When we lifted Wanderlust’s ropes and headed up canal, we left the city of Reims behind. Reims is well known as a center of Champagne wine production but we were not leaving the bubbles behind. Indeed, ahead of us, along the banks of River Marne, the vineyards continue and, if anything, the wine houses became more frequent.
The first leg from Reims took us to Sillery, a short 10 km and 4 locks away. In Sillery we tied to the municipal pontoon and meet up with friends for dinner.
Our friends cruising season was over. They were in the process of preparing their barge Encore for winter and would soon return to the States. Encore was not alone. All of the talk on the barging forums was about winterization. Many owners had already left their barges and returned to their land homes for the winter. At the end of September, our winter mooring was a month away. We wondered: Were we cruising too late in the season? Did everyone else know something we didn’t? Were we risking getting trapped behind a flood on the big rivers ahead of us? Despite the worries, the late-season weather in France had been idyllic. We could speed our pace, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
The next morning we left Sillery and cruised the last stretch of the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne. At the end of the day we reached Conde-sur-Marne, the terminus of l’Aisne à la Marne. Conde is 24 km, 11 locks, and one tunnel from Sillery.
The tunnel, the 2.3 km long Souterrain de Mont-de-Billy, was the fourth of our journey from Calais. At this point about 3% of our journey’s distance through France had been underground. Though tunnels are interesting, they are tight and tense to navigate. All things being equal, we’d rather avoid them. Unfortunately that is not very practical.
After a night in Conde we turned onto the Canal lateral à la Marne. As the name suggests, Canal lateral à la Marne is a separate channel that runs along the Marne River. This stretch of waterway took us close to the hillside vineyards of Champagne. It is very scenic. When we passed through the fourth and final lock of the day, we joined the main channel of the River Marne. To get to our winter mooring in Burgundy we’d need to go with the Marne’s flow and head to Paris. But we would not head there right away. Instead, we took a left turn on exiting the lock and detoured a short ways upriver to Épernay where we spent two nights.
Even more so than Reims, Épernay’s economy is centered on Champagne wine production. Indeed, there’s even an “Avenue de Champagne” where the house of Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, and others are located. Not far away, on the other side of the river, is the village of Ay, another place that lays claim as a center of Champagne production.
In the area, amongst the famous producers, are numerous small lesser-known Champagne houses whose products don’t make their way onto the shelves of international markets. Large or small, many houses are open to the public for tasting. With so many producers it seems an impossible task to sample all of the sparkling wine available in the area.
Not surprisingly, by the time we left Epernay we had added several bottles of ballast to Wanderlust’s bilge. It appears that a trend is developing. Every time Wanderlust passes through a wine region our bilge cellar ends up with several new additions.
Overall from Reims to Epernay it is 57 km with 19 locks, one “twisty bridge”, and one tunnel.
There is a well-kept port de plaisance in Sillery operated by a local municipality. A charge of €8/day, €17/3 days, or €34/week + 20 c per person/day applies for barges less than 20m. The pontoons are quiet, there’s power and water available. We are told that there is a bus that runs twice a day into Reims except Sunday.
We moored at the bank just outside the fence near the silos. There are usable bollards but no services. Initially we took a spot closer to the silos but were politely told that we could stay there if we wanted but the exit gate would close at the end of business and we would be locked in. The small town of Conde-sur-Marne is worth a stroll.
There is a port de plaisance in Epernay near the rail station but it was full when we arrived. Instead we used the unserviced mooring below the bridge down the bank from the Carrefour. Mooring is tricky here: There are submerged rocks and wooden posts near the capped corrugated steel bank. Also, there are no bollards on the bank. We drove pins in through the holes in the honeycombed concrete blocks that underlay the vegetation on the bank. Aside from the mooring difficulties, this proved to be a good place, quiet and convenient, to spend a couple of nights.
There are 22 km of waterway with 4 locks and one moving bridge between Conde-sur-Marne and Epernay.