The start of the season was marked by a beautiful, warm, practically cloudless day. There had been a heavy dew overnight, but we were pleased that the forecast for strong winds was not fulfilled. We were facing the bridge into the Grande Bassin of Castelnaudary, probably only 200 metres away, so not much time for Neville to hone his rusty boat-handling skills before lining up for the bridge-hole. Bob and Sue (Jane Louise), Jude (Nordester) and Moira (Clara Sark) were on the bridge to wave goodbye, or maybe to watch us make our first boating contact of the season!
The day before there had been a farewell party for all the winter-moorers, kindly hosted by Annie and Mark from the big barge Annie. Odile, the capitaine, had been presented with a coffee machine for the office for all that she had done for us during the winter. One or two people stayed on at the party, and were not out to say goodbye, for obvious reasons.
We locked alone all day, doing the quadruple locks at Castelnaudary followed by a double, a triple, and a further nine singles: 18 locks and 15 kilometres.
Despite our careful preparations prior to casting off, we forgot to put our flags out (English and French), retrieve my lightweight boat hook from the back cabin, and to unlock the lifebelt from its housing on the stern. Good start, yes, very rusty!
We moored up around 4pm at Bram. It’s a nice enough halte-nautique, with a big hire-boat base. Some time back they’d appeared to be putting electric/water bournes along one side, but work seems to have stopped. You can get a TV signal on the towpath side only when there are no leaves on the trees. We have managed to get a signal on the other side in high summer, but it can be intermittent.
Yesterday’s beautiful day gave way to more typical April weather, cool, grey with occasional breaks in the cloud. There was a fairly strong wind too, enough to make it hard work negotiating the double lock at Lalande, always a windy spot. We locked with some hireboaters who had taken possession of their boat the day before at Bram. They were pretty useless at first, and we had to fend them off several times as they entered the locks behind us, but by lunchtime they were coping fine. Arrived at Carcassonne just after lunch.
We spent a very grey weekend at Carcassonne, with hardly any passing traffic. One boat arrived and moored up, and there were two already moored in the basin. The trip boats plied their trade throughout the weekend, but with only handfuls of passengers. We’ve never been out on the waterways this early in the season before, and it’s surprisingly quiet.
A slightly brighter day, but a stiff breeze that made interesting work out of entering the locks. We had a long hard day, four singles, two doubles, three trebles, making 17 locks in all and twenty kilometres. We came across half a dozen boats travelling in the opposite direction but we locked alone all day.
As we came through Trebes we were amazed, and dismayed, to see that a whole long section of the canal between the town and the staircase lock has been stripped of the traditional plane trees. Upwards of a hundred plane trees have been chopped down, all affected by the ‘chancre colere’ that is changing the face of the Canal du Midi. This virus, which was brought to Europe in the wood of ammunition crates shipped in from America to Marseilles during the second world war, has steadily infiltrated the plane trees, causing them to die. It seems to be impossible to treat successfully and aside from the aesthetic aspect, this gives rise to major problems in the stabilisation of the banks, since it is the roots of the plane trees that reinforce the banks along a substantial section of the Midi. Ironically, these roots themselves help the spread of disease, as enthusiastic boaters moor clumsily against the banks, damaging the roots and opening wounds through which the waterborne virus can infiltrate the tree. Boaters who moor up by stringing ropes around the plane trees have also aided the spread of this infection, as the infection is often transferred by ropes, which make small incisions in the bark of the tree as other enthusiastic boaters roar past above the speed limit.
Certainly the approach to Trebes looks nothing like we remembered it from last year.
Some quite bad-tempered lock-keepers along this stretch this time, not something we’ve noticed before. Some couldn’t initially be found, several didn’t stop to see the process through and just disappeared without seeing us leave the lock or saying goodbye, staying well back so that they didn’t have to help as we struggled in the high winds to throw the ropes over the bollards. And one really insolent lockie who was strimming the grass about two hundred yards away from the lock, who didn’t acknowledge us going past, and then strolled in a really leisurely fashion down to where we were struggling to control the boat in the wind whilst we waited for him. He then went to put his tools away before eventually coming out to open the lock gates for us, and disappeared long before the cycle was over.
There has been some automation work going on along this section, and the light indicator boards are up but haven’t been commissioned. We wondered whether there is an industrial relations issue here and this was the cause of their grumpiness. We’ve certainly never noticed this attitude before along this stretch.
Moored up at Puicheric, where a friendlier lock-keeper said we could stay on the pontoons at the top of the lock. There are a whole bunch of plane trees here that have ‘chancre coleré’ and a long section of the moorings here is cordoned off to prevent boaters from spreading the infection.
Tuesday 5th April
We were the first to lock down the double lock at Puicheric, passing three hireboats within a short distance. Looked as though the season might be getting underway, but it was just the early morning rush hour. We moored up at La Redort, not far down the canal and only another two or three boats passed all day.
La Redort is a popular mooring during the season, and we’ve tried many times to get in there, without success. Today however, it was deserted. We’d hoped to plug into electricity but when we saw the cost we decided to rely on the genny.
La Redort: 1 euro token for 30 mins of electricity/water, tokens available from the restaurant Rivassel. 80 euros a week for the hire of a bike. No charge for mooring without facilities.
If you take one of the side streets up from the quay you can reach the main road, and turning left you’ll get to the town centre. There is a good boulangerie along the main road, and the very pleasant woman who served me was anxious to practice her English.
We had a leisurely day, sitting in warm sunshine. I tried my hand at cutting Neville’s hair, using a combination of beard trimmer, hair trimmer and scissors. Result? C+. Will improve with practice. And more hair would help! At dusk a solitary coypu emerged from the water and gradually munched his way along the bank towards us, before sliding back into the water and disappearing off upstream.
Wednesday 6th April to Friday 7th April.
The day dawned bright and sunny though a bit chilly first thing. We didn’t have far to go today, just one lock and then into Homps where we intended to stay a couple of days or so.
When we arrived at Homps the only available space was on the village side of the canal. At Homps the first night’s stay is free, and subsequent nights are 25.40. All the prices seem to have increased since last year. You may need a connector to access the electricity, and although there is no extra charge you do need to leave your passport with the Capitainerie. We carry a number of different sized connectors, so not an issue for us. We were surprised just how many boats were moored there, given how quiet the waterways have been. It turned out that the majority of them have no-one on board, and others are live-aboards. In reality then, at this time of the year, there is relatively little space for leisure boaters passing through.
The power supply is 6 amp max here for short term moorers, which is a bit on the low side for us, and we had to watch just what we were using. Running the hairdryer and the immersion heater, for instance, proved too much for the supply.
The weather was glorious for both our days here, and we had a barbecue on the Thursday evening. Incredible for early April.
The big hotel boat, Colibri, came through and moored up across the canal from us Wednesday night. They seemed to have at least three maybe four guests on board. Fiona and Earl, the proprietors keep their boat absolutely spick and span, lots of plants on the sun-deck, lots of parasols and sun loungers, all in colour co-ordinated green.
Friday 8th April
Headed on eastwards through a couple of double locks and a few singles, sharing with an English foursome in a hireboat. They were approaching the end of their holiday, one of the women sporting that ‘just gone ten rounds with a prizefighter’ look that only someone who has spent an unaccustomed few hours in the sun can achieve – swollen eyes and tight red skin on her face, chest and arms.
It’s not unusual along this stretch of the canal to find one or two abandoned boats. Somehow there’s nothing sadder than seeing what must have been someone’s pride and joy lying half sunken in the canal.
We carried on until we reached Ventenac, a winery right on the quayside. Big improvements have been made here – more mooring facilities. There is a restaurant La Grillade du Chateau by the side of the winery. We sampled the local Merlot at the Cave and then bought half a dozen bottles of the matured Merlot, and a container of the 2010 Merlot.
The village is small, with no shops that we could find, and signs that the boulangerie had closed down. Upon enquiring at the chateau, we were told that a little wooden hut on the banks of the canal served as the depot for bread each day.
The weather was really hot, not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature in the wheelhouse was over 30 degrees.
En route to Ventenac we came across a couple of black swans. I managed to get a few photos, but not the classical ones I had hoped for. Every time one of them was in a photogenic pose, the other one was upside down in the water!
All evening we had ducks flocking around the boat for bread, and one particularly adventurous female decided to park herself on the quay by the side of the boat. Eventually she was joined by a mate, who seemed to have a whole bunch of feathers plucked out of his chest, and together they settled down to await the pickings from our evening meal. They stayed until we went below around nine-ish.
No charge for mooring at Ventenac, but no facilities either. The boulangerie also sells tinned goods, local produce, potatoes etc but I assume it’s only open mornings it was closed both times when we arrived at lunchtime.
Saturday 9th April
The bakery hut opened up quite early and I got the bread around 7.30am. The woman there was feeding the ducks, and I saw that she had ovens inside the hut. I suppose, as is the case throughout a lot of the villages here, that the bread is half-baked and frozen beforehand, and it just needs completing. Paid 1.30 for a ‘flute’, so an addition 15 cents for transportation here.
We set off early. The stretch from Ventenac to Capestang is quite unremarkable, apart from one or two nice mooring spots, such as Le Somail and Argeliers. There was no space at either of those, and we went on to Capestang, arriving around 4.00 ish. Clive, an Englishman is the capitaine there and a very helpful chap. Today was changeover day and they had five boats leaving, which were taking all the available space on the quay. We went up past Capestang and moored on the bank there temporarily whilst waiting. Clive then rang us when there was a space and we went back. We’d been intending to stay several nights, but we discovered that we couldn’t get a satellite signal there – and it was the Malaysian Grand Prix the next day, so we just stayed one night and planned to move back below the bridge again where there is a clearing where the plane trees have been culled – disease again.
We went to Le Batelier, the quayside restaurant for yet another unimpressive meal. Last time we were here Neville had a reasonable meal (prawns) and I had a dreadful raw chunk of lamb. This time I had the most expensive steak on the menu ‘boeuf a la rossini’ and it was equally awful. No starters or desserts, a bottle of red and the total cost 54 euros! I really love all things French, but their reputation for culinary expertise doesn’t always extend to the waterside restaurants. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good meals I’ve had whilst on the waterways, and two of those were at an English restaurant (En Bonne Compagne) in Homps. Coincidentally, La Peniche, on the opposite side of the canal is one of the others where we’ve had a good meal. Cost of mooring with electricity and water – 15.40 euros.
Sunday 10th April
Market day in Capestang and we cycled down to the village at around 8.15. Half the stalls were still to be set up, but I managed to buy green beans and bread. Then we moved the boat to the other side of the bridge and got a perfect satellite signal for the Grand Prix.
Incredibly windy, and the plane trees are shedding furry seedlings like mad. The back of the boat is ankle deep in them, like furry little parachutes. Now we are moored right by the graveyard in Capestang….should be fairly quiet tonight. Better be!
According to the forecast the weather is about to change, but our barometer is still set fair.
Monday 11th April
Another fine day, with clouds on the horizon towards the west, where we were heading, but really strong winds. Steering the boat becomes an art form, anticipating gaps in the trees where the wind will gust more strongly, and a constant battle to keep the bow where you want it to go. I found it very hard work, particularly passing moored boats where we had to go slower, with consequently less steerage. We came across a couple of hire-boaters who had their boats right across the canal, at right angles to the bank whilst trying to moor.
We arrived in Ventenac around lunchtime, and after lunch Neville decided to change the oil in the gearbox whilst I did some writing. Mid afternoon I looked up to see a familiar face coming towards the boat, and recognised Alan, of Alan and Beatte, with whom we have cruised out on the canal lateral à la Garonne. They had been with some friends to the Chateau de Ventenac to buy wine, and some glasses, and we spent an hour making inroads on the box in brilliant sunshine beside the boat.
Whilst chatting, Alan and Beatte confirmed that they had never eaten particularly well at the quayside restaurant in Capestang but recommended one in the village called Le Grille. We had seen it on our way down to market.
Our friendly duck, who had adopted us a few days ago when we were here, decided to further her acquaintance with us, and spent most of the evening on the front or back roof of the barge, tapping on the window to attract our attention, and depositing large amounts of duck drool on our nice clean windows. Fortunately that was all she deposited.
Another duck had joined our group during the afternoon, one so tame that she would take bread from my hand, and happily pecked away at my toes if I failed to deliver the goods on time.
Tuesday 12th April
Today we started ascending the locks; always a bit more energetic as I have to walk from the landing jetty up to the lock and do a bit more demanding rope work during the initial lock-filling. I was looking forward to the change. Another nice day, cooler and with a little less breeze at first, as we started on our way back to Homps.
By the time we reached the first lock the wind was up to full strength and Neville made a spectacular crab-like approach to the lock entrance. I averted my eyes, waiting for the dull bang that would precede the tinkling of glassware, but somehow he pulled it off with minimum use of the bowthruster.
At the next double we encountered a young French couple who had just picked up their boat from the hire-centre at Agens de Minervois. They were on the wrong side of the canal, waiting for the lock, which allowed us to use the landing stage to let me off, and then they pulled in behind us. At first, they refused to enter the lock after us, saying there wasn’t enough room, but the (very nice) lockie was having none of that! No way was he doing his job twice because of nervous boaters, nice though he was. So between us and the lockie we got them through their first lock, Neville fending them off as they entered the lock at top speed, and the lockie shouting instructions re the ropes. Shame that the first lock is a double, you’d think the hire-boat company would advise them to go the other way first, take the boat down the single lock, turn it round and take it up the single lock just for practice.
We moored at Homps, and the other couple went on. It became even windier in the afternoon!
When I went to pay for the mooring, I was charged 19.40 compared to the 25.40 last time we stayed two nights! No idea which was the correct charge and didn’t query it in case we ended up having to pay more.
Wednesday 13th April
Sunny but cooler. We stayed put for the day, and the waterways showed signs of getting a bit busier, with several hireboats going past. At Homps the canal is fairly wide and deep, so the speeding boats did not create a significant wash, unlike at Ventenac, where a speeding hireboater had our boat bucking like mad, with ropes groaning and straining. They’d waved cheerily at us, as we staggered around the wheelhouse and we waved back…. after a fashion.
We had planned to visit Le Peniche restaurant, where we once had a good meal with Mike and Jane from Drumsara, but having decided to leave it until the second night of our stay, we discovered they were closed all day Wednesday. Our favourite restaurant, where we have never had a bad meal, En Bonne Compagnie, does not open until Easter, though workmen appeared to be beavering away in the outside seating area.
Went out on the bikes along the towpath, which is very rough with lots of tree roots round here. Can’t afford to take your eyes off the path ahead.
Thursday 14th April
Cool again, but relatively fine. We were at the first lock before it opened. After that single lock, the rest were doubles or triple locks (Fonfiles) until the last lock before we stopped at Marseillette, which was a single lock. This was manned by the same grumpy lock-keeper who had studiously kept us waiting in high winds last week, but he seemed a bit more civil today. In general though, the whole length of this stretch today had been manned by unfriendly lockies who did their job, nothing more, and without exchanging greetings.
When we moored up at Marseillette, which is a quiet little town with what could be superb moorings, we emailed Carcassonne to reserve a place for the weekend. Within minutes we had a reply saying they were fully booked for the weekend. There must be something special on in Carcassonne, they are never fully booked and certainly not at this time of the year. This gives us a problem, as there are not very good moorings between here and Carcassonne, and a lot of the route is lined with heavy trees which would preclude us getting a signal for the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend. We will have to stay here.
Friday 15th April
Marseillette has constructed a lengthy wooden jetty with lots of mooring posts, and some work has been undertaken to provide water and electricity points, but no progress has been made since we were here last year, so it’s still totally unserviced. We’ve not found an epicerie in the town, though we did discover a boulangerie this visit which sells additional items that you may have run short of.
After breakfast we biked over to a village to the north of the canal, Capendu, which is a round trip of around six kilometres. There is a good epicerie there which also sells bread so we stocked up on the essentials. We were riding into a strong wind most of the way, and this is not a journey I would relish doing very often.
By lunchtime only three boats had gone past. Around 4-ish we had an email from the Capitaine at Carcassonne saying they had a space for us, but we deferred our departure until the following morning as there was no chance of our reaching Carcassonne by this time, and we wanted to watch the qualifying session for the Chinese Grand Prix.
Saturday 16th April
We set off after watching the qualifying session, and made reasonable progress to the foot of the triple lock at Fresquel by lunchtime, and reached Carcassonne going up to 3.00pm. The port was not busy, so not sure why they had said they were fully booked.
David and Moira from Clara Stark were already moored there and we passed Chris and Andy from Edwina Rose, and the couple from Hodi at Trebes. Chris was busy sanding down the top of the boat in readiness for their re-painting.
Carcassonne looks so different in the sunshine! The last time we were here everything seemed grey and depressing, but now the basin looked beautiful. 32.80 euros for a two night stay, including water and electricity.
Sunday 17th April
Watched the Chinese Grand Prix early on and walked into town later to get the bread. Still fine, but a stiff breeze which led to an entertaining afternoon on the basin. There must have been a lot of hireboat pick-ups yesterday at Bram, and they all seemed to arrive here this afternoon. It was like watching a skating competition, boats circling, banging into moored boats (Bon Viveur next to us took a double direct hit at speed!). Few of the crews looked to be enjoying themselves, and it’s such an expensive way to take your holidays if you’re not having a good time! There were one or two who looked like they knew what they were doing, principally, they were doing everything slowly and using the wind to help them get where they wanted to be (where possible).
Monday 18th April
We were heading back to Castelnaudary now, and it was around 5 kilometres to the first lock. We got up reasonably early and I went out into the town for bread. In Carcassonne they wash a lot of the streets and pedestrian walkways in the town, so the pavements were still wet as I made my way up the main street to our favourite baker. The ‘flute’ was still warm and very crusty and it felt like a fairly light loaf. The one we bought yesterday from another boulangerie was very heavy, and cost 1.80 as opposed to the normal 1.10 – 1.15. We’d both had difficulty chewing the crusts – the French must have jaws like iron.
Some of the hire-boaters were beginning to stir as we left the basin, waving goodbye to David on Clara Stark. We knew we would be first into the lock, but wondered which of them, (and how skilled) the next one to join us would be.
As it happened, it wasn’t the inexperienced hire boaters we had to worry about this morning – it was bloody minded lock-keepers! The first lockie arrived a few minutes late, which wasn’t so much of a problem as we had decided to tie up to wait, rather than battle the increasing winds.
The next lock (Lalande) was a single with pound leading to a double. The girl on the single lock was fine, but when we entered the first chamber of the double lock, (giving a cheery greeting to the lockie), I remarked to Neville that the lockie was a bit sharp opening the paddles. We had secured our ropes, but in the wind the bow had drifted out and I took my rope off so I could get a better angle to bring it in. Without checking, he opened the paddles and I had to hot-foot it back to secure the rope on the bollard.
The second lock was an eye opener! I’d coiled the front rope and led the boat into the second lock climbing the steps and passing over the open gates. I wrapped my rope round the bollard and fortunately kept it in my hand as I went back to take Neville’s rope. The moment he threw the coiled rope up to me on the quayside, the lockie opened both sets of paddles. I shouted and held up the loose end of the middle rope, but he just stared at me blankly. Neville was still trying to bring the boat back into the side, and he bellowed at the lockie too. I threw the end of the rope down to Neville and rushed back to bring the bow in before the water forced it out even more. Then Neville shouted to say his rope was snagged round the bollard. So I rushed back again, freed it and the locking cycle continued. The lockie retreated to his cabin, not looking at us, and remained there, still leaving the paddles not fully opened so that the cycle took minutes longer than it should do.
As we left the lock, still struggling in the wind, he started closing the lock gates before we had fully cleared the opening, even though he must have known that there were three or four boats within a hundred yards or so, waiting to come down. Obviously he’d got out of bed on the wrong side!
Waterways much busier today, but it is Easter week. In the first hour we had passed eight hireboats and a yacht coming in the opposite direction.
It was a long day today, 13 locks and 35 kilometres. We encountered yet another lockie who decided to open the paddles before we were ready, on this occasion as Neville was returning along the gunwhales having thrown the bow rope up to me.
But later, as the winds increased, we encountered two very considerate lockies. The first, at Treboul waved at us to come straight into the lock, but we weren’t sure whether she would take our ropes if we did, and in any case we were within yards of the landing stage to put me off by the time we saw her.
And at the last lock of the day, Guerre, where we have overnighted several times, the lockie did wave us in and took our ropes when he saw what a problem we were having trying to get the boat into the landing stage. The winds were gusting quite violently, and the forecast is still the same for the week to come.
Tuesday 19th April
The winds seemed to drop during the night, or perhaps we were just too tired to notice after our long day yesterday. Then just as we were preparing to set off this morning they returned in force. I walked up to the first lock after Guerre (only a kilometre!) to save the hassle of trying to get the boat into the landing stage to let me off, and the same again between this and the next single, and the foot of the triple lock.
We crossed with a number of hireboaters who seemed to have just picked up their boats, judging by the degree of confidence they were exhibiting, and thought how much more difficult it must be for them, with their lighter boats and in some cases higher superstructures.
The air is full of pollen parachutes from the plane trees, making you cough and sneeze, getting in your eyes, and sticking like burrs to the carpet in the wheelhouse. Spring seems to be a fortnight later here than in Capestang, further east, where this pollen-dropping phase just about came to an end on the weekend we were there. The lilac trees are all in full bloom, giving off a glorious fragrance as you wind between them along the canal.
When we began the last set of four staircase locks up into Castelnaudary it became clear the lockie here was in a hurry. He didn’t wait for our signal and opened the paddles but we were pretty much ready. Then to save time, he left the gates open between the third (next to the bottom) lock and the second one, filling both locks at the same time. Neville managed to get a photo of the water rushing down from the second chamber, but it looks more horrific than it is. In reality, there’s a lot less turbulence this way. He did the same again between the second and the first.
I’ve seen an impatient lockie on this flight before, shouting at some hireboaters who were, in his opinion, taking too long to enter the locks. So he would have loved the family group who were moored up in the waiting area for the first lock. The teenage son had tied the front rope to a stone bollard but unfortunately the rope had tightened itself into a knot when the boat had been blown backwards and he couldn’t undo it. The boat behind was itching to get going and it was clear that one very unhappy early holiday experience was about to kick off here. An exasperated Mum and Dad were shouting instructions from the boat, and as we turned to concentrate on the bridge I saw the Dad storming off the boat.
The other side of the bridge to the lock approach was the scene for another drama as a hireboater made his 3rd attempt to get under the bridge into the lock approach. The first two had been made whilst we were in the top lock, watching in fascination as he appeared, banged into the bridge, disappeared, revolved in a circle etc…. It’s such a shame if your week’s holiday coincides with a spell of bad weather, particularly strong winds as are forecast for most of this week.
Fortunately he kept out of our way as we went under the bridge, and we avoided another hireboater who had just left the hireboat depot in his boat and was simply going round in circles for a while, probably trying to get the hang of it.
It was incredibly windy across the Grand Bassin, and a crowd of workmen gathered at the narrow bridge opening which leads into the port, no doubt hoping for some contact sport viewing. Cheers of encouragement accompanied our approach, with the wind blowing a gale from behind us, but at enough of an angle to spell disaster. Fortunately, they were disappointed and we made it through and into the relative calm of the port.
Clive and Di from Harvink were just mooring up too, having arrived from the other direction. They were only staying one night before continuing to Carcassonne, so we met up for drinks in the evening. They are selling their boat, an 11.6 metre dutch steel cruiser: http://www.apolloduck.fr/image.phtml?id=195006&image=1
and returning to England soon, so we may not see them again this way.
We went to see Odile, the capitaine, and paid 62 euros for five nights including electricity, water, 2 showers per day (that we don’t actually need) and unlimited internet access.
So, our first trip of the season has finished. We now have access to our car which is in a large rented garage here so we can go to the local hypermarket, Geant, for diesel and for supplies. Next weekend we will continue our cruising, this time heading west along the Midi through to Toulouse, and then onto the Canal Lateral a la Garonne as far as Meilhan.