7th-17th June. Damazan to Castets-en-Dorthe.

As planned, the first order of business was a jaunt to Damazan market. Although fairly small there was a good fruit and veg stall for some fresh provisions. A quick stop by the local boulangerie and we headed back to Doris to enjoy breakfast before setting off on foot to find the swimming lake. There had been prolonged thunderstorms in the night and although the rain had ceased by the morning, the skies were still overcast and the ground sodden with mud. Despite this, the swim was lovely and the water temperature perfect.

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We walked back by a slightly different route and found the Fontaine aux Anglais, a former wash house deriving its name from a time when the town was under English domination.

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Fontaine aux Anglais

After all these exertions, lunch seemed in order so we weren’t under way until just before 1 o’clock by which time it had gone from overcast and cool to bright sunshine and boiling hot. After a while we reached the mooring place of La Falotte. This is a beautifully maintained garden area with mooring stakes provided as part of a small privately-owned Mineralogy museum.

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Garden and mooring space at La Falotte

It looked lovely so we decided to stop for a while and check out the museum which was just about to re-open after lunch.

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Doris enjoying the peace and quiet

The museum turned out to be a gem (excuse the pun!). It is owned by an older couple and is housed in a small wooden building adjacent to their home. There were no other visitors and the proprietor explained in a mixture of broken English and French that all the samples had been collected by themselves over the years. The collection was significant and our host was able to explain the different mineral types in a way that was clear and informative for non-geologists – I wondered if he had a teaching or university background. He was a delightful gentleman and it was lovely spending a little while in his company.

Returning to Doris after our visit we were treated to the sight of a red squirrel scampering up a tree although I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo. The mooring was so tranquil that we contemplated an overnight stay but the lack of shade and the heat showing no sign of abating persuaded us to move on. We had also read that the water level in this particular pound can be subject to rapid changes due to the operation of the locks (although why this stretch should be especially affected I have no idea) and we didn’t fancy getting stuck if the bottom got too close to the top. In the end, we stopped at a decent little port not far beyond the next lock in the village of Villeton. Once again, it was a free mooring but you could pay for water and electricity if required. There was some dappled shade underneath trees and picnic tables adjacent to the moorings.

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It was too hot initially to do much of anything but we did have a little explore later of the immediate area. It didn’t take long as there wasn’t a lot to see except for some interesting old farm machinery as part of a peasant museum.  After our stroll we settled on deck to savour the evening.

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Evening light at Villeton

There was no need to hurry in the morning as we were only planning a short day so we pottered about for a while, enjoying the relative cool of the morning, and once again set out after lunch. Our intended stopping place was le Mas-d’Agenais which was less than 10 km and one lock away. The lock took a little longer than anticipated as it jammed. I called the VNF who usually arrive on site pretty quickly but after 40 mins there was no sign of anyone so Cy climbed off the top of the boat and used the intercom to call again. It was about another 20 minutes before our rescuer arrived by which time there were boats waiting in both directions. After being released from our concrete prison, it was another hour or so before reaching the mooring quay at le Mas-d’Agenais. The quay is about 75m long and apart from a small abandoned sailing boat, no-one else was there initially. This gave me the chance to practise throwing a loop over a bollard. We are both adept at throwing a length of rope held in both hands to effectively catch or lasso a bollard, but throwing a single line with a loop knotted in the end is a whole new level. One which we consistently fail to reach.

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12th time lucky?

The town itself is another one which was built within defensive walls on a hill. We had a good old meander round checking out views of the bridge over the river, the market square, various buildings and a big axe.

Surely no town is complete without a big axe.

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In the morning, Cy went off alone to the boulangerie while I did some laundry. The captain is generally reluctant to leave his vessel so a bit of cajoling was required for this particular errand but breakfast was procured and enjoyed before heading back to town for a larger provisioning run. We also wanted to visit the church as it had been closed the previous evening and houses a Rembrandt painting depicting the crucifiction. Unfortunately the very famous painting had been moved to Bordeaux Cathedral due to security and climate issues, which we took to mean damp problems. According to the information displayed, the church are hoping to have these things resolved in due course and get their painting back.

We left le Mas-d’Agenais at around midday and headed off past the nearby boat hire centre and into the lock. We had met one of the team that work for Le Boat a few days previous when he was sent to do some ad-hoc repairs on a couple of their fleet. He recognised us and Doris and came over to the lock for a chat. He advised us to keep an eye out for mudslides along the next section due to the excessive rain and that the canal had even flooded its banks in one or two places – the first time ever.

After an hour or so, we spotted a nice little lunchtime mooring with some shaded picnic tables and enjoyed a leisurely stop.

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Doris and a wooden duck

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Enjoying his lunch?

We then continued on towards Meilhan-sur-Garonne and spotted the mudslides shortly before the town, half of the canal was buoyed off to stop boats going aground where the mud had all dumped in.

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We reached Meilhan late afternoon – the mooring quay itself was pretty full and there was a kayaking club using the extra pontoon space so we found a spot along the bank instead and used our mooring stakes. It was fairly shallow and uneven at the edge but we seemed to get in OK. It was early evening by the time we had finished getting everything sorted so we opted to settle down and head up to the town in the morning.

Once again the night brought thunderstorms and heavy rain, despite this when we woke in the morning the canal water levels had dropped off considerably. We had never experienced this before, so can only assume it must have been due to a faulty lock somewhere. This was quite worrying as we were already moored in shallow water – as a result it seemed prudent to skip the exploration of the town and try to get going straight away if possible in case the level continued to drop. Thankfully, there was still (just) enough depth for us to get off.

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Dropped water levels – the brown section of bank having been previously submerged

It was now less than 20 km to Castets-en-Dorthe and the end of the canal. We had advised the port captain that we would arrive on Monday 11th which was the following day so we decided to stop at a place called Fontet for a night which was about halfway. The port at Fontet is in an old quarry so involves turning off the canal and into a basin, different to all the others which had been halts along the canal itself. We were there and tied to the reception pontoon shortly after 10 am. It was a relatively large place with several dozen boats looking like they were permanently based here. Being a Sunday, the office was closed and was something about the place that I wasn’t too keen on – this was entirely subjective, there was nothing wrong with it at all, I just didn’t fancy staying, so we didn’t. It was after 11 by the time we had faffed around and decided what we were doing but still plenty of time to get to Castets. We stopped for lunch close to the village of Puybarban. The banks here had some steel shuttering lining them so were good for mooring against. It was intended to be a lunch stop but in the end we couldn’t be bothered to move and so the brief lunch stop turned into an overnight mooring. It was a nice little quiet spot in attractive countryside although unfortunately the village no longer had any shops. There was a very nice looking cafe at the next lock which we walked up to, but it was closed.

There were more thunderstorms in the night, adding to our concerns regarding the imminent journey on the river, in fact we were not even certain it would be open to navigation due to the amount of recent rain. The morning was dryer though and I started the day with a short run. We arrived into Castets-en-Dorthe at around 12:30 and were shown where to tie up and asked to call into the office later after lunch. The place we had been allocated was great, most of the moorings were stern-to along the quay which ran for several hundred metres along the bank but we were up at the livelier end of things, close to the office and a restaurant which was humming with activity.

We knew that the lock from the canal down onto the river only operated at certain times based on the high tide and by prior arrangement only so we were keen to get these details sorted when we reported into the Capitainerie later. What we hadn’t anticipated was the large wine festival and Tall Ships Regatta in Bordeaux, so there were no moorings available there until after the following weekend. What this meant was that in effect, we were stuck. The distances involved and the tidal nature of the river meant an overnight stop in the vicinity of Bordeaux was necessary – the next good harbour, Pauillac was too far to reach in a single day. On a more positive note, the spares we had ordered to be delivered there had arrived and were waiting for us.

So, a week in Castets-en-Dorthe it turned out to be. It is not a big place and we thought we’d struggle to fill the time but actually it went by quite quickly (I wont detail every day as it would be a tad tedious).

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Whiling away the hours..

There was a small convenience store in Castets but a larger Carrefour a couple of miles away. I topped up on provisions during the course of the week which involved multiple trips over several days and there is always plenty of maintenance, housekeeping and planning to do.  Every day one or both of us went to look at the river – it had been thumping down due to all the rain and we liked to convince ourselves that it was becoming a bit tamer as the week went on.

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The lock from the canal down to the River Garonne (canal at far end)

There was still plenty of rain, but in shorter showers rather than prolonged downpours that we had been seeing.

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Shower??

On Thursday, Michael and Mary-Jane arrived as well so we had a fantastic evening with lots of wine and a take away pizza to compare experiences of the canal and generally catch up. They were around for three nights so were able to hang out for a bit longer before saying our final, final goodbyes on Sunday when they left to return along the length of the Canal de Garonne, Midi and up the Rhone hoping to get to Holland for some repairs over the winter.

After a few ignored emails and failed online booking forms to the Bordeaux port authority, I eventually phoned them and managed to arrange a space on one of the river pontoons for the night of Monday 18th and with the lock opening arranged we were all set, along with a convoy of about 6 boats that were also waiting to head out on to the river and towards the Atlantic Ocean. After a week in Castets, we were ready to move on but also sad to say goodbye – the port had been a particularly friendly and welcoming place under the supervision of the wonderful port captain, Bruno. One of the absolute highlights was the morning bread delivery – if you order from him in the afternoon, he delivers to your boat in the morning.

However, the Atlantic beckoned…

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31st May-6th June. Toulouse-Damazan.

Toulouse marked the end of our journey on the Canal du Midi – we had travelled its entire length from where it meets the Etang du Thau to the beginning at Toulouse. Well nearly, just 6km and three locks to go from the port to the junction with the Canal de Garonne.

From discussions with other boaters the Canal de Garonne sounded very diffferent to the Midi. Every single person that takes their own boat along the Canal du Midi has a story or two to tell about an encounter with a hire boat but this is less of a problem on the Garonne. Mainly because there are significantly less hire boats, but also because the canal is generally much straighter and often wider, making coexistence easier.

As described in previous posts, the Midi was built in the 1600’s to provide a transport link between the Mediterranean and Atlantic. It joined with the Garonne River at Toulouse which flows downstream past Bordeaux and out into the Atlantic at the Gironde estuary. River navigation is much more problematic than canal navigation and for this reason the idea of a canal west of Toulouse was first mooted by Vauban, the military engineer who had been involved in the latter stages of the Midi. It didn’t get off the ground and the idea wasn’t taken up again until the 1800’s, with the project being approved in 1839 and the Canal de Garonne fully opening in 1856. It was a working waterway up until the 1970’s used for transporting grain, wine and wood chips for use in paper making. It is not commercially used now, being effectively cut off from the rest of the French waterway network by the Canal du Midi which is not suitable for modern working barges.

With all this in mind, we were quite excited to get onto this next segment of our journey and experience it for ourselves. We departed Port St Sauveur (Toulouse), riding shotgun with Olivia Rose, at around 10 am on 31st May and by 11:30 had been through the remaining 3 locks, reached the junction and joined the Canal de Garonne.  The chambers were deeper than any so far, but still relatively modest compared to some we had been through last year!

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Olivia-Rose ahead of us in the lock

As expected, the first few kilometres out of Toulouse were fairly industrial and uninspiring however the differences in the two canals were immediately apparent. This one was indeed straight and the locks were the more common rectangular shape and self operated by twisting a hanging pole. This was familiar to us from northern France and very easy to use.

By early afternoon we had escaped the urban sprawl and found a nice place to stop for a bit of lunch before catching up with Olivia Rose later.

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Starting to get green again after Toulouse

They had very helpfully found a good spot for an overnight mooring and left space for us to tie in behind them. The weather had been gloomy and overcast in the morning but by evening had cleared and become warm and bright, the only downside being the close proximity of road and railway. Michael and Mary-Jane joined us for a night-cap and to compare notes.

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Clear skies for our first night mooring on the Garonne

I was up early the next day for a run. This is a rare event. In fact both things are rare events and ‘run’ is a loose description, but I did get to feel very virtuous for the rest of the day.

We left the mooring at 9am and went into the lock which decided not to let us out after it had finished it’s cycle. Mary-Jane called the VNF and it wasn’t too long before a nice man in a van came along to rescue us. The rest of the day was uneventful – we had a stop at the town of Grisolles for me to do a spot of provisioning at the nearby Carrefour supermarket. We had planned to meet up with Michael and Mary-Jane again, hopefully at a mooring place at the Foret d’Agre. Sometimes the information given in the guidebook can be a bit hit or miss but this one was a gem; a good wooden pontoon with room for both boats in a lovely quiet location just before a lock.

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Olivia-Rose and Doris

We arrived early in the afternoon and as it had become very hot, spent a few hours sitting quietly in the shade until it had cooled slightly, before heading out for a walk.  Vineyards lined the side of the canal here and I even managed to get a photo of one of the dragonflies that were about.

 

We had a wonderful supper with our neighbours – it was a goodbye really as the next day they were heading up towards Montauban on the short Canal de Montech before returning and continuing along the Garonne. As we were continuing straight and not exploring the branch, we would be a few days ahead and didn’t know if we would see them again. It had been wonderful travelling along with them, sharing experiences and becoming friends.

We waved them off the next morning wishing them ‘bon navigation’ and then got going ourselves around half an hour later. We managed 7 locks before stopping for lunch, although 5 of these were a chain and very close to each other. You activate the first one and then the whole series automatically prepare for you so they are generally very quick to go through. This particular chain was next to the Montech water slope, sadly now out of service but was built in the early 70’s when water transport was still big business. It worked with two massive diesel engines attached together by a beam pushing a volume of water to carry the boat either up or down the slope. It must have been an impressive thing to see when it was still operational.

Lunch was at the mooring close to the village of St-Porquier. The pontoon was excellent – a well built wooden jetty with picnic tables adjacent and space for about three boats with plenty of depth. The village was close-by but it was very hot so we weren’t inclined to go on a mirthless trudge in the sun to explore. After a leisurely stop, we continued down to the town of Castelsarrasin in the afternoon. The port is good with all the facilities you would expect – water, electricity, showers and a launderette in the office and wifi. Part of it was a hire boat base but there was plenty of room for visitors and we tied to a vacant finger pontoon and reported in to the Capitainerie  – they offered a much lower rate if you were not using the electric or water and we opted for this. It had been a hot afternoon, but it began to cool quickly as the skies became overcast once again. Perfect to head out for a walk along the canal and up into the town.

It is not a huge place but has a small supermarket, a boulangerie, a couple of bars and a pizza take away – that’s all the essentials covered. Beer and a pizza seemed like a great idea, so after a visit to one of the bars, we dropped in to order our pizza. Cy headed back to the boat while I waited, and waited, and waited by which time the threatened thunderstorm had arrived with a vengeance. Fortunately my knight in shining armour returned with a brolley just as our order was ready – possibly he was most worried about his dinner arriving back at the boat soggy.  It was actually rather good and went very well with a glass of red.

As I mentioned, Castelsarrasin has a small supermarket so Sunday morning was spent doing a spot of provisioning.  There was also a tiny market which offered excellent fruit and veg.

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Castelsarrasin Sunday market

By the time we were ready to get going it was close to midday,  we managed 7 locks then reached the town of Moissac where we hoped to stop for lunch.  The port here is run by an exceedingly friendly chap called Jim but unfortunately it was full.  He also manages moorings on the navigable section of the River Tarn which is accessed via a lock at Moissac but due to the high water levels, the River was closed to navigation effectively reducing the moorings available.  He told us there was a spot where we could stop for a while a little bit further along the canal, just beyond the swing bridge, so we took his recommendation and tied up there.  There was a sign stating it was reserved for passenger boats but the only one we encountered during our stopover did not need to use it anyway.  From our very brief exploration, it seemed like a delightful town and we regretted not being able spend more time there.

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Swing bridge opening

 

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Lunchtime stopover, Moissac with swing bridge in the background

Once replete, we continued along our merry way, reaching the port at the town of Valence-d’Agen at around 6pm.  It was a small, pretty port with stern-to moorings using finger pontoons.  There was no charge for the mooring itself but you could pay for water and electric if required.

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Valence-d’Agen port

The town itself was interesting with three old wash-houses that you see fairly frequently in this area, a fantastic market square and large church.

 

After breakfast the next day, we decided to stay on for a second night.  There was a BricoMarche (French DIY store) close so we were able to get some more polythene to cover the leaky windows as well as a few other bits.

The port in Valence is justifiably very popular with hire boats which can make it a bit noisy, and the boat adjacent to us were particularly loud.  In the end, we ran away, leaving the port at 5pm and continuing up the canal.  A mere 5 km later we had found a lovely peaceful mooring place called Lamagistere, just next to a lake and had the place to ourselves.

After a very restful nights sleep, we set off as soon as the lock opened at 9am.  The skies began a bit cloudy then heavier rain set in later in the morning.  We arrived into the town of Agen at around 12:30.  It is reported to be a good place to visit and the prune capital of France but we found the port completely uninspiring  so just stopped briefly for lunch.  The drizzly rain probably didn’t help either.  After Agen there is an aqueduct over the Garonne River and a chain of four locks.  All were passed quickly and without incident, although it always feels strange being in a boat on a canal suspended over another waterway so high up.

 

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Aqueduct at Agen

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Rather cheerful mooring bollard in one of the locks

We continued west another 10 km or so to the village of Serignac-sur-Garonne.  There was an excellent quay although the water was fairly shallow close to the edge so a bit of nifty fendering to hold us off was required.  According to some English neighbours on a nearby barge, there was a mooring fee to be paid in the tourist information office but it is only open two days a week which happily did not coincide with our visit. It was still raining on and off so we busied ourselves with some jobs (Cy stripping down the cooling water pump for one of the engines) and had dinner before venturing out later in the evening.  I discovered, to my cost, that the lovely wooden pontoon was very slippery when covered with a days worth of rain by slipping and bashing my knee and shin against the edge.  Not to be deterred, we continued our twilight exploration of Serignac-sur-Garonne along with an army of snails that seemed to be on the march somewhere.  What we found was a small but delightful village with several old buildings, now residential, but with signs explaining what they used to be.  It was clearly a thriving town back in the heyday of the canal with more than one grocery shop, a tailor and some warehousing and shipping offices.  The church had an unusual looking twisted spire that we had not seen before.

There was no great rush in the morning so a leisurely start was in order.  I headed up to the small local supermarket to get some provisions whilst Cy perused the internet for the water pump spares.  Ordering stuff online presents a bit of a challenge when on the move so we contacted the port at Castets-en-Dorthe, the last stop on the canal before the River Garonne itself, and made a booking with an arrival date of Monday 11th June and asked if it was OK to have some parcels delivered.  This being done, Cy was able to order his spares.  Castets-en-Dorthe was chosen as a delivery point due to the overwhelmingly positive endorsements we had heard from other boaters all along the canal regarding, not only the port but particularly the port captain, as being incredibly helpful.

We eventually moved off at around 1pm, just as the place seemed to be filling with hire boats.  It was another easy half day cruise to the town of Buzet-sur-Baise which is a renowned wine area.  It is also from here that you can descend through a lock onto the short navigable section of the River Baise, although that lock looked to be out of operation, presumably temporarily closed due to dangerously high water levels like the Tarn.  Cy could have squeezed Doris in somewhere in Buzet but the place was pretty choc-a-bloc with boats and we fancied somewhere a little quieter so continued on to the town of Damazan.  The drizzle and overcast skies of the morning had given way to much brighter weather by the time we arrived.  The port itself was situated on the right side of the canal but there was also space along the bank on the opposite side which looked nicely shaded.  The banks were fairly uneven with lots of protruding tree roots but a careful park and some more strategic fendering meant we were able to safely tie up there using our mooring stakes.

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Doris at the back, on the left

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Enjoying the shade

Damazan is an example of an ancient Bastide (fortified) town.  The central marketplace was fabulous and once again we encountered a variety of historic buildings.  Apparently, at one point in its history, much of the towns wealth came from tobacco growing.

 

Fortunately the next day (Thursday) was market day and we discovered that there was a small swimming lake just outside the town.  It looked like we had a plan for the morning.  One week had taken us along 140 of the 193 km of the Canal de Garonne and had proven thoroughly enjoyable.

 

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24th – 30th May. Beteille to Toulouse

After an early morning foray into the nearby town of Alzone to find the boulangerie, we left the very lovely mooring at Beteille at around 08:30. Three hours, 10km and 3 locks later, we decided to halt for an extended lunch.

The village of Villepinte was close, so after demolishing the baguette we took our recycling and shopping bags and went on a mission that was only partially accomplished. We managed to source groceries but we couldn’t find any recycling facilities, however we were treated to this gorgeous field of poppies.

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The afternoon’s travelling took us through a further 9 lock chambers where we were fortunate enough to have assistance from the Norwegian crew of a hire boat. Getting our lines on to the bollards from the bottom of a lock can be tricky when there are only two of you, particularly so in the Canal du Midi as they are set quite a long way back from the edge, so not even visible to throw a rope over.

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Section of the afternoon journey – typical of the Canal du Midi

Our mooring for the night was a tree lined bank just beyond the final lock of the day. We were grateful for the shade as it was pretty hot, although the nearby road did create a fair bit of noise.

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View of the moon for the evening

Our next stop was the town of Castelnaudary. It wasn’t far to go but we did have a little bit of excitement in the quadruple Saint-Roch lock leading to the town – the lock keeper opened the paddles (holes in the gates that let the water in to fill the chamber) before I had my rope on. I had actually missed it on the first throw, then seeing water rushing in I panicked a bit and missed again. Thankfully the people on the hire boat inside the lock with us shouted and waved frantically to catch the attention of the lock keeper who stopped the flow. As I’ve mentioned before, these locks are particularly turbulent and having to manage without a bow line would have been interesting to say the least. Needless to say, I made sure I didn’t miss in the next three chambers!

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Saint Roch locks – someone forgot the brakes…

Castelnaudary is notable for a couple of reasons – firstly, it is the home of Cassoulet, a dish containing white beans, pork and duck; I’ve purchased a tin for Cy although it is as yet untried. Secondly, for its Grand Bassin – the largest port on the entire canal. It was dug to supply water for the Saint-Roch lock staircase and also provided a loading port for grain barges.

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Across the Grand Bassin at Castelnaudary

There is a small island inside the bassin which was designed to protect barges from the strong Tramontane wind that is common here but the mooring facilities are restricted to the LeBoat hire company – the main port is just through the narrow bridge along a quayside. Facilities were good and it was a pleasant place to be. Our friends on Olivia Rose were already in residence having arrived a day earlier.

The town itself wasn’t huge – a couple of hours was sufficient to walk around and explore. One of the churches was in the hands of a local volunteer group and was among the best restored we had seen to date, with all the chapels having been recently repainted in the original style rather than the bare stone/plaster that you tend to see these days.  It was also full of life, with volunteers tending flowers, cleaning and welcoming visitors. There was a real buzz about the place even though it was very old and very traditional.  There was also a lovely old windmill on the edge of town.

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The aforementioned Tramontane wind was making its presence felt the next day (Saturday 26th May) and with 40 km per hour gusts it seemed fairly sensible to stay put. Large waves were actually developing in the Grand Bassin, the first time we had seen this on a canal!

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White horses on the canal

As usual on a non-travel day there was plenty to do (or avoid doing..) Provisioning, laundry and hunting diesel from the local hire base took up a fair bit of the day. We dined on Olivia Rose – a fantastic spaghetti dish cooked by Michael accompanied by home made cider (by Mary-Jane) and finished with chocolate mousse.

For breakfast we decided to treat ourselves to pastries and coffee in the quayside boulangerie/cafe (run by a lovely lady who was even forgiving of Cy’s attempts to order in French) and followed it up with a final stroll along the canal, enjoying the fact that the wind had dropped in the night.

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Port at Castelnaudary (Doris is at the other end)

The Canal du Midi is different to many of the French canals in that the overwhelming majority of locks are manned. There are however, a few automatic ones and we came across one first thing. It must have been automated relatively recently as our book showed it as still having a l’eclusier. Cy practised doddling about and holding station by the red light but when it became apparent that nothing was happening, I was sent ashore to investigate. Thankfully the operating system was easy to figure out and in a jiffy, I had pressed the appropriate button to prepare the lock. Cy brought Doris in just as Olivia Rose arrived and joined us. Usually, I prefer to be on the boat but there was no choice this time, I had to be on shore to activate the lock. Working the lines from the edge of the was another new experience for me, one which I was a bit nervous about, but it actually worked fine.

The rest of the day was uneventful – trundling along with a lock every few km, some automated, some not. At around 3pm, we went through the final uphill lock and were in the summit pound. We tried to find a mooring spot in the village of La Segala but without success and eventually moored to a bank at the end of the pound. It was a nice quiet spot, but the bank was very steep and unfortunately there was a fair bit of litter collected in the canal. Nevertheless, this was a significant moment.

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On top of the world or as near as we were going to get

The parting of the waters as it is known is at an altitude of 190 metres and is the watershed between the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

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From here, it’s downhill all the way. There are a few interesting features to be seen here – the outline of an octagonal basin which was originally a settling basin and reservoir for the canal. There is an an old mill dating from the building of the canal and an obelisk to commemorate the achievements of Monsieur Riquet.

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Sadly, the obelisk has seen better days and the gates to it are firmly locked but outside the mill was an interesting sculpture!

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A big funny face and a pirates head…

After having a bit of a nose around it was well into the evening so we headed back to Doris for dinner.

It definitely felt like another stage of our journey beginning our descent towards the Atlantic and we were ready to go as soon as the lock was switched on at 9 am – it was another automatic one so I walked over to get it ready as Cy got the engines warmed up. We were joined again by Michael and Mary-Jane on Olivia Rose and none of us paid too much attention to the little bit of drizzly rain that had started. Unfortunately, the drizzly rain developed into a torrential downpour complete with thunder and lightning. We battled on for a while but the visibility was dreadful and we were both soaked so we took advantage of a mooring just outside the lock at the village of Renneville. A couple of ropes were hastily thrown around a bollard and we cowered inside Doris looking to get dry and warm. It was at this point that the heater once again decided not to work.

After a few hours of being hunkered down the clouds cleared and it turned into a beautiful late afternoon/evening. We realised that our emergency berth was the perfect mooring spot – it was away from the main tow path, so lovely and quiet, with a well built quay and we were nicely tucked in behind a barge.

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After the rain

We were keen to stretch our legs after our enforced incarceration so walked up to the village and then did a pretty loop around and back to the canal. Sadly, the village has long since lost its businesses but the church was interesting being the first one we had seen built in the style common to the Toulouse area (red brick and bells mounted in a kind of extended gable end, rather than a tower).

There was a bit more heavy rain in the night but the morning was dry, if a tad overcast. The sun finally broke through over a lavish lunch of hard boiled eggs, home made aubergine dip, salad and bread. Oh and a glass of wine. We only travelled for a further couple of hours in the afternoon deciding to stop at the small town of Montgiscard. It wasn’t too late in the day so Cy was able to get an oil change done whilst I went to check out the town and take away pizza place. Typically it was closed on Tuesdays but I did find a small grocery store and purchased a couple of cans of cold beer to help lessen the disappointment. Whilst I was gone, Cy received a text from Mary-Jane to let us know they had made it to Toulouse but that the port was pretty full and advised us to call ahead. I did as suggested and managed to get us booked in OK.

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Evening at Montgiscard (with old wash house at the side)

Montgiscard is only 20km and 3 locks from Toulouse so we estimated it would take around 3 hours to get there in the morning. There was a bit of a delay en-route as a couple were moving their barge from its mooring on the opposite bank into a boat yard for repairs. They were doing this by hand so it was a job that couldn’t be rushed!

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Canal traffic jam

We eventually got into Port St Sauveur, Toulouse, in the early part of the afternoon and after a bit of a kerfuffle with allocating us a mooring (the lady in the port was concerned that we would not fit in the space reserved for us) it was eventually agreed that we could stay put on the ‘welcome’ pontoon, with the poo pump.

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Port St Sauveur then..

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and now.

Once all this was sorted, we spent a few hours exploring Toulouse before hosting dinner for Michael and Mary-Jane.

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Which way up does this map go?

Toulouse is the beginning (or for us – the end) of the Canal du Midi. From Port St-Sauveur it is just 5km and three locks to the junction with the Canal de Garonne – another new chapter to begin in the morning!

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19th May-23rd May. La Redorte to Beteille

Despite lots of rain in the night, Saturday 19th dawned fair and after a delicious breakfast of pastries and baguette with butter and conserves we departed at around 08:30. The first two locks of the day were double chambered, the second of which (Aiguille) is kept by a sculptor who has adorned the place with fantastic figures made in scrap metal and wood. Some were animated – a male figure raised an eyebrow or two (ours, his was something altogether different) with a certain moving appendage…

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Spot the moving parts….

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The non animated ones (except Helen)

On leaving this spectacle Pat, our left hand engine, sounded her temperature alarm, probably a result of all the excitement. It was necessary to stop just outside the lock for Cy to investigate the problem. As usual, it was due to weed blockage in the cooling water intake. We thought it was resolved but had to stop again after the next lock. It turned into a rather stressful few minutes due to another hire boat parking incident – they were trying to moor to wait for the lock we had just left but tried to park with the wind and current (there is some flow as the lock fills) behind them. This resulted in more emergency fendering and the boat hook was sharpened once again. Eventually, they were safely dispatched, our intake was cleared and off we went; arriving at the next lock about 20 minutes or so before midday.

We’ve learned over the last two years how sacrosanct lunchtime is here, so we thought our chances of getting through beforehand were slim but I wandered up anyway. I was greeted by the lock keeper getting into his van, waving to me over his shoulder and merrily calling ‘bon appetit’ as he drove away. His advice was heeded and bread, cheese, tomatoes, apples, salad and wine were enjoyed by all.

The afternoon involved two triple locks and a single one.

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Simon doing all the work again…

From our guidebook Trebes seemed like a good place to spend the evening but as we  arrived it became apparent that it was a hire base and looked pretty full. Some other moorings were available but they were next to a busy road bridge so potentially quite noisy. In the end we tied to the bank just beyond the village. It was a bit shallow and uneven at the edge but a bit of fiddling with fenders and using one of our wooden planks to hold us off worked well. Adjusting of ropes completed, we were secure and enjoying an aperitif in no time.

It was a pleasant walk back into town past the local vineyard. After a bit of a meander (far more preferable to a mirthless trudge) a waterside restaurant was located.

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Walking into Trebes

The meal was fabulous (they even catered for vegetarians, which is unusual in France) and the company was wonderful so we had a very enjoyable evening – thank you once again Simon and Helen.

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I’m sure all those empty glasses are nothing to do with us..

We walked back along the towpath rather than out through the fields; due to the bendy nature of the canal this was further but it meant we didn’t get lost. The frogs and the bats were out in force and saw us safely back home.

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A little grainy, but taken on the walk back to Doris

Simon very kindly did the early morning breakfast boulangerie run then after a pleasant 3 hour, 6 lock cruise, we reached Carcassonne and found a mooring in the port. After the formalities were completed, Simon, Helen and myself popped to the small supermarket nearby to get some essentials. We were delighted to find a litre of red wine for less than 3 euros only for things to go slightly awry at the checkout. The cashier was horrified by our choice, assuring us it was ‘pas bon’ and intimated that they only sell it to the ladies and gentlemen who spend much of their days in the park nearby. She even called over the store manager to reiterate the point. Suitable chastened by our public wine-shaming and not having a choice, we meekly accepted the suggestion that we spend an extra euro for a glass bottle of far superior quality. Helen and I did wonder if the same thing would have happened if Cy had attempted the purchase….

Once the heat of the day had begun to subside, the exploration of Carcassonne began in earnest. We wound our way towards the formidable walls and towers (once a separate town altogether) known as La Cité.

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Simon conserving energy prior to the walk

This is the extraordinary fortified part of town perched atop a hill dating back to the 3rd and 4th century. It had fallen into disrepair but underwent a significant restoration towards the end of the 19th century. It is an incredible sight and is currently sporting some very distinctive artwork to celebrate its 20 year anniversary of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The yellow stripes are the work of Swiss artist Felice Varini. Helen and I had been chatting to a local resident at one of the locks earlier in the day who had mentioned to us that parts of the town had been painted yellow and it was proving controversial. We had forgotten the conversation until we caught sight of Felice’s work. It is certainly striking, but its fair to say we were all a bit baffled.

 

Once inside the gates, it is a maze of winding streets packed full of bars, restaurants and shops, as well as a fabulous cathedral and Chateau.

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Inside the cathedral

Needless to say, it was thronging with visitors but we did manage to find a couple of spots to enjoy the atmosphere over a beer. After a little more fossicking we began wandering back to Doris for dinner.

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Watching out for marauders

Taking a different route back down, Helen discovered the spot where the yellow stripes lined up and suddenly it all made sense.

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Eccentric Concentric Circles – Felice Varini

It was the last evening that Simon and Helen were with us and it felt like a particularly special end to a wonderful week.

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Night time view from Doris

After saying our goodbyes in the morning at the railway station (conveniently located a couple of hundred metres from our mooring), we wandered dejectedly back to Doris to get on with some chores. Vacuuming and laundry for me, engine work for Cy. Once we had completed them, I threw some bread and cheese into a bag for a picnic lunch. We found a lovely shady bench in an area of parkland close to the river Aude. Then we had another quick walk around La Cité.

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Inspecting the handiwork

I couldn’t resist the adjoining cemetery but this was a bit much for Cy who scuttled off somewhere/anywhere else.

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Some of the previous inhabitants

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I wasn’t the only visitor

The boat next to us, Olivia Jane, was owned by a couple we had met a few days earlier – Michael and Mary-Jane, and they had invited us for drinks that evening. We had a great time swapping boaty tales and sampling their home-made cider. It was to be the first of a number of such evenings…

We loved our time in Carcassonne but we were ready to move on the next morning. I went up to the lock to arrange for it to be opened for us, only to be told that the next one was not operational. This information was duly reported to the captain and shared with our neighbours. Michael went off to scout the next stretch on his bicycle and found a wonderful mooring with space for two boats halfway between the locks, outside a small Gite. Olivia Rose formed the advance party and we followed on a bit later. It was indeed a beautiful spot, although very hot, so we had a bit of a lazy afternoon.

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Olivia Rose and Doris

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Great spot and only a few km from the city!

It transpired that, with the exception of the single lock in Carcassonne, none of the others were operating due to strike action.

The day after the strike was going to be very busy so we didn’t rush in the morning, planning to get going at around 11. As we were preparing to leave we were delayed by another engine cooling problem, so by the time we reached the first lock there was quite a queue. There was no way we were going to get through before the midday closure! Oh well. The weather was lovely, so a spot of lunch and a natter with our fellow boaters and we were soon on our way. The day was punctuated with lock queues – common on the Midi in the summer but much more so than we had experienced thus far.

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Wait in line please…

It quietened down later in the day and we decided to stop for the night just beyond the lock at the hamlet of Beteille, on a small wooden jetty. The lock keeper had pointed it out when I asked him about a suitable place.

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For an overnight mooring, it was another delightfully quiet spot and I enjoyed a pleasant evening stroll before we had dinner outside. It had been an exciting and very sociable few days, now it was just us and Doris again.

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Towpath in the evening sun

 

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12th-18th May. Sete to La Redorte

Saturday 12th May – the day we were to enter the famous Canal du Midi. Getting from the marina in Sete to the canal involved traversing the short maritime canal section through the town interspersed with a series of lifting bridges and then crossing the Etang du Thau (a large, shallow lake of brackish water).. We left the marina shortly after 9am and motored off towards the first bridge. The bridges are only lifted twice a day at fixed times and even then only by prior arrangement. The prior arrangement in this case had been me asking the lady in the marina office and being assured she would mention it to her colleague, the bridgekeeper, when she saw him next. Understandably, we had some reservations (we had some misunderstandings in a similar situation last year) but were reassured to join a group of about half a dozen other boats all waiting for the same thing. The first two bridges lifted on time and through we went, headed round the corner and waited for the next set of three to be lifted. It took a while – which may have been due to the very long freight train crossing the rail bridge.

Eventually, at almost 11am, we were on the Etang – it was close to 10 nautical miles to motor across past rows of oyster and mussel farms to the canal entrance.

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It’s fair to say that the first section of the Canal du Midi was not at all what we expected – it was reminiscent of a muddy Essex creek complete with abandoned boats.

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First section of Canal du Midi

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One of many sunken boats

The Canal du Midi is a pretty amazing piece of engineering – it was started in 1667 and opened in 1681 and linked with the Garonne River to provide a continuous route between the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Many of the original structures are still in place and it is distinctive for its oval shaped locks. The man with the plan was Pierre Paul Riquet who, despite significant difficulties in terms of the engineering itself as well as political and financial, managed to oversee the project which has now operated without interruption since its opening. Apparently he died just six months prior to the opening. His name lives on though – just about every town or village along the length of the waterway has a road named after him!

The first of these oval locks was about 5km in – we approached with a little trepidation, despite going through over 400 last year, the oval locks were a new challenge for us. There was a queue of hire boats already waiting to go in, so we had a short delay and then locked through alone. Once out, we spotted a decent mooring place and called it quits for the day. So far, so good. The mooring turned out to be quiet and peaceful although there wasn’t much around.

The next day was accompanied by drizzly rain so Cy rigged a tarpaulin to keep the water off the windscreen before we left. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the lock at Agde. This one is particularly exciting, being round and having three entrances, two for the canal and one down to the river Herault and the sea! Cy dropped me off and I scampered up to speak with Mme. L’eclusier; there was one boat already inside and we would be able to go in as soon as they came out. Once inside we were slightly confused as the lock descended (we had assumed it would be uphill just like the last – we were going from the sea into the hills, after all) and wondered if I had inadvertently miscommunicated. Anyway, one of the gates opened and out we went, still on the canal, rather than accidentally heading back out onto the Med!

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Agde round lock

There was a fabulous farm stall right by the lock so we did a quick provisions stop to stock up on fruit, veg, eggs and wine; the 4 main food groups. We stopped for the night just beyond the next lock by the village of Portiragnes. A quick explore revealed a small, well kept village and the location of the all-important boulangerie ready for the morning.

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Portiragnes

After breakfast we departed for Beziers – a journey of 10km including 3 locks. We wanted to arrive fairly early in the day to ensure getting a place in the port as our dear friends Simon and Helen were flying out to join us for a few days. The port was very efficiently run – even meeting us in the lock to assign a mooring place.

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Moored in the port at Beziers

The showery weather continued with the added delights of further leaky windows and a failure of the heating and hot water system! I left Cy swearing and headed off for a preliminary investigation of Beziers and re-stocking of supplies ready for the arrival of our extra crew members. Simon and Helen arrived around 5pm and we enjoyed a fantastic (if slightly blurry) evening catching up.

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Cheers!

The skies cleared the next morning after a brief shower but left fairly gusty winds – up to 40 mph at times. Cy still had a bit more work to do to get the hot water system operating whilst protecting Doris from hire boat parking manouevres. We stood aghast as one came off a mooring at high speed and at such an angle as to nearly take out our bow! Fortunately Cy saw it coming and with the aid of a fender and boat hook managed to minimise the impact…

Leaving the captain on board, sharpening his boat hook and casting incantations over the heater, the crew headed up to the old city of Beziers. The place has some interesting history including the sack of Beziers in 1209 in which several thousand people were massacred as part of a religious crusade (Albigensian Crusade) declared by the pope to eliminate Catharism in the Languedoc region.

 

The erstwhile crew returned to Doris later in the day to the news that the captain had managed to repair the hot water system and showers were now available. Hurray!

We left the port the following day (Wednesday 16th). There was quite a wait for the first lock and after that we crossed the canal bridge and reached the Fonserannes staircase – quite a marvel, especially considering it was designed and built in the 1600’s. It consists of seven locks (originally 8) and ascends over 20m. Helen and I went ashore to catch lines and Simon and Cy stayed on board.

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Doris, Cy and Simon in the lock staircase

The turbulence created by the locks filling can be significant and seemed to be greater in these oval locks than any that we experienced last year, making Doris quite difficult to handle.

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The lock filling

Being a lightweight sailing boat with two hulls, the flow sometimes gets between the hulls and pulls her, with force, across the lock. There is also the overhanging mast to worry about. It is better by far to be at the back of the lock but not always possible depending on the order of arrival of boats. In the final lock of the seven, Simon’s rope jammed meaning he could not hold the bow close to the wall and poor Doris was wedged across the lock grinding into the boat next to her. No harm done thankfully but an anxious few minutes for all. Conversely, the hire boats seem to have none of these problems and sit very happily regardless of the flow.

There was a nice place to tie up when we got to the top so we stopped for lunch and a bit of a chance to recover.

A couple of hours and glasses of wine later and off we set again; stopping just short of the Malpas Tunnel and moored to the bank using the stakes Simon had made us before we left the previous year.

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Moored to the bank using stakes

By now the weather was glorious and we wandered off to have a look at the tunnel and up the hill to the Oppidum of Enserune.

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Malpas tunnel

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The tunnel was one of the major obstacles in the building of the canal. Works were stopped when they reached the mountain here due to the very brittle sandstone encountered and the kings emissary was sent to Paris for further instructions. In the meantime, Riquet along with his master mason secretly tunnelled through and proved it could be done before the king could change his mind. This decision was based on the fact that a small tunnel already existed through the mountain to drain a wetland area for agriculture – the Etang de Montady. This older culvert was dug in 1270 and the company that was set up for the initial drainage works is still operating today, ensuring it remains clear.

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Etang de Montardy showing star-shaped pattern of drainage channels

The Oppidum d’Enserune is an ancient hill town which has been excavated and also houses a museum displaying some of the finds. The excavations have revealed extensive remains of the town and the museum is packed with all kinds of treasures. Mostly grave goods of jewellery and pottery some of which was used for storing large amounts of grain underground in the porous rock.

Between the tunnel, the Oppidum and the Etang de Montady with its star shaped drainage system, it was a brilliant afternoon and even some lovely flowers and wildlife to see.

 

Even the captain enjoyed the on-shore experience but that may have had more to do with the Magnums served from a van just below the town…

 

This stretch has almost 50km without a lock so we headed off early the next day to take advantage – 6:20 am to be precise. The locks on the Canal du Midi open between 9am and 7pm and are closed for an hour for lunch. This means that navigation can be slow, definitely part of its charm but our crew needed to be in Carcasonne by the weekend so it made sense to complete the lock-free section in a single day if possible. Just after 7 we arrived at a lovely little village called Poilhes at which the crew searched unsuccessfully for a boulangerie for breakfast.

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Lovely mooring at Poilhes

Capestang was our next stop where breakfast was successfully procured and enjoyed sitting on the deck in the sunshine.

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Typical view in this section of canal

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Approaching Capestang

It was a lovely town to wander around too.

Lunch was at Le Somail where we were passed by a barge carrying a group of schoolkids playing live samba music, very entertaining.

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Le Somail

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Samba-barge

After lunch, we all endured a mirthless trudge to the out of town supermarket for groceries and fuel before setting off again. Our overnight mooring was the village of Roubia where we sampled a cold beer from one of the bars before returning to Doris for dinner.

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Simon and Helen and Doris

Roubia had a decent grocery store/cafe/boulangerie very close to the canal so that was breakfast taken care of and we departed shortly after 9. Many of the locks in this area have little kiosks attached selling souvenirs and one even advertised onions and salad. On enquiry, the very friendly gentleman sprinted off to his garden on the opposite side of the canal and picked a couple of lettuces and onions for us for the grand sum of 1 euro!

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Waiting for the lock to open

After the obligatory lunch stop and a couple more locks we arrived at the town of La Redorte to take on water and grab a few groceries. We initially planned to carry on further for the day with the intention of reaching Carcassonne on Saturday, however after a crew conference over cold beer, it was decided that it would be preferable to allow an extra day for travelling and arrive on Sunday instead.

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Looking back down the canal at La Redorte

This being the case, it was no longer necessary to move any further so we settled into La Redorte for the evening. As the supermarket was fairly close another fuel run was completed before enjoying dinner on board and a beautiful sunset.

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The crew still working…

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End of the evening

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5th -11th May. Cargese to Sete.

So, third time lucky for our departure from Corsica. At 10 am on the 5th May, after the usual round of preparations – filling water tanks, engine checks, navigational details checked etc, Doris and crew left the very lovely harbour at Cargese and headed North North West towards Cassis.

Conditions were considerably calmer than previously, the downside being that it was necessary to use the engines for a significant portion of the journey, although we did manage some sailing during the afternoon. As usual on a long passage, we worked to a ‘watch’ system, essentially taking it in turns to get some rest. The night time portion of the journey was straightforward. Looking back at our logbook, there were a dozen or so vessels spotted that we had to monitor. This is done by using a hand-bearing compass and recording the bearing/angle every 5 minutes or so. If it doesn’t change significantly, there is a risk of collision… It isn’t compulsory to have a log-book and record this information, but would be helpful in the event of anything going wrong and a subsequent investigation. It does also help to pass the time through the long night watches! Recording position every hour is also prudent, it is very easy to rely on electronic navigational equipment but good to have a rough idea where you are in case of malfunction.

It looked like our ETA at Cassis would be in the early evening (Sunday 6th May) – refuelling was a priority (because of all the piggin motoring – Cy) and being a Sunday, we weren’t certain that this would be possible at that time. After a bit of scrabbling throught the pages of our pilot book a slightly closer alternative destination was chosen. We arrived at the huge marina of Badnol on the south coast of France at around 16:30 to be greeted with the news that their fuel station was out of order. After enduring my butchering of the French language for a minute or two, the marina manager indifferently suggested I speak in English and directed us to a nearby marina. So we threw off our lines and headed in the direction of Sanary-sur-Mer. It was smaller but had a place for one night and a working fuel station. Our arrival was very close to office closing time, so after being shown to our berth I headed to the office to complete the formalities whilst Cy sorted out our fuel cans and brought them over. The chap was very jovial and helpful and for some reason very keen that I knew where the showers were – we’d only been at sea for about 36 hours! He took us to the fuel pumps with our cans just before he got on his bike to go home. At this point we realised that they were 24 hour self-service pumps and we could easily have tied alongside before heading off in the morning. Oh well.

After taking the hint and completing our ablutions we wandered into town. It is quite a lovely place with plenty of traditional fishing vessels in great condition to look at. There was a Rose wine festival going on during the day but unfortunately all the tents were closing as we arrived, although the festival atmosphere was evident. Pink flags and streamers festooned streets, bars, restaurants and boats. Typically, it also started raining once we set foot on shore. We had a bit of a mooch around and being pretty tired soon retired to Doris with a take away pizza and a couple of cans of lager – fine fare indeed.

 

The town of Sete is roughly 100 nautical miles along the coast from Sanary-sur-Mer. Ideally, we would have done the trip in stages but looking at the weather the wind was due to start gusting like crazy from the Rhone Delta from Tuesday afternoon onwards. Not an unusual occurrence but would have made it almost impossible for us to get there – with this in mind we decided to take advantage of the window and left promptly the next morning to head straight there.

One of the things we had wanted to do was see one or two of the calanques (essentially a huge slit in the cliffs) on the next section of coast so it seemed a good idea to trundle in for a look even though we wouldn’t be able to fit in an overnight stop. This was by far the busiest stretch of coast we had seen for a while and as we passed Cassis the superyacht ‘Skyfall’ overtook us.

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‘Skyfall’

I couldn’t resist a bit of internet research; it turns out she is currently on the market. At $31,500,000 she is probably slightly out of our price range but does come with a helipad to make it easy for friends to visit. We doddled into the Calanque d’En Vau mid-morning and it was spectacular but heaving with yachts and trip boats roaring in and out. Magnificent to have seen but we weren’t that upset at missing the opportunity to stay for a length of time.

Once past Marseille, there were a lot less yachts about, just a few tankers heading in and out of the oil terminals along the coast. Their speed changes quite rapidly as they leave/approach port so much use was made of the hand bearing compass,squawk alarm and AIS. All very useful in keeping us out of their way.

The night sail was memorable for a baby bird flying inside the boat and hiding. Cy managed to catch it and put it to bed in a bowl with a towel over the top. Another more mature bird, settled into the rigging to roost.

Our arrival in Sete was due for about 5am which was a bit too early as it’s much easier to come in during daylight, so we slowed down and hung around close to the port for a while. As dawn broke, we thought we should wake our guests. The older bird flew away happily but the baby one was still a bit dozy. I gave it a bit of water and soaked bread in a jam jar lid, however all it did was sit in the water. We headed into port as soon as there was enough light. The layout was different to our book and charts but working on the assumption that the outermost berths are the ones reserved for visitors, we tied up. The next time we checked on our baby bird, it had unfortunately met its demise and was lying on its’s back with it’s legs in the air, an ex-baby bird… It received a solemn burial at sea (well, in the harbour).

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The one that got away

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and the one that didn’t

 

The obvious thing would have been to go to bed but knowing that heavy winds were expected, Cy wanted to get on with lowering the mast. The preparation took most of the day and by the time we were ready the gusts had arrived in force. This certainly added an extra frisson to our diy endeavours. To add to the fun, we got about a third of the way down and realised some of the rigging was too tight so had to heft it back up again to adjust. By the time we had finished completely with the mast down, moved into position and fully secured, it was almost 11pm. Needless to say, we slept well that night.

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Mast down, but not yet shuffled forward into stowage position

After the exertions of the previous day, we thought we’d take it easy and have a wander around Sete (Sarah calls this a day off??!). The day was sunny but as predicted, the wind was howling! Walking along the pontoon towards the exit we met an English couple, Chris and Katie, who lived on their boat. They were extraordinarily friendly and welcoming and as they were heading into town themselves, gave us a bit of a tour which was wonderful and also invited us for nibbles and drinks later. They are both great cooks and really knowledgable about local products and specialities. Oysters are farmed locally so are relatively inexpensive and Chris said he would get some for Cy.

We returned to Doris having had a good look round Sete and very much looking forward to the evening.

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Cruise ship in Sete harbour

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Sete canals

The wind was still howling and blowing straight into the boat through the stern. We had Doris parked stern-to the pontoon so Cy could access the top of the mast as there was still a little more work to do. Unfortunately, the gales put so much pressure on our canvas door that it tore the zip fabric. A hasty temporary repair was stitched in but meant it could only be unzipped halfway (the bottom half…).

We headed round to Chris and Katie’s boat and enjoyed a fabulous evening in their company – what super hosts, thank you guys and the oysters were a particular treat for Cy. Their kindness didn’t stop there and they offered to help us sort out a repair the next day. Katie thought she may be able to do something on her machine, otherwise the daughter of a man that lived on the boat next door but one is a seamstress and would definitely be able to sort it.

Cy took down the canvas the following morning and Chris was able to sort out the repair with his neighbour. It would be done the next day, the zip replaced at a cost of 30 euros. This was a massive relief to us, to have it sorted so easily and for such a reasonable price!

With the door repaired we were able to start planning the next stage of our journey – the Canal du Midi. Leaving the port at Sete requires a sequence of bridges being lifted which is only possible by prior arrangement and at certain times. We were aiming for Saturday morning and the lady in the marina office agreed to get it arranged for us. The rest of the day was taken up with bits and pieces – shopping and some final tidying up of the mast arrangement.

Friday the 11th was laundry and fettling day. In addition, we had to buy our ‘vignette’ for the canals (a bit like road tax for the French inland waterways). You can buy it online but need to print it out and display it in the boat. The marina office were unable to help as their computer system was down so I headed into town to throw myself on the mercy of the ladies in the tourist information office. They could have not been more helpful! We collected our repaired canvas in the evening from a bar behind the fish market, then we were all set to head inland back into the French canal system the following morning; barring any mishaps…

 

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27th April – 4th May. Liscia, Sardinia – Cargese, Corsica

Our planned early start was somewhat hampered by thick fog in Liscia Bay but by 7:30 it had cleared sufficiently for me to heave up the anchor so we could get going; out into the Straits of Bonifacio which is the gap between Sardinia and Corsica. Once clear of the bay the wind picked up and by our sedate standards we flew across, encountering a vessel or two on the way.

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Symphony of the Seas

Doris was doing so well that we decided to seize the advantage and continued further north than initially planned. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake as it meant we missed out on Bonifacio which is supposed to be a pretty amazing port set into a narrow gorge, or calanque. It does give us an excuse to go back though….

We headed up the west side of Corsica and by teatime reached Porto Pollo which is tucked in a bay about a quarter of the way up the island. Porto Pollo has a significant amount of mooring buoys for visitors which looked new and well maintained, there were only a couple of other boats there so we had plenty of choice. Only one snag – when the wind changed direction and dropped, Doris ended up sailing over it – the dimensions were perfect to fit between the hulls and start banging on the underside. Noisy, annoying and clearly not good for Doris but Cy was able to do some magic with fenders and adjusting lines to stop it and we could relax and sleep well.

The next day was Saturday 28th – another early start was planned (mainly to get away before anyone came to collect a mooring fee) Much to Cy’s delight there was a soft breeze, allowing us to quietly sail off the mooring without needing to wake the girls (use the engines/wake the port authorities!).

The conditions were calm but there were a few spells with enough breeze to sail and the visibility was good allowing us to fully appreciate this dramatic section of coastline. Just before lunch we passed safely between the Iles Sanguinaires (Bloodthirsty Islands) so named for the ships that didn’t quite make it through…

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The intended destination was Cargese. As usual, there was a bit of trepidation prior to arrival – will there be space for us, what will the harbour be like and so on. It turned out to be a wonderful spot. Mooring was stern-to which we are now well practised at. In Greece, generally it is necessary to drop your anchor out in the harbour then reverse up to the quay to tie the stern. In Italy and France, most of the ports have heavy lines secured to the sea floor with chains which you pick up and use to secure your bow rather than needing the anchor and this was the case here. By 16:30 we were all sorted; there was even a working electricity and water supply!

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Inside Cargese harbour

Cargese is an interesting and beautiful place. The town was given to Greek settlers at some point in its history and consequently has two large churches, one Greek and one Latin, facing each other across the cliffs.

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The Greek church

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Both churches above the harbour (taken on a different day hence the change in weather!)

It is perched atop the hillside (notable to us for its decent SPAR). Getting there involves a steep walk past a cemetery and swathes of roadside wildflowers – nasturtiums and poppies adding vibrant red and orange colours. Fabulous.

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Cargese harbour from the hill – Doris is on the left 

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I love a good cemetary

The evening turned out to be fun, swapping stories with a young lad, Antoine, from the boat next to us. In a twist on the teenage gap year, he had finished school the previous year and decided to buy a sailing boat. He managed to run a crowdfunding campaign to buy her and has paying crew on board to finance his travels. A two week sailing course to get a bit of know how and the necessary qualifications and off he went. Now into his second season on board, Antoine is heading to the Black Sea.

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Antoine and his crew departing

Sunday was spent doing a bit more meandering, a few jobs and planning the crossing to France. This consists of Cy poring over a number of weather reports and apps all reporting different things. In the end we thought we’d give it a go and left Cargese at 6am on Monday 30th April. As usual, when we were undertaking a long passage and would be outside of mobile phone and VHF shore range, Cy emailed our passage plan to his dad, John. Poor John then has the responsibilty of raising the alarm if we dont reappear back within communication range at roughly the expected time. Initially, things went well, but after a couple of hours, it became apparent that the wave heights were more than myself and Doris could cope with for 24+ hours.

Neither of us respond particularly well to much of a sea state – for me, its the dreaded seasickness, for Doris, being a small catamaran of older design, she slams down into large waves which is at best uncomfortable but also runs the risk of causing damage. The decision was made to alter course downwind (which stops the slamming and the retching). Cy rigged the sails in a style called ‘goose-winging’ which is basically one sail sticking out on each side and we hung on for the ride. The change of course had us heading north, so Calvi seemed like the ideal place to head for and we screamed in during the early afternoon. It wasn’t the easiest arrival, between getting the sails down, not crashing into rocks and parking in heavy winds, but we were safe and well.

Calvi is quite an imposing place when arriving by boat, it is dominated by a huge fort that even Nelson didn’t dare attack directly from the sea. The Citadel is open to freely wander around and contains a few restaurants and shops, a cathedral and a French Foreign Legion garrison. It had been a long and challenging day, so we found a reasonably priced restaurant and treated ourselves.

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Calvi town and harbour from the Citadel

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Doris is in there somewhere

After a good night’s sleep, next on the agenda was looking for another weather window for a crossing. It wasn’t looking promising, but we tentatively planned to head off in the late afternoon. It was the 1st May which was when the high season in Calvi marina started, so we were keen to get away if possible. We were all prepped and set to go, but it was very marginal anyway with differing weather forecasts and the weather we observed coincided with the worst of the forecasts. Prudence left us resigned to sitting it out for a few days and waiting for calmer conditions.

Once again, things didn’t go quite the way we anticipated. The next morning, a dreadful swell started rolling into the harbour. Generally, the visitors moorings are in the least protected part of the harbour and Calvi was no exception. It was really horrible with Doris surging forward and then snatching on her lines every few seconds. It was completely untenable and without time to work up a proper plan, we got the heck outta there. I did manage to get a photo of the Citadel this time!

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As before, we turned downwind, although in stronger winds and a bigger sea so much less sail.

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Bit scary, but impressive

Initially we thought we may find an anchorage, but everything that looked possible on the chart didn’t sound safe when reading the details in our pilot book. This left returning to Cargese as the best option and turned out to be a good call. It was quite a challenging sail for me and my first experience of a large wave breaking on the boat – it caught her starboard quarter (right side, back corner) and gave us a bit of a roll. With my sailing experience being limited to my time on Doris, this wasn’t something I was used to and was a tad unnerved. We were hugely relieved to get back to Cargese and find calm and protected conditions with room for us once again. A much better option for waiting a few days for a weather window.

The next couple of days went quickly. The windows had started leaking again (should’ve listened to Kev) and the hot water system had ceased to work so a bit of maintenance and housekeeping, as well as provisioning and checking weather reports kept us both occupied.

Corsica had proved easy to arrive to but more difficult to leave! However, the weekend was looking good and Friday 4th May was planned to be our last night in Cargese, with a third attempt scheduled for Saturday morning.

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