We seem to have had more than our fair share of dull, wet and windy weather this December, January and February. I have been keeping track of how we are faring relative to other places that we might be and have noted that on most days during this period our weather has only been a degree or two different from Reading, England – and not always warmer or sunnier.
This weather tracking idea was partly triggered by thoughts about heading north again at the end of this season. Getting back up the Rhone river is really only feasible for us in August or September each year and this would mean perhaps spending a winter in central or eastern France – so Roanne, Auxonne, Toul and Strasbourg have all been on my Meteo monitor. The result so far is “probably not” to all of them. Here it has only reached freezing during one week (when the canal froze over) which happened to be whilst we were away skiing. The thought of spending winter in consistently very cold wet snowy and or foggy conditions still seems a world away from where we are.
Despite the weather being disappointing compared to last year we have still been finding plenty to entertain us in port. Having given the game Carcassonne to a nephew and a grandson for Christmas we thought it only fair to treat ourselves to a version – and now we have become completely addicted and ready to see off any younger (or older – note to Kathy and Charles who introduced us to the game in Ohio at Thanksgiving) challengers should they happen to visit. Upwords, Cribbage, Phase 10, and numerous jigsaw puzzles are gathering dust under the piano!
Our evenings since the New Year have been taken up with DVD Christmas presents from family – the complete collection of Morse, three series of The Fall and Planet Earth. We have also seen Manchester-by-the-Sea, I. Daniel Blake, La-La-Land and Jackie (in Original language versions) at the Cap Colisee Cinema just around the corner from the port. Our regular French lessons continue every week-day afternoon watching Un Diner Presque Parfait (Come Dine with Me) on the TV in French, with French subtitles.
We are finding things to do that we missed out on last year. For March it is still a debate as to whether we should go to the Theatre Jean-Alary to see Rock the Ballet or Tosca or both. Yesterday we discovered the view from the tower of the Church of Saint Vincent whose 54 bell carillon we listen to often and whose regular clock chimes we hear loud and clear in the port.
The tower, built in the C14th and C15th, climbs up 235 steps to a height of 54 metres and was used variously as a look-out in times of war, a geodesic point for Maichain and Delambre when determining the length of the earth’s southern meridian, and in the execution of Cassini’s map of France.
Briefly, during the Revolution in 1794, the church was transformed into a foundry to manufacture artillery mountings but was restored to a place of worship by public demand the following year. I have been reading in the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of the USA from 1801-1809) his account of the French Revolution and note with interest his journey in 1786 “…returning along the coast by …. Monaco, Nice, Antibes, Frejus, Aix, Marseilles, Avignon, Nismes (sic), Montpellier, Frontignan, Cette (sic), Agde, and along the canal of Languedoc, by Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassonne, Castelnaudari (sic), thro’ the Souterrain of St Feriol and back by Castelnaudari, to Toulouse, thence to Montauban & down the Garonne by Langon to Bordeaux.” – all now familiar territory to us although the canal in Jefferson’s day skirted the town of Carcassonne and it wasn’t until 1810 that the 10 km stretch of new canal upstream and downstream of the town was completed.
One wet afternoon I stopped in at the Musee des Beaux Arts. I very much enjoyed the temporary exhibition of paintings by Eugene Pech, 1923-1991, a local artist who painted local scenes.
Lili managed to fit in a day with us on her way to ski with friends in Abruzzi (central Italy, but fortunately not at the hotel recently destroyed by an avalanche) and so we took the #4 bus up to the Cite and walked around the ramparts, the Chateau, and back down to the port. It is always a pleasure to visit here in this World Heritage site off season when there are only a handful of tourists rather than the more seasonal swarms.
We passed up the chance to go with Lili to Italy but took the train from Carcassonne to Ax-les-Thermes (an hour to Toulouse and two hours south up into the Pyrenees) to spend a week skiing in Bonascre where we arrived to not much snow, but then to three days of blizzards.
We were confined to our warm little rented ski apartment and so honed our Carcassonne skills and listened to podcast back issues of Desert Island Discs before being released onto the fresh powdered slopes for three days of glorious skiing in bright sunshine – our first time ever in the Pyrenees.
Back in port our main interest really is in our next meal! There are hundreds of shops within very easy walking distance through-out the draughtboard-like town streets and there are more and bigger shops on three retail parks within easy €1 bus rides. Our daily outing to ‘faire les courses’ (shopping) has become both an entertainment and our exercise. There always seems to be another boucherie, or patisserie, or boulangerie, around the next corner that we haven’t yet tried. The Saturday market in Place Carnot is still a weekly must and a great pleasure.
I have often wondered why French bread tastes so much better here than in England or in the USA. The simple answer seems to be that the French only use local wheat which is low in protein and their traditional bread is made with only flour, yeast, and water – which is why it goes stale by the end of the day (but makes great croutons and toast). There is a huge variety of different types of bread and every bakery seems to have its own range. It was at a Banette bakery where we first discovered a brown malted and seeded loaf called Pain Viking and this has now become my firm favourite from our nearby La Mie Caline (interestingly a large franchised chain of bakers) who call it a Pain Nordique (made with malted barley and wheat flour).
On the subject of franchising – a specific area of my non-boating expertise! – it is a surprisingly well used business format in France, including many of the major grocery chains and supermarkets as well as for smaller businesses such as restaurants and bakeries – but somehow it doesn’t seem as obvious to me because owners and staff don’t behave as though they are doing it by rote. I was very surprised though when early in the New Year our local Quick hamburger drive-thru changed almost overnight into a Burger King. We struggled through the automatic ordering points (unsuccessfully as it seemed impossible to remotely order a Whopper Cheese Meal) and queues at the counter to get a Whopper Meal, but ever since have chosen to go across the car park to La Pataterie, (I have now discovered this is also a franchise operation) which is a basic honest-to-goodness French bistro, featuring baked potatoes, where for not many more €s we can sit down and enjoy a two course meal and a glass of wine with efficient and pleasant service. I guess I may be getting old!
I blame the poor weather for my ‘Winter Boat To-Do List’ getting longer, with very few items as yet ticked off. The Rust-oleum paint I bought in Marmande this summer is not available in Carcassonne and, despite being listed on the Rust-oleum website as a stockist, Cuin Quincaillerie has never heard of it! –I need to somehow ship some paint in. The one tick we have managed though is a visit to IKEA in Toulouse to get a new replacement mattress for our ‘click-clack’ sofa bed – which was weary after 7 years of solid use – but even this took some planning. To order online it could only be for delivery – in our case a delivery charge of €99 plus another €20 to take away the old one – the mattress is €77, interestingly much cheaper than in England at £90. To go and collect meant renting a van and taking a chance on the item being in stock when we arrived, as you cannot reserve an item in store for collection. But then renting a van turned out to be not that straightforward either. The Avis site proved impenetrable with an English driving licence and address (and they have closed the handy office by the station here), Enterprise don’t do vans, Carrefour supermarket does but you must pay the deposit with a French cheque not a credit card, and all the car rentals are out at the airport which only has a ‘navette’ bus service to meet specific flights (one or two a day and none on Wednesdays). In the end, Europcar obliged with an easy website and a good price of €45 for two days and we have now discovered that the airport is only a five minute walk away from the #1 Bus stop, by Geant Casino, through the retail park – €1, and regular service, as opposed to €5 for the airport navette. By the time we had paid tolls and diesel and for 29kms over the 200kms mileage allowance we spent €95 – so still a bit of a saving, and we picked up a load of logs for the fire. Our helpful Capitainerie, Stephanie and Chayma, are arranging a collection of the old mattress as we, as both non-residents and in a commercial van, can’t use the ‘decheterie’ (recycling centre) – we had this same problem in England some years ago but that is quite another story involving nine old mattresses in a rented van and eight trips in our Volvo in and out of the Reading recycling centre wearing eight different hats by way of ‘circumventing the rules’.
But these are trifling niggles compared to the very real worry about how Brexit will affect our peripatetic lifestyle. Without our boat having its current Customs status as ‘Union Goods’, allowing free movement in all EU states, it will be visiting from outside the E.U and so will be subject to a limit of 18 months cruising before import duty and VAT become exercisable. We ourselves, under current standard rules, would be limited to a maximum visit of 90 days, with a 90 day exclusion after 90 days (whenever that falls and from all EU states), and a maximum of 180 days per year – not just in one country but in the EU as a whole. Thank goodness we came when we did as I suspect that soon we will not have the option of being able to cruise so extensively and without any bureaucratic hassle. Tant pis! We’ll just have to make the most of the year or so before the red line is drawn and we lose our ‘European liberty’.