After a couple of days of sightseeing in Carcassonne we took the train, the station is conveniently right beside the Port, to Toulouse and flew back to Heathrow to attend a wedding and catch up with family. The Capitaine at the Port had told us that the weekend we would be away was the ‘Fete de la Musique’ and there was a Fireman’ s Ball and concert in the adjacent Park and that we had better remove everything from the outside of the boat that was remotely prone to ‘high jinks’. Having had a bicycle stolen from beside the boat last year, on this same night, we took Stephanie at her word and put everything inside and just hoped that our plants would survive the heat for five days – they did, and on our return our new neighbour reported that all had been relatively quiet and undisturbed.
Since joining the Canal du Midi near Agde we had travelled 135 kms of its length in five weeks, leaving us with a further 105 kms to reach the other end at Toulouse. We set off a day later than we had planned in order to get our Winter Mooring Contract signed up with Stephanie and so we left in a relaxed mood with no deadlines to meet and knowing where we needed to be by November.
The sun kept shining and we seemed to be getting more than our fair share of heat and wind. We soon took to cruising in the morning and trying to second guess arriving somewhere before lunchtime where we would find a mooring that would stay in shade for the afternoon. The hottest part of the day is all afternoon and into the evening and we found it uncomfortable to be working through locks in temperatures well in the 90Fs. We soon mastered the technique of using suitable tree roots, always visible in the water under the canopy of the bankside Planes, to attach our ropes to. It is forbidden to tie ropes around tree trunks, although this rule is largely ignored, but as there is often a foot or cycle path between the trees and the bank it also, in most places, proves impractical.
After Carcassonne the canal takes on an even more relaxed feel and travels through longer stretches of remote countryside. Serviced moorings and shops become a rarity, although occasionally a bistro can be found in one of the old lock-keepers cottages, and we were glad to have stocked up well whilst in Carcassonne.
It took us six leisurely days to reach Castelnaudary, which has a famously large canal basin, and we were able to moor up in the Port there with all services and nearby town centre shops. We had not had to share a single one of the 24 locks since Carcassonne with a hire boat – a real surprise.
We endured three days of very strong winds here – in fact we stayed a day longer than planned in order to avoid cruising in 80kph gusts. This coupled with frequent fire engines ‘on a shout’ roaring along the port road, beside the moored boats, left us pleased to have settled on Carcassonne for the winter.
It was a day’s cruise, that’s four hours to us, to reach the summit of the canal and we moored at the western end of the 4km pound just before the Ocean lock. Although not entirely in the shade it was well sheltered by a variety of mature trees which have been planted in a park around the original, now silted up and bypassed, octagonal basin and a well-placed picnic table became our refuge from the sun.
More high winds were forecast and so we decided to explore the Rigole de la Plaine on bikes with a picnic. This is the 35 km feeder stream built to bring waters down from the Black Mountain to supply the canal summit. We only made about 5 kms before finding the wind too strong even for comfortable cycling in the relative shelter of the trees and turned back to find a more sheltered spot to sit and eat our packed lunch.
We also visited a C19th Obelisk, erected here by his descendants, to commemorate the great achievement of Pierre Paul Riquet in building the Midi Canal which was completed in 1681. It remains today much as it was then, a remarkable feat of engineering with 63 locks many of which are arranged in double, triple, or more, staircases and have unique oval shaped sides. From Toulouse to the summit there are 15 locks with 18 chambers and from the summit to the Mediterranean there are 48 locks with 73 chambers – so a total of 91 locks which we have worked through.
From the summit another five days of gentle cruising and wild moorings brought us into Toulouse on a mercifully overcast and cooler (in the low 80F’s) day, with even the hint of a spot of rain which never materialised. So on arrival in the Port St Sauveur, in the city centre, our first task was to wash the boat, really dirty after a hot dry trip all along the Midi, whilst the roof was still cool enough to walk on! We also had time to go for an exploratory walk around the city centre – pretty, as they say, in pink. Unusually for France the building material available in the area has been brick rather than stone and the old centre of town is very different in feel to any of the other cities and towns that we have visited so far.