Auxerre – Sens – Guédelon – Vézelay – Chablis – Auxonne – Auxerre
With Barb and Gus agreeing to stay with us for a few more days, and having made the decision that there was little more cruising we could entertain this season, we once again positioned Catharina Elisabeth beside the park at Auxerre and hired a car to take some day trips to places not accessible by barge.
The first day, we drove to Sens, a gorgeous city on the Yonne, which we had visited several times before by boat. But first, Ian was on a mission of his own this day. He remembers with great fondness, a cake he bought in a boulangerie in the town of Pont-sur-Yonne and with the means to return to this village (in our hire car), we all piled in for the short journey from Auxerre, but, sadly, found the pâtisserie had just closed for the two-hour déjeuner, so we had to leave that idea for now.
Onwards to Sens where we explored the cathedral and museum once again, marvelling at the exhibits and architecture.
I am quite fascinated by reliquaries, and Sens does not disappoint. Located next to the St-Stephen’s Cathedral, the Museum of Sens is situated in the former Archbishop’s Palace.
Having visited this before, I knew the museum houses a substantial display of relics which never ceases to interest me. Visible through a locked gate there was an enormous reliquary collection. Skulls with strings of pearls woven through the eye sockets, golden caskets where bones of one sort or another are gently displayed on red velvet cushions. Totally fascinating. I understand from a tour we had some time ago in a cathedral in Soissons that, periodically, the appropriate relic is brought out and paraded, usually on that Saint’s Day, before being locked away again.
There is also a large glass cabinet housing a robe and slippers belonging to Saint Thomas Becket who was at one time, Archbishop of Canterbury and, during his exile from England, Bishop of Sens. Returning from exile, he was later murdered on the orders of Henry II.
The next day we crossed off one item from our bucket list – this was to visit the Château de Guédelon, a castle currently under construction near Treigny, France. The castle is the focus of an experimental archaeology project aimed at recreating a castle and its environment using only the materials and techniques available in the 13th century. The castle has been designed to mimic the architectural model developed during the 12th and 13th centuries by Philip II of France and the construction is set, in historical terms, to have begun in 1228. Construction began in 1997 and continues today although it is nearing completion from the accounts we can find.
We had learnt of this project some years ago and were delighted to find we were close enough to the site for a visit.
The fascinating part of this was to see the volunteers and workers in mediaeval dress, carving stone blocks and firing clay to make tiles and other vessels. There are woodworkers, rope makers, potters, tilers, farmers, artists, millers along with just plain labourers. The project is designed to rejuvenate the interest and develop the skills of mediaeval professionals. We watched the lengthy but effective process of using a wooden crane with a hamster wheel to raise and then lower a pallet of materials from inside, over the top of the wall and down to the ground outside. Immediately after, the crane picked up a block of hand-cut stone, using what was essentially ice tongs to pick up the block and lifted this to the construction area on the wall. The castle surrounds are set up as a mediaeval village, and we were able to immerse ourselves in the experience of what would have been a normal village life.
It was easy to spend the day wandering around taking it all in and we took copious photos and videos. The whole experience was fabulous and enjoyed on a perfect sunny day.
An important aspect of the construction is to promote what the French call ‘patrimony’ – the appreciation of their culture from a historical perspective. The castle itself is obviously important but also, encouraging the public to watch and participate in the crafts that their ancestors used in their daily lives, such as making rope using an intricate system of wheels and pulleys further promotes recognition of their heritage.
Interestingly, the techniques redeveloped for Guédelon Castle are also being used in the reconstruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, which is predicted to be open to the public towards the end of 2024.
On the way back, we made a short detour through Briare, where we knew friends of ours, Don and Cathy Jo on Oldtimer, were on their boat preparing to winterise her and return to California. We had been following their blog forever and had met them at Courchelettes in 2017. We found them aboard, and stopped for a chat, before returning to Catharina for the night. We’ve continued to follow their adventures but sadly, in 2022, Cathy-Jo became ill and passed away.
Our next stop on this tour was the town of Vézelay. Vézelay is an exquisite hill town famous for its abbey and the 11th-century Romanesque Basilica of St Magdalene both of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We were also keen to visit because we knew that Georges Hosotte, one of our more recently discovered French artists, who paints in the impressionist style, often painted scenes from here, and we wanted to see it for ourselves. Apart from its historical buildings, Vézelay is the starting point for one of the four major historical pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela dating from the Middle Ages, the Chemin de Vézelay runs some 1700 km to Santiago in Portugal. You can see brass plates set in the stone of the cobbled streets and on the walls of buildings, designating a welcome place for pilgrims to rest before starting on their journey.
We found a shady spot to park outside the town walls and joined the many people who had taken advantage of another perfect late summer’s day.
Set on a steep hillside, the main, and almost only, road runs steeply up the hill. The old buildings are now home to a variety of shops and eateries, catering to the many visitors.
As you slowly ascend the cobbled streets, you eventually find yourself in front of the Basilica and the abbey. Always an integral part of our travels, the interior of the church provided some welcome relief from the heat outside. The basilica was quite plain inside, nothing like the ornate churches we often visit. We were treated to some music as a group of choruses and their orchestra were practising for a concert.
One notable item was a wooden cross which, it turned out was part of a significant event.
Because of its background of pilgrimages, the priest and congregation of Vézelay were moved to organise an event to promote peace after the end of WWII. Fourteen wooden crosses were carried from all around Europe and carried along the roads to Vézelay. Some 30,000 pilgrims gathered here. Germany was not asked to send a group but some German prisoners being held near the town became aware of the event and in the spirit of reconciliation improvised a cross with wooden beams from a house destroyed by bombing and were included in the event.
Emerging back into the warm sunshine, we chose a spot high on the hill with views all around to have our picnic lunch. Beneath a large shady tree, a group of men gathered, who turned out to be a large group of pilgrims, sharing prayers before lunching on their picnic fodder. We chatted with another small group of pilgrims later in the day as we enjoyed a drink before leaving to drive back to Catharina. They said they arrive by bus at one of the villages on the route, walk a portion of the trail, then get back on the bus to return home until next summer when they pick up from where they left off and continue on.
Ian, as the driver, allowed himself one light beer, and we got back in the car to leave this beautiful village. Finding a police roadblock on the route out of the village, we realised it was a breath test. Ian duly pulled over and did as he was asked, only to be told his alcohol reading was 0.04!!!! Clearly, French (or Belgian) beer packs a punch much greater than we are used to with Aussie beer. And, moreover, luckily 0.04 is just under 0.05 which would have been enough to disallow him as the driver. Quite an unexpected event, and a fortunate outcome as he was the only driver we had on the hire car agreement.
The next day it was time for Barb and Gus to move on to other places and, after savouring one last patisserie from Eric Roy, our last guests for the season departed – we’d had a great time and a lovely way to bring the season towards its end.
We spent the day on some getting-ready-to-go-home chores and, as part of the ever-changing activities outside our door in the park, watched a couple of wedding parties as they took their celebration photos. One couple was being encouraged to run along the footpath taking them right past Catharina, so we enjoyed the action. And at one point, the photographer asked if we could provide some cold water for the couple as they must have been gasping running in all their finery.
Chablis and Irancy
Given we were in Burgundy, we felt we should do a bit of wine touring and what better place to go than nearby Chablis? We arrived a bit late and weren’t able to find anyone available to offer us a bit of lunch so we walked around until the tourist wine shops reopened after dejeuner. We discovered a really pretty lavoir that deserved a few photos.
Once the tasting shops opened we partook in some wine, naturellement and purchased just a few bottles – but none in this size range.
Keeping up the wine tour theme, we diverted to Irancy on the way back to Catharina, intending to collect a few more bottles of Podor’s wine to lay down in the bilges for next year. Unfortunately, they were closed – maybe we can stop by next season.
While we still had the car, we decided to stop in to see Jonathon and Jeannie on their barge, soon to be named Aleau. We had met up with the two Canadians in 2016, cruised with them on the River Dender in Belgium and had been following their journey towards owning a barge. Recently they had purchased a Piper barge and this was our first chance to see them aboard.
They were moored in Auxonne and we had been invited to stay for a night. Sadly, there was not enough time for a cruise, that would have to wait for another year, but we enjoyed some fine food and wine with them followed by a very comfortable night on board. We did take a stroll through the town, which we had not yet been to, so it was nice to get a feel for the place should we spend a winter here in the future.
And so it was time to return the hire car as we would now head back through the small number of locks back to Migennes for the winter. Unfortunately, ridding ourselves of the car was not without incident. At a supermarket near the park mooring, there is a petrol station. So while I popped in to grab a few groceries, Ian filled up so we could return the car with a full tank. But he didn’t fill up with petrol. No, he filled up with diesel. This necessitated a call to the car rental agency, based in Auxerre, and a tugging of forelocks. I am pretty sure we were taken for a €2oo ride as the guy convinced us to stay there until his mate (that’s the telling part) arrived with a truck, loaded our car and drove off. He was going to drain the fuel and fill it with the correct fuel, and (wink wink) no one need be any the wiser. We were specifically told not to mention this on any paperwork when we signed the car back in. And I think it is quite likely that the pair of them had a very nice meal on us. Still, the option was to make a claim on our insurance, which may have been more unpleasant. However, to add insult to injury, Ian offered the car hire guy a bottle of very nice wine as a thank-you for his understanding. Which he refused quite adamantly, as a devout Muslim should! Good grief, we were glad to see the end of this car situation.
We had ordered a tarp to be made to cover Catharina’s entire salon structure in an effort to protect the windows from further winter damage. I really don’t mind painting and oiling, but it is such a shame to have to strip back the surfaces to start all over again each time we arrive back. So we hoped this would save some of that. We had measured up what we wanted, and the delightful people from the factory called us to say the unit was ready and then drove to Auxerre to drop it off for us. Great service!
Having stayed at the ‘Parc de l’Abre Sec’ (Park of the Dry Tree) several times now, it has become one of our favourites. It’s close to town with a supermarket very close. It’s quiet but there is always activity around in the park where people are exercising and groups gather;
plenty of folks walk, run and cycle past, with some stopping to chat; there are other boats often moored nearby with fellow cruisers to share a drop; the river is plied regularly by interesting boats
and the canoe and kayak training from the nearby school provides regular entertainment
– all of this for free. Highly recommended.
So the time had come to bid farewell to Auxerre, the Nivernais and soon, to France – but before we left, one last taste of the delicious cakes from Eric Roy.