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Published: July 31st 2008
Canal Du Midi
Carmen directed us to the Europcar office at the railway station in Montpellier and told us where to go, but it was a one way street. We could see where to drive to but couldn’t get across to it. Di finally got out and asked questions and we followed those directions which brought us back to the same place and then we saw the narrow entrance by some rocks. We finally got in, checked in the minibus, loaded up our luggage on the shuttle, farewelled the little minibus and were off to the station… hopeful that nothing was left behind.
At the station we found a restaurant upstairs with lift access to the platform we needed and bought a coffee and something to eat from a French girl who spoke English with a cockney accent. We caught the lift to the platform and when the train to Toulouse arrived staggered on board with all our luggage.
The train was packed and there wasn’t much room for luggage so we threw some of the luggage into the racks by the door and hoped no-one would pinch them. Rodger sat shotgun in the middle of the
carriage overseeing who was leaving and ensuring that our luggage didn’t accompany them.
We managed to get some of our bags into the carriage and store them near us and all eventually found seats but apart from each other. It was a first class sit-down compartment but without seat allocation.
As we swept across the French countryside, Helen sat next to a lovely elderly Frenchman who carried on an intense conversation and she had to draw a map of Australia so he knew where she came from.
After about 2 hrs he warned us we were nearing our station, Castelnaudary, so then we had to reverse the struggle with the luggage. On route we passed some of the towns that we were to pass through on the Canal du Midi, Sete and Carcassonne being two and we saw the lovely castle on the hill by Carcassonne.
When we arrived at Castelnaudary the taxi that Di had ordered was there to pick us up. (It was amazing that in the whole trip everything we had booked fell into place except the accommodation in Cinque Terre). The driver took the luggage, Jan, Rodger and Helen to the Crown
Blue Line office; Di and Win walked the short distance.
We filled in the paper work, checked that the provisions we had ordered were on board, and were taken for a quick test run around the small basin near the locks. I found the boat only reversed to starboard irrespective of the throttle setting and the rudder position which I thought strange but we were in France and anything goes.
The girl who was showing us had a bad back and it was near 5 o’clock so she was anxious to be off. Once she realised I’d owned boats she took off and did not tell us about the bow thrusters to get around the revering problems in the tight locks when there were stiff winds and currents. But, after a couple of days, we discovered the thrusters (they were unmarked on the console) and it was a breeze thereafter…. other than Win doing some gardening on overhanging trees and a little masonry work when he came into a couple of mooring areas.
Anyway, we decided to sleep at Castelnaudary as the locks heading down to Portcassafieres closed at 5.30. We had, in front of us, a
Our first meal by the canal in Castelnaudary
We all tried the local dish "Cassoulet" but unfortunately this could not have been the best example and we all left more than half except Win who even chewed the bones and really impressed the waitress.
set of three locks and a couple just after that, so we thought we’d take it easy and test the boat in the harbour to make sure everything worked, power, hot water, loos, showers etc, and make sure it was properly provisioned and also have a local wine - at $5.00 a bottle and surprisingly good - before taking off for the week.
We walked from the boat into Castelnaudary village and it was a little overcast and cool. A delightful restaurant by the canal glowed brightly in the evening so in we went and all ordered Cassoulet. Castelnaudary is the place where the traditional dish of this area originates. It’s made from dried beans, sausages, salted pork, duck legs (which we didn’t know about at the time), and slabs of smoked ham in a mixture that “was sooo thick you could carve it”. I thought the bone poking out of the cassoulet was a front leg bone of a piglet it smelt so good, crisped by the oven with an aroma that tingled the taste buds. We were served enormous meals and I was the only one to lick the plate clean!
For those of you
interested in the culinary delights of Southern France here is a recipe which looks pretty authentic. Ours had some pieces of smoked pork/ham:
You need 400g of dried white lingot beans, 3 litres of chicken stock, four 80g pieces of Toulouse sausage, four 50g pieces of belly pork, 2 cuisses de canard confites cut in two, 1 tbsp tomato purée, 4 cloves garlic, pepper
The night before, leave the beans to soak in plenty of water. The next day drain them and boil them in 3 litres of water for 5 minutes. Drain again and then cook them until soft, but still intact in the 3 litres of chicken stock for about an hour. While the beans are cooking, gently fry the duck legs until the fat melts off and set it aside.
Fry the pork pieces in a little of the duck fat until browned on both sides, set aside. Keep the fat from the frying, you will need it to assemble the dish.
When the beans are cooked, remove them from the stock and keep the stock warm. To the beans add the tomato purée and the garlic cloves (skins removed). You are now ready to assemble the
Cassoulet. Choose a deep, preferably round oven dish (the traditional dish is a round, earthenware dish called a Cassole). Put a tbsp of the fat you kept in the bottom of the dish. Add about one third of the beans to the dish, add the pork and the duck, then place the rest of the beans in the dish and press the sausage on top. Add stock until the beans are covered in liquid and season well with pepper. Pour a tbsp of fat over the top to finish.
Pre-heat the oven to 170°C and cook for a couple of hours until the liquid has evaporated.. The hard brown crust that forms on the top during cooking should be pressed down seven times, as the cassoulet cooks..
I thought it was a little similar in construction to feijoada the famous Brazilian Wednesday lunchtime black bean stew which is made with a variety of meats,
I in fact chewed everyone’s crispy bones- it was that good. After coffee and a shared desert we wandered back to the boat to sleep.
The bedrooms were good; the boat relatively clean, and, importantly, the toilets worked well, the shower had excellent
The jolly crew
Dinah as Chief photographer and general deck hand, Rodger as chief Forward deck hand, Jan chief map reader and recorder, Helen as chief Rear deck hand and Win - Captain Bligh
pressure but was cool until the engine had been running for some time. I showered ashore with pipping hot water but one had to shower with an elbow on the button to extend the water flow for the next 10 seconds. Maybe this is something we could introduce to water restricted Brisbane.
We had breakfast of cereal on the boat. We always seemed to be provided with Coco Pops but these were really big pops with a certified crunch of 40 decibels.
We ambled out of the harbour and through the first staircase of three locks. The lock keeper brought out an apple pie which he said he had just cooked this morning and was made from “apples from the orchard and flour from the mill”. I thought he might have a standing order from the local patisserie for 2 dozen apple pies which he kindly sells to the passing boats - it was a great gesture and the pie was fabulous. We had it for morning and afternoon teas for several days. Regrettably he was the only lock keeper providing the apple pie service. There were a few locks that had small shops selling local wines, fruits
Di has produced so many photos and we have filled in a fair amount of detail so I thought we should let the photos tell the stories.
Instead of writing details I would just list our impressions of the canal du midi and some of the highlights rather than take you on a day by day rambling of the journey,
What did we experience? - the warmth of the people; the fun local restaurants; the supreme quality of the food, the fresh, youthful, Provence wines; the wine tasting in cellars by the canal; the absolute tranquillity of reflections and light dancing on the water of the canal, especially in the twilight and evening just cruising the waterways; ducks and birds and strange beaver-like creatures; miles upon miles of sweeping vineyards; little pubs and friendly inn keepers; pastry shops with delectable aromas; sunflower fields vibrant yellow in the wonderful blends of green of the pastures and the trees; a poor baby bird that fell into my hand, crapped on it and flew off to land in the canal-to be rescued by a kind Yorkshire man we had met, from another boat, called John; fruit shops with
Our first lock
Waiting for this boat to come up to our level
fruit so fresh and ripe your mouth watered; local eggs that whip like none I’d seen for years; picture book villages and castles and friendly towns; walks along the canal; markets; drenching rain and the laughter of seeing the boat hands (Helen, Rodger and Di) holding ropes in the pouring rain, their hair stuck to their heads like drowned mice; skating the only made section of the bikeways on beautiful tracks; almost falling into the canal riding bikes on bumpy paths in the evening; the camaraderie of other people traversing these waterways; the Russian “tank driver” in which his only speed and direction was a frontal attack; a poor German family who still believed after 7 days that their boat steered from the front and peeled pieces off their boat on every lock; great companionship on a treasured waterway that will stick in all of our memories for the remainder of our lives.
So who built it and why?
From time immemorial the route from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, for Frenchmen, had to pass England, Spain and Portugal and it took a month of sailing. The time involved in the journey plus piracy being rife,
induced King Francis 1 to bring Leonardo da Vinci to France in 1516 to commission a survey for a route to allow sailors to take a boat overland by canals from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, within the safety of France. But there was a major problem of getting water to the summits sections
The problem wasn’t solved until Pierre-Paul Riquet persuaded the finance minister and the Archbishop to take up the challenge to build a canal. Pierre Riquet was a rich tax-farmer; that’s a person appointed by the crown responsible to pay the government taxes for an area, but as the agent for an area, has the right to collect the taxes that he paid from everyone else. As a consequence of setting taxes on everyone, he knew the area well. After an inquiry in 1666, he was commission was given to him, with a cost of 3.3m livres (the French currency at the time) to build the canal.
The current value of that commission at 3.3m livres, based on the weight of gold for a livre in 1660, (e.g. 8 oz gold was then worth 750 livres) projected to today’s cost of gold at $1,000/ounce, makes
Rodger and Helen on the ropes as water in the lock empties into the lower lock and we move down
We learnt to stay with the ropes and walk down with them when there were multiple locks to save getting on and off the boat and this helped Win steer the boat into the next lock.
1 livre worth roughly $10 in today’s terms. So, the value today, projected at the gold inflation rate, is $33,360m, which, as an infrastructure-project to build a 240 km canal and a dam, seems pretty cheap. But there was a cost blowout!
Anyway to get the water to the top of the hill Riquet commissioned a dam to be built at Saint Ferreol which is above the highlands that the canal had to pass. Riquet was 63 when the dam construction commenced. The dam wall was 700 meters long, 30 meters above the riverbed and 120 meters thick at its base, and was the largest civil engineering work in Europe a century - and that was before the canal digging began. Twelve thousand people worked on the canal, each lock was standardised at 30.5 meters long, 11 meters wide and 6 meters at the gates. This type of lock (a pound lock) was first built in The Netherlands in 1373 but was actually developed by the Chinese before the C10 and used on the Grand Canal which stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou some 1,770 km and rises 42 m in height.
The Canal du Midi climbs 190 m
through 104 locks. We actually went through 64 of them in our journey!!!
The whole project eventually cost 15m livres - worth $150m in today’s terms, of which Riquet provided 2m livres. Pierre died in 1680 just months before the canal was opened in 1681. His sons inherited the debt and the canal and the debt was not repaid for over 100 years. Now that’s what we call a long term infrastructure project!
After the revolutions it was run as a government project and the last commercial vessels ceased using the canal in 1989 with the closure of the canal because of a drought.
Every town had a Pierre Riquet Avenue or a street named after him and his name lives on in each of the towns through which the canal passes.
Even today we marvel at the work undertaken to complete it; including the hundreds of thousand of plane trees planted along the sides of the canal and though it may not be in the same scale as the Grand Canal of China, it has grace and charm and touches the French countryside and all who travel on it.
The big barges that used
to ply the canal are now private residences and some of the families look like modern-day gypsies. Some barges are beautifully decorated with flower pots and vegetable gardens. There are colourful awnings over outdoor living areas and the barges themselves are beautifully painted.
Dinah’s experience-While moored for lunch on the bank of the canal we heard a band playing and people singing and we could see some kind of dancing. I went to investigate and came across a group of perhaps one hundred people celebrating Bastille Day, which was the following day. At times there were 10 people turning over a massive paella.
I went back to call to Rodger on the boat, across the canal, for the others to come but he said they were sleeping and Win had gone off on his blades. I went back to the merriment and two of the girls, who were QUITE merry by this time, drinking Pastis, offered me a drink.
They put the Pastis in a plastic cup then went to a hose and filled the cup with water. It was like a pernod and a bit hard for me to swallow! With broken English
and French we “chatted” away with much laughing and giggling from the “happy” girls. I told them that Bastille Day was also my birthday so then they had a whole group of people sing “Happy Birthday” to me.
By this time the paella was ready so the out-of-tune band stopped; the dancing and singing stopped and everyone helped themselves to heaped plates of the paella. It had a lot of seafood - muscles and prawns etc - and looked delicious but unfortunately we had just had a big lunch so I didn’t try it. I eventually went back to the boat, quietly taking my drink with me for the others to try and found that Helen and Jan weren’t asleep at all and were sorry they had missed the fun. Rodger had been meticulously cleaning the outside of the boat as we had to hand it in the next day.
After a week of “mucking about in boats in the river”, as Ratty would say, we finally moored the boat at Port Cassafieres and caught a taxi to Sete where we spent the last three days together.
The day we arrived in Sete was Bastille day,
a holiday and Dinah’s birthday. She says the whole of France celebrates her birthday!
There are 100 photos in this blog so keep looking.
Look for the next blog to see what we did in Sete.
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