We only stayed two nights in the shade of the trees at Ventenac, PK 160, as it became overcast on the First Day of Summer, the longest day, and after a cycle ride into the nearby village of Canet, for some basic groceries from the little Vival store, and completing a blog update we decided to press on the following day. From here it took us nine days to complete the remaining 78kms of the Midi Canal and 16kms of the Etang de Thau to reach Sete.
The weather continued to be uncomfortably hot and very muggy – threatening storms and rain which never quite reached us. Passing through Le Somail, PK 166, we were amazed to see that the small quay with the free water point was empty and so we pulled in and tied a rope around the tap to keep it in the ‘on’ position.
Pam popped over to the ‘Epicerie Peniche’ (Grocery barge) moored opposite and to have a look at the famous bookstore. We ate lunch whilst we took on board two hours’ worth of water with only two interruptions from other boaters, one who works in the port wanting to fill several plastic drinking water containers, and the other wanting to know who built our boat.
It is a scenic spot and we enjoyed waving hello again to Enchante (hotel boat) as she squeezed past us and under the much photographed bridge but we have always found Le Somail to be rather too ‘trippery’ for our tastes and with very limited overnight mooring.
It is certainly somewhat diminished since losing all of its canal-side trees and so after lunch we moved on to Port La Robine, PK 168, for a diesel top up on the quay – expensive at €1.70 a litre, but quick and convenient and labour-free! From here we carried on to Argeliers, PK 172.5, where we moored for the night on the best bit of quay reserved for hotel boat Athos. We learned that she is generally only there on Fridays. The restaurant by the bridge Le Chat qui Peche, closed when we last passed here in Oct 2015, is back in business but we contented ourselves with an ice-cream from the rather run down ‘crazy golf’ alongside, after dinner aboard.
But next day our sights were firmly set on lunch out at the next bridge, Pont de Seriege, PK 178.5, and so after only a short cruise we found a rare stretch of double shade (trees on both banks) and tied up to roots hoping to both leave the boat in the shade and come back to it, still relatively cool, for a siesta. It was another very hot day again and we cycled the remaining 1km to L’Auberge de la Croisade where there is a mooring bank with a couple of concrete bollards, but it too is reserved for trip boats, and in full sun.
For the third time in two years we enjoyed a delightful meal here and I now think of it as my favourite restaurant in France. I told the proprietor, Bruno, so as were leaving, to which he smiled and told me to keep taking the drugs! I think it is something they put in the fish – which is always superb and the Chef’s suggestion on the ‘Retour du Marche’ Menu. €16.50 for three delicious courses encouraged us to indulge in a €22 bottle of ‘Les Fossiles’ 2015 Chardonnay from Moulin Gimie in nearby Capestang – very refreshing. And as it was such a hot afternoon we just stayed in the shade until the next morning when we made our way in a leisurely fashion along this very beautiful and winding stretch of the canal to Capestang, PK 189.
Capestang was hot and crowded on a Saturday afternoon and we were obliged to moor up on the bollards, reserved for trip boats, just beyond the main port – but conveniently close to the pedestrian cut through to the Intermarche supermarket on the edge of town, to which we cycled for a much needed replenishment of our store cupboard and where the air conditioning felt like the plunge pool in a Turkish bath. There was no way we could face staying in port that night and so we found some trees, just round the next corner, and Pam put into practice her ‘steep-bank-prickly-shrub-getting a rope round a tree-without falling in’ routine. It was here whilst enjoying an evening drink that we witnessed the most extraordinary hire-boat helmsman-ship in a lone boat approaching, zig-zagging from one bank to the other and then stopping before repeating the pattern. I thought there must be a drunk at the wheel, or a medical emergency, but as they eventually got closer I noticed that the 3 crew were all sitting around calmly and soberly. Pam, charitably, suggested that there might be something wrong with the boat – but we have seen plain bad boat handling before in Capestang!
On the very nice stretch of canal between Capestang and Poilhes we sauntered along on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning, only once being overtaken at speed by a hire boat on the long narrow and completely blind bend just past Guery. As they passed I recognised them from having done the same thing to us 10 days previously just before Puicheric bridge, as it turned out in the face of an oncoming Hotel boat – so some people just never learn consideration and safe driving. At Poilhes, PK 194, we found the short quay, with the services, empty and so moored up and had drinks, a game and lunch whilst filling with water – €2 coin in the bourne buys either 300 litres of water or 30 minutes of electricity. We already had half a tank, so I was a little surprised when we were still not full after 1,200 litres worth – I may have to revise my guesstimate of our tank’s capacity upwards from 1,300 litres.
It was still too hot for comfort to moor anywhere but in shade and so we moved on and found some well-positioned trees just beyond the port at PK 195. There was a nice view from here across the valley and we could see what looked like smoke off in the distance. Later in the afternoon we were interested to watch three planes circling round and then water bombing the fire – they made three circuits, presumably filling up somewhere nearby in between each, before completely putting it out.
The next day was overcast and very muggy and even threatened drops of rain as we passed through the Malpas Tunnel. We had stopped here previously, to walk up to the Oppidum d’Enserune, and so carried on into Colombiers, where we had also stopped on two previous occasions and where there is ever only very limited bankside-pins-in-the-ground-mooring available for larger boats, so carried on through here too and on to Fonserannes well in time for lunch and the 1.00pm daily locking down time. We moored up in a familiar spot before the trip boat quay and spotted a new bourne on the bank – which had no water but did deliver us two hours of free electric. The flight was closed to pedestrians whilst renovation works are under way but these were not affecting boat traffic.
We had followed a rather eccentric looking (from behind) boat, from Malpas onwards, which on two sharp bends en-route had had rather uncomfortable entanglements with oncoming trip boats – so we had kept our distance and decided to wait after lunch for it and the 4 hire boats to descend the seven lock staircase before us. As it entered the top lock I went for a closer inspection and found that Le Cayrol is a reproduction of an original ‘Poste’ Canal du Midi wooden passenger boat – accommodation for 50 travellers- with the addition of two modern outboard motors strapped on either side of the huge rudder.
It also had room on the roof for a seven-piece jazz band who were climbing aboard and who played loudly all down the staircase and although I quite liked the music I was pleased to have decided to be in the locking behind them rather than with them. We followed calmly, sharing with a private 1925 Dutch barge (I’m afraid I can’t memorise or spell Dutch boat names) which we had seen on several occasions since leaving Carcassonne in April, making the descent in fifty minutes, including about ten minutes of heavy rain.
We had no particular desire to stop in the Port at Beziers, having also done this twice before, and so carried on through the next four locks to Villeneuve-les-Beziers, PK 214, where we moored on pins on the rather rough bank beyond the quay and floating tourist office. It had been a long day for us, 9.30am to 4.30pm, overcast and muggy, but relief came in the form of another good rain shower that evening. Next morning we visited the small market, finding some new to me types of sheep’s cheeses, before moving on to the shade of a tree at PK 220 beside the Portiragnes bird reserve (egrets, storks, gulls and others I couldn’t recognise) where we spent a quiet afternoon and night. The following morning, somewhat in need of fresh air and exercise, we got the bikes ashore and visited Portiragnes-Plage where, much to Pam’s delight, a large street market selling mainly clothes and seaside paraphernalia was in full swing.
Last time we visited here it was off-season in September and almost completely closed up but we found it much livelier on this occasion and feeling like a proper seaside resort.
After lunch back aboard we moved on to Vias, PK 227, where all the moorings near the bridge and by the services were taken but we managed to tie to some new wooden posts (actually put in that morning – and new ‘payant’ service bournes are due too, at present there is water, only accessible by breasting up against an empty catamaran, but no electric) further along this scruffy and still rather scrubby bank. John from Puddlestone, whom we had last seen in Narbonne two years ago, popped by to say hello. We had more rain that night and had been warned to take everything off the boat as there were gypsies about and one boat near the bridge had already suffered a loss. The Euro Park funfair, on the far side of the bridge, runs noisily every night in season from 8pm to 2am. We couldn’t get the bikes onto the bank the next morning so had to walk into the local Leader Price supermarket (this feels downbeat too) for supplies and then moved on after lunch, heading for Bessans on the River Herault.
Once through the round lock at Agde we headed upstream on the River Herault. We had considered going downstream to the Grau d’Agde, as we had done before when we had stopped in the town for two days on a two hour only mooring, but thought better of it. The forecast was for some quite high winds over the weekend and when we had arrived on the Midi in May 2015 the pontoon at Bessans, which others we know have very much enjoyed, had not yet been installed for the season and so we’d had a fruitless journey. However, when we arrived this time, a 6km trip upriver, it was full with three cruisers and there was nothing for it but to turn round and head all the way back. We had been looking for a suitable tree or bank to tie to, in the event that we couldn’t get onto the pontoon at Bessans, but there was only one derelict quay which we did have to stop at as the air filter housing decided to break loose just as we turned to head downstream – but it wasn’t where we would be comfortable spending the night. Somewhat dispirited we turned off onto the last leg of the Midi Canal and tied to roots just past the Pont St-Bauzille at PK 234.
We were now faced with a dilemma – to go back to Agde (we just didn’t fancy it for the weekend) or to head on across the Etang de Thau (winds forecast over the weekend – although I did notice on Friday morning that the wind was OK until about midday). We hadn’t stopped at Marseillan, several boaters had since waxed lyrical to us about this port, on our previous trip and I thought that this perhaps was our opportunity. I rang the port early to enquire about conditions for the Etang crossing – Ok that morning but not for the rest of the weekend – and about mooring in Marseillan for an 18m boat – not possible due to works being undertaken. So we set off at 9.40am hoping to get across this 16km shallow inland sea full of oyster beds before the gale force winds predicted for that afternoon. At our last lock on the Midi, Bagnas, it was sod’s law that we were held up for half an hour and it wasn’t until 10.50am that we reached the lighthouse at Onglous, PK 240 and the end of the Midi Canal, with at least a two hour crossing time before us.
We made it into the safe waters of the Canal du Rhone a Sete by 1.10pm, with the winds picking up noticeably and the beginnings of some white caps and a swell, and moored up somewhat precariously on the jagged and derelict looking quay at La Peyrade, PR 5, with shore-side help from another boat already moored at one end. Despite underwater rocks and bits of just underwater jagged concrete shelves, only three oddly and long spaced concrete bollards, and not being able to get any closer than a full gangplank’s length from the shore, we were able to secure and relax and have lunch.
As it turned out Jean-Luc and Dominique, aboard Estaca, are the French couple who had asked us about our boat-builder whilst we had been watering up at Le Somail and they assured us that the mooring was ‘nickel’ and that Sete was this weekend ‘en fete’ and an easy cycle ride away. It looked as though, after all, we were in for a treat and so we abandoned thoughts of moving on to the better known moorings at Frontignan and settled in for the weekend.