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