27 April 2014

Enjoying Toulouse

We had arrived in Toulouse on Easter Monday and secured to the end of a float in Port Saint Sauveur. The port is located about 250 metres from le Grand Rond, which leads into Jardin des Plantes and Jardin Royal. To the north and west is the centre of the old city, with its many sights to see and pedestrian malls, squares and streets to wander. Within a hundred metres outside the security gates of the marina are a boucherie and a boulangerie, plus two small supermarkets.

On Tuesday morning I dodged the raindrops as I dashed across to the boulangerie for fresh croissants for breakfast. In the late morning, seeing no letup in the rain, we took our umbrellas and went walking through the winding streets and lanes of the old city. 

Among the things we were looking for was a chart book for le canal de Garonne and the waterways connected to it. We were within five kilometres of the end of our charts and we didn’t want to fall over the edge without navigational and services information for the continuation of our route. Our preference is the Éditions du Breil series and we needed Volume 12 - Aquitaine and Volume 18 - Estuaire de la Gironde. The capitainerie was out of stock of both these, nor did they have any for the areas from the other guide publishers. Mme la Capitaine knew of no booksellers that would have any. I punched “librairie” into the maps app on my iPhone and off we went.

We had no luck finding the guides at any of the book stores we visited, nor could any of the staff offer any suggestions of who might have some. We did see many wonderful old buildings along the maze of narrow, winding streets and alleys.

By the time we reached Place du Capitole, the produce vendors were packing-up their stalls in the market and lunch patrons were finding tables under the umbrellas on the patios of the bistros and restaurants lining the periphery of the square.

We continued north to Place Jeanne d’Arc where we had been told there was a shop selling computer supplies. After four years of very hard service, the cable between my iPad and its charger had finally failed. We found a replacement cable and then wound our way through the old streets back to Zonder Zorg, pausing in the mid-town Géant Casino supermarket for fresh supplies.

After breakfast on Wednesday we took advantage of the break from the rain, hopped on our bicycles and continued our explorations of Toulouse. Our first stop was at Musée des Augustins, which is housed in a former monastery built during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was confiscated by the state during the Revolution and in 1793 it was converted into a museum.

Among its collections are thirteenth and fourteenth century church gargoyles, many of which are lined up on display in one of the courtyard ambulatories.

Leading up a grand staircase is a collection of sculptures, and at the top, there are three large rooms of paintings with French, Italian and Dutch masters. Many of the paintings on display are vary large, some monumental, and the room seems too small for some of them. 

Benjamin-Constant’s 1876 depiction of The Entry of Sultan Mehmet II into Constantinople in May 1453 is one that would enjoy a larger room. 

I was delighted to see among the paintings Alexandre Antigna’s 1855 La Halte forcée, The Forced Halt. It brought back fond memories of my art classes in the late 1950s and early 60s when we studied it as an example of composition and emotion.

The museum has a collection of Romanesque sculpture, which is classed as one of the richest in the world. Unfortunately, the huge display room was under renovation and was temporarily closed. We continued on to the displays of Gothic sculptures. Among the finer pieces is Nostre Dame de Grasse, a recently restored polychrome limestone carving from the fifteenth century.

There is a wonderful collection of carved epitaphs, this one with beautifully calligraphy from 1504.

There were about eighty pieces of the collection on display, dating back to the eleventh century. These took Edi back to her graphic arts studies and to her sign painting days, and me back to my days studying and teaching calligraphy.

From the museum we pedaled across to the banks of La Garonne and followed the river northward to the beginning of Le canal de Brienne. This short canal leads fifteen hundred metres from La Garonne upstream of a weir to the end of Canal du Midi. We followed the canal to les Ponts Jumeaux, the Twin Bridges at the junction. Here a small basin called l’Embouchoure led through a lock down to La Garonne below the weir. With the construction of Le canal de Garonne, a third bridge was added in 1843 giving access to the new canal. The lock to La Garonne downstream of the weir was later closed. 

We pedaled the five kilometres back to Zonder Zorg for lunch, and once reenergized, I hopped on my bike and chased off in search of the elusive canal guides. Finally, at Librairie Ombres Blanches in rue Gambetta, I found a copy of Guide Fluvial for Aquitaine. This has charts and directions for Le canal de Garonne, Le canal de Montech, La Baise and Le Lot. This will take us down to the beginning of the tidal Garonne, where we will need the guide for Estuaire de la Gironde. We have many weeks and many cities, towns and villages to search before we need it.

21 April 2014

To Toulouse

We had secured on Tuesday 15 April just short of Écluse Emborrel, the second lock down the western side of the summit of the Canal du Midi. At 1130 on Wednesday we slipped our lines and continued down the canal. The lock is automatic, but there was no indication of this as we approached.

Edi finally spotted a post by the side of the lock chamber with a set of remote control buttons and instructions in both French and English. The installation looks rather new, or at least is not worn-out and decrepit like much of the rest of the canal infrastructure. She pushed the down button and the lock began its automatic cycle, opening the upstream sluices to fill the chamber, then opening the upstream doors to allow Zonder Zorg to enter. Once we were secured in the chamber, Edi pushed the green button to continue the cycle, which closed the doors and then opened the downstream sluices to begin draining the lock chamber to the downstream level. With the lowering complete, the doors opened allowing us to continue down the canal. A sensor at the exit to the lock saw us pass and triggered the closing of the doors to await the next poke at the buttons.

A kilometre and a half further along we came to Écluse Encassan, a double lock. Likely because of its complexity, it was operated by a VNF éclusier. He pushed the appropriate buttons on his shoulder pack remote control, an ancient device that approached the size and appearance of a ghetto blaster radio without the speakers.

Just short of three kilometres further along, at 1226 we arrived at the automatic lock, Écluse Renneville. Its lights were out and it was closed. The lunch break for éclusiers on the Canal du Midi is 1230 to 1330 and it appears they close the locks five minutes early so as not to interfere with their time. It appears that the automatic locks follow the same routine, possibly to have a feed of electrons and hydraulic fluid. We secured to the stone wall just short of the entrance to the lock and relaxed. 

When the automatic controls returned from lunch, we cycled through and continued the four kilometres to the next lock, Écluse Gardouch. There was a vacant spot on the quai, so we slipped into it and secured for the day. In response to my questions, l’éclusier at the double lock had told us of a grocery store and a bakery in Gardouche and a supermarket across the autoroute midway to Villefranche-de-Lauragais.

We decided to walk to the bakery in Gardouche to get some croissants for lunch and then later take our cart across to the supermarket for fresh supplies. It is three-quarters of a kilometre into the commercial centre of the village. We arrived at the bakery at 1500 to find a sign saying it was closed until 1600. We continued to the épicerie to find it simply closed with no explanatory sign. We turned around and walked the nearly three kilometres to the huge supermarket. It is open 0800 to 1930 and explains why so few services remain open in the towns and villages.

At the fish counter they were out of dos de cabaillaud, but the monger said he had some whole cod and could cut us some. We also bought some thick albacore tuna steaks. The meats and produce departments tempted us to buy much more than we had planned, and since we had brought only one bag and no cart, we had to buy another large bag at the checkout. It was nearly 1700 by the time we arrived back aboard with our booty and sat down in the cockpit to enjoy ham and brie croissants and cans of Heineken. 

After a leisurely breakfast in the sun late on Thursday morning we slipped at 1120 and continued down the canal, through Écluse Gardouche and the double lock, Écluse Laval. We arrived at the automatic lock, Écluse Negra at 1223 to find it closed for its 1230 to 1330 lunch break. Maybe the locks close ten minutes before the start of the break.

We secured to bollards on the steel-faced wharf a hundred metres before the lock. There are electricity pylons and water bibs on the wharf with no sign of any fees. We plugged-in the shore power cable, hauled-out the hose and took on electricity and water as we waited for the automatic lock controls to return from lunch.

After the lock was re-energised we continued down, passing through it and then the double lock, Écluse Sanglier 3.7 kilometres further along. Looking at the chart in the Du Breil Guide Fluvial, I was curious to know why Écluse Sanglier with a total drop of 3.73 metres was a double lock, while Écluse Ayguesvives at 4.44 metres was a single. We found out 1.5 kilometres further along when we arrived at Écluse Ayguesvives.

It had originally been a double lock, but recently, the upstream lock gates were removed, the walls of the downstream chamber were heightened and higher downstream gates were installed. A drop of 4.44 metres is rather large, so we expected to see floating bollards in the chamber, or some other way to handle the lines. 

At the downstream end is a pair of pipe bollards, one on each side of the chamber. The one on the right bank was missing its vertical pipe, and was therefore useless. There are no similar arrangements for the excessive height at the upstream end, where they are especially needed for up-bound barges. There is; however, on left bank of the chamber near the upstream end a pocked bollard midway up the wall. This appears to be another lock designed as an exercise by student engineers with absolutely no experience with canal boating nor any regard to the needs of boaters. I will assume that this desecration of the historic locks occurred before the Canal du Midi was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

To brighten-up the mood in the chamber, our planter of flowers on the gunwale received an automatic watering by one of the spouts that usually drain infiltrated water from the chamber walls on a descent.

During our planning for the day we had seen on the chart a supermarket symbol on the left bank a few hundred metres beyond Pont de Baziège, so we had decided to stop on the bank near the bridge. As we approached we heard repeated gunfire. At the bridge is the local gun club firing range; we continued along. Along this stretch of canal the cleared side with the path is the right bank. The left bank, where the supermarket is located, is dense bush. As we passed, we caught glimpses of an Intermarché, a Bricomarché, a Lidl and several other stores in a shopping complex about thirty metres through the bushes. We continued along looking for the landing. Where in the real world there would be easy access for passing boaters, here there was none. We wore around and headed back toward the bridge. The persistent gunfire caused us to turn around again, and finally at 1550 we came to the spud pole and a stern line around an old tree stump in the bushes on the left bank directly in front of the shopping centre.

The Easter weekend was beginning, and we didn’t want to be caught short of food. This was our first Easter in France for many years, and we weren’t sure which days shops would be open. Even without Easter, it is near unpredictable. We took the wheelie and bushwhacked to the road, crossed it and went shopping, returning with sufficient to see us through the long weekend.

Our bush mooring was very pleasant, and we remained there Friday so we could continue our shopping in some of the other stores. I walked to the car filling station at the entrance to the plaza and bought a second Butagaz Viseo tank of propane for the galley. While we still had about a quarter tank in the other one, this was the easiest source for a spare that we had seen. Friday afternoon we walked the kilometre and a half past the village of Montgiscard to Écluse Montgiscard. We saw no landing along the way. We crossed the bridge at the lock and walked back along the right bank past Zonder Zorg, looking at the near unbroken tangle of bush along the opposite bank. Residential back yards ignored their waterfront. We were amazed; in the Netherlands there would be gardens, patios and private boat docks all along.

At 1145 on Saturday morning we raised the spud pole, slipped our line and continued down the canal. Écluse Montgiscard is another former double lock, bastardised into a 3.82-metre-high single. The chamber was empty when we arrived, so we had to wait for it to fill. The automated locks drain and fill much more slowly than we have seen at the manned ones. This is likely because we appear competent and are let through by the éclusiers much more rapidly than they do for bumbling rental boaters; the automatic locks are likely set by default for the bumblers.

Downstream two and a half kilometres we passed under Pont de Donneville. It was built by Riquet of local Toulouse clay brick because there is a lack of stone quarries in the region. During the Battle for Toulouse in 1814, General Sault had blown-up this and many other bridges to protect his retreating troops. They were fully restored in 1821 and remain in fine condition today.

Another five kilometres brought us to the next lock, Écluse Vic, an original single. Seventeen hundred metres later we were at Écluse Castanet, another double lock bastardised into a single with a height of 4.98 metres. An up-bound boat had just activated the lock, which was full, so it had to drain and then refill. To hold us in place during the half hour, I dropped the spud pole and looped a bollard with the stern line.

After we had locked through, we continued along about a kilometre, where at 1440 we came to the spud pole and the stern line to a pin pounded in the bank in a quiet rural setting about two kilometres before the beginning of urban sprawl of Toulouse. After lunch we harvested gravel, clay and topsoil and bedded three new basil plants, plus one we had been eating away at, into a planter we had bought at our bush stop.

The weather forecast for several days had been for three days of rain beginning on Friday. It then delayed to beginning on Saturday, then again to beginning on Sunday. We awoke Sunday morning to heavy rain and the forecast showed it continuing into the evening. We decided to stay put and continue on Monday, when there was predicted to be a brief clearing before the next spate of rains. 

We relaxed onboard all day to the sounds of rain on the cabin top and in the evening had a lovely Easter dinner of dos de cabaillaud seared with sautéed button mushrooms, pommes rissolées, steamed broccoli crowns and sliced tomatoes with shredded basil. This was accompanied splendidly by a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace Durenmeyer.

The rains stopped overnight and after a late breakfast on Monday, we raised the spud pole, hauled the pin and continued down canal. Within a kilometre we came to a near nonstop line of live-aboard barges along the left bank. Some were rather well converted and cared for, but most were clumsy conversions that were very short on care and maintenance. 

The line of barges continued for over two kilometres and then as we entered Toulouse, the banks were again uncluttered. The plane trees here seem to have thus far avoided the canker stain and they all look healthy. During our three weeks from Carcassonne we have seen them go from their winter nakedness to now near fully leaved.

At 1250 we came to a T-head on a pontoon in Port St-Sauveur near the heart of Toulouse. We were only five kilometres and three locks from the end of the Canal du Midi and the beginning of Canal latéral à la Garonne. We decided to pause for a while to explore the city.

18 April 2014

Over the Hump

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.

We walked down the slope to the Route National to town’s boulangerie and épicerie. They were closed on Tuesdays. We walked along to the cave a vins to find it simply closed with no explanation. We walked back to Zonder Zorg to find her welcoming and comforting.