10 May 2014

Montauban to Moissac

We had arrived in Montauban on Wednesday, 30 April and secured in the Port Canal just above the locks that lead down to the Tarn. Our thoughts had been to moor down on the river on the new floats that had been installed by the city, but when speaking with l’éclusier at the beginning of our descent from Montech, we learned that there was no security and considerable vandalism there. This was confirmed by le Captain du Port Canal de Montauban, so we stayed above the river. The first of May is a national holiday in France, la Fête du Travail when everyone celebrates not working and nearly everything is closed. Included in the closures are the canals, so we were trapped for the day.

After a late breakfast we took our umbrellas and headed out into a brief lull between showers. We were well into our third week of rain every day, and combined with the unseasonably cold weather, it was becoming a tad depressing. We passed through the narrow pedestrian tunnel under the railway tracks, the interior of which is now illuminated by strings of LED lights.

The path led us past the lock chambers under the road bridge and out to the banks of the Tarn.  

Down through the trees we could see the ruins of the old lock, Écluse Sapiacou, so we went down the slope to have a closer look. The river Tarn had been navigable upstream from its junction with the Garonne at Moissac for more than a hundred and forty kilometres through Montauban, Gaillac and a short distance past Albi. With the decline in  barge transportation, the locks were abandoned. 

Now all that remain accessible and navigable on the Tarn are two sections; this one for nine kilometres upstream of the weir from Montauban and the final twelve kilometres of the river before it enters La Garonne at Moissac. There has been discussion for several years on restoring the remaining twenty-six kilometre section between Montauban and Moissac. The river’s drop is about twelve metres over this distance, so the restoration of three or four locks would give a  wonderful sixty kilometre circuit on la Canal de Garonne, le Canal de Montech and le Tarn through four historic cities: Montauban, Moissac, Castelsarrasin and Montech.

Beside the weir below the lock is an abandoned mill that would have used the abundant flow of the river to power  its works. 

Le Tarn is subject to flooding in the winter and spring, with levels three and four metres above the weirs not unusual. Any new works would need to be built to withstand being submerged during regular spates, so the restoration is not a simple undertaking. As evidence of the high water levels, we saw a large tree trunk lodged a good four metres above river level on a pediment of Pont Neuf.  

Pont Neuf was built in 1913 to give a second crossing from Villebourbon to Montauban. Just downstream from it is Pont Vieux, which was built at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Built of brick with seven graceful arches, it has been sufficiently massive to have resisted the worst of the Tarn’s floods for over seven hundred years.

We walked across Pont Neuf and into le jardin des plantes, a three-hectare park in a small stream bed that is planted with over four hundred species of shrubs and trees. Up a steep embankment above the park is the centre of the old city of Montauban, founded in 1144. At the highest point of the city now stands the cathedral, a late  addition, since the city had been one of the major bastions of Protestantism through the religious wars, and much Catholic property had been confiscated or destroyed. Catholic support seems tepid even today; the interior of the cathedral is in a very sad state of repair and appears unloved.

More impressive in the cathedral square are the façades of some of the buildings, such as the former hôtel des Postes.

We continued along nearly deserted streets, weaving our way through the large grid of narrow pedestrian streets lined with upscale shops, all closed. We arrived in Place nationale to find it wonderfully photogenic with its lack of people. If the citizens weren’t so seriously celebrating work, this place would be teeming with people.

Out from under the arches the square was deserted. The restaurants, bistros, bars and cafés under the arches around the entire periphery of the square were abandoned. The French take their celebration of doing nothing very seriously. We wondered whether we had missed the air raid warning and should have evacuated to shelter.

We continued down the slope past église Saint-Jacques, which is one of only two remaining medieval structures in the city, the other being Pont Vieux. The church dates to the thirteenth century and its polygonal tower was added in the fourteenth. Its façade is pocked with bullet and cannonball marks from a 1621 siege during the Wars of Religion, when it was severely damaged. With the Catholic reconquest in 1629, Cardinal Richelieu ordered its reconstruction and it served as the cathedral until the new one was built in 1739. 

We continued past the former episcopal palace, which had been built on the river banks in 1664. It now houses le musée Ingres, an art gallery dedicated to the local artist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Of course, it was closed, so we continued across Pont Vieux and through Villebourbon back to the port and to Zonder Zorg. We found her easily opened and very welcoming.

On Friday morning, with the electrons in our remote control having returned to work, we  headed back up the canal. We waited for a break in the continuous series of rain showers so that we would be guaranteed at least one dry spell during the day’s trip. The rain held off for the first two locks and we actually caught a few glimpses of blue sky, but always to the west were bands of ominous dark clouds. 

Although we were now ascending the locks, they were easy to negotiate with their consistent and well-placed bollards, including two sliding ones on the starboard side. This made for an easy approach with our left-hand propeller and made line handling simple. 

With only two heavy rain showers, we quickly made it up the first five locks in the series, then at Écluse Bretoille, the downstream doors refused to close. When they had begun closing, only the one on the right bank moved and then the automatic cycle aborted. The remote control device could not persuade it to either resume or start over. I phoned l’éclusier and got the standard reply:“J’arrive”.

He did arrive after about twenty minutes and got the cycle going again. The final three locks went without a hitch, and at the last one we deposited the télécommande and its laminated instruction sheet into the dropbox. 

Just short of four kilometres further along we moored for the day on the right bank with the spud pole and a pounded pin on a newly done steel embankment. We were a kilometre from the junction with le Canal de Garonne, but just along a narrow and thinly paved road was the Intermarché to which we had trekked during our stay in Montech. After lunch we wheeled our cart over to the supermarket and hauled back a load of fresh supplies. 

While the roving éclusier was rebooting the recalcitrant lock gates, he had asked us our intentions once we reached le Canal de Garonne. We told him we wanted to continue down the canal the following day around noon. He recoiled in shock, telling us we can’t do that; the passage commences with a series of five locks that, while automated, they need an éclusier to operate the controls and éclusiers need to eat. I suggested we begin at 1100 and he agreed that would be better. Slightly before 1100 on Saturday morning we passed under the final bridge on le Canal de Montech and reentered le Canal de Garonne.  

As we came around the corner, the light on the first lock turned green. The canal branches here; the channel to the left leads to the five lock series, while the channel to the right leads to la pente d’eau de Montech, the Montech Water Slope. The water slope was built in 1974 to speed the passage up and down the 13.3 metre elevation change of the canal. It is in basic terms a motorized squeegee that moves a wedge of water up or down a sloped concrete channel. It is restricted to use by boats of twenty metres or more and costs €58 to save about 45 minutes of transit time. 

Between the trees as we left the third lock we saw the pair of diesel-electric engines that are joined across the water trench by a massive beam at the one end and by a huge squeegee blade at the other. The blade was in its raised position, allowing a descending barge to pass under it to continue down the canal or for an ascending one to pass into the wedge of water to be moved up the slope.  

We continued down through the fourth and fifth locks with l’éclusier riding along on a moped down the towpath from lock to lock to work the controls. 

At 1144 we exited the final lock in the series, having spent less than the forty-five minutes that the water slope is supposed to save. I will assume that the time saving is calculated for a fully laden 40.5 by 6 metre péniche that would take a long time pumping its way into and out of the lock chambers. 

After a couple of rain showers, three more locks and eleven more kilometres we arrived in Castelsarrasin. At 1335 we secured to bollards on a low wharf in Port Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The Capitainerie was closed, so I assumed it was for lunch. It was still closed mid afternoon, late afternoon and early evening, so I assumed it was closed for Saturday. On Sunday  morning when I walked to the bakery for breakfast croissants, the Capitainerie was closed. It was still closed when shortly after 1000 we prepared to depart, so I assumed they did not want any money for the moorage, electricity and water.

We slipped at 1010 and motored along the canal in the  first clear skies we had seen in over three weeks. The swans were out with us enjoying the warm, sunny day.

We were back into the self-controlled locks, with dangling wands to twist to activate the cycle. The  locks were all in our favour, so we moved along without any waiting for chambers to fill. 

After five locks we came to le pont-canal de Cacour, a very graceful bridge that carries the canal nearly 400 metres across the Tarn. It was very solidly built of Toulouse brick and Quercy stone in 1845, designed to withstand the floods of the river.  

After the devastating floods of 1930, which destroyed the adjacent railway bridge, one of the aqueduct’s towpaths was used as a rail bed to carry the trains for two years until a new rail bridge could be built.

From the end of the aqueduct the canal steps down through three locks in a kilometre and a half. Shortly before noon we were overlooking le Bassin du Canal in Moissac. As we motored slowly through the crowded basin, le Capitain hailed us from the banks and told us of a short term spot at the far end of the basin.  

At 1215 we secured to the solid quai on the left bank just short of Pont Tournant. I tidied the lines, plugged into shore power and erected the cockpit umbrella while Edi prepared a nibbling tray for lunch. We luxuriated in the sunny afternoon, dawdling over our first meal in the cockpit in over three weeks. The wonderfully gentle atmosphere of Moissac quickly told us to pause for a week or so.

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