Tuesday 25th August to Tuesday 31st August
The leaves of the plane trees lining either side of the canal were already turning golden as we walked up the towpath to Désormais, which we had left a hundred yards or so up the Garonne canal from the port at Meilhan. We had left the boat here for two months, and because we were not in the port proper, therefore having no services, there had been no charges.
We noticed as we walked past other boats which had been left there for summer, that they were covered in a shiny and hard brown resin which had leached from the plane trees. We know from experience that this can be very difficult to remove, and we normally would leave the elements to remove it for us. We were lucky though, we had found a clearing a bit further up the canal and the effects of the resin were minimal at that point. The cobwebs, however, were just as prolific as ever, and the windows and paintwork were very dirty.
After unloading some gear, I walked back to the port to be ready to take the ropes, whilst Neville reversed the boat back down the canal to the pontoons, where he turned it round so we were facing east. During the next few days we had lots of jobs to do, changing the engine oil, relaying carpet tiles in the wheelhouse, cleaning and general maintenance. Whilst we were there, and under the shade of the plane trees, the resin did begin to accumulate on the boat, but we were hopeful it would wear off when we got some persistent rain.
We had hoped that the worst of the hot weather would be over, but no – the very first day the temperatures hit 41 deg F. Way too hot for me.
One evening we went up to the Night Market in the village. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be simply a food market, stalls selling hot snails in sauce, whitebait type fish, salads, lamb steaks, sausages, chips and of course wine and beer. The whole village turned out, together with quite a lot of expats too, and we all sat at long trestle tables. Quite a good evening. The locals seem to tolerate the resident expats very well. There was music and dancing and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
We went shopping to Marmande a couple of times to stock up on our food, and we used, for the first time, the new gas barbecue that we had brought from England. We cooked some chicken on it and it was beautifully tender.
Lily Ann was behind us in the port, and later Dunvegan came in too. Min’Ute was there, with a brand new puppy.
Wednesday 1st September
We left Meilhan, heading east, just before 9.00am to await the opening of the first lock. It was good to be underway again, and we had no real problems with the boat. We stopped at Mas d’Agenais to try to get bread, but just missed the shops, which had closed at 12.30. We carried on to Villeton and ate that evening in the restaurant near the quay again, our third time there. I had confit de canard, which is basically a ducks leg, with garlic potatoes and Neville had prawns. The waitress forgot to bring us glasses for our wine, and being unable to catch her attention we took some from an empty table. Then she forgot to bring cutlery for our meal. Great stuff. I hate it when waiters are over-attentive!
Thursday 2nd September
We cruised on to Buzet, finding Roger and Kath in Vertrouwen moored there outside the
restaurant. We had intended to go a bit further on to the boat hire marina where we could get internet, but it was full when we got there. There were no spaces within internet range, and since Roger had told us as we passed that they now had internet up at the restaurant mooring, we turned round and cruised back up the canal. In the evening we had Roger and Kath round for drinks.
Friday 3rd September
Went up to the vineyard at the top of the hill to stock up on wine, with Kath and Roger in their landrover. Quite a help that, as it can be difficult on the bikes with heavy boxes of wine.
Tonight the four of us went to Le Vigneron, one of our favourite restaurants. We really do like Le Vigneron, and if we have any complaint at all, it is that they tend to bring the courses too quickly. We had to ask them to hold off at a couple of points. Afterwards we strolled back down to the moorings, got a little table and some chairs out, and had a final drink with them on the quay beside their boat. A lovely clear and starry night, and we could see the Milky Way more clearly than I’ve ever seen it before. There’s just a hint of a nip in the air around ten o’clock now.
Saturday 4th September
We said goodbye to Roger and Kath, and set off about ten-ish making it to Serignac before lunch. At first we had to breast up with a cruiser, but then a hire boat went off after lunch and we were able to get a proper mooring against the pontoon. Went into town on the bikes for some bread and a bit of shopping. Serignac is a lovely little town, another of the ‘bastides’ (walled towns) that are so frequently encountered in this part of France. There is a well-stocked shop not far from the moorings, which now has a boulangerie at the entrance.
Sunday 5th September
Got up early to be at the locks at Agen by the time they opened, and made our way down the cutting, through a drifting early morning mist. The locks had opened up with a fault and we were held up at the foot of the rise for about an hour. The locks were much more turbulent than we remembered, and it was hard to control the boat. Perhaps it was because we were sharing a lock and so much further forward than the other times. Because of the positioning of the bollards, which would have made it difficult for us and the other boat to moor on the same side of the lock, we moved to the opposite side, leaving them to use the control box to start the locking cycle.
At the next to the last lock the lockie came up and advised me that we should be on the other side of the lock, by the control box, for the last lock which was really forceful. He explained that the vannes in the gate on the same side as the control box open first, and quickly, so that probably explains why we were experiencing such turbulence (ie the water was hitting the wall on the same side as us and forcing the bow of our boat out). The couple we were sharing with had little boating experience, and because of the positioning of the bollards, we had been trying to make things easier for them by going on the opposite side of the lock.
The lock indeed was turbulent, and it was all I could do to control the ropes even though we had done as he advised. As ever, there was a crowd of gongoozlers, who trailed us from one lock to the next, the more so when they heard the lockie warn us about the force of the last one!
Stopped at Boe, where we managed to get electricity and I did some washing. A very very hot day! We ended up in the bedroom below with the aircon going for most of the afternoon.
Monday 6th September
A very overcast morning when we first got up. We cruised to Val d’Agen where to our surprise we managed to get an unsecured internet connection. It’s quite a nice village, though nothing was open as usual, because it was a Monday. Later in the day the huge hotel boat Rosa arrived, and it looked as though she had been hoping to moor where we were. Fortunately another big barge on the other side invited them to breast up. A great thunderstorm overnight.
Tuesday 6th September
Went to the market in the morning. The usual French market, great looking fruit and vegetables. Not a very varied one though. We were moored only a few yards up from the local abbatoir, and I hoped that it wouldn’t be in use during our stay – that might have been a bit more than I could bear.
Wednesday 7th September
Set off mid morning and reached Malouse by lunchtime. A friendly French man on the boat next to us helped us moor, and once we were settled took the opportunity to get us to sign his petition for VNF to take action against people speeding on the waterways. It looked like they were live-aboards, so they must get pretty fed up of people powering past them and rocking their boat. During the afternoon he returned to our boat on several occasions to give us magazines, all in French. If I’d been able to speak better French, I think we could have had a fruitful conversation with him, he seemed like an interesting guy.
Thursday 8th September
Set off early and made it to Castelsarrasin just after lunch, having been held up by a faulty lock on the flight between Moissac and Castelsarrasin. There were also two locks out of automatic action just after Moissac, but a lockie took us through manually. We met very friendly lockies today, made a nice change.
We decided to stay at Castelsarrasin until at least Monday. It’s very cheap here, 14 euros for four nights including electricity and water.
We decided we would catch the train to Meilhan to pick up the car tomorrow. Still not sure what we would do with it for the next leg of the journey though. Probably take a chance on leaving it in Castelsarrasin again.
Friday 9th September
If today had been my first day in France, I may well have decided not to come back here!
We had a walk round the town this morning looking for somewhere to park the car when we leave, and we identified a few places which we would just need to keep checking out over the next few days to make sure nobody holds a market in any of these places during the week!
Some kind of agricultural show set up across the basin, and they started building a bandstand and cat walk. It turned out later that there was a fashion show scheduled for the evening.
After lunch we strolled across to the station with half an hour to spare before our train to Agen, from where we would change to get to Marmande. There was a long queue for the ticket office, with a guy, probably a trainee from the look of him, dispensing tickets……every now and then….. Most of the time he was staring at the computer screen in complete mystification, whilst a supervisor hung over his shoulder, anxiously keeping an eye on the steadily growing queue. For a small town, this station does a lot of business! I think there is an army camp close by, and there were lots of soldiers going home on weekend leave.
Every now and then, as a train was due, the supervisor would call people in the queue forward for that train, and either give them priority for a ticket or a stamped permit for them to get on the train without a ticket if there were only moments to go before its arrival.
Time ticked by…it was very hot inside the waiting room. People got angry, the supervisor took over the ticket issuing and eventually we reached the front of the queue. Our procedure was simple enough, but I put the wrong code in for my credit card (so great was my anxiety by this time…. one minute to the train arrival). Neville, who can run faster than I, stayed to pick up the ticket and collect my credit card whilst I rushed through the subway under the track to see the train pulling up. People piled on, and I hovered anxiously at the top of the steps until Neville came flying up and we launched ourselves onto the train.
Once on the train, we searched for a seat together. Sometimes people can be so arrogant, lots of them were sitting on the aisle seats with a spare seat next to them with a bag on it. And one guy, who Neville finally decided to pick on, was sitting there with a huge bag across the two seats opposite him. Neville insisted he move his bag, heavy though it was, onto the luggage rack, and we sat down, to spend the rest of the journey fielding dirty looks from this said young man.
Eventually we arrived at Agen, with half an hour to spare before our connecting train to Marmande. We got a seat on there without a problem, but when we arrived at the other end there were only two taxis there. The driver of the first taxi asked us where we wanted to go, and when we said Meilhan, he shook his head, indicated the taxi behind and just drove off with no passengers. The taxi behind had no driver, and no-one in sight who looked like a driver. We waited for 15 minutes for him to return, and then Neville went to the main road to try to hail a cab (no luck) and I asked a bus driver if there were any buses to Meilhan. There was one, an hour and a half later!
Then the first taxi driver came back with a passenger, and we realised he had been looking for a fare to pay for his journey to pick up this passenger, and we were not going in the right direction for him. Eventually he took us to Meilhan, without saying a word to us.
Our car, which was parked up at the port, was fine, though covered in sticky resin from the plane trees. After a cool drink at the port bar, we drove back to Castelsarrasin.
During the evening the fashion show on the catwalk on the other side of the basin started, after some very inexpert dancing on the part of some rather plump and ungainly young women. The music started to pound, the commentator started describing the clothes and on and on it went. We stayed up, as there was no way anyone could sleep, until eventually we went to bed at 11.30pm whereupon the moment we put the lights out, the music stopped. Perhaps they were waiting for us!
If you are thinking about mooring at Castelsarrasin, you need to be sure not to moor on the side closest to the function hall, on the opposite side to the port without first checking whether there are any ‘functions’ taking place. This is not the first time we’ve had problems with noise.
Saturday 11th September
With the benefit of the car, we went shopping at LeClerc and filled our jerry cans with diesel to fill up the boat. During the day, which was very hot, we wandered over to the ‘show’ that was taking place on the other side of the basin. There seemed to be lots of old tractors, lots of ‘working’ horses, (one of whom had rather distractedly drawn a canal boat along the basin to the accompaniment of tooting horns, which served only to add to his confusion), some fruit displays which didn’t appear to be for sale, and some wine and beer, which did. We didn’t stay long, long enough to stroke a horse’s muzzle (me) and examine the diesel engines on the tractors (Neville).
Around early evening it sounded like a lot of the exhibits across the basin were being taken away (engines roaring, diesel fumes etc) but we couldn’t see for the trees. Just when we thought that we were going to get some peace, a brass band started up across the basin. They played American marching tunes all through the evening until fortunately it got too cold, when they went into the hall to play their music.
Later on disco music started up and was roaring away even until 1.30am. Do the French never sleep?
Sunday 12 September
Went down to the boulangerie for the bread early. Our neighbours on the next boat set off early in clouds of blue smoke. They had moored near us at Malaus.
Monday 13 September – Thursday 16 September
We continued staying at Castelsarrasin, we like it so much there. We had no more problems with noise for the remainder of our stay.
There were lots of ducks on the basin, complete with two duck houses, and there was one white duck with grey speckles who is so tame he likes to be fed by hand off dry land. Every day he visited a tramp who would arrive and sit next to the bridge for his breakfast, which he kindly shared with the duck.
Over the next days, the duck got into the habit of waddling down the quay to our boat to continue his hand-feeding. He was quite gentle, and preferred to take the bread directly from your hand rather than from the quay. If you didn’t notice him arrive, he would give a quite distinctive chirp outside your door, until you open up. On our last night, when it was raining, I was feeding him from inside the boat, dropping the food down to him, but that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted the personal contact, and flew up at the open window to get to me. So I hastily went outside, getting drenched in the rain, so he could have the pleasure of personal feeding, and the occasional stroke of his neck and chest. Such a joy! What will he do tomorrow when we are gone?
We went to the market on our last morning. I bought a heap of potatoes, four courgettes, four onions, six tomatoes, and a lettuce. All for 2 euros! I couldn’t believe it when the stall holder told me the final tally. No wonder the French love their markets.
Later we shopped at the supermarket for our water, wine and milk. We were to set off again the next day after what had been a lovely eight days at Castelsarrasin. The Capitaine came to say goodbye tonight, she had been quite friendly this time. And there seems to be no problem about our leaving our car here for a few days until we can sort out or next relay to collect it. (That, however, is what we thought last time, until we discovered it had been towed away by the police.)
Friday 17th September
Whacky duck came for breakfast and to say goodbye first thing this morning, and seeing us taking the ropes off he flew up onto the wheelhouse roof. We were a bit worried he was intending to come with us!
I threw some biscuits out onto the quay to get him off the boat, and to distract him as we pulled away. When I glanced back, he was sitting on the quay, looking very forlorn at being deserted by his meal ticket and personal masseuse!
We made good progress through the three locks before the five riser at Montech and another one shortly after. The weather was quite nice, and fairly warm when you were at the locks.
We reached Dieupentale about 4.00pm by which time the weather had become more uncertain and it started to rain as we were mooring up. (Note that by 2011 a new wooden mooring stage has been constructed here, just east of the bridge).
Saturday 18th September
A very long day. We were up at 7.00am, still dark, and after a quick breakfast we were off about 7.45am. It’s a good way to the first lock, and it was a dank and murky morning with better weather behind us to the west. Gradually throughout the morning it caught up with us. When we got to the first lock, just like last year, the gates wouldn’t open. Last year, they said it was because we had taken the boat too close to the lock gates, so we were careful not to do that. But, as the lock slowly emptied the gates began to open, light flashing, klaxon sounding, just once, and then it stuck. Again. This time there was a female lockie in the house by the locks and she came out with her manual machine to try to operate the lock manually, with no success. She called a mechanic, and then after a ten minute delay the gates suddenly opened and we were on our way again.
It’s a long haul, this leg. We generally eat on the run, this time a toasted cheese sandwich which gave us both indigestion. We got through lock 5, the one where we had the snapped rope last year, without any significant problem. The last three locks on the run up to Toulouse are horrendous, deep, so deep it is quite difficult to throw rope up to the lock side. The last lock before the centre, possibly the deepest and with a bridge over for the gongoozlers, has some bollards set into the wall, but you have to be nifty about whipping your rope off and putting it onto the next higher bollard. There was already a yacht in the chamber, and the remote lock-keeper, who had seen us coming on the cctv, decided to wait for us. This meant, when we arrived, that this yacht had to move up the chamber, and, this gave him a problem with the spacing of the bollards. He ended up with a very long rope to each bollard, which gave him some problems once the lock began to fill as he was unable to control his boat very well.
But we made it, arriving at the port around 4.15, absolutely exhausted. The yacht we had shared the lock with promptly pinched the space on the pontoon that we had reserved, and Sylvianne was fairly quick to move them on, thankfully.
The moorings in Toulouse were crowded and we would have to move the next day to let a hotel boat into the space we were in, to use the pump out.
Toulouse is such a noisy city, sirens blaring, traffic roaring, and some kind of concert on a boat just down the port. There was a ‘comic’ band playing, who danced and mimed as they were playing, all orchestrated by a really zany conductor. Very amusing. Later I was glad we were having a rest for a day. Two days hard locking and I was totally exhausted.
Sunday September 19
A very nice relaxing day with good weather. We had to move the boat out and back to accommodate the trip boat who wanted to use the pump out facilities at 10.00am. We were going to go on the end of the pontoon where Artemis was, when she left, but there was some kind of parade of old working barges, which meant a lot of very heavy traffic up and down the basin.
We walked around the basin looking at the barges, some of which were extremely old, and most of which were very well maintained. A lot of these barges moor on the canal a bit further east of Toulouse.
There seems to be a bit of a nip in the air early evenings now.
Two nights mooring cost 38 euros! With electricity and free water.
Monday September 20
Up early and away by 7.50am. It was a good hour and a quarter to the first lock along the tree (and old clapped-out barge) lined Canal du Midi whilst the citizens of Toulouse cycled, strolled, bussed and drove on their way to work. The first lock was the first round one we have experienced this trip and it’s very, very deep, but not particularly violent.
There was quite a nip in the air this morning, though the forecast for the week was quite warm.
Stayed the night at Gardouche, first time we have ever managed to moor there! A pleasant mooring but no electricity available. Normally when we have come through here there is no space available.
Tuesday 21 September
Arrived at Port Lauragais just before lunchtime, and immediately took the bikes down to the railway halt (can’t really call it a station) where we were to catch the 12.06 train to Toulouse, catching a connection 30 minutes later to take us back to Castelsarrasin to pick up our car and bring it to our current location.
There was just a bus shelter type of structure next to the line, with a newly installed computer screen in it, which indicated the next five trains due to arrive, none of which was the one we were expecting, that we had identified from the internet! We were on the point of cycling back to the boat when a French family arrived and I queried it with them. They too had come for the train we wanted, so they rang up rail enquiries and were told that the screen must be wrong, the train was on its way. Such is technology! Every now and then the screen would burst into music and a voice would announce a train….. that never arrived!
No-one on the train came to take our money for tickets, so that leg of the journey was free. We caught the connection with time to spare, and safely picked up the car to bring it to Port Lauragais. We called at the railway halt for me to pick up my bike and follow the car back to the port, and then I drove Neville down to the halt for him to pick up his. It’s all logistics, this!
Wednesday 22nd September
Went out in the car to do some shopping. There is internet at this halt, but it was unusually temperamental this stay, and I had a lot of trouble getting a speedy connection.
Thursday 23rd September to Sunday 26th September
Still at Port Lauragais. Quite a relaxing time, though Neville did quite a lot of jobs on the boat. We watched the Singapore Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon.
Monday 27th September
Carried on with one more upward lock, and then having reached the summit we started to lock downwards. Much less hassle. You can cruise straight into the lock, lasso the bollard and just sit there. We locked down with a hireboater, who made hard work of it all, driving into the locks at full speed, and leaping off the boat instead of just lassoing the bollards.
Eventually we arrived at Castelnaudary, one of our favourite halts, and one where we know a great restaurant, and where we are staying for the winter. But not just yet!
Tuesday – Thursday 28 to 30 September.
Clive and Di from Harvink arrived Wednesday and it turned out that we are to rent the garage that they are just about to vacate. We invited them round for drinks Wednesday night before the two of us went out to Le Gondolier for dinner. The drinks and snacks with them were great, the meal out was awful.
The restaurant seemed to be undergoing some kind of crisis. The waiters kept saying the menu had changed and had little scraps of paper saying what was on offer, which they read out to you, so you didn’t have time to pour over the words to see what they might mean.
For safety, I chose steak which turned out to be the usual tough stuff the French often serve up in the name of steak, and Neville had chicken which was dry and stringy and kept him awake half the night. We were at a table right next to another table for two, and got involved in a conversation with a Canadian couple who were in their mid seventies and on a cycling holiday!
The Canadian ordered Cassoulet, the fatty, beany, sausagey, chickeny casserole they specialise in in this region. But the waiter forgot and they were kept waiting an hour. We had finished our meal by the time theirs came, obviously a microwaved dish and looking gruesome. We left before they finished, wishing them well.
Thursday 30th September
A fairly grey day and we stayed on the boat for most of the day, just going out for a walk in the afternoon.
Friday 1st October
We were off at the crack again, waiting for the staircase lock to open at 9.00am. The lockie was very tetchy with the hireboaters who accompanied us, because they were very slow. I think the woman had realised that it was too difficult for her to jump down off the boat (they can be quite high), and so she was having to steer the boat into the lock. She was very nervous and cautious.
We did a few locks with them, but then they stopped at a lock where there was a shop and we locked on alone. We arrived at Bram about 4.00pm, very tired for some reason. Not a bad mooring, and we managed to get a signal for the satellite
Saturday 2nd October
We were off early again, just getting light, and got through a couple of locks. Then the lock-keeper at the third lock told us that the next lock would not be open because of a ‘grève’. A lot of the French who work in the public sector were striking at odd intervals because Sarkozy was proposing to raise the retirement age and to cut pensions, and though we had heard rumours of a strike for this day, they had not been confirmed prior to leaving Castelnaudary, nor had any of the lockies we spoke to on Friday heard about it.
So we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in a one-horse village called Souzens. Nothing to do but sit it out, and there was a howling gale. We had to put something under the ropes, as they were gnawing away at the quayside with the movement of the boat.
Sunday 3rd October
We set off very early again and were waiting at the first lock (a double lock) when the lockie arrived. It was still blowing a gale, and we had some difficulty getting into the lock. We should have allowed the wind to take us to the other side of the lock and changed our ropes over, instead of struggling to get to the left hand side of the lock, which we prefer.
A few more locks in the gale force winds and then a longish haul into Carcassonne.
Monday 4th October to Sunday 10th October
It stayed windy most of the week, the winds forecast to be around 85kph. One day we caught the train to Narbonne. We had been planning to take the boat down there, but we were glad we hadn’t when we saw what it was like. There were loads of old boats moored up in the centre, no sign of life on board, and the city was really dirty, compared with when we last saw it about 18 months ago.
We wandered round the cathedral and the archbishops cloisters, took a stroll along the canal in the centre, had a hurried lunch in the central square before we caught the early afternoon train back to Carcassonne. We were glad we had decided not to take the boat down there.
As the week wore on, the winds persisted and then turned into torrential rain which was forecast to continue. There was a warning of floods. The rain continued incessantly.
So we decided that when the weather improved, which was not forecast until Tuesday we would turn round, head back to Castelnaudary, and go back to England early. So we should be back at Castelnaudary by about Wednesday or Thursday, and then it would be a question of watching the news for further strike action, which could affect our ferry arrangements.
Monday 11 October
Rained again all day. Getting really fed up now. The winds were still high and we got side swiped by a hire-boater who as usual was doing everything too fast. He was waiting for the lock and had nearly hit a couple of other boats as he gunned it backwards and forwards, and then we saw him heading for us with his bow at top speed. Neville sprang out of the wheelhouse and darted up the bow to fend him off with, which he successfully did, but that only caused the back to swing round at an alarming rate and hit us just where I was standing. Some embarrassed crewmember tried ineffectually to fend off, but was more concerned when a gust of wind took his hat off that at my rude rant at him.
Tuesday 12 October
Got up early ready to crack on to the first lock on our homeward journey, and then wham! A general strike. All day there were crowds, marches, vuvuzuela’s penetrating your eardrums, young people all hanging around enjoying a day off from whatever. The harbour was full of stranded boats, one or two going down the first lock here at Carcassonne, (when the lockie eventually turned up!) only to find that the next lock was not manned, so having to turn round.
One or two hireboaters must be on the point of having to return their boats, so they set off early evening to be at the first lock (the one we are going through) at first opening. We might well have to queue, even though we will set off at 8.15 to be there in plenty of time for their opening at nine. At least it was a sunny day, and we went out on the bikes in the afternoon, threading our way through the crowds of youngsters sitting on the canal sides below the lock.
We had a barbecue at the side of the boat – beefburgers and onions. Later a couple of girls came along supposedly asking for money for a children’s home in Carcassonne. They had a signature sheet, but no other credentials, and were a bit miffed when I refused to give until I saw a ‘carte d’identité’. You get a lot of this round here; it had happened in Castelnaudary too. And on both occasions the list of names on the signature sheet have all donated 20 euros!
Wednesday 13th October
A good day’s progress, overnighting at La Guerre which is a picturesque mooring above the lock where we have stayed before.
Thursday 14th – 19th October
We arrived at Castelnaudary, our winter mooring. The waterways were still open and would not close until 31st October, but we were fortunate enough to get our boat into its planned wintering berth. We didn’t get a chance to meet any of our fellow winter moorers as they were probably all still underway to Castelnaudary.
This winter, we have decided not to go to Spain, but to spend longer periods on the boat. We were to return during November for three weeks and then again in January for five weeks. We have central heating on the boat, and we didn’t anticipate any problems being on board during the colder weather.
So, the end of another year’s cruising. Another year in which we have learned a lot and renewed our acquaintance with the towns and villages along the Canal du Midi and the Canal Lateral a la Garonne. Next year we will take a final trip to say goodbye to this stretch and make our way back up the Rhone to central France.