Rest and Relaxation on the Rhone a Sete Canal – from Sete to St-Gilles and up the River Lez.

After a rather damp squib of a departure from the Midi Canal (see my last post) we’ve had a lot more fun since arriving at Frontignan-la-Peyrade on the outskirts of Sete, and having settled in on Friday lunchtime to our somewhat rough concrete quay mooring, right at the entrance to the Canal du Rhone a Sete from the Etang de Thau, we accepted our neighbour’s kind offer to ride into Sete with them that evening.

Mooring at La Peyrade.

Dominique and Jean-Luc told us about the annual local fisherman’s fete Le Grand Pardon de Saint-Pierre and we cycled into town (about twenty minutes) to witness the parade starting at 9.30pm, complete with firemen’s marching band, taking the statues of St Peter from the Penitents Chapel.

At the Penitents Chapel – boats ready to be lifted onto fishermen’s shoulders for the parade.

Following the crowds up through the old town to the church La Decanale St Louis we managed to lose our guides so had a good rest in a pew before deciding that, with no sign yet of the statues arriving, it was late enough already and, without any bicycle lights and needing to remember the return route through the maze of canal bridges and one way streets we had better head for home. Sete is known as the ‘Venice of Languedoc’ – the port being constructed in time for the completion of the Midi Canal in 1681.

Waiting in anticipation in St Louis church.

An important part of the weekend long festivities was a Tournoi de Joutes (jousting tournament in boats) and so on Sunday we cycled in for more sightseeing and after checking at the tourist office for time and place for the competition that afternoon we headed up the very steep Mont St Clair to visit the Musee de Paul Valery (Local Poet, 1871-1945) where I had heard that there were some good paintings. It was the first Sunday of the Month (July 1st) and this Musee participates in the scheme that runs throughout France in many museums to allow free entry on this day. For some reason though it only applied to their permanent collection, some nice paintings over the years of the old Cette, as the town was known until 1927, and not to their special exhibition of the work of El Greco. So we coughed up the €9 each only to find that the El Greco exposition consisted of one painting, The Immaculate Conception, and four small rooms showing films of different aspects of his work and his life. All very well, but somewhat disappointing on the value for money front.

Musee de Paul Valery, Sete.

However we were rewarded with a wonderful view across the bay and port as we came out of the museum which is high on the hill above the cemetery and this was enhanced by the fact that we were witnessing another part of the Le Grand Pardon festivities – the fishing boat procession to sea in homage to lost sailors.

View from Mont St Clair of Sete Harbour and the procession of fishing boats.

Once back down the hill into the main town we had time for lunch, Vietnamese fish cassoulet, and more of a look round before finding no sign of any official preparations for jousting activity around the stand set up for spectators on Quai Licciardi – only a few spectators. I checked back with the nearby tourist office who assured me that I was in the right place but after half an hour we decided to give it a miss and cycle home. We discovered later that the event had been moved to another quay – a sign at the stand or knowledge of the change at the tourist office would have been nice!

View from the cemetery, Mont St Clair.

We stayed at La Peyrade, PR 5, for four nights and found it not only convenient for cycling in to Sete (a cycle route for much of the way) but also for shopping at a nearby Lidl on the industrial estate and with shops in La Peyrade itself, a short walk/cycle ride away and on a good bus route between Sete and Montpellier. But, running low on water, we decided on Tuesday to move on the 4km into Frontignan, where we found a space, with water at €2 per 100 litres and electric at €2 per 5kwh, on the quay before the low road bridge. This bridge is raised only twice a day to allow boats to pass underneath, at 8.30am and at 4.00pm, resulting usually in quite a melee to both get through and to secure a place on the serviced quay. Having timed our arrival for 10am we were able to sit comfortably and watch that afternoon’s activity of twelve boats passing upstream and twelve passing downstream and the quay filling up for the night.

Melee at the Frontignan lift bridge and L’Escapade in the middle of it.

And as good fortune would have it David and Evey, on L’Escapade and whom we knew were heading down the Rhone, were due into Frontignan the next day – we last saw them in Burgundy at Fragnes in April 2015. Their arrival occasioned impromptu and joint-effort aperos in the shade on a quayside bench and then dinner under L’Escapade’s generous mid-deck dining canopy.

The dinner deck on L’Escapade beckons, at Frontignan.

The next morning, with David safely sent off to Paris on the train to pick up their car, Evey, Pam and I headed off from the station in the opposite direction to Sete in search of seafood treats and lunch; taking the free shuttle bus service from the station into town our first stop was at Les Halles for a mid-morning plate of raw oysters washed down with a glass of the local Picpoul de Pinet.

Finding oysters in Les Halles, Sete.

Tielles, pies of octopus morsels in spicy tomato sauce, are a local Setoise speciality and after lunch at Les Delices de Jade, on Quai General Durand, Evey collected her pies, ordered from her favourite artisan, on the way home. Our 8 minute train journey back turned into an hour’s bus ride (accident at Montpellier station) but David only made it home just before midnight and so the pies lived to see another day.

According to Evey, the best Tielles in town.

The moorings at Frontignan are free, but limited to three days and so Friday was our due date to leave. But first David, who had had to make do with eating at McDonald’s en-route the day before, was set on having a good lunch and we all headed into town to sample the delights of Le Bistrot de Fanny.

David and Pam at Le Bistro de Fanny, Frontignan.

More great local food; Seiche a la plancha (grilled cuttlefish – soft and buttery) with bottles of Muscat de Frontignan Sec (the sweet version is popular as an aperitif and was enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson on his visit here in 1787). David got a bit carried away (almost literally) by a school of laughter ladies who wanted hugs and more hugs (according to David).

Evey takes a snap – David and the ecole-de-rire.

By the time we’d finished at Fanny’s it was almost bridge opening time and when we set off somewhat reluctantly at 4pm David accused me of approaching the bridge sideways – I had observed that this was the way to get into pole position but was somewhat surprised when the man under the bridge in the little booth, whom I had not noticed before, accused me of running a red light, which I had also not seen.

Leaving Frontignan at an angle.

The two hour trip in hot sunshine, when I should rightly have been having a siesta, to Maguelone, PK 51, was hard work. We moored up well before the motorised pontoon bridge, on the sloping concrete quay with bollards but no services, and refreshed ourselves with Pastis and the wonderful views all around us.

Moored at Maguelone.

This is a magic place with an old cathedral standing on an ancient isthmus between the Etang de l’Arnel and the Golfe de Lion in the Mediterranean.

Rainbow over the Cathedral at Maguelone.

We listened on CD to George Brassens, 1921-1981 singer-songwriter, poet and a native of Sete, singing ‘Je m’suis fait tout petit’.

Full moon at Maguelone.

At one time there was an important town here, the first record of a bishop in 589, but it suffered changes in fortune becoming a mosque under the Saracens, and being destroyed in 737 by Charles Martel. It was rebuilt in its current Romanesque style in 1030 but the bishopric was moved in 1563 and the buildings were again ransacked after the Revolution with stones being taken to build the nearby canal.

Vineyard at Maguelone overlooking the thin strip of canal running between etangs.

But the island with its few remaining buildings and unspoiled beach has retained a timeless charm with access only on foot or by bike over the canal bridge. There is a ‘petit train’ running all day, to take those not up to cycling or walking, the 1km or so to the beach or cathedral with cafe/local products shop and a restaurant.

Le Petit Train will run you to the beach.

For nature lovers there are plenty of birds about and a stretch of beach for nudists too.

Pam in proper attire on the beach.

We spent three nights and two full days here despite the moorings being signed as limited to 24 hours. The three short 12m pontoons on the other side of the bridge are good for three days. We were surprised to see two large commercial peniches pass by in addition to a big Croisi-Europe cruise boat.

Commercial traffic, even at the weekend, on the Rhone a Sete.

At Palavas-les-Flots we made a sharp left turn at the Four Canals intersection, PR 46.5, and headed up the River Lez to a small pontoon, PK 9, provided by the Intermarche supermarket for boaters wanting to shop and/or buy fuel. There is a petrol hose actually on the pontoon but for diesel you do have to carry your cans to the regular car service pumps just a few feet away. We made good use of our visit and once fully supplied, and as turning space is a bit restricted at the pontoon, we decided to head on up river to explore and to find a mooring for lunch. A 20m pontoon at PK 7.5 fitted the bill so well that we stayed the night and enjoyed the company of a nest of Storks on a custom built post between us and the camping/holiday home park on the other side of the embankment.

Storks at the mooring on the River Lez.

We took advantage of the river water to both wash the boat and water the plants – the Rhone a Sete Canal is brackish water as it runs between the etangs (lagoons) along the coast – but in the whirl of evening activity our old watering-can sprang a leak. So next morning, in need of buying a new one, we decided to chance our arm, having read that we wouldn’t be allowed through the Troisieme lock, PK 6, and into Port Ariane, and cruised up river arriving at the lock as two boats were descending. As chance would have it the lock-keeper cum Port Capitaine was in attendance and he agreed to fit us in (one of only four spots possible for boats over 15m) to the Port for that night only. We thought that it was too good an opportunity to miss even though, not particularly needing water and electric, we initially baulked at the inclusive overnight charge of €35.

Entrance to Port Ariane, Lattes.

Port Ariane is a new development in Lattes and it brought to mind a rather exotic interpretation of Milton Keynes. We found ourselves surrounded by quayside restaurants and next to the main office of Fluvial, the French Waterways Magazine, who had a well-stocked shop/library of all the river and canal guides you could want (just when I don’t need any more!).

Port Ariane, home to Fluvial Magazine.

The local shops did not produce a watering-can but I was assured that if we took the Tramway towards Montpellier (only 6 km distance) I would find everything I needed at the Grand Sud, a modern shopping centre and retail park at Boirargues, which we did the next morning returning in time for lunch at A Tribord. The €13 lunch menu was excellent value for three good courses and we were able to sit out within a few feet of Xenia and so let some air through the boat on this extremely hot day (over 100F, 40C, on the stern deck) before setting off in the afternoon.

Lunch at A Tribord in the port and keeping one eye on Xenia.

We only travelled 2.5 km back downstream to the still empty pontoon, tied up, had a siesta, and then in the evening watered the plants and washed the other side of the boat, trying to benefit as much as we could from the breeze. Apparently though, during our one night absence, the Storks had flown the nest, which had been looking somewhat overcrowded with three large young in addition to an adult or two. Next morning, with even hotter sun forecast, we moved on to explore the downstream end of the Lez at Palavas-les-Flots – only to find that there are no suitable moorings available for our size boat and we had to turn round at the bridge which marks the change from canal to maritime port authority and leading directly into the Med. Back on the canal it was a similar story at Carnon, PR 42, where the Halte and mooring marked on the map led us into a narrow cul-de-sac where we had to jostle with low bridge heights and small boats moored up in order to turn. The left turn back onto the canal proved equally troublesome and we were relieved when we were able to pull into a rough collapsing bankside with a few embedded rusty old steel joists to tie to at PR 36.

A make-do mooring after Carnon at PR 36.

There was a nice breeze, a nice view across Etang de Mauguio, but the sun was getting hotter and once again a lunch stop turned into an overnight stop – it really gets too hot (115F, 42C on the back deck at 6pm) to carry on cruising comfortably in the afternoon, so we prefer to move in the morning. Again, we were surprised to be passed by three heavily laden commercial peniches in less than two hours.

More commercial traffic.

From here we made an unsuccessful assault on Aigues Mortes on Bastille Day. I should have known better. David, L’Escapade, had told us about mooring in the commercial port on a quay with hotel boat priority, so we decided to check it out. Turning right off the bypass canal we cruised past the railway bridge, closed, through the port de Plaisance, full, to turn round and find the railway bridge still closed, and so back up to the by-pass. The pontoon moorings listed here by the two bridges look barely suitable for fishermen let alone a large boat and in preference we ended up tying to some rickety railings under a bridge, PR 21.5, for lunch. Realising that I had spotted a funfair beyond the railway bridge in the commercial port we decided to carry on to Gallician, PR 12, rather than take the third leg of the triangle back into Aigues Mortes.

New posts in the little port at Gallician.

I rather like Gallician. It is where we arrived in May 2015, tired from a long day down the Rhone from Avignon, to find ourselves truly in the Camargue. It was a bank holiday then and it was again, on Bastille Day, this year. David had sent us some cruising notes then and we had struggled to identify the stretch of bank with trees to tie to opposite the port, but we found them this time and gained both some precious daytime shade and a free mooring. The little port here (€36 on our last visit) has installed steel pillars making for very limited space for larger than 12m boats to moor. There are no bollards elsewhere, so in view of passing large commercials and Croisi-Europe hotel boats, a tree to tie to is advisory!

Finding the well placed tree at Gallician.

We visited the boulangerie and the little epicerie and the rather nice Le Laupio local products shop and, partly out of nostalgia, I repeated my previous purchases of Saussison de Taureau (bull), and Costiers de Nimes wine, but managed to refrain from buying another hat – despite rather fancying one of those black Camargais cowboy’s trilbies. Sitting on the bow deck that evening I thoroughly enjoyed watching the ever changing bird flights all around. A kingfisher in the bank a few feet away was coming and going, a young flamingo was rather noisily being harassed, all kinds of swallows and swifts were darting around the boat, sudden flocks of gold breasted birds flew away too fast to identify and others, gulls, egrets, stilts and herons were up and down and all around.  Earlier in the day, but not here, we had seen my favourite European Bee Eaters which are so common around Aigues Mortes.

A bird watching evening at Gallician.

To avoid next day’s evening sunshine we moved on for 11 kilometres to just past the St Gilles Lock (leading down to the Petit Rhone) staying on the canal and mooring up to one of three short pontoons at PK 28 (the changes from PR to PK is a bit confusing along this canal!). Not easy for us to tie an 18m boat to a 5m quay with a stiff wind blowing us off and it took a while to work out which ropes to tie where. But we were rewarded with shade, loud cicadas too, and a peaceful setting although frogs croaked up after the cicadas quietened down later on in the evening. There’s always something – even a great sunset.

Sunset near St-Gilles.

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