And Into Lorraine

26/6/18. Despite having been to its “partner” Alsace many times we have not been to the second half of Alsace-Lorraine other than perhaps passing through on a train. It has a reputation for being industrial and full of (ex) coal mines but, because we steered clear of the major cities of Nancy and Metz, this has not been our experience although we have been following a number of canals which are presumably part of the legacy of the region’s industrial heritage.

We set off from Bar-le-Duc on Monday morning somewhat apprehensive about what the second half of the day would bring. This was because although we were following the Marne-Rhine Canal we knew that we were going to be crossing from one river valley (the Marne) into another (the Meuse). The canal went south/southeast for quite a long way before suddenly turning north and disposing into a long tunnel which was impassable to bikes.

We followed the superb voie verte along the towpath until Ligny-en-Barrois where we headed due east up the hill on the old road which had been replaced by a nasty looking dual carriageway full of large lorries and speeding cars. Although the road surface had deteriorated a lot in places we were more than grateful not to be on the new road.

And the hill, although long, not was not as steep as it had appeared on the route profile we had looked at. (These profiles can exaggerate low hills as they use the full vertical space to show the highest point whether it is 10 metres or a 1,000 metres up.)

Then the countryside became more rolling once we reached the top. After an excursion into a service area on the new road (unsuccessfully looking for a toilet) we headed back to the former route pushing the bikes across a grassy area when suddenly Christine felt a sharp pain behind her right knee. Although this swiftly passed she felt the occasional twinge thereafter. As the campsite for which we were headed was still some 40 km away we decided to head for the nearest town, Commercy, which was a more manageable 12 km, discretion being the better part of valour and all that.

It turns out that Commercy’s claim to fame is that it is where the little cakes called Madeleines originate from although we couldn’t find out why. Unfortunately Commercy did not have a campsite that took tents so we went for the cheaper of the two hotels, declining the breakfast at €9 each, Stephen being sent out to one of the 5 supermarkets inn the town to buy a picnic salad, Orangina and beer  for dinner, and croissants and orange juice for breakfast at a total cost of €10! (Although Stephen did take a walk into town the next morning before Christine awoke to get his caffeine fix for a further €2.50!)

Christine’s knee behaved itself overnight and she noticed it only a couple of times the next morning so we decided to risk heading back towards our original route and for the campsite we had originally being aimed for meaning that we had two days of about 40 km rather than one day of 70 km. This is not a problem as we have the luxury of time to get to Lake Constance and it was always our intention to take the train part of the way anyway!

Leaving Commercy we found that we were following the route of another canal and river valley (both called the Meuse) and, although the towpath was not rideable, we used quiet roads. It was all very lovely.

Eventually we reached the major road which we had been paralleling the previous day and again took the old road into the town of Toul. With only 10km or so to go and with the day having warmed up we headed into the centre and found a bench conveniently situated in the shade right outside a little bar which formed a very pleasant lunch stop for our baguette and cheese while patronising the local business for cold drinks.

Suitably refreshed we headed up a long drag out of town before going down a steep (13%) hill down to the campsite on the Moselle river (the wine is made where it crosses into Germany).  

The river was wide (and deep, we realised,when a large barge chugged past) and flowed very slowly, with undisturbed reflections of the wooded area on the opposite bank. The cost may have been more than double that of Bar-le-Duc at €20 (v €9) but it was worth every penny for such a glorious setting. And the tent site was in prime position right on the river bank! The only disturbance to the peaceful setting was two French air force jets practising their manoeuvres overhead and seeming to take great delight in buzzing the campsite!

We saw 4 British cars, a couple of Germans but the overwhelming majority of visitors were Dutch caravans – the lady in reception even owned up to speaking a little Dutch!

The next morning (Wednesday) we were spared the slog back up the steep hill because Christine, when going for a walk the previous evening, had found an excellent cycle path on the other bank back with a way across using the lock gates just a kilometre downstream.

We passed through the next village, called Sexey-aux-Forges which made the smutty schoolboy amongst us snigger, and on to the suburbs of Nancy where the short canal we had been following joined our old friend, the Marne-Rhine Canal. Unfortunately, the voie verte had not been developed along this stretch and so we were back on the road which proved to be a bit of a racetrack.  This went on for about 10 km although we were grateful that the traffic seemed to calm down more the further we went from Nancy.

Eventually the main road veered away from the canal and we joined much more pleasant quiet, minor road which tracked the water. The only downside was the wind which had been getting stronger throughout the day and, now we had turned a little north of east, was blowing into our faces and making even the flat road hard work on exposed stretches. (Cyclists are like farmers aren’t they? There’s always something to moan about!)

About halfway to the campsite the voie verte started up again and,with lots of trees providing shelter from the wind, Christine was content. It reminded Stephen of the old adage “A happy wife means a happy life”.

After an ice cream stop (more happiness!) we soon reached the campsite which was another gem – right by the canal, peaceful, extremely reasonable (€10.50, showers included), toilet paper – but again almost empty making us fear for its future viability.

However, if “they” get their act together and convert more of the towpath into voies vertes and then sell the route to the Germans as a cycling holiday from Strasbourg to Paris through Champagne it will be an absolute cast-iron winner assuring the future of small businesses (such as the campsites) along the way. It is relatively flat, passing through lovely countryside with attractions of both an alcoholic and historic (WW1) nature joining two major well-connected cities which are each attractive in their own right. They might even attract a few more Brits!

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