UK to the Med :: Episode 8 :: Canal du Midi and Canal de Garonne


Now in well and truly south of the border in Occitania (the houses have shutters, the roofs have roman tiles) we enjoy the Camargue, savour the many delights of the historic Canal du Midi, wander around Toulouse and venture west along the ‘secret’ Canal de Garonne. Then it’s back to the Med, get the mast back up, and go sailing.

Here comes the sun
[smiley face] 


Mon-Sat 26th Apr-1st May
SAINT-GILLES

65km 6hrs 15min. The sun is shining but the river is wide, flowing strongly and the wind’s gusting. We pass the castles at Beaucaire and Tarascon but there’s nowhere to stop there. We’re heading for Arles but we meet friends who left Avignon before us, coming back. Apparently the pontoon there is full so together we turn west down the Petit Rhone (smaller, very rural), go through the lock onto the Canal Rhone a Sete, and moor at the ancient town of Saint-Gilles. Once a place of importance, pilgrimage and trade, it’s now mainly just quiet and old. Very pleasant. During our stay we visit Nîmes (Roman amphitheatre and the Maison Carre temple) and the Pont du Gard (Roman aqueduct) – all three are stunningly complete and impressive examples of public building from nearly 2,000 years ago.

Sun-Wed 2nd-12th May
AIGUES-MORTES

27km 2hrs 55min. We stop for lunch against a timber pontoon located in an idyllic rural setting. Then just a couple of hours journey westwards, past groups of Camargue horses. The canal is quiet but there are a few hire boats around. We expect to encounter more (maybe much more) as the days go by. Then we moor up by the medieval walled town of Aigues Mortes – a kind of C13th Milton Keynes, only smaller. The town was created in the midst of swampland from scratch by Louis IX (St Louis) as France’s then only outlet to the Mediterranean and as his Crusade departure port. Its stone ramparts, tower, grid-layout streets and terraced cottages are complete and largely intact. Planning to stay just one night (expensive at 22€ p.d) we actually stay ten whilst we get a stern gland problem sorted out. (er, the boat’s stern gland)(not ours). Then, an engine exhaust manifold problem (expensive, time-consuming). Never rains, but it pours (as they say).

Thurs 13th May
GRAND TRAVERS

14km 1hr 55min. Mid-afternoon our repairs are finally finished, we get the bill, gulp, phone the bank, say goodbye to Guy and Antoine (our mechanics) and set off. Within 5 minutes we meet a very big pleasure boat in a narrow canal section, head-on. Much to-ing and fro-ing when we try to ‘hang about’ to one side to let him pass, without either of us actually running aground or hitting one another. Then, approaching the 4-way flood gate junction at le Vidourle, we meet another one turning the corner towards us. More reversing practise. After another hour or so it’s getting towards 6pm, the weather’s turned a bit fresh and we decide not to push on to a pukkah mooring, but simply to find a bankside spot and tie up. Simply . . but most of the bank is covered with rocks and rubble – not nice to nuzzle against. We find a short widened section, very gently ease ourselves against the smooth-ish sloping stonework side, and tie up using the pieces of steel joist already embedded in the bank, plus our hand ‘rond’ anchors. It’s a lovely spot and just beyond the bank is the wild Etang (shallow salt lagoon) de Mauguio, a little sandy beach, flamingos, and rabbits for Chloe to sniff out. And mozzies. **[There are lots of section of bank along here with pieces of ‘bollard’ steel sticking up at intervals – they date back to when the canal was much more widely used by commercial peniches. Most of the time, however, the banks and canal edges that they’re set into have degraded too much to make them of use.]

Fri-Sat 14th-15th May
LA MAGUELONNE

14km 1hr 45min. Setting off early-ish, we stop for provisions at Palavas, mooring up opposite the VNF depot. The depth where we moor is about 1.2m but with Grehan’s keel fully up that’s not a problem – we draw less than 1m. Then, after another short hop, once again we can go places other yachts just can’t. Just before the pontoon bridge at la Maguelonne there are some nice looking wooden pontoons – and one’s free. We gently motor towards it, knowing the depth will be pretty shallow. The depth alarm – set to 1.5m – goes off well before we get close but we make it and moor up in just about 1m. Southerlies are brilliant! It’s peaceful and delightful. Sun’s shining, skies are blue, we take a 15min walk past the flamingos, past the C6th abbey, to the beach, sunbathe and paddle in the Med! And the following day, after chores, it’s down to the beach again, where people have no clothes on(!). So, when in Rome . . .

Sun-Mon 16th-17th May
SETE

25km, 3hrs 5min. We set off early to catch the 9am bridge opening at Frontignan, which we do, but become part of a queue of boats in the process, a big peniche leading us. Slowly. Will we catch the next double-bridge opening, at Sète? Finally, it’s out of the canal, into the ètang de Thau, take a left round to the canal leading into Sète, round the bend and . . the bridges are down. Rats! From the guide book it looks like we’ll have to wait until lunchtime, so we find a place to park up. We ask a fisherman when the bridges will open. “Now!” he says, and we look ’round and sure enough they are. So we travel under those two, then through a swing bridge and (ignoring the port de plaisance) here we are in the middle of a fairly empty upper harbour area by the steel latticework of the Pont Tivoli. Sète is a really interesting likeable place, like a workaday Venice – lots of canals of varying sizes, loads of small boats tied up all along, canalfront buildings, a seriously big fishing fleet, cross-Med ferries, enormous cruise ships, a yacht harbour, watery jousting competitions, hustle and bustle. Only drawback – the wash from the many small craft that zoom up and down, in and out. Grehan is a-rocking and a-rolling against the quayside. Not very funny (as ShortRound says).

Tues 18th May
LES ONGLOUS

20km, 2hrs 25min. Out into the Etang de Thau, a large inland lake whose margins bristle with fields of oyster bed stakes. We take time to calibrate our renewed autohelm controller, making two slow circles. We even practice some pilotage, taking bearings and plotting our position. Then, having successfully located the entrance lighthouse (!) we enter the Canal du Midi and decide to moor up at the Glenans sailing club at Les Onglous. Very quiet and relaxed, there’s even a little informal etang-side beach.

 

Wed 19th May
VILLENEUVE-les-BEZIERS

26km, 4hrs 20min, 2 ecluses. Now we’re back to small rural canal speeds – slow down when craft pass, shallow patches, waiting at ecluses . . the pace has changed. Compared to the Marne a la Saone canal, there are lots more hire boats, often indifferently piloted. We go through curved sided Lock #1 with an Australian yacht, and a hire boat. A gentle start. Then the amazing near-circular ecluse at Agde where we stop for lunch and to take Chloe for a vet’s check-up (she’s ok but needs some medication for her knee). Pushing through shallow reaches flanked by plane trees, we moor up by the next ecluse at Villeneuve, just outside Beziers.

 

Thurs 20th May
COLOMBIERS

13km, 3hrs 40mins, 11ecluses. What a day – we are exhausted! In the morning, 4 ecluses and we find out just how rough and difficult these Midi locks are. Big surge of water when the lock starts to fill, we are hard put to keep Grehan’s mast from colliding with the curved wall. And we’re often sharing the ecluse with other craft having similar positional difficulties but with slightly less concern for their (hired) boats. Hairy. OK, we get to Beziers, cross the viaduct (beautiful) and moor up to wait 4hrs to join the next batch of boats going up the Foncerannes staircase. Reckon we’ve done well, so far.

At 16:00 we start the first of a flight of seven locks, with four other boats. Gawd knows how we all fit in, but it turns out we’ve also done well, to be ‘last boat in’ (less turbulance at the back, even though it’s more of a squeeze actually getting in). The cascade of water from one upper lock down to the next is . . well . . disconcerting to say the least. It’s an hour’s hard work to get up them all, with an audience of many many sightseers looking on. But we do it in fair style and are pretty pleased we’ve passed quite a severe boat-handling test. Out of that test, then another. Very narrow reaches, where of course we meet big steel pleasure barges head-on. And – to make things worse – the canal is very shallow indeed. Much of time our sounder is reading 1.1m and Grehan feels like she’s really having to push hard to get through.

Finally we get to Colombiers, which has a reasonable reputation. Entirely undeserved. Unless you like loud drunks, kids running everywhere and an officious community jobsworth. We are told ‘don’t moor there’ in 3 places. Then when we do moor somewhere ok, we are told by M P’tit Hitler we must not use the mooring rings in case children trip over our lines. He lets other boats moor where we were told ‘not allowed’. After 9 months in France, this is the worst place. Can’t wait to leave early. Very early.

Fri 21st May
ARGENS-MINERVOIS

50km, 6hrs 35min, 1 ecluse. We do leave early – 7am. Do the normal pre-start checks, turn on, check cooling water’s going through. Uh-oh, it isn’t. Out with the hand pump and backwash the water inlet (usual culprit – can get clogged with leaf debris and general muck). OK? No it’s not. Tools out, remove access panel, drive belts and water pump, check impellor. Looks great, re-fit. What could be wrong? Look again and there under the engine is the rubber sealing ring from the filter cap. It had fallen off when we checked the filter basket. Lesson learnt and 1hr 20mins used up! Then it’s through the C17th Malpas canal tunnel, short but the world’s oldest. At Capestang we pass through the Midi’s narrowest and reputably lowest bridge . . ok, and stop for lunch at Argeliers (a very nice bankside mooring and a nice village). We pass over the world’s oldest navigable aqueduct and some good-looking possible moorings, but make for Argens-Minervois, just after the first ecluse for 54km (hire boat out of control again). What has been notable along this naturally level watercourse has been the number of times we’ve felt we were either going uphill or downhill – due to the horizontal slope on adjacent banks, changes to the horizon visible, trees, tricks of the light, perspective, etc. In contrast to yesterday, we encounter some wide reaches with depths of 1.4-1.5m. Grehan feels like she’s off the leash. We also pass around many hairpin bends as the canal takes its tortuous, level, route. The village of A-M is old, with an ancient, somewhat decrepid, chateau on the skyline. We are now in the depths of Cathar country. French accents from the geezers playing boules just beyond the cockpit are sounding Spanish, even to us Brits.

Sat 22nd May
MARSEILLETTE

24km, 6hrs 30min, 16 ecluses. Pleasant start, manage 10 ecluses ok, lovely treed reaches, bends, shallows, little aqueducts, villages, vineyards, best baguette for weeks. Stop for lunch at the nicest ecluse so far at L’Aiguelle with flowers and witty figures carved from wood. Crocodile by the lock gate, nude lady riding bike, frogs, couple with dog having a pee, quotes from George Brassens. It’s dee-lightful. Après lunch, move into ecluse, shrill alarm noise, engine’s overheating, turn off, complete locking, pull boat out by ropes, moor up . . go for a walk . . wait for engine to cool down, flush through water pipes and filter, check oil and drive belts, start up . . all ok. (another great way to use up 1hr 40mins) After that, the day resumes pleasantness. We moor up just above Marseillette ecluse. Done quite a lot today, one way or another.

Sun-Tues 23rd-25th May
CARCASSONNE

22km, 5hrs, 9 ecluses. More pleasant reaches to start with, leafy and with distant views across the Aude valley towards the Pyrenee foothills. Of course, at the first ecluse – Trèbes – overheating trouble again. The water boiling in the lock chamber boils up a thick stew of leaves and mud, which clogs our inlet and filter. After another, almost routine, tow out it’s a quick blow-through with the foot pump and off we go, getting to an attractive ecluse Villedubert just at lunchtime, surviving the shallowest reach (1.1m or so) yet. We lunch and watch a hire boat enter the ecluse only then to wait half-an-hour for the eclusière and us to finish our repastes. They’re not a very happy bunch of (German) blokes on that boat – they don’t talk to us, the eclusière, or between themselves. Neither do they properly attend to their mooring warps until told to by Mme. Having let them ‘go before us’ and asked them once to let us moor portside-to (and explained why), we have to ask them again at every subsequent lock. Hmmm!! More lovely reaches, mostly about 1.3m depth, and then we glimpse Europe’s finest medieval walled citadel – Carcassonne. Unbelievable fairy tale stuff. Good port de plaisance, although the capitainerie fails to notice someone loosen our stern line while we’re off sightseeing.

Wed-Fri 26th-28th May
VILLEPINTE

28km, 6hrs 15min, 9 ecluses. A gorgeous day. We spend the morning sliding through shallows (very), leafy, winding and, going slowly and easily, we get to Villesquelande for lunch – a nice spot, grass with some tables under the trees. We walk into the village which is the epitome of sleepy and pretty. More of the same – so nice (and also getting a bit more depth and width too) – during the afternoon. We were worried that ‘pushing on’ when things were getting so shallow might be a mistake. Non! We moor up just above Villepinte ecluse, a truly delightful place, just some grass, some shade, some birdsong, red squirrels, some peace and some quiet. Could be here some time . . .

Sat-Mon 29th-31st May
CASTELNAUDARY

13km, 4hrs 35min, 11 ecluses. An easy day – travelling seems easy and all 11 locks seem easy. We moor up just beyond the Grand Bassin in Castelnaudary. Lots of activity – the annual Balade de Paul Riquet running, walking and cycling race is happening. It was Paul Riquet’s vision, drive and money that got the canal built 300 years ago and he is honoured in Languedoc to this day. The modest town is interesting, has a first-class helpful cyber cafe ‘netland’, and a superb market (Mondays).

Tue 1st June
OCEAN

12km, 3hrs 5min, 8 ecluses. “Top of the world, Ma” said James Cagney, well we are at the top of the canal at l’Océan ecluse and 198m above sea level (our previous watershed on the Marne a la Saone was 331m). We moor and visit the feeder basin (water is led here from the Massif Central) and Paul Riquet’s well-deserved monument. Once again, it’s a lovely quiet spot (the nearby motorway, which is supposed to be noisy, we can hardly hear). We like these kind of places. Tomorrow – downhill !!

Wed 2nd June
MONTGISCARD

27km, 5hrs 25min, 12 ecluses. A long day. The locks are easier (downhill) but there are quite a few; we travel through pleasant countryside without it being outstanding, but the canal is still shallow. Grehan seems to be showing some signs of being unhappy with the degree of ‘pushing’ we’re having to do. We get to Montgiscard after an hour or more of disconcerting and unusual noises and vibrations coming from the engine.

Thurs-Mon 2nd-7th June
TOULOUSE

20km, 3hrs 25min, 3 ecluses. What will today bring, engine-wise? Ans: all seems ok. Entertainment at the locks which are in the process of being mechanised but don’t yet work perfectly. A straightforward trip and the approaches to Toulouse are decidedly green and leafy, past Aerospatiale. Manage to get in at the city Port de Plaisance [Saint-Sauveur], run brilliantly by the justly renowned Sylvianne. An excellent place to stop.

Tues 8th June
MONTECH

48km, 8hrs, 13 ecluses. A few locks to the outskirts of Toulouse and then we reach the end of the Midi and begin the Lateral a la Garonne. Rather boring to start with, except for antics of the junior rowers. Gets more interesting, although still long straight reaches (=C19th engineering). We then realise this canal is actually quiet, relaxing, verdant and very attractive. Ecluses are straight-sided, which is a bonus. By the time we get to Montech, we’re enthusiastic. A lovely day and we moor up just above a series of five ecluses, by the ‘famous’ water slope. Good dog walking.

Wed-Mon 9th-14th June
CASTELSARRASIN

13km, 2hrs 45min, 8 ecluses. A short, nice, trip and we get to our destination, Castelsarrasin. We’ve arranged to have Grehan lifted out so we can renew her underbody paintwork, check for bump and scrape damage, and generally give her a right going-over. Not expecting too much, the village and its river Port turns out to be really super. And so is Veronique and Bernard’s small informal boatyard. Soon, we’re craned out and chocked up on the hardstanding. Inspection reveals a clean bottom, just a few scratches and only one disappointment – our propeller shaft rope cutter had got broken somewhere along the way. Anyway, we work hard for three days and then get lifted back into the water. Far from turning ’round and heading east as per plan, we think we’ll continue westwards for a while yet.

Tues 15th June
VALENCE D’AGEN

25km, 4hrs 45min, 12ecluses. Another quiet sunny leafy day on the Lateral. We moor at Valence d’Agen. The mooring place is a touch tatty, the large village has seen better days (there are once-imposing houses, now decaying) but it still has charms, including a memorable circular wash-house.

Wed 16th AGEN
Thurs 17th MOISSAC
Friday 18th MONTECH

26km, 4hrs, 3 ecluses to Agen. Our turning-point – another nice trip but Agen seems nothing too special.

43km, 6hrs 40min, 8 ecluses (now we’re going up again!) back to Moissac, a really pretty town and a lovely mooring.

21km, 4hrs 50min, 15 ecluses. And so we return to Montech.

Sat -Sun 19th-20th June
TOULOUSE

48km, 9hrs, 13 ecluses. A long day, grey and ultimately rainy but back through the canalside scenery we have really grown to like. Finally, back into Toulouse and back into the Canal du Midi, past the large marble bas-relief monument to its completion. The last ecluse before the city Port de Plaisance (where Sylvianne has kept a place for us) is deep, with only two bollards per side making mooring very tricky – especially in the midst of a torrential downpour!

Mon 21st – Wed 30th June
FINAL MIDI DAYS

22km, 9hrs 40min, 11 ecluses. A lovely run, back to L’Ocean – top of the Midi – accompanied by brother-in-law Tim and nephew Edward.

13km, 3hrs 30min, 8 ecluses. Back to Castelnaudary.

35km, 7hrs 50min, 24 ecluses. To Ladouce, stopping for lunch at one of our favourite places Villepinte, alas without Chloe this time.

33km, 7hrs 40min, 16 ecluses. Back to the wonderful sculptures decorating L’Aiguelle ecluse.

40km, 7hrs 30min, 9 ecluses. To Argeliers.

21km, 3hrs. To a very nice village and a good mooring at Poilhes.

37km, 5hrs 55min, 11 ecluses. Back through the staircase at Foncerannes, we finally reach the end of the canal, for us, at Agde.

Thurs 1st-Fri 2nd July
GRAU D’AGDE

We have reconnoitred possible re-masting yards on the River Herault (which leads into the Med) and select Chantier Allemand. They look big and professional, and someone says they have a good reputation. So, it’s through the famous round ecluse at Agde, down the river, moor up and start getting everything ready. The boatyard man Henri is fearsomely competent, at remasting and at operating the crane. We’re in good hands and, given good assistance, the job is mostly complete as at Thursday evening. Grehan’s just about completed the transformation from awkward duckling back to beautiful swan (Ho hum). Friday dawns and our man is very busy with other things -“wait” he says, we wait for most of the day, then it emerges he’s too busy today so we finish what little remains ourselves.

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