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France Report: Moules & Frites, Bag Disaster, and Burgandy Barging

France Report: Moules & Frites, Bag Disaster, and Burgandy Barging

Nov 9th, 2005, 08:14 PM
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reading every new installment and finding it very entertaining!
HappyCheesehead is offline  
Nov 9th, 2005, 09:11 PM
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Dabodin: of course we're reading; it's YOU who's having trouble keeping up with your writing!

I was so relieved to find a new chapter tonight and now you've left us hanging again!
klondike is offline  
Nov 9th, 2005, 11:20 PM
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Since everyone is still hanging in there with me, here goes with what may be the last segment?

One of the things you have to do before they let you loose on these expensive boats is take it out for a test run. Then you have to back it into the pier, kind of like parallel parking a
houseboat. J and I missd this part because we were still up in the town, begging the grocery store owner to have pity on us. The test run seemed to go all right, since the boat had not sunk when we returned. There was one restaurant open in the town, and we had a delightful meal there, probably the best one on the barge portion of the trip. Roast duck, fried potatoes, tender green beans, local red wine, and chocolate mousse for dessert. Yum. By the way, Chatel Censoir is a quaint little village and worth a visit.

The next morning is Sunday, and all of the barges are leaving at the same time. There's a traffic jam at the first lock, but we fall into the pattern that will define the next week: sleep in later than our fellow bargers, and be the last boat to leave. Actually, after the second day, we all spread out on the canal and only have rare sightings of each other, which is fine with us.

D and W have decided to be the co-captains. J and I will man the ropes (or is it woman the ropes?) and supply the captains with wine and cheese, when appropriate. Learning to steer the boxy boat proves to be quite difficult for there is a lag time between turning the wheel and the actual movement of the boat. So a lot of over-correcting is done for the first few days until they get the hang of it. The barge seems to weave down the canal as though steered by drunken sailors, which is not really the case! And then there was the problem with the reverse gear. It's not just a European car thing but also a boat thing. There are 2 steering positions, inside the cabin and up on top of the boat. It turns out that the gears in one position have to be a certain way before the gears in the other position will work correctly. D had to find this out the hard way when he entered a lock and could not get the boat to back up, thus ramming the lock gates and causing some consternation. There was also something wrong with the starter because quite often, the boat would simply not allow itself to be turned off. Even with the key taken out of the ignition, the engine would continue to idle. They finally learned how to jiggle and tweak the gears, knobs and buttons, but it continued to be a problem.

The only sunshine we were to see was on the first day. Our beautiful umbrella table on top of the boat had to sit forlorn and empty for much of the trip. And only one of the bikes was ever ridden, by J who had a close encounter with some goats, friendly ones however. Mostly it was just damp and cloudy, with gusty rain every once in a while. But the misty conditions really seemed to enhance the natural beauty of the scenery. Imagine yourself inside an Impressionist painting, say by Manet, and you get the picture. The trees were just beginning to turn color, but mostly it was a million shades of green, with constant sightings of blue herons, swans, ducks and horses. The Nivernais Canal runs parallel to the Yonne River, and every so often you'd find yourself on the river and then back on the canal. The only real difference was the river actually had rapids off to the side every once in a while, which was kind of scary.

Entering the locks becomes second nature after you've done a dozen or so. They appear about every 20-30 minutes. As the captain slows down and tries not to bump into the concrete sides, the 2 rope people jump off the boat and loop the ropes around pilons to keep the vessel firmly in place. Then, as the water rises or falls, you have to feed the rope out. When the water in the lock levels out and the gates open, out you go. As you can imagine, on rainy days, the ropes get wet and so do the rope people. In fact, since the water for the showers will only get hot when the engine has been running for a while, we couldn't take showers first thing in the morning, and certain people got pretty lazy about taking them at all. The shower situation was not helped by the fact that the towels never dried out in the 7 days we were out there. Damp and humid, all the time.

But it was such a blast, really! It's fun to have jobs to do instead of just sitting on the deck and having some employee bring you drinks when you snap your fingers. I guess a luxury barge cruise would be nice, but not our style, I'm afraid.

Our route took us from Chatel Censoir downstream to Migennes. One of the highlights included passing the Rochers du Saussois, sheer limestone cliffs that provide entertainment for rockclimbers. We spent a night at Vermenton, a small town which was supposed to have a SuperMarche, but was closed, of course, at 3:00 PM. We came back in the morning and finally got some of the groceries that we'd had to do without for days! We had beers at a pub there. Wine may be cheap in France, but beer is extremely expensive. This was hard on D, who is a beer drinker. He found a bier brun called Pelford, I think, that was quite tasty.

We were in the midst of the incredible wine surrounding Irancy, and we had a running joke to see how cheap we could go on a bottle and have it still be drinkable. 1.4 Euros was the lowest, and I swear it was pretty darn good. At Bailly, we were able to tie up the boat on a bank and walk up a hill to a wine coop housed in a gigantic former stone quarry. The tasting room was deep inside the quarry and quite an experience. We bought a few bottles including as gifts, some delicious Creme de Cassis, a specialty of the region.

It's 11:30 and I must to bed. I promise to finish up tomorrow.

dabodin is offline  
Nov 9th, 2005, 11:53 PM
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Oh dabodin, although I have never been on a barge, or even in France I am so enjoying your trip report. We had a 28 foot boat that we kept in the Delta (N Ca) How I can relate to some of your comments. Ah, handling the ropes, jumping off the boat, tying up the boat, oh yes, fun times, LOL.

And the lack of showers. We went on a 26 foot sailboat up the inland passage from Canada once with two 12 year olds, two teens and we three adults. No shower on on the sailboat. We all had one shower the entire week, LOL. Still can't believe it to this day, but fun times. I can hardly wait for some more of your trip report, especially at the point where it is just you and your husband. No rush, but please, do if possible post tomorrow! Merci.
LoveItaly is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 01:55 AM
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I am not what you would call a drinker but I do love the occassional creme de cassis. In fact tonight I have just made some cassis sorbet, using frozen blackcurrants and of course creme de cassis! Maybe you could try this if you like the flavour of blackcurrants!! Obviously after you have finished the report, would not want you to get sidetracked or anything!
schnauzer is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 06:17 AM
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Actually, Schnauzer, we didn't buy any creme de cassis for ourselves (stupid!), just as a gift for my mother. But the sorbet sounds wonderful!
dabodin is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 06:59 AM
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Enjoying the trip report - When you mentioned the Creme de Cassis I went and looked at the lables on my two bottles.
First bottle says: Creme de Cassis De Bourgogne(double creme Cartron)- Joseph Cartron - Nuits Saint Georges France.
The other: Super Creme De Cassis - Bardinet - Bordeaux,France.
I love to marinate fresh sliced strawberries for an hour or two in Creme de Cassis then serve with vanilla icecream or creme fraiche.

My friends love it when I play the French hostess and offer them a Kir Royal before dinner!
tod is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 07:10 AM
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I promised to tell you the story of THE ONLY RUDE FRENCH PERSON WE MET. On the second day of our cruise, when we still didn't really know what we were doing, we saw a lock coming up pretty far in the distance. It looked as though there was a large boat in the lock, facing towards us. Instead of continuing forward to get a better handle on the situation, we held our barge back and waited for the other boat to come out of the lock. But it didn't move for the longest time. At this point, W jumped off the boat onto the towpath and walked towards the lock to investigate. Finally, we saw the locktender closing the gates, and realized that the boat was actually going downstream, same as us. As we entered the lock, the locktender,a woman, was standing by the gate and taking pains not to acknowledge us. If looks could kill!!! As we tied up, W said that she was furious with us. She had made the other boat wait so that we could go into the lock after them and save herself the work of having to open and close the lock twice. At that point, we had always been the only boat in a lock and didn't even realize that there could be multiple boats in a lock. Later in the trip, there were sometimes 4 boats together. Anyway, this particular locktender had yelled at W and really told him off, at least we think so because it was all in French, of course. To punish us, she made us wait in the lock for about 15 minutes before doing her thing.

A word about locktenders on this canal (I don't know about elsewhere in France): each lock has a cute little house where the locktenders once lived. Now the the locktenders are mostly professionals who work for the government and wear distinctive navy outfits. They have a very effective monitoring system which allows them to know when a boat is going to appear at a partcular lock, and dispatch a man in little white trucks. Sometimes, the same guy would follow us from lock to lock. None of the locks were do-it-yourself. Towards the end of the trip, we noticed the people on a barge ahead of us handing a tip to the locktender, which the first we knew about tipping them. Maybe that's why they weren't particularly friendly to us? There were a few non-government locktenders. The most interesting was a large, unkempt man who was the spitting image of Wallace Beery in an old pirate movie, beer belly and all, complete with skinny-man sidekick and trusty dog. They never stopped their animated conversation while they opened and closed the gates for us.

The Cousins had regaled us with stories of their barging days, buying wine and vegetables from the little old lady locktenders, and picking charming restaurants for each evening's feast. We never saw anything for sale at the locks, except some primitive looking ceramics at one place. And we were lucky to find any open restaurants at all on this trip. Maybe because it was late in the season (the first week in October)? Inevitably, when we did find a restaurant, it was closed. We had to become expert foragers, entering a village like marauding Vikings, sniffing out any shop that was open and buying more food than we needed. You just never knew when you'd have to go days without any. I found a chacuterie in one town and waited outside it, early in the morning, so I could pounce on the unsuspecting owner when she opened up. I ended up buying eggs, cheese, salami, ham, cookies, and deep dish pizza. I must have spent $50. At one point, her husband come into the shop from the back, and they exchanged significant looks, as in "This American must be on a boat with a dozen people!" In one town, we went back to one boulangerie 3 times in one day because we kept thinking of other things we needed, and nothing else was open that day. It was an adventure and not for the faint-hearted.

Now, I know you're wondering how the situtation with J&W worked out, since they wanted to get off the barge a day early. We were making such good time on our cruise, that we decided to just arrive in Migennes a day early, they would grab the train to Paris and we would just relax and spend the last night onboard. We got along incredibly well with them- they were flexible, adaptable and had wonderful positive outlooks, which shamed me into trying to be the same way. Sharing hardships (no food, no dishsoap, no showers, damp towels) really made us bond even more.

Our last stop before the end was in Auxerre, and I can't begin to tell you what heaven this city is. For one thing, everything is open, all day long!
There are dozens of restaurants to choose from, streets to get lost on, incredible architecture to gaze at. After the deprivations we'd been forced to endure up to that point, we were like kids in a candy shop. Without a doubt, next to Paris, Auxerre is my favorite city in France, but then, context is everything....

Our stay in Migennes was uneventful; dropping off the barge was a breeze, thanks to a very nice, very amusing Brit who runs the Connosseur marina there. He let us check out the evening before we were due, and commiserated with us about the eccentricities of the French. I guess that's what makes them so fascinating, though: while they are blase about following rules, that also makes them more accomodating in other ways. the Gallic shrug says it all.

If you are planning to do a bare-boat barge trip yourself, I would strongly suggest going earlier in the season, depending on the area, of course. Early September would be perfect. Of course, when the weather is nicer there are going to be more boats competing for moorage space and backing up at the locks. But you are allowed to tie up anywhere along the shore because it's considered public land, so it's easy to get away from other boats, but sometimes the location may not be as convenient to the amenities. You also need to find out exactly what is provided and what is not provided. You do receive a detailed navigational guide, and lists of restaurants and shops, but the hours are not always accurate. Above all, you need to be resilient and have a sense of humor. I would highly recommend this as a unique way to see the gorgeous French countryside at a very slow pace. Even with all the little problems we faced, it was a fantastic experience.

We spent our last night in Paris, staying at the CDG Hilton. It was like returning from a camping trip and being plunked into a palace. We went back into the center of the city and spent the afternoon wandering around the Left Bank. We loved the Luxembourg Gardens. There was a fascinating photography exhibit lining an entire wall. We ended up back at Pot de Terre, duplicating the meal we'd had there with the Cousins, but not duplicating the fun and laughter we'd experienced there.

We never did make it up the Eiffel Tower: the lines were always too long. We didn't see half the things we wanted to see in Paris, but that's why you need to return, hopefully, many times.

Au revoir!!

dabodin is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 08:00 AM
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Thank you for finishing the report. It was very entertaining and fun to read. Will you try this again, or was once enough?
lemon2 is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 09:35 AM
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I've always had a wish to do a barge trip, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about yours. The brochures make it sound like an idyllic adventure, but I figured there was more to it than the glossy photos! I'd still like to try it!
grandmere is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 09:55 AM
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You are changing my long term vacation deployment master plan!!! I feel the need to go barging sooner than it had been scheduled
marigross is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 11:15 AM
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Lemon: Do you mean will I try the barge trip again or another trip report? Barge trip: yes, definitely. Trip report: it was such hard work, I'm not sure.

I'm glad my description of the barge trip has not totally dampened people's enthusiasm to try it. It was worth every penny and all the effort required.
dabodin is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 11:45 AM
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Damn! Hit "enter" too soon. I just had to ask if you really ate "Special K" for breakfast on the boat?

One of the best parts of "ditch crawling", in our opinion, is to have one early riser get up early, walk or bike into the nearest village, smell out (literally) the local bakery and load up with warm pastries for breakfast and crusty baggettes for lunch.


nukesafe is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 11:50 AM
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Now that is funny, the message I thought I had posted accidentally simply disappeared.

No matter. I merely suggested that our experience was that late May or early June and the first week of September will find many more shops and restaurants open -- and not much more boat traffic. You can search my name on the Forum to see the trip report I filed in early October about our trip on the Saone River.

nukesafe is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 11:51 AM
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Thanks for a very nice report, dab.

ira is offline  
Nov 10th, 2005, 05:29 PM
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Thanks, Ira.

Nukesate: Yes, I really did eat Special K. I was the self-designated early riser, and yes, I did buy croissants, pain de chocolate and baguettes, but if I eat them every morning, my plumbing goes on the fritz very rapidly. I need more fiber, if you know what I mean. Especially when I travel, for some reason.
dabodin is offline  
Nov 16th, 2005, 08:43 PM
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Hi dabodin,
I have been sitting here freezing and wanting to grab a jersey but I couldn't leave the computer until I had read the whole report! As a 'downunder' resident (NZ not AUST) this is my first real foray onto the Europe site, and that was only because of an email from fodors. If all reports are as quirky as yours I won't need to travel - I will just read the reports and feel I have been on the journey with you.
Thank you for such an enjoyable report.
And now I am going to get warm!
dotty is offline  
Nov 17th, 2005, 11:23 AM
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dabodin: your excellent report is one of the reasons I only write snippets - yours was soooo good. Thanks.
merrittm is offline  
Nov 19th, 2005, 05:17 PM
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Just signed up on Fodor's and dabodins report is the first that I read. Very enjoyable!!!
plbtravel is offline  
Nov 22nd, 2005, 01:19 PM
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Dab: please continue reporting on tour travels. You may enjoy the travel and WE will enjoy the trip reports. thnx
BillSmith_retired is offline  

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