06 August 2009

Last post

Are we there yet? For anyone who is confused, our route was France-Spain-France (see map), but since some of the blog posts were done after our return, they are in the order of my recall, not always chronological. So the last few days of the trip start in Daon, where we return Le Yann. Back in the little Modus and off to Angers to see sights we didn't have time for when we visited by boat: the Cathedral, an Abbey, the modern tapestry museum. Walking through the La Doutre district we fall about when we observe a sign saying "Le Boomerang" Australian Pub, attached to a half-timbered building at least 500 years old (see picture in the Picasa albums): so typical!

From Angers to Chartres, where we spend much of our last day in France in the Cathedral. As it is almost midsummer day we have the special experience of light coming through the north facing windows as well as those facing east, south and west. Between morning and afternoon visits we retire to the hotel to pack ready for an early exit, and so that we can relax and enjoy our last evening. After two strikes (attractive restaurants that prove to be fully booked) we find the perfect place for our last meal and enjoy the "Degustation" menu sitting at a table on the edge of the river, watching passing ducks between the five delicious courses. We walk back to the hotel the long way round to view much of "Chartes en lumieres": moving light shows in streets and on bridges in the old part of the city, as well as on the cathedral and other major buildings.

After almost seven weeks of perfect weather, it pours as we drive back to Paris, making negotiating the Peripherique even more challenging, but we navigate perfectly with the aid of the TomTom satnav. Car return goes smoothly, but the rain has cut power in CDG and we have to wait about an hour before they fire up the emergency power system and we can check in. Business class on Cathay Pacific is somehow not quite as enjoyable as Finnair, even though the seats turn into completely flat beds. It pours in Hong Kong as well, but it doesn't stop us from making a ferry trip out to one of the islands where things are much more third world than in the main part of Hong Kong. Another Cathay Pacific flight brings us home to Melbourne, after a wonderful trip.

Five weeks later we are settling back into winter in Melbourne. I'm fully recovered from a bout of flu and a chest infection, but the broken toe (and possibly another bone in the foot) sustained running down the side deck of the boat to push off in a lock isn't completely mended yet, although I've stopped limping. Catching up with friends and family has been high on the agenda - if we haven't got to you yet to bore you with more trip tales and happy snaps, don't worry, your time will come! If you want to avoid the slide show when we see you, the best of the photos are in our Picasa albums: Part 1: The gite Part 2: Mostly Spain Part 3: Afloat

Gaudeamus Gaudi

Barcelona was a major stop - neither of us had been there before and everyone tells you you have to go. I was looking forward to seeing the architecture of Gaudi and the other modernista movement architects, Peter was less enthused as he expected to find it too florid for his taste. As a result we spent our first days walking the Ramblas, exploring the port, going to Tibidabo, visiting the Maritime Museum, the Picasso Museum, the Cathedral, and it wasn't until late on our second day that we took the tourist bus to Sagrada Familia. None of the photos that one has seen of this famous building give you any idea of the scale - it was so much bigger than I expected, in all dimensions. Peter began to revise his views then, but was unexpectedly captivated by Casa Mila which we visited the next day. We were both impressed by the emphasis on useability in the architecture and design, and Peter was fascinated by Gaudi's use of inverted catenaries to solve structural engineering problems. We returned to Sagrada Familia to see the inside (we arrived after closing time the first visit) and were awed by the expanse of Gaudi's vision. We then terrified ourselves by taking the elevator ride to the top of those amazing spires. As with much of Spain, the scale of the construction work going on was as impressive as the partially-finished product, cranes towering even higher than the spires.

Serendipity struck again when we were handed a leaflet advertising a concert in the Palau Musica Catalunya. After a short break from modern architecture to visit the excavations of the Roman city in the Museu Historica, we experienced a wonderful classical guitar recital in this amazing art deco hall - the perfect event for our last night in Spain.

03 August 2009

Life afloat

Sunset sky of barred clouds reflected on a wind-ruffled river - on our first night we feel as though we have fallen into a Monet painting, especially as there are waterlilies everywhere. At other times we suspect we've slipped into "Wind in the Willows" - we see one real live water rat swimming the river and lots of molehills in the fields.

A typical day begins with sunlight pouring in through the yellow boat curtains. If we are moored close to a town we may walk up to the boulangerie for fresh croissants. We alternate between French style breakfasts and our standard boat brekkie of grapefruit and muesli. Shower and dress, wash up, sweep, make the bed and we are ready for a shore excursion, or to untie the two ropes (bow and stern) and head off. Shore excursions range from half to one hour walks around charming small villages like Avoise, Pruillé, Pincé, Morannes, bicycle rides to villages further afield, or longer periods exploring larger towns like Sablé-sur-Sarthe, Chateauneuf-sur-Sarthe and Malicorne-sur-Sarthe. When travelling we use the excellent river chart to determine how many locks we can pass through before they close for lunch or at the end of the day. Lunch is usually eaten ashore in town or village as we find the fixed price lunch menus very good value for money, but occasionally we cook and eat lunch while waiting for the next lock to open. In the longer period in the afternoon we continue to alternate travel and shore excursions until the locks close at 8pm. The boat is easy to drive, there is little traffic and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery: green fields with hay and cows, woods, occasional farmhouses and chateaux, old mills at each side of the weirs, small fishing boats all along the river edge. Depending on the balance between shore and travel time, we go through two to six locks in a day. Some time after passing through our last lock for the day we moor, usually alone at a small jetty, occasionally shared with one or two other boats. By then it may be about 9pm, and we generally eat aboard - delicious bread, cheese, paté and pastries bought from the local markets, boulangeries and charcuteries during our shore trips. We become rosé addicts as it suits the weather and is best value for money. The sun sets after 10pm and by the time it is too dark to read we are ready for bed.

We are travelling on what are described as "canalised" rivers. In centuries past weirs were constructed to provide power to mills (usually timber or flour). To solve the navigation problems this created, "flash" locks were built - a simple sluice gate that boats shot through going downstream, and were hauled through against the current going upstream. Early in the 19th century small canals were dug to bypass each weir, with a double-gated lock allowing boats to pass with comparative ease. Some of these locks are now fully automated, sluices and gates opened using hydraulic power, controlled by a console which looks like a gas barbecue (without the bottle). Others are operated by hand, so a transit takes much longer as the lockkeeper has to keep walking around the lock. Lockkeepers on the automatic locks are all women, on manual locks mostly men. A signal mounted near the lock indicates whether it is open and manned (yellow), closed (red), or open and unmanned (blue) which means you operate it yourself. We have this pleasure once, and also help out once when we have to wait for a big restaurant boat which takes up the whole lock, no room for us. This is the only time we queue for a lock and only once do we share with another boat. We quickly become confident at steering in and out of the narrow lock gates, grabbing the ropes to steady the boat as the lock fills or empties, chatting to the lockkeepers meanwhile in our primitive French and admiring their beautiful flower gardens.

Our voyage plan is to head down La Mayenne, then up La Sarthe, turning round when half way through our twelve days. Our goal is to make Malicorne-sur-Sarthe the turning point, which we manage comfortably. We have a posh evening restaurant meal there to celebrate. On the return journey we make diversions from the outward trip, down a backwater called Moulin d'Ivray, into Angers for the day, and up L'Oudun river to Le Lion d'Angers for a night. See map.

High spots of the voyage: watching a jugglers day out at Port-Albert, visiting Maison de la Riviere museum at Chateauneuf-sur-Sarthe (very good model of river and locks old and new), bicycling in to Asnières-sur-Vègre, a "petit cité de charactère", visiting the pottery museum at Malicorne, getting a request for a gift of china while conveniently in Malicorne, attending Vespers sung as a Gregorian chant in the magnificent Abbey de Solesmes, dodging a yacht race on the way into Angers, seeing the Apocalypse tapestry in Angers chateau, seeing a working mill at Chenillé-Changé.

Our luck with French weather continues throughout the trip. The first days are so hot we have to keep the curtains drawn to stop the boat overheating and I have a swim in the river. We have two rainy mornings, but most days are perfectly warm and sunny.