2018 Barging France

Death of a Painter: 11/08 – 15/08

Compiègne – St-Leu-d’Esserent – Auvers-sur-Oise – Pontoise – Méricourt

We had a bit of deadline approaching in that we were meeting Lisette’s sister and partner near Monet’s Garden in Giverny in four days time and had about 150 km to travel. So we would need to get an iggry on.

However, we had a late start from Compiègne because we took advantage of the Guerdin bunker boat directly across from us and topped up with fuel and then spent a bit of time and quite a bit of money in the chandlers that adjoins the boat. So it wasn’t until almost midday that we finally left.

Still, travel was fast, the river wide and only four locks – at the first of which we returned our telecommander because we would be in the hands of éclusiers for the rest of the season.  These commercial locks were the largest we had used to date.  Approaching this first one as we left Compiègne, we contacted the éclusier for advice – and were told to use the “petite écluse à droit”.  This proved to be only 125 m long (in contrast to what must have been the “grande écluse à gauche” which was 185 m in length and 12-18 m in across).  We became very used to these over the coming days – sometimes just little old Catharina on her own, and sometimes little old Catharina literally stuffed in, surrounded by large commercials.

The weather was beautiful and the scenery interesting. In particular, we saw several sad examples of vessels that had sunk and were just rusting away.

Sunken peniche.

Not a particular navigation issue as the river was so wide but a bit untidy. One reason the VNF and others are keen that vessels have good insurance – although this is not mandated.

Sunken river cruiser.


It was getting pretty late as we approached St-Leu-d’Esserent where we planned to stay the night. There were two choices for mooring, one with a pontoon and for which there was a charge and a little further on a free mooring. We decided to try the latter – which turned out to be a memorable choice.

When we arrived at the mooring, we could only find a spot next to a high wall where the bollards were spaced far apart and well hidden behind large, rough blocks of stone. And more large stone blocks to serve as additional pretend bollards. Placement of the ropes had to be carefully planned as any movement would severely chafe the lines – we tried to protect them with our plastic tubing.

So we were insecurely moored with the hull and wheelhouse grinding against the wall, and positioned just underneath a concrete ledge, with any movement at risk of breaking the ropes and scraping, no, bashing the railings against this overhang. What made it worse was that we were on a narrow stretch of the river and the frequent commercials came around the corner at full tilt, generating a big wash. We put down our full suite of tyres and fenders to cushion Catharina Elisabeth but even so we were bounced quite severely a few times. Fortunately, as we had arrived late, it was not too long after that the locks closed and the commercial traffic stopped for the night. Fortunately Catharina is a little bigger than many boats – a steel cruiser would have been at risk of severe damage.

This was by far the least congenial mooring we had ever chosen. To mark the occasion, we decided not to raise our mast and flags. So there! Next time, we’ll pay the mooring fees at the other spot.

However, what transpired next turned the uncomfortable experience into a memorable one.

As evening began and we were eating dinner on the aft deck, a large gathering of sapeur-pompiers (French rescue/firemen), cars, fire truck and even an excavator began to arrive at a spot just across the river for us. Soon there was even a rubber rib speeding around the river. It looked like they must be out for some sort of training exercise.

The double peniche just moored.

Just a few minutes later, however, a peniche (38 m) pushing a dumb barge (38m) appeared from downstream and tied up next to the sapeurs and their gear.

The double peniche just moored and the excavator moved over, lowering its enormous scoop into the hold of the dumb barge and began to lift out what was clearly household rubbish or discarded cloth material and began dumping it on the land beside the barges. The fire truck then began to hose down the inside of the barge and the growing mound of rubbish.

What had happened is that the rubbish must have ignited while the double peniche was cruising and they had called ahead for help. Soon we could see smoke issuing from the barge and the piles of rubbish. The scooping continued for over an hour and later, the scoop was used to dump water from the canal into the barge. It made for interesting viewing until it went dark.

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Next morning, the double peniche was still moored across from us, with the pile of steaming rubbish next to it. Pity the poor couple who would somehow have to clean up the mess, which was now a soggy pile of smoky debris. We, however, were not hanging about to wait for a bashing from the passing commercials and left our mooring early for the run to our next, and highly anticipated mooring place at Auvers-sur-Oise.


Our theme for this year was ‘Painting Catharina’. This was to encompass both our work painting her (some of which we have mentioned – some of which we still hoped to do – and some of which will still be there next season) and also visiting places close to the canals associated with French impressionist painters. So, we intended to go to Vernon (changed later to Méricourt) for Monet, Rueil-Malmaison for Renoir, Moret-sur-Loing for Sisley and Auvers-sur-Oise for Van Gogh.

It was time to start this part of the season’s adventure.

The early departure meant we were moored at the very nice quay at Auvers by noon. As we were on a schedule, we were quickly off-board with the bikes and hot-footed it the short distance into the town.

Auvers-sur-Oise is famous as the place where Vincent Van Gogh ended his life on July 29th 1890. Recently there has been increased speculation he might have been accidentally shot by some youths. The story of his last days at Auvers is beautifully treated in the recent and spectacular film ‘Loving Vincent’.

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We’ve seen the film several times and made sure we had watched it again a couple of days before arriving.

So, our first stop was the restaurant that now occupies what was the boarding house in which Vincent lodged for the 70 days between his arrival and his death – one of his most productive periods when he composed over 80 paintings. His room has been kept and left unoccupied since his death (rooms, where suicides have taken place, are never let again).

Vincent’s room was under the roof, on the right-hand side. (Photo taken the next day.)

The rear of the restaurant is, like most of the Van Gogh attractions in town, densely populated with historical information about Van Gogh and, again like most places, the material is also presented in English. A modestly priced guided tour of the room is available, again with English available and we enjoyed the 30 min or so although you were not allowed to take pictures of the room. We managed to take a shot of the stairs leading up to the tiny room that he lived and, eventually, died in.

As you travelled through the town, places that Van Gogh painted were highlighted by boards showing his painting in the context of the current townscape. In our time, we saw about half a dozen of these.

‘La Mairie d’Auvers’

Also, the town is very ‘painterly’ with public buildings being decorated

and even many of the letterboxes adorned with paintings inspired by Van Gogh.

There was also a well-executed series of placards

outlining each of the places where Van Gogh’s spent a period of his life while he was painting, ending, of course, with Auvers.

We then cycled off to Dr Gachet’s house

where Van Gogh spent a substantial amount of time painting the Gachet family, the house and surrounds.

The house and gardens are free to enter and again you can see paintings of Van Gogh’s in context and see some of the interior locations that are captured in other paintings.

Dr Gachet’s house ‘ by Cezanne.

Most of the information here was in French however but we could understand it well enough, particularly with the additional background we had from the film.

‘Marguerite Gachet in her garden’

Further on in the town was the church, fronted by his famous painting of it but there were extensive renovation and restoration works in progress and it was shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulins – so unavailable to enter and not a good photo.

Then it was a cycle up an unsealed road to the cemetery where Van Gogh and his dear brother, Theo (who tragically died of natural causes only a year after Vincent) are buried. It took a little while to locate the graves amongst the very many others in the cemetery but pressed up against a wall, and covered with ivy we found the last resting place of probably the most underappreciated artist of all time.

Next morning, we walked back into the town to check on a few more of the painting sites

‘L’escalier d’Auvers’

but, as it was a Monday, none of the inside attractions were open, in particular, one museum we wanted to visit but did not have time the day before. We did, however, manage to see a striking set of sculptures from outside the gates.

By the sculptor Milthon.

Still on a schedule, we left mid-morning for Pontoise where we intended to top up with water before pressing on to meet our guests.


After a short two hour cruise, we arrived at the very swish looking pontoons at Pontoise. Two long pontoons on either side of the Oise. Entirely empty. We picked out a spot close to the water taps and then found out that the Tourist Bureau which also doubled as the Capitainerie was also closed (as it was Monday) and all the water and power had been turned off. The power was no issue but we wanted to take on water today so that we could leave early tomorrow for the long haul to Méricourt. Now we would have to wait until the Tourist Bureau deigned to open and turn on the water and then for the tank to fill. Grrrr….

Another “mast down” mooring!

Anyhow, we decided to climb the steep hill to the centre of the old town to see what was open. Not much. The place was deserted. The only thing open was the Cathédrale Saint-Maclou de Pontoise but the inside was splendid.

There were several stained glass windows dating back to the 15th and 16th century.

The mandatory Joan of Arc

and ornate Italianate capitals on the columns.

When we emerged, one brasserie had opened so we indulged in a late snack and a beer as the weather cleared to a sunny afternoon.

Next morning, we eventually had the water turned on (after paying for a €14 mooring we were not going to use) and filled the water tank. We set off at 10:30, about three hours later than we would have otherwise.

We cruised down the last stretch of the Oise, past increasing numbers of moored vessels, both commercial and private. We also passed by the Axe Majeure, a striking piece of urban art which, unfortunately, there was not enough time for us to visit – but it is accessible by bike from a mooring at nearby Cergy.

It was then a careful starboard turn downstream into the River Seine and immediately across to our first of the Seine écluses – Andrésy. These huge locks are 185 m long and usually 24 m wide. Almost ten times Catharina’s length and we could turn around if there were no other vessels beside us. Still, it was no particular bother – we have no particular recollection of passing through.

Then it was off downstream and while there was presumably a current, it was not fast, only a couple of km/h. The river was, of course, wide and largely rural or forested. There were occasional houses, often palatial and some areas of urbanisation. Most impressive was the Collegiate Church of Our Lady which dominates Mantes-la-Jolie.

All in all, a pleasant, easy, if unspectacular cruise.

We arrived upstream of the Méricourt lock and could see a long length of bollards along the edge and while they were a little more widely separated (25 m) than optimum, and we were soon moored nearby to a peniche. Apparently, this is a very popular mooring for commercials who are doing maintenance work. We remained the only two vessels there for the duration of our stay.

We saw some other smaller boats approach for the few days we spent there but there is a marina on the other side of the river and they all headed in that direction. We found our mooring comfortable and interesting as we could watch a wide variety of commercial traffic passing but as they were either just entering or exiting the lock, they were not travelling fast at all.

After a comfortable night, we had most of the next day free for some chores before Gill and Graham arrived. There was a bit of a mixup with trains and taxis that resulted in a big fare for the driver – but it had a serendipitous outcome in that we arranged that the same driver would take all four of us to and from Giverny the next day for just €100.

As this was Gill and Graham’s third visit to Catharina, they were soon settled and we spent an enjoyable evening catching up with stories of their last week or so spent in Spain.

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    2 Responses

  1. Thanks. I’ve been a great admirer of VvG since reading Irving Stone’s ‘Lust for Life’ many, many years ago. In my mind, he is more associated with Arles in the south so a great fill-in.

    1. And the bridge at Arles is very close to the top of our Barge Bucket List.

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