Thursday, January 14, 2016

NOT your Viking Riverboat Cruise! 11 days, 118 kms, 66 locks.

Castlenaudry, our favorite stop

                                      French Panhandlers

When my husband, Robert "Mad Dog" Schwartz, and I were looking for a special way to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary, we investigated European boat rentals. While we'd seen ads for those tempting riverboat cruises, elegance is not our style. After years of living part-time on our boat in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, we felt letting someone else drive was way too risky, so we chartered a 30' penichette (small barge) on the Canal du Midi, in the South of France.

Figuring the rental vessel was smaller than our own boat, we'd be on a protected canal with handy banks, and had booked a leisurely eleven-day cruise schedule perfect for meandering—which is our style—through the pastoral French countryside, it'd be a piece of gâteau. Also, I was fluent in French forty years ago; it'd come right back n'est-ce pas?

NO BOATING EXPERIENCE NECESSARY, touted the brochures. Photos 
of boats fortified with enough fenders to qualify them as aquatic bumper 
cars raised a soupçon of concern, but we booked our trip on the historic 
canal anyhow. 
Built as a trade route between 1666 and 1681, the 241 km Canal du Midi 
connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean, and since it covers 
altitudes from sea level to 620 feet, there are locks. 
Lots of locks.  
This lock thing was the reason we opted on a one-way trip and added four
days to the charter company's suggested one-week agenda. As it turned out,
we were right to do so.
Day 1: There wasn't so much as a boulangerie near our departure base, 
but we had a rental car so we drove a few miles to a SuperU and loaded 
enough provisions for a cruise ship, so we were all set to enjoy our 
anniversary dinner in style. 
Day 2: Mad Dog, armed with a French/English translation program,  
and notes I'd written for taxi drivers and train station operators
(my French had indeed returned very quickly), dropped off the car
at our final port and successfully returned by rail. Our plan was to shove
off that afternoon, but a howling wind nixed that.  
Day 3. With only five kilometers to the first set of locks that opened at nine, 
there was no urgency to leave early. Besides, it was still blowing a good 
fifteen knots. We shoved off at nine.  
And again at 9:15. 
And again at 9:30. 
The boat simply refused to go where we wanted to; the minute we 
weren't headed with the wind, or into it, we turned sideways and sailed 
broadside down the canal. 
TIP: When driving a single-engine boat with lousy steering, ram the bank
(this where all those bumpers come in handy), put it into forward gear 
and give it gas. It will turn; maybe not the way you want to turn, but 
it will turn. We later learned those fenders were not so much because 
of Kamakazi drivers—although we encountered a few—but protection
from ancient stone walls lining locks, and bank-rammers like us.
Fortified with pain au chocolat and coffee, we steeled ourselves for 
those first locks, but a very friendly eclusier (lock keeper) helped with our lines 
while complaining about too many commercials on US television when 
he live-streamed NASCAR races. By the time we got through the next 
five locks, we were pros. We made a grand 15 kms that day to the 
modern facility at Port-Lauragais. We soon learned that this type of 
marina—one with water, electricity, nearby stores and restaurants—was 
a rarity. 
Bram: looked good, but no place to tie up.
Cassoulet: better than it looks
 Our first lock was a doozy.

Days 4/5: After nine fairly daunting locks, we arrived at what proved our
favorite stop on our route: Castelnaudary. Dating back to 1103, the 
self-proclaimed "World Capitol of Cassoulet"—a thick stew made with 
cannellini beans, duck, duck fat, salt pork, and garlic sausage that tastes 
much better that it sounds—is everything one expects while cruising a 
canal in France. 
  We walked the historic streets, stocked the larder with 
culinary delights, and enjoyed the dockside cafes. 
Mad Dog felt very French strolling the cobble stoned streets with our daily 
baguette in hand, but balked at the beret I suggested. 
Day 6: Reluctant to leave the charming Castlenaudry, we nevertheless
conquered 18 locks towards Bram, a village our rental agency literature said
was picturesque, with a great restaurant, docks, electricity and water. NOT! 
     Bram was pretty, with a restaurant we could only gaze at longingly as we
motored by; the place was chockablock with boats, some looking as though
they hadn't moved in years. 
We "dry camped" a couple of miles later; our boat had no generator, therefore
no electricity. No problem, except my aging laptop's battery wasn't ready for 
life off the grid. We ran the engine until after dinner to cut an early October
chill, and charged our iPhone (which we were using as a GPS), Kindles, and 
our rented Wi-Fi hotspot using a cigarette lighter DC plug adapter. 
Day 7:  Carcassone, a city first fortified by the Romans in 100BC, 
didn't hold our interest. After the seemingly deserted small villages 
we'd passed, seeing so many locals out on a Sunday (maybe because
all the grocery stores and shopping malls are closed?) was a treat, 
even though the main attraction seemed to be watching the bumper-boat 
foibles in the locks. This big-ish city wasn't really why we came to the Canal, 
so we opted to continue on to Trebes and dry camped again. 
Day 8: The further south we traveled, the busier the locks. After covering
46 kms and 22 locks in two days, we'd pulled over to await the opening of the 
double locks at Ecluse Saint Martin when we had a epiphany: 
we were tied to a perfectly good dock! No electricity, of course, but we had 
wine. We spent a lovely evening with nary another boat in sight.
 Walking into the small village the next morning, we scored coffee and
pain au chocolat at the local brasserie, picked up our baguette at the  
boulangrie, and then breezed through the two locks, all alone. 
Day 9:  La Redorte, the chart informed us, had full services (hope for my dead 
computer?) so we tied up in front of a café, where we spotted an electrical box! 
Now to find the Harbor Master. With a Gaelic shrug, a man sipping wine at 
the cafe told us the office was closed (as in permanently) but I should talk to 
someone at city hall. Walking into the quaint town a half-mile away, I found 
la Mairie was fermé.  We finally learned that yes, there was a possibility of 
electricity, but I had to go back into town, buy a token to make it work, and 
the charge was five bucks an hour. Who needs a computer, anyhow?
  La Rivessel, the dockside café, was miraculously open for dinner and we 
finally enjoyed a great French meal. We had been on the canal for an entire 
week and it was the first restaurant we found open outside of Castlenaudry.
TRIP NOTE: Fermé/Closed seems to be one of the most frequently used words
in France. We were surprised to find so many McDonalds in a country known
for its great food, but soon figured out why they are packed with locals: 
Day 10: Our next stop was a marina at Homps, ¡et voila! there it was, just as 
we entered town. As soon as we tied up we were told it was a private marina 
and we couldn't stay. "Ces't tout! (That's it!)," we declared, and headed for 
our final port, where a slip and our car awaited. We were a day early, but we 
were beat and still facing a 600 mile drive through France to Germany: A 
whole 'nother story.
Would we do it again? Yes, but in a boat with bow thrusters and a generator. 
What did we learn? Never count on anything being open. 
Best part of the trip? The sheer beauty of the French countryside, adorned 
with castles and ancient ramparts. And baguettes, cheese and wine. 
Worst part of the trip? Despite the Euro almost equal to the dollar, 
everything is very expensive. 
Except, of course, for baguettes, cheese and wine.


Anna Ash said...

Fascinating reading,great to hear an entertaining and honest account that you wouldn't get in the brochures, merci beaucoup

pamela biard said...

Fun read!! We want to go!