Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

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.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Toulouse - The Rose City

 This was our second visit to Toulouse. Last time we didn't see a great deal of the city as we were pretty well confined to port waiting for the elusive courier to pick up our dud air conditioner. So we were keen to get out and about- The port is situated less than a km from the centre and so very convenient including for the one with the gammy knee as this city has embraced cycling in a big way. There are great cycle lanes and bikes for hire everywhere. The city centre is pedestrianised but unlike many towns bikes are permitted as well.

  Toulouse is known as The Rose City thanks to its lovely pink building bricks which are particularly attractive in the sun's glow. And glow the sun did whilst we were there. Most days were around 35- 38 degrees so our sightseeing involved a large amount of searching for shade. Here's a list of some of what we did. In no particular order and almost certainly not what you'll find on Trip Advisor's list of top 10s.
1. Shade. Take a blanket, a baguette. some brie and a bottle of water to the Grand Rond, a large circular park  with a beautiful fountain (bagnade interdit unfortunately) and lovely sculptures. Lie under a tree and have a picnic. Watch out for the parkie if you take a bike but you should be safe later in the afternoon. Small cafe serves good, cold pression (draught beer) but pass on the food. The Grand Rond is a favourite place for joggers to do circuits. Marvel at the different running gear, styles and levels of fitness (or lack of). The Grand Rond is connected to the the Jardin Du Plantes by a footbridge over the busy road. This is also a pleasant botanical garden and features a pond/creek and waterfall with ducks. This is just about the only place we've seen ducks in this part of France other than on the menu. They must lock them up at night.

2. Food and drink. There are, unsurprisingly, loads of options for eating out. We enjoyed oysters and tapas a couple of times at the Bistro next to the port. Artisinal ice creams were delicious beneath the colonnade around the Place Capitole in the city centre and spoiled only by a waiter deliberately misunderstanding my attempt at casual conversation in French as speaking in English. His idea of a joke I think. Then there's the Irish pub also near the port. Great fish 'n chips and on a Wednesday night, a bilingual quiz night. The questions are read out by a French barmaid first in French and then in English. I have to say that sometimes the French was easier to understand than the English. That's my excuse for our poor performance anyway.

Eating in? Well, we bought a new gas barbecue at a shop near the port whose name begins and ends with L. As we've found previously with products in the middle aisle of this shop (and another beginning with A) there's sometimes a fatal flaw. In this case they didn't sell the gas cartridges required for the model. In fact, probably no one in France does. It needed good old British gas. Anyway, our ever inventive resident engineer 'slightly' modified a camping gaz cartridge which eventually worked and we had Toulouse sausage. We both felt a bit sick afterwards.
3.This one will be on Trip Advisor. Visit the Airbus factory. I didn't but Rob was kindly invited along by another boater with a car - it's quite far out of town. If you go take your passport. Rob did but his helpful driver forgot his and wasn't allowed in. From what I can gather you might just as well go along to the viewing platform next time you're at an international airport. They got to look down at an A380 from behind glass. The plane was already assembled and all the work was going on inside. At least at an airport you can watch them refuelling and loading up the baggage. So, nothing to see here, let's move along and watch some videos about building aeroplanes. You can probably see them on you tube and you won't need your passport.
4. Another possible Trip Advisor one. Ride the Petit Train. I know it's a bit naff but I quite like them. We'd done the open top bus on our last visit so decided we'd take the Petit Train around the historic centre and along the River Garonne. For those who haven't seen them they are little trucks not very cunningly disguised as steam trains pulling open carriages full of tourists. There is a commentary pointing out places of interest with some history and headphones with translations for foreign tourists. I like them because they're quite cheap, show you where the highlights are and if you want to go back for a further look you have an idea where you're going. The only problem with this one was the view from the carriages of the River Garonne was pretty well non existent because the wall along the river was too high. So......
5. Bike ride along the Garonne. Easy and very enjoyable. There's a good sealed path down at water level and a convenient cafe sited in the wall on one of the quays. Another very popular spot with lovely views over the river is Port Daurade which has been beautifully restored - it was once an ugly car park. Now there's a park and another cafe. Parks are always interesting for people watching and this one was no exception. The largest group lounging on the grass was a 'dreadlocks and dogs' one. Perhaps it was some sort of hippy dog show. One guy turned up with a supermarket trolley full of puppies pulled by the mother.

6. Cathedrals and churches. Religion aside, churches are a good place to rest your weary feet and are cool sanctuaries on a hot day. Whilst there you can marvel at the architecture, admire the beautiful stained glass windows and appreciate the hard work and craftsmanship on show. Sometimes you can be lucky and someone will be playing the organ or, if it's Saturday, you might find yourself sitting in on a wedding. I went to 2 weddings in Toulouse.

7. Window Shopping. As in most French cities most of the shops seem to be clothing ones. You might wonder how they all manage to stay in business but there are many seriously stylishly dressed people around. All the more mundane shops are in the commercial centres outside the cities which is where we actually buy stuff.
8.Midsummer Music Festival. All over France towns and villages celebrate midsummer night with music in the streets. In Toulouse the main square, the Place Capitole, was hosting a huge concert which was broadcast live. It was ticket only but I was able to watch the rehearsals in the afternoon. Around 5pm an enormous number of police and emergency workers began moving everyone out. As I walked back to the boat there were people setting up stages on every corner and square. The boulevards leading to the Grand Rond had competing DJs each 50m or so. By night time there was music blasting out everywhere. Anyone who could sing, play, dance or rollerskate was out doing it, sometimes all at the same time. French crooners, folk, blues, jazz, rap, rock, trance, you name it, it was there. The only drawback was there wasn't a seat to be had at a cafe or restaurant anywhere. The most incongruous sight of the night had to be the gospel singing and dancing monks and nuns (genuine ones not dress ups)  outside the cathedral doing their level best to outdo the techno DJ  in the corner of the square.
Ok that's it. Didn't do any museums or art galleries this time so can't make it to 10.

Friday, 7 July 2017

It ain't half hot - Montauban to Toulouse

 Firstly, apologies for the long delay an posting an update. We've had a stretch of energy sapping heat when the only sensible thing to do is abandon the roasting decks and 40 degree interior of the boat and find a park (preferably with a fountain) or, if that's not available, any old tree will do. When even Les Toulousains are visibly wilting and begin conversations with a sigh and a complaint about 'la chaleur' (the heat) you know it's a little unusual. 'But you're from Australia. You should be used to this,' people say all the time failing to take into account the fact that we don't live inside a 13m steel oven in the heat of an Aussie summer.
  Some of you may remember our previous experience with an onboard air conditioner - come to think of it that saga was concluded on our last visit to Toulouse - but we fleetingly toyed with the idea of buying one again. By fleetingly I mean as long as it took to read the price ticket - the cheapest on offer was just shy of 600 euros. What would you expect during a heatwave? We bought another fan instead.
  In short, it was too hot to think never mind write and my computer agreed by shutting itself down every 5 minutes.
  The ecluses (locks) don't much like the heat either. There are 9 locks in the space of 5km on the branch canal from Montauban back onto the Canal de Garonne. We got through the first without problem and that was it. Normally when faced with the 2 red lights of despair I go ashore and  use the lockside phone to call out the cavalry  but luckily for us there was a VNF (waterways authority) guy busily cutting grass around the lockside and he managed to get things sorted for us before going back to his lawnmower. Next lock, 2 red lights again. Fortunately, we were still in view of the previous lock so our VNF saviour abandoned his lawn mower for the afternoon and accompanied us through all the remaining locks. At the last one we thanked him with a cold beer and he offered to take our photo. We don't have a lot of pictures of us both with the boat so we happily handed over the camera and he took several shots. I'd like to show you one but my camera seems not to like the heat either and none of them came out. (I've had a lot of trouble with my camera this trip which is another reason for the lack of blog posts).

The 2 red lights of despair

A friendly eclusier

  After rejoining the Canal de Garonne it was another couple of sweltering days into Toulouse and the beginning of the Canal du Midi. The final stretch of the Garonne is a bit dismal with a busy railway on one side and a busier motorway roaring away on the other. On the narrow stretch of land separating the canal and motorway people have erected flimsy shacks of packing cases and bits of wood and cardboard.
  Then through the last arched bridge of the Garonne  and we were inside the huge circular Port d'Embouchure and the start of the Midi. This was once the link onto the river Garonne. The port has some mooring space available but is surrounded by incredibly busy roads and not at all peaceful. We had a reservation at Port Saint Sauveur closer to the city centre. So, we made a hard turn to port (getting nautical here) hurriedly pulled down the canopy, flagpole etc (no nautical term for that) and squeezed through the short, low, narrow tunnel onto the the canal du Midi.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Another Mothers Day - Moisssac to Montauban

Stormy Skies - Montauban

  We spent a pleasant few days in Moissac. The port is a very friendly one. So welcoming, in fact, that we had no sooner tied up than Jim, the Capitaine, shouted across the canal inviting us over that evening to meet the other boaters for drinks. 'Laid on especially to welcome you,' he joked. In fact it is a weekly get together but very enjoyable and it was great to meet everyone. The canal community is so diverse; people from all over the world of different backgrounds and with such interesting stories.
We also like the town clustered around its 7th century abbey which reputedly has the loveliest cloisters in France. I'm sorry to say I haven't yet visited them but I intend to on our return.

Moissac Abbey
 The town is situated on the banks of the River Tarn and it is possible to lock down onto the river and cruise around 12 kms. Pontoons had just been re-installed when we were there (they are removed over winter) but they weren't yet ready for use so that also will have to wait for another visit. Instead we soared over the river via the 365m aqueduct. During the huge flood of 1930 the nearby railway viaduct was washed away and so the aqueduct towpath was widened sufficiently so that a single rail track could be laid and for 2 years trains and barges ran alongside each other. Must have been quite a sight. This railway runs very close to the canal for much of its length but I don't know that I'd like to be quite that close to the trains although they would have been steam and not the terrifyingly fast TGVs.
Crossing the River Tarn via the aquecuct. Railway viaduct in background

Our next stop was Castelsarrasin, a small town with a recently expanded port. We arrived the weekend of the Fete des Meres (Mothers Day). On the Sunday morning I sauntered into town to the boulangerie where there was a long queue of people collecting cakes they'd had on order for the special day and the little square was full of dads and excited children buying bunches of flowers for the mums. I'd gone out for a baguette but ended up returning to the boat with a pot plant, some fruit, a 'pain au chocolat' and a 'pain raisin' as well. Might as well treat myself.

We ended up staying longer than we'd intended for a couple of reasons. Firstly, some boating friends we hadn't seen for a couple of years let us know they'd  be passing through in their newly purchased motorhome and secondly, and much less welcome, the rain returned with a vengeance. Luckily there is free internet at the Capitainerie (port office).
From there it was up the flight of 5 locks in 2km to Montech which, although automated, were 'en panne' (sounds like 'in pain' and it's how I feel every time I see those double red lights indicating the locks are not working). And so they required several lock keepers to shepherd us through. The good thing about having the lock keepers with us was that I didn't have to shimmy up the slimy ladder out of every lock in order to press the button to start the operation. My job as I'm the one without a gammy knee.( I was going to post a picture of me on the ladder but luckily for you, Blogger somehow won't upload it!
Alongside this flight is the now disused Montech Water Slope which was opened in 1976. It was designed and built at large expense to transport big barges up the slope avoiding the locks and saving themselves all of 45 minutes. It closed in 2009 and although there has been talk of it reopening it would cost a great deal of money and of course there are no longer any commercial barges working this waterway.
Montech Water Slope - now disused

We had a night in Montech and a great meal at the excellent Constant restaurant alongside the port before turning up the virtually deserted and very weedy canal leading to Montauban. After last year's losing battle with the Triffid like weed we took things slowly and carefully and had no trouble. We still have to go back though so hopefully I've not jinxed us.
We've been in Montauban for 3 days now and whilst there are quite a few boats moored in the port no-one has arrived or left in that time. There is a deep double lock here onto the Tarn but the river is only navigable for about 8km and the weather is still poor so we won't go. Something else for another time. The town itself is a little way from the canal port. It is quite attractive and reached by an impressive 14th century bridge over the Tarn but was virtually deserted when we visited as it was yet another public holiday.
From here we turn around and go back to Montech and then on towards Toulouse.

Friday, 26 May 2017

On the Move - Buzet to Moissac

One of the beautiful lavoirs at Valence d'Agen
We travelled a less than epic distance of 7km on our first day of cruising.
'You do know it's going to rain?' I was saying a quick goodbye to a small group of the other boaters we've come to know quite well in Buzet's port. We all looked up at the steadily darkening sky. I nodded and shrugged. L'Avenir's engine was already going and from the signs of activity on deck  it looked as though I'd better get a move on or I'd miss the boat. Time to go.
Our general rule is that we don't move when it's raining preferring to stay warm and dry inside looking out in sympathy and admiration for those that do. They tend to fall into two groups; the hirers who don't want to miss a single day of their expensive holiday and the intrepid  yachties who seem to me to be a race apart. This canal (the Garonne) joins up with the Canal du Midi and together they are known as the Canal du Deux Mers (canal of the 2 seas) . They are the route for the yachts to travel from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean so we see quite a few. Often, yacht sailors are not fond of canals  (sometimes referring to travelling along them as 'ditch crawling')  and they move on through regardless of the weather. What's a bit of weather if you're used to battling Atlantic storms after all?
The deluge began soon after we left port - at the first lock of course. We went through one more and gave up, deciding to tie up and wait it out. That happened to be the next morning. We saw only 2 moving boats all day. One was a hireboat filled with miserable looking holiday makers and the other a yacht.
Another group of travellers which doesn't seem to be put off too much by the rain is the cyclist. The towpath has been upgraded and is the long velo route from the Atlantic to the Medi.
Velo cafe in the lock cottage

We are now in the small town of Moissac having made stops at Agen (famous for its prunes. There's even a prune museum which we haven't visited) and Valence d'Agen which is a pretty Bastide (fortified town) We happened to be in Vaence on market day and it has one of the biggest markets I've ever seen taking over every street in the historic centre as well as the covered market.

The River Tarn runs alongside  the canal here in Moissac (and underneath. We cross it on an impressive aqueduct when we leave). Much of the town was destroyed and many of the inhabitants drowned in the great flood of 1930. The abbey survived though and is a stop on the Compostela pilgrim route. We have seen many, many people walking this route along the canal towpath. Another intrepid bunch of all ages from young children in family groups to quite elderly. When we came this way a couple of years ago we met 2 men walking with their donkey. They went faster than we did.
Next stop - not much further on - is Castelsarrasin.

The Tarn River

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Waiting Around

 Doctor's Waiting Room - everyone's gone outside for a smoke

I have abandoned ship whilst our new batteries are being wrestled on board and below decks into a space just big enough to accommodate them and requiring Houdini skills to reach. I prefer to be well out of earshot of the 3 men doing this job on a humid 35 degree day. Each of the 2 batteries is nearly 70kg and they have to get the dud ones out first.
Yesterday we visited the doctor to get some advice on the gammy knee. This entailed a phone call to make an appointment which is my least favourite thing to try and attempt in French. I had a brain fade, suddenly not remembering the word for appointment which is, the virtually unforgettable, 'rendez-vous'. So, I said (in French) I wanted to 'see' the doctor which apparently doesn't translate well. There was a longish pause then the person on the other end said, 'but why?' So I then had to launch into an undoubtedly unnecessary description of symptoms. Eventually we were given a time of quatre et demi. I thought I'd misheard as everywhere else we've been in France seems to use the 24 hour clock so I had to re-check in the stupidest way imaginable ie by counting to 4 in French. That's why I hate phoning. Face to face you can at least do the charade thing.
Not that the appointment time means much. We arrived a bit early (big mistake) and there were 4 people in the waiting room and one in the consulting room Approximately every 30 minutes the doctor's door opened and out came doctor and patient. They shook hands, wished each other a good day and then the next patient in line would stand, shake hands with the doc and disappear inside. Round about the same time yet another person would enter the waiting room, say 'Bonjour', shake hands with the people they know then fill the  recently vacated chair. The arithmetically adept of you will have worked out by now that we had around a 2 hour wait. Goodness knows what time the poor doctor goes home. She would have made up a bit of time with us though as we were a bit short on small talk although she did establish where we were from, how long we were in France and how often we'd been, that we had a boat, where we'd been on it and where we were going, She also did a pretty thorough examination and gave some good advice. All for 25 euros and then 14 euros for 3 items from the pharmacy. My only slight concern is all that hand shaking.
Batteries successfully installed. 'Some days you really earn your money,' said one of the battery men wiping the sweat from his brow. I think the doc earns hers every day.
Tomorrow we cast off.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Caught in a Time Warp

We're back - and seemingly doomed to repeat last year's debacle. 11 months is too long to leave a boat completely neglected. Poor l'Avenir looked in a sad and sorry state when we arrived. This part of the canal de Garonne, unlike the Midi, is blessed with abundant, healthy, beautiful trees all of which drop their leaves in winter. L'Avenir acquired a winter blanket which rotted down over time into a gooey sludge, blocking drain holes and blanking out the sun from the solar panels. Result? Scungey decks and worse - flat batteries. I feel all the energy being sucked out of me as I write those words.You may remember that we had battery problems last year which led to other disasters. Well, here we are with the sequel and it's one of those really boring ones where it's just a re-run of the original.

After 2 days travelling all we wanted was a cup of tea and a visit to the loo both of which require elctricity. (Yes, even the loo). We connected up to the mains and crossed our fingers. For a while things looked promising but then the alarms started going off ( in the middle of the night of course). The new batteries we bought last year seemed to recover well but the big, expensive, domestic batteries were boiling up. They are kaput. When I say expensive I mean 2 batteries costing as much as the price of the second hand car with a for sale notice on it parked just up the street. It's quite a nice car actually.

 One of the many good things about being in this part of France is that there is a network of very helpful expats so we were soon put in touch with someone who could find and fit new batteries in return for a price. A fair one I'm sure. There's no getting away from it, batteries cost plenty and boat ones cost more. We are just happy to have someone to help particularly as along with the boat problems Rob is incapacitated with a gammy knee. He's in a bit of pain but he does get to lie around watching the general clean up. We are hoping our new batteries will arrive tomorrow but I'm pretty sure there won't be one to rejuvenate knees.

On the plus side it's been great to meet up with the other boaters in the port. The sun's shining and the birds are singing (although they do start at 5.50 am). There's a red squirrel floating up and down the tree beside us. In the village there's a great baker  plus a wine co-op and a couple of good restaurants. Last weekend was the Spring Fete so there were fireworks, a funfair, a buvette and singing and dancing. Should we be stuck here another week we could set up a stall at the hugely popular Vide Grenier (like a car boot sale) and get rid of some of the surplus contents of the boat. Maybe not much of a market for the locker full of English language books and certainly less for all the clothes that strangely no longer zip or button up. They must have shrunk over winter.
Next post we will be on our way.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

Xmas in Australia - Santa arriving on the local fire truck
It's been a long time since the last blog post. I had meant to update everyone and make my excuses much sooner and now here we are into another year. It's odd that as kids we often said 'I didn't mean to (insert catastrophe)' whereas now I'm forever excusing myself with 'I meant to (insert any number of jobs)'.
When we left l'Avenir in Buzet at the end of May we had thought we might return for a month or so later in the season but we winterised her 'just in case'. As it turned out this was a wise move.
And so, to the reason we had such a short summer season in 2016. We became grandparents for the first time and what a delightful experience that has turned out to be. Our grandson was born in mid June and is, of course, entirely gorgeous. The one drawback to being at home has been we have had to endure our first Melbourne winter in nearly 10 years. And yes, it does get cold and wet in this part of Australia.
We will return to France in May. As per usual we haven't made any plans except to explore the Garonne and Midi in more detail and hopefully without the trials and tribulations of last year. We are also tentatively looking into acquiring some sort of land transport so we can see a little further afield.

All the best to everyone for 2017.