23 July 2014

Back to Toulouse

On Thursday, 12 June we had left le Garonne and re-entered le canal de Garonne. Ahead  of us was a climb of 132 metres through 52 locks spread over 193 kilometres that would take us back to Toulouse. The transit of the basin above the second lock was much easier than on our descent a few days earlier. A weed cutter had been operating in the pound for two days and had already cut a clear channel through heavy bottom growth.

We quickly got into the routine of up-bound locks and by 1700 had we had passed through eleven locks and travelled 39.4 kilometres to Mas d’Agenais. We secured to a very fine wharf with solid bollards in a clean, attractive setting with no moorage fee.

We had pushed onward without pause because we wanted to visit église Saint-Vincent and see its Rembrandt painting. The eleventh and twelfth century church a listed national monument and for some unfathomable reason it is closed on weekends. We had missed it on our way down the canal the previous Saturday. After breakfast on Friday morning we walked up the steep hill to the church and inside behind armored glass we saw the painting. Besides a cleaning lady, we were the only people in the church.

The painting was done in 1631 as part of a series of eight commissioned by Prince Frederik Hendrik of the Hague to decorate his daughter’s chapel. Six of the series are now in the Pinocotheque in Munich and the remaining piece is known only by a copy in the museum in Brunswick. The Crucifixion arrived in the church as a donation from the Dufour family a generation after they had left their native Mas d’Agenais for Dunkerque. They had bought the painting in a public auction in 1804 and gave it to the church in thanks. Rembrandt’s depiction revolutionized the traditional representation of the Christ crucifixion. It was classified as an Historic Monument in 1918, and in 1959 after much debate on its authenticity, it was sent to the Louvre, authenticated and restored.

The cleaning lady appeared to be the custodian and she obviously had great interest in the contents of the church. She eagerly showed us around the church to point out other treasures and pulling back heavy drapes and moving a barrier enabling us to enter the beautifully carved choir.

She pointed-out sculptures and carvings, including a carved stone capital displayed high on a wall. It is thought to be by the same sculptors who had done the ones in the cloister in Moissac.

After a thorough visit to the church, we paused at the bakery for fresh bread and croissants and then continued up the canal. A few locks along we almost had a pipe bollard collapse onto us as Edi looped the bow line onto it. We scrambled for other mooring arrangements and as we rose to the top of the lock, we had a clear view of l’éclusier doing the only maintenance that seems to be done: mowing the lawns.

The pipe bollard at the downstream end of the lock was missing, hopefully not injuring anyone as it collapsed into the chamber. The lawns; however, were well groomed. We continued along the canal through six locks and 36.6 kilometres to Serignac, where in the late afternoon we moored on the pleasantly sited wharf.

We spent Saturday resting alongside in Serignac, enjoying the free moorage and its free water and electricity, then on Sunday morning we continued along toward Agen. Just over eight kilometres along we came to the start of the flight of four locks that lead up to le pont-canal d’Agen, the aqueduct across la Garonne. We waited as the first chamber drained and prepared for us.

The first thing we saw in the chamber was broken and dysfunctional infrastructure. Three of the four pipe bollards were broken or missing, a ‘safety fence’ was in the way of easily looping one of the remaining bollards and the life ring was missing, its line apparently having been commandeered by passing boaters to assist in hauling mooring lines up to the few bollards from their boats. 

Remembering from our descent that all the locks in the series were impaired, we decided the easiest way to handle the series was to have Edi walk the three or four hundred metres between the locks and take the lines from the rim as Zonder Zorg arrived.

We worked our way up the four locks and then crossed the river on the 580-metre-long aqueduct. In the early afternoon we secured in the Hermitage basin in Agen. Moorage is on a bank crudely ‘improved’ with wooden posts and planks, but with no bollards, water nor electricity. The moorage with facilities has been taken over by a boat rental company.

On Monday morning we walked the bridges across the canal and the railway yards to the centre of the city. All the shops were closed, but we were hoping the market hall would be open. It wasn’t, but we did find a Petit Casino, the French version of our Seven-Eleven with similar poor selection and rip-off prices. We noted its location and continued on to le musée des Beaux-Arts. We had been drawn to the museum by the description in the guide, which mentions some Gallo-Roman treasures, including the superb Venus de Mas and paintings by Goya, Sisely, Picabia and Dufy. We quickly found Venus de Mas d’Agenais, a first century BC Roman copy of a Greek sculpture rendered in marble from Asia Minor. Its placard tells that it was discovered in 1877 in Mas d’Agenais. This is around the time the Abbot and the Count were stopped by the Prefect from selling the Rembrandt from the church to the Louvre.  

We continued through displays of Paleolithic tools and artifacts, as well as large selections of Bronze Age and Iron Age pieces, before entering the art galleries. We were very disappointed by the poor lighting in the galleries, with badly placed lights reflecting glaringly off the surfaces of most of the paintings, making viewing near impossible. A portrait by Anton Van Dijk was barely visible in the glare.

I shot many pictures at oblique angles in an attempt to prevent glare.

With some creative distorting and skewing in Photoshop, these became much easier to appreciate
on the computer screen than they are in the gallery.

This 1904 impressionistic scene along the Loing River at Moret is by Francis Picabia, who is more famous for the creation of Dada and Surrealism. He had encountered Impressionism in 1897 through Sisley and Pissarro.

On our way back to the barge we stopped in at the rental boat base to inquire about the price of diesel fuel. Agen is one of the very few places along the canal where it is available, and the company is holding their rental clients and the boating public to ransom with a price of €1.75 per litre, more than 40 cents above street prices. We passed on the fuel and in the early afternoon, continued up the canal, stopping four hours, twenty-four kilometres and three locks later in Valence d’Agen. The next morning’s market and the large Intermarché enabled us to properly refill our supplies.

We continued to find broken and dysfunctional canal infrastructure at nearly every lock. This mooring post on a waiting quai was the only one left, and it came free and floated away as we used it.

Not wanting to endure another long series of moorage shuffles in Moissac, we paused there this time long enough only for the swing bridge to be opened for us.

Instead of stopping there, we opted to continue across the aqueduct and along six kilometres to moor on the quiet embankment close to the hardware stores and supermarkets on the outskirts of Castelsarrasin. 

On Wednesday morning we continued along, ascending the series of locks past the water slope at Montech, before heading down le canal de Montech four kilometres to the peaceful moorage in Lacour St-Pierre. 

In the evening we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of seared albacore tuna steaks topped with crisply sautéed pleurottes, and served with steamed cauliflower with sauce Béchamel and nutmeg, saffron basmati rice and sliced Roma tomatoes with fresh basil. The accompanying Alsace Gewürztraminer complemented splendidly.

The next morning we moved back up the canal three kilometres to moor on the bank behind the Intermarché. We hauled two 20-litre jugs of diesel fuel from the supermarket’s filling station, bought at €1.295 the litre, rather than the €1.75 we had seen at the rental boat base in Agen. We then continued along, stopping for the night in Grisolles. On Friday we continued along to a wilderness mooring a short distance above Écluse Lespinasse, a safe distance from the outskirts of Toulouse. 

We slipped at 0945 on Saturday morning and shortly began passing the industrial sprawl and derelict havens of Toulouse. At 1150 we entered le canal du Midi and began back up it, arriving within two kilometres at the first lock. The three locks through Toulouse are run from a central control station, and all we needed to do was twist the dangling wand before the first one to set the series in motion.

We quickly passed through the first and second locks and arrived at the third, an old triple lock bastardized into a 6.2 metre single canyon in front of the main train station. The traffic lights were turned off at 1222 as we approached the lock and the gates began to close. It was lunch time; the lock is scheduled to close at 1230, but our transit would have taken l’éclusier a minute or two into his own time, so we were forced to stop, back down the canal and scramble for a mooring spot.

The only mooring place was occupied by two addicts melting heroin and shooting-up. I backed to within a line toss of the last bollard and dropped the spud pole to moor in the tangle of weeds just out of reach of the pair. Welcome to Toulouse!

17 July 2014

Upriver from Bordeaux

We had arrived on the floats at Ponton d’Honeur in Bordeaux late morning on Tuesday, 10 June. Directly beside us was Port St-Caihau, through which lies the centre of the old city. 

Two hours after we had secured on the float, the barge Brion arrived beside us on its way up the river with AirBus fuselage sections.  

It sat stemming the current below Pont de Pierre, waiting for slack water so it could pass through and continue up to Langon. There is a strong current and turbulence around the arch bases until shortly before slack water. We had squirted through when we arrived. 

Finally, after thirty-five minutes of treading water, it moved through the specially prepared centre arch of the bridge. It appears we had passed under the bridge more than two and a half hours before slack; no wonder it was rough. 

Our moorage on the float was also rough, contending with tides of over five metres and a twice daily tidal bore meeting the heavy seaward flow of la Garonne. There is a pair of mooring basins, les bassins à flot, downstream three kilometres and through a tidal lock, but we had received no replies from our emails and phone messages. We were stuck on the float in the currents and tides, where moorage cost €42 per night including water and electricity.

We had been thinking of heading up la Dordogne, but since it was nearing full moon, the heights of the tides and the mascarets, the tidal bores was increasing. This would make navigation more difficult, less safe and the moorings would be even more tenuous. Waiting on the expensive and uncomfortable float for more than a week for tides of lower amplitudes made little sense to us, so after an afternoon, an evening and a morning seeing the sights of Bordeaux, we decided to head back up river. 

At 1400 on Wednesday we slipped from the float and headed back up toward the arches of Pont de Pierre. It was still a good half hour before slack, but I wanted to buck the slowing current for the first while to put us further upstream to use the push of the flooding tide before the river current overcame it. We selected the arch with the best looking current and punched through at 2400 rpm, having the constricted flow slow us to a near stop under the bridge. 

Upstream a kilometre is a set of three bridges, two road and one rail, with a navigational channel indicated by the red/white diamonds. Coming downstream was Brion, heading to fetch more fuselage pieces. I stayed on the outer edge of the marked channel, leaving seventy-five of the eighty metre width for Brion. She inexplicably veered toward us and crowded us out of the channel. 

After nearly an hour we had lost the ebb current and began to feel the flood. By the time we were passing Langorian, twenty-two kilometres upstream from Bordeaux, we were moving along at better than 13 km/h. 

Upstream we passed the tailored corduroy slopes of  vineyards contrasted above the wild and ragged river banks. 

The sun was over our shoulders as we arrived in Langon and I called les éclusiers at Castets to advise them of our arrival at the lock. We were told the high water occurred after they closed for the day and that we would need to wait on the float until the morning tide. Both the paper and electronic tide tables we had showed this was not so; high water at the lock was within their working hours. However, this meant that locking us through would have entailed two or three minutes overtime. No further discussion was warranted. 

At the height of the tide an hour later, we secured on the float below the lock as les éclusiers spent their last twenty minutes idle before quitting time.  

After a leisurely breakfast the following morning we slipped from the float, headed under the Eiffel bridge and into the lock. 

Within a quarter hour we were out of the river and back into le canal de Garonne with 52 up-bound locks and 193 kilometres to take us back to Toulouse. We decided not to stop in Castets, but to continue up canal to somewhere with a better work ethic. We joked that this might mean having to continue all the way across France and into Flanders or the Netherlands before we found such a place.

07 July 2014

Onward to Bordeaux

After nearly three weeks of explorations on the rivers Lot and Baïse, on Friday the 6th of June we re-entered le Canal de Garonne. We headed downstream through Buzet-sur-Baïse, pleased to see all the idle rental boats in both the ports. This meant that fewer would be out jeopardizing our safe and peaceful navigation.

Five kilometres further along we paused for the night on a quiet wilderness bank downstream of Damazan.

On Saturday we continued down the canal, working our way through the locks. Edi got back into the swing of twisting the dangling wand to initiate the automatic cycle.

After three locks and fourteen kilometres, we arrived in Mas d’Agenais shortly before noon. As Edi prepared lunch, I trotted up the steep hill and through the old wall to the village to buy bread and fresh produce from the épicerie that was mentioned in the guide. 

Also mentioned in the guide is the eleventh century Église Saint-Vincent, in which is a depiction of the dying Christ painted in 1631 by Rembrandt. After lunch we climbed up to the village and walked along to the church. We arrived to learn that the church is open only on weekdays and closed weekends.

Not wanting to wait in the tiny three shop community until Monday, we decided to take a quick look around and schedule a weekday stop on our way back from Bordeaux. There is a splendid view over the canal and la Garonne from the cliff top.

We followed the switchback path and stairs down the escarpment with a fine view of Zonder Zorg just up the canal.

We continued down the canal for another dozen kilometres and two locks, passing along the way several teams of rowers out practicing.

We also passed some less successful navigators. At 1540 we secured for the day on a wilderness bank two kilometres downstream of the village of la Grande Route.

We slipped shortly before 1000 on Sunday and worked our way down another six locks and 27.4 kilometres to the basin in Castets-en-Dourthe. The water in the basin is rather shallow and it is very overgrown with underwater plants. There was no clear path through the weeds, so we had to cut our own route through, and in the process, the propeller became entangled and progress was very slow.

Mid-afternoon we slowly plowed our way backwards through the dense weeds and secured on a wharf, the bow held by the spud pole. The mooring balls are set-up for boats half Zonder Zorg’s length and simply got in the way of our maneuvering. We had chosen a spot next to the wifi antenna, from which we received a very strong signal. Unfortunately, like many other places in France, the wifi is not 
connected to the internet.

We were at kilometre 192.5 on the canal, half a kilometre from its end. At the end of the basin is Écluse les Gares and just beyond it is Écluse Castets, the lock down into la Garonne. On the wall of the Castets lock house is a flood gauge, which measures the level of the river above normal. The lip of the lock chamber is 7 metres above the river and the gauge goes up to 13 metres. Notations of floods border the scale, with dates recorded at more severe floods. Of note are the 12.5 metres in 1875 and the 13.0 metres in 1900, both floods just below the top floor landing of the double staircase. 

We walked over to la Capitainerie to get information on descending to the river. We learned that access to the final two locks of the canal is scheduled to coincide with high water on la Garonne, as long as it falls within the working hours of les éclusiers. High water at Castets is two hours after the high tide at Bordeaux and the next high water was at 0815 the following day, but the lock keepers would be off duty then. Vive la France! The next locking through wouldn’t be until the following high water Monday evening. We would have to wait overnight Monday on the float in the river below the lock until Tuesday morning’s ebb gave us the four hours daylight needed for the passage to Bordeaux. There are no safe stops on the river until Bordeaux. We booked an appointment for Monday at 1830 and after ordering bread and croissants for delivery in the morning, we went back to Zonder Zorg to relax.

Le Capitain had told us there was an épicerie and a boucherie in the village, so after breakfast on Monday we walked up to buy some fresh things for dinner. Our fresh supplies were near exhausted, since we had anticipated being able to replenish in Bordeaux. We arrived at the grocery shop to find a crude note taped to the roll-down. It translated to: Store Closed Saturday 7 June to Monday 9 June inclusive. Reopening Tuesday 10/6 at 0700. 

We rethought the evening’s dinner; we had end bits of a variety of vegetables, so a stir-fry made sense. We walked along to the butcher to select a piece of pork or turkey breast to add to the wok. The sign on its door told us it was closed Mondays. Vive la France! 

We continued along to the twelfth century Église St-Romain for a look. I was intrigued that the church is oriented North-South rather than East-West and that it has its bell tower at the back, rather than at the front. We walked around it looking for an open door; there was none; it was closed. Vive la France! 

On Monday evening we descended through the two final locks to the river, taking an inordinate amount of time waiting for a fiberglass boat to bounce its way into the two locks and pass their lines. We later found out the owners had just bought it and were still uneasy with its handling.

We entered la Garonne, swept downstream under the Eiffel bridge in the building current, turned and stemmed the current back up to secure on the dilapidated float, which had only two unbroken bollards and one ring for the two boats. With the current overnight expected to be up to ten km/h with the ebb and six or seven in the opposite direction with the flood, we had to be very creative with our mooring lines.

Not long after we had settled in, a heavy thunderstorm rolled through. I dug some baby scallops out of the freezer and cleaned-out the fridge’s vegetable drawer; we enjoyed a splendid stir-fry.

We had been told by le Capitain to leave the float at 0800 with the strengthening ebb. He said the passage to Bordeaux should take about four hours, and this timing would put us at Pont de Pierre at slack water just before noon. I looked at the 54 kilometre distance and saw we would need to average 13.5 kilometres per hour in an increasing and then a slowing current. We left the float at 0730 to give us half an hour in hand.

Two kilometres along, the first buoys on the river showed that the current was already rather swift.

Running at 1400 rpm, which in still water gives Zonder Zorg 9 km/h, we were already making 13.8.

Four kilometres further along we passed Port Airbus, the terminal for the barges that bring upstream from Bordeaux huge fuselage and wing sections for the Airbus assembly plants. 

As we passed the port we were making over 15 km/h, the river current kicking our speed up over 6 kilometres per hour.

The beacons in the river had lengthening current trails. 

Twelve kilometres further along we were hitting 16 km/h.

With increasing frequency we passed bank-side fishing installations. Typical of the lower Garonne and estuary of the Gironde, these employ drop nets. Many of the installations are shacks on poles above the river, but some are on floats on pilings. 

Also along the banks we passed an increasing number of chateaux.

Many of these were wine properties as we passed the dessert wine regions of Ste-Croix-du-Mont, Loupiac, Barsac and Sauternes.

There are very few riverside communities, most being built back in away from the banks and above the historic flood levels. Langorian is an exception to this, being built at river’s edge on a bank only about four metres above the river. Its only moorings are the overgrown sloping stone walls. There are few safe mooring possibilities in the more than 50 kilometres between Castets and Bordeaux and a power failure or steering gear problem would place a boat at risk over much of the passage.

At 1110 we arrived in Bordeaux. 

Five minutes later we passed through a heavy ebb current under Pont de Pierre and washed downstream as we turned to stem the current back up to our reserved spot on Ponton d’Honneur. We secured at 1123, having made the 54 kilometre passage in seven minutes short of four hours. We were alone on the float until the arrival an hour later of the plastic boat, with which we had shared the lock and float in Castets.

Up the ramp and across the street from us was Port St-Caihau, through which begins the heart of the old city. I had been to Bordeaux dozens of times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s conducting wine tours and searching for wines to import. My last trip was in 2000 just before I shut down the wine company and bought my first Dutch canal boat. I was looking forward to seeing the city again.