Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

End of the Season

Final locks, Canal du Garonne

Apologies for the long delay in winding up the blog for the year. We have just arrived back in Australia and these first, foggy days of disorientation are as good a time as any to ponder the past months before looking forward to the summer down-under. The eternal summer of the migrant boater is a hard life. We spent 3 weeks in Scotland en route and so France already seems a slightly hazy memory - or perhaps that's just due to the jet lag.
My last post was from Moissac, a vibrant town with a cathedral, an impressive aqueduct, a large market and a beautiful river. It is possible to lock down onto the river here to moor and cruise a few kilometres which would be lovely during summer. This time we just spent a couple of days in the friendly port.
River Tarn from the aqueduct


Our next stop was Valence d'Agen which was a surprisingly pleasant town with 2 market squares close by each other- I don't know why. The little port comprises several finger pontoons with electricity and water. All good until we attempted to leave in the morning only to discover that the water level had dropped considerably overnight and we were aground. Again, I don't know why. Thanks to the help of a crazy French hirer we eventually managed to rock, push, haul ourselves free. I'm embarrassed to say we left our kind helper on the quay, wreathed in a cloud of exhaust fumes and coughing, spluttering and gasping for breath.
Aqueduct over the Garonne, Agen

Then on to Agen, the capital of this region famous for prunes of all things.There is even a prune museum which we decided to save for someday in the future (maybe a very rainy day). The town sits on both the River Garonne and the canal but doesn't make the best of either. There is a large basin with a small hireboat base but no other mooring facilities for visiting boats. As for the river, both banks are given over to major roads so the closest pedestrians can get to the water is looking down from either the suspension bridge or alternatively from the rather grand canal aqueduct over the river.
Our final run down to Buzet sur Baise was uneventful. The autumn weather was glorious and the trees were beginning to shed their leaves. There are a lot of trees here both lining the canal and also the towpath. It might have been an idea to acquire a large tarpaulin to cover the boat over the winter. Buzet itself is a pleasant little village with 2 ports, a selection of shops and a couple of excellent restaurants. Our port is the smaller of the two and, by the time we left, full of boats rafted up. L'Avenir is safely alongside a dutch barge with a couple living aboard for the winter.
Buzet sur Baise

And so we come to the end of another year. We've travelled a long way from the lush countryside of the Loire and Burgundy, down the mighty Rhone, through Provence to the marshes of the Camargue, along the Mediterranean coast, across the etangs and the length of the world famous Canal du Midi. Something like 1400 km and 231 locks. I have to say it seemed like more locks than that!
Next year? Having travelled all that way I think we may stay in the south but you never know. Sometimes it all comes down to the toss of a coin.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Over the Top

We are now basking in beautiful autumn sunshine in the town of Moissac (yet another town on the Compostelle Trail-have just been asked if we are pilgrims!!) on the Garonne. Well, to be precise, Moissac is on the River Tarn but, since Toulouse, the canal has been following the River Garonne and the two rivers meet here.
The Canal du Midi became much quieter after we left Castelnaudary as the bulk of the hire boats cruise between there, Carcassonne and Buziers. That is the most picturesque section of the Midi but also the most hard work, particularly climbing upwards towards the summit as we were. What a relief to get there - I need new gloves for next year; the ones I've been wearing are now full of holes from hauling on ropes.

We spent one night on the summit pound where there is a lovely, shady park with a magnificent avenue of plane trees and an obelisk to commemorate engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet who conceived the idea of a canal linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and went on to design and build it over 15 years from 1662. Sadly, Riquet died a year before his canal was finally completed.

Last of the uphill locks

From thereon it was all downhill - the landscape anyway. Some of the locks on this section are very deep as they have been modified from double locks to single ones. I'm not sure how you get your ropes up to the bollards as, being self operated, there are no keepers to help (not that they ever did in this area of France).  There are still several double/treble locks in existence but they are keepered - and thanks to the one who closed the gates on us -literally- knocking a bit out of the back of the boat.
Anyone who passes this way should call in for a meal at the restaurant in the lockhouse at Castanets- delicious.

Lock cottage on the Garonne
Then on to Toulouse. We had, once again, arranged for the useless piece of metal masquerading as an air conditioner to be picked up by courier from the port there and returned to the company in the UK who sold it to us. Waiting around for non appearing couriers to collect it has been the most annoying ongoing saga of this summer - a week in Lyon and a further 2 weeks in Avignon. Goodness knows how long we'd have been in Toulouse if it hadn't been for the amazingly efficient port capitaine Syliviane and her staff who sorted the firm out in no uncertain terms. I suspect she was concerned we were on the verge of tossing the thing in the canal.As it was, we waited there for 3 days but Toulouse is a lively, interesting city and we met up again with some great friends we'd made earlier in the summer. Sometimes I think  summer cruising is a bit like a moveable feast; aperitifs and meals in all sorts of interesting settings with both new friends and 'old' ones we've met again and again over the years.
After Toulouse the canal becomes the canal du Garonne and changes character. The winding waterway of the Midi straightens as do the locks which become straight sided rather than oval. There is virtually no traffic at all. Most people are now either heading for their winter mooring or have already tucked up their boat. There are one or 2 hire boats around here at Moissac and lucky them - the weather is perfect. Long may it last.

A bit more relaxing going downhill

We leave here tomorrow and will be in our new winter port of Buzet within the week.
Crossing the aqueduct over the River Tarn at Moissac

-and by foot

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Canal du Midi - to Castelnaudary

Just watched a couple on a hire boat almost swept off the top of their boat as they attempted to negotiate one of the low, awkwardly angled bridges on the Canal du Midi. This canal is probably the most well known of France's waterways and is easily the most popular. A word of advice - if you are new to boating perhaps choose a different canal. The Midi is a marvel of engineering which means, amongst other things, there are lots of locks. Not only single ones, but doubles, triples, quadruples and even a staircase of 6 at Beziers. This staircase is a tourist attraction and is lined by crowds of onlookers watching the fun (on the UK canals they are called 'gongoozlers').
Beziers staircase locks with 'gongoozlers'

Hire boats in the staircase locks with us- Beziers

Looking back from the top lock - Beziers
The sheer number of hire boats means that the lock keepers pack as many boats as possible into each lock but even so, during the holiday season, there will be long delays. Sometimes 2 hours.  As for the lock keepers themselves, few are friendly and virtually none deigns to take lines.It's up to you to get yourself and your boat in and safely tied up as quickly as possible before the eclusier presses the button on his/her control closing the gates and opening up the sluices full blast.

 Someone has to go off the boat before each lock and be ready and waiting on the high lockside (going up is harder than going down) to take the ropes. Hire boats will often have half a dozen on board which makes things a bit easier but with just two of us we needed to work out a system. Eventually, I got fairly adapt at leaping ashore boathook in hand, running between locks (yes you did read that correctly - running), scooping up the ropes with the hook and so on. Rob did an excellent job of steering into the awkward oval locks and keeping away from closing gates and crashing hire boats but by the end of each day we were quite exhausted. We've seen damaged boats, injured people and listened to marriages falling apart. Having said all that, it is a quite beautiful waterway but one that is perhaps best visited out of season.

Other than the locks the canal's most recognisable feature would be the plane trees. Sadly, as you may have read, many of these are affected by a fungus which kills them in 2-3 years and which is not treatable. Of the 42 000 trees originally growing almost 12 000 have already been felled. Many of those still standing have marks painted on their trunks indicating they are condemned and we saw lots of tree cutting and burning. There is a replanting programme in progress but it will be many years before the canal landscape returns to its former glory. I am just happy that we have seen some of it before it disappears.
My last blog post began with me wondering if we would make it through the Capestang bridge, reputed to be the smallest on the canal.  Obviously we did and without mishap. In my opinion there are smaller bridge holes - the one leading into Carcassonne lock seemed a tighter fit but so far so good.
Capestang Bridge

Malpas Tunnel

Another of the many bridges - all different
We have met some great people on this canal and visited some amazing places- pretty little villages like Capestang and the wonderful (but very touristy) medieval city of Carcassonne. Like the canal itself though these places are probably best seen out of the main holiday period. We have a way to go yet and autumn seems, all of a sudden, to be upon us. Well lots of leaves are anyway. We are in Castelnaudary at the moment (world capital of Cassoulet - had one last night and I don't think I'll be able to eat again for about a week) and leave tomorrow towards the canal summit and then it's all downhill to the Atlantic. We're not going quite that far however.
Carcassonne ramparts

From Carcassonne ramparts

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Along the Mediterranean Coast

As I write I am looking through the bridge hole of the famous Capestang Bridge. And an exceedingly small bridge hole it is too. I say 'famous' but really only to canal travellers. The dimensions of this bridge have caused thousands of words to be written on forums and blogs (and yes, I'm aware I'm adding to them), diagrams drawn and boats measured and modified. The burning question being 'will we fit through?' Judging by the gouges and scrapes on the underside of the arch the answer to that in some cases was, 'not quite.' Anyway we shall see how we go later today. We've given l'Avenir as low a profile as we can by taking off the windscreen and lowering the navigation frame, canopy and mast. The only thing left we can do is duck.
(Speaking of ducks the ones around here must be the noisiest in France. Perhaps it's not hunting season here as yet.)

La Maguellonne

Since my last post we have travelled through yet another completely different and rather beautiful landscape. The canal de Rhone a Sete terminated, for us, in the Etang du Thau, the second largest inland lake in France and the cause of a few worries for me, it being another source of horror stories so beloved of bloggers. Before we reached there though we had a few days where the canal has  just low, narrow dykes separating it from large etangs (lakes) on both sides. Every so often there would be tiny hump backed bridges giving access to the etangs for the fishermen in their small boats. Occasionally a small boat would shoot out at speed across our bows from one lake to the other.
To the south of us lay the Mediterranean. Near Frontignan it is only a stroll through the sand dunes. This is a favourite area for naturists but it was much too cool and windy for us to consider a stop there - my excuse anyway. We had stopped for our Mediterranean sojourn at La Maguellonne where there are 3 wooden pontoons just before the passerelle.

La Maguellonnne

Passerelle (footbridge) La Maguellonne
 This floating footbridge gives access to a nature reserve and abbey and is also a favoured entry point to kilometres of beaches. In summer thousands of pedestrians and cyclists cross this bridge every day. When a boat wishes to pass the bridge operator starts an engine and the bridge swings open at high speed. It closes at high speed too so no hanging around.The beach is about a kilometre and a half's walk or, in summer, you can take the 'Petit Train'  (a little tourist train) for free.
You are allowed to stay on the pontoons for free for 3 days but one day at the beach for a splash in the warm and surprisingly (to me) big surf was plenty. The wind was getting stronger and the Etang du Thau lay ahead.
Our last stop before the etang was the town of Frontignan which has a rather dilapidated lifting bridge which opens only twice a day (to try to prolong the mechanism- one day it will give up the ghost which will be interesting). We missed the 4pm opening so moored for the night on the 'wrong' side ie the side with no water, electricity and the gypsy encampment. As the evening drew on quite a few other boats joined us. From about 7.30 in the morning people started to get ready for the bridge lift at 8.30. I've no idea why as it was only 50 metres in front of us. By 8.15 one boat was up at the bridge itself determined to be first through. Perhaps, we thought, he wanted a good mooring spot on the other side. Then the bridge began its slow lift, the traffic light staying stubbornly red until it was at its full height. Then we were all off! It was like some mad race start.The bridge allows for possibly 2 boats to pass if they go at a sensible speed but it was all a bit chaotic. Of course there were boats on the far side of the bridge trying to get through and others who were trying to get off their mooring and cross over the canal to join the queue. Strangely, none of the boats from our side who'd been so eager for 'the off' stopped. Once through the chaos they settled down to a snails pace and it took us an hour to get to the etang entrance where they all suddenly stopped and tied up. Perhaps, like me they were having second thoughts. The sky was grey, the water choppy and it was feeling pretty breezy.

Etang du Thau

Oyster beds
The etang is about 22km in length and because it is shallow it can rapidly become difficult to navigate in strong winds which can blow up quite suddenly. Being a worrier I had been consulting wind sites (Google is lifeblood to the panickers amongst us) and I have to say that forecasters change their minds as rapidly as the weather itself. So, not much use.  Standing on deck it was clear to me that the wind was getting windier but having come an hour to reach the etang we were not inclined to turn back. So, we put the foot down and ventured forth.
The channel will be well marked said he on the helm. Yeah, right. The first ones are but after that good binoculars and a a bit of guesswork are required. There are vast oyster beds along the north side which were as helpful for orientation as the few and far between channel markers. There are a few ports along the etang and by all accounts they are very pretty and worth visiting but, in deferernce to my desire to get off the etang, we decided to make for the final one, Marseillan. And what a lovely port that turned out to be. Expensive but very pretty and with lots of restaurants serving delicious seafood. Oysters straight form the etang - delicious.
We stayed for a couple of days and then back out onto the etang for the brief dash around the corner to the entrance to the Canal du Midi.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Down South

This year's dawdling pace (we're attempting to time our arrival on the Canal du Midi with the departure of most of the hire boats) has meant that we have spent more time sightseeing and generally relaxing than in previous years. We have also discovered that local public transport is often incredibly cheap and comfortable and so we have made a few side trips. For instance, a trip to Nimes from Aigues Mortes by air conditioned coach (about an hour) cost us just over a euro. If we'd caught the train it would have been a euro. The train to the beach at Le Grau du Roi similarly cost a euro although we decided to cycle along the canal instead.

The canal from Aigues Mortes  runs right down into the sea at Le Grau du Roi passing on its way through the pink tinged salins (salt pans). There has been salt harvested here since 400 BC and there are large gleaming white hills of salt outside the city walls.

Le Grau du Roi. End of the canal and the beginning of the sea.

Le Grau du Roi is a pretty fishing port and holiday resort on the Mediterranean.The old town around the port looks much as it has always done I suspect (apart from the souvenir shops and restaurants) but from end of the breakwater you can look along the coast to the newer brashier resorts. The beach was crowded with holiday makers baking in the sun whilst ice cream sellers pushed their little refrigerated carts along the water's edge singing loudly to attract attention. We both had a paddle in the warm water happy to have made it to the South. I don't know whether it was a result of the storms of the previous days or it's normally the case but the water was pretty murky and the sand quite black - not what I expected.

Our trip to Nimes was to visit the Roman ampitheatre and it certainly didn't disappoint. It is beautifully preserved and holiday time being almost over was relatively quiet. The entrance fee includes a good audio guide. We were able to walk out into the middle the sandy, empty arena and look up at the 34 rows of seats surrounding us and imagine at least some of what has happened there since it was built around 70 AD.

The ampitheatre was modified in the 19th century to serve as a bullring and I'm sorry to say it is still used for that purpose. We were able to climb to the very top of the ampitheatre where you get a fine view over the roofs of the city. Turn inwards towards the arena and it is quite vertigo inducing as the terraces are extremely steep and quite slippery.

Arena, Nimes

Great views were also to be had from the ramparts and towers of Aigues Mortes the 1600 metres of which we walked on our last day there.

The boat harbour and canal from the Tour Constance, Aigues Mortes

Panorama from the ramparts.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Medieval Fetes and Floods -Aigues Mortes

Aigues Mortes
Our intention was to spend just a day or so in Aigues Mortes but the medieval town within its huge and impressive walls captivated us to the extent that we stayed there a week. We spent a  night moored on a slightly rickety pontoon on the canal that bypasses the town happy to be saving the hefty mooring charges of the in town marina.It seemed a beautiful peaceful spot surrounded by marshland and close to the picturesque Tour Carbonniere built by Louis 1X to defend the road he constructed over the marshes to the town.

And peaceful it was apart from the 2 large trip boats which swept by at speed several times a day with loud commentary. One of these boats morphed into a disco boat at night at which point it sashayed up the wide canal all flashing lights, loud music and dancers having a great time on the open top deck. Then it was back to starry skies and near silence - just the occasional plop as a fish jumped. Perfect.
In the middle of the night - actually just as the very first rays of the new day began to light the sky- we both sat bolt upright in bed, our dreams instantly forgotten, shattered by gunfire all around. Some distant but some so close I could hear the sound of the shot, like raindrops, falling into the water. It sounded as though a war  was going on and I suppose it was - against the wildlife. I've never heard anything like it and I have been (accidentally) at 'Duck Opening' in Australia. The shooting continued for hours. No wonder there's not much birdlife on the waterways. Perhaps flamingos don't taste so good - there are plenty of them.

We moved into town where we were astonished to find that we didn't need to go into the marina at all and could stop alongside the quay right outside the city walls. No services but completely free and what a spot.

By chance we arrived on the biggest weekend of the year in Aigues Mortes; the medieval festival of Saint Louis. Most of the population including the shop staff seems to enthusiastically take part wearing costumes depicting every type of medieval person from peasant to knight to King. There was a large medieval market set up all around the interior of the walls, various processions and tableaux of performances of dancing, sword fighting, strolling bands and singers etc. (I have to say it was a bit incogruous seeing medieval ladies puffing away on cigarettes and carrying walkie talkies.)
Outside the walls there was jousting on horseback and the weekend was to finish with a big fireworks dispaly.  Of course the narrow streets were thronged with tourists visiting for the festivities and spending lots of money in the shops and restaurants. All went well on Saturday.
In the middle of Sunday afternoon the sky turned black and the biggest thunderstorm I have ever seen slowly passed over the town, then turned and passed over again, and then again. Hours of torrential rain. The streets quickly flooded and the pompiers (firefighters, emergency services) were out in force. Some shops had 10/15 cm of water on their floors and the water level in the basin rose and rose until we were concerned we were going to be on top of the quay and so we made up some sinking fenders out of rubber doormats to hold us off. The boat in front of us had a rubber dinghy which filled with water and was then so heavy it snapped its metal davits. Our bailing bucket which hangs on the stern of our boat was full and overflowing and it is 20 cm deep. All the tourists tried to leave at the same time so the roads that weren't flooded with water were gridlocked with cars. What a pity for the town.
Needless to say the fireworks were cancelled.

Helping to weld our neighbours broken dinghy davit

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Petite Camargue

Tour Carbonniere
The Saint Gilles lock is one of those that performs that neat trick of transporting you, if not instantly then in the space of ten minutes or so, from one type of landscape to another which is completely different. (Very occasionally a lock may go one better and act almost like the Tardis. You might enter from a modern bustling river and exit onto the canals of a medieval town for example). On this occasion the top lock gates closed on the winding Petite Rhone -a river overhung with shady trees and whose banks are thick with rampant shrubbery -whereas the bottom gates opened onto the dead straight canal Rhone a Sete, the banks of which are neatly trimmed and lined with tall reeds whispering in the wind. Beyond the south canal bank, flat marshland stretches away toward the Mediterranean sea with the occasional etang (small lake) dotted with birds; possibly flamingoes but at this point they are too far away to tell. Small groups of the famous wild horses of the Camargue graze freely at the canalside (although I did see one wearing a halter so I am not sure quite how wild they really are). The foals are born dark and gradually become white by the time  they are about 5 years old.On the northern side the land rises up slightly and there is the occasional farm or small village but it is a wild place quite different to anything we have seen so far in France.

We made our first stop in the small, slightly run-down town of Saint Gilles. The town was busy preparing for its annual bull running festival- the railings to seal off the sidestreets were being erected -but we the prospect of seeing that wasn't enough to persuade us into paying another 20 euros for a further night's mooring.
The next day we moved on to Gallican, a small, nondescript village with moorings (21 euros), a cafe and a couple of shops. Here we had our first close (very) encounters with hire boats struggling to moor in the strong winds. August is the main holiday period for hire boats (and everything else) so we may just try and find somewhere out of the way of danger and lie low for a couple of weeks.
At Gallican is the beginning of a rather splendid new bike track leading to the medieval city of Aigues Mortes and then the Mediterranean - part of a bigger project I think. From the bridge over the canal you get a good view over the marshland (part of which was burning when we were there) and also all the way to the Tour Carbonniere which marks the entrance to the medieval citadel of Aigues Mortes and which we would head for the following day.