Chapter Sixty-Three   September 2011  

368 Locks. 1942 canal kilometers. Two broken stanchions. One dented toe rail. Not bad.

We love the French countryside. Farms. Barns. Green. Lush. Serene.

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With serenity firmly planted in our bones we entered the battlefields of Verdun.

Verdun, of course, is famous for its history.  Not just the Treaty of Verdun, which divided the Holy Roman Empire in 843, but also for the horrific battle fought here in WW I.  As the Memorial states:  “300 Days.  300,000 dead.  500,000 wounded.”  The battlefields and monuments are a somber reminder of the horrors of war.  But the town itself is surprisingly pretty and upbeat.

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A big surprise in Verdun was the availability of a free car for tourists.  The city was running a test, and the cars (tiny and all-electric) were offered so tourists could visit the sights outside the town proper.  What a hoot the car was!  It did its job and allowed us to see much more than we could have on bicycles.  And when it ran out of juice, the Tourist Office came promptly to our rescue.

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After the somewhat reflective mood of Verdun we decided to take a little jaunt up the river into the Ardennes in the northeast corner of France.  We were cruising up (down, actually) the River Meuse.  We got to within an hour of the Belgian border before turning around. It felt so different from what we’ve been seeing for the last two months. It is all winding-valley-wooded-hilltop-sleepy-hamlet-charm.  The river winds its way through deer farms, dramatic valleys and villages that feel as though you’ve taken a step back in time. A nice red deux cheveaux sat on the front lawn of a slate-roofed, timber-framed cottage while across the street a farm tractor pulling a wagon loaded with 36 bails of hay stopped traffic: a single car.  Of course there’s the Gothic church in every bend of the river, and we never tire of them.

Watching the morning mist rise from the glinting river is wildly entertaining and beautiful. Each bend of the river, each cluster of shiny rooftops, every chateau even if crumbling, thrills us.  Photos, please!

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We stopped for several days at Charleville-Mézières.  It is a town oozing with color, stonework, architecture and activity. We were very busy here fitting in the fresh market, the Sunday brocante (flea market) and an organ recital of Bach and Brahms at l’eglise de Notre Dame all in one day. Here in Charleville is the famous Place Ducale, an architectural jewel of the 17th century, which rivals the Place de Vosges in Paris.  It is enclosed by twenty-four detached grand houses covered with slate in the Renaissance style, bordered by arcades, cafes and what else?  A carousel, of course!  It is a splendid spot for evening strolls and people watching.

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The town also has a long history with marionettes.  There is a small museum dedicated to the art, with a little marionette stage for regular performances. You can hear the giggles of children from the next square.

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We had a long winding route to get to our next stop, Reims.  So we started out early, even set the alarm clock!  But when we turned on the engine there was just a big whirrrrrrrrrr.  John immediately diagnosed it.  A stuck starter. “That’s a simple fix,” he said.  “Just needs a tap with a hammer.”  OK.  Ten taps didn’t work so we quickly arranged to move Seraphim out of the way so our neighbors could get underway.  “On second thought,” John said, “please give me the BIG hammer.”  BANG!  Engine starts, and we’re on our way. John’s new motto: “When all else fails, use a larger hammer.”

And off we went, arriving in Reims several days later. But not without our next challenge. The galley faucet erupted, spewing water everywhere.  Our first day of touring was postponed so that we could hop the tram and find a new faucet. It was found and installed the very same day and we spent the next day in Notre Dame Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. 2,300 statues decorate the building along with 788 life-size animals. And a Marc Chagall window.

The pièce de résistance was the spectacular light show celebrating the cathedral’s 800th birthday.  It was phenomenal!  Sometimes the lights made the cathedral look like a finely woven tapestry or a blue-hued Monet watercolor or a multi-colored Disney fairytale.  It was fabulous!

Reims is stunning.  The architecture is exceptional.  It has earned a spot on our “Most Favorite” list.  And getting there through the flat cereal plains just added to the experience of wonderful Reims.

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Then it was time to move on.  Paris was beckoning.  But the transmission had other ideas!  It took a few days to diagnose the transmission problem, locate a reputable company, analyze parts to order and do it all in French!  But we persevered and within a week we had the company and the parts challenge licked.  Our French was pushed, especially on technical matters and specifications.  But the technicians were very patient and we think we have the right parts ordered!  Actually we were fortunate to have this happen in Reims.  Not only was help available, but we were “stuck” in a beautiful city with lots to do and see as we waited.  And waited. 

We had to have the boat hauled out of the water to make the repairs and the only lifting capability available to us was a 500-ton construction crane.  So we’re sitting on the hard, waiting for parts and anxious to get to Paris before the winter closes in. In between we’re scrubbing, polishing, waxing and doing a lot of hoping…and replacing those two broken stanchions.  We’ll let you know how it all works out.

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À bientôt!  

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