Monday, August 11, 2008

Lyon, 8 August 2008

Lyon is France’s second largest city and is on both the Rhone and the Saone. At present, however, it has no dedicated yacht harbour. It has very attractive riverside moorings, right between the Presqu’Ile de Lyon and Vieux Lyon, just under the weeping willows. However, I have to report that these moorings have a stone shelf about 2m deep and extending a couple of metres from the bank. If you moor a sailing yacht drawing 1.7m to the bank, and a big motorboat goes past much too fast making lots of wash and bouncing you up and down a couple of feet, your sailing yacht crashes its keel very hard on to the stone step, which is a Bad Thing.

We arrived in Lyon about 3pm. We moored entirely on our own (there are lots of houseboat-style barges in Lyon but apparently no passing traffic) and Ben and I went off to explore, leaving Sam to assess whether crashing on to the step was really a problem or not. It wasn’t… until Ben and I came back. Perhaps we are just heavy enough to push the boat down on to the step. Anyway we left Lyon rather hastily about 6.30pm and fortunately managed to find a sheltered and deep mooring on an old lock about 10km north of the city centre. As Ben said, rarely have we been so pleased to tie up to a rusty old lock gate with no facilities. And it was a really beautiful evening to be sailing through Lyon, almost (as ever) alone on the river.

Vieux Lyon was also lovely, although my back was a bit stressed by climbing to the basilica and Roman theatres, and descending again to the cathedral

We left Valence on Thursday after lots of careful testing proved there was nothing wrong with the alternator (although the green not-charging light is still flashing, but we haven’t established why). We managed not to set off on Wednesday because Sam went to pay the engineers for the testing work at 12.05 – and they were closed for two hours for lunch. Of course. Still, we did have a very nice swim at the hotel pool.

Les Roches du Condrieu has a nice little marina just across the Rhone from Condrieu, where they make one of the world’s finest white wines. We thought perhaps we could pop into the supermarché and pick up a bottle. It is open every night until 9pm – except Jeudi 7 Aout, in the evening, when there was a fermeture exceptionelle. Fortunately we are re-reading Terry Darlington’s wonderful Narrow Dog to Carcassone, in which he observes that, for example, restaurants in France often close because it is a Tuesday, or a Sunday, or August, or February, or because it is dinnertime, or because the proprietor’s grandmamma is unwell. So we are able to laugh at such things.

It buckets with rain in Condrieu and this morning was cool and cloudy. The Rhone said farewell to us with its last worst stretch, the dreadful canal leading to the lock at Pierre Benite. Fortunately we didn’t realise this was notorious until after we had done it. At times the current was running at almost three knots and this is in August. From here, however, there will be almost no current, which is a blessed relief. Depth will become our greatest problem.

Valence, 5 August 2008

We’re in Valence, south of Lyon, for a few days sorting out a problem with the alternator, which is not charging the batteries properly. It’s essential that it works, unfortunately, otherwise the batteries will die and they are even more expensive than the alternator. This is a proper marina with two mecaniciens. Both are closed at the weekend, one is closed on Mondays, and the other on Tuesdays. Ours is the Tuesday closing one. We arrived on Sunday, they extracted the alternator yesterday (Monday) afternoon, today the alternator is somewhere else being bench tested (fortunately somewhere where they do work on Tuesdays), and tomorrow our guys will be back at work and may be able to refit it. Fingers crossed we don’t need a new one.

Valence is pleasant, with the marina in a park-like area. The peace and quiet is only slightly marred by the roar of the A7, the Autroute du Soleil, roaring past a couple of hundred metres away. At this time of year it must be one of Europe’s busiest roads. Apparently 50% of the French take their holiday within 500 metres of the sea, they prefer the Mediterranean, and most French people are on holiday in August. Ergo a lot of them must be on the A7.

Anyway my back is getting better every day, which is good. Today Sam and Ben have gone off on the train to visit friends in Geneva (we planned to go from Lyon, but as we have so much time here it seemed like a good opportunity). I decided six hours on a train would probably set me back several days, so I went into Valence on the bus with them, did a bit of shopping and sightseeing, and walked back by a route described in the guide touristique. It didn’t mention that after going through a very pretty park, the route included 1km along a totally deserted, unshaded concrete towpath, with the empty Rhône on one side and the jam-packed autoroute 20 feet above my head on the other. I don’t often worry about being mugged but this was quite creepy and I was glad to get onto the little road down to the marina. In fact of course I didn’t see a soul on the path.

Our previous halt at Viviers was a total contrast, a wonderful spot, very peaceful (except for the live music at the little Café du Port in the evenings) and surrounded by trees and fields. From the mooring you cross the country road, take a short path across a field which joins a track, and five minutes later you are in the middle of a partly-medieval little French town with a chateau, cathedral, hospital (!), various shops (including a very mingy supermarket), bars, restaurants etc. We spent two nights there recovering from the heat of Avignon and letting Sam’s stomach settle down – he had a bit of an upset.

We woke on Sunday to find one slight snag – the water level had dropped. Only by about 30cm, but instead of our keel just touching the bottom, we were well and truly aground. We were rescued by the wonderful crew of Annie-Cathie who came back to give us a tow. Sadly we then lost an hour at the Chateauneuf lock, where they apparently didn’t notice us for 30 mins (what do they have to do from their control towers all day except watch for approaching boats?), kept us waiting for another 30 mins for another boat who must have left Viviers more than an hour after we did, and then filled the lock a drip at a time. Very frustrating.

By contrast, between Avignon and Viviers we passed through the Bollène lock (above), one of the deepest in Europe with a 23m rise (it’s 195 m long and 12m wide, and Ben and I spent the time in the lock trying to work out how many gallons they pump in to lift us up – we made it 11 million, does that sound right?). The Bollène was open as we approached and we were in and out in less than 15 minutes. The filling itself takes just 7 minutes. Incredible.

Speed of progress up the Rhône has improved from a low of less than 3 knots on the first day to around 4.5 knots between Viviers and Valence (not counting messing about in locks). The river is still pretty empty, although there are a few sailing boats here. Considering the French passion for sailing it’s astonishing there aren’t more, but I guess the Rhône is not often as tranquil as we see it at the moment. In addition there are very few stopping points on the river south of Lyon, so you have to cover at least 60-70km a day – not exactly relaxed pootling. There are a couple of new stopping places, one just open, one being built as we passed, so things could improve.

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