Throughout its 98 kms the Canal du Rhone a Sete runs in straight lines for miles ahead and the stretch from Sete to Gallician affords wonderful views across the etangs (saline lakes), on one side towards the hills behind Montpellier, and on the other to the sea and occasional seaside resorts. Everywhere there is a profusion of bird life and fishermen, it is often very windy, nearly always very hot, and we have enjoyed this unique Camarguais landscape more each time we pass.
Beyond St Gilles the canal continues its straight course but heads inland and is bordered by trees obscuring any views across the surrounding countryside for the remaining 28 kms to Beaucaire. After a couple of quiet nights on a small wooden pontoon at PK 28 (a popular overnight stop for those wanting to make an early start through the St Gilles lock down onto the Petit Rhone and on to the Rhone) we headed into St Gilles and found a space on the old quay.
We called ahead to make sure that we would be able to get water and a mooring once we reached the canal terminus in Beaucaire. The port Captain had just come back from annual leave (conges) and wasn’t sure but could tell us that there was absolutely no chance of a mooring at Bellegarde, the only other port on this stretch from St Gilles. We very nearly didn’t bother to make the trip as when we called back we were told that it was impossible, too difficult, no room – but I persisted with a few questions about this and that and suddenly Didier said he would call me back, which he did in 5 mins with an empty Le Boat base quay (abandoned) at our disposal. So after a long hot walk into the old town of St Gilles (no worthwhile grocery) and then out to the supermarket we set off that afternoon making an overnight wild mooring at PK 10 where we found a reinforced stretch of bank to climb and secure to pins. We saw no commercial traffic at all after St Gilles but plenty of birds and insects crossed our path, some of them biting Pam very badly as she climbed up onto the bank to secure the pins. The frequent kingfishers, a flock of European Bee Eaters and the Rollers (a first sighting for me) were rather more welcome company than the hornets, large horseflies and an assortment of weird and rather dangerous looking unidentified flying insects (not to mention the odd mosquito).
On arrival in Beaucaire we found ourselves in splendid isolation behind fencing and locked gates and apparently forgotten by Didier who had said he would be down to see us – this was before lunch. After lunch I checked out the rather vandalised looking services and found that we had both water and electric but by tea-time I did have to telephone to be let out! We later discovered that there was a missing panel but this was after Didier had brought us the keys and taken the wire off one of the gates. Amazingly an English boating couple appeared on foot that evening (through the missing fence panel) having heard about us on the grapevine and wondering if we had services as they were in the main port without any electric supply.
We ended up spending three nights (small boat daily rate of €29 with a night thrown in free) on our quiet and peaceful quay and thoroughly enjoyed a chance to clean the boat, water the plants, shop and go sightseeing.
Beaucaire lock and junction with the River Rhone has been out of service since the mid-1970s but the Port still remains crowded and popular, although during our stay we saw only 3 boats on the move.
We headed by bike across the Rhone Bridge to the mighty fortress of Tarascon, mainly built in the C15th but with C11th origins, guarding the eastern border of Provence. We were able to look down over the River Rhone and get an idea of what we may be up against in a few weeks’ time when hopefully we will pass underneath the two bridges here. The Chateau/Castle was a most enjoyable visit.
We wandered the quaint old streets of Beaucaire which in its day held each July one of the largest of Europe’s fairs, with ships arriving from around the Mediterranean and crowds of up to 300,000 people.
The Friday market was a somewhat smaller affair – but we were leaving town just before the Estivales began that night, which apparently are worth staying for, but we had places to go, people to meet, and only a week to retrace our steps the 98 kms (only 1 lock at Nourriguier PK 8) back to Frontignan.
On our return trip for our first overnight stop we opted for a high cement wall with rings near PK 18 – avoiding the need to get off the boat and the risk of getting bitten again! All the other flying suspects were still much in evidence though.
At St Gilles PK 25 we had noticed a sign advertising the sale of diesel at the Le Boat base so dropped in (on a Saturday morning) and were promptly and courteously sold 77 litres (the amount we had used since leaving Frontignan) at €1.60 a litre. This and the supermarket up the River Lez where we had stopped previously, are the only waterside locations for diesel pumps on this canal. We made a two night stop at PK 28 on the small wooden jetty and once again watched quite a number of boats passing and coming and going over the weekend. From here we decided to make a second attempt at getting moored in Aigues Mortes, PR 23, having failed to do so on Bastille Day. The nearly four hour trip took us into the commercial section of the port just after lunch but the quay (some of it Hotel Boat priority) was full with three private cruisers and a hotel boat. We spotted a gap on the other side between Rinanbe (we have passed them often on the Midi) and a trip boat and so pulled in on the off chance we wouldn’t be seen off. We weren’t – Quentin and Denise (Rinanbe) had put in the night before to discover that this bit of quay was not currently being used by its normal occupant – and so we stayed the night.
As always the cobbled and narrow main streets in the old walled town were crowded with tourists that afternoon, but on the next morning before 10am we found them much less so and a visit to both the excellent little fruit shop and the butcher cum delicatessen gave us sufficient provisions to be moving on.
We spent another two nights at Maguelone before heading in (an hour and a half trip) to Frontignan to catch the 8.30 am bridge lift. This turned out to be a smart move as the winds over the previous few days had caused a log jam of boats waiting in the port and they all cleared out that morning to cross the Etang de Thau, leaving the serviced quay empty just as we arrived. We had two days to get ready for family arriving on Friday night but first it was lunch with Charles and Sally (Bluegum) at Fanny’s Bistro before they moved on that day. Other familiar faces were Richard on Allegretto moored along the quay and Clive and Elaine on Cochon Noir passing through on their journey south. Lyneve arrived and we finally got to meet Steve and Lynda whose empty boat we had breasted up against in Buzet for a couple of nights last summer.
Having successfully found a taxi to meet Maurice, Lauren and Ollie at Sete on their delayed train from Paris we got them a’board by 11pm on Friday. Next day, after a visit to Frontignan’s large Saturday street market, we headed out that afternoon to Maguelone in time for an evening visit to the beach. The port soon started filling up again, this time with boats arriving for a music festival a’board an old touring peniche (barge) due in – which arrived just as we were leaving through the 4pm bridge opening.
Two full days of beach activity included swimming, sunbathing, a trip on the other Petit Train from the Cathedral to the Camping at Palavas-les-Flots, to find even more nudists and a jet-ski rental, a nice informal lunch of salads, mussels and oysters at the Cathedral cafe/bistro, games on the boat, and sunset watching.
On Tuesday we headed off, on an unusually overcast day, to the Carrefour supermarket pontoon on the River Lez to get milk and diesel (€1.19 a litre) before stopping for lunch on the pontoon by the camping ground up river. We found we were able to turn round here without any difficulty and then retraced our steps and continued along the canal to the wild mooring at PR 36 for a quiet night of more games – Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Phase 10.
From here it was a two hour sunny morning cruise into Aigues Mortes where the Capitaine greeted us in his little rib and escorted us through the port to a mooring on the reception pontoon. Visits into town in the fierce afternoon heat, and lounging about on the now very hot boat, were followed by a very nice evening meal at the Bistrot de Paiou where in one form or another we enjoyed the local speciality of ‘Taureau’ (bull) meat along with some good seafood and local wines.
Our much looked forward to Camargue Sauvage 4×4 Photo Safari, hoping to see Flamingos on the ground rather than just flying past the boat in the evening, turned out to be something of a 4 hour endurance trial. We were driven backwards and forwards to various spots, nearly all along the now, to us, very familiar canal, to see black Bulls, Cowboys, white horses, and more black Bulls and white horses and Cowboys – but no birds to speak of and not a flicker of a flamingo. Sitting on the bench seats in the back of an old Land Rover, with extremely poor visibility unless you stood up through the open roof (but nothing to hold on to), and being jostled about over hard bumpy dirt tracks was in itself not a pleasant experience. Add to that no ‘comfort facilities’ and no available water on a very hot afternoon and by 7pm it was a relief to get back to the hot boat!
The Safari brochure promised “tasting regional products” and I could hardly believe it when we headed down the canal to Gallician and stopped outside La Laupio – the shop I had already visited twice before! At first the lady proprietor was nowhere to be seen and then had to be coaxed into giving us a thimbleful of wine and a slither of sausisson – far less generous portions than I had been given on my previous visits as a customer.
We had paid a bit extra to witness “mares with foals galloping in the marshes” and at the end of the tour we assembled beside a canal side-branch to watch a ‘gardian’ (cowboy) and his family swim a group of horses across the 20 meters of water and back. The talks with the gardians were incomprehensible to me (fairly strong local accent) and so the advertised ‘unique moments’ of the Cowboys remained a secret to us.
But all too soon it was time for ‘au revoir’ and we saw Maurice, Lauren and Ollie off at Aigues-Mortes station on the €1 train to Nimes to get their connection to the Eurostar from Avignon TGV to St Pancras, London. They were safely out of the scorching southern heat and back in cooler Kidlington, Oxfordshire, by midnight.
For us it was a baking three hour afternoon trip to our favourite little wooden jetty at PK 28 near the St Gilles lock to enjoy a Friday night Pastis in the relatively cool evening shade (90F, 32C) and to plan our ascent up the Rhone by checking river flow levels (pretty modest) and wind predictions (some gales forecast for Sunday). We decided to decide in the morning, after a good breakfast, whether or not we would leave the safe confines of the Canal du Rhone a Sete the next day.