a sizable historic downtown, narrow cobbled streets lined with brick buildings from its early times, of which 667 are registered historic structures. It is well worth a longer visit, either by boat from the conveniently located if rather plain harbor or in a longer term apartment.

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View from the Maas

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Medieval city wall
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St John’s
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The streets are alive at night with mostly local crowds.

The city has an extensive night life. The restaurants and bars are lively and attractively lit. The streets are pedestrian and bikes/scotters/etc only in the evenings, leaving ample room for roaming about. The atmosphere is friendly and you feel entirely safe. The crowd is on the young side due to the large number of university students.

Along the Sambre to Dinant, Namur and Liege

We are passing through forests and small towns on the Sambre as it winds its way north. We encounter some of the most difficult locks out of the thousands we have used, leaving us dead tired at the end of the day. We stop in Etreaux, Landrecies, the border town of Jeaumont, Thuin, Abbaye d’Aulne again, Floreffe, Yvoir, Dinant, Namur, and then Liege before crossing the border into the Netherlands.

There is a section of the Sambre which includes a series of 32 locks, some of which challenge our boating skills. We did 14 one day and 18 the next. The first 14 were not unusually difficult. The next 18 however were difficult to enter and difficult to manage once in. To get through the turbulent waters in front of the lock without banging into the narrow entrance you have to go in at a higher speed than normal- normally you should saunter. The swirling waters are created by the emptying of the lock. They push you from left to right unpredictably, effects which higher speed make less extreme.

Stopping a boat is always a bit of a challenge, which is why boaters normally approach docks and locks as slowly as possible. The only braking you have aside from the natural deceleration of the boat due to the resistance the water provides, which isn’t a great deal, is to put the transmission in reverse. So doing causes the bow of the boat to head to left or right and the stern just the opposite, depending on the prop’s rotation ( some boats it’s clockwise, others it’s counter-clockwise), the current and wind if any. This makes docking of any sort a challenge to one’s boating skills.

In the last 18 locks we had a fellow traveler. They came into the lock slowly and thus found themselves crosswise to the entrance. They somehow managed to inch their way in and secure themselves to the side. The first lock we did in this series we were behind them. We saw how they approached the problem and told them we would go first to allow more time for the turbulence to subside. It also meant that we would save a lot of time as we would be ready to go once they were secured, rather than us having to enter after they had struggled in. Still they slowed us down tremendously.

All these locks are operated by remote controls we were issued at the first lock in the series. Once secure you push a button on the remote control or lift a rod to activate the lock. After we activated the locks in the series of 18 the water came in violently, pushing the boat back and forwards and left to right or vice versa. Following 18 of these battles our arms were limp. Having to watch the other boat struggle in time after time added to our exhaustion.

The remote control in this series of is quite remarkable. In lieu of red and green lights at the locks, there are red and green lights on the device. As you approach the lock there is a message on the device’s screen telling you the name of the lock you were approaching and that the lock was being prepared for you. When it is ready for you the green light illuminates.

One lock was under repairs. The device so informed us, and further said that the lock would be operated manually, which indeed was the case. As we approached the last lock in the series, a VNF employee arrived to retrieve the device from us, notified by the device and its associated network of our arrival.

We spent two nights moored next to the locks we’d just passed through. The nights were extra tranquil, the sky full of diamonds, a fabulous ending to days replete with visual treasures.

We come to Etreaux, a tiny village of about 1500 people, yet is has a hault nautique, a mooring for passing craft. Many larger towns lack one. This small town was in the middle of various World War I battles.

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Controlling the boat in the lock at Etreaux
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Etreaux

Landrecies is a bit bigger than Etreaux. It’s been the location for medieval era battles between the French and the English, the Dutch, and Germans in WW1. The border town of Jeumont is unremarkable, perhaps offering an explanation for its current efforts to renovate the downtown. We walk around quite a bit looking for the outstanding restaurant we enjoyed in 2002 when we passed through with some newly found friends. We never found it. Jeumont houses several companies making heavy electrical equipment for wind turbines, nuclear reactors and naval propulsion, rather surprising given how tiny and out of the way this town is.

Now we pass into Belgium, coming first to Thuin and then to Abbaye d’ Aulne. I have already written on these two very interesting and lovely locations here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/abbaye-daulne/ Then we headed north to Dinant and Namur. I wrote about Namur and Dinant here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/namur-and-dinant/

North of Namur you come to Liege, the largest city in the French speaking Wallonie region of Belgium. I first wrote about Liege in 2001 https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/nederlands-to-france-by-boat-july-2001/ I will write about it again in the next post.

Back through Paris to the Sambre

The return trip through the Marne, made necessary by low water levels and damage to the Canal de l’Aisne to La Marne, was well worthwhile. Its sprawling vineyards, charming villages and forests make for a delightful journey. After a few days we made it to the Seine, mooring at the first lock, very close by and to the south. The next day, another bright and unfortunately rain-free one, took us through Paris again. It was just as magnificent as the first time. We spent the night on the Seine at a halte fluvial in Montigny-les-Corneilles, one of many such moorings affording no electricity or water. We had plenty of both already. The haulte is in front of two lovely restaurants, both of which we passed on. The heat declined as the sun dropped behind the trees on the opposite side of the river, taking us to a warm but lovely night with a star studded sky.

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Bridge at Chateau de Criel, watercolor on postcard stock

After the following day’s visit to Creil’s Chateau, we moved on to Jaux for lunch at the restaurant next to the decrepit moorings, then the delightful Compiegne where there were four others moored, including a Dutch couple we’d encountered previously, and another couple on a barge on the same path as us, heading north to the Sambre into Belgium’s Wallonie region, where French is the language and beer is the national beverage as it is in Flanders, the other part of Belgium.

From this point on we were largely in the countryside, aside from Soisson. Soisson is one of the oldest towns in France. It was a Celtic settlement and the seat of the diocese starting circa 300 CE. After Clovis died in 511, Soissons became the capitol of one of the four kingdoms into which his realm was divided. The Cathedral dates from the late 12th century. Joan of Arc liberated the town in 1429.

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Hotel d’ Ville, Soisson
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Soisson Cathedral

Bourg et Coming is another pretty mooring. The dock with the services was full, however the barge owner came out to say that she had cable if we wanted to plug in. We still had plenty of battery left, per the very useful Battery Volt Monitor I installed, so we did not take advantage of her offer. Her husband is in the hospital so she is there for two weeks.

Boating life can get complicated in these situations. She may not have the necessary license to pilot the boat, so to move she would have to find someone to help. Fortunately there is help if you stay connected to the boating community. There is a Facebook group, for example, called “Women on Barges” where you could seek such a person. We have friends who typically cruise with another couple where the wife had a brain tumor. She slipped into unconsciousness aboard their barge. Our friends moved the barge for them, driving back and forth and taking public transport to do so.

Chauny came next. It dates from the 9th century. Unfortunately it was heavily damaged during WWI. Nonetheless the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) is quite impressive.

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Hotel de Ville, Chauny

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The church in Beautor, our next stop

We came up a section of the Canal de la Sambre a l’Oise where you ascend the Aisne by means of 32 locks. The last 18 we covered in one day. Most were very turbulent, making entrance as well as while in the the lock very difficult as the water rushed in. By the end of the day in Oisy we were exhausted from trying to control the boat during the filling process, despite the lowered temperatures, which, when they were over 30c for days seemingly on end exhausted us in another way.

We proceeded along the lovely and sometimes overgrown Sambre, opening the locks using the remote control supplied by the VNF (Voie Navigable France). The device worked flawlessly and is easily the most intelligent of the remote controls we have used. It replaces traffic lights at the locks with its own red and green signals. A screen provides messages such as “We have registered you for this lock” and “You can now enter the lock. ” It notified the lock keeper at the last lock of the series, so he was there when we arrived, to collect the device. I was hoping the screen would at the end say, “Bon voyage, it’s been nice to get to know you,” but alas it simply went silent.

We proceeded to the border town of Jeumont, where once we delightfully dined in a small restaurant with a couple with whom we had become friendly on the waterways. This was in 2001. We were not able to locate the restaurant. It is probably long since gone.

He admitted to sexually abusing her daughter some years later, according to the wife. He’d already left her for the neighbor’s wife. The wife still lives in the same village with her ex. Last I heard he was still with the neighbor’s wife, whose ex-husband somehow blamed it all not on his wife but on our friend the wife, again according to her.

We say goodbye to France’s waterways. I doubt we will return.

Château de Creil

The Château de Creil, once a fortified castle,  dates from 1375. It is located in Creil, just north of Paris, on Creil’s Island, now called Saint-Maurice (Holly Maurice on the handout), with references dating to the 7th century CE. In the 10th century, the lords of Senlis are recorded as having a fortified residence on the site. In 1441 the English controlled the town when King Charles VII besieged the castle. After two weeks of bombardment he breached the walls, causing the the British to evacuate. Today only portions of the 14th century castle remain.

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One of the remaining sections

As of 1704 it was owned by the Bourbon-Conde family. Largely demolished in 1781, by 1789 it was owned by Mssr. Bagnall, who oversaw the ceramics factory. Today one of the remaining early structures houses an excellent faience collection. Faience is generally made of white clay and originally was tin glazed.

The Maire of Creil (City Hall) is also housed in one of the remaining portions of the Chateau:

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Bridge over the Oise at Chateau de Creil, next to the Marie. Watercolor, postcard size

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The Maire of Creil (City Hall)
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another remaining portion of the old castle

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Examples of faience

We were treated to a guided tour of the main building, lastly the residence of the Guillet, now called the Musée Gallé-Juillet. When their son Maurice died in WWI, the family gave the castle to the town of Creil. It displays the life style of this family around 1900. It is filled with period furniture and a complete kitchen. They had running water in the kitchen and bathroom, which had a giant tub. The kitchen was lined with shiny brass pots and pans. The large oven was wood fired. Heated water in the bathroom allowed for luxurious bathing.

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The dining table. Seating for just 4 people.

Trapped in Champagne!

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.