Friday 18th September 2009
The taxi fetched us on time and dropped us at Villanouvelle station where we took the only train of the day back to Toulouse or the pink city as they call it in France.
Tips for a French Canal Boat Holiday
1. Take gardening gloves if your hands are tender. Thick course ropes can shred your skin when you tie up for the night or secure your boat in the locks.
2. Do try and learn basic French. The French speak a lot more English than they let on but it is only polite to make an effort to speak their language in their country. Besides you will need to buy provisions, read notices or maps and ask questions of the Lock keepers and locals. We bought the Michel Thomas Learning French CD set.
Greenie at Villenouvelle train station
3. Pack sun-hats and sunscreen. The temperatures were between 23’C and 29’C when we went, which was between seasons. It is the south of France. The mornings were cool but the afternoons were hot.
4. We didn’t take the extras on offer such as bicycles and the insurance in lieu of a deposit. There is so little time to use the bicycles and a short walk is just as nice.
5. It would be wise to have some boat handling skills. No formal qualifications are required but the boats can be unpredictable in currents and wind.
6. Pack light coloured sole shoes so as not to mark the boat and make sure they are non-slip. Leaping on and off a boat for locks and moorings is a lot harder if your shoes are falling off.
7. If you wish to fly the flag for your country then take one with you. People greet their fellow countrymen with gusto. We always fly our flag.
8. Pack running shoes. The canals are sheltered by the plane trees and an après journey walk or run is a great way to relax at the end of the day and stretch your legs.
9. It is mostly older and retired people who do these trips and while they aren’t strenuous they do require some effort. You will be leaping on and off boats and heaving ropes.
Gare de Villenouvelle
10. Go easy on the water when on a boat. They come with about 200 L tanks, which is not a lot. Get into the habit of re-using water for dishes and when showering use the spray to wet yourself and to rinse. Switch off while you soap up to conserve water. Save shaving and shampooing for when you are in a bigger mooring places where they have facilities.
This was our last day for taking in locks and doing mileage. We wanted to be close to our final destination to allow us time to clean and pack up. The locks were much quieter this end so we made good time and the locks were a breeze.
Obelisque to Paul Riquet
We passed the summit of the lock where the river feeds water into the canal from the mountains. They call it the parting of the waters. There was an obelisque to Paul Riquet who started building the Canal du Midi in 1667 although the Romans originally had the idea of a route between the two oceans. It apparently cost millions back then and Riquet spent all his vast personal fortune and the salt taxes from the region in the building of the canal. It took 14 years to complete with 4000 people working on it.
We never saw any working boats on the canal apart from one that passed this particular day. It was a tour/lunch boat taking people up or down the canal. Working boats always have right of way so they snuck into the lock ahead of us. After the summit we started locking down which took a bit of getting used to as we had only locked up till now.
Patrick on the bridge over the River Aude
Our mooring for the night was right outside our last lock of the trip. Usually there are bollards or pontoons near to the locks which means one doesn’t have to hammer pegs or stakes into the ground, which can delay mooring. We both had a last run along the towpath although a semi road had replaced the towpath but it was quiet and apart from one or two cyclists I was the only runner for the hour I was out.
The final lock was only 4 kms away so I got a chance to see where we needed to moor and what facilities we could expect. We were the only boat at this remote spot and being out in the country it was pitch dark. All we heard was the sounds of nature. We never got to speak as much French as we hoped. How we were taught and how they speak is not the same. The French drop letters and merge words together which makes it really hard to understand them. But mostly they understood us.
Thursday 17th September 2009
Greenie about to enjoy a boat meal
This was our last full day and we chose to relax and square up. We woke to ducks squawking, some roosters from a farm nearby and the birds twittering in the plane trees next to us. It was all peace and quiet at this mooring spot. We liked the handling of this particular style of boat. Boats vary in their shape and structure and thus handle differently.
Some cabin cruiser boats slide about on the water. The biggest thing to grasp is that a boat does not have brakes. You can’t hurtle at full speed and then suddenly stop. The brief driving lesson and the instructions in the manual the boat hire company provide are well worth studying. It is vital to understand how to move a boat, particularly in small spaces like a lock.
Deep lock on Canal du Robin – see faces at top
For the most part the climate had been cool in the mornings and decidedly hot in the afternoons. But by the latter part of September the mornings were colder and I was wearing a warm jacket. The European holiday season typically ends the last week in September when the weather starts to turn.
Perving boats from the side of the canal
The boat hire company offered a cleaning service but we chose to clean the boat ourselves. Since it wasn’t a big boat and there were only two of us it wasn’t a hardship. We arrived early afternoon at the Locaboat office in Negra and arranged a taxi to collect us the following morning with the guy in the office. He wasn’t too particular about the boat being squeaky clean, just the basics such as strip the linen and mop the floor type stuff. The evening was a bit of an anti-climax as we so enjoyed our holiday. We shared our last bottle of wine and ate the last leftovers while planning our next boating holiday from a brochure we picked up at the office.
Go to – My Holidays and Trips – at the top of this page to read about other places we have visited. Or just click on – this link.
The mornings were becoming cool. I started wearing an extra top to keep warm. We got off to a swift start and there was so much talk about the boat that sank from various lock keepers along the way. One guy tried to sell us his home baked apple pie. He also showed us photos on his cell phone of the boat that crashed. Naturally each lock keeper swore blind it would never have happened had they been on duty.
The appraoch to Castelnaudary was via the biggest of all staircase locks we had encountered thus far. It had four chambers and five gates. The lock keeper let the boats lock up, and down, simultaneously, so we passed each other in the middle chambers.
Basilica in Castelnaudry
Thanks to a planned extra day we had time to explore Castelnaudary. We managed to get to the local marche in time and my other half bought two pairs of boating shoes for €12.00. I got a pair espadrilles for €3.00. The markets are usually in the mornings on fixed days of the week in the different towns. One has to enquire which day is market day. To check when the market operates ask the locals, lock keepers, Tourist Info or other boaties. We had a small wander around the town. It was built in a circular shape around Le Grand Basin, which is a big pond really. Apart from the marche, Castelnaudry had the usual ornate Basilica or two, street café’s and some beautiful people wandering about. Sitting at the café’s allowed me a chance to be a voyeur to life in France. The French on average are beautiful in a natural, hip kind of way. Their outfits are sort of bohemian but never slovenly or dirty. They look fresh, but never contrived.
The mooring provided boat-to-shore power so we updated all our communications and inspired by boat life we searched the Internet for info on boats for sale. I tried to read a French fashion magazine, gave up and went for a run while my other half went for a walk. I got horribly lost on my run as I missed the road back to the towpath. I managed to find my way back and we settled down to another quiet evening together. We had leftover lentil curry and our usual after-dinner selection of cheeses and fresh fruits.
Canal du Midi
Tuesday 15th September 2009
We treated ourselves to a late start. We still had access to the Internet and shore-to-boat power so we get hold of family, downloaded photos and charged up cell phones, camera batteries, etc. The amenities at Castelnaudry were particularly good so we both had extra long hot showers.
Source of the Canal du Midi
It was nice just to stroll around with no real purpose other than to browse the shops and people watch. The French don’t really get the idea of drinking tea so we tended to drink “cafe” as they call it. It’s served as a tea bag in hot water in a teacup, milk is extra. Tea is more expensive than coffee. We took stock of our food so we could use up what we had. We did our last shop-up at the supermarche. There wasn’t going to be much between Castelnaudary and our final resting place in Negra. We went for another walk into the town to see more of the town.
One can hire bicycles but we chose not to. The amount of time we were likely to use them did not justify schlepping them around and they are an extra cost. However some people cycle the canals and we often encountered them passing our boat laden down with tents and maps.
Plane trees were planted along the canals to provide shade to slow evaporation of water, and their roots also help support the banks of the canal. Canals are cool for the most part, and cycling them as opposed to doing them on a boat could be a great alternative way to explore the area.
My other half fancies the Dutch steel boats and I like the smaller barges, which are more like houses on water. We did some boat perving while we still had Internet access that evening.
The family moored next to us in Castelnaudary lived on their boat. They had two children they were home schooling on their boat. Slept well, of course and heard an owl hooting again.
It was nice to have a slow start and a chance to explore the town of Carcassone. From the window of our boat we saw a steady stream of people with their shopping baskets and bags heading for, what we assumed was, the market or marche. We had no idea there was a market close by, so we leapt up, wolfed down our breakfast, and bags in hand, followed the stream of people. We easily found the market. We had done a huge shop-up the day before but we could not help ourselves and bought yet more food. There were stalls upon stalls of sheep cheeses, goat cheeses, cow cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh herbs, dried fruits and nuts, assorted pastries, breads, and so much more yummy food. I have never seen so many different types of mushrooms. One can compare prices, check the quality and pick the very best potatoes on offer for the day. No wonder we didn’t have any desire to eat out. Where else would we have bought sheep cheese? Who knew it was so nice?
La Cite Carcasonne
Walking back from the market we went past Le Capitaine or La Capitaine in this case and we asked for a mooring with water and electricity. The moorings had been around €5.00 up till now – this one was €29.00. But then they had washing machines, ‘Wiffy’, showers, proper loos and even security for some reason. The fee at Carcasonne was based on the length of the boat, the amount of occupants and they also charged tax. Like many French people, when we asked her if she could speak English, she said she would, if we tried to speak French, which is fair enough. They usually revert to English and speak it well.
La Cite Carcasonne
We went for a stroll to look at other boats. Since we had been staying on a boat we were intrigued by other people and their boats. My other half got chatting to a few more boat owners about the pros and cons of their particular boat types. One guy had a couple of boats scattered around Europe and he alternated between them. Some people travel with their dogs. I’m never sure how much the dogs enjoy being stuck on a boat.
Another good reason for taking a day out of the trip was a chance to see La Cite. It’s a medieval fortress or an old city 2 km from the centre of Carcasonne. It’s full of the usual tourist trappings and tat but well worth having seen. On the way home we discovered a bunch of runners next to the quay and it turned out there was a race that evening. We heard strains of Pink Floyd and the Beatles going on in the background. Later we heard them announcing what we assumed were prizes for the winners which went on well into the night. I never understood a word for all my French lessons.
My other half bought a ready-made Cassoulet, which is one of the dishes of the region for supper. It’s a haricot bean and sausage stew with duck meat for flavour. I made my own version of a warm goat cheese salad and polished off the left over pasta from previous night. We made a honey mustard salad dressing with the local honey and mustard we bought at the markets.
Sunday 13th September 2009
Friendly cyclists on the tow path
We headed off for Bram as per the Locaboat travel suggestion. There was a lot less traffic on this section of the canal than the area we covered a few days previously, which made the journey a lot easier. The day was going well and there were only 3 locks for the day. The locks have some interesting names and one does wonder. We passed through a Lock Criminelle.
Sinking boat on the canal
We have done French and UK canals before, with very little trouble. This trip had its share of drama. We made good time till we got to the lock prior to Lock de Guilhermin. At Guilhermin a boat managed to get bashed inside the lock and cracked. She started taking in water and she sank just outside the lock. The lock keeper at the next lock shut down so fast. We thought that was us done for the day. We ended up going for a walk to see the unfortunate boat. The canal was cleared fairly quickly and we managed to make one more lock but we lost 1-½ hours.
We settled for the night outside the next lock miles away from anywhere. My other half made a lentil curry and we sat sipping wine, writing, doing sudoka’s and listening to the ducks squawking outside.
This was a long day. Apart from the traffic on the canals, we had 10 locks including some staircase locks to cover. At Laredorte, we tied up after lunch and tried to shop for provisions. The local ‘epicurie’ only re-opened at 16.00. We made enquiries with a repairman who smiled at us and shrugged, saying it was – the south of France – what did we expect? Yup, it’s a laid back place when shops close for lunch till 16.00.
Push button style lock
One can buy very basic provisions at some of the locks. The lock keepers and locals are an enterprising lot. At the locks you often find a small selection of home-grown vegetables, wines and honey. At one lock they even sold their signature “cafe chocolat” drink for €1.
We never got to Marseillette that day as the 9th lock on the way had a huge backlog of boats. The lock keeper shut down 19.00 sharp. A queue of 13 boats were waiting to lock up and 15 boats stood waiting to lock down. We all spent the night together outside the lock.
Lock doors opening
We had a good chuckle with the Canadians on the boat ahead of us and the French on the boat behind us at our unexpected mooring location for the night. Despite the crowd of boats it was so peaceful that we both slept until we heard the other boats hammering their pegs loose and getting ready to move ahead in the queue. It was just as well we took the boat for two weeks to do what the boat hire company suggested was a week long trip. Unforeseen delays and the desire to see more of the villages would have made this trip really tight. The peak boat season runs June to August. We were in the shoulder season. One can only imagine how busy the canals must be in the height of the holiday season.
Friday 11th September 2009
Boats queuing to pass a lock
Luckily this day got off to a better start and even at the staircase locks we had an easy passage.
With an assortment of nationalities together communication can be a gesture at times. One guy showed a hand to mouth motion as he came out the lock to show those of us waiting, that the lock keeper had just gone on lunch. So we stopped for lunch at Trebes. The Tourist Info opened up at 13.30 pm and they told us there was a supermarket 15 mins away We grabbed our bags and headed for a walk though the town and a shop up. We could relax once we had topped up on food.
However, this turned out to be another interesting day as we got stuck in a lock. The lock closed but it refused to open. Our Canadian friends from the day before as well as a young French couple were stuck in the lock with us. We had visions of sleeping in the lock that night after our experience the day before. Happily the lock keeper rustled up a mechanic who hit something with a hammer – hard – and . . . Voila! We were free. We tied up in Carcasonne by 18.30pm and we even managed to squeeze in a run along the towpath.
Bread at the Carcassonne market
The towpath next to the canal
The usual church bells chimed on the hour and ½ hour as they do in nearly every French village or town. Sometimes there are a few church bells nearby all chiming within a few seconds of each other. Our mooring was close to the local garre or station so we heard the train’s clickety clacking throughout the night and the arrival and departure announcements in French. The nice thing about this kind of holiday, is one rarely sleeps in the same place twice, so the sounds and experiences are always completely different. Your bed stays the same and your clothes and food all travel along with you. How convenient.