Canal du Midi 4 – 8 Oct 2011

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October 4th 2011
Published: December 3rd 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

4 Oct Tues Carcassonne, Villesequelande

Steve was heading back to London today, so we started with all having breakfast in La Place Carnot alongside the markets. We mostly had delicious omelettes, and Kath had pastries which she purchased from the markets. We bade farewell to Steve at 11am. He was catching a bus or train to the airport, then flying back to London. It was wonderful having him join us for a few days and especially the birthday celebration.

The boys and girls then went their separate ways for a morning of shopping, the boys for provisions for the evening and the obligatory bar stop, and the girls for clothes and souvenir shopping. It was a very successful spree for Pam with several new blouses and t-shirts and a pair of long shorts, all of which would be much better for the warmer weather in Spain. We found some great souvenirs too including a quaint clock which looked like a can of olives, some lovely bags and soaps, all quite small as suitcase space was at a premium.

One of the features of the visit to Carcassonne was the dioramas in the shop windows everywhere. Some were even animated. They were very detailed and interesting renditions of shop interiors, concerts and rooms in houses.

In the early afternoon, we headed further along the canal to Villesequelande (PK92/91). What a lovely spot to moor. The local village had set up the berthing places very well with free fresh water (with a much better flavour than Carcassonne), and park benches and tables under the trees. We wandered into the village to see the oldest elm tree remaining in France, which was in the village square in front of the church. It was planted during the reign of Henry IV and was a lucky survivor of Dutch elm disease. Roving Rob was on a different mission and found the local cavern, Voie Romaine, to purchase some of the local wine, luckily in bottles rather than the flagon.

We headed back to the boat to cook dinner – a green chicken curry. A short time later, a man rode up in a scooter. He was touting for his restaurant, including offering to drive us to and from it.

We stayed on the boat and ate and drank too much as usual and had some lively conversation particularly when a younger English couple joined us from the boat alongside – Nigel and Tina. Tina works for the fire brigade so that made for some interesting conversation.

5 Oct Wed Villesequelande, Carcassonne

Today, Dave and Kath decided to cycle back to Carcassonne so that they could revisit La Cite before they fly home on Thursday.

Rob, Helen, Pam and Dave decided to try out the restaurant from the man on the bike – Le Relais Romaine at 20 Voie Romaine. Rob rode off to find it and sent the car back to pick up the rest of us. Pam was a little cautious when we arrived as the restaurant was on a main road, but empty, and could have done with a bit of a clean. The restaurant had a very simple layout in two rooms, crimson cloth tablecloths, and an array of amateur paintings and sketches on the walls, which turned out to be the work of the wife. It was a family run restaurant – husband and wife. The wife was the chef and was from Madagascar. The man’s father was a marine in the war, and so they lived in many places, as was shown by the décor in the restaurant.

The restaurant owner shook his head when we asked why the local cavern’s wines weren’t on his wine list. They use wines from four different wineries in the area and had no consistency from vintage to vintage. The next night we agreed with this assessment as we drank one of their Cabernet Sauvignons.

The restaurant had a number of fixed menus and also an a la carte. The boys chose the 18 euro Langedoc menu – salad to start with bacon (like a caesar without croutons or parmesan), followed by Confit de Canard. Helen chose green salad followed by Entrecot which came with chips. Pam chose the chefs recommendation being very brave – duck gizzard on salad, avec foie gras, et canard fume sliced. Afterwards, we indulged in apple tart and a chocolate fondant with whipped cream – decadent!

Rob rode home, Helen accepted the car ride back, and Pam and Dave decided they needed to walk off the lunch bulge.

We headed off back to Carcassonne. Helen needed a nap as she still wasn’t feeling 100%. So Rob, Dave and Pam managed the 4 locks, several bridges and boat work on our own, which worked out surprisingly well. I think, however, that Dave’s arms were extended another foot by managing ropes from both ends of the boat and keeping it steady in the locks. By now, they should be dragging on the ground!

We got to Carcassonne and moved through the final lock to berth close to where we were on Tuesday but further away from the railway line and shop fronts. We caught up with Kath and Dave who had also just finished their revisit of La Cite, so perfect timing.

Rob and Kath cooked up a storm of mutton (lágneau) neck stew, vegetable ratatouille, sweet potato mash, and the proverbial baguette and vin. Dave H decided that he needed to drink all of his remaining vodka but somehow couldn’t quite make it through the end of the bottle.

6 Oct Thurs Carcassonne, east of Fresquel ecluses (third way between Carcassonne and Trebes)

The morning was spent eating our way through the many provisions we still had on board, starting with ham and cheese croissants, only blackened slightly on the bottom from Pam placing the tray too close to the source of heat in the oven. I think I only cooked once during the two week canal trip, perhaps that was a good thing!

After breakfast, Dave and Kath finished packing and cleaning their cabin, then headed off to the train station and airport for their 36 hour journey back to South Africa. The dynamics will be different now with 4 rather than 6 on the boat. We certainly won’t be hearing Kath shouting out in Afrikans to oncoming boats whenever she spotted a South African flag. And Dave won’t be getting any more first hand Ozzie slang education like learning about budgie smugglers!

Pam and Helen went in search of a lavarie. We wanted to use a different one than our last visit to Carcassonne as it was in a bad state of repair and not very clean. We asked at the tourist bureau and they directed us to the Square Gambetta near the Hotel Ibis. The lavarie was perfect. Helen read with delight that they disinfect their machines regularly. The machines were in good working order. We wandered around town while the wash cycle was going. We found some much nicer streets of Carcassonne, and some good looking tapas bars. We saw Le Portail des Jacobins and the nearby fountain, plus what looked like a mosque. One shop had many large metal sculptures amongst which was a 2 metre rooster, which Dave would really like I am sure.

We met the boys back at the boat, had a quick snack, then headed out of Carcassonne but not too far as our main objective was to be a little closer to Trebes. We stopped after a series of locks east of Fresquel (PK110).

We all rode along to Villemoustaussou along a really busy highway. It wasn’t very pleasant. We came to a turn off to get to the old town, but Helen was convinced it was another 2.2 kms to go so decided to turn back home and also try to find Dave who we appeared to have lost along the way. It turned out that the 2.2 referred to metres of the clearance height of the little underpass. Rob and Pam continued on to the quaint villa. It was very sleepy as we had returned to the places where they close at 12:30 and don’t re-open until 4:30pm. We rode around the centre circular road and happened to come across Dave in the process. Pam gave him a talking to as he had not let us know that he had merely taken an alternate route to get off the busy road mostly to save his poor knees from the ill-fitting bike and to get away from the traffic. We managed to find a small supermarket open so purchased some cold drinks and relaxed on a nearby bench before heading back to the boat.

Poor Helen had had her most stressful day as she had taken a wrong turn on the way back, and had at first ended up in the same little village, then when seeking directions back to the boat, got lost again and ended up in a big industrial estate with a huge shopping centre. To make matters worse, Helen’s wallet was in Rob’s back pack! Then Helen got a flat tyre and had to walk back to the boat. Not a happy Helen when we got back.

A few wines fixed the situation, and then Rob made up a new Cassoulet with a jar that had come in the welcoming basket plus a tin we had purchased to supplement. It was delicious again and Rob thought even better than the first in Narbonne, even if he did say so himself.

7 Oct Fri east of Fresquel ecluses, Trebes

We had some rain overnight, about 2am, the first on our journey in France. It also meant the temperature has dropped to about 18 degrees max, much lower than the 30 degrees we have been having throughout the trip.

We enjoyed a ham and cheese omelette prepared by Rob this morning – excellent start to the day.

We were pretty laid back as we didn’t have far to go to get to Trebes. Eventually we decided to make a start so as to clear the locks before they closed for lunch.

We stopped at Villedubert to walk to Villacarla but as had been the case so often, the villa was not open and in fact appeared to be a set of private residences. We motored on and reached Trebes quite early about 2pm to moor in the Le Boat pens along with many other boats.

We had a very quiet afternoon basically cleaning and packing. This time it was Helen’s turn to have a mishap with the bed slats. She fell quite badly after kneeling on the bed and ended up with quite bad bruising on her arm, leg and torso.

We had lunch at 4pm – a barbecue of French sausage and leftover vegetables made into a pasta sauce. It was lovely but we ate far too much. We persisted in sitting on the top deck despite the fact that the wind was chilly and blowing strongly enough to continually blow out the barbecue flame.

Dave went on a walk through the village and of course, found a bar, while the rest of us packed and rested.

At about 8:30pm we headed out but donned jackets and scarves to keep warm for the first time on the canal trip. We tried to go back to Dave’s bar to find that it had closed. So we went in search of another and found one quite close – a Tapas bar called El Chupito, which turned out to be lovely. We had a bottle of wine and some light tapas of salad, meats and foie de gras. I am amazed that we could actually fit any more food in after a huge lunch.

We have travelled a total of 172 kms on our canal trip and had a great time.

I might just reflect on the history of the Canal du Midi at this point. It is really an engineering marvel that we have been sailing along.

The first projects for a canal to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic date back to the beginning of the 16th century. Studies were made but the costs of such an enterprise and the difficulty of finding a water supply were insurmountable obstacles. The completion of the Canal de Briare in 1642 showed that the construction of an artificial waterway linking two river valleys was possible. In 1663, Pierre Paul Riquet, a salt tax collector from Beziers, and the Archbishop of Toulouse, Monseigneur d’Anglure, submitted their proposal for a “Canal de communication des deux Mers” to Colbert and Louis XIV. In 1666 a Royal Ordinance authorised Riquet to start digging his canal. The first stone was laid for the reservoir of St Ferreol in April 1667, and in November of the same year work was begun on the first lock at Toulouse. The section of the canal between Toulouse and Trebes was completed in only five years despite several modifications requested by Riquet. For example, he demolished the first locks to reduce their height and rebuilt the chambers with the oval shape which makes them so distinctive today. This attention to detail ensured that the canal would function well from the very beginning and would outlast more recent canals. The second part of the canal, from Trebes to Sete, begun in 1672, proved much more troublesome. A difficult terrain with many river crossings added to the costs and delayed completion. Several different routes were debated, and it is further proof of Riquet’s genius that he chose the more difficult one on the left bank of the Aude which kept the canal above worst possible floods. Riquet’s descendants noted that the cuttings of Millegrand, St-Julien and Dejean required more gunpowder than any battle.

Riquet’s detractors became more vociferous as his project slowly advanced, plagued with technical and financial problems. Even his friend Colbert expressed reservations, and sent a representative of the court to control the costs. Riquet resented the presence of this gentleman, whom he regarded as a spy. Their confrontation was brought to a head when the course chosen by Riquet for the canal brought it to the foot of the Enserune mountain. Here it appeared that he was at last defeated. Works were stopped and the king’s emissary set off for Paris for further instructions. Meanwhile, Riquet noticed that there already existed a small tunnel underneath the mountain, which drained the Etang de Montady. Encouraged by this, he transferred all his workers to the site and dug another narrow passage through the mountain to prove that a larger canal was feasible. The tunnel, begun in 1679 and completed in 1680, enabled Riquet to continue the canal towards his old home town of Beziers. In the flat coastal plain, canal digging became easier, and the works rapidly approached the Etang de Thau at Les Onglous. However, Riquet, ruined and embittered by the vehemence of his opponents, died in 1680, only six months before his dream materialised.

The canal was filled with water in 1681. It has operated without interruption for more than three centuries.

8 Oct Sat Trebes, Narbonne, Carcassonne

After a bit of a restless night (noisy ducks and noisy boat neighbours), we got up earlier than usual, and got straight into the final clean up. We needed to hand the boat back at 9am.

The Le Boat office had no problems even with the damaged railings and missing fibreglass here and there. They just said “Cést la vie”?

We shared a taxi with Helen & Rob to go back to Carcassonne to catch our respective trains. Helen & Rob left at 11:30 for Montpellier and their drive through more of France and on to Italy.

Dave and I struggled for a while to find somewhere to leave our bags. No lockers at the rail station. No help from nearby hotels. We decided on the 10 minute walk to the Tourist Bureau, who gave us the name of a hotel back near the railway station. So we dragged our bags back on another 10 minute walk to Hotel Bastide. They were accommodating for 3 euros. Those arms were elongated yet again.

We were both a bit hungry by now, so we went back towards the old gate to the city, Le Portail des Jacobins. At Le Portail, a band started up in the street so we stopped and watched for a while. It was great watching the little children dancing to the beat. Pam had remembered the nice looking tapas bars near there, but when we arrived, they were a little hard to find. We persevered and eventually found the one that Pam was looking for, near the lavarie at Square Gambetta.

The tapas bar, Brasserie O Gambetta is in Square Gambetta and was a great find. We had the 14 euro menu choosing the entre du jour and the plat du jour. Also included was a carafe of wine and the desert buffet. The entre turned out to be the French version of Caesar salad which was lovely and fresh and had heaps of jambon. The plat was a fish & potato slice (somewhere between a fish pie and a fish pattie) served with more lettuce. The deserts were to die for and eat as much as you like. We both had a little glass of tiramisu, and Dave had a chocolate mud cake slice and Pam had a Strawberry coulis topped cheesecake mousse. Dave enjoyed a follow up expresso, but Pam passed as that French coffee is still way too strong.

We wandered around Carcassonne shops a little more, then spent an hour in a hotel bar near the railway station and opposite Jardin Andre Cheniere. The garden is where the local down and outs hang about (normal for near railway stations I guess). And the hotel was a bit grotty, but OK.

Picking up the bags and catching the train to Narbonne was uneventful. The trains really are very good in France. 30 minutes and we had arrived. Oh, I nearly forgot about Dave’s St Kilda cap, which has only left his head to sleep at nights. It has drawn several comments as we have journeyed through the canals. I continue to be amazed at how people recognise it at distance and pass comment and ask which part of Australia we are from. This is also how we found out who won the AFL Final – a conversation across a lock with some other Australians. Anyway, we are waiting for the train in Narbonne, when we hear “Carn the Saints”. It came from a lady who was also waiting for the train. She then proceeded to ask if she could take a photo of Dave to send to her son in Paris who is also a Saints supporter!

Narbonne seems much bigger than when we were here two weeks ago. I think we only frequented the ancient part of town last time. We found our hotel easily, only a short walk from the railway station, Will’s Hotel. Lengthened those arms again as our room is on the first floor and no lift to be seen. The room is basic but comfortable and clean.

In the evening we headed out for a walk and to look for something to eat. Pam felt like pizza remembering the pizza we had when we first arrived at the Canal. Dave wasn’t keen, but it was fate as everywhere we walked there was one pizza place after another. We chose one and once again it turned out to be a good choice, Don Camillo in Blv General de Gaulle. Dave ordered an Entrecots and Pam had a pizza Savoyade all washed down with a 1/2l pichet de vin rouge.

This other part of Narbonne would be worth a visit on another trip as it is quite different than the areas of the city we visited at the start of our trip. I can’t see anything in the tourist information though. Anyway, it was cold and getting late, so back to the hotel we went.

We had good internet access, so Pam took the opportunity to try posting the first blog and some photos.

Additional photos below
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