02 August 2014

From Toulouse to Narbonne

We had arrived in Toulouse on Saturday, 21 June and were forced to stop by an early lunch closure of the lock in front of the main train station. We were in the seediest part of town and the only moorage available was occupied by a pair of addicts shooting heroin.

With French logic, because he had shut-down the system for lunch eight minutes early, l’éclusier reopened it several minutes beyond the 1330 posted time. We passed through the lock and decided to continue through Toulouse without stopping. We had seen all we wanted during our four-day stop on our way down in April.

We worked our way up through six more locks and twenty-three more kilometres to Montgiscard, where at 1840 we secured to a wild bank across the road from a shopping plaza with an InterMarché, BricoMarché and assorted other shops. We resupplied with fresh produce before the supermarket closed, and on Sunday morning we carted two jugs of diesel fuel from the service station. The fuel had fallen below the bottom of the sight gauge on the tank. The additional forty litres gave us sufficient fuel to make the eighty or so kilometres to Carcassonne where we could organize a truck delivery.

At noon on Monday, after shopping in the hardware store and supermarket, we slipped and continued up the canal. Ten locks and twenty-six kilometres along, we stopped for the night just below Écluse Ocean, the final up lock before the summit pound. In the evening we enjoyed seared tuna steaks with butter sautéed mushrooms, steamed asparagus with mustard mayonnaise and sliced roma tomatoes with shredded fresh basil. The Alsatian gewürztraminer accompanied splendidly.  

Tuesday we passed through the summit pound and began our descent toward the Mediterranean, pausing after fifteen kilometres and nine locks in Castelnaudary. 

We spent two nights alongside in the basin relaxing and doing chores. Among the chores was the manufacture of insect screens for the portlights. We had bought some plastic strip and bug screen at the previous brico and Edi made custom-fitted hoops for each of the holes.

At 1030 on Thursday, 26 June we continued down the canal, beginning with the four lock flight just downstream of the basin of Castelnaudary. We were fortunate to find the light green as we arrived and made a very quick descent. At 1520, after seventeen locks and fifteen kilometres, we secured for the night in a wilderness setting just downstream of Écluse Sauzens.

At 1020 on Friday we slipped the line from the roots on the bank, raised the spud pole and continued down canal. The water was busy with zigzagging bangy boats since we were between two major rental bases. Because no license, qualifications or experience are required to operate these boats, we are always extremely wary when any approach. The operators most likely have no awareness of regulations. We were the downbound vessel, so we had priority, but were the oncoming renters aware of this? At this bridge hole, a rental was trying to force us to stop when we were already committed. He likely didn’t understand the meaning of our Five Short Blasts on the horn, but he quickly slowed and veered. We continued along unscathed and after seven locks and 25 kilometres we secured on the bank on northern outskirts of Carcassonne shortly before 1600.

I phoned Stephanie, la Capitaine du Port and asked her to organize a delivery of diesel fuel to us in the port on Saturday morning. She said the fuel companies don’t work the weekends, so it would have to be Monday. She phoned back a short while later, saying the office was closed for the day. It remained closed for the weekend, so on Monday Stephanie arranged for a delivery on Tuesday morning; the company requires a day’s notice. We were next to the road that led half a kilometre to the huge Leclerc supermarket, so we wouldn’t starve over the weekend. 

I had reserved mooring in the Carcassonne basin for Monday night to be in position for the fuel delivery. The truck arrived as we were sitting down to breakfast, so between bites I assisted the operator in adding 385 litres to our tanks. After shopping for fresh produce in the Tuesday market, at 1130 we slipped and headed down through the lock and under Pont Marengo, the lowest bridge on the Canal du Midi.

After nine locks and seventeen kilometres, at 1715 we secured to the bank with spud pole and pin just through the bridge in Millepetit.

We slipped at 1050 on Wednesday morning, heading to a rendezvous we had organized with Christian of Domaine La Lauze. By telephone on Tuesday evening, we had ordered four more cases of his wine and arranged for a noon delivery by the lock in Marsiellette, only a dozen kilometres from his winery. Because he works for himself, he was on time and everything was in order. 

After loading the wine and catching-up on events since we had seen him in March, we continued through the lock and along very pleasant stretches of plane tree lined banks.

These were very frequently interspersed with sections where many of the trees had been removed or were dying from canker stain fungus. All along the canal work continues in its many phases of identifying stricken trees, girdling then and removing them.

In many places, fallen branches have impaled themselves into the canal bottom and present navigational hazards.

Also along the banks is the wonderful variety of engineering works from the seventeenth century. This spillway with a bridge of a dozen arches was built in 1693 to allow the haulage horses and their drovers to keep their feet dry as they crossed the overflow from the canal.

Also of interest to us were the masons’ marks on the stones in the walls of some of the lock chambers. After three and a half centuries, many of these are still sharp. 

On a dramatically less aesthetic note, we met a French cruiser using for fenders a collection of construction site pylons dressed in what appeared to be old socks.

We passed through fourteen locks over the following twenty-two kilometres. During last half of this we were harassed by the very belligerent and obviously drunk crew of a rental boat, as we shared the locks with them. They were apparently trying to make the final lock leading to the 54-kilometre bief to Beziers before it closed for the day. We were making the eight kilometre per hour speed limit and they seemed to be making close to double that, with a huge bank-destroying wake as they caught up to us. We all had to wait for an upbound hotel barge to pump its way into the next lock.

And then slowly pump its way out of it. We watched as the rental barge crew became increasingly impatient and increasingly drunk. They seemed bitter that they had to wait for another rental boat and Zonder Zorg at each of the frequent locks. A few glasses of shared wine allowed them to recruit the other rental boat to team up against us and they hampered our way in the locks. L’éclusiers were told by the French renters that we were a big problem for them. 

Then some justice: Below the third last lock is a flood gate and as we came around the corner toward it, it began to close. 

It remained partly closed for more than twenty minutes while we knowingly waited along the bank on the spud pole and the crews of the two rental boats fumed and cursed as they bumbled from bank to bank.

Finally, after sufficient time had passed that the belligerent boaters could not make it through to the long pound before the remaining locks closed, l’éclusier opened the gates. We smiled. The rentals rushed off in a flurry, heavily banging both walls of the gate on their way through. 

Once the turbulence  and venom of their passing had subsided, we slowly continued along looking for a peaceful stop for the night. At 1845 we came to the spud pole and a bank-side post downstream of Bassenel. The following morning, ensuring we would leave sufficient time for the horrible examples of boater to pull far ahead, we had a leisurely breakfast in the cockpit before continuing along. 

At 1020 we raised the spud pole and continued down through the remaining locks and into the long pound. After seventeen kilometres, at 1335 we secured for the day on the bank in Le Somail.

In the chart book is shown a supermarket about a kilometre south of the village, so as it began to cool at the end of the afternoon, I walked along for some fresh produce and fish for dinner. On the way back I paused at a winery I had seen earlier and was offered a tasting of their line. The first white was thin and lackluster. The next bowled me over; it reminded me very much of better Premiers Crus from Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault, and even of lesser producers’ Corton-Charlemagne. It was a rich, barrel-fermented, stirred lees Chardonnay with great balance and finesse. I continued with great anticipation into the reds. They all disappointed, including their star €24 Syrah. I went back to the Chardonnay and was even more impressed. At €6 Domaine du Somail Festiu drinks like a €40 or €50 Burgundy. I told the winemaker I was on foot from a barge, but when he said they will deliver, I bought two cases.

With the wine delivered and stowed in Zonder Zorg’s cellar, shortly after 1000 we slipped and continued down Canal du Midi. Within three kilometres we came to the junction of Canal de Jonction, which leads to Canal de la Robine, which leads to Narbonne. We made the turn and began the descent of seven locks in five kilometres. All the way along were rental boats; there are several rental bases between Le Somail and Narbonne and the area full of boats with fresh skippers trying to learn boat handling. As we left one lock we were met by one bangy boat deciding to head up the wrong side of the canal and another appearing ready to mount the left bank.

By the time we had met the sideways boater, he had straightened up, and as we passed, he continued to turn and shortly rammed into the right bank.

After five kilometres the canal empties into the Aude River and at the seventh lock is a large panel with instructions and a chart showing the navigation along the short stretch of river leading to Canal de la Robine. The instructions in French, English and German read: “River can be difficult depending on the water level. A moving sand and gravel bank obstructs the middle of the river. Follow the banks as shown on the chart.” We had an easy crossing.

After four more locks, at 1550 we passed under Pont des Marchants in the centre of old Narbonne. Within five minutes we were secured to the wall across from Les Halles, the Public Market. 

In the evening we relaxed with a dinner of seared albacore tuna topped with sautéed crimini mushrooms and served with rissolées, haricots verts almandine and sliced roma tomatoes with shredded fresh basil. The Willm Crémant d’Alsace complemented both the meal and the occasion wonderfully.

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