Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Le Canal du Midi

OK, right off, I just have to say...renting a penichette to barge a canal is an incredible way to see “profound France.” That’s Lisa’s term for what we experienced on the Canal du Midi and I couldn’t agree more. Usually a week-long vacation goes way too fast. Not this time. Maybe it’s the close quarters, maybe the fact that it’s a working vacation, or maybe that you see so much each day, but whatever it was, experientially it seemed longer than a week. And that’s a good thing. As our photo gallery will show, we covered a lot of ground (or water), visited a bunch of towns and cities, had plenty of time to relax, and our tight little nuclear family grew even tighter with the experience. As a matter of fact, we loved it so much we may continue boating the canal next spring.

We started with a two-leg train trip to Montpellier that took about 4 hours including the layover time in Avignon. Things started a bit rough as our pre-ordered transfer (since we brought Maggie with us) never arrived so we simply grabbed a taxi and were at the Lattes Base 10 minutes later. After checking in, getting our bikes and our pre-ordered groceries, we were given a quick lesson driving the 11 meter-long boat, and sent on our way at about 4 pm. Yikes, I’m the Captain of a big boat that quickly? And the first lock is literally just around the bend. Two other boats left at the same time we did so we all fit into the lock together and it didn’t seem so difficult (We learned later that first lock was an easy, straightforward one.) 45 minutes later we took a left onto the Rhone-Sète Canal and headed east. By chance it was also the day France moved it’s clocks back so we only had about two hours of barging before we had to “park” for the night (boats are not allowed to be driven after dark). The sides of the canal here were very rocky and I found myself panicking to find a decent spot as darkness descended. Without embarrassing myself too badly just let me say that my parking/mooring abilities left a lot of room for improvement.

This part of the Canal is actually semi-industrial and commercially active. It was a bit frightening, to say the least, to see a full-sized tanker ship heading towards us on the narrow canal. Somehow we hugged the bank and were able to pass each other without incident. It was even more frightening when we realized our foolishness in trying to pass one of those big barges. We probably would have both fit side by side, but the big boats create a suck-back action that made our boat, and us, unstable! We gave up that folly and took it slow from there on out. Also, notice in the pictures that beyond the Canal are large étangs, or salt lakes, used for fishing, oyster farming, nature preserves, etc. We arrived in the fortified city of Aigues-Mortes (literally, “dead waters”) after about 90 minutes of boating (8 km/hour is max speed), and loved this medieval port town. It was built in the 13th century by King Louis IX and was the primary departure point for a couple of the Crusades. The tower was also used as a prison for Huguenots. After a relaxed day of sight-seeing and lunch, we got back on the Montgiscard (our boat’s name) and headed back the way we had come.

We cruised into Frontignan the next morning, and had a few hours to sight-see. They have a lift-bridge that only rises three times/day, so we biked around town: saw the old cathedral, tasted the local muscat (too sweet for our tastes), watched the flamingos in the Salines, and bought a few groceries. Knowing we were coming back to Sète for Lisa’s birthday at the end of the trip, we bypassed the city and headed into the very large Étang de Thau. The navigation booklet warns to attempt crossings only when the wind is low usually in the mornings or before dusk. It was about 2 pm and seemed calm so we decided to head for the port of Mèze about a third of the way across the Etang. As a navigation “repère” (tool) we were advised to stay about 100 meters out from the massive oyster beds which we did and had no problems coming into Mèze. However, this was an actual port, not the side of a canal, so I had to actually dock our penichette like a true captain. Even though I had successfully backed into our slip during my lesson, I decided to take the easy route and pull in frontwards. The way I figured it, backing out, into the open waters of the port, is a whole lot easier then backing in to a narrow slip with people watching no less. We paid 11€ for the mooring - typically port slips cost something - but you get services such as water, electric, hot showers!, etc. We headed into the quaint small town, which like so many others was mostly shut down as summer is long gone, followed the steeple to the ubiquitous old cathedral, played shadow games outside the boarded-up chateau, and headed back to port for a delicious meal of oysters, mussels (Irie’s new favorite meal), and a main dish that was a mélange of oysters gratinée, clams gratinée, shrimp and mussels. We and a talkative family from England were the only customers and we had a good time talking about politics, music, France, etc.

The next morning, the boat kept pumping water out of a side hole, and then we ran out of water. Being in port, I hooked up the hose to fill it and the pump started going non-stop. I pulled up the floorboards and could see it gushing in. Crap, what do we do? The woman working at the Port Captainerie called our boat company and they said get yourselves across the Étang du Thau before the winds pick up and we’ll meet you inside the canal near Agde. A bit unnerved to be making this crossing with a leak of some sort we headed out and two hours later arrived at our first of three locks. Most locks are rounded or oval inside (a few are straight) which is easy enough - just wait for the green light and the doors to open, pull in to the right where Irie would throw Mom the rope which she would loop around a mooring and give back to Irie, then I’d put the motor in reverse, quickly go to the back and throw Lisa another rope, then we’d hang on while the lock filled. Our voyage was taking us upstream so the only difficulty was that Irie sometimes couldn’t throw the rope up high enough for Mom to grab it. The third lock going into Agde is unique as it is completely round. We had a good laugh at ourselves...later. Lisa stayed in the boat and after trying to get the rope around the mooring but failing we’d drift into the center of this round lock. I’d have to again try to steer up to the side where Lisa would again not be able to throw the rope up around the mooring. As we were trying for our ?fourth? time to moor, the woman lockmaster opened the gates - the lock was full and out we headed feeling like embarrassed amateurs.

We parked along the canal and made lunch while waiting for our repairman. After finding the leak and fixing it, we refilled our water tanks and were on our way. It is also after leaving the Étang de Thau that one officially enters the Canal du Midi. This is where the Canal becomes tree-lined and absolutely beautiful. While driving the boat could become tedious at times, here the views never ceased, so even if I wasn’t driving I just wanted to stare out the window anyway. Glass-like water mirroring the trees, small picturesque villages with their trademark steeples and Mairies, or even distant views of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mts. As well, a bike path lines at least one side of the Canal throughout. On Day 5, the sun finally reemerged after a few days of cold and gray, so Lisa, Irie and Maggie decided to bike awhile along the Canal while I drove. I ended up getting some exercise too as Irie dropped a glove and I rode back many kilometers before I actually found it.

Backing up, on Night 4 we stayed near the town of Portiragnes and I took a cold windy bike ride down to the beach where I found loads of shells and a wide open beach. Day 5 we crossed the famous Pont-canal which is where the canal actually bridges it’s way across L’Orb River near Béziers. Béziers is one of the oldest cities in France going back about 6500 years, and St. Nazaire had that old feel to it. Again, we were in waiting mode as the Fonserannes Staircase, a literal staircase of 7 locks, didn’t open until 4 pm, so we took a bike ride into this large busy city on a hill which proved très difficile for Irie. She fell and bruised her leg. Lisa felt left out so on our trip through the Staircase of locks Lisa decided to get a matching one. The Fonserannes is also a tourist attraction so we were glad we had already navigated a few locks, what with all the people watching us maneuver. With Irie’s help we worked our way through each lock like the pros that we had now become.

Our 6th night was spent on a scenic bend in the Canal with it as calm as we had seen, thus the potential for a couple of beautiful photos.
Our last day, Halloween, was full of the profound beauty of France that the Canal typifies. Sailing past small villages, with stops at two: the sleepy but very cute town of le Somail where the girls visited a hat museum; and, Ventenac-en-Minervois where we were able to pull up and moor right next to the chateau/winery where we tasted a few wines and bought a couple of bottles to bring home. After all, this whole trip was Lisa’s birthday present, and we tried to make it special by giving her gifts every other day or so to really stretch out the moment. I don't want to speak for her, but I think she had a great week!

We arrived in Argens, our final destination, in late afternoon. Not wanting to sleep docked at the Locaboat base, we crusied past the port a short distance and moored up one last time under the plane trees that line the banks. The town was eerily appropriate for Halloween with the tall buildings of the Argens “skyline” abandoned and falling apart. We asked about “trick-or-treating” and were told the kids all meet at the school at 6:30 and go out together. Sitting on the boat, I noticed three kids in costumes so we quickly locked up and followed them. I think we freaked them out, this english-speaking family following them around so they ran off and ditched us, but in the meantime we stumbled upon a larger group with parents and joined in. Lisa briefly talked en français with one dad, but mostly I think we were a strange occurrence that most will think wasn’t real. Irie noticed that they don’t say “trick-or-treat” but simply “les bonbons”, ie. give us candy, and that they didn’t give out candy bars. All-in-all, a Halloween to remember for its weirdness.

Lisa: Living on a boat for a week is like camping in a floating motor home. It was surreal--there are many spots on the Canal du Midi that feel like the middle of nowhere, but if there is a problem with the boat the fix-it crew is just a phone call and a nearby road away. We even ran into one of our fix-it guys in a small town and nabbed him to look at a minor sink drainage issue. There is also plenty of dirt that accumulates. It’s hard to know how to prepare, how to pack. How cold will it be? Will it rain? We did pretty well but were ready for a washing machine and a real shower by week’s end. And Maggie did great! She loved hanging outside watching life, and the ducks, go by. She also rode on the trains with us, and laid under Rick’s legs calmly. She had one episode of naughtiness: our last lock, we were fully confident in our skills, too confident because we let Maggie run about the boat. We locked up, were level with the sides, Rick was pulling away, I was about to hop on, and Maggie hopped off to sniff the lock-keeper's dog. I gathered up the dog and ran down the path where Rick picked us up. If we're not flailing with ropes we're flailing with dog.

This was a great week. Sublime, and there were several moments of the scenery before me perfectly aligning with the France of my dreams.


Norm said...

Rick, Is that boat similiar to pulling a 35ft 5th wheel thru Chicago?


Rick said...

I don't doubt it. Though I'm confident we didn't burn as much gas :^)

To repeat myself: what a great way to see France!

Mom & Dad Browne said...

Hey, were jealous.

Sounds like as much fun as you said it would be.

Mom & Dad