Valence-sur-Baise (PK 0) is at the limit of navigation on the River Baise and has a nice little port where, in very hot weather, we spent a most pleasant six nights, despite the Brexit vote during our stay there and the ongoing subsequent haitus.
We made friends with M. & Mme Le Capitaine and shared aperos ‘chez nous’ and ‘chez eux’ and were given courgettes picked from their garden. This all stood us in good stead when, on the Monday after Brexit, Philippe Martin, the President of CDTL (comite departmental de tourisme – also a deputy and ex government environment minister) came to officially open this year’s tourist season and “le Sentier de la Baise” with a grand outside lunch in the picnic area on this new ‘green’ path along the old river towpath. After a little speech at the hire boat base (we wondered why two boats had been decked out with flags, the grass not only cut but also the cuttings removed), during which he mentioned Brexit, he was told that there was an English boat in the port – but it was OK because we had voted to stay in. So he came over and welcomed us to the Gers and told us that we’d always be welcome (photographer taking pictures) and that he hoped the British would still come to eat ‘foie gras’ and drink Armagnac amongst the many other ‘slow life’ attractions of this lovely region.
The next day, before we set off at 9.30am, our friend the Port Captain arrived early with the morning edition of ‘La Depeche du Midi’ (local daily paper) complete with front page picture of “Ph. Martin s’entretient avec un plaisancier anglais’ and a headline of “Gers: ne pas perdre les British” – but although the conversation had been with me the picture was of the hire boat manager and his pretty bunting. Side-lined already, but I guess we’ll just have to get used to that.
The only other fly in the ointment whilst at Valence was that our 8 year old washer dryer packed up. With guests due in July and August I had been trying for some time to not think about this happening (usually a fatal mistake). We would need to find a suitably accessible mooring with a nearby electrical retailer with a delivery (installation and disposal) service – not information found in waterways guidebooks. None-the-less our trip back down the river from Valence (PK 0) to Condom (PK 10) was glorious and not even an English lady hire-boater, who without looking reset the Gauge lock as we were in the process of entering, could spoil it. We discovered two days later that she and her husband were ‘leave’ voters! After lunch we went into town to visit the Museum, but being a Tuesday it was closed.
The Wednesday market in Condom, both street and covered, was good but surprisingly light on customers. We ended up buying most of our fruit and veg from a stall in the covered market that was run by the shop in the square which on our previous visit we had found to be very good. It seems often to be the case that a shop also takes a stall in its local market either in the same or in a neighbouring town. That afternoon the Armagnac Museum was open and we, the only visitors, spent a very leisurely, informative, and entertaining hour before picking up a Chateau Cugnac leaflet and realising that we still had time to catch the last tour of the day at this nearby old family Armagnac business.
On arrival at ‘Hotel de Cugnac’ at 4.20pm we could hear a tour in progress but as we were the only ones waiting by the sign at the gate I did wonder if I had misunderstood the somewhat conflicting bits of information – ‘closed’ sign on the gate, ‘last tour today 4.30pm, wait here’ on the board, and ‘present yourself at least an hour before closing for the last tour’ in the leaflet. However, all was well and our lady guide appeared just after 4.30pm and we, once again the only visitors, were shown the film and given the tour of the cellars and led across to the small museum display before being treated to a tasting first of ‘Napolean’ (10 years ageing at this house) and then ‘Hors d’age’ (15 years) and for good measure a red and then a white Floc. Our drinks cupboard is now better stocked on both aperitifs (Floc de Gascogne is a fortified sweet wine – a third Armagnac and two thirds grape juice) and digestifs. Armagnac, produced only in Gascony, is the oldest brandy distilled in France and according to a C14th Cardinal has 40 therapeutic virtues – obviously one bottle will not be enough to get the full benefit!
After two nights in Condom – on the second we were woken by pranksters banging on the boat at 2.30am, the first time this has happened in three years and no harm done – we cruised the two and a half hours (all three locks set against us but no other boats) to Moncrabeau (PK 21) – yet another really splendid morning cruise, just lovely. Again, we moored partly under the bridge in the shade and after lunch sat and read all afternoon – we did not re-visit the town – and the next morning we cruised on for nearly four hours to reach Nerac (PK 35). That night, Friday, we were the only boat in town and this appears to be par for the course as the distance from the nearest hire boat bases (mainly working from Saturday to Saturday bookings) at Valence, Buzet, Agen and Mas d’Agenais make mid-week visits here the norm.
The Saturday market in Nerac is possibly the best in the area and a good social occasion too. We found Maurice, the Port Capitaine, having a coffee with a friend outside the newsagent so I was able to ask him about the laundry facilities in the port (not something I normally register on) only to be told that there aren’t any. But Darty, he told me (I hadn’t realised there was one in town) were having a sale and he would drive us out there, about 3kms in a new shopping mall with Intermarche and others, after the weekend. On Monday we moved the boat over to the one length of quay by the trip boat ‘Nerac’ and the car park that would work for deliveries of heavy white goods. True to his word Maurice arrived in the afternoon and with my empty gas tank (never miss an opportunity) in the rear passenger seat we drove out to Darty, ordered a new washer (the weather is so warm here a dryer seems a waste) and arranged for it to be delivered to the boat on Wednesday between 11am and 12 noon, with the old machine to be taken away. We were back within half an hour with a full gas tank – it all just seemed too easy! Maurice advised us to move back over to the other side of the port as on Tuesday night there would be a night market in the car park, with live band, and it would be noisy until late. Which it was! We had a few beers at ‘L’entreports’ (the pop-up at Maurice’s La Maison de la Peche et de l’Eau) and ate a very nice ‘assiette Piggy’ before returning to listen to the live band from across the river, the sound carrying well across the water.
On Wednesday it all went like clockwork – the hire boat moored overnight on the vital length of quay moved at 10.00am and the amazing municipal team had removed the stage, tables and chairs and rubbish bins, swept and washed and re-opened the car park by 11.00am. I was a bit worried when an old unmarked yellow van with a single young occupant pulled up on the empty quay beside the boat but in no time Maurice had joined the Darty delivery driver to assist in lifting and removing the old machine.
I had a moment’s anxiety when I couldn’t remember how the drain was attached (washing machines all come with fixed drain pipes) to the boat’s system so we cut the old machine’s pipe before being able to look behind and work it out. The jubilee clip join was just accessible externally so there was no need to go removing panels and poking around. And the ease of getting the new machine into the boat reminded me how important my decision at the build stage had been to insist on full size doors and corridors. I remember being on the Thames and watching a new build Piper barge having to use a dockside crane at Better Boating to winch a malfunctioning new washing machine out through the roof hatch – it wouldn’t fit through any of the doors or windows!
For Maurice this had been a second first with us at the Port (using the port pump out and loading a washing machine) and he now has quite a few photos of us. He has helped us enormously with enthusiasm despite his dismay at Brexit. And the service from Darty was outstanding with the delivery man going to a lot of time and trouble to remove and install a machine in an awkward space on a shelf in the corner of our bathroom. It was a first for him too and he refused a tip.
On this our second visit to Nerac we found the Port to be even quieter in early July than it was in early June – which is quite extraordinary considering how nice it is. We very rarely saw another private boat and the trickle (not a stream) of hire boats was fairly predictable from Monday to Thursday with polyglot cruisers, the Spanish still taking prizes for being the noisiest late at night.
We stayed in Port for my birthday – having telephoned to just make sure that I would be getting my old age pension. Although I had applied on line two months previously a back-log at the Pensions Service meant that it hadn’t been processed, but they were able to manually input the data whilst I was on the phone. We celebrated with a lunch on the terrace of the hotel ‘Terraces du Petit Nerac’ looking directly across at our boat and spent another weekend with only a couple of boats in town.
On Friday night a ‘vernisage’ at the Art Gallery beside us and a concert and meal at the ‘Maison de la Peche’ across from us made us feel in the thick of a social whirl. By Saturday we were thinking that we really ought to leave on Monday but then Maurice informed us that we couldn’t as there was ‘a little problem’. An English widebeam had just sunk in the next lock down and it might be awhile before it could be removed. We needed some exercise, and were more than a little curious, and so on a lovely evening we walked the 1.5kms to Bapaume lock to indeed find ‘Le Somail’ (an ex Minervois Cruisers hire boat) at the bottom and being pumped out by three workers – the owners having abandoned ship and been taken in by the extremely nice B&B on the lockside.
‘Le Somail’ had been re-floated by the following morning and towed to the quay below Nerac lock. We met the poor owners who were clearing everything out of the boat – it had been totally submerged after being pushed forward on a strong surge as the lock filled, getting its nose stuck under a bar on the gate, and the emergency ‘off’ button had failed to stop the lock continuing to fill. We learned a week later that the boat was a ‘write off’ and had been sold as is to be shipped back to England for a complete re-fit by the new owner. Witnessing this sobering experience made us think that it might be nice to stay in Port for the next Tuesday night market and then for the Thursday night Bastille Day fireworks, and that’s what we did.
We had now spent so long in Nerac that we felt justified in joining ‘Acqua Viva’ (the association based in La Maison de la Peche et de l’Eau’) and our first event as members, rather than just as guests, was Bastille Night fireworks with a ‘pot luck’ dinner on the terrace with the best view of the splendid display set off from the churchyard above us on the opposite bank. ‘Xenia’ was dressed for the occasion too with flashing coloured lights but we had had to move her out of the port (health and safety) before the actual show. After the fireworks, and having moved Xenia back to her rightful place in Port, we danced to a band in the town square till after 1am – blissfully unaware of the awful events taking place in Nice that evening.
The next day, Friday, it really was time to leave, even though we had received a phone call the previous night from our next guests to say that they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to make it the next week. Regardless, we decided to carry on to Meilhan-sur-Garonne (60 kms, 15 locks and 13 cruising hours away) to arrive by Monday, as planned for and booked back in May.
We spent 6 weeks on the River Baise, 24 nights in Nerac, travelling the 56kms with 21 locks to the head of navigation at Valence and then back again to Buzet. It was a lovely trip – we enjoyed every moment of it, beautiful country and towns, welcomed by friendly and hospitable locals at each stop and with wonderful local food and drink and all delivered with a great sense of ‘joie de vivre’.
‘Slow life’ or ‘messing about in boats’, whatever you call it, doesn’t get much better than this!