On Sunday 23rd April I found myself sitting in an armchair, on Xenia’s back deck with my feet up, on a perfect sunny afternoon on the summit of the Midi Canal – a gentle breeze through the plane trees overhead and illuminated by rays of dappled warm 20c sunshine.
After a very good roast ‘selle’ of lamb (for us, a new joint just off the shoulder from the excellent butcher, 2 Km away in Labastide d’Anjou) with roast new potatoes, leeks in a white sauce and red currant jelly, preceded by an aperitif or two of chilled Lillet Rose with duck scratchings and accompanied by a nice bottle of St Mont from the Gers, I settled down for a customary afternoon siesta. My view across the stream and neat rows of the vegetable garden beside us, wafts of lilac and wisteria scent in the air, belied the nearby existence in the middle ground of both the main railway line and the auto-route from Toulouse to Narbonne, neither of which could I see.
Nor could I hear much of this constant traffic – well camouflaged by the neighbouring garden menagerie conversation of geese, cocks and hens, Guinea fowls, ducks, frogs, and pigeons and the constant wild twitter of birdsong. It had me reflecting that even in the midst of highways of road, rail and water transport, and despite first appearances, an oasis of tranquility can be found in which to sit quietly and just let it all pass by!
In addition, the very large Terreal works, manufacturing roof tiles and other building materials here at Le Segala, were no more than two stones’ throw away. We cycled past them before lunch on the road to visit the hamlet of Baraigne only 2 Km away up in the hills. The C12th Romanesque church was open, the C16th Chateau we failed to access, and unusually the Mairie was open – for polling day on the first round of the Presidential elections (always held on a Sunday).
Since leaving Carcassonne on April 1st we have not travelled very far, on the first day only making 3 Km to moor up at the Epanchoir de Foucaud (PK 102, wooden posts, no services – noisy frogs in season!) beside the rural Gite and old site of the three locks that had served the original canal route bypassing the city. Rain was forecast, and so we stayed for two nights and let it pass.
At Villesequelande (PK 91, wooden posts and a couple of stop/start automatic shut off water taps) we stayed for two nights and were treated to an unexpected museum visit. We walked down into the nearby village to the small grocery store and in passing noticed that a Musee de la Chevalerie would be open at 10am – handwritten note for 11 am that day.
When there was still no sign of life at 11 am we popped into the Mairie next door to inquire. The curator was telephoned, found buying a new PC in Carcassonne, and whilst we waited for him to arrive we were given the key to the old church which we admired along with the C17th elm tree outside, planted by Sully (Minister to Henry IV), one of the very few in France to survive Dutch Elm disease.
We opted for the €6 self-guided tour of the Museum, but to no avail. After fetching change from the general store, the owner/curator was unstoppable and dressed in suitable medieval costume talked us through the history of five crusades and furnished us with weapons of medieval mass destruction and defensive and very heavy body armour. Acting as translator for Pam, when I could get a word in edge ways, I was pretty much beat by 1.45pm when our host remembered that he had a confrerie meeting to attend at 2pm and we were summarily released from our courtly duties. I felt honour bound to make up the €2 difference between the ‘libre’ and ‘guidee’ tours!
At our next stop in the port at Bram (PK 81, wooden posts opposite the port and one service point) the boating season evidently had not started – hire boats empty and idle, port office closed, water points not connected, and restaurant closed. After 3 nights we discovered that Florence, the Port proprietor and Capitaine, was in fact around and had, without a word, turned on a water supply for a few hours so we were able to replenish our tank – leaving €5 as a contribution with the gentleman (at his suggestion) who was working on the restaurant outside decking. As usual the Wednesday market in town (2 km on cycle path) was well worth a visit.
We stopped, yet again, at PK 73 (wooden mooring posts, no services, one of our favourite views) but this time stayed for only one night. However, we took advantage of a glorious sunny Saturday morning to cycle into Lasbordes (one small general shop) 1 km to the north.
And then to Pexiora 2 km to the south (much better general store/bar/cafe and a boulangerie).
Another 3 km further along the canal we stopped, for the first time for a night, just below St Sernin lock (PK 70, wooden posts on either side but shallow in places). All along this stretch one is spoiled for a choice of delightful rural moorings.
In the pound (bief) between Vivier and Gay locks we overnighted at another favourite mooring (PK 68, wooden posts along the non-towpath side, no services) outside the Foreign Legion base of the 4th Regiment.
This makes for a very strategic approach to Castelnaudary, where we sat out hire boats coming and going from the large Le Boat base in the Grand Bassin over the weekend, and it made for an easy and fast ride up through the double lock at Gay followed by the four lock rise of St Roch to reach the port before midday on Monday. Odile (Port Capitaine) was expecting us and despite her dire warnings, when we called ahead, of there only being room for a double or triple berth, she had a single space for us on the quay outside the Capitainerie.
We had booked in to the port in Castelnaudary for a week (PK 65, full services, at this time of year €82 weekly rate, or €13 nightly, including water and electric) so that we could catch a train from the station to Toulouse and connect on to L’Isle Jourdain to stay for three nights with our friends Ros and Gregor at their old farmhouse hidden away in the depths of the Gers near Samatan. And so after lunch and a few quick hellos to friends and acquaintances, still in port in their winter berths, we were on our way.
However much we are enjoying life on the water it is always a refreshing treat to have a change of scenery and Ros and Gregor did us proud with a drive south down to the borders with the Haute Garonne for lunch at Chez Villanoue in St Martory, passing through Aurignac and Alan (site of an old bishop’s palace, now a private house) amongst other charming Gers towns and villages.
On another day, we visited Rieumes on market day, stopping for a good lunch at Les Palmiers (€18 3 course Menu du Jour), before taking the train back to Castelnaudary via Toulouse from Muret. We spent the long Easter weekend (although Good Friday is not a public holiday in France) in Castelnaudary and had a very social time of it. On Friday evening we were invited to the weekly boaters’ get together at the Cave du Canal (this time a ‘hommage au fromage’ theme) and then on Easter Sunday to a drinks party, again with the other ‘port residents’, a’board Gesina with Nigel and Maggie.
On Monday we hosted June and Albert, who arrived at the last minute from Toulouse a’board Oz, to dinner and on Tuesday my cousin Paul stopped in for lunch on his way from Marciac in the Gers to Perpignan, and that night we limped out of town exhausted just as far as the quiet and peaceful quay in the countryside (PK 59, wooden posts, no services) where we rested for two nights, before heading on up to the summit at Le Segala – making a lunch stop at the Mediterranee lock to visit Not Pottery, looking for a ‘cassole’ dish (in which cassoulet is cooked and served).
We found ourselves so well situated at Le Segala (PK 54, wooden posts no services) that we stayed for six nights. The bicycles came out in earnest after a long winter’s rest and following our visit south to Baraigne we headed north 4 km to visit Montferrand where we were rewarded, after a climb to 300m, with stunning views over the summit valley.
The points of interest, highlighted in one of my Canal du Midi guides, proved hard to find – the Romanesque church is now a private house and I’m not sure whether this is also the site of the ruins of a palaeo-Christian basilica, the Chappe telegraph tower which I thought I had found turned out to be an old mill, the ’14th century fortified door’ I realised was an old arched gateway as I passed through on what appeared to be a private driveway to find the signal tower built in 1927, to guide Aeropostale pilots, and on to the look-out point.
None-the-less it was a very rewarding expedition on another beautiful day.
We cycled back through the Seuil de Naurouze, the watershed octagonal basin designed by Riquet which we have visited previously, to check out a restaurant prospect – in fact there are now two, one of them closed on a Monday, and exceptionally this week on Tuesday, and the other closed on Tuesday. We passed on Sparks, a chambres d’hote with restaurant (no menu du jour on offer) in the nice old Royal Mill building and decided to return to Le Pas de Naurouze, opposite a large pottery retail outlet, on Wednesday on our way to Port Lauragais to top up our batteries and fill up with water.
On an exceptionally cold and wet day we moved on from Le Segala as far as the Ocean lock and tied up whilst we went for a very good 3 courses lunch, €15 menu du jour, at the nearby Le Pas de Naurouze restaurant – which describes its cuisine as ‘bistronomique’ – before descending the lock and making our way the 2 km in to Port Lauragais (full services €14.50 a night inclusive of water and electric) where we moored up for the night on the somewhat difficult to access, past all the hire boats, #1 pontoon.
This was our first overnight stay in this rather unusual motorway rest stop, featuring restaurant, local specialities shop (rather a good selection, and surprisingly selling yesterday’s Telegraph newspaper, €4.50), hotel, tourist office with Canal du Midi display (but only open May to October, so we have yet to visit) and extensive picnic areas based around a little port, with Nichols hire boat base, adjacent to the Canal. We settled in to a quiet evening beside the fire completing the cryptic crossword in, for us, record time! Next morning I bought another paper before moving on, all of 1 km, and tying to trees just beyond the Maraval Bridge at PK 49.
From here Avignonet-Lauragais is only a short 2 km cycle ride away – but first we had to negotiate a very steep bank after gang-plank only egress from the boat to get onto the adjacent cycle path. The reversible gang-plank/ladder proved its worth in an otherwise impossible shore landing!
The Du Breil guide indicated that there was a butcher, a baker, a grocery store and a restaurant in town and as it was a Friday and we needed provisions for the May bank Holiday weekend we made the otherwise rather daunting exit from boat to cycle path and climbed the steep hill up to the church Notre Dame des Miracles – which has an impressive tower that we have admired from afar all along this stretch of canal.
We did find a shop – just the one – a baker/pizzeria with a small choice of sliced cold meats and so we returned home with only bread and ham for the weekend. Dinner that night was aubergine rissoles (based loosely on an Ottolenghi recipe). Amazing what you can do with an aubergine, four small left-over cooked new potatoes, the remnants of a tub of Madame Loik ‘fromage fouetté’, a heel of pecorino cheese, some left over mint and coriander infused crème-fraiche and a splash of Geo Watkins anchovy sauce – positively bistronomique! Next morning we moved on 2 km and 1 lock to moor up at PK 47, just past the next bridge with another road leading back to the village – the baker has a friend who sets up a stall outside the bakery selling fruit and veg on Sunday mornings. Fingers crossed. As for that Saturday night it was an old standby with the last can of tuna, some very old slices of bread, the penultimate two eggs, a heel of mimolette cheese and some milk – et voila! – tuna sandwich soufflé. Apart from the ham and some bacon already in the fridge it looked set to be a fairly meat free weekend – no bad thing for a change.
The Lauragais plain is very fertile – famous for its grain production, livestock, and formerly for its wealth of pastel (pays de Cocagne) as well as for its ever present winds. Between the cooling southeast Autan and the northwest Cers winds, nearby Villefranche de Lauragais claims to have only 68 days a year wind-free, and on Sunday morning we had to get off our bikes and push them against a very stiff breeze to get to the vegetable man! We moved on that same day, with the wind behind us, mooring up below Renneville lock (PK 43, quay with stone bollards no services) beside the trip boat ‘Surcouf’. For dinner that night we dug deep and came up with corned beef hash pasties.
As we set off from Carcassonne, I did rather wonder how we would be able to make the journey to Toulouse, which we did in reverse last October easily in 4 days, last for six weeks. So far, having completed just over 60 Km in a month, with a further 40 to go in two weeks, we seem to be right on schedule.