05 July 2014

Continuing Along the Baïse

On Saturday, 31 May we had arrived in Nérac during a spate of rainwater runoff that had closed the entire river to navigation for two days. We were unaware of the closure, since we had come directly from la Garonne and had bypassed the manned lock down from le Canal de Garonne into la Baïse where the closure is imposed for upstream-bound boats.

We moored directly below the remains of Château Henri IV; much of it had been destroyed by the anti-royal fervor following the French Revolution. All that remains of the fifteenth and sixteenth century original is a portion of one wing of the quadrangle.  

While we waited for the raging river to subside, we explored the area, Extending along the river banks for about a kilometre upstream of Nérac is a nature park, Parc de la Garenne, Among its attractions are several artesian fountains. In one of these, la fontaine de Fleurette, is a graceful sculpture of Fleurette, a maiden who wooed and won the fleeting attention of the young prince, soon to become King Henry IV. When the royal court refused her alliance with him, she threw herself into the river. 

The attendant plaque tells that she was only sixteen, he three years older. Ravished by his love, she gave her life; he gave but a day. The  word ‘flirt’ is said to derive from her brief royal tryst.

Across the river and back near the edge of town we passed the restoration of the royal bath house, its site showing the extent of the former gardens beneath the château. The elegant sixteenth century octagonal stone pavilion is now listed as an historic monument.

On Sunday afternoon the level of the water fell  to 50 centimetres on the Nérac gauge and the river was again opened to navigation. Mid-afternoon Hoop op Zegen came through town, downbound in a rush to make it to Buzet before the locks closed; Nicholas and Marise were heading back to England from there on Monday for a couple of weeks and had been trapped upriver by the floods. With the level at 50 centimetres, the current in the river was still rather strong, making the entry to the locks still rather awkward. 

We decided to wait until Monday before we continued upstream, not for river conditions, but primarily because we were almost out of diesel. We had burnt much more than usual churning against the swift currents in le Lot, la Garonne and la Baïse. Monday morning as we watched the level of the river drop, we scrambled to find a company to deliver diesel to the barge. None of the local companies offered unmarked fuel delivery. After many phone calls with the assistance of the tour boat skipper and Capitain de Port we contacted a company to come with agricultural diesel. We decided it was an emergency and took on 200 litres of marked fuel at €0.94 per litre, about 45 cents per litre less expensive than transportation diesel. Besides the emergency, we justified the act by considering we had burnt well over 200 litres for heating and hot water during our year in France, and GNR, marked fuel is legal for those purposes.  

It was 1540 by the time we finished fueling and were able to continue upriver. As we passed the gauge on Pont Neuf, it was registering slightly below 40 centimetres, 10 centimetres below flood closure level. 

We continued along a winding and narrowing river with even narrower leads to the locks. From Nérac, we passed through seven locks.  The first two were rather easy, but from the third lock onward there are narrow and very shallow bypass canals upstream from the locks. We dragged our skeg through the soft bottom as we pumped our way along at turns for six but making two or less.

At 1902 we secured to bollards on a stone wall beneath the bridge in Moncrabeau. The town is famous as the liars’ capital of the world, but whether they are telling the truth about this, we didn’t find out. 

We left early on Tuesday morning and motored another eleven kilometres up the river, passing through three more locks to arrive in the city of Condom. We continued on through without stopping, not that we weren’t interested, but we had decided to stop there on our way back down. 

A kilometre and a half beyond Condom we secured at 1145 to the wooden wharf just upstream of Écluse Gauge. The chart book shows a supermarket 600 or 700 metres along a road above the lock, so we scurried to get there and do our fresh provisioning before all of France shut down for lunch.  

We returned to Zonder Zorg with a fine selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish bread and pastries and, of course cheese. We are constantly reminded of the stupidity of the Canadian dairy marketing board that rewards a few farmers by making Canadians pay nearly three times the world price for cheese and other dairy products. For less than €16 we bought a selection of cheese that would have cost $75 or more in Canada.

The next lock along is a double one and it is operated by éclusiers. We arrived and tooted the horn as the sign requires and immediately two éclusiers came running. We were confused, we hadn’t previously seen any pace above a slow saunter among the lock employees. As we approached, we saw two very fit young men, obviously eager to serve us and most likely freshly arrived for summer employment. 

The lock has been kept totally manual; we watched as they cranked closed the doors and dropped the sluices.   

They than ran up the stone staircase to the central doors and began opening the sluices to flood our chamber. By the end of the summer they will either have slowed down to the snail’s pace of the standard French worker, or they well be very fit and extremely satisfied. 

The next lock, Écluse Flaran, is 3.3 metres high and has a 2 metre flood wall above the full chamber, making it a long climb to the rim to push the button to trigger the cycle. 

At 1450 we arrived in the basin at Valence-sur-Baïse, the end of the navigable portion of the river. Alongside were two small cruisers in long-term storage and two rental boats waiting for clients. 

After we had secured we walked up the steep  hill beneath the cliffs on which the walls of the fortified town were built in 1274. It was mid-afternoon and the town was nearly deserted. All the shops were closed, most of them permanently. We paused at la Mairie and its tourist information office, where we found a very talkative woman. She told us of the new supermarket and other shops a kilometre and a half outside the town and of the declining population and dying businesses in the old town. Of the remaining businesses, they open only for a few scattered hours a few days of the week  

Beside Town Hall is a Romanesque church, which was begun when the town was fortified and it was completed and dedicated in 1303. 

The interior is simple and graceful with beautifully rendered reliefs and sculptures in wood and marble backing the main altar. 

Late on Wednesday morning we headed back down the river, passing through two single locks and one double in the ten kilometres to Condom. We  secured in the basin in the centre of town exactly two hours after leaving Valence. Condom is the capital of the Armagnac region, Armagnac being with Cognac, one of the two great brandy regions of France.

The city is also famous as the home of d’Artignan et les trois mousquetaires. A newly erected sculpture of Artagnan and the Musketeers stands next to the cathedral.

Also beside the cathedral are the wonderful  sixteenth century cloisters. These are now a public space and above them are the offices of la Mairie. 

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries built on foundations of an eleventh century abbey church. It has superb gothic vaulting in its nave.  

Among the more impressive aspects of the interior is the intricately carved masonry in the new choir, which dates to 1844.

At 1115 on Thursday we slipped and continued downriver. The water level was down and we dragged our skeg through the ooze of the bottom in the canals leading past the weirs to the locks. Some of these narrow canals are short, but a few of them are near 500 metres long; progress was painfully slow. Above Écluse Lapierre we came upon a work barge poised across the river clearing a fallen tree. We waited while it swung itself out of the way and then we passed. 

After we had pumped our way along the shallow canal leading to Écluse Lapierre, our bows were just entering the open lock doors when they began to close. A woman from an upbound rental boat had scurried up to the lock activation button and without looking, pressed it. The system shut down. 

I backed clear of the doors and dropped the  spud pole, then I phoned the number listed in the guide to report the incident and received the familiar response: “J’arrive”. About thirty minutes later the work barge that we had passed upstream arrived astern of us and put its bow into the bank to land two workers to reset the system.   

It took another quarter hour for the men to sort out the reset before we were able to enter and lock down. Finally, nearly an hour after we had begun entering the lock, we made it through. The rental boat had to wait for the lock to cycle back up to bring the work boat down before it could continue, so it was delayed nearly an hour and a half for not spending two or three seconds to see if it was clear to push the button. At 1659 we arrived in Nérac.  

After a trip to the supermarket to restock, we continued downstream at 1045 on Friday.  

The water level was still a bit high, though dramatically below the levels we had been in on our ascent the previous week. 

The landing pier that had been nearly awash was now a good 30 centimetres above water, though the buoys showed there was still a strong current running below the weirs.

At 1325 we passed under the aqueduct of  Canal de Garonne.

Four kilometres later we passed the sign indicating the junction with the canal. 

A short while later we were at the entrance to the double lock waiting to be taken up out of the Baïse and at 1428 we entered le Canal de Garonne. We had spent just short of three weeks on three rivers: la Garonne, le Lot and la Baïse. Much of this time was in unstable rainy weather and we had been in high water and in flood closures. It was good to be back in the more stable and predictable canal.

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