Another winter in Carcassonne – but maybe, the last.

We seem to have had more than our fair share of dull, wet and windy weather this December, January and February. I have been keeping track of how we are faring relative to other places that we might be and have noted that on most days during this period our weather has only been a degree or two different from Reading, England – and not always warmer or sunnier.

Three Kings' cake - a local treat for Epiphany.

Three Kings’ cake – a local treat for Epiphany.

This weather tracking idea was partly triggered by thoughts about heading north again at the end of this season. Getting back up the Rhone river is really only feasible for us in August or September each year and this would mean perhaps spending a winter in central or eastern France – so Roanne, Auxonne, Toul and Strasbourg have all been on my Meteo monitor. The result so far is “probably not” to all of them. Here it has only reached freezing during one week (when the canal froze over) which happened to be whilst we were away skiing. The thought of spending winter in consistently very cold wet snowy and or foggy conditions still seems a world away from where we are.

Snow is OK - in a ski resort at Bonascre in the French Pyrenees.

Snow is OK – in a ski resort at Bonascre in the French Pyrenees.

Despite the weather being disappointing compared to last year we have still been finding plenty to entertain us in port. Having given the game Carcassonne to a nephew and a grandson for Christmas we thought it only fair to treat ourselves to a version – and now we have become completely addicted and ready to see off any younger (or older – note to Kathy and Charles who introduced us to the game in Ohio at Thanksgiving) challengers should they happen to visit. Upwords, Cribbage, Phase 10, and numerous jigsaw puzzles are gathering dust under the piano!

'Carcassonne' - the game.

‘Carcassonne’ – the game.

Our evenings since the New Year have been taken up with DVD Christmas presents from family – the complete collection of Morse, three series of The Fall and Planet Earth. We have also seen Manchester-by-the-Sea, I. Daniel Blake, La-La-Land and Jackie (in Original language versions) at the Cap Colisee Cinema just around the corner from the port. Our regular French lessons continue every week-day afternoon watching Un Diner Presque Parfait (Come Dine with Me) on the TV in French, with French subtitles.

Maigret? - not on our DVD list this year.

Maigret? – not on our DVD list this year.

We are finding things to do that we missed out on last year. For March it is still a debate as to whether we should go to the Theatre Jean-Alary to see Rock the Ballet or Tosca or both. Yesterday we discovered the view from the tower of the Church of Saint Vincent whose 54 bell carillon we listen to often and whose regular clock chimes we hear loud and clear in the port.

View of the port - Xenia dead centre - from St Vincent tower.

View of the port – Xenia dead centre – from St Vincent tower.

The tower, built in the C14th and C15th, climbs up 235 steps to a height of 54 metres and was used variously as a look-out in times of war, a geodesic point for Maichain and Delambre when determining the length of the earth’s southern meridian, and in the execution of Cassini’s map of France.

View of the Cite - from St Vincent tower.

View of the Cite – from St Vincent tower.

Briefly, during the Revolution in 1794, the church was transformed into a foundry to manufacture artillery mountings but was restored to a place of worship by public demand the following year. I have been reading in the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of the USA from 1801-1809) his account of the French Revolution and note with interest his journey in 1786 “…returning along the coast by …. Monaco, Nice, Antibes, Frejus, Aix, Marseilles, Avignon, Nismes (sic), Montpellier, Frontignan, Cette (sic), Agde, and along the canal of Languedoc, by Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassonne, Castelnaudari (sic), thro’ the Souterrain of St Feriol and back by Castelnaudari, to Toulouse, thence to Montauban & down the Garonne by Langon to Bordeaux.” – all now familiar territory to us although the canal in Jefferson’s day skirted the town of Carcassonne and it wasn’t until 1810 that the 10 km stretch of new canal upstream and downstream of the town was completed.

View of the Midi Canal, heading west - from St Vincent Tower.

View of the Midi Canal, heading west – from St Vincent Tower.

One wet afternoon I stopped in at the Musee des Beaux Arts. I very much enjoyed the temporary exhibition of paintings by Eugene Pech, 1923-1991, a local artist who painted local scenes.

View from the stairs - Musee des Beaux Arts.

View from the stairs – Musee des Beaux Arts.

Lili managed to fit in a day with us on her way to ski with friends in Abruzzi (central Italy, but fortunately not at the hotel recently destroyed by an avalanche) and so we took the #4 bus up to the Cite and walked around the ramparts, the Chateau, and back down to the port. It is always a pleasure to visit here in this World Heritage site off season when there are only a handful of tourists rather than the more seasonal swarms.

Pam and Lili at the gateway to the Cite.

Pam and Lili at the gateway to the Cite.

We passed up the chance to go with Lili to Italy but took the train from Carcassonne to Ax-les-Thermes (an hour to Toulouse and two hours south up into the Pyrenees) to spend a week skiing in Bonascre where we arrived to not much snow, but then to three days of blizzards.

The station - Ax-les-Thermes.

The station – Ax-les-Thermes.

We were confined to our warm little rented ski apartment and so honed our Carcassonne skills and listened to podcast back issues of Desert Island Discs before being released onto the fresh powdered slopes for three days of glorious skiing in bright sunshine – our first time ever in the Pyrenees.

Lunch break on the piste - at Bonascre.

Lunch break on the piste – at Bonascre.

Back in port our main interest really is in our next meal! There are hundreds of shops within very easy walking distance through-out the draughtboard-like town streets and there are more and bigger shops on three retail parks within easy €1 bus rides. Our daily outing to ‘faire les courses’ (shopping) has become both an entertainment and our exercise. There always seems to be another boucherie, or patisserie, or boulangerie, around the next corner that we haven’t yet tried. The Saturday market in Place Carnot is still a weekly must and a great pleasure.

Saturday market - Place Carnot.

Saturday market – Place Carnot.

I have often wondered why French bread tastes so much better here than in England or in the USA. The simple answer seems to be that the French only use local wheat which is low in protein and their traditional bread is made with only flour, yeast, and water – which is why it goes stale by the end of the day (but makes great croutons and toast). There is a huge variety of different types of bread and every bakery seems to have its own range. It was at a Banette bakery where we first discovered a brown malted and seeded loaf called Pain Viking and this has now become my firm favourite from our nearby La Mie Caline (interestingly a large franchised chain of bakers) who call it a Pain Nordique (made with malted barley and wheat flour).

Pain Nordique (with a brique de brebis).

Pain Nordique (with a brique de brebis).

On the subject of franchising – a specific area of my non-boating expertise! – it is a surprisingly well used business format in France, including many of the major grocery chains and supermarkets as well as for smaller businesses such as restaurants and bakeries – but somehow it doesn’t seem as obvious to me because owners and staff don’t behave as though they are doing it by rote. I was very surprised though when early in the New Year our local Quick hamburger drive-thru changed almost overnight into a Burger King. We struggled through the automatic ordering points (unsuccessfully as it seemed impossible to remotely order a Whopper Cheese Meal) and queues at the counter to get a Whopper Meal, but ever since have chosen to go across the car park to La Pataterie, (I have now discovered this is also a franchise operation) which is a basic honest-to-goodness French bistro, featuring baked potatoes, where for not many more €s we can sit down and enjoy a two course meal and a glass of wine with efficient and pleasant service. I guess I may be getting old!

2016-12-20-14-11-26I blame the poor weather for my ‘Winter Boat To-Do List’ getting longer, with very few items as yet ticked off. The Rust-oleum paint I bought in Marmande this summer is not available in Carcassonne and, despite being listed on the Rust-oleum website as a stockist, Cuin Quincaillerie has never heard of it! –I need to somehow ship some paint in. The one tick we have managed though is a visit to IKEA in Toulouse to get a new replacement mattress for our ‘click-clack’ sofa bed – which was weary after 7 years of solid use – but even this took some planning. To order online it could only be for delivery – in our case a delivery charge of €99 plus another €20 to take away the old one – the mattress is €77, interestingly much cheaper than in England at £90. To go and collect meant renting a van and taking a chance on the item being in stock when we arrived, as you cannot reserve an item in store for collection. But then renting a van turned out to be not that straightforward either. The Avis site proved impenetrable with an English driving licence and address (and they have closed the handy office by the station here), Enterprise don’t do vans, Carrefour supermarket does but you must pay the deposit with a French cheque not a credit card, and all the car rentals are out at the airport which only has a ‘navette’ bus service to meet specific flights (one or two a day and none on Wednesdays). In the end, Europcar obliged with an easy website and a good price of €45 for two days and we have now discovered that the airport is only a five minute walk away from the #1 Bus stop, by Geant Casino, through the retail park – €1, and regular service, as opposed to €5 for the airport navette. By the time we had paid tolls and diesel and for 29kms over the 200kms mileage allowance we spent €95 – so still a bit of a saving, and we picked up a load of logs for the fire. Our helpful Capitainerie, Stephanie and Chayma, are arranging a collection of the old mattress as we, as both non-residents and in a commercial van, can’t use the ‘decheterie’ (recycling centre) – we had this same problem in England some years ago but that is quite another story involving nine old mattresses in a rented van and eight trips in our Volvo in and out of the Reading recycling centre wearing eight different hats by way of ‘circumventing the rules’.

Ikea Clic-clac sofa bed when new.

Ikea Clic-clac sofa bed when new.

But these are trifling niggles compared to the very real worry about how Brexit will affect our peripatetic lifestyle. Without our boat having its current Customs status as ‘Union Goods’, allowing free movement in all EU states, it will be visiting from outside the E.U and so will be subject to a limit of 18 months cruising before import duty and VAT become exercisable. We ourselves, under current standard rules, would be limited to a maximum visit of 90 days, with a 90 day exclusion after 90 days (whenever that falls and from all EU states), and a maximum of 180 days per year – not just in one country but in the EU as a whole. Thank goodness we came when we did as I suspect that soon we will not have the option of being able to cruise so extensively and without any bureaucratic hassle. Tant pis! We’ll just have to make the most of the year or so before the red line is drawn and we lose our ‘European liberty’.

What Brexit might really mean to us.

What Brexit might really mean to us.

Posted in 2017 season, Carcassonne, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The journey so far (part 2). 8 years and counting. R.O.I.

In my idle hours between Christmas and the New Year, on these winter days in Carcassonne warmed on sunny days by the southern sun or on grey days by the glow from Xenia’s wood burning stove, I have been thinking about the journey so far – after 8 years afloat, and two years since my last ‘The Journey so far’ blog – and about what kind of return we are getting on our investment (R.O.I for those who read balance sheets!). This latter thought was prompted by a recent forum question from a prospective boat owner, “What does it cost to run a barge?”.

Hire boat 'Keble'. Oxford Canal.

Hire boat ‘Keble’. Oxford Canal.

It was ten years ago that Pam surprised me in May 2007 with an anniversary treat – a long weekend on a narrow boat on the Oxford Canal. It was our first experience of canal boating and despite the daily rain we were both hooked by the time we returned ‘Keble’ to Oxford. By September we had ditched the plans for a buy-to-let investment, despite our financial adviser’s best efforts, and were taking another holiday on ‘Moonbeam’ on the Kennet and Avon Canal to test out our ‘ideal’ boat design theories. In November we placed our order with Colecraft and paid a deposit. Shortly after, the property market started to crash!

Hire boat 'Moonbeam'. Kennet and Avon Canal.

Hire boat ‘Moonbeam’. Kennet and Avon Canal.

Well, landing on one’s feet is a great skill to have when it comes to buying either a house or a boat and my experience on both counts tells me that serendipity has as much to do with future return on investment as does calculated forecasting of upcoming market trends. As we had found over 43 years at 19 different addresses, only 3 of them owned by us, we were living in a much nicer house than we could afford to buy.

Hillside, East Hendred.

Hillside, East Hendred.

We had no firm plans for retirement and we hadn’t made a decision to live on the boat as we were both assuming that we would carry on working. So we downsized (for the second time – downsizing is valuable experience to have when it comes to life afloat) and spent the year furnishing and decorating the boat and making our first voyages from Abingdon Marina on the River Thames.

Osney Bridge Oxford and on to the Upper Thames.

Osney Bridge Oxford and on to the Upper Thames.

In 2009 we cruised for 228 engine hours on the Thames from Lechlade to Reading and on the Kennet and Avon from Reading to Great Bedwyn and found that we were developing the confidence to live aboard full-time.

Cold and wet in May on the K&A.

Cold and wet in May on the K&A.

During the next 2 years, which we spent in Reading at the Thames and Kennet Marina and Better Boating getting to know more about the possibilities and practicalities of life afloat, it slowly dawned on us that the boat offered us new lifestyle choices – ones that involved travel and freedom from work.

A favourite mooring. Beale Park, Pangbourne.

A favourite mooring. Beale Park, Pangbourne.

In 2010 we spent 140 engine hours pottering up and down the Thames between Oxford and Henley and we began to feel that we wanted to escape the narrow confines of Marina life and explore further afield.

Lili joins us for dinner. Christchurch Meadows, Oxford.

Lili joins us for dinner. Christchurch Meadows, Oxford.

In 2011 we made an Easter trip down the K&A to Aldermaston but only set off in earnest in June to explore the Grand Union as far as Norton Junction, then back to London and the Regent’s Canal, the River Lee (stopped by riots and water shortage between Tottenham and Edmonton) and from Limehouse back up the Thames, making a detour on the River Wey to Godalming (unfortunately the Basingstoke Canal was closed), all the way up to Lechlade again before returning to Reading for another winter. We had added 450 more engine hours to our cruising log.

DBA Rally. Kingston-on-Thames.

DBA Rally. Kingston-on-Thames.

When we looked closely at the overhead costs incurred in continuing to work (self-employed) – cars, accountants, offices, marketing, insurance, professional associations – we realised that we were not getting a good return on our investment of time, energy, and capital. Cutting out our overheads, taking early pensions, and casting off would give us more income than if we continued to work and we believed would give us a considerably more interesting lifestyle. In the meantime house prices had fallen and now seemed a good time to invest in a buy-to-let, which we did before leaving port and heading west.

Paddington Basin, London.

Paddington Basin, London.

So, foot-loose (perennial itchy feet!) and fancy free, we set off, on 31st March 2012, on an unfettered voyage of discovery with no more plan than to cruise every available English waterway. Eight months later we ended up in Worsley, near Manchester, on the Bridgewater Canal.

Bristol Harbour. Waiting for the tide.

Bristol Harbour. Waiting for the tide.

Our 500 cruising hours had taken us all the way down the Kennet & Avon Canal, the Bristol Avon to Bristol where we got stuck for a week, the Severn Estuary with a pilot to the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, the River Severn to Stourport (in strong flowing river conditions and where we got stuck for two weeks after having been stuck in Gloucester for a week) and from Tewkesbury onto the Lower and then Upper Avon to Stratford and back to Evesham where we were craned out of the water, for hull blacking and some repairs.

Evesham. By road to the River Soar.

Evesham. By road to the River Soar.

After a short break here on the quay we continued by road on the back of a lorry to the Soar Navigation where at Redhill Marina, near Nottingham, we were craned back into the water. There is no wide canal through the Midlands connecting the southern waterways with the northern. After exploring the Soar it was a fast journey through Nottingham and down the Trent (!), onto the calm of the Stainforth and Keadby Canal, the Aire and Calder Navigation and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, to Leeds, where we got stuck again, for a week. We beat the November lock closures on the Leeds and Liverpool and got to Wigan in good enough time to make a trip to Manchester and Runcorn on the Bridgewater Canal, getting iced in at Lymm, before settling in to our winter mooring at Worsley Dry Dock on December 3rd.

Leeds. delayed by floods, again.

Leeds. delayed by floods, again.

Our adventures continued in 2013, putting another 550 hours on our engine, taking us first to Liverpool where we stayed in Salthouse Dock for two weeks in March before heading back along the Leeds and Liverpool, up the Rufford Arm but not able to cross the Ribble link to the Lancaster Canal, and on to York (more delays due to flooding) by May, via the Selby Canal and the River Ouse.

Skipton, Yorks.

Skipton, Yorks.

Then we headed back up the Trent to Torksey and along the Fossdyke and Witham Navigations to Boston to await a ‘weather window of opportunity’. On June 10th, in company with four other boats and a pilot we made the 10 hour Wash crossing from Boston to Wisbech on the River Nene, and then (only just) fitting  through the Middle Level Navigation to get from Peterborough to Denver on the Great Ouse to explore the Great Ouse, the Cam, the Little Ouse, the Wissey and the Lark.

Ely waterside on High School Prom night.

Ely waterside on High School Prom night.

We made our way back onto the Nene and down to Northampton by Oct 1st, where we spent the winter in the new Marina at Beckett’s Park, and we now realised that we were at the end of the road as far as new English cruising ground was concerned. We spent the winter preparing for a move to France.

Arriving in Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

Arriving in Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

Our journey through France is well documented in my recent blogs. In 2014 we put another 550 engine hours on the clock, in 33 weeks, covering 2,280kms (excluding the Channel crossing in a ferry) from Northampton to Vermenton in Burgundy. In 2015 we took another 33 weeks and 450 engine hours travelling 2,100kms from Vermenton to Carcassonne. In 2016 we took it easy, only covering 1,100kms in the South-West of France, adding another 250 engine hours in 31 weeks of leisurely cruising!

Somewhere in the South West of France.

Somewhere in the South West of France.

So when faced with finding an answer to “What does it cost to run a barge?” Specifically – Loss of interest p.a. on capital invested – Depreciation (being the difference between what the barge cost and what you can realistically expect to sell it for divided by the number of years ownership) – Annual maintenance average cost – Annual fuel cost – Annual berthing cost – Annual Insurance cost? I have to say that I didn’t really know when we set out in 2009, although I did do some research. Somehow the romance of the idea took over and to quote from Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’;

“(messing) – about in boats – or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. “What a day I’m having!” he said. Let us start at once!”

But for those wanting to stay ashore and do the figures here are some facts from our log;

  Licence fees Mooring costs Insurance Diesel – litres used
2009 £900 £3,800 £380 487
2010 £1,000 £5,600 £400 328
2011 £1,100 £3,700 £420 856
2012 £1,280 £1,500 £440 1,070
2013 £1,341 £1,348 £479 1,146
2014 £206 + €509 £474 + €1,339 £582 1,333
2015 €540 €1,890 £501 1,252
2016 €560 €2,168 £528 715 x €1.18=€845

 

Other costs Averaged per annum
Boat and engine (Isuzu 70hp) maintenance. Service intervals 250 hours. Fuel 2.25lph av. £2,500 (averaged over the last 4 years) but very little in the first 4 years
Diesel heating (Webasto) 282 litres (averaged over 7 years) – some very cold winters but the last 2 mild (in S.France)
Electric usage (when moored with land line – electric immersion 1 kw water heater) Between 10 and 20 kwh per day depending on season & charged on a meter or at €4 per day.
Propane Gas (for cooking only) 6 x 13kg cylinders @ €36 each = €216
Wood or coal for stove (winter only) £400+. We use Eco logs for ease of handling.
Depreciation I would be surprised if there has been much as the price of building an equivalent new boat has increased by 50% since 2008.
Loss of interest on capital With interest rates so low this figure has to be – say £2,000 pa (before tax) per £100,000 capital.
Return on Investment (R.O.I.) Off balance sheet!
Anyone for a game of Real Tennis?

Anyone for a game of Real Tennis?

Posted in 2016 Season, English Cruising., Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Toulouse Dry Dock.

Boats need maintenance – rather a lot of it – and every so often that includes the need to take them out of the water to inspect and work on the hull. We first cleaned and re-blacked Xenia’s bottom when she was four years old in 2012. She was craned out at Evesham Marina, water jet cleaned, and left on the hard standing over a long August bank holiday weekend for us to apply the bitumen. It rained every day, the conditions were far from ideal for painting, and we couldn’t actually get to the flat bottom which in fact had never been treated. Since then, another four years on, we have been in and out of salt water in addition to rivers and canals, whilst cruising for over 7,000 Kms and have sustained (quite) a number of bumps and scrapes all over – not to mention the appearance of a lot of rust.

Back on the Midi. PK 1 Toulouse.

Back on the Midi. PK 1 Toulouse.

The VNF covered dry dock in the Radoub basin in Toulouse (PK 6) gets booked up well in advance but we had in April been able to reserve a week’s slot for October this year. We were fortunate to have Serge to do the blacking and to complete all the formalities on our behalf as there is a fair amount of bureaucracy involved with VNF who will only take payment by cheque (from a French bank account, which we don’t have). On October 18th, as instructed, we were waiting outside the basin at 8.30am.

Waiting for the towpath bridge to be slid open.

Waiting for the towpath bridge to be slid open.

It was a half hour or so before Eric and his colleagues came to close the very busy canal side foot and bicycle path and to slide open its narrow bridge to give us passage across from the canal into the basin, where we waited and watched with interest as peniche ‘Margouillat’ was gently eased out of the dry dock.

Waiting for 'Margouillat' to come out.

Waiting for ‘Margouillat’ to come out.

This rather handsome C19th structure is a classified Historical Monument.

'Xenia' going in.

‘Xenia’ going in.

We were then bow hauled in and the water was drained. Serge provided us with a step ladder so that we could get off the boat (there is nothing provided by VNF apart from entry and exit to the dock, electricity, metered water, and access to a shower and squat loo, all of which cost us €378 for the week). We completed an anxious tour of inspection. After 8 years it didn’t seem to Serge that our 4 anodes had been working hard enough! At his recommendation we had, the day before, commissioned a diagnostic test which had established that our galvanic isolator had been doing its job and that we had no electrolytic corrosion, so any rust would be from expected ‘natural causes’.

A dirty side and an 8 year old anode.

A dirty side and an 8 year old anode.

Almost immediately Abdel set about spraying the hull and bow deck clean with a very powerful water jet. The noise was deafening. We went out for lunch, to a very good nearby pizzeria, and came back once he’d finished. Pam took the #10 bus into town, bus stop right outside the gates, to get some proper painting equipment as we planned to re-do ourselves all the non-blacking paintwork up to and around the gunwales, including the bow and stern signage panels which are impossible to reach with a steady hand when the boat is in the water.

Abdel gets to work jet cleaning right away.

Abdel gets to work jet cleaning right away.

We had been worried about reports from other boaters of pigeons roosting in the rafters but were relieved to find that this problem, which had made the dock virtually unusable for painting, had been severely dealt with – only two, to date, had made it back to the far end. There was however a smaller bird, which we never spotted, that regularly left its mark on the stern deck and hatch. As we are self-contained on the loo front with a black tank we didn’t need to go climbing up and down ladders to get to the bathroom or shower and we settled into a comfortable routine. Work started in earnest on the second day, spraying on the blacking, welding on the stern deck, and sanding down the gunwales; all being done simultaneously by five of us – which made for quite complicated logistics with only one long ladder, until Serge set up a gangplank along which we could reach the dockside from the stern deck.

Men and women at work.

Men and women at work.

A week wasn’t long enough! The two coats of blacking were completed by day three, giving them 4 days to fully dry. This included painting the very bottom (the flat bit) which is seldom done by narrowboat builders in the UK. Their excuse is that it is never exposed to air, will only get scraped off anyway in shallow canals, and the steel used is so thick it won’t rust through. The reality is though that few builders have dry docks and so they can’t get underneath when the boat is on hardstanding on wooden blocks. Dry dock operators on the other hand will usually say that the bottom should be blacked to reduce the area open to corrosion, as rust travels. We now have 8 new magnesium/stainless steel sacrificial anodes to replace the original four, which I had always suspected was on the light side for a boat of our size. The rule of thumb is, according to Serge, one every four metres around the whole boat.

Fresh blacking, new sacrificial anodes.

Fresh blacking, new sacrificial anodes.

We had been suffering from severe rust problems on our bow deck and in the bow locker. This had begun to be a problem after our first winter and despite several attempts at treating it the rust was getting noticeably worse. I now realise that it had been caused by storing coal on the deck and in the locker. When coal gets wet and seeps onto steel it becomes highly corrosive. I can’t think why this had never been mentioned to me or why so many narrow boaters in England merrily store coal on every available steel surface! It took three days of solid hammering with an industrial grinder to get to the bottom of it. Then the clean surface had to be treated and left for another day to check that no rust remained and then another day to paint the rust proofing primer and leave it to dry which left only the last day to apply the Rustoleum primer. We realised that we would need a couple more days to apply the two top coats needed, including the anti-slip material, and in the hope of being able to get the job finished arranged to stay on the quay in the basin for two days after leaving the dry dock.

Half a bucket full of rust from the bow deck.

Half a bucket full of rust from the bow deck.

In the meantime work was being done on improving the stern deck and gas locker water run-off as we were getting rust problems building up here too, through poor design, with rain water getting trapped at the bottom inside the gas lockers and on the deck between the lockers by the cabin door. The solution was to weld a raised lip onto each locker which the locker lid/step would overhang and to weld a slightly sloping piece of steel to fall back from the back door towards the existing drain around the engine hatch covers.

Gas locker modification.

Gas locker modification.

More anti-rain measures were needed, both on the roof hatch which, once removed, we found to be badly rusted around the frame and in need of rustproofing and resealing and on all the seals around the window frames.

Work on the roof hatch.

Work on the roof hatch.

The sanding of the gunwale level paintwork, rust primer treatment, two coats of top coat (we had to buy new paint to match the old as we have been unable to get Masons P Type here), and touching up the ‘Xenia’ lettering all got finished in time – just! We even remembered to get that simple little job done of getting a flag pole holder welded to the tiller.

Working around the gunwales.

Working around the gunwales.

But we didn’t leave enough time to replace the Vetus bow-thruster propeller which now only has three out of six blades left. This is a difficult job to undertake, we had it replaced at Evesham when only one blade remained, as it can only be reached through the arm’s width weed hatch and so has to be worked on ‘blind’. Serge suggested that next time we will need to remove the welded bars at either end and clean and black inside the now rusting bow-thrusted tube.

No time for work needed on the inside of the bow thruster tube.

No time for work needed on the inside of the bow thruster tube.

On our last night in dry dock, after 7 days of completely dry weather, there was a tremendous rain storm – revealing a leak in the building’s roof, fortunately over a patch of our roof where there was nothing to spoil; all the contents of our still unfinished bow locker were stored up there! The next morning we came out at 8.30 am and, although it wasn’t still raining, the air was very damp and humid and more rain was threatened later which put paid to our ongoing deck painting plan.

The floating sluice gate as the dock fills.

The floating sluice gate as the dock fills.

We did manage to get one side of the boat cleaned and one coat of primer on each deck whilst they were both thoroughly dry and well before the next rainfall and that was as much as we were able to do over the extra two days – except that we both were exhausted from all the early morning starts, the noise and the dust, and popping up and down ladders holding sanders and paint brushes and tins of paint. The boat was absolutely filthy but we had no access to water on the quay and anyway we couldn’t risk getting the decks wet!

The Radoub Basin.

The Radoub Basin.

This left us only four days to get the 99 kms and 46 locks back to Carcassonne, by the end of October. We did it with time to spare for a pump-out and roof wash on the way and arrived back to a week of fine dry weather – so we were able to finish off painting the bow and stern decks properly and a little more touching up besides. But it still leaves inside the gas and bow lockers, the engine bay, the roof and touching up the sides to do, and more besides…

In need of a rest and the new flagpole holder on the tiller post.

In need of a rest and the new flagpole holder on the tiller post.

This, Xenia’s eighth year, has proved to be an expensive one on maintenance. Having to replace all 9 batteries in the spring and then in the autumn with the dry docking and associated work, along with new paints, shower parts, an alternator and a washing machine has cost us well over €7,000.

Our last evening cruise this year approaching Lalande.

Our last evening cruise this year approaching Lalande.

By contrast to previous years, when we have generally completed over 2,000 kms and 500 hours of cruising, we have taken it easy this year covering just over 1,000 kms in 250 hours so I suppose that we have saved a bit on fuel! And it’s good to be back in Carcassonne, although the prices have gone up since last year, for our second winter here. We need the rest – and are going off on a little holiday to Ohio for Thanksgiving, via England, to spend time with family, away from the boat. But then it’ll be back to all those unfinished maintenance jobs before setting out again next April…..

Good to be back in Carcassonne.

Good to be back in Carcassonne.

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The River Tarn and Canal de Montech.

The River Tarn, running from above Albi for 147kms with 31 locks to its confluence with the River Garonne near Moissac, was from the Middle Ages busy with small wooden barges loaded with flour, coal from the Carmaux mines, barrels of Gaillac wine, and cloth from Castres until it was closed in the 1920’s as a result of competition from the railways. It can now only be navigated for short stretches from Moissac, for 8 kms upstream and 4 kms downstream, and Montauban, for 8 kms upstream, with access at each Port through a double lock.

River Tarn Quay, Moissac.

River Tarn Quay, Moissac.

The Canal de Montech, closed in 1990 but reopened in 2006, runs from Montech (Canal de Garonne PK 43) to Montauban for 10 kms with 9 locks, passing through the Agre forest – the more familiar Garonne canal plane trees giving way to oak and other species. Montech is also the site of the world’s first water slope built in 1974 – as far as I know, only very rarely used if at all – but the engines can be seen sitting idle as one passes through the five locks which it was designed to bypass!

In the double lock at Montauban.

In the double lock at Montauban.

Despite the limited distances for navigation we have managed to spend a surprising amount of time on the River Tarn during our cruising on the Canal de Garonne. Last year we only managed one night at Montauban, as we passed through in July, but went on to spend six nights on the Tarn at Moissac – one night tied to a tree upstream, two nights tied to a tree at the confluence downstream, and three nights on the Town quay with full facilities. We liked it so much that we returned in August for another four nights for a family holiday, enjoying paddle boarding, barbequing, and bird watching.

Paddleboarding on the River Garonne at the confluence with the River Tarn.

Paddleboarding on the River Garonne at the confluence with the River Tarn.

This year we spent twelve nights in September on the Town quay at Moissac, only venturing out, on a very hot day, for a picnic lunch/swimming expedition 6 kms upstream, within sight of the Chateau de Saint-Paul.

A refreshing splash in the Tarn near Moissac.

A refreshing splash in the Tarn near Moissac.

But from Moissac (PK 64) we then continued east the 21 kms and 15 locks along the Garonne Canal to Montech (PK 43). We made overnight stops at Castelsarrasin (PK 56, €13 for the night compared with €7 last year) and at St Porquier (PK 49, free no services) where we arrived at the mooring at the same instant as ‘Jo de Mer’ heading west. Fortunately the quay was empty and so we both fitted on and spent a convivial couple of nights catching up with Jeremy and Sheena on news since the ‘curry night’ at Buzet in June, when we had last seen them.

Early one morning in the Port at Castelsarrasin.

Early one morning in the Port at Castelsarrasin.

At Montech we made a left turn onto the Canal de Montech and passing the serviced quay (full with two boats) at Lacourt-St-Pierre (PK 3.5) picked up our ‘telecommande’ (remote control) from the lock keeper at Noalhac opting to spend the night between locks 4 and 5. There are wooden jetties, about 15m lengths, between most of the 9 locks on this canal and they make for very nice overnight moorings.

Overnight mooring on Canal de Montech.

Overnight mooring on Canal de Montech.

In Montauban we had a rendez-vous with cousin Paul who spent a night with us in between checking out a church organ course in Toulouse and so we stayed three nights (€14 a night) in Port to be near the station. The mooring in this small port is stern-on with short pontoon spurs, and so not ideal for our length.

The Port at Montauban.

The Port at Montauban.

On our first night a storm was threatened (this happened when we were here last year too) and the Capitaine moved us onto the trip boat loading quay, only being used at the weekend, which proved ideal.

On the trip boat quay, Montauban.

On the trip boat quay, Montauban.

We made a lunch outing onto the Tarn with Paul and decided to return the next day after his departure to spend as much time as our water tank would allow.

Paul takes the helm - lunch trip on the Tarn.

Paul takes the helm – lunch trip on the Tarn.

We settled in at Bressols (PK 105, free no services) on the 50m floating pontoon for 5 nights and liked it very much. There is an extensive and well-kept public recreation area all along this bank by the mooring, featuring multiple and well used rugby and football fields, a fitness trail, BBQ area, rowing club, skate-board-park and children’s play area.

The pontoon at Bressols.

The pontoon at Bressols.

It is also a short walk into town – bank (cash machine), butcher (excellent), two bakers (good), newsagent (ok), Vival grocery store (ok for basics) and good chemist – and a regular (every 35 minutes, Mon-Sat) bus service into Montauban which passes (only 8 minutes away) the Retail Park of Albasud with Geant Casino, Grand Frais, Bricomarche, Decathlon, and McDonald’s amongst others. This was much better for us than being in the port at Montauban, which is a long (and rather dreary) walk to the city centre and no closer by bus than Bressols to the out-of-town retail park. We had occasional visitors on the pontoon drifting in from the recreation area along with the odd fisherman, and for two nights only another boat; George aboard ‘Tofino’.

Waiting for the bus in Bressols centre.

Waiting for the bus in Bressols centre.

For a change of scene we moved on a further 3 kms to Corbarieu (PK 101, free at the limit of navigation) where on a similar sized pontoon I discovered that the electricity (but not the water) still worked if the Mairie was requested to switch the supply on and within half an hour of my phone call there were two municipal employees on the pontoon checking that it was switched on. Our water supply held out for another 5 nights.

The pontoon at Corbarieu.

The pontoon at Corbarieu.

The mooring was occupied by a lonesome duck who proved to be our only company and keen to come aboard and socialise even when not invited. We were subjected to regular inspections through all the quayside windows, being conveniently at ‘duck height’, and were followed up and down the pontoon when going about our legitimate business. Infrequent visitors to the pontoon, some with children, were not entirely convinced that the duck wasn’t with us – and made a great show of his intelligence.

The ever-present Duck at Corbarieu.

The ever-present Duck at Corbarieu.

Talking to the duck was about as much fun as we had in Corbarieu. A walk into town to visit the butcher, baker, grocery store, and café/presse yielded very little of interest. Even a visit to the Mairie to thank them for being so helpful on the phone and to ask if I owed them for the electric and if I could stay for several nights was met with indifference – not even meriting getting up and walking over to the reception counter! A walk through the surrounding apple orchards, following a sign to the ‘Auberge du Trinquet’, was nice but this, the only nearby restaurant, proved to be closed and now sold.

Apple harvesting at Corbarieu.

Apple harvesting at Corbarieu.

With a nearly empty water tank – 10 days does seem to be our limit and we guess that the full tank is about 1300 litres – we booked the Montauban lock for 2.15 pm, stopping off at Bressols to catch the bus to stock up at Geant on provisions and have lunch, and then put into port for a couple of hours to refill with water (€4). Although there was a BBQ party that night in port we did not stay (the only quay now being occupied by Hotel Boat ‘Rosa’) and after chatting to the new owners of ‘Rose of Tralee’ (like us a Colecraft-built widebeam) we continued on up the canal to moor in peace and quiet between locks 5 and 6.

Early one morning, Canal de Montech.

Early one morning, Canal de Montech.

We had a bit of time on our hands and had been planning to stay for a few days at Lacourt-St-Pierre but the quay was full, again. As we didn’t actually need any services we moored up on pins (quite a rarity for us here!) at PK 3, just before the A62 Motorway, and stayed the night before moving on all of 2 kms to moor (on pins again) on the right bank just past the bridge at PK1. From here it is a short walk to a Super Intermarche, Lidl, Gamme Vert, Bio store, Mystic Pizza and restaurant. We also benefitted from great TV (terrestrial) TNT (freeview) reception and 4G phone signal so were able to get on with some admin/ housekeeping.

Housekeeping and shopping, Canal de Montech.

Housekeeping and shopping, Canal de Montech.

It is a nice spot, despite the wasps in the bank at our stern, but next day we decided to move on the 1km to Montech to explore the town and its Tuesday market. Visitor mooring in Montech Port is stern-in, as at Montauban, and we have only ever managed to stop once before on the quay towards the lock which has a ‘no parking’ sign. We did the same again, this time finding ourselves next to ‘Tsarine’ (Daniel and Brigitte).

The Port at Montech.

The Port at Montech.

We were interested to note that the Port contains a number of ‘Incredible Edible’ planter boxes – something Lili is involved with where the movement was founded in Todmorden, Yorks – but disappointed that they were poorly looked after with only marigolds to harvest.

Incredible Edible - but only marigolds to share.

Incredible Edible – but only marigolds to share.

After a quick trip into town, with nothing interesting to report about either the town or the market, and finding Brigitte down with a ‘rhume’, we carried on, now back on the Garonne Canal, for 2 kms and 1 lock to moor at Lavache on a 25m wooden jetty (PK 40.5, no services). We like this mooring a lot, and have stopped off here on three previous occasions – but only on this one did we discover how close it is to cycle back, without having to go on a road, to the Super Intermarche et al! With TV still good, although internet connection weak, rain forecast and with thoughts of winter evenings we were persuaded to stay here for several nights – and do that dirty annual job of cleaning the flue and stove and resealing the joints.

'Tsarine' passes us at Lavache en route to  Toulouse.

‘Tsarine’ passes us at Lavache en route to Toulouse.

Rain finally came on Thursday night and on Friday, after three days of barely a boat passing, we had a succession of English boats go by – obviously enjoying the English cruising conditions! We are booked into Toulouse for Sunday so, with 57 kms and 11 locks (10 hours cruising) left to go on the Garonne, we can afford to wait for the sunshine forecast for tomorrow.

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Loafin’ in the shade. Canal de Garonne, Agen to Moissac, and on the Tarn.

After walking Lili to Agen station to catch her 8.40am train to Marseilles and taking in the supermarket on the way back to the boat we headed out from the basin going east, into what the Meteo had forecast would be increasingly hot sunshine. There was virtually no canal traffic on this 21km 3 lock stretch and after lunch we moored up at Lamagistere (PK 86) in search of blackberries.

Golfech. In the shade of a nuclear power station.

Golfech. In the shade of a nuclear power station.

We found the blackberries, not as plentiful as last year, a wasp’s nest where we wanted to moor, and no shade. It was now very hot and would remain so for days so we continued on 1 kilometre to Golfech (PK 85) where there was a mooring with trees and there we stayed for ten days – loafin’ in the shade all day.

Moored at Golfech.

Another view at Golfech.

With water and electric available (at €6 a day, under the bridge which we could just reach across the cycle path) we gave the boat a good wash noticing that the build-up of sap residue stains and specks was not really shifting much. Next day it looked as though we’d left the boat unattended for months and the staining got progressively worse – but the thought of moving out of the shade into 36c sunshine kept us stationary until we could bear it no longer and after a morning on hands and knees scrubbing, to only modest effect, moved on 4kms to Valence d’Agen (PK 81) to be away from the Plane trees.

Back in the sun with 'Tsarine' at Valence D'Agen.

Back in the sun with ‘Tsarine’ at Valence D’Agen.

Here the last of the sets from the annual ‘Au fil de l’Eau’ (son et lumiere show) were being fork lifted away for another season just before a daily influx, on both sides of the port, began of a wide range of white lorries, caravans, mobile homes, cars and scooters. When not sleepin’ in the noonday sun we watched with interest as this array of very high tech vehicles set up neat and tidy homes around us with all mod cons, causing very little disturbance and making us feel, in our still very sap stained boat, somewhat like water gypsies. They had come to set up the huge funfair to be held in the town in early September. We didn’t stay for the event but, after a week, including a visit to the wonderful Tuesday market in town, moved on the 17kms 7 locks to Moissac  (PK 64).

Les Halles, Valence D'Agen.

Les Halles, Valence D’Agen.

Down on the River Tarn quay we found ourselves in good company and with no time for sleepin’ in the evening shade (actually there wasn’t much if any) as we were kept busy with ‘aperos’. Daniel and Brigitte (Tsarine), Charles and Sally (Bluegum), Charlie and Lynne (Acadia) and then our rendezvous with Mike and Aileen (Quaintrelle – but in Citty Cate on this occasion). Citty Cate (a Caterham 7) gave up the ghost on arrival and remained stationary in Avenue de l’Uvarium whilst the rest of us tried to maintain maximum hydration in the continuing heatwave.

Market Day Moissac.

Market Day Moissac.

On the hottest day we untied and headed upstream 6kms on the Tarn to moor up to a rough bank, amazingly layin’ in the shade, to run through our ‘man overboard’ routine. For the first time our reversible gang plank cum ladder was hung over the stern double bollards and saw enthusiastic ‘climbing back aboard’ activity from Mike and Aileen.

Mike overboard on the Tarn.

Mike overboard on the Tarn.

Then came rain and a sudden drop in temperature, after a short evening storm, and Citty Cate was stirred back into action for long enough to reach the nearby little garage where, to everyone’s surprise, they had the right sized brand of UK lawn mower battery but even after fitting this she refused to go any further and had to be consigned to a low-loader for future repatriation. Mike and Aileen, after two extra nights in Moissac, opted for an early trip home on an Easy Jet flight from Toulouse – managing to dodge a French baggage handlers’ strike and arriving at Gatwick in time for a Friday evening taxi ride round the M25 back to flooding in Hertfordshire.

Citty Cate gets a new battery - but still no go.

Citty Cate gets a new battery – but still no go.

Meanwhile, despite the almost ‘English’ style weather (some drizzle and low 20c temperature) the Moissac Port BBQ went ahead and was a fun evening (helped by the remnants of the 5 litre VRAC – €1.45 a litre – red wine from Gayda, kindly left by Mike and Aileen) with a cosmopolitan mix of boaters, ex boaters, and Jim and Sandra’s boss. Jim took over the Capitaine’s job when Iain left in May for the West Indies.

Moorings on the River Tarn quay at Moissac.

Moorings on the River Tarn quay at Moissac.

A weekend followed of ‘Fetons Moissac’ of ‘Chasselas et Patrimonie’. The Chasselas de Moissac is an AOP grape (for eating) and the ‘Heritage’ day in France is when otherwise normally closed public buildings of historical interest are specially opened to the public – some galleries in the Abbey in the case of Moissac.

A lot of little grapes.

A lot of little grapes.

The Saturday and Sunday markets ran as usual and so it was a lively weekend in town and I found some great Roquefort cheese at a knock down price of less than €27 a kilo!

Great tomatoes.

Great tomatoes.

After the week’s social whirl though we were happy to return to loafin’ in the shade all day – me wearing jeans and a long sleeved shirt for the first time since April – and sleepin’ in that evening shade.

Pam puts us all in the shade.

Pam puts us all in the shade. Photo by Aileen.

One of the first records I bought, as a teenager, was a Paul Robeson LP and it had on it the original 1933 version of Lazybones – a Tin Pan Alley song written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael – which I felt attuned to then and still do now! It would be the first of my 8 ‘desert island disks’. The photos were taken by Annabel Owens when she visited us in August.

Lock gates opening.

Lock gates opening.

Lazybones, sleepin’ in the sun….how you spect to get your day’s work done? You can’t get your day’s work done……sleepin’ in the noon day sun

Another shady spot.

Another shady spot.

Lazybones, layin’ in the shade….how you gonna get your cornmeal made? You can’t get no cornmeal made….sleepin’ in that evening shade. When taters need sprayin’, I bet you keep prayin’ The bugs’ll fall off of the vine

'Over the yard arm' shade.

‘Over the yard arm’ shade.

And when you go fishin’ I bet you keep wishin’ Them fish don’t grab your line. Lazybones, loafin’ all the day…..how you spect to make a dime that way? You won’t make no dime that way…..loafin’ in the shade all day

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Conges d’ete (summer holidays) in the Lot-et-Garonne

August is summer holiday time throughout Europe and the French in particular do take their summer break seriously. Many businesses and agencies close for some if not all of August and it is common to find in small towns and villages that the baker or butcher or hairdresser will be closed for a week or more – this happens also at other times in the year – and, to the boating visitor, business and shop opening hours become even more of a lottery than usual. But in the August edition of The Connexion (France’s English Language Newspaper) I read ‘French work less – but are more efficient’. Full time French employees worked for 1,636 hours in 2015 which was 228 hours less than Britons and according to the UK Office of National Statistics (2013) French workers are about 30% more productive.

On holiday.

On holiday.

Indeed, the Tourist Industry in the Lot-et-Garonne goes into July/August overdrive and I was overwhelmed with Guides and Programmes and Booklets and Leaflets about every sort of event and distraction and Museum and walk and place to visit and thing to do. Literature on suitable activities for a variety of guests soon filled all otherwise not spoken for counter space on the boat. As our first guests for the end of July cancelled we were able to loiter about in the shade at Meilhan (along the bank from the Port which has no shade) on some extremely hot days in the high 30s and read it all at leisure.

Loitering about in Le Jardin du Cloitre, Marmande.

Loitering about in Le Jardin du Cloitre, Marmande.

We made our way back to Buzet (PK 136) for August 1st to moor up and to prepare the little Gite at ‘Au Bord de l’Eau’ (port and restaurant) in readiness for Maurice, Lauren and Ollie’s 10 day visit. I had a very early 6.15am taxi ride to the nearest station at Aiguillon (€18) in order to catch the 06.47am train into Bordeaux (ticket office not open yet, ticket machine ‘hors service’, no collector on the train) where I just missed the 08.00am hourly on the hour 30 minute navette (shuttle bus) to Merignac Airport. I caught the alternative #1 Bus (€1.80) which took just over an hour and I arrived as the 09.25 BA flight from Gatwick was touching down – just enough time to do the Avis paperwork at the conveniently placed booth by the arrival meeting point – and we were in our Ford Fiesta by 10.00am and back at Buzet by 11.30.

An early start at Aiguillon Station.

An early start at Aiguillon Station.

The rental car added a new dimension to our usual ‘reach’ of places of interest and enabled us to comply with some specific visitor requests. We had the boat and gite at Buzet (PK 136) for 4 nights before spending 5 nights all aboard, making 2 overnight stops at La Falotte (PK 146) and Forques-sur-Garonne (PK 162), making our way west (40kms, 7 locks, 7 hours) to Meilhan (PK 176) for 3 nights. Despite being on holiday, Maurice had a four hour job to complete the company payroll – which he was able to do on the Meilhan Port WiFi sitting at a picnic bench, with two connected devices, in the shade.

The Gite at Au Bord de l'Eau, Buzet.

The Gite at Au Bord de l’Eau, Buzet.

I’m with the French on holiday time being ‘no work time’. Moving the boat along the canal meant that on mooring up for the day I had the job of cycling back along the shaded canal side path – more exercise than I am really used to – to recover the car. It gave me a taste of what some boaters do on a daily basis, trailing their cars around with them, and unless I need to get a lot fitter and don’t mind falling asleep during the nightly showing of Luther dvds then, I have to say, it’s not for me!

A great cycle path along the Garonne Canal.

A great cycle path along the Garonne Canal.

But we were able to venture further afield with a varied programme of entertainments. Our first outing was to stock up with wine at the Les Caves des Vignerons de Buzet (Buzet Wine Cooperative), having first toured this large modern winery and tasted some of their very drinkable white, red, and rose wines. This was followed by a copious lunch at Les Vignerons (much talked of dessert trolley), a siesta and an evening BBQ outside the Gite sitting at the adjacent café tables (the restaurant surprisingly closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays every week and run by an English couple).

Bottling and packing production line at Buzet Cooperative.

Bottling and packing production line at Buzet Cooperative.

The next day was forecast to be overcast (possible rain) and this seemed to be an ideal time to visit Ollie’s prime request, a theme park.  Walibi Sud Ouest, near Agen, proved to be a really good family day out, with rides and entertainments to suit every age, all in a very pleasant park setting with little or no queuing time, and with a good range of food and convenient services.

Sitting out the first ride at Walibi.

Sitting out the first ride at Walibi.

We had a fun day and it only rained a little in the late afternoon – after I, in particular, had already been soaked on both Drakkar (a log flume) and on Radja River (rapids).

Once was enough for me on Radja River.

Once was enough for me on Radja River.

I particularly enjoyed the performing seal show when I was able to just sit and watch others getting wet.

Performing seals and girls at Walibi.

Performing seals and girls at Walibi.

On a sunnier, but still relatively cool (high 20s), morning we visited what we came to refer to as ‘The Nut House’ (La Maison de la Noisette) – tucked away in beautiful hilly countryside not far from Clairac.  At this large farm we were treated to an interesting talk, display, tasting, and video all about producing the hazelnut and its uses in a variety of foods. The shop tempted us into various purchases of hazelnut related products – including a Noisette Liqueur.

Ice creams at the Nut House.

Ice creams at the Nut House.

In the afternoon we headed south to Le Musee de l’Abeille (Bee Museum) at Xaintrailles where we sampled various honeys and looked at the, quite limited, display of beekeeping artefacts and chatted to Madame about my childhood memories of helping my aunt to turn the extractor manually (no electric equipment then at Willow House, Biddestone, Wilts). Again we left with a little something and me musing on just what criteria a potential ‘Musee’ owner has to meet around here (there must be hundreds of museums) and what the benefits of being listed as such might be. We didn’t have time to take in Le Musee de Foie Gras or Le Musee du Miel (honey) and  Pam and I had already visited the Musee du Pruneau (prunes) and Musee du liege et du bouchon (cork) amongst others. We went on into Vianne to visit the Verrerie d’Art (glassblower) who had unfortunately hurt his back and wasn’t working that afternoon so drove around this little Bastide Town before heading back to Buzet for aperos and Steak Frites aboard (passing up the ‘Fish ‘n Chip’ night in the Port).

Glassblower in the old station at Vianne.

Glassblower in the old station at Vianne.

We were lucky with the weather which had cooled down whilst we were in Buzet – there is no shade in the Port – and I was surprised to find that our favourite mooring spot at Le Musee de La Falotte did have a little shade. We sat in the garden on a shady picnic bench for lunchtime hamburgers and after a tour of the display of minerals, stones, and fossils settled down to a canalside BBQ and a quiet and light-pollution-free night.

Picnic lunch - hamburgers - in the garden at La Falotte.

Picnic lunch – hamburgers – in the garden at La Falotte.

Maurice and Lauren treated us to a nice dinner at Le Farniente Fourquais, a ‘guinguette’ beside the quay at Fourques, and the following night at Meilhan to Pizza Fabrizio from the van which parks in the port every Monday night.  I couldn’t resist the Supreme – “Tomate, Magret frais, Cepes, Persillade, Bloc foie gras, Mozzarella, Olives” – and we had a lot of pizza left over for breakfast!

Guinguette at Fourques.

Guinguette at Fourques.

We struck lucky again with an overcast day for our boys’ day out canoe trip on the River Garonne. Leaving the car at Canoes de Garonne in Hure, downstream from Meilhan, we were driven with the canoes to Couthures-sur-Garonne, upstream from Meilhan and with a nice museum Maison des Gens de Garonne (history of life on the Garonne) which we didn’t visit, and after an hour and a half’s paddling we beached at Meilhan where we were treated to a picnic lunch brought down by Pam and Lauren. The canal and Port are a stone’s throw from the river and the canal was breached here earlier this year.  After lunch Ollie (15), having insisted on having his own one man canoe, volunteered to let his father take a turn and joined me in the two man canoe for another hour and a half of paddling (rather limited I thought on Ollie’s part) to Hure. It was a lovely trip and we didn’t get sunstroke and only got a little wet – mainly legs and feet. The river is wide but was mostly very shallow and we had it to ourselves apart from the odd heron and buzzard and we still had enough energy left that evening to share a very festive BBQ in the Port (Halte Nautique) with Bill and Winnie (Gretige Henriette) who brought fresh corn on the cob from the nearby farm.

BBQ at the Halte Nautique, Meilhan.

BBQ at the Halte Nautique, Meilhan.

On their last night we went with Maurice, Lauren and Ollie to the Meilhan Marche Nocturne de Producteurs de Pays (Local Producers Night Market on Wednesday nights in July and August). Having seen the fisherman landing his traditional boat at Couthures, I was tempted this time to try the eel which he catches and sells at his stall. We joined Bill and Winnie at a table and I contributed for general consumption a bowl of fried whitebait, a kebab of catfish, a bowl of elvers in garlic and parsley, and a bowl of Lamprey bordelaise (a sinister looking thick dark brown stew). The uptake was disappointing and I could raise little interest even from the group of English who rather cheekily muscled in on our tablecloth whilst I was buying yet another beer to try and wash it all down. I ate on valiantly but stopped short of a “surfeit of lampreys” which was what did for Henry 1st in 1135.

Finding a space - at the Night Market, Meilhan.

Finding a space – at the Night Market, Meilhan.

Before heading off we had a farewell lunch at Le Font d’Uzas in Meilhan and I came back by bus and train after leaving them and the rental car at the airport. I had to do the final stage by Taxi from Marmande station (€45) after a slightly disrupted train journey but it prompted me to book Pascal and his red Range Rover Evoque to pick up Lili from La Reole (which is just as close to Meilhan and the stop before Marmande, coming from Bordeaux) for her arrival at 9.30pm in six days’ time.

Farewell lunch on the terrace at Le Font d'Uzas.

Farewell lunch on the terrace at Le Font d’Uzas.

In the meantime we had a bit of a clean-up and fitted in a lovely visit from Annie and Jerry who drove up from their house near Dax to sample the boating life for one night and a couple of days. The weather had warmed up considerably and we headed for shade going west turning round at Fontets (PK 182) before mooring for a night under trees at Hure (PK 179) for a BBQ. Annie was up early taking photos of the sunrise and we decided to head for Fourques (PK 162) where there was hearty Basque singing emanating from a crowded ‘Le Farniente’. We stayed aboard in the shade for lunch and then carried on to Caumont (PK 160) to wind (turn round) before heading back to Meilhan. It was a long day’s cruise (31 kms,6 locks) but this stretch of canal is blessed with plenty of shade and so we remained relatively cool on a very hot day with a light breeze running through the boat.

It's back on the bus (€1) for us now, to go shopping in Marmande.

It’s back on the bus (€1) for us now, to go shopping in Marmande.

Lili made the rail trip from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire to Meilhan in one day, taking the Eurostar to Paris (2 hours) and the TGV direct to Bordeaux (3.5 hours) and from Bordeaux to La Reole – with the only delay being the last train running 10 minutes ‘en retard’. At 10pm, right on cue, Pascal’s red Range Rover (good for giving instructions as to which Taxi to look out for at the station!) pulled into the Port. By morning she was on the back deck tuning up the little guitar she had brought, for continental rail travel, with assistance from Bill who it turns out happens to be a luthier (someone who makes stringed instruments).

Good neighbours at Meilhan. Gretige Henriette and Artemis.

Good neighbours at Meilhan. Gretige Henriette and Artemis.

Lili was with us for only 5 nights and due to catch the 8.40 TGV from Agen to Marseilles/Nice on Monday morning so we set off after a quick scenic tour of Meilhan but not before taking in the canal-side sculpture ‘Eldorado’ – a comment on the American Dream and the future danger we are in from globalisation and the spread of commercialism.

Back to the future? Pam and Lili in 'Eldorado'.

Back to the future? Pam and Lili in ‘Eldorado’.

It took us 15 hours cruising to cover the 69 kms and 14 locks to Agen. We made stops at Forques (PK 162) for the night, at Mas d’Agenais (PK 155) for lunch at Le Bistro de la Halle and a quick butcher’s at the Rembrandt in the church and to buy brochettes for dinner, before another overnight stop at La Falotte (PK 146). Pam was admitted to the Museum free (as a regular visitor) and invited to pick Mirabelle plums from the orchard and we enjoyed another BBQ in the garden in company with the friendly resident black lab-ish dog. Next day we stopped off for an excellent lunch, mooring on the bank alongside, at Le Goujon qui Fretille in Buzet (PK 136) before heading on to Serignac (PK 119) for the night.

Free WiFi at the Mas d'Agenais Tourist Office - even during their lunch break.

Free WiFi at the Mas d’Agenais Tourist Office – even during their lunch break.

We cruised into Agen on Sunday morning experiencing a familiar muddle over the Pont-Canal d’Agen (Aqueduct) with a downstream boat following the green light but in fact being shut out of the lock by the previous boat and hanging around in limbo and then entering the lock, before the next downstream boat who had activated a new sequence, which then gave them a green light whilst we were still crossing the aqueduct. It proved hard to explain to an irate Le Boat hirer (French) that we were not jumping a red light – but we did then twizzle the stick for him when the Danish couple closed the lock on him when he was only half-way across and perhaps he will realise on his way back that the lights are not just for crossing the aqueduct but for the whole lock sequence – and for boats coming up and exiting the last lock, there is no light for crossing the aqueduct.

Hire boat loose on the Agen Aqueduct.

Hire boat loose on the Agen Aqueduct.

We had time in the afternoon to check out the walk time to the station (10 mins along the far side of the canal and across the bridge and road to the railway footbridge complete with lift the other side) and to continue on to the Musee des Beaux Arts to see the Venus de Mas, paintings across the ages, porcelain and ancient artefacts. Lili particularly liked the spiral staircase and the furniture and the pastries we bought on the way back to the boat. A parent has a duty I feel to ensure that offspring get a little bit of culture, even if on holiday!

Musee des Beaux Arts, Agen.

Musee des Beaux Arts, Agen.

We left Lili at Agen station in the morning – train delayed by 10 minutes – did a quick grocery shop and moved on, our summer holiday guest arrangements having all worked out as we had anticipated. Quite a relief!

Lili leaves us at Agen. Next stop Nice.

Lili leaves us at Agen. Next stop Nice.

Our next visitors are not due till September 12 – so we have time to moor up somewhere and just do nothing for a couple of weeks. Actually there is quite a list of boat maintenance and repairs to do – but I’m not looking at that yet, it’s too hot – and we are still officially on holiday.

Moored at Agen, 10 minutes walk from the station.

Moored at Agen, 10 minutes walk from the station.

 

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Slow life’ on the River Baise.

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.

June 27. Official launch of the Tourist Season at Valence-sur-Baise.

June 27. Official launch of the Tourist Season at Valence-sur-Baise.

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.

Some very local produce (excluding the bananas).

Some very local produce (excluding the bananas).

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.

Valence Town House and 250 year old tree.

Valence Town House and 250 year old tree.

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.

Empty lot in Condom town centre.

Empty lot in Condom town centre.

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.

Impressive old grape press in the Armagnac Museum, Condom.

Impressive old grape press in the Armagnac Museum, Condom.

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!

Chateau Cugnac, Condom.

Chateau Cugnac, Condom.

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.

Our favourite mooring spot in Nerac.

Our favourite mooring spot in Nerac.

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.

Our first experience of a 'producers' night market'. Nerac.

Our first experience of a ‘producers’ night market’. Nerac.

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.

Maurice to the rescue removing the old washer/dryer.

Maurice to the rescue removing the old washer/dryer.

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!

Darty driver, Maurice, and me -  the new machine being manoeuvred into the bathroom.

Darty driver, Maurice, and me – the new machine being manoeuvred into the bathroom.

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.

Darty delivery on the quay and another first for Le Capitaine.

Darty delivery on the quay and another first for Le Capitaine.

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.

Another lovely evening in Nerac.

Another lovely evening in Nerac.

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.

At the 'Terraces du Petit Nerac' for lunch.

At the ‘Terraces du Petit Nerac’ for lunch.

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' being pumped out in Bapaume Lock.

‘Le Somail’ being pumped out in Bapaume Lock.

‘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.

Great food, great band and another Tuesday night market in Nerac.

Great food, great band and another Tuesday night market in Nerac.

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.

Pot luck dinner with new friends at Acqua Viva.

Pot luck dinner with new friends at Acqua Viva.

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.

July 14th and the Port is cleared of boats ready for fireworks.

July 14th and the Port is cleared of boats ready for fireworks.

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’.

Pop up 'Entreponts' getting ready for another Tuesday night market. Farewell for now.

Pop up ‘Entreponts’ getting ready for another Tuesday night market. Farewell for now.

‘Slow life’ or ‘messing about in boats’, whatever you call it, doesn’t get much better than this!

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment