We took a fast train from Paris to Nevers, and yes, those European trains are really FAST! From there we went by taxi to Mareilles-les-Aubigny, the tiny canal town from which we four Americans would board our ‘drive yourself’ barge (houseboat) for a week on the Canal Lateral a la Loire. Gisela and Wolfgang, along with their grown son, Joerg, would be joining us on the boat.
The 42-foot-long boat had two tiny bedrooms, a galley, a tiny bath with shower, and the living room, which converted into a third bedroom. Wolfie and Gisela, who drove from Berlin, supplied taped music and a player, Wellingtons (rubber knee-high boots), books on canaling, a toolbox, a German sausage for breakfast, and a radio.
Wolfie, who knows French from his experience as a German POW in France at age 17, received the instructions from the Loire Line worker while others of the party put in a supply of Alsatian beer and some French wine. Because of his World War II experience Wolfie had been reluctant to visit France, but our suggestion of a week on a boat with him actually allowed to ‘work’ it was more than he could resist.
The Canal, which parallels the Loire River, was opened in 1837 and commercial barges still use it to transport coal, iron ore, building sand, fuel oil, wine and grain, although we only encountered three or four working barges during our week on the canal.
We pushed off on a Thursday afternoon at 4:00. The first lock loomed ominously ahead with Wolfie steering the boat none too smoothly. The canal was about 40 feet wide, but the locks were only a little wider than our 12-foot-wide boat. We had to stop the boat by throwing the lever into reverse, wait for the lock keeper to fill the lock and open the gates to let the boat in. Then the water was let out by raising the paddles with a crank, the gates opened and the boat glided out.
After photographing the lock-keeper’s children, giving him a five-franc tip, and picking up our crew we were ready to go. Thereupon a discussion ensued as to the appropriate tip or lack thereof, to the lock-keeper. Our German friends had it on good authority that one was expected to tip with cigarettes and ever vigilant to protocol, had brought some especially for this purpose. However, one American had already given the ‘incorrect’ five-franc tip. This was resolved by giving five-franc tips AND two cigarettes thereafter.
Bounteous wildflowers grew on the sides of the canals. There was Chickweed, Buttercup, Virginia Waterleaf, and after emptying the first French wine bottle we picked a bouquet to put in it, which lasted all week.
After the second lock, we tied up for the night at Argenvieres. Since the restaurant was closed, we made our own dinner of French bread, cheese, apples, country-style pate and wine, which two of our crew procured from a small grocery store in town.
The next morning found Wolfie up at 7:00 AM, wearing his Wellingtons and checking the oil, water, coolant, and anything else he could check. He spent much time reading the Kapitans-Handbuch, printed in three languages, all of which he could read. The Americans checked the beer, wine, and cheese.
That day we came to La Charite, an ancient town on the Loire which was known in times past as charitable to travelers, pilgrims and the poor—hence the name of the town. The Ramparts, crumbling 12th century ruins of he original city walls turned back Joan of Arc in 1429.
The lunch at La Bonne Foi in La Charite was outstanding. I had: escargot (snails), Gigot de Agneau (roast lamb), Fromage (assorted cheeses), and Poire belle Helene (poached pears, ice cream and chocolate sauce) and, of course, the marvelous French bread and wine.
One morning we made French toast from the wilted bread. After visiting two other small towns, we moved on to Sancerre, famous for its white wine. I had tried a bottle last Thanksgiving which had been suggested by a book I read called, “The Incomparable Wines of France—Correspondence Course!”
Jeanne, who majored in French in college, was lamenting her lost skill to the bartender. He said he had the same experience with his World War II English, but he lifted her spirits by telling her in French that she spoke ‘sweetly.’ And the Proprietess of the Le Vacheron Wine Caves spoke so sweetly and slowly that Jeanne could understand every word. After buying some wine we looked for local cheese to buy. Sancerre cheese is made in little round furry ‘crottins,’ which apparently translates to ‘turds.’
Finally we were in Briare, the spectacular canal-bridge of St. Firmin-sur-Loire ahead of us. This was designed by Alenandre Eiffel and built in 1893. It connects the Canal Lateral with the Canal Briare by water.
Retracing our steps back to Marseilles-les-Aubigny was not the least bit boring. We stopped again at those wonderful restaurants where I had canard (duck) instead of the lamb. It was really fun being with our German friends on the boat, listening to music, visiting, cooking, eating, and drinking that good French wine and some beer, too. The weather was sunny almost all week, which made the countryside all the more beautiful!
What a wonderful week! We’ll be saying goodbye to the Germans, and renting a car to go to Mont St-Michel.