We have finished our big circle of northern france and are now heading north through the Ardenne and are just a few kilometres from the Belgian border.
Little by little we begin to gain an understanding of the finer nuances of canal life, mainly to do with correcting things that we thought we knew. Canallers are a tight little community, and one rife with rumours and in this regard I should correct a statement in an earlier post where I'd heard that we were in the twilight of the canals, the network being too expensive to maintain. We found our way to the canal authority website and to a published statement of intent going forward. This in essence states that the canals are regarded as a national treasure and will be upgraded, starting with the ones carrying commercial traffic. The Moselle upgrade has already been completed, so that's good.
Canal boaters can be divided into two categories - the owners and the renters. And the renters can be further subdivided. The first group will be older, generally a couple and have been renting canal boats for years and are very experienced so no problems there. The second group are younger, generally four to six on board and you want to keep your yardarm well clear of that lot. Fortunately the rental companies have large stocks of those silly white captain's hats with the black peak and lots of gold braid and which for some reason appeal to the novices so when you see one of the mad hatters coming at you it's move as close to the side of the canal as you can and hope for the best. Amongst the owners we have only met a handful of long time motorboaters. A good 90% are washed up yachties who have moved to putterboats for reasons of age, health etc. Owners are invariably couples and operate their boat with the man on the helm and the woman on deck handling the lines, same as we do. Every once in a while you will see this situation reversed, woman on the helm etc, and for sure when you talk to them they will turn out to be ex commercial barge owners now retired after having spent their entire working lives as owner operators of a 60, 70, 80 metre barges. This canal life gets into the blood. I wonder if retired truck drivers take up campervanning?
Prior to entering the Ardennes we spent quite some time around Verdun for the cycling. This was superb. The area is somewhat hilly but it's an unfortunate fact that if you want scenic countryside then you need hills, but the inclines were relatively gentle. France does not have cycle ways to the same extent that Holland does but it's back country roads are almost deserted and with a asphalt surface so great for the bicycle, even the little 20inch wheel folder uppers that we have. But we did have a little trouble with the maps. In NZ maps are pretty good but in France. ... we think that if the cartographer here thinks that it would be really handy to have a road joining this point to that, well he just draws one in. Consequently we did get lost a bit including deep in the forest where we had to resort to following dried up stream beds and what we thought to be old firebreaks to find our way out again. Joke thought it was great but she's more adventurous than me.
There are numerous small villages in the Verdun area and like our small villages each one has a memorial to the war dead in the village square. There are also innumerable small cemeteries for the war dead. This whole area was the scene of heavy fighting in WW.1 and it appears that wherever there was a skirmish, that's where the fallen were buried. This is a small German cemetery sandwiched between a couple of farms. Perhaps 300 crosses, two names to a cross. The allied cemetary is a kilometre away. It seems a pity that not even in death could they bring themselves to say that all men are brothers and inter them together.
Concerning the little villages, we finally understand what's going on. A typical village will have perhaps two dozen houses, most with adjoining large barns or else built on top of barns. There will be a village square, a grandiose church and an equally grandiose council building, a cafe/bar, and not a soul to be seen. These are farmers villages. The farmers live in the villages and not on their farms. Given the average dairy farm in France milks around 30 - 50 cows with an acreage to match it would seem to make sense to do it this way, giving the farmer the backup of a little community instead of isolation farmers experience on our huge farms in NZ. But hopelessly inefficient in terms of production of course.
And finally, got to say a word about berthage. This is a typical small berth outside a village, this one 12m long. It's an aluminium floating pontoon (the water levels in the canals do vary) and joined to the shore via the walkway. Ashore there are rubbish bins and water. Some have electricity. These piers are everywhere ranging in size from 1 to 10 boats. And they are free, stay as long as you want, and even in the high season there will always be room for you. Having read the grumbles on the forum about Westhaven and other marinas it just astounds me the way that boaters are treated here and the services that are provided for what is a minority activity.