Stress and Strain coming up the Rhone, 300 km from St Gilles to Lyon.

After a restful night near the St Gilles Lock on the Canal du Rhone a Sete we decided on the morning of Saturday 5th August that there was a good weather window of opportunity to make our first long day’s start up the Rhone. Once through the St Gilles lock (PK 300) at 10.00 am there was nowhere to stop for the next 46 km on first the Petit Rhone River for 22 km and then the Rhone, which was at its strongest flow of around 900 cubic meters per second (about 3 kilometres per hour) at the Beaucaire/Tarascon Rail Bridge (PK 268), and it took us until 6pm that day to reach the little Port at Aramon (PK 254.5), averaging a little under 6 kilometres per hour, at a steady 1500 rpm, against the current and wind.

A stormy looking sky at Aramon.

We had tried for 3 days to contact the Port to make a reservation but were only able to leave messages on an answerphone so took it on faith that we would be able to moor there. On arrival we found a space on Pontoon B but no sign of any port management, and only one fellow boater who had pulled in just before us, so we tied up and made ourselves at home. The next day’s forecast was for very strong winds (Mistral) and we knew we would need to stay put so we were relieved when early the next morning the Capitaine, Olivier, appeared to welcome us. He had not received any of our messages as the phones listed in the Fluvial Guide are no longer in use but he could not have been more helpful. I was worried about having sufficient diesel to reach Valence, nearly 150 km away, without needing to make a detour into the very difficult to access pump in Avignon so he kindly drove me and four Jerry cans to the nearby supermarket service station for a much needed top-up. It seemed that the increase in revs on our 70hp Isuzu engine from our usual 1200, using about 2.5 litres per engine hour, to 1500 had doubled our fuel usage to 5 litres per hour – and we only have a 160 litre fuel tank.

On Pontoon B at Aramon.

We were badly bounced about by the wind and waves on Pontoon B for two nights and a day and despite Olivier’s offer to stay (€25 a night) and sit out the Mistral, which he said never blows for less than 3 days, we decided to move on as another day and night of noise from the slapping of the water under the cruiser next to us would have driven us mad. But not before we became the first boat ever to use the port’s pump-out machine, installed four years ago at a cost of over €75,000 and a condition for permission to open this then new port. It worked a treat, but whilst we were using it a commercial barge went by so fast that the waves nearly capsized the cruiser on the pontoon next to us, spreading their breakfast and crockery about the deck, nearly threw me off the roof had I not been holding onto the pump hose, with us losing some crockery too and suffering two broken castor joints on the PC desk, and leaving the PC monitor toppled over but mercifully not broken once righted.

Olivier at the pump-out and spotting the speeding peniche.

Fortunately suggested correctly that the Mistral would be less violent than the 50 kilometre per hour gusts that Olivier’s phone app had forecast and we had a very pleasant four hour cruise to Roquemaure, PK 225, where we tied up to an old concrete town quay just made for us and with a beautiful view. We had a blissfully wave free quiet and peaceful night. Rain was forecast the next morning but after cycling in to the nearby Lidl for some essentials we decided to move on anyway.

Our view at Roquemaure with cruise liner and peniche passing.

We knew that along the next 100 kilometres the only moorings would be on lock waiting pontoons, which with permission from the lock keepers pleasure boats can use over night, but they are only about 20 meters long and so one has to hope that not too many other boats have the same idea at the same time. We were lucky at Bolene, PK 190, passing through this enormous 22 metre depth lock on our own, and mooring for the night on the upstream pontoon.

Sunset at Bolene Lock.

Above the Bolene lock we entered the 20 km canalised Donzere Mondragon reach and this proved to be hard going against some strong flows and was rather dull scenically until we reached Viviers, PK 166, where there is a Port which is still, after several years, apparently completely silted up. On the 2 km approach to the Chateauneuf Lock (PK 164) we barely made 3 kph against the flow and we found this to be a pattern at all the locks as we ascended. After 7 hours on the move we decided to at least try to get into the little port at Cruas, PK 145, officially restricted to 13 metre length boats, as I could see the 18m reception pontoon was empty, so we tied up and then rang the Capitaine, who was happy to bend the rules and let us stay for two or more nights (€21 a night).

Cruas port and the power station.

We needed a break from the relentless routine of standing out on the stern deck in the often very hot sun and wind for hours on end without a break. There are better designs of boats than ours for cruising long distances on large rivers! Cruas proved to be an oasis of calm. From the river it appears to just consist of a large nuclear power plant with a mural painted on a tower but on closer inspection the town has much more to offer. We had never visited the Ardeche region, whose eastern boundary runs along the river, and so helped ourselves liberally to pamphlets from the friendly Tourist Office.

Cruas, old and new.

After shopping, including eventually finding with some difficulty and a longish bike ride, the ‘not to be missed’, weekly Organic Growers Market, my first stop was the Abbatiale Sainte-Marie de Cruas – a church, now a Historic Monument, built mainly between the C11th and C13th by Benedictine monks who founded a monastery at Cruas in 804. Recent archaeological work has revealed older layers dating back to a Roman Villa and has uncovered a beautiful and well preserved C12th limestone monk’s ‘Tribune’.

Abbatiale Sainte Marie de Cruas uncovered.

From here it was a short but steep walk up through the very picturesque medieval town streets, with some renovation work being undertaken to bring buildings back into use as houses and gites, but with most of the buildings higher up the hill, topped with a fortified monks’ chapel, still in a ruined state.

The Medieval town, Cruas.

My last visit was to the Town Museum set in nice gardens and opened in 1987 as the Andre Auclair (1893-1976) Art and History Centre. It shows a retrospective of this painter’s very varied and wide ranging work and I very much enjoyed getting to know some of it.

River scene by Auclair.

The weather forecasts for the next 10 days were still looking favourable with only occasional days of higher winds and we decided to push on to Valence despite the Capitaine’s prediction of several days of a strong Mistral ahead and a gentle reminder that his port fees were cheaper than in Valence! We made the 33 km trip in just over 6 hours and before mooring filled up with 112 litres of diesel from the self-service pump in the Port de L’Eperviere (PK 112). We had averaged just over 5 litres per hour for the last 22 hours of cruising, and would have been very close to running out had we not been able to fill up at Aramon.

Sunset at Cruas with rainbows.

There is a 3 km cycle path from the Marina into the centre of Valence which we had visited on our way down when we had an enforced 1 week stay here so instead we spent the day cycling to the nearer Geant Casino and took time to just relax and plan the next stage of our journey. After Valence there are more frequent mooring opportunities and fuel stops and with only 112 km left to go to Lyon we were thinking of taking it in short hops of a few hours at a time, perhaps visiting some of the possible sites of interest temptingly described in the Ardeche tourism leaflets.

Tree of Life tapestry by Auclair.

We left Valence on a bright sunny Sunday morning with our sights only set as far as a lunch and possible overnight stop at the pontoon at La Roche de Glun (PK 98). On arrival there at midday we found several cruisers already double breasted on the pontoon so we had to carry on to Tournon (PK 91) where we hoped to be able to moor up and spend a day to take a ride on the scenic Ardeche Railway. The barge quay just outside the port was already taken and so we nosed in gingerly to see if we could tie up to the quay just by the port entrance – but we never reached it, and found ourselves firmly aground.

Firmly aground in Tournon.

After lunch I engaged in a conversation with some local bystanders on the pavement who suggested the sailor on our other side should pull us out. Udi, the Israeli owner of Va Bene, sent his youngest daughter and three of her boarding school friends over in a dinghy to fetch a rope which he then attached to his winch, and slowly the stern started to slide off the mud.

A jolly Israeli boarding party comes to our rescue.

This all worked very well until there was a nasty cracking sound from his winch – but enough was left of it to complete the job and after exchanging emails, so that I would be able to compensate him for the repair costs of any damage, we backed out onto the river and carried on upstream.

Udi at the winch aboard Va Bene.

The next possible mooring was another 15 km away at St Vallier (PK 76) and shortly before we reached it at 6pm we had watched as Va Bene overtook us and moored up beside the boat already on this small 25m pontoon. I hovered and Udi was quick to invite us to breast up which we did with some difficulty and many defensive fenders on Va Bene’s curved hull and ropes to each end of the pontoon with help from the French cruiser Thalie on the upstream end. Serge, on Thalie, who had come downstream, told us that the nearest upstream pontoon, over an hour away, was already taken. After checking with Udi and learning that he wanted to leave at 8am the next morning we set the alarm clock and had an early night – it hadn’t been a good day.

An early night at St Vallier.

At 8am we were up and looking forward to moving onto Udi’s space on the pontoon and visiting the local supermarket – but Udi, who was reading on the stern deck, announced that he was letting the young sleep in a bit. As it was a lovely morning we decided at 8.30am just to press on and who knows, maybe get to a mooring before anyone else.

Thalie, Va Bene and Xenia at St Vallier.

We passed the pontoon at Andance (PK 68) where we had moored on our downward journey in 2015 and thought we recognised the Dutch cruiser Voet, with whom we had moored in Aigues Mortes and at Aramon, and continued against a strong current up to Sablons lock (PK 61) where we had only a short wait. Above the lock we picked up a bit of speed and were moving nicely along this canalised section with sloping concrete banks when at PK 53 I heard an unfamiliar alarm buzzing. It took me awhile to locate the broken fan belt as the cause after switching off the engine. The boat, now adrift, seemed to be staying put on the left bank  which was a relief, after experiencing strong currents earlier in the day, but I wasn’t sure what might happen if a commercial or a cruise liner came by. Just as I was taking a deep breath, and about to get the spanners out, I spotted Voet coming up behind us and Hannes was good enough both to ask if we were OK and then to offer help with replacing the fan belt. He tied alongside and we drifted together. I did have a spare belt but I wish I knew then what others have now told me that a good pair of ladies tights can make a temporary fan belt repair (and are quick and easy to install).

Hannes to the rescue.

It took Hannes a hot and tiring hour to work out with a shared collection of tools how to get the belts off and then put on a new one (neither of us sure that it was the correct belt or sufficiently well tightened). The least we could do was to give him lunch whilst we cruised along gently with his boat in tow.

Pam holds us steady with Voet attached so Hannes can have lunch.

Fortunately I had already reserved a mooring at Les Roches de Condrieu (PK 41) for that night and it was with huge relief that we limped into Port by late afternoon. The mechanic mentioned in the Fluvial Guide was on annual holiday so the Capitaine gave me the phone number of an English mechanic based in Lyon, but he was away in Monaco fixing luxury yachts until the following week.

Safely moored on the outside pontoon at Les Roches de Condrieu.

Later that evening Va Bene came into port and moored on the end of our pontoon and it wasn’t long before Udi was telling us his own tale of woe. Shortly after we had left that morning he had started up the engine in readiness to leave but found that he couldn’t get it into gear. Serge, on the French cruiser Thalie, had stayed with him all day ringing round until he found a mechanic friend from Valence who was able to come out and fix the problem by late afternoon. Udi gave me the number of the mechanic but as I was writing it down Serge appeared on the pontoon – this was his home port and he had only passed his French Boat Driving Permit three days previously and so had been on his first outing on his newly acquired (30 year old) cruiser. When he heard our saga for the day he rushed off to his boat and came back with an armful of fan belts – it turned out that he is a salesman for a company that sources and provides manufacturing and agricultural mechanical spare parts to customers whose needs are urgent!

The port at Les Roches de Condrieu.

It took Serge two days (one of them a public holiday) to find a mechanic – neither of us thought it was safe for us to continue without a professional check-up as the new belt was definitely too loose, and Hannes had emailed to say that he had just remembered that he hadn’t tightened a bolt that he had loosened in error – but in the meantime Serge found time on his holiday to run us to the supermarket to stock up on heavy goods. It was such a comfort having a local Frenchman working so tirelessly on our behalf to get our problems resolved in the holiday month of August. Matthieu, the mechanic, was quickly able to redo the belts and make sure that we had the correct sizes correctly tensioned – he found that a second belt was badly worn and about to go – so we ended up with two new belts, sourced at a moment’s notice by Serge. We didn’t know how to properly thank Serge for his saintly behaviour but he accepted an invitation with his partner Cathy to aperos and dinner with us on our third night in port. Unfortunately I didn’t have any of his favourite local wine Guigal Cote Rotie aboard, but now I know.

Condrieu bridge linking Condrieu (right bank) to Les Roches de Condrieu

So we set off from Les Roches de Condrieu determined to take it easy over the final 41 km up the Rhone and to keep the revs to 1200 and hope to avoid causing any further undue stress in the engine room. Our plan was to break the journey at Vienne (PK 29) where we knew there was a good pontoon and we reached there by lunchtime only to witness a downstream cruiser turn and moor up on it. As we approached they very kindly made efforts to make room for us but were not open to suggestions that they move to the upstream end of the 25m pontoon to allow us to hang off the downstream end. It proved to be impossible to tie up securely in front of them with only the stern half of the boat roped and in the middle of a rather messy disentanglement who should appear on the pontoon but Serge. A hurried hello as we extricated Pam’s bicycle basket from the cruiser’s bow anchor and he let us know that there was a jetty 200 yards away which we than tied up to.

Serge takes a snapshot of our failed mooring attempt at Vienne.

He didn’t come down to see us there, but we texted, and we stayed for lunch only, as it was clearly designed for larger trip boats (no mooring prohibition signs though) and we were unable to fender the boat satisfactorily. So we carried on in what was turning into another very hot afternoon. I had thought that there might be a mooring opportunity at Givors (PK 18) but it proved to be a no go and there was nothing for it but to tackle the fast flowing stretch leading up to Pierre Benite lock that afternoon. Fortunately we were making good time, even on the reduced revs, and although the final kilometre was a real struggle, we were through and moored up on the upstream lock pontoon by 6.30pm – another tiring 8 hour day.

Working our way up the final stretch to Pierre Benite Lock.

We had booked into the Port at the Confluence in Lyon for Friday and Saturday nights so took our time on Friday morning leaving the Pierre Benite Lock at 8.45 and making our way slowly up the final 4 km to the junction with the Saone and then continuing on for a further kilometre to a petrol station jetty on the Rhone upstream of the junction. The Rhone is actually navigable for a further 7 km but there are no moorings or facilities for pleasure boats. We were able to fill up with 80 litres of diesel at petrol station prices (€1.27 per litre) and also get a propane gas cylinder refill (€35.50) before turning round and heading back to the Confluence and then up the River Saone for 1 km arriving at 11am as the Capitainerie opened for the day.

Dawn at Pierre Benite. The locks are open 24 hours a day for commercials.

In total it took us 14 days, 9 travelling and 5 resting to travel the 300 km up the River Rhone from St Gilles to Lyon. The engine ran for just over 50 hours using 231 litres of diesel. Our travelling days averaged 6 hours of actual cruising covering 36 kilometres at an average speed of 6 kph, excluding locking time which in most cases was little more than 30 minutes although we did have a two hour delay at one lock. Only one day of rest was enforced due to strong winds so we were very lucky with generally favourable weather conditions on wind and current.

At the Confluence of the Saone (left) and Rhone in Lyon.

We passed through some spectacular scenery and although the Rhone is managed as an industrial river it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to stop more frequently and to visit many more of the places of interest along its path. But the moorings for pleasure boats are few and often far between and their availability is somewhat of a lottery on the day. There is also a sense of urgency felt by most boaters to get up and off the Rhone whilst they can – make good whilst the going’s good! All the boating advice we had taken about making this journey in August or September when the river flows are generally at their lowest ebb for the year had paid off but I have to admit that there is a big sense of relief now that we have made the journey, which at one time I had wondered at the wisdom of attempting.

Posted in 2017 season, French Cruising - north and central, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rest and Relaxation on the Rhone a Sete Canal (part 2) – St Gilles to Beaucaire and back to Frontignan.

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.

Somewhere near Montpellier.

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.

Town Quay, St Gilles.

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).

Wild(life) mooring.

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.

Splendid isolation, Beaucaire.

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.

Full port, Beaucaire.

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.

Another angle of the Port at Beaucaire.

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.

View of the Rhone from the Tarascon Castle Turret.

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 Beaucaire.

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.

Looking for the Tourist Office in Beaucaire.

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.

Wild mooring with less risk of leg biting insects.

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.

Opportunistic mooring in Aigues-Mortes.

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.

Tour de Constance, Aigues-Mortes.

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.

Another sunset moored at Maguelone.

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.

Ollie – from Disney’s Buffalo Bill Wild West Show to Nature on Maguelone Beach.

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.

Beach entertainment for hire at Palavas-les-Flots.

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.

A favourite wild mooring at PR 36.

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.

Young Camargue bulls being selected for ‘bravery’.

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!

Camargue horses – they like bread.

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.

“4×4 converted for your comfort”.

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.

“Mares with foals galloping in the marshes”.

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.

Au Revoir at Aigues-Mortes station.

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.

A Camargue Gardian (cowboy).

Posted in 2017 season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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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On the way back along the Midi Canal – part 2.

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.

No luck for Pam this time at the TexIndian dress store in Canet.

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.

Rigging the water tap at Le Somail.

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.

Opposite the Peniche Epicerie at Le Somail.

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.

Enchante heads for the bridge, Le Somail.

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.

Argeliers and Le Chat qui Peche restaurant by the bridge.

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.

Waiting eagerly for lunch service at L’Auberge de la Croisade.

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.

My favourite restaurant.

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!

Always looking for shade along the Midi in a very hot June.

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.

Lunch break and water fill at Poilhes.

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.

Planes putting out a fire – view from our shade trees near Poilhes.

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.

At the top of the Fonserannes 7 locks.

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.

Le Cayrol. Not so easy to steer it seems.

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.

Le Cayrol safely down and now minus the Jazz Band.

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.

Street Market at Portiragnes-Plage.

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.

Swimming too – at Portiragnes-Plage.

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.

I know Pam’s in there somewhere.

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.

If all else fails – eat bread.

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.

Bagnas – our first in 2015 and then our last in 2017 lock on the Midi Canal.

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.

Safely across the Etang de Thau and moored at La Peyrade (Sete).

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.

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On the way back along the Midi Canal – part 1.

Today is the first day of summer, the longest day, the June Solstice, midsummer night, and the Fete de la Musique – all rolled into one – and it seems hardly possible that four weeks have already passed since we returned to Toulouse from a week in England to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. The party went well, despite the rain in the afternoon just as guests arrived for tea, and a good time was had by all fifty or so family, local friends, neighbours and carers.

Family celebrations at The Patch, Lacock, Wiltshire.

We set off from Toulouse heading east and have so far covered 160kms of the 240km total length of the Midi Canal. Having spent 6 weeks getting from Carcassonne to Toulouse (April 1st– May 12th) we fairly raced back covering the same distance in 10 days, arriving in port in time for Pentecost and finding virtually all the shops shut on both Sunday and Monday, although fortunately Monoprix had an exceptional opening on Monday morning so we were able to stock up on food. And we managed to get a propane gas refill and 2 Jerry cans of diesel.

Port St Sauveur, Toulouse.

On our way we had made overnight stops at PK 18 above Vic Lock, PK 26.5 by the Intermarche above Montgiscard, PK 38 above Laval Lock, and for two nights at PK 57 by Not Poterie just below Mediterranee Lock, whilst it rained for a while.

Not Pottery Cassole gets summer use as a fruit bowl.

At Castelnaudary, PK 65, we missed seeing Anne and David on Cassandra but were lucky to find Maggie and Nigel, who came for dinner, at home on Gesina.

Gesina, 3rd from left, at Castelnaudary.

A night moored just above St Sernin Lock, PK 69.7 nearly ended in disaster as we found the water rising above the bank after the locks above were emptied at 7pm – we switched banks in a hurry!

Moored above St Sernin Lock, before the level started to rise.

At Bram, PK 81, we found that the Port really has closed, due to insolvency, and there were no services available. We spotted Alex, Busted Flush, picking up his car and had news of his progress. At Villesequalande, PK 91, it rained all afternoon and we suffered from too many flies, but we made the acquaintance of Sander and Tina whose boat, not called but from Sneek, we have passed many times over the last two years. On our descent into Carcassonne we passed Busted Flush and Lady Sue sitting together above the double lock at Lalande and agreed to catch up for drinks somewhere along the canal before we all reach the Rhone.

Carcassonne Port and Hotel Boat Alouette approaching the lock.

It felt rather sad leaving Carcassonne, PK 105, and saying goodbye, perhaps for the last time, to Stephanie and Chayma (at the Capitainerie) who had looked after us so well over two winters and several shorter stays in between. And we felt suddenly very tired – neither of us sure why, particularly – so when we spotted the empty 20m concrete quay at PK 115.5 just before Trebes we made fast against the speeding passing hire boats and stayed quietly on our own for four nights. First Cassandra and then Busted Flush and Lady Sue passed by on their way to Trebes. We cycled in the short 2km along the canal path for a lunch at La Poissonerie Moderne with friend Nigel (local resident, not boater!) and a trip to the Super U (one of two supermarkets in Trebes).

A quay to ourselves just before Trebes.

Feeling somewhat rested and with the British General Election results just in we headed on to Trebes and, finding the town quay empty, were able to stop and fill with water whilst also doing some last minute shopping. It was disappointing to find that the Tourist Office, which we remembered for having a good and well-priced range of locally produced wines, had changed hands and Tourism Grande Carcassonne doesn’t go in for wines. We arrived at the Trebes Triple lock at 11.30am, and chatted to Anne and David on Cassandra as they went in but, although next in line, we were not able to enter until after the lock-keeper’s lunchbreak had finished at 1.30pm. This gave us plenty of time to also chat to Paul and Sue, Lady Sue, and Alex, Busted Flush, moored nearby and who had heard that the water tap at Marseillette (hidden behind the wall – the secret that all boaters know about!) was out of action. They asked us to check it out for them and text back so that they could reverse up if needed onto the Trebes water point before heading on.

Taking on water in Trebes, beside the restaurant terraces.

At Marseillette, PK 127, the free water tap by the wooden jetty just after the bridge is indeed out of service. So too is the water bourne, €2 for 100 litres, on the smaller wooden jetty further along – I learned from a local boater that VNF (who run the waterways) had forbidden the local Mairie (who run the water supply) to sell water to passing boaters. So I was able to report back and was rather pleased with myself for having followed the well-known boater’s maxim “never pass a water tap without topping up”. At the nice bakery in Marseillette (the only shop in town) they have stopped making my favourite ‘Pain Viking’ and now do a sort of half-breed not quite malted but seeded loaf. It is not as good – and so another disappointment along the canal here. But Nigel came to the rescue with a lovely invitation to a BBQ lunch at his house, complete with swimming pool and full-sized snooker table, in Laure Minervois. It had been a very hot day and by the time Nigel had driven us back at 8pm the internal temperature in the boat had reached 37C/100F.

Chez Nigel. The way to spend a hot day.

With a forecast for hotter weather in the days ahead we set off in search of the first shady tree we could find which wasn’t until just before Puicheric Bridge at PK 135. Tying up to a couple of solid roots with a spring line back to a tree across a not very well travelled path we withstood the pounding from waves of speedy hireboats for four nights (one of the roots did finally come loose – the last straw being a passing Hotel Boat.

Some isolated shade near Puicheric.

Cycling into town (Vival grocery store, butcher, baker, small newsagent, wine cave and Martine the hairdresser who curiously enough I have now visited thrice) we saw no sign of Roberto Locatelli in the corner garden, with the flags by the bridge, and wondered if he was still around. It had been two years since we had last seen this local octogenarian when, as usual, he had appeared beside the boat with a basket of green beans and other veg, fresh from his garden. But later that afternoon we heard the familiar tinkle of the bell on his trug! This year he has gone into the flower business for the first time – which was most opportune as it was Pam’s birthday the next day and as it happened the roses on offer were her favourite colour. He couldn’t advise on the new restaurant Chez Modeste that has been opened recently by the butcher in town so we had to take our chances for Pam’s birthday lunch. It proved to be excellent value, spotlessly clean, nice fresh ingredients well cooked – but perhaps trying a little too hard and it seemed to us to lack a typically ‘french’ atmosphere. On our final morning Roberto came by as arranged with a basketful of fresh veg and some more flowers – and a week later we are still eating green beans.

Hotel Boat passing under Puicheric Bridge.

Our next stop at Homps, PK 145, the only place we know of with free mooring, water and electric for the first night, didn’t disappoint. We found a spot on the quay next to Amethyst, a shared ownership narrow boat based in Carcassonne, and were able to fill up with water and recharge our batteries whilst sitting beside the boat, in a small patch of Oleander shade, sharing a drink with Chris and Trish.

The Port at Homps, beside an Oleander and Amethyst.

We left port at 10.45am and it took us two hours to travel two kilometres, passing through first the Homps Lock, where we waited by an empty lock, gates open, for 20 mins (the permitted time lock-keepers can keep you waiting) for an Hotel Boat that didn’t arrive, and then by the double Ognon lock for 25 mins whilst the lock-keeper did two upward lock movements in succession without letting us down in between – because the hire boats had all been waiting for an hour and a half for the Hotel Boat – which had passed through as we arrived. Just after the Garde Lock d’Ognon, PK 147.5, we knew there was shade with wooden bollards (a valuable combination on the Midi) and we pulled in behind Evelyn J, Peter, just as Vintage Cru, Peter and Margaret, moored on his other side. After lunch and a siesta we were invited over onto Evelyn J’s aft deck (the shadiest spot between us) and shared a very convivial evening and impromptu paella. Next morning Vintage Cru left early but we decided to stay in at least partial shade as the forecast was for continued very hot weather and we also had a date for a ‘spa’ day with Nigel the following day – we needed to be somewhere easy to find and reach by car, which this is. Peter shared a BBQ lunch with us but was driven out the next morning by too many flies and an army of ants. We were glad to be able to shut up the boat and be driven off to relax in a shady garden and swim in a refreshing pool (un-heated water temp 28C!) – a real treat, and when my phone pinged, I realised it was Father’s Day too! On our return from Nigel’s, again well after 8pm, we moved the boat half a kilometre into an open space where we could benefit more from the breeze and get away from the flies.

Feet up on Father’s Day Chez Nigel.

The next day was mercifully overcast with a breeze blowing right through the boat and as we found ourselves on wooden bollards and ‘fly-free’ we stayed put – a little in need of a rest after 5 days of ‘social drinking’ and eating. It was even cool enough to get on the roof and wash it down with buckets of canal water.

A passing ‘peniche’ on an overcast morning.

Another morning of overcast skies encouraged us to move on down through the double locks at Pechlaurier and the single at Argens to reach the 54 km lock-free pound between Argens and Beziers. We had a much quicker run this time from PK 148 through the locks, and had reached Paraza, PK 157, in two hours. We stopped here for lunch on the end of a quay giving priority to passenger boats – there was no other free space and we have never found empty moorings at either Roubia or Paraza. Peter had advised us that he had found no shade until he reached Ventenac and with more even hotter weather forecast we thought we had better find shade again and so moved on after lunch. At Ventenac, PK 160, we found good wooden posts and empty moorings under trees – this despite many trees having been cut down since our last visit here.

Ventenac. In the shade as Alouette passes us again.

There is a good breeze, from time to time, shade all day, hardly any flies, peace and quiet except for the incessant daytime noise of the cicadas, and no lights at night. And today it is cooler here than in Reading, England, according to my Met Office App! So, as long as our water holds out we are putting our feet up and staying in the shade.

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Onward to Toulouse.

This may be becoming a habit – same armchair, another perfect warm sunny day, another selle of lamb, this time with a bottle of Buzet, and another round, this time the final, of the French presidential election. On May 7th we were comfortably moored up in the little Halte Nautique cum Locaboat base at Negra (PK 33) connected to water and electric but finding the office unmanned.

Halte Nautique at Negra.

Since May 1st, we had not travelled far – some 10 km and 3 locks from Renneville (PK 42) following the A61 Autoroute. On Labour Day the locks had been closed (1st Jan, 1st May, 11th Nov and 25th Dec on the Midi) and so, in view of our ‘getting desperate’ food shortage, we decided to cycle the 2 km, between rain showers, in to Villefranche de Lauragais. We thought that there was a sporting chance that one of, either the Spar, Super U, or Aldi supermarkets might be open at least in the morning but not even the McDonald’s showed any sign of life. However, there was a butcher/deli in the town centre open and we joined the ever long queue to stock up on duck aiguillettes and pork chops and for good measure stopped off at a bakery opposite for some Turkish sweet treats for tea.

The quay at Renneville and trip boat Surcouf.

The following day we moved on to Gardouch (PK 39), mooring up to trees on the S bend before the permanent moorings and the town quay (on four previous visits we had never found a space on the quay but this time it was empty for most of our stay), and liked it so much that we stayed for five nights. We had good TV reception, OK mobile internet, bright sunny spells, heavy rain, and gale force winds during our stay but none of this stopped some charming nightingales from serenading us, night and day.

5 nights wild mooring with nightingales in Gardouch.

We had not previously visited Gardouch village and cycled in for a look-see. There are a pizzeria and two bakeries – the church was closed but I was intrigued to notice that the War Memorial was commemorating those killed in Indochina 1945-1954 and in North Africa 1952-1962 – and we came away with only a bag of ten ‘chouquettes’ (delicious little sweet choux pastry puffs).

Memorial in Gardouch.

More serious shopping had to wait for two more trips into Villefranche de Lauragais – first to the retail park Super U (nearer to Gardouch than Renneville) and then on Friday, Market Day, to the town centre and Spar (not a bad little shop with a very friendly butcher who cut us the selle lamb joint). The outdoor Friday market was excellent too.

A space on the quay, Gardouch.

Our larder anxieties now assuaged and with another Bank Holiday weekend coming up (VE Day, May 8th) we moved on to Negra where we needed to find water – it had been ten days since we last filled our tank. On Monday the little port came to life with a couple of hire boats appearing and change-over routines being enacted, and we were able to pay our dues and get permission to stay another night (€14 a night including water and electric).

Negra lock and Chapel.

Having cycled up the steep hill to Montesquieu-Lauragais (old capital of the pastel trade) on our visit here last year we opted for a cycle ride this time to the north (passing first under the A66 motorway and then over the A61 – they connect here) to the lesser known village of St-Rome.

St Rome. A mixture of architectural styles.

At the end of the C19th the Marquis de la Panouse had his vision of an ideal town built, in a range of unusual architectural styles, with the idea of bringing together farmers, craftsmen and agricultural labourers. One can only get glimpses now of a curious mix of Moorish, Palladian, Flemish, and Neo-Byzantine styles from the road around the Chateau. I’d have loved to have been able to see more inside but all the gates were firmly closed.

Architectural detail in St Rome.

Unlike May Day, which had been wet and cold, VE Day was glorious and we enjoyed the luxury of being in port with all mod cons – a full water tank and fully charged batteries on the mains.

Leaving St Rome, heading back to Gardouch.

But back to the business of everyday living we needed to move on and make a pit stop on the overgrown bank, non-tow-path side at about PK 26, where there is a well-hidden but direct access on foot across the minor road straight into the car park of a little retail park – Lidl, Super Intermarche, bank and Brico, car repair workshop and petrol station. I got a bit over enthusiastic in the Intermarche on discovering that the last bottles of goat’s milk were right at the back of the top shelf and could only be reached by dint of standing in my shopping cart. There was no problem getting up there to reach the milk but on the way down I managed to fetch up on my back in the bottled water section in the opposite aisle; fortunately on plastic bottles for a softish landing! Although a little bruised, and severely reprimanded by Pam, I was still able to complete the other domestic chore for that day – 500 manual pumps to empty the black water tank – before moving on sharply to the high stone quay just above Montgiscard lock (PK 25, water only, 4 stone bollards, free) beside quite a busy road.

Lavoir and colourful barge at Montgiscard.

On our previous visits we had not thought to stop here but I was keen to see if there really was a working water tap, as marked in the du Breil guide, and Pam spotted the chemist just across the road. The TV and phone reception were both good and we found that the high stone quay protected us somewhat from the nearby passing traffic and made for quite a comfortable and private berth. We wandered up into town the next morning (post office, newsagent, baker, two restaurants) before an early lunch on board and set off again at 1pm when we discovered that the lock was operating during the normal lunch hour (12.30-1.30) closure time. The weather forecast for that Wednesday was continuing high winds and for rain and thunder storms and higher winds the following day.

Toulouse architecture. 6 bay bell gable on C14th church in Montgiscard.

We were not due into Toulouse until Friday, so we decided to sit Thursday out just above Castanet lock, the last before entering Toulouse, and we managed to tie up with a combination of pins and a well-placed tree root in the relative shelter of the plane trees at PK 16. Again, we were driven partly by wanting to visit somewhere new, this time a lock-side restaurant recommended to us by fellow boater David Rothery.

Castanet Ecluse on a dull wet day.

It has been a few years since David visited L’Ecluse Restaurant at Castanet so I checked on TripAdviser where the latest review was not complimentary. It was a dull rainy day and we decided to go anyway and opted for the €16 Menu du Jour (3 courses) which turned out to be Salad (frisee lettuce with lardons, croutons, gouji berries, and a poached egg), turkey kebabs with a hint of curry spice, grilled tomatoes, and a small portion of dauphinoise potatoes, and a choice of dessert – we opted for the chocolate mousse. It all washed down well with a bottle of local white (€16, the cheapest on the menu but you could do a degustation of the choice of wines before committing). Inside, there is a pleasant rustic atmosphere with some nice pictures of barges and drawings of an old ‘poste’ barge design. I think the restaurant has changed hands since David’s visit but it seems to have remained a ‘good value’ restaurant in a nice spot – although their machine failed to process my credit card (why does this only ever happen to us ,very infrequently, in restaurants?) so I had to cough up the €60 in cash.

Brightening up a bit. View from our Castanet mooring.

Whilst checking up on all our travel arrangements for our trip to England I came across a pamphlet ‘Let’s Visit Airbus’ that I must have picked up on our last visit to Toulouse. I had heard good reports and that it was possible to book a tour in English and fortunately decided to call ahead. Tours were only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays (and you need to book two days ahead and bring your passport) which left us with only the Saturday tour during our planned stay.

Aeroscopia Museum, Toulouse.

On Friday 12th May, our 44th wedding anniversary, we cruised a leisurely two and a bit hours from Castanets into Port St Sauveur (PK 5), shouting quick hellos to Serge, busy working on someone’s barge at Ramonville, Lady Sue (Paul and Sue) and Busted Flush (Alex and Sue) both leaving town and heading east. No doubt we will catch up with them later in the season.

Evening in Port St Sauveur, Toulouse, with trip boat Samsara making a neat turn.

Although getting to the Aeroscopia Museum, departure point of the Airbus tour, proved to be relatively easy on public transport (Tram T1 from Palais de Justice to Beauzelle (40 mins €3.20 return and then walk 15 mins across wasteland/park/building site), it took a bit of research to work this all out. In the process I realised that there was a Museum to visit in addition to the tour so thought we would do this before the 3.45pm tour, but I realised there were no eating facilities on site (I confirmed this by phone!) and so we packed a couple of baguette sandwiches bought from the nice bakery opposite the port. As it turned out there was a small hot dog van in the car park and we sat in the sunshine on a picnic bench before entering the Museum, which indeed only had a vending machine by way of providing refreshments.

Finding our way to Aeroscopia – with the help of Google Maps too!

We had allowed more time than we really needed to go round the Aeroscopia Museum so we did this at a leisurely pace, particularly enjoying looking round inside a Concorde. There were plenty of aviation facts on history boards all around as well as an interesting collection of aircraft.

Inside Aeroscopia. Aviation history and planes.

For the ‘Let’s Visit Airbus’ tour we were ushered onto a coach and with a high level of security driven into the Airbus assembly compound and taken to a viewing platform, no photos allowed, in the main assembly shed (rather larger than a shed, actually, with room for three Airbus 380s) and given a very good explanation of the whole process of building a plane and delivering it to a customer. All fascinating stuff and involving mind boggling amounts of money – but good to see a joint project set up by European government partners, France, Germany, Spain and United Kingdom, to challenge US dominance in the aircraft market, that has succeeded.

Great to get a closer look at Concorde.

Before setting off for England we managed to fit in ‘aperos’ with Daniel and Brigitte aboard Tsarine, a bit of retail therapy in town, a visit to the Basilique St Sernin, and some rather good Vietnamese street food from the ‘kiosk’ on Allees Francois Verdier by the Grand Rond.

Street food. Vietnamese at the Kiosk.

Can’t help wondering how the general warm dry ambience here will compare with our Wiltshire picnic experience this Saturday!

Early summer flowers in the Lauragais (and a bottle of Buzet for good measure).

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On the road again – Lauragais, Gers and Canal du Midi.

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.

Le Segala, on the summit of the Midi Canal.

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.

Armchair view from the stern deck at Le Segala.

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!

On the road to Baraigne. A view across the summit valley, motorway, railway, canal and with Montferrand in the distance.

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).

The Mairie, Baraigne, open for polling on Sunday’s first round presidential election.

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.

Rural gite at Epanchoir de Foucaud, Carcassonne.

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.

On the road in Villesequelande.

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.

The old elm tree in the square at Villesequelande.

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!

The moorings at Villesequelande and a typical old Midi bridge.

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.

Sunset at PK 73, Canal du Midi.

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.

On the road in Lasbordes, looking north towards the Black Mountain.

And then to Pexiora 2 km to the south (much better general store/bar/cafe and a boulangerie).

On the road to Pexiora, looking south to the snow capped Pyrenees (not clouds!) in the distance.

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.

Sunset at St Sernin Lock.

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.

Early morning run – French Foreign Legion.

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.

Peaceful mooring outside the Foreign Legion 4th Regiment Barracks.

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.

On the road in the Gers – near Aurignac.

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.

A rather ostentatious sign but good lunch none the less on market day in Rieumes.

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.

Friday night in the Port at Castelnaudary.

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).

Not Brothers’ Pottery and the perfect cassole.

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.

Looking down from Montferrand over the Seuil de Naurouze and Riquet’s obelisk.

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.

Orientation point, Montferrand.

None-the-less it was a very rewarding expedition on another beautiful day.

On the road – a glimpse of French country life.

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.

The parting of the waters on the summit of the Canal du Midi. Left to the Atlantic Ocean and Right to the Mediterranean.

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.

On the A61 auto-route. Rest area for cars, trucks and boats. Port Lauragais.

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.

On the road to Avignonet Lauragais and a tall church spire.

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!

Not such an easy landing – but needs must.

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.

The round tower at Avignonet Lauragais – the last vestiges of old fortifications.

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.

Another road back to Avignonet Lauragais. Moored just below Emborrel Lock.

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.

Comfortable mooring at Renneville for the May Day weekend – locks closed on Monday May 1st.

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.

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