Shortly after 1300 on Monday the 14th of April we slipped our lines and continued up canal from Castelnaudary. We had timed our departure to put us at the next lock, Écluse la Planque after it had reopened from its lunch break. The lock was ready for us as we arrived.
With our mast still up, we easily slid in under Pont la Planque, which at 3.42 metres is the second lowest bridge on the Canal du Midi. Its vertical clearance at 5 metres width is only 2.27 metres, making it the lowest shouldered bridge on the canal.
After we had worked our way up la Planque, we continued 1.2 kilometres to la Écluse Domergue and then 1.1 kilometres further along to the triple lock, Écluse Laurens. It took about twenty-five minutes to negotiate the three chambers and then after another 1.3 kilometres we arrived at the double lock, Écluse Roc, which like the previous locks, was ready for us as we arrived. There has been very little traffic thus far on our voyage, but that will change as the rental season begins in earnest with the Easter weekend just a few days away.
At 1535 we were in Écluse Méditerranée, our last up-bound lock. Within ten minutes we had entered le bief du partage, the 5.1 kilometre summit pound at 190 metres above sea level. We continued along for three kilometres to le Ségala, where at 1608 we stopped for the day, secured along the bank with spud pole and a pin pounded into the ground. We had come 11.9 kilometres from Castelnaudary and had passed through our final eight up locks. It was all downhill from here.
On Tuesday morning we got an early start, slipping at 1005 and motoring along the summit pound. Near its end, at Col de Naurouze we passed the mouth of la Rigole de la Plaine, the feeder stream to the canal from the reservoir in la Montaigne Noir to the north. The key to the building the Canal du Midi was in finding a reliable source of water higher than the summit pound to feed the canal. Riquet had solved the problem in 1660 with the idea to divert streams in the Black Mountains and feed them toward Col de Naurouze.
A short distance on, at a bend in the canal just before Écluse Océan, we tucked Zonder Zorg’s stern into a nook, dropped the spud pole and snugged the stern up to the two-metre-long quai. We were at the beginning of a trail that led to the works at the summit and to l’Obélisque de Riquet, the monument erected to honour the builder of the canal.
At about 600 metres up in the Black Mountains, Riquet had diverted two streams on the Mediterranean side of the pass and one on the Atlantic side and fed these through artificial channels to reservoirs. One of these reservoirs was held by a dam 780 metres long and 35 metres high, which at the time of its construction was the largest dam in the world.
Water from the reservoirs led to a large octagonal settling pound alongside the canal next to the lock that begins the descent toward Toulouse. Unfortunately, after only a few years of use, the basin silted-up and a new canal was built to bypass it. We followed the signs to the obelisk, which led along a trail between rows of plane trees across the former bed of the octagonal pound. On a ridge in the distance we could see the obelisk sticking up through the trees.
After nearly a kilometre, the last part up a hill, we came to the monument. The twenty-metre-high obelisk had been erected in 1827 by the descendants of Riquet. It is sited on an exposed complex of tertiary conglomerate and quaternary sedimentary rock known as les Pierres de Naurouze that had been used in ancient times for ceremonies. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the monument, its gates were closed and locked. We walked around the encircling two and a half metre high wall looking for a breech in the defences; there was none. It wasn’t a national holiday, it wasn’t a Sunday or a Monday, it wasn’t lunch time, it was simply closed.
We walked back down the hill disappointed that we had been unable to see the bas relief allegorical figures that are carved around the pediment of the monument. On our way we passed at least half a dozen signs pointing back toward l’Obélisque.
It was here on Col de Naurouze in May of 1681 that the canal was inaugurated. Eight months before the opening ceremony, Riquet had died at the age of seventy-one. It was also here on 18 April 1814, that the English Duke of Wellington met with the French Maréchal Soult in the house of the canal engineer to sign an armistice between their two armies according to the terms of the week-old Treat of Fontainebleau. Two days later Napoleon left Fontainebleau for Elba.
With our history lessons done, we returned to Zonder Zorg, raised the spud pole, slipped the stern line from the old stone bollard and headed the short distance into Écluse Océan to begin our descent. We were over the hump; this was our first down-bound lock since the one at Beaucaire on the Rhône in early October last year and we needed to retrain ourselves in descent techniques. We had never been down an ovoid Midi lock before, so we needed to experiment to find the best way for Zonder Zorg to do it.
A kilometre and a half beyond the lock is Port-Lauragais, which from the descriptions in the guides seemed like a good place to stop for the day. We nosed into the port and our first impression was of a highway truck stop, which in fact it is. The “store selling local produce” mentioned in the guide is one of the hugely overpriced rest stop convenience shops. On a peninsula in the lagoon there is what appears to be a hotel and a restaurant. The moorings around the periphery looked vapid and unwelcoming. We turned and headed back out.
Two and a half kilometres further along we came to a wooden rail on posts just short of Écluse Emborrel and at 1244 we secured for the day. As we lunched in the cockpit, we were entertained for twenty minutes by the manoeuvring and mooring antics of six people aboard a rental boat attempting to stop to wait for the lock to reopen after lunch.
Mid-afternoon we walked about a kilometre and a half along a road, across the autoroute, the railway tracks and the Route National to the village of Avignonet-Lauragais, which was built on a small hilltop in the thirteenth century. As we were descending the canal, we had been intrigued by its distinctive and imposing church tower.
During our walk up the hill into the centre of the old village we were impressed with the cleanliness of everything; the streets, the sidewalks, the houses were all very well maintained and cared for. It was a dramatic change from much we have seen the past few years in France; it reminded us of the Netherlands.
Near the centre of the village, just below the church is an old tower. A plaque on its side tells that it had been built in 1610 to reinforce the defence of the Port de Cers, the principal gate to the community. It dominated and protected the lift bridge that gave access to village. The statue on its flank was added in 1893, and is believed to be of Simon de Montfort, head of the Crusade against the Cathars.
We continued up to the church that dominates the top of the hill. Notre-Dame des Miracles was built during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries on the site of a much older church. Its tower soars forty metres and the bell balustrade is accessed by an interior stone staircase of 161 steps. This was closed, so we didn’t go up.
From across the square, across the road and halfway across the facing garden, the church bell tower still looked huge. Its bulk dwarfs the church that seems attached to it as an afterthought.