‘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

On the River Baise in June.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Kings' Bathing Pavillion, Nerac.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Flaran Abbey.

Flaran 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

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.

Time for quiet reflection in the cloisters. Brexit Day.

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

Canal de Garonne – a 3 week recce from Buzet to Castets and back.

Once safely off the River Lot and across the River Garonne we headed into Port, on the Canal at Buzet, rather than continuing on up the River Baise. We had three confirmed dates for visitors in July and August and needed to work out the logistics of getting them to the boat from Bordeaux airport or train station and back again whilst also positioning the boat for three interesting but relaxed cruises in between.

A good lunch in Buzet.

A good lunch in Buzet.

We spent 3 nights in the main port at Buzet (PK 136), Aquitaine hire boat base, and visited the small town for the first time. We liked it and started to relax after our rather harrowing 3 weeks on the Lot.

Port de Buzet, Val d'Albret.

Port de Buzet, Val d’Albret.

We also discovered that in the other little port/Halte Nautique, ‘Au Bord de L’Eau’, there is a small gite and we booked this for 4 nights as a spare bedroom so that we could spend some time with family here rather than being 5 on the boat for a whole 9 nights and with a rented car could explore the surrounding countryside.

Au Bord de L'Eau Restaurant and Port with Gite, Buzet.

Au Bord de L’Eau Restaurant and Port with Gite, Buzet.

On our way to Villeton (PK149) for the night we stopped off at Damazan (PK 140, with difficulty as all the bankside seems to be now occupied by permanently moored boats) for a quick shop (good butcher) and thereafter we were breaking new ground again. A short 1 hour cruise brought us to the quay at Mas d’Agenais (PK 155) in good time for a wander round town, a haircut, a visit to the church to admire the painting by Rembrandt , and a grocery shop, all before lunch.

A church with a Rembrandt in Mas d'Agenais.

A church with a Rembrandt in Mas d’Agenais.

We spent the weekend here in the very pleasant company of our two neighbours, Anne and David on Cassandra, and Jeremy and Sheena on Jo de Mer. It rained all day on Sunday but we had both electric and water (from token operated bornes, tokens from a machine in the toilet block , €2 for 4 hours electric or 15 mins water). It was this kind of companionship which we had missed so badly on the Lot. I did test out the quayside pump-out machine which showed signs of life but had no suction. The Mairie made a call on my behalf (not operated by them) but advised me not to hang around unduly for the technician to arrive!

The one lane suspension bridge at Mas d'Agenais crossing the Garonne, both canal and river.

The one lane suspension bridge at Mas d’Agenais crossing the Garonne, both canal and river.

From Mas d’Agenais (PK 155) we made it to Meilhan-sur-Garonne (PK 175) in four hours, making a note that all along this stretch of the canal there is wonderful shade and an excellent towpath/cycleway – a good escape for overheated guests in need of some exercise. At Meilhan we learned of other Gite options on the canal but also found that there is a campsite right beside the Port. We decided to press on to Castets the next day but booked in to spend the weekend on our return exploring the surrounding area.

At the Halte Nautique at Meilhan. Bordeaux, a fellow Colecraft built boat.

At the Halte Nautique at Meilhan. Bordeaux, a fellow Colecraft built boat.

Castets-en-Dorthe (PK 193) is the end of the canal before heading onto the tidal River Garonne to Bordeaux. It was a pleasant day’s cruise from Meilhan (PK 175) with time to stop for lunch in the Port at Fontet (PK 182) and for an afternoon visit to the ‘Musee des monuments en allumettes’ (that’s the Palace of Versailles and other buildings painstakingly modelled in matchsticks). One of life’s more eccentric little surprises!

The Port at Fontet.

The Port at Fontet.

Bruno, the capitaine at Castets, had cleared a space for us on the service quay (on his day off) as all the other moorings are stern-in, and impractical for a boat of our length and shape.

Castets-en-Dorthe at the service quay.

Castets-en-Dorthe at the service quay.

After fuelling up and pumping-out at Castets, and discussing with Bruno the ins and outs of a possible trip down the Garonne to Bordeaux in August, we turned round and headed back to Meilhan making an overnight stop at Hure (PK 180), a charming little village. ‘Wild’ moored beside an old house we learned from the owner, who came to offer us water if we needed it and to desist from strimming his garden if we were staying the night, that it had been an old tobacco farm (nearby Tonneins is renowned as the capital of Gauloise cigarettes) and in his family for 300 years.

Hure and a delightful spot beside an old tobacco farm.

Hure, a delightful spot beside an old tobacco farm.

Back at Meilhan (PK 175) we settled comfortably in to this relaxed and shady port for a long weekend. There is a bus stop at the Port with a regular 6 day a week service to and from Marmande, with three supermarket stops on the way to the station. Perfect. On the first day we went as far as Leclerc to do a mammoth shop and to have lunch in the surprisingly good ‘cafeteria’.

Back in the real world - a visit to Leclerc.

Back in the real world – a visit to Leclerc.

On the next day we explored Meilhan itself, which is quite a climb up from the port but has a splendid view over the Garonne valley from its Place du Tertre. Although there is only a butcher (good) baker (good) and small proximarche (closed that week) chemist and 3 restaurants it is a very pleasant town to walk round and we learned that in July and August it comes alive every Wednesday with a ‘Producers’ Night Market’. These events are big features of this part of France and apparently not to be missed and ideal for entertaining visitors!

A great view over the Garonne valley from Meilhan, Place du Tertre.

A great view over the Garonne valley from Meilhan, Place du Tertre.

Saturday is market day in Marmande and so we were up early enough to catch the 8.40am bus from the Port (€1 per trip or for multiple changes if within an hour, €3 unlimited rides for 1 day) and making a change in the Market Square were able to get out to Decathlon to inspect tents – although I ended up only buying new shorts. From there we bussed back into town to look around and visit the Tourist Office and the Museum and to shop briefly in the market before catching a bus home, getting back in time for lunch.

Courtyard of the Tourist Office in Marmande.

Courtyard of the Tourist Office in Marmande.

The weather forecast was really bad for Monday, and it did rain for most of the day, so we extended the weekend by a night and set off for Pont des Sables on Tuesday. We had been having trouble with our shower tap which was almost refusing to turn and after trying home grown decalcification remedies I had decided to seek the help of a professional boat yard/plumber. Jean-Pierre of Emeraude Navigation was able to free up the mechanism and effect an improvement but was unable to replace the wearing out parts which I will now have to try to order from England.

Trip boat at Pont des Sables, busy boatyard and port.

Trip boat at Pont des Sables, busy boatyard and port.

The Halte Nautique at Pont des Sables was full (of permanently moored looking) boats and so we carried on the short distance to Fourques-sur-Garonne (PK 162) where there is a long grassy picnic area with room for plenty of boats. We moored on pins and stayed the next day which, as forecast, was persistently wet. Although we found the small grocery shop was closed on Wednesdays we were pleased to find that the café/resto/ginguette ‘Le Farniente Fourquais’ was open for lunch so we were able to have a pleasant couple of hours off the boat and sheltered from the rain. We lit the fire after lunch – June 1st! That night we were joined by the hotel boat St Louis.

Sitting out a rainy day beside a handy restaurant at Fourques.

Sitting out a rainy day beside a handy restaurant at Fourques.

Thursday was fine and we made an early stop at Caumont-sur-Garonne (PK 160) to inspect the mooring jetty and water and electric set up. There is also a camper van/rv park alongside on the same bank but nothing in town and we decided to move on. At Mas d’Agenais (PK 156) we were stopped in the lock by a throng of firemen who said we could go no further on account of a diesel spill, so we sat patiently in the empty chamber, watching an amazingly congested procedure (too many firemen to count all at once but all shaking hands with each new vehicle arrival) involving a cordon across the canal downstream and sawdust (I assumed) all around us. It transpired that a hire boat in the base just above the lock had had its water tank filled with diesel to overflowing.

An incident at the Mas d'Agenais lock.

An incident at the Mas d’Agenais lock.

Once released by the ‘pompiers’ we moved onto the empty quay beyond the bridge and settled in for the night making a visit to the shops the next morning before making our way to Lagruere (PK 152) where there is a serviced quay and restaurant. We checked this out for future reference and decided to move on.

Bar Restaurant La Halte at Lagruere.

Bar Restaurant La Halte at Lagruere.

We reached La Falotte (PK 146), where there is a Museum of Fossils and Minerals which we had enjoyed visiting last summer, in time to walk their wildflower trail and we enjoyed a lovely display of cornflowers, Shasta daisies, and orchids (pyramid, I think) amongst other little treasures. Then it was back to the boat for Friday night drinks and cribbage in this well kept private garden setting where mooring is free and encouraged (but no services provided). Just a lovely country spot and amazing to realise that the retired owners, Colette Sacau and Jean-Pierre Naegely, work so hard to keep up their extensive grounds for the enjoyment of visitors. Pam had to buy a piece of hand-made jewellery from the Museum shop.

Wild flowers (orchids) at La Falotte.

Wild flowers (orchids) at La Falotte.

From there it was a short trip back to Buzet (PK 136) where we had reserved a mooring and booked ourselves in for the Music and Curry Night at ‘Au Bord de L’Eau’, the restaurant/bar/port run by Kevin and Sara (both English). We shared a table with Jeremy and Sheena and enjoyed a convivial evening.

Back in Buzet - 4th boat out at Au Bord de L'Eau.

Back in Buzet, 4th boat out at Au Bord de L’Eau.

The Lot was closed again – quite a few boats were hanging around waiting to get on (good luck to them!) -and questions were being raised about the Baise along with reports of the extensive flooding in Paris and in the Loire valley. We stayed another night and I popped down to the ‘descente en Baise’ locks where the eclusier, a young lady lying on the grass bank reading a book (it took direction from a French boater also there for me to recognise her) assured me that the Baise was fine and had suffered no interruptions. I told her we’d be round the next morning.

Descente en Baise, turn left towards the Lot but this time we'll take a right turn.

Descente en Baise, turn left towards the Lot but this time we’ll take a right turn.

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

The Lower River Lot – coming down (avalant)

From Lustrac we started heading back downstream on Thursday May 5th – a public holiday as we discovered on arrival at the supermarket at St Sylvestre that morning. We spent another 13 days on the Lot, the last four of which were courtesy of the Garonne Pilots who cancelled our booking for a crossing on Friday May 13th – but this enforced extra bank holiday weekend on the Lot turned out to be our most enjoyable.

564

Sunset at Le Temple sur Lot.

The surrounding countryside is deeply agrarian and renowned for its production of fruit and vegetables, especially strawberries and Ente plums – and at this time of year the profusion of roses flowering in all the villages and gardens is magnificent.

585

Roses flowering in every garden

We spent a night on the pontoon at Ste Livrade (PK 32.5, free no services) and then a further 5 nights on the quay at Le Temple-sur-Lot (PK 25, free with water and electric) and it was from here that we walked to the Latour-Marliac water lily nursery and gardens.

Temple-sur-Lot on the way through town.

Temple-sur-Lot on the way through town.

Although too early in the season to benefit from the full flowering of all the hybrid lilies grown here we had a very pleasant day wandering around and eating an excellent lunch on the terrace of the Cafe Marliacea.

Lily ponds and Café at Latour-Marliac

Lily ponds and Café at Latour-Marliac

With a wedding anniversary lunch date due we decided to move back to Clairac to be near a goodish restaurant – we ate at L’Ecuelle d’Or – and spent another 4 nights (making a total of 7 nights spent here whilst on the Lot) on the town quay (PK 10, free with electric and water). Whilst in town, we spotted a large billboard advertising ‘Les Fraisiades de Clairac’ and so we hung around to see what it might be.

'Fraisiade' - not a word in any of our dictionaries.

‘Fraisiade’ – not a word in any of our dictionaries.

We also spotted a small directional sign to an ‘Iriseraie’ and followed it on foot to an iris enthusiast’s garden of 226 varieties of iris, all in flower.

'Iriseraie' another word not in our dictionaries.

‘Iriseraie’ another word not in our dictionaries.

The ‘strawberry fayre’ on Sunday turned out to be a modest affair on the day with a few old tractors on display and a couple of tents selling strawberries.

An old French tractor.

An old French Renault tractor.

We had noticed on our way downstream on Friday from Temple to Clairac that work had begun on installing the pontoon at the Prune Museum and so we telephoned to find out if they were ready to receive visitors. Shortly after listening to their recorded message three times to try and get their bank holiday opening times I was amazed to get a phone call from them and an invitation to come and overnight on their pontoon. We were there by lunchtime!

Delicious local strawberries, four varieties.

Delicious local strawberries, four varieties.

We spent our last two nights on the Lot here (PK 17, free no services) and had a very enjoyable time. The Museum was fun and interesting to visit and we came away from the Museum Shop loaded with prune goodies.

A bag of prune delicacies and a prune beret from the Museum shop - no jokes please.

A bag of prune delicacies and a prune beret from the Museum shop – no jokes please.

On bank holiday Monday we had a delightful 1km walk in warm sunshine along the river bank through the farm’s orchards to Granges-sur-Lot – a pretty little village – returning in time to drink a prune beer on the terrace outside the Museum in company with the farm dog, fancy chickens, and M et Mme. Lunch was a BLT on the boat followed by 2 varieties of prune ice-cream.

Bank holiday Monday on the farm - sunshine, prune beer and prune ice-cream.

Bank holiday Monday on the farm – sunshine, prune beer and prune ice-cream.

A call to the Garonne Pilots on Tuesday morning, May 17th, gave us the go ahead for a 1pm crossing from the lock at Nicole and so we headed downstream passing through Clairac lock and stopping at Aiguillon (PK 3, free mooring but services no longer in use) to pop in to the market.

Mooring at Aiguillon.

Mooring at Aiguillon.

It was a beautiful sunny morning and we had the river to ourselves with more herons than fishermen in attendance – a splendid cruise to end our time on the Lot. At Nicole we had an hour’s wait as the pilots escorted a boat crossing downstream before they lowered us through the lock, attached ropes to either side of our bow, and towed us the 5kms upstream through a racing current to the Saint Leger lock on the Baise.

Up the Garonne under tow from the Pilot.

Up the Garonne under tow from the Pilot.

The River Lot was originally navigable for 260kms from the Garonne to Livinhac but by 1926 had been removed from the List of Navigable waterways. It is only since the 1990s that 4 separate sections have been revived – the River is not under VNF jurisdiction but is run by the local departments who have a grand plan to restore through navigation, at which time it will make for very extensive cruising. So for many years it was only local fishing boats on the river and on the Lower Lot only since 1995 were boats able to come up to Villeneuve and since 2001 to navigate the short section further upstream.

On our own every night - moored above the barrage at Clairac.

On our own every night – moored above the barrage at Clairac.

We felt a certain sense of isolation during our time on the Lot – hardly another boat moving and never any fellow boaters for company at any of our overnight stops. The fishermen were not always welcoming and sometimes downright hostile, regarding quays and pontoons as their own personal domains and refusing to give way to boats, which made for very uncertain availability of one’s choice of mooring.

Hostile fishermen refuse to let us moor at Hauterive.

Hostile fishermen refuse to let us moor at Hauterive.

So, despite the often lovely scenery and tranquil rural setting, we were glad to get back onto the Garonne Canal at Buzet (equally rural and tranquil but with some agreeable company included) and we have decided to explore further west to Castets-en-Dorthe before coming back to tackle the River Baise.

Safely back on the Garonne Canal at Buzet.

Safely back on the Garonne Canal at Buzet.

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south | 2 Comments

The Lower River Lot – going up (montant)

The only access from other waterways onto the Lower Lot is from the Garonne Canal at Buzet, locking down onto the last 5kms of the River Baise to join the River Garonne where a pilot (on-board for hire boats or free escort for private boats) guides you through the 5km stretch between Saint Leger (Baise) and Nicole (Lot) locks. We had heard dire reports of too much or too little water making the Garonne crossing impassable for long stretches of the year and of boats getting stuck on the River Lot for the entire winter and or for the entire summer.

DuBreil Guide. Access from the Garonne to the Lot and the Baise.

DuBreil Guide. Access from the Garonne to the Lot and the Baise.

Leaving Moissac (PK 64), fully fuelled and pumped out (and saying our goodbyes to Iain and Kaz who after 10 years managing the Port are moving to Dominique), we decided to make the most of a three day window of forecast dry weather before another wet weekend, thinking that we might make the 71kms and 16 locks to Buzet (PK 135) before it rained. We had a smooth journey stopping overnight at an old wooden jetty (2 derelict boats attached) at La Magistere (PK 86) and then to bollards on the right bank at Serignac (PK 119) (the serviced jetty being already full). I telephoned the Port at Buzet to discover that they have facilities but don’t take mooring reservations (first come first served) and that the Garonne crossing was currently open and the times on the four days a week when there are pilots available. We arrived at Buzet at exactly 1pm on Friday so I thought that I would enquire at the ‘descente en Baise’ locks about crossings before entering the port (a little further downstream) and whilst we were looking around for a waiting quay (apparently there isn’t one) the lock gates started to open for us and a lady lock keeper appeared and said that we could cross the Garonne right away – so we made a snap decision to proceed, despite it being our lunch time. We were soon through the double lock onto the Baise, equipped with a lock operating card for all the Baise and Lot automatic locks, and managed to grab a sandwich on the hoof passing through the Buzet Lock and getting to St Leger in an hour – where we waited for an hour. There was no-one around. After half an hour I called to make sure that I had correctly interpreted the lock keeper’s instructions to us and was reassured to be told that we were waiting for a boat making the upstream crossing.

St Leger lock and nobody around.

St Leger lock and nobody around.

The downstream crossing of La Garonne was uneventful and plain sailing until the pilot boat turned around and indicated that we should make a right turn into the Nicole lock – I was expecting to follow him in making a turn to enter the lock against the current – and with some serious engine thrusts we managed to just miss being swept onto the downstream (waiting) pontoon and then the upstream marker post by the lock entrance which we had to enter at some speed at an angle. The lock keeper was complimentary about the manoeuvre (we hadn’t hit anything!) and lightly held a stern rope (no bollards) as he filled the lock whilst advising us not to stop at Aiguillon (some funny people about) and not to stop between the bridges if we were going to Villeneuve (as we would have stones thrown at us). This was not an entirely reassuring welcome to the River Lot! After passing through a 3km stretch of overgrown rather narrow, with floating wooden obstacles, canal we reached Aiguillon Lock (PK 3) where working out what to do and how to get ashore presented a challenge – as did securing our lines once in the lock. Sure enough, on exiting, we passed the semi submerged slightly derelict looking mooring quay, complete with family of fishermen, and kept going to Clairac (PK 10) where we were faced with another conundrum of a lock and how to approach it and tie up once in. Long dangling ropes hanging down the lock side at intervals, but only in the downstream half, were not fixed at the base and seemed in imminent danger of getting swept up into the propeller which I had to keep running against a single (spring) rope in order to have any control as the lock filled, quite rapidly. Upstream and on the opposite bank we found a long empty (well only a couple of fishermen at one end) quay with well-spaced bollards and several water and electric ‘bornes’ and after a much longer day (6 hours cruising covering 36.5kms and 10 locks) than we had planned we were glad to moor up and have a Friday night drink and a free mooring with water and electric for the weekend (forecast still to be wet).

Clairac town moorings.

Clairac town moorings.

As predicted, Saturday was dull with showers all day and now that our battery problems seemed to be well resolved my mind moved on to our blank TV. On April 6th 2016 all TNT (Freeview) broadcasting in France had been switched to High Definition Digital, which rendered our old UK Freeview Receiver Box redundant. In addition, our old Phillips flat screen TV (not HD) had an ever expanding horizontal line running across the picture. We strolled into the town centre, which is quite nice but not with much retail activity, between showers and Pam spotted a small electrical store into which, out of curiosity, we ventured. As it turned out they had a few small screen HD TVs with built in HD TNT receivers and so we went back to the boat armed with factsheets to think about it over lunch. We returned that afternoon and ended up buying a 22” LG HD TV with integral HD Tuner (slightly smaller than planned but the only set that was Full HD) and we added a new Sony HD DVD player (as our old one although working was not HD and we watch a lot of films, so it seemed a shame not to have the benefit of HD quality on DVDs) with of course an HDMI connector that was also needed. Fortunately I had been doing a bit of online research both here and on our recent UK visit, otherwise I would have been completely confused by all the differing HD markings on a huge choice of branded products. The great thing about this shop was that it presented us with a limited choice, and a rare opportunity to be able to carry it all back to the boat, and we’d be passing back this way if we needed any further assistance.

Clairac townhouse. A study in red.

Clairac townhouse. A study in red.

By the time I had got the TV and DVD all set up the shop had closed for the weekend (including Monday) and I just had to assume that the reason we were not getting any TV reception was to do with being in a steep sided part of the Lot valley with buildings above us on all sides. We watched one of the DVDs that we had picked up at the Moissac Port exchange and decided to worry about the TV aerial some other day. Sunday was sunny and May 1st Labour Day Public Holiday (we were surprised to learn that it didn’t get transferred to Monday) and the quay came alive with fishermen. We used the hose to wash the boat (the Capitainerie building and facilities were closed and empty) and we enjoyed a shining (ish) boat and a lazy afternoon.

Handkerchief tree outside the forlorn Capitainerie at Clairac.

Handkerchief tree outside the forlorn Capitainerie at Clairac.

The forecast was for a week of sunny weather so we set off on Monday morning with the intention of going as far upstream as we could, Lamothe at PK 75 is the navigable limit, at a reasonable rate and as we went checking out the choice moorings for our return trip. We were still a bit nervous about how weather might affect the availability of our return journey across the Garonne although we were in no particular hurry to start our next stage, an exploration of the River Baise.

Leaving Clairac behind.

Leaving Clairac behind.

Whenever we are breaking new ground we have a read of Hugh McKnight’s ‘Cruising French Waterways’ – which although sometimes out of date on the services available, gives a good idea of what might be around the corner – and about Clairac he says “Marjory and I live in our riverside farmhouse 700m upstream of the bridge: look out for the nautical flagpole. Beyond is a glorious wooded stretch”. We only spotted one flagpole so hope that we did correctly identify his farmhouse.

Hugh McKnight's farmhouse and nautical flagpole.

Hugh McKnight’s farmhouse and nautical flagpole.

The Lower Lot consists mainly of wooded stretches, mostly with steeply rising banks. This is not entirely to my taste – frankly after the first few kilometres of trees, glorious as they may be, I’m looking at the clock to see how soon we’ll be able to get to the next mooring.

The Prune Museum, open but no pontoon yet.

The Prune Museum, open but no pontoon yet.

We had hoped to stop off at the pontoon listed for the Prune Museum (PK 17) – but no pontoon – and shortly after that at the nearby village of Granges-sur-Lot (PK 19) with the idea of cycling back to the Museum which was actually open – but no pontoon there either – so there was nothing for it but to continue on to Castelmoron (PK 22.5) where we moored up against the high sided concrete quay and had lunch.

Granges-sur-Lot but no pontoon yet.

Granges-sur-Lot but no pontoon yet.

We stayed and had a look round town in the afternoon, buying postcards in the small Presse (newsagent), finding La Poste (Post Office) closed on a Monday and the small Proximarche convenience store closed all afternoon every afternoon, passing a nice looking local Epicerie (grocery store), looking round the church and clocking the local brasserie complete with English party sitting audibly on the terrace. But still no TV reception.

Approaching Castelmoron and the Moorish Mairie.

Approaching Castelmoron and the Moorish Mairie.

Next morning, after a visit to the now open Proximarche for milk and La Poste for stamps, we advanced towards the large hydro-electric dam upstream where there is a 10m rise keeper operated lock, this time with very well-spaced floating bollards, and we had an easy twenty minute ride up and a helpful chat with the friendly lock-keeper about the prognosis for re-crossing the Garonne later in the month.

Castelmoron. Town quay and dam upstream of bridge.

Castelmoron. Town quay and dam upstream of bridge.

Above Castelmoron (PK 23) the river opens up into a 29km stretch of open valley and we had our eyes peeled for the riverside hotel Rives du Plantier (PK 23.5) with “excellent facilities for boaters” (McKnight) but didn’t spot it and then at Temple-sur-Lot (PK 25) the marked quay seemed to be cordoned off with a red buoy and a little further at Fongrave (PK 27) the small attractive quay already had one boat and as it was a little early for lunch we made a note and continued on to the long floating pontoon (no services) just upstream of the bridge at Sainte Livrade (PK 32.5).

Pontoon at Ste Livrade.

Pontoon at Ste Livrade.

A walk into town after lunch did not reveal anything of much interest and we carried on that afternoon to Casseneuil (PK 39) where there are two wooden jetties just downstream of the large sailing club. On the downstream jetty (better of the two) there was a fisherman with four rods and so we made for the adjacent jetty which was partly under a hanging willow branch. We had to approach from downstream and pass quite close to the fisherman in order to get in but my advice to him that he might be wise to reel in a line or two elicited absolutely no response and we ended up having to put the engine in neutral and drift in over his still outstretched lines. He completely ignored us whilst we tied up on a jetty that was 5 metres shorter than the boat with willow branches brushing our plant pots on the roof. An hour or so later he left, without a word, and we moved over onto the better mooring and I wandered into town which has some attractive old buildings but again, not much else, and still no TV reception, after a five hour run and 28kms.

Casseneuil. Going to town on potted plants.

Casseneuil. Going to town on potted plants.

Our DuBreil Guide lists market days in Casseneuil as being on Wednesday and Sunday and as luck would have it we were there on a Wednesday morning. We ventured in to the market square which was completely devoid of any activity, apart from a local resident coming out of her house who informed us that there had been no market for years, not even the single veg lady anymore who used to set up a stall outside the supermarket. So off to the Petit Casino it was, and there was a bakery next door although the better looking one across the street was closed on Wednesdays, before returning to the boat and heading off upstream.

Casseneuil. Old houses remain but the Wednesday market is long gone.

Casseneuil. Old houses remain but the Wednesday market is long gone.

Because of the repeated warnings about not mooring in Villeneuve (PK 50) “one of the river’s leading cities” (McKnight) I thought we might take a chance on at least stopping there for lunch – surely even stone and bottle throwers and rope cutters have to take a midday break? On arrival we found that the town quays on the right bank were bristling with fishing rods but we noticed a pontoon over on the other bank, just beyond the sailing club, which was empty. It was not all in a straight line and had only a cleat or two remaining but we managed a very cack-handed mooring and I walked into town whilst Pam guarded the boat.

A rickety old pontoon in Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

A rickety old pontoon in Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

It was the now familiar story – some nice old buildings, a lot of empty shops, not many people about, and nothing much of interest to see or do. Even after a look round the red brick cathedral I was soon back aboard for lunch.

Villeneuve Cathedral.

Villeneuve Cathedral.

We were joined, on the one remaining cleat and metre of pontoon, by only the second moving boat we had seen – a French cruiser which had made its way down from Amiens on the Somme, both of us having left there two years ago in May. They expressed disappointment with their journey so far on the Lot, were looking for somewhere to get their bow-thruster fixed, and had to be back at work in Paris the next morning so were hoping to leave their boat at Port de Penne. They tried connecting up to the neglected looking electric and water borne high up on the quayside – but to no avail.

The Chapel on the bridge at Villeneuve.

The Chapel on the bridge at Villeneuve.

We carried on after lunch intending to stop at St Sylvestre-sur-Lot (PK 59) where opposite Port de Penne on the left bank my DuBreil Guide advised “a magnificent new harbour has been built opposite this town with 50m of pontoon moorings.” I knew from Michael Walsh’s very useful blog www.skutjezonderzorg.blogspot.fr of his trip on the Lot in May 2014 that here beside the quay there was a supermarket with petrol station where we could buy diesel and gas – the only place on the Lot within an easy cart wheel for heavy gas bottles and full jerry cans and we needed refills on both. But on arrival there at 3.30pm the St Sylvestre quay was full, with only a 12 metre gap between what looked like permanently moored and rather generously spaced out boats, some of which I recognised from Michael’s blog photo of Port de Penne. At first we tied up to a pontoon downstream but then realised we could not access the supermarket directly from there and so moved across onto the service pontoon opposite to go and talk to the Capitaine. A sign on the Capitainerie door seemed to indicate that it was only open on Wednesday afternoons, which it happened to be, but a local told us that he/she was at the hairdresser. On reflection we decided to move on up to Lustrac as we needed neither water nor electric and just hope for a space on the St Sylvestre quay on our return, when we really would have to find a way of getting in for diesel and gas supplies and I certainly didn’t fancy the idea of having to wheel (at least three journeys) these all the way across the road bridge.

Approaching St Sylvestre-sur-Lot

Approaching St Sylvestre-sur-Lot

We arrived at Lustrac (PK 68) by 5.30pm, after another long day of 5 hours cruising over 35kms, to find that the wooden mooring jetty was not only shorter than the boat but was partially blocked by a workboat protruding from the bank. We managed to get enough of the bow onto the jetty and with the stern some distance away from the bank put a rope round a tree. I went for a look-see. “Lustrac lock and its mill, constitute one of the most attractive sights on the river” (DuBreil). Only a few steps away from the jetty I realised we had company – a rag tag and bobtail family of white vans with assorted young adults with rather wild looking children of all ages engaged in countryside pursuits. I just hoped they were out on a family picnic day trip and not about to settle in for the night beside the large wood fire burning in the pathway.

Small wooden jetty at Lustrac.

Small wooden jetty at Lustrac.

The buildings at Lustrac were pretty enough, but nothing really to write home about, and on realising that there were no moorings in the remaining 7kms of navigable river above the lock we decided that we would make this our furthest upstream stop. It was a beautiful evening (especially after the shouting kids had been driven home) and we enjoyed watching and listening to birds and seeing the evening reflections in the water. We had since Sunday been enjoying progressively sunnier and warmer days and I suppose had seen the river at its best. It was now time to turn round and make our way back at a more leisurely pace, allowing for a weather forecast that wasn’t looking quite so bright.

Old Chateau and Mill at Lustrac and far enough for us up the Lot.

Old Chateau and Mill at Lustrac and far enough for us up the Lot.

Our 68km upstream journey on the lower Lot had only taken us 20 cruising hours spread over four days. The nicest stretch was between Castelmoron to St Sylvestre and we planned to spend more time here on our descent.

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

Pastel in Toulouse – “the more you sleep the more you earn”.

Celtic Britons knew about Pastel (isatis tinctoria – woad) in Queen Boadicea’s time and used it, according to Caesar, to paint their bodies to look fierce in battle. This plant, which grows wild in the countryside of the Lauragais and Albigeois, was cultivated by clever Toulousans, during their golden age between 1460 and 1560, to make fortunes from the blue dye, highly fashionable throughout Europe, extracted from its leaves.

Canal du Midi, approaching Toulouse at Ramonville.

Canal du Midi, approaching Toulouse at Ramonville.

So, as a diversion from our ongoing boat domestic battery saga, we took the Bleu Pastel tour organised by the Office de Tourisme at the Donjon du Capitole and visited some of the ‘Hotels Particuliers’, mansions of the traders of the golden age (Delfau, Assezat, Bernuy), and a couple of businesses currently building their fortune from Pastel, La Fleuree de Pastel and Graine de Pastel.

Toulouse, outside the Tourist Office waiting for the Pastel Bleu Tour.

Toulouse, outside the Tourist Office waiting for the Pastel Bleu Tour.

A sign of wealth and importance in Toulouse was how high you could erect your tower. Some things never change. (I’m thinking about the US Republican front runner for nomination to stand for President, Trump).

Bernuy's Tower - Hotel Particulier.

Bernuy’s Tower – Hotel Particulier.

We had a demonstration of the alchemy that turns a perfectly ordinary white dish towel Pastel blue.

Pastel alchemy - from white to blue (by oxidization).

Pastel alchemy – from white to blue (by oxidization).

In the meantime the alchemy of our boat batteries was draining rather than enriching our coffers. After leaving Castelnaudary (PK 65) minus one dead battery and an alternator that seemed to be not working we cruised to Le Segala (PK 54) on the summit pound of the Midi and awaited Loic who came the next day to install a new alternator. This was speedy service and quicker than I could find a cash machine! So we made a point next day of stopping off at Port Lauragais (PK 50), part of a motorway service station rest area complete with port, restaurant, hotel and museum, and found a cash machine in the Total service station a short walk across the meadow. The new Capitaine of the Port gave us her number to call, to arrange a suitable mooring in the future, and we carried on to Negra (PK 33) where the Nicholls hire boat base jetty was empty. We moored and plugged in to the electric as it did not appear that the new alternator was improving the battery situation. Next day Loic came by to collect his money and pronounced the alternator to be working fine so we stayed an extra night and cycled up to Montesquieu Lauragais.

Stormy skies over Montesquieu Lauragais, looking down towards Negra.

Stormy skies over Montesquieu Lauragais, looking down towards Negra.

Passengers travelling on the ” mail carriage” from Toulouse in the 17th century would make their first “dinee” (lunch) stop at Negra, the service station of the day, and where one can still see the buildings of the hotels, restaurants and places of worship. The little chapel seemed to me to be an improvement on the petrol station cash machine – and perhaps an illustration of how the values of the modern day traveller at Port Lauragais differ from those who passed by this way over three hundred years ago.

The Travellers' Chapel at Negra.

The Travellers’ Chapel at Negra.

With batteries fully charged, but mindful that we might need an electrician’s second opinion by the time we reached Toulouse, we called and left a message for Serge, wanting to discuss hull blacking arrangements for later in the year. After a lunch stop at Baziege (PK 26), including extensive supermarket shopping at Intermarche and Lidl, we tied up to tree roots that evening at PK 23.5 between Montgiscard and Vic locks. We had a call from Frederic, the electrician recommended by Serge, and we arranged to meet him the next day, Friday, at Port Sud. Just as well – by 2am the “low battery” light was back on!

Negra (old time service station).

Negra (old time service station).

Port Sud (PK 12) is in Ramonville, a suburb of Toulouse. We hadn’t stopped here on our previous trips so booked in for three nights. Although surrounded by a huge estate of apartments on the Port side, the opposite bank is bordered by a large park and the motorway, we spent a quiet, peaceful, and pleasant weekend here. Frederic, who has his own Tjalk ‘Kingfisher’ moored in the Port, was on the quay almost as soon as we arrived and after some diagnostic tests we opted for ordering a new set of 6 Gel batteries, rather than experimenting with trying to resuscitate the 5 remaining old ones. Delivery would be next week and we’d just have to find a way of overcoming my lack of cash (Fred doesn’t take credit cards, I don’t have a French cheque book, my cash machine withdrawals are limited to €300 per day, and with 5 days till delivery I would not have enough cash to pay the bill).

At Port Sud, Ramonville.

At Port Sud, Ramonville.

We stayed an extra night in Port Sud as there was no space for us in Port St Sauveur until Tuesday and cycled the 1 km to Port Technique (PK 11), where there is a dry dock and a large chandlery – we hadn’t managed to stop in here either on our previous passages through Toulouse.

Graffiti at Port Technique, Ramonville. Pam talks African Grey.

Graffiti at Port Technique, Ramonville. Pam talks African Grey.

On Tuesday morning we cruised 7kms, passing the VNF dry docks (PK6) on the way, and on arrival at Port St Sauveur (PK 5) were told, by Sylviane, that ‘il Dammay’ would be leaving shortly and we could take her place – but for the life of me I couldn’t see any boat with that name. It wasn’t until ‘Hilda May’ right across from us starting pulling away, after Frederic had completed her electrical repairs, that I realised how different English sounds when spoken in French! We moored next to the cruiser Oz and were greeted by June and Albert who had just flown in from New England to a boat that had been sitting idle for two years – they came over for tea.

A tight fit for this boat getting into the VNF dry docks, Toulouse.

A tight fit for this boat getting into the VNF dry docks, Toulouse.

By the time Fred told us that the batteries would be delivered the next day at 11am I had already booked and payed for 2 of the remaining 3 places left on the Bleu Pastel 2.30pm tour and so I was surprised to be woken up by his phone call at 9am the next morning saying that he would come round early, in 10 minutes, to pick me up. It put my normal morning routine into a tailspin but was a kind gesture on his part – having arranged that I could pay the whole bill by credit card at his battery supplier, Power Battery in Colomiers, so that we could get the new batteries fitted by lunchtime leaving the afternoon free for the guided tour. It worked.

Colour in the park, Grand Rond, Toulouse.

Colour in the park, Grand Rond, Toulouse.

We got back from the Pastel tour at 6pm, somewhat weary and needing to put our feet up. Our new friends and neighbours aboard Oz had invited us to go with them to a concert and after a quick energy boosting supper of sausages and baked beans we ambled back the half hour into town (June and Albert had had a foot weary day too walking between Orange shops to get their new wifi hot spot actually working) arriving at the Musee des Augustins and walking into the Chapel at the very moment that the organ started to play at 8pm. We enjoyed the half hour concert and then looking round the Museum and cloisters until it closed at 9pm. Another first visit for us – but this is a weekly Wednesday event at the museum (entry €5). We never did find out what the music was as there were no programs available afterwards.

An evening at Musee des Augustins.

An evening at Musee des Augustins.

It was almost a relief on Thursday when it poured with rain all day – an excuse to stay inside and rest our weary limbs and an opportunity to put the new batteries through their first recharge; it will take a charge or two before the monitor recalculates correctly the battery percentage remaining and we won’t know whether the new alternator will actually recharge the batteries as we go along until we set out on our next leg of the journey. June and Albert came over for dinner.

Statue in the park, Grand Rond. Not a care in the world.

Statue in the park, Grand Rond. Not a care in the world.

Fingers crossed and with Fred’s phone number close at hand we moved on after an expensive week in Toulouse (€2,686 on parts and labour in April) – none the richer for the local Pastel adage “the more you sleep the more you earn”.

Glimpse of a Chateau - Montesquieu Lauragais.

Glimpse of a Chateau – Montesquieu Lauragais.

But whilst on local topics, just a quick word about the origins of cassoulet sometimes referred to as the Holy Trinity, of Castelnaudary the “Father”, mainly pork, Carcassonne the “Son”, with partridge added, and Toulouse the “Holy Spirit”, enriched with sausages and breadcrumbs. If you want to read more about this hotly contested dish, my brother in law Charles has written a blog cassoulet on the subject.

April showers in the Lauragais.

April showers in the Lauragais.

Leaving Toulouse and setting off down the Canal de Garonne is for the first 60kms like watching paint dry – dead straight canal, dead straight rows of crops and lines of fruit trees stretching for miles to either side on a flat plain, concrete bridges that all look the same, hypnotising speckles of small wild canal bankside flowers, almost invisible batons hanging over midstream for operating the regularly spaced automatic straight sided locks. So I was able to give full attention to the battery monitor and test out the new alternator.

Frederic takes a day off - out in his boat 'Kingfisher'.

Frederic takes a day off – out in his boat ‘Kingfisher’. Port Sud.

We had done this trip twice last year, so knew what to expect (except much colder weather this time) and where to stop. The first 7 hour cruising day took us to Grisolles (PK27) where the small quay was full and so we moored up on the Sailing Club jetty using pins. The next day heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon and so we cruised for 2 hours to a nice wooden jetty above Lavache Lock (PK 40) before lunch. We decided to make a meal of it that night with a large shoulder of lamb (originally bought with Sunday lunch in mind – but weather changes things) and no sooner was it in the oven than Oz appeared. So unable at 6pm to pass through the lock (lights out at 6) June and Albert came for dinner leaving their pre-cooked chicken for next day’s lunch.

Wooden jetty and lock control baton (dangling) at Lavache.

Wooden jetty and lock control baton (dangling) at Lavache.

First off in the morning at 9.30am we cruised the 2 hours to St Porquier (PK 49) passing through the 5 Montech locks in a fast 30 minutes and settled down to a comfortable lunch, rather wondering how Oz was going to make it all the way to Moissac (a further 15kms and 9 locks) by 6pm. They went by just before 2pm, not able to steer in a very straight line, having lost the use of their bow-thrusters, and enquiring as to whether we had any hydraulic fluid spare.

St Porquier.

St Porquier.

Next day we passed through Castelsarrasin (PK 56), where the port looked fairly full, as we had been unable to get a response on the phone, and stopped for lunch at PK 58 where there is a wooden jetty with only one wooden post remaining. From here it was a stone’s throw to McDonald’s for Big Mac and Filet o’ Fish, a Carrefour and Lidl for essential groceries, and other retail temptations. Having called Iain at Moissac Port (PK 64) before setting out and learning that Oz had not arrived as planned the previous night we had spare ropes at the ready and were half expecting to have to tow them into port. But on arrival at 3.30pm we found June reading a book safely moored in her favourite spot.

Castelsarrassin last August. No stop here this time.

Castelsarrassin last August. No stop here this time.

So, for the first time in four days we plugged in to the mains and within only a few minutes the batteries were showing a full charge on ’float’ – indicating that the alternator had been doing its job well, although for some reason the battery monitor had not been adding the extra daily charges to the percentage of battery power still available. Maybe it will straighten itself out with a few more charging cycles. Fred called – he says it all sounds good!

Frederic and the last of the new batteries.

Frederic and the last of the new batteries.

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

Heading west – just. A hesitant start to the boating season.

We are back on board after spending two weeks over Easter with family and friends in England. Our trip back from Heathrow started with delays caused by a now ubiquitous ‘French air traffic control strike’ but we arrived only an hour late and in Toulouse, our destination of choice (others weren’t so lucky!). However, the airport navette (shuttle bus) was prevented from taking us into the town centre, because of a demonstration, and dropped us off at a suburban metro stop. When we did get to Matabiau station at 1pm there were no trains running – only some services by bus, which did include one to Carcassonne at 4.15pm.

Our new friend Rafiki in Kidlington, Oxford would have had plenty to say about French travel delays.

Our new friend Rafiki in Kidlington, Oxford would have had plenty to say about French travel delays.

There was nothing for it but to repair across the road to the Bistro at the Hotel Bristol, park our heavy suitcases in a corner, and have a stiff-welcome-back-to-France-aperitif followed by a €13 two course Menu du Jour plus pichet (pitcher) of red wine. Despite spinning this out – helped by the old ploy of their credit card terminal refusing to take a ‘carte etranger’ and being required to go off down the street in search of a cash machine – we were still left with two hours hanging around at the Gare Routier (bus station). Here we engaged in a lively conversation with a Frenchman living in Bristol who had set out that morning bound for Nantes only to find himself now having to take a bus from Toulouse to get there! Not so Easy jet.

Lacock, Wilts on Easter Monday.

Lacock, Wilts on Easter Monday.

The coach to Carcassonne was comfortable and pleasantly uncrowded and took the scenic route (visiting all the stations with no trains) and after a pleasant two hours of cat-napping and admiring the familiar canal du midi scenery we were back on board. All was well and with a suitably Gallic shrug of our shoulders we had an early night and slept soundly. Good to be home!

Cowslips along the banks of the Midi.

Cowslips along the banks of the Midi.

But the weather here is disappointing – coldish and windy with frequent rain. Fortunately Martin’s (Heliox) 65th birthday ‘life of Brian’ celebration aboard db Louisa warmed things up a bit. A chance for us to exchange with a group of fellow boaters this year’s cruising intentions – I have realised we now have ‘intentions’ rather than ‘plans’. We are heading west towards the Rivers Baise, Lot, and Garonne, possibly to Bordeaux – but do plan to return to Carcassonne again for next winter. The uncertainty about the running of the port has been resolved and Stephanie and Chayma are still firmly in command at the Capitainerie. The port tariffs are going up (the electricity from €50 a month to €4 a day) and the number of mooring spaces are being reduced (VNF regulations about distances of no mooring from bridges and locks and spaces for lock waiting areas) but compared to English marina costs (over £600 a month at Reading) we still think €190 a month is a bargain. We have really enjoyed spending the winter in this lovely and friendly town which we now feel we are just beginning to get to know. So west we go – tomorrow.

Leaving Port. La Belle Helene.

Leaving Port. La Belle Helene.

Monday came and we settled our final bill at the Capitainerie and said our goodbyes but the starter battery had other ideas, and we sat and watched others, db Louisa, Brunel Star, and Belle Helene leave port whilst we waited for Loic to arrive. The old starter battery had done us 7 years, so we couldn’t really feel hard done by, and we were able to leave with a new one installed by 4pm making it to Lalande by 6pm, mooring opposite db Louisa, for a night of heavy rain. The rain continued in the morning but worse, our domestic battery monitor was flashing a red ‘low battery’ warning light despite the monitor reading of a 90% charge and an overnight discharge of only 76 ah (amp hours). In theory we should have at least 50% of 660 ah available although this reduces over time as the batteries age (they are just over three years old). Our faithful Travelpower generator came to the rescue and after breakfast we braved the drizzle and cruised on to Bram, plugging in to the mains power for €6 a night, and the following morning put the batteries through a manual ‘equalisation’ whilst we cycled in to the Wednesday market. That afternoon we cruised on to PK 73, no services, no fee, but a beautiful view, mooring up in the pound between Treboul and La Criminelle locks.

The view at PK73 taken last September - it hasn't changed.

The view at PK73 taken last September – it hasn’t changed.

On Thursday morning we were greeted with the same ‘low battery’ warning light at the same monitor readings and began to fear the worst – failing batteries with much reduced capacity, but why after a winter on full charge? We cruised on to PK 68, mooring in a familiar spot between Viviers and Gay locks beside the Foreign Legion base here and along the pathway built by their 4th Regiment.

A rather neglected stone marking the Foreign Legion's  contribution to this stretch of canalside pathway.

A rather neglected stone marking the Foreign Legion’s contribution to this stretch of canalside pathway.

On Friday morning we went through the same battery routine and had to run the Travelpower again but after half an hour there was a loud noise from the engine room – smoke and broken bolts on the engine floor – not good. Another call to Loic and we gingerly made our way up through the double lock at Gay and the quadruple lock at St Roch to moor up in the Port at Castelnaudary and await Loic’s arrival that afternoon.

Spring flowers - at first I thought Grape Hyacinths, which are plentiful along the canal banks, but I think these are something else.

Spring flowers – at first I thought Grape Hyacinths, which are plentiful along the canal banks, but I think these are something else.

Here we find ourselves in company with our ex Carcassonne neighbours, Heliox, Lost in France, and La Madame. La Belle Helene headed east and got as far as Homps before having to call Loic out to replace their throttle cable, Heliox was intending to go east but came west to get problems with their heating looked into and we have now resolved the broken alternator bolt (for the second time in two months cruising) but after testing the batteries which appear to be OK we are still investigating the reason for the sudden drop each morning in voltage when off shore power.

Du Breil French Waterway Guides.

Du Breil French Waterway Guides.

So in our first week of cruising we have managed 40kms and 24 locks – about 11 hours cruising time – between Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. With three engineer call-outs, and more work to come, a rather hesitant and quite expensive start to the 2016 season!

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