Canal du Midi 1 – 3 Oct

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October 1st 2011
Published: December 3rd 2011
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1 Oct Sat Trebes then Carcassonne

We started the morning with wishing David and Helen happy birthday for their 60th. They both received birthday wishes from afar on their phones and facebook. Presents were exchanged and we had a quick cup of coffee before the hunting and gathering commenced. Off to the Le Boat office, finding a lavarie, and some goodies to make French toast for the birthday breakfast.

After a few running repairs from Le Boat – mainly to the shower drainage, and procuring a gangplank to save our old legs from the wrench we have been experiencing all week jumping onto shore, we set off for Carcassonne at about 10am.

After 1 or 2 locks, breakfast was ready in the galley so we stopped for a brunch feast at about 11am. We had French baguette toast topped with melted cheese and herbs, herbed grilled baby tomatoes, lightly fried ham, orange juice and coffee. We had forgotten to get some champagne but maybe that was a good thing.

Steve was in touch fairly early to say he was walking the canal back from Carcassonne to Trebes so at some point we should intersect. Confusion reigned for a short while as Steve was quoting kms in descending numbers while for the reckoning of our maps he should have been going in ascending numbers. When he quoted D118 this was the other side of Trebes to where we had started out this morning. Had we crossed paths? Luckily, as Dave and Rob were cycling along the canal path they encountered him. D118 turned out be a street name as well as markers along the canal. How confusing that there are multiple D118 names for different things.

We had six locks (including a double) and six bridges and a couple of aquaducts but the time went quickly to Carcassonne and we arrived before scheduled. Once again we had waited for a lock master at 12:30 – 1:30, but we took the opportunity to go for a wander. Dave and I found a hyper mart, the first we had seen on this trip. We bought some of the elusive sparkly and also found a patisserie with a huge selection of different types of baguettes. Pam found some long shorts and á short sleeved top at the shops so this added to a more suitable wardrobe for this weather. And at last a place to purchase stamps. Very pleased that the shop assistant understood my French – Je voudrais quatre timbres de poste pour avion l’Australie.

When Dave and I got back to Le Boat, our crew had moved on through the lock, so we walked along the canal for a bit to find them.

We found a mooring spot in Carcassonne. It is well shaded, and only costs a small fee overnight. We have already decided to stay two nights at least. This will be a welcome break from the constant drive to get to the next destination.

We enjoyed brunch #2 at about 3pm – 2 bottles of champagne, fresh baguette, cheeses, prosciutto, terrine, and pate. Dave Hall was very confused as we had previously decided that we wouldn’t have lunch so as to save ourselves for the birthday dinner tonight.

Time for some chores. The elusive lavarie had been found, the boat was cleaned up a little, then the boys went off to find a local. Confusion reigned again a little later on when both Dave and I set off separately to find the lavarie to help Kath, but neither of us could find it.

Carcassonne is the largest place we have been to outside of Paris. And with that, comes a less friendly atmosphere, lots more people and especially layabouts on the canal edge. Certainly doesn’t feel as safe as other places, not so much for personal safety but for valuables on the boat.

Dinner was booked for 8:30pm. We dressed up for the occasion. Some of us took the 35 min walk to the restaurant, which was very picturesque over the Pont Vieux and around the base of the Carcassonne la Cite Medievale (fortified old town). The restaurant is called Le Parc Franck Putelat, in Chemis des Anglais. It has a Michelin star, which is why Helen chose it – her first Michelin star restaurant, and I think maybe the case for all of us.

The restaurant had several large rooms and the décor was very flash. I particularly liked the chandelier which was a simple metal structure with many tiny lights at the extremities. An aperitif of Coupes de champagne was in order and this alone cost more than dinner for two in some places 112 euro ($168), but it was fitting and lovely. Included with the champagne were hors d’oeuvres. Wow, these were very special. I was already in trouble for taking too many photos so we didn’t get a record of these. Little stuffed tomatoes, tiny macaroons with a mint filling, pate squares, and a prawn in soufflé on a stick (melt in your mouth). Helen can’t have prawns, so they made her a special soufflé stick I think with scallop.

Then it was time to choose our meals. There were two set meals to choose from or you could opt for the degustation. As the latter needed to be for the whole table, four of us had the “Emotion” menu (5 courses) and three had the “Classique Fiction” menu (seven courses). We asked the Sommelier to assist us with selections of white and red wine to have with our meals. All menus were heavily slanted toward seafood.

Part of the table décor was loose chain mail mats which served as our bread and butter plates. Throughout the evening, we were offered selections of bread rolls hot out of the oven – parmesan, basil, sesame or natural – all were delicious. Our knives and forks were also replenished throughout the evening and were rested on a piece of oval stone with small indentations in it – a row of small holes for the fork ends, a slice for the knife edge and a small hollow for the spoon rest. They were designed especially for the restaurant by RA. Even the wine and water glasses were special – they were all tall stemmed and the bowl of the glass was shaped like a bulb with the rim turned in gently but significantly.

Needless to say, all of the food was both spectacular to look at and to taste. Our Emotion boullibaise was served with various seafood arranged in a row across the soup bowl. Then the actual fish stock was poured from a large cylinder more like something you would see in a laboratory than in a restaurant. The Fiction pumpkin soup came in a small individual cylinder with a small bamboo straw accompanied by a separate large glass fish bowl with a whole large squash (small pumpkin) sitting in it, while lifting the lid of the squash revealed scallops in a wonderful sauce.

Although the servings were small, each were so tasty and there were so many, that we soon began to feel full. We still had cheese, deserts and coffee to come. Speaking of cheese, it is obvious that this one of the things that France is famous for. The cheese trolley was huge, the size of the food trolleys you have on airlines. The top layer had hard and cheddar cheeses, another pull out tray had soft cheeses, and a third pull out tray had goat cheeses. We were able to choose three cheeses each, and the order in which to eat them was suggested to us by the waiter.

And then there was desert. I must have had too many wines by then as for the life of me now, I can’t remember what we had. Something with very rich chocolate I think. Maybe the photos will tell.

I think we were one of the last tables to leave at about midnight. No-one wanted to waddle home so we ordered two taxis.

I think we all enjoyed celebrating Helen and Dave’s birthdays and I hope it will be a lasting and happy memory for them both.

2 Oct Sun Carcassonne

After a late start, Dave and I decided to split ranks from the group today, go for a wander around Carcassonne and then up the steep hill to la Cite. Steve was staying at a hotel quite near the canal, Alorte Rouge.

After a bit of hunting and gathering, which had some challenges as most shops were closed for Sunday, we walked back to la Cite. It was very warm, about 30 degrees celcius, so even with 50 spf sunscreen, we still ended up a little sunburnt.

Walking closer to la Cite is very impressive. This is a very well kept Chateau and surrounding Cite and defences. La Cite is a fortified town dating back to the Roman Empire (3rd and 4th centuries AD). It was the home and property of the powerful Trencavel family throughout the XItha and XIIth centuries. It was the theatre of the crusades against the heretics in the 13th century. Used as a garrison, the site fell into ruin. Saint Louis authorised the inhabitants to build the Bastide on the left side of the river Aude. The Bastide Saint Louis became a city full of draperies. A great part of it was out into fire by le Prince Noir in 1355. It was restored at the end of the 19th century by the famous architect Viollet-le-Duc.

We followed the outside wall around for a third of the way, looking often for a bit of shade, then headed in between the two external walls to walk back to the main entrance (La Porte Narbonnaise) to meet Steve. One of the things of note with this ancient construction is that it has none of the safety fencing and warnings that we are accustomed to wherever we go in Australia, yet no-one seems to come to serious harm.

La Cite has free entrance except for the actual Chateau. The main road in from the Narbonne entrance is lined with small tourist shops and lanes with small cafes. It was very crowded with tourists as it was Sunday. We soon found a quieter laneway and a café to stop for a drink. In France, they come to serve you at the table even in casual cafes. We couldn’t understand why the waiter was standing in the doorway and not coming to serve us, so we called him over. His answer was that we were sitting at the wrong tables to be served by him, so we got up and moved a little. Then we were OK. Lots of courtyard cafes are set up this way we now realise.

We spent several hours wandering through la Cite buildings and walkways, mostly keeping away from the shopping lanes. But eventually they beckoned to Pam, and we spent about 30 minutes looking at souvenirs, clothing, books, lolly shops and then came across a great gallery of photographs. The boys weren’t really interested in the shops so we looked for a café for a small bite to eat. This time, not quite out of the way, but on the quieter edge of the large café square, La Place Marcou, we had fantastic savoury crepes, some iced tea and Dave found a decent sized beer 0.5 litres.

We learnt about the legend of Dame Carcas. The Emperor Charlemagne laid siege to Carcassonne. The Saracen King Ballak was killed leaving his wife Dame Carcas to intervene. The town had already been under siege for 5 years and famine claimed the lives of its last defenders. Alone, behind the ramparts Dame Carcas kept watch with just straw dummies at her disposal. She fired arrows from a crossbow at the besieging army to have them believe that many defenders still existed. All that remained in the town was a itlle pig and a portion of wheat to feed the population. So Dame Carcas stuffed her pig with the remaining wheat and threw it from the ramparts. The pig’s belly burst open when it hit the ground and from it flowed the precious grain. Charlemagne lifted the siege realising it was useless as soon as he saw this, and thinking that they had so much wheat in Carcassonne that they were feeding it to their pigs! Before the large army disappeared, Dame Carcas summoned back Charlemagne to make peace. She had the trumpets sounded “Carcassonne” which literally means Carcas is sounding. So the Emperor doubled back to receive her allegiance!

We left to walk down the hill and through town back to the canal. We have seen our fair share of ambulances in the past couple of days. First the man with the severed finger on the boat a few days ago, then an ambulance arrived at la Cite main gates to tend to someone in la Cite, then on our way down the hill from la Cite, another ambulance tending to someone who was having serious difficulty with the climb.

We walked back to our boat taking a different route through the main town shopping lanes – all closed but quieter than walking along the main streets. We walked near Square Gambetta again and wondered about the main purpose of this square. It is large and very bare, mostly paved. At each end, there are little glass houses which look as though they might house elevators or lifts to a basement or car park. We never did uncover this mystery.

Helen, Rob, Dave and Kath had also spent late afternoon at la Cite but had cycled there. They returned to the boat about 1.5 hours after us.

A barbecue (Brie in South African) was in order as although we have had lots of meat, fish and cheeses, we hadn’t had much red meat/beef/lamb. One of the reasons is that it is not as plentiful in France and is also comparatively expensive. For example, pork is about 7 euros per kg, while beef is 30 euros per kg. Kath cooked up a great vegetable ratatouille, Dave H cooked the meat, and Steve bought us some lovely red wine and beers. One of the red wines was a special treat at 11 euros ($16.50) per bottle as we have been drinking much cheaper wines than this.

We refilled the boat with water at Carcassonne. We had just become accustomed to drinking the tap water after the great water we took on board at MInervois. But here, we had to change tack. Even the boiled water for coffee is revolting. We will need to go back to bottled water for both drinking and for coffee.

3 Oct Mon Carcassonne

Someone else will need to write this day up as Pam decided to opt out of the day’s adventures just to have some quiet time. A nine seater van was hired, and Helen, Rob, Steve, Dave, Kath and Dave set off to go to Chateau de Peyrepertuse for the day.

The Peyrepertuse castle is at Duilhac. It hugs a limestone outcrop which peaks at 800 metres altitude watching over Corbieres, the Fenouilledes plain and the former Franco-Aragonaise frontier. Peyrepertuse is one of the most remarkable fortresses in the south of France. It has been occupied since Roman times from the start of the first century BC. It was first mentioned in 1070 when it was owned by the catalan Counts of Besalu. Across the centuries it endured many crusades and sieges and some associated executions, so a very interesting history. Many sections were added, such as the dungeon of San Jordi in 1250/51. The Treaty of Pyrenees (1659) de-classed Peyrepertuse as having a frontier line position and so it lost its strategic interest. During the first years of the French Revolution the castle was deserted and was later sold to the State in 1820. The first plans to consolidate the Chateau of Peyrepertuse were made in 1950.

The monument is composed of three parts: the lower enceinte (enclosure) and dungeon, the middle enceinte, and the dungeon of San Jordi. The lower enceinte, which has a triangular form, is protected from the north side by a curtain wall of 120 metres in length.

Rob describes the summit of Peyrepertuse as his most memorable experience because of the exhilarating views of castle ruins and panoramic countryside.

One of the amusing things was that there was a ramp to allow wheelchairs to get to the ticket counter, but from there on it was all steps. In fact, Dave thought you almost had to be a mountain goat to traverse the ruins. The veteran squash player had to make at least one stop during the ascent to catch his breath!

Dave described the drive as a bit scary. Steve drove very well, but the roads were small and winding along mountainsides. The round trip encompassed Lagrasse (photos and apple crumble and mud cake), then onto Villerouge-Termenes, the Peyrepertuse (tons of photos), then stopping for lunch at Bugarach (we think as the “senior” can’t remember), and more photos at Rennes le Bains, Couiza and Limoux.

When they returned we had the pasta sauce that Dave had prepared a few days ago, with all the leftovers added to it. It was very nice and hit the mark for the hungry tourists.

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