Saturday 18th June. We arrived in Nerac on a lovely sunny morning ten days ago. It has rained every day, on and off and sometimes torrentially, for the last eight. We have explored and shopped and had plenty of time left over for reading and snoozing on showery afternoons. Whilst all over France other rivers are in flood, or canals breached, the river here has stayed calm despite the rain. I guess it is dry in the Pyrenees.
Arriving in Nerac.
We love Nerac, which nobody much has ever heard of. It is a civilised little town with a long history, mainly of tolerance and intellectual freedom, and its niceness seems to emanate from every building, dilapidated as some of them may be. It was the family home of Prince Henry of Navarre, who became King Henri IV of France, and still remains the capital of the Albret Region, and it was he who sponsored the early dialogue between Protestants and Catholics which resulted in the Treaty of Nerac in 1578. This eventually led to the Edict of Nantes in 1598, giving Huguenots substantial rights and freedoms, and ended the wars of religion. He also left behind a broken hearted gardener’s daughter, who having been stood up by him for a Royal Ball, went to drown herself in the river – giving rise to the French expressions “conter Fleurette” and “fleuretter” and the English derivative “flirt”.
A flirt in the Parc de la Garenne, Nerac.
On Monday 6th June, bright and sunny, once down through the double “descente en Baise” locks at Buzet we made a sharp turn to starboard (PK55) and started our ascent upriver to Vianne (PK 46) where above the lock there is a good long quay with free mooring, water and electric.
Vianne Town quay.
This old bastide (fortified) town still has its C13th walls and gates largely intact although there is not much by way of commerce left to defend. It was due to have its first summer night market (the only town to start these in June) on Friday but this was now in doubt, we learned at the ‘Atelier du Cuir’ (hand stitched leather saddle bags for motor bikes etc), when the organisers realised that it also happened to be the opening night of the ‘foot’ (the European football tournament in June/July). We visited Dino Glass in the old station house and watched some expert glass blowing before returning to the boat and settling in for the night.
Vianne, from one C13th gate to another.
On the next day we did a very short hop to Lavardac (PK 43) where, again above the lock, there is a good length quay (no services at present) and as it was empty we stopped to explore. I had spotted on ‘Around Me’ (app) that there is a supermarket within a short bike ride and so we set off for a bit of exercise and retail therapy.
Lavadac town quay.
On the way to the SuperU (which turned out to be a brand new ‘flagship’ store with cafeteria included) this short bike ride took in a visit to Barbaste, which is actually on the River la Gelise before it joins the Baise at Lavardac, and we stopped off here to see the C13th fortified mill ‘Moulin des Tours’ and its Romanesque bridge.
Moulin des Tours, Barbaste.
That evening it was lock closing time when a hire boat passed us heading upstream – we heard the Spanish long before we saw them – and we wondered where they were planning to moor as there was nothing before Nerac with several locks in between. In the meantime a young couple had struck up a slightly out of tune duo of voices and guitar on the park bench just above us on the bank. The eight Spanish ladies were soon back, still all talking at once, and moored next to us. After enquiring about water and electricity (none) they wandered into town and on their return settled in at 9.30pm to start their roof top barbeque which in true convivial Spanish style lasted into the small hours. Next morning we made a sharpish get-away and had a beautiful cruise, locks all in our favour, taking two hours to reach the port at Nerac (PK 35).
The lock at Nerac.
In 1952 a flood destroyed many of the lock gates above Lavardac and the navigation was subsequently abandoned with the river banks and rights being sold to the riparians and this is still largely the status quo. Mooring is restricted to only a few quays and ports, especially few going upstream from Nerac, and it was not until the 1990s that the two local departments, Lot-et-Garonne and Gers, invested sufficient funds to undertake restoration works and to negotiate navigation rights. The maximum draught is stated at 1.2m but this is often lower on parts of the river in dry conditions, and so it is generally advised as being less than a metre, and the lock width reduces to 4.2m. None of this is an impediment for us but it is so for larger boats which have to forego travelling up this jewel of a river. There are advantages to having an English canal boat!
The King’s Bathing Pavillion, Nerac.
On our second night in port we were invited by Maurice, le Capitaine, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his founding of ‘La Maison de la Peche et d l’Eau’, an old warehouse on the right bank which he and some friends have converted into a little museum, meeting and party hall. In the course of conversation over aperos I idly mentioned the sign on the quay indicating a pump-out machine and enquired whether it worked. He was full of enthusiasm and we made a date for later in the week to have a celebratory session – it too was in its fifteenth year but was as yet unused. I had checked the Meteo which forecast bleak and wet weather for at least a week so we decided to take advantage of the special weekly mooring rate of €59 (as opposed to €11 per night with the fourth night free) including water and electric and pump-out.
Behind old walls, a pump-out station in Nerac Port.
We set about getting to know the town, visiting the Henri IV Museum in what little is left of the old Chateau, walking through the leafy Parc de la Garenne upstream along the river banks, popping into the ‘Chocolaterie Artisanale La Cigale’ to dodge a heavy downpour, viewing the art on display in the Galerie des Tanneries on the quay beside our mooring, and shopping in the excellent Saturday market (twice).
Chateau-Musee Henri IV, Nerac.
Our major bit of ‘trippery’ though was to take the ‘Chemin de Fer Touristique du Pays de L’Albret’ from Nerac Station to Mezin. The schedule of train times was somewhat limited in June to Wednesdays and Sundays and only running if more than 8 people showed up on the day. We settled on the 10.30am on Sunday so as to have time in Mezin to visit the Cork Museum, only open in the afternoon that day, and we were lucky enough to encounter a jolly group of about twenty all waiting at the station. It was an hour’s ride along a track definitely less travelled taking us through lovely countryside, a stunning 1.5km tunnel, into the Landes forest and on to Mezin, a town once solely occupied in the production of cork, mainly for the wine trade, grown locally.
To Mezin. A railtrack less travelled.
The jolly party on the train with us were dropped off, as were we, outside the ‘Sept Princes’ restaurant by the coach which took us the short distance from the train terminus (I don’t think it could be classed as a station) to the town. They had booked! We walked up into the town square where the one stall of the Sunday Market was packing up and apart from a few drinkers in the Bar/Tabac there didn’t look to be much prospect of a meal until a kind local directed us to ‘Le Relais de Gascogne’, the only other restaurant and on the other side of town. We had a very pleasant lunch there although I suffered garlic poisoning (well, it seeped through every pore of my skin and fibre of my body!) that evening from the ‘Potage’ which came as an unexpected prelude to the decent three course €19.90 Sunday ‘Menu’ which I had ordered.
Le Relais de Gascogne, Mezin.
We had an interesting tour of the ‘Musee du liege et du bouchon’ with time enough left before the coach came to pick us up at 4pm to watch some seriously expert ‘petanque’ being played in the square.
Sunday afternoon petanque in Mezin.
Then it was back on the train with the now even jollier party (I wondered if their lunch had been better than ours) for a repeat performance of eccentric level crossing arrangements but without the commentary we had enjoyed on the outward trip. The train and track is run and maintained by an enthusiastic group of volunteers.
Back aboard the Train Touristic.
By June 19th, Fathers’ Day, the forecast was for four clear rain free days and so we set off early that morning thinking that we might have to make the whole six hour trip to Condom. Within an hour we were sheltering from a heavy downpour at the la Saboule lock waiting quay (PK 31) – but it soon passed and by lunchtime we had reached the empty Quai de Lasserre (PK 25, a good 50m mooring, no services) where we stopped and spent the night after a hearty roast chicken lunch.
Quai de Lasserre.
The sun shone the next morning as we made our way the short distance on to Moncrabeau (PK 21), where on the 40m quay a Le Boat was under repair, but we fitted in on the downstream end partly under the bridge attaching to some hidden and rather small bollards that looked like mushrooms but were perfectly usable and we even had just enough electric cable to reach the free supply.
Spotting the Rock of Gibraltar from Moncrabeau.
Moncrabeau is the self-proclaimed Capital of Liars and hosts, biennially alternating with its Belgium twin Namur, a competition to crown the King or Queen for the year – judged by the gathered members of the ‘Academy of Liars’ who vote with grains of salt. There are interesting boards placed around town on a ‘Liars Walk’ with tales of the Queen’s (QE II) visit here and pointing out that you can see the Rock of Gibraltar lighthouse on a clear day, amongst other tall tales.
Liar’s Chair, Moncrabeau.
We walked up the steep hill before lunch – it is a very pretty village with some lovely gardens and I spotted a Museum that would be open that afternoon, and so we decided to stay for the night – and after lunch I bought an ice-cream in the campsite beside the mooring before heading back into town to look round the small Museum of old costumes – which also serves as the local library once a week for the schoolchildren and has a herb garden – and sells quite nice postcards of pictures taken by a local resident Scotsman.
Musee at Moncrabeau
There is a bar which opens only for two hours in the morning and although I was tempted, by the Madame who materialised to open the closed Museum when she spotted me hanging around outside in the square, and gave me a passion flower to put in my hat, the forecast was for even hotter weather and we thought that travelling in the relative cool of the morning was what we preferred and indeed we had a really beautiful two and a half hour cruise reaching Condom (PK 10) at midday.
Condom. Getting hotter.
It was getting hotter. The port in Condom is surrounded by quite noisy roads and car parking beside the moorings and although things did quieten down considerably at night we didn’t fancy sitting out another very hot day there so we decided to stay just one night. That afternoon we walked up into the town centre, visited the Cathedral, paid homage to the Four Musketeers, found the rather lack lustre Leader Price supermarket, bought some great fresh fruit and veg from a brilliant shop by the cathedral, some disappointing bread from the boulangerie, and a couple of lamb chops from a nearby butcher and tried to stay cool on the boat. Mooring fees are €10 (plus 20c pp) per night including water and electric and we were given some useful advice about the trip boat’s daily timings – as it is best to avoid meeting it in the very narrow passages upstream between Condom and where it turns at ‘kamikaze corner’. The canal cuttings above each lock were getting longer and narrower and shallower as we made our way upstream.
Childhood heroes, The Four Musketeers, outside the Cathedral in Condom.
With temperatures again forecast to be in the high 30Cs (90F+) we made a reasonably early start on a beautiful sunny morning. The river twisted and turned, narrowed and widened, with the dappled light and shade cast over the water by the trees on both banks making for interesting navigation – and scenes that brought to mind long lost memories of perfect childhood summer days. At times it reminded me of the River Kennet and at times of the upper reaches of the Thames – and how familiar this area of the Gers felt to a southern Englishman. It was a delightful 3 hour cruise – I felt it would have been worth coming to France for this trip alone – and on arrival at Valence-sur-Baise (PK 0) at midday we were greeted by the friendly senior gent who ‘occupies himself with the port’.
The end of navigation, the Port at Valence-sur-Baise.
The afternoon temperature rose to 100F in the boat (hotter outside) and so we made the steep climb up to the village to visit the Bio (Organic) Market held there every Wednesday evening. By the time we reached the town square we had to recuperate inside the cool church and we said our prayers for the Brexit vote due the next day. We climbed up the church tower for a great view over the surrounding Gers countryside – beautiful, and I gave thanks for having been able to travel through a peaceful and united Europe during my entire lifetime.
View of Market square, Valence, from the Church tower.
The market was disappointing with no cheese stall – so not what I call a market at all! We sought solace and shade in the local bar and after buying an aniseed loaf of bread (the only bread left in the bakery, which turned out to be rather Moorish) we sauntered back down through the ‘Herisson’ gate (said to be named by the English ‘Here is Sun’) back to the boat and a picnic table in the shade for a light supper.
Our picnic table in the shade.
Another scorcher was forecast and we set off on our bikes the next morning along the newly created cycle route/footpath ‘Sentier Baise’ running from Valence along the river to Flaran, a National Monument and a gem of a 12C Cistercian Abbey.
Not only are the buildings cloisters and gardens beautiful, and there are some well laid out and interesting exhibits including the pilgrim route to Saint Jacques de Compostelle, but we were able to view the Simonow collection of paintings – Picasso, Soutine, Renoir, Rubens, Gainsborough, Reynolds amongst many others ancient and modern and a real surprise for me – four Dali sculptures.
The Simonow Collection. Works by Dali amongst many others
What an unexpected treat, and I am pleased to think that I will always remember with pleasure where I was in Europe on that fateful Brexit Day.
Time for quiet reflection in the cloisters. Brexit Day.