Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Everything you always wanted to know about canals …

The canal that runs through the town of Saverne is called the ‘Canal de la Marne au Rhin’. It connects the two rivers between Vitry-le-François in the Marne department (Champagne region) and Strasbourg in the Haut-Rhin (Alsace region). It was built between 1838 and 1853 and has a total length of 312 km. There used to be 178 locks on it. In 1969 this number was reduced to 154 with the opening of the ‘Plan incliné d’Arzviller’. This ingenious structure replaces the 17 locks that were needed before to cover the level difference of 44.55 meters. Here the boats are put in a giant container filled with water that glides down or up – depending which way the ship is travelling - along a 108 meters’ slope set at an angle of 41°. The ‘ride’ takes about 4 minutes.

When we visited the ‘Plan incliné’ some years ago, we arrived a few minutes too late to catch the last tourist boat that was ready to go down the slope. So we drove to the lower level from where we watched the container sliding down. Although the tourist boat was a small vessel, it was an impressive sight. Imagine what it must be like when a large Rhine barge of 250 or 300 tons (the maximum tonnage that is allowed on the canal) makes its way down or up!

One of the side canals of the ‘Canal de la Marne au Rhin’ is called the ‘Canal des Houillères de la Sarre’. It links the first to the Sarre River. The two canals confluent near the ‘Lac de Gondrexange’, one of the many reservoir lakes in the area. This canal has a length of 105 km, 63 km of which are artificial. The other parts are natural rivers that have been canalized. It was built between 1861 and 1866. The maximum allowed tonnage is 250 to 280 tons.

‘Ecluse 16’, the restaurant where we had lunch on Sunday, is near one of the 27 locks on this intriguing canal. After leaving the restaurant, we came across ‘lock number 13’, - numbers 15 and 14 were probably located off the main road - just when two Dutch leisure boats were entering it. We saw the owners talking to a lady in blue working clothes standing on land. We were curious to know what was going on, so we parked the car and watched the lady disappear in the lock keeper’s cabin. The boaters attached their vessels according to the regulations. To our surprise it was the lady who operated the lock. The whole operation took about 10 minutes.

The first of the two Dutch boats entering the lock and the lady lock keeper walking towards her cabin.

While both boats carefully steered out of the lock, we walked down to the cabin where the lady was watching the boats leave. When asked, she gladly explained to us all about the canal and the locks. She showed us the inside of the cabin, which looked a bit like an air traffic controller’s workspace. Two thirds of 27 locks on the canal are automatically controlled. The others are still manual and have to be operated by a lock keeper or the boaters themselves.

The lady lock keeper of lock 13 is in charge of 5 locks, 4 of which she controls from a distance. On her computer screen she ‘picks up’ the incoming boats two locks before they arrive at number 13 and she guides them all the way through. She’s a civil servant who can be sent all over France where a lock keeper is needed. During her career she has worked on several canals, but never on the famous Canal du Midi. (Remember the television serial with the British chef Rick Stein who sailed down the Canal Midi on a gourmet odyssey, on his way trying out the culinary delights of Southern France?).

She also told us that the canal was no longer used for its original purpose – the transport of coal and iron ore from the mines and quarries to the numerous factories and production plants in the Rhine area. Today the traffic consists of leisure boats, mainly German and Dutch. The two boats we saw earlier were a perfect example of the luxury vessels that cruise the canal nowadays. These leisure boats are floating apartments, offering all the comfort or even more than a house on land.

e enjoyed our talk with the lady lock keeper as it was very instructive. We thanked her for her time and took our leave to continue our drive, admiring the hilly Lorraine countryside. We were curious to know what else our trip had in store for us.


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