Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perfect peace in Picardy

I don't know if I can really express how much I love the north eastern parts of France where we've just spent a few days, especially Picardy, which speaks to me in so many ways. 

Koos and I last went on a car trip to the area in 2011 and I wrote about it here. For this mini-break, we decided on two nights at a Chambre d'Hôtes so as to spend some time revisiting places we remembered. We also wanted to do some investigating on our beloved Canal de la Sambre where we went by boat last year as far as Landrecies (which I wrote about here). Our hope is to travel its length on the Hennie Ha when a) the collapsed aqueduct at Vadencourt has been repaired and b) the Hennie Ha's engine is replaced.

Picardy is an incredibly rich agricultural bread basket. It has sweeping hills swathed in wheat and grass, contrasted with broad acres of green green kale. There are wooded copses on the crests of the rises, and valleys where lazy cattle feed on the left over hay after the harvesters have done their work. There are gorgeous villages, fortified churches, magnificent farm yards and above all, that meandering canal that itself is criss-crossed by an even more meandering river Oise. For me, it has everything I love, and love it I do.

The photos below are of the places we visited on the way down on Tuesday.

That meandering Canal de la Sambre et Oise at Oisy

A lock keeper's house at Oisy 
Etreux on the Canal de la Sambre et Oise

The canal at Etreux


Sweeping grain fields

A water tower with a nod to art: Mathisse remembered

The Oise and a water mill outside Guise

Farm buildings in Flavigny 
A bridge over the canal de la Sambre at Longchamps, where
we ate a picnic supper

The village where we stayed was called Proisy about 10kms from Guise,  a town steeped in history, which is connected to British history too as Mary of Guise was the mother of Mary Queen of Scots. However, Proisy is about as rural as it gets and our hosts, Sylvie and Bruno, were so relaxed and unfazed about security they were quite happy to leave the doors unlocked all night. Formerly a village with a factory at its heart, Proisy is now a sleepy one street hamlet with a church, and a traditional lavoir (natural spring where the locals did their washing) but with no shops at all, not even a bakery. The house we stayed in used to be a local hostelry (an estaminet) and there was once both a bakery and a small grocer’s too. However, as with so many French villages, these have closed and the locals have to travel to Guise to do their shopping. It made me wonder how the old folk manage as there didn't appear to be much in the way of public transport either.

The villagers were very friendly and approachable and on our walk one evening, we chatted to a man who has bought a row of old cottages and is converting them to apartments. We also met the 'lady of the manor' from the chateau, a neat elderly madame who was out walking a small, but active bulldog. Apparently, she walks dogs for others in the community and we later saw her with a Labrador.

She wasn't at all grande for a grande dame and was very willing to stop and chat. I wasn't all too sure about what she was chatting as her charge for the evening was very noisy and busy.  It took her quite some effort to keep him under control, so her speech was frequently punctuated with 'viens’ and 'tiens’ and 'non', and it was hard to follow the thread. It didn't seem to matter, though. When she had finished explaining whatever it was she was telling us, she wished us a good evening and dragged her busy bossy bulldog away. A nod and a smile work in every language.

There are several houses for sale in the village, which of course got our dreaming juices going. Realistically, though, we'd be better off staying with Bruno and Sylvie or hiring the gite (holiday cottage) they are busy renovating than contemplating a purchase or long term rental in such a distant place – quite apart from the fact we’d have to sell the crumbly cottage to do so.

Guise, where we too had to go for food and shopping, is quite a complicated town to navigate. We got lost several times, which meant we saw a lot of it unintentionally – but fortuitously. It's well worth a visit. There are the remains of the old castle at the top of the hill, which we saw several times – inadvertently. Then there is a charming old centre complete with cobbled streets and winding alleys that all seem to be dead ends when you're trying to get through them. The river Oise runs around the town and there are a couple of other tributaries that tunnel their way through to meet it, so we kept coming across bridges over these streams – always a welcome surprise.

Other places we visited were Tupigny, Vadencourt and Macquigny, all situated on the Canal de la Sambre et Oise (it is also called the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise). Sadly, we found the repairs to the aqueduct have made little progress, so even if the Hennie Ha is ready to roll next year, I doubt if we'll get further than Tupigny, which is the last village and lock  before the collapsed structure. The French waterways authorities will need to get very busy if they're to keep their promise of having it open in 2020.

Apart from that, we just revelled in the glorious scenery and the beauty of the rural villages where there were no tourists and the silence of the hot afternoon sang in the air. It had an almost surreal emptiness broken only by the occasional car roaring past. The heat was intense, in the upper thirties centigrade; on Thursday, it reached 40C. But by then we were heading home – where it was also 40C but with the added joy (not) of high humidity. 

Here are a few more photos I took during the three days we were there:

Fortified church in Monceau sur Oise

Golden straw medals in the fields. We watched the famers harvesting the wheat
and then baling the straw to make these beautiful bales

The lock at Tupigny 
Swallows on the telephone lines. It was a joy to watch them swooping
and soaring over the farm yards

Cows left to graze the remaining hay.

A WWI war memorial with fortified church in the background

The only lived in lockhouse we saw, and boy wasn't it pretty?

Zoomed in photo of this wonderful fortified church
There's so much more I could write about, but I don't want to overdo it this time. Perhaps I'll focus on some individual aspects next time. I'll see.

For now, have a good weekend allemaal and keep cool if you are in the north, or warm for those in the south.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Some grand days out

I've been a bit tardy again with my post this week. It's not for lack of interest, but more for lack of time. We've been unusually social of late, which seems to be a very time consuming activity. Koos and I tend to be a bit reclusive when left to our own devices, but life has had other ideas and I have to say, it's been great.

Last weekend, we had a Wallace and Grommit (who remembers them?) Grand Day Out. It was my eldest daughter's birthday, so after being presented with some options, she chose a waterbus trip to Dordrecht with lunch thrown in – much to my and the assembled company's approval, of course. We all love the waterbus. The upside of this mode of transport was that given the inclemency of the weather (grey, heavy clouds, chilly wind), we were able to stand under cover, but still watch the scenery fly by as if we were outside. We'd originally intended to go away on the Vereeniging for the weekend, but with Koos' ear and balance issues, we had to abandon that idea. In hindsight, this was 'a good thing' as we wouldn't have enjoyed being out in the rain and wind – well, I wouldn't, anyway.

The river to Dordrecht is wide and the banks are given over to commercial moorings, docks and loading quays. I absolutely love the trip. The waterbus is run by Rotterdam's public transport company RET, and the tickets are no more than you'd pay for a return train ride to the city (around €9). It takes an hour, though, as opposed to the train's 25 minutes, but it's also twice as much fun. What's even better is that dogs are allowed too and can go for free, much to the grand-pup's delight.

The photos below show some of the scenes we saw along the way.

Happy grand-pup

A dry dock for commercials

Quayside cranes in all their glory

Inspecting the record

The jet stream. The waterbus goes pretty fast.

Our landmark water tower on the edge of Rotterdam

The slow version (Thalys is also the name of the high speed TGV to Paris)

Noah's Ark, left with the Dutch for safe keeping. Think about
that a moment.

Dordrecht itself is very pretty and it's one of my favourite Dutch towns. I love its cobbled streets, inner harbours and ancient Dutch buildings. I wouldn't call it an undiscovered treasure, but it's quite often an overlooked one.

A classic beauty

For pedestrians...and stunt bikers

The Wolwevershaven for historic barges

Anyway, having recovered from all this activity, we spent Monday on the Vereeniging assessing how Koos would mount the new-second-hand-alternator we'd bought the previous Saturday. The Vereeniging’s engine  has no means of charging its own batteries, so we'd thought we could use the old alternator from the Hennie H. However, when we took it to the auto electrician's in Rotterdam for testing, it proved to be too weak, so we swapped it for one better suited to the Vereeniging's engine – says she, airily. Needless to say, it didn't come free. That done, the plan to install it is in progress and looking good and Koos will probably fit it this coming weekend.

Then we drove down to Zeeland to catch up with boating buddies Gary and Jill. Until Tuesday, they'd only been Internet friends, but now they are friends for real; we've so enjoyed meeting them. They have a beautiful former sailing barge that has been converted to a motor barge. It used to provide the gas that fills the big buoys in the more open waters, so it's wide and deep to accommodate huge gas bottles, meaning it also makes a spacious and gorgeous home.

We caught up with them in Sas van Gent, which is very handy for the crumbly cottage, and we've spent some lovely time with them drinking coffee, walking the dogs and introducing them to the Hennie H. One of the best aspects of our social media interaction is actually meeting people we've 'known' for years. Since Jill and Gary are making their way to Nieuwpoort in Belgium before crossing over to the UK, we're making the most of seeing them as it's unlikely we'll bump into them again any time soon.

I've been Chula'd! Chula is a lovely Basset hound,
but not the smallest of lap dogs

The beautiful lines of the Noorderzon

Walking through Sas

Parting gift. Thank you so much for these lovely mugs, Gary and Jill!

Tomorrow, we're back off to Amsterdam to join up with another Facebook friend and author, Stephanie Parker McKean and her husband, Alan. By the time we return to normal, we'll be ready to crawl into our shells again...haha.

Enjoy the rest of your week allemaal!

Monday, July 08, 2019

Picture Post

Normally, I write far too much for the ideal blog post. It's a habit I find hard to control, but today, I'm just going to post a few photos that I've taken in the past week. It's been a quiet few days; work is finally over; Koos is recovering his equilibrium (literally – he's had a balance problem); and I'm getting used to a new rhythm for a while. We're not going faring, not yet anyway (long story to do with Koos' equilibrium), so I'm focusing on planting, painting and penning (okay, writing).

Oh and some walking too. In fact, we've had some lovely walks, punctuated by some sinful treats, so here are a few moments that I've captured.

Totally gratuitous luxury - Belgian verwenkoffie (spoil yourself coffee)

You're not kidding! (seen along the canal today)

A lovely rural road to nowhere

And back the other way again

I'm so enjoying my little patio

Zeeland beauty

More Zeeland beauty

Anyone want a water tower?

Bruinesse harbour - a lovely place to idle away some time

Anyone know what these wild flowers are?

So that's it for this week allemaal!
Enjoy the holidays wherever you are, and I'll be back soon.

Monday, July 01, 2019

And now what?

I've just realised with some shock, relief and then concern that at the end of this week, I will have finished work for the summer. Well, when I say work, I mean teaching and examining.

It's been pretty hectic recently with the mad dash to get everything done, but now it's almost over, my brain is threatening to go into spasm. At best, it starts thinking 'What now? Nothing, I hope.'

Of course, it has no reason to do that at all. I have heaps to do personally and Koos and I have another heap to do together. The list includes formatting a book, writing two articles and getting on with my current work in progress. Then there's maintenance on both boats and a garden to rescue as well as door and window frames on the crumbly cottage to renovate and paint. Quite apart from all that, the online courses I give have to be revised and updated.

I think that's enough to keep anyone going, isn't it? But no, I've gone and bought myself a Dutch course that I really must get down to, and a couple of short courses on editing, so I want to do those as well.

To go back to that 'What now?' Well, yes. But...

Nevertheless, my brain has a point. It's telling me it needs a rest, as is the rest of my person. At least I think it is. If not, it's a good story and I'm sticking to it. The point is I've been incredibly tired this week and I can only think it's my system prodding me into shutting down for a bit. So I'm going to take its advice, I am, and have a bit of time off: time to stop and stare, talk to the sheep, water my plants and go for walks. Koos agrees, but I suspect it's because he gets nervous when I'm too busy. I might find him stuff to do...haha (joking, Koos!).

Hopefully next week we'll be doing a short trip on the Vereeniging, but I won't jinx that by being too certain about it. We've got a lot of checking to do before we take to the water, but I'll keep you posted on that one. It will also be a gentle journey without too much hurry...time to stop and fare.

(...UPDATE...The Vereeniging trip has to be postponed. Koos has a health issue that means we can't go faring at the moment. Nothing life threatening, but it's affecting his balance. Not a good idea to combine that with a moving barge. Hopefully, it will be better in a few weeks)

Meanwhile, let's hope the sun keeps shining. Here's a few pictures of Koos' birthday outing with my daughter yesterday. A good time was had by all.