Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Friday, 25 May 2018

A Striking Start

Ten months is a long time to leave a boat - and a blog - untended. Our last two cruising seasons were greatly curtailed but for the best of reasons; the birth of grandchildren. Leaving the littlies on the other side of the world this year is quite a wrench, hopefully we can skype.

Thank you to those of you have come back to join us for 2018 - our tenth year on l'Avenir - and welcome aboard to new readers.

Arriving and travelling in France in May always takes a little planning due to the number of public holidays but this year has been complicated by strikes (grèves). Strikes and protests are far from an unusual occurrence here but they are usually over and done with in a day or so. Not so this spring. In April the railway workers began three months of rolling strikes and were joined by Air France during May. The railways helpfully published a calendar of strike days which amount to 3 days of strikes per week but you can't find out which services are cancelled until 24 hours beforehand.

So, unable to take the TGV from Paris to Toulouse we luckily managed to book a flight (not Air France). Then we just had to get to Moissac a distance of around 75 km and on the main line from Toulouse to Bordeaux which may or may not be any use thanks to the strike.
The staff in Toulouse station are helpful and pleasant, the queues at the ticket office being almost entirely comprised of disappointed and displaced tourists rather than angry, local commuters. Each of the ticket booths is manned (unusual) and the officers all appear interested and concerned (extraordinary). When I explain where we want to go my ticket officer looks immediately sad and shakes his head but, impressively, manages to avoid the default 'shrug'. 'I think it is not possible,' he says. I suspect this is the opening statement to everyone. He then begins sifting through a pile of printouts of the day's cancellations and typing into his computer. Rob limps up to join me at the counter (his knee in complaining mode). Bear in mind that having been 'economied' from one side of the globe to the other we aren't, at this point, looking our energetic and smart best. Our officer pauses his typing, looks from one of us to the other and says something. I don't understand and ask him to repeat. I still don't understand, so apologise. He blushes (he's young), squirms and looks from one to the other yet again whilst searching for words I'll be sure to understand; the be brief and blunt method. He hesitates a bit more then decides on that simple phrase you learn in your first French class at school (but which is conspicuously absent from adult classes).
 'How old are you?'
 I smile (sort of) and reply to the question I think he was originally asking. 'No, we don't have any discount cards.'

But, we have tickets! And with a discount for looking (being) ancient (thank you young man) they cost just 11 euros each. The drawback is that we have to wait until 4pm (it's 10am and the station loos cost 70 cents a time) and the train will go only as far as Montauban where we'll have to transfer to a bus. A bit of an expedition but we'll see a bit more of the countryside than we expected.

We eventually arrive in port in the early evening to find l'Avenir somewhat grubby and looking slightly worse for wear (like us).  She's still afloat and warm and dry inside though.

The liveaboards in port are all on their way to a nearby bar and invite us to join them. We are exhausted but go anyway. The beginning of a lively Pentecost weekend in Moissac.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Up and Down the Garonne

Castets en Dorthe
We have had 3 new crew members over the past couple of weeks. For the first week the heatwave continued and the second was constant rain and thunderstorms. Not sure which was worse but as our guests were from Scotland perhaps the rain was more bearable.
Our original intention had been to continue upstream on the Canal du Midi from Toulouse. This would have meant dismantling our windscreens and taking down the canvas canopy in order to fit under the low bridges. We decided it would be just too unpleasant without the shade as well as going up some deep locks - hard work at the best of times. So, we turned back along the canal de Garonne.
Even though we (but not our guests) have travelled much of this route several times nothing is ever quite the same and occasionally it is an altogether different experience.
You don't want to hear about what was the same so here's what was new for us.
Tarn at Moissac

Down on the Tarn
We've passed through Moissac a few times and it's always worth a visit. Depending on the day you might find a large market in the main square but if not there's always the abbey or a wander round the historic centre. We were lucky to find a free 'voice' concert on in the cloisters one night after our (fairly ordinary) dinner in the square outside the abbey. The port was full when we arrived so it was as well we'd planned to go down off the canal and moor on the pontoons on the river. We like rivers; the space, the clean water, the breeze. Unfortunately you can't navigate any great distance - 8km upstream and 4 down but it's very pleasant. Bridges always look more beautiful from water level I think. We didn't see any other boats apart form the workboat  'Oscar' retrieving logs from around one of the bridges.

You'll find a Scotsman on the Moon
Perhaps not but you usually won't have to look very far from where you are at the moment. We stopped off in Pommevic for the first time- usually the pontoon is taken up by a hotel barge- and found a small village a little overwhelmed by the busy road running through it. There's a restaurant which we didn't visit this time and a bar which we did. Beside the bar there's a boule court and the players were just winding up  and ordering drinks when we arrived. The team leader turned out to be a Scot, now living in France, who was more than happy to chat and share a drink.
You can order baguettes, croissants for the morning from the bar as well.

A Basque night in Serignac
Serignac is a favourite  stop. Such a pretty little village whose church has a beautiful twisted spire. There's a great little bistro in the village square too. Being honest boaters, we went to the tourist office to pay our (very cheap) mooring fee and the woman there told us that it was the Basque Weekend. We'd just missed the choir's performance in the church but we could go to the communal meal at the sports ground that night. So we did and it was great. The whole village got together and ate Basque food at long tables, sang Basque and French songs, danced, played drinking games and some other very  boisterous team games and generally had good fun. As outsiders we were made very welcome and they might even consider a Scottish or Australian weekend some time in the future.

Night Market Castets

Night Markets
What a wonderful tradition which draws the whole community together. During the summer months many villages have a weekly night market. Local producers set up food stalls and there also might be a few artisan stalls. The village sets out long tables and everyone, young, old and in between, gets together and eats, drinks, sings and dances to the free entertainment, You just go and buy a plate of food from here and there. Whatever you fancy. All good. I loved them. We went to one in Meilhan (brilliant) and another in Castets en Dorthe.  The Castets market was held on Bastille Day so we finished the night with fireworks as well. French people seem a bit underwhelmed by fireworks. Huge crowds turn out but there's no oohing and aahing. Just silence and a few claps at the end.
'Je ne regrette rien', Meilhan night market

Reaching the River.
A first for us was actually reaching the beginning of the canal at Castests. Last time we tried we were thwarted by the weed and ended up with severe gear box trouble. This year the VNF has the weed munchers on the case. It's still bad in places but manageable with care. The lower reaches of the canal are very pretty. Vast fields of golden sunflowers and beautiful gardens around the houses and farms. Lots of wildlife too. We saw many kingfishers, herons and squirrels and when I was out cycling  deer often ran across the track in front of me. Not a lot of ducks though. As we approached the final lock into Castets a mother duck and about 18 ducklings belted into the lock in front of us.

Duck owner and ducklings

This was the more ducks than we'd seen on the entire canal. We couldn't start the lock or the ducks would have drowned so I jumped off the boat to try and usher the ducks out, Within moments an out of breath man ran up and pleaded with us to give him time to get the ducks out of the lock which of course we did. Why was he concerned? Were they his ducks? Was he the owner of the nearby restaurant?
This area of France has a tradition of keeping pigeons for eating during the winter months. Many farms have a 'pigeonnier' (dovecote) alongside but I don't think pigeons feature on the menu any mre. Duck certainly does however.

Bruno, the extraordinarily helpful port captain at Castets, was keen for us to carry on through the deep locks onto the Garonne and visit Bordeaux but we didn't have time. Maybe next year.