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As we leave Villenueve we pass through the industrial zone surrounding Beziers and arrive at Les Sept Ecluses de Fonceranne (the Seven Locks of Fonceranne) at lunchtime. These locks are a feat of engineering; they raise the Canal du Midi about 30 meters. Each lock is double long and filled by the lock ahead; once the lock is filled the gate is open for the next and so on. About four boats of our size can go up or down at the same time. There is a schedule posted that says boats going upstream (us) can enter between 10AM and 11:45AM and 4PM and 6:45 PM. We arrive fourth in line around 1PM, so are prepared to go up at 4PM. That gives us time to take a walk into Beziers, which we do.
From the canal, Beziers is enchanting to look at. Built on a hill, a castle fortress surrounded by fortifying walls below dominates; three arched large stone bridges fan across the Orb River that flows under the canal held aloft by an aqueduct. Medieval and brooding it is the birthplace of Paul Riquet (1604-1680), the man who initiated the building of the Canal du Midi.
The weather is fair so we hit the towpath and veer off onto the road into town. Being lunchtime there is a reasonable chance to spot a good menu and dine out. After a two-mile walk to town from the canal, through some rather unimpressive auto repair zones and crumbling maisons de ville or townhomes, we walk over one of the beautiful bridges and are in Beziers proper.
Although it is a main street, there are no restaurants in sight as we hike up the sidewalk. Since this is a town built on a big hill, all the roads go up or down. We go by a dark and very hot restaurant and decide to leave it behind for something cooler. More hiking, but there is no other restaurant save for some dodgy looking snack bars with no one inside. After the hustle and bustle of lunchtime in Montpellier, Port Ariane and the canal villages, we are baffled to see a place that just closes up on itself. At the fortified wall we get an eyeful of the castle fort that is as forbidding as it ever was four or five hundred years ago. Little chance of a cheerful bistro. Defeat admitted, the walk back goes much quicker and we snag a baguette at the bakery to have lunch on board. Rarely have I seen a community so lacking in joie de vie. There is a mystery here, for Beziers has all the features that make Bath, England engaging and popular but its people hide from the public and each other during France’s most social hour. There is a lovely garden (no people in it) and the guidebook talks about a spectacular August festival during which bulls are run through the streets and wine flows from the fountains. I’m not a fan of running away from bulls so Beziers is not on the go-back list. On board we admire the beautiful view of this glum town and enjoy lunch as we wait for the gates to open.
At 4PM we hear engines revving and see the lockkeepers waving us into the first lock. Quickly we untie the ropes and steer in, the last of four boats, the rest of which are all hire craft. There is a sense of urgency due to the long queue of boats behind us waiting to get through today. Just as soon as I can tie us up at the bollards, the paddles are opened and Niagara Falls comes plummeting down, or so it seems. Tons of water pressurized by the canal current gush powerfully into the lock. These locks are deep, about 20 feet, and the boats jostle each other as they rise. Oo-La-La is the only private boat and the only steel boat in company with fiberglass hire boats. We are very careful to keep ourselves off anyone else but no one seems concerned; in fact many are sitting with a glass of wine as they let other crew members work the ropes and steer. Unfortunately sometimes our dingy gets hooked over the bow of the boat behind but we manage to untangle without much wear and tear. The boat’s clean white paint job is getting black marks and scratches but nothing that can’t be restored easily.
Lock keepers are very helpful and we are at the top of the seven locks within an hour. Dozens of onlookers climbed along with us the entire passage through Les Sept Ecluses and the photo at the top of the locks shows the crowds and the height to which we had risen. Passage was festive amongst our Italian, German and English lockmates; we all waved goodbye as we cruised out the final gate.
It is now 5PM, late in the day, so nearby Port Colombiers is our destination for the night. There we find an enclosed marina, the home base for a hireboat company; this is good since they have diesel to sell dockside and we gratefully buy 200 liters. The port captain graciously offers us the slip at the dock for the night and we accept.
Colombiers is bigger than it looks from the canal. At first we thought that the port was the town but this is misleading. Just a short walk away is a lively village with bakeries and shops along its twisting narrow roads; we stock up for the next day.
At the port itself there are also many convenient shops and a couple of restaurants.
We waken to a sunny day with a long stretch of lock-free canal ahead of us. Due to our ascent the previous day we are high above the landscape and the view beyond the bank grandiosely sweeps over miles of vineyards, villages and the occasional castle. It’s a difficult scene to capture on camera since the trees dominate the bank; the background becomes a blur as the lens focus on the nearest object. But to the naked eye it is a grand vista under a big sky with great puffy clouds.
At Capestang we stop for lunch and then visit the market in the town square. On the way we pass a man next to a tractor from which a huge hose rises into the window above him. He is foot-pumping grapes into a large cave. We peek over the rim and see big fat purple grapes being siphoned up. He is friendly and we capture him on camera. It’s a typical scene in this region but unique for us.
That night we stay in Port Somail, a popular place for some large Dutch peniches. The wind is picking up and we are blown from one side of the canal to the other as we try to dock. I throw a line to one of three cheerful looking fellows on the bank; this is a private dock for the hire boat company and they are workers there. Fully expecting to be told we cannot dock here we are surprised when they cordially invite us to spend the night without charge. The attitude is quite unlike hire boat companies in England and the USA that are fiercely protective of their slips and discourage outsiders from using them. Vive la difference!
Port Somail has a lot to offer, there are restaurants, a huge cave with free tastings, art galleries and a gigantic bookstore filled with every kind of French book that one could imagine. Some English books as well.
The following day brings us some very lovely canal side villages such as Ventenac en Minervois and Parazza that we admire but do not stop; we make a note to do so when we go back next spring. Parazza looks like the Riviera with Caribbean blue shutters, palm trees and flowers.
The hills are now rising above us and a look at the map shows we are now entering lock country. We overnight at Laredoute, a village nestled in acres of vineyards. Just a few steps from our mooring lies an immense grape processing plant. Closer inspection shows tall stainless steel vats, about 50 feet high, filled to overflow with grape juice that shimmers and spills down the sides. Three-foot wide plugs of smashed grape skins are housed in hangars; they are waiting to be squeezed again for the makings of brandy. Bit by bit the enormity of the French wine industry hits home; millions of tons of grapes are being processed at this time of year, harvest time. Signs at the edge of vineyards warn simply “Vendange” the French word for harvest; they mean to say, “beware of tractors loaded with grapes popping out onto the road”. Bacchus waits for no one and there is a rush to unload the vines of their heavy fruit.
This is also the end of the week for hire boaters; Friday is ‘turn-over day’ and hire boats are rushing to get back to homeport in time. At 9:30 the next morning we are in a five-boat queue for the Puicheric lock. Within the hour we wait a few more boats queue up behind us. The day continues the same as we lock through several steep locks and struggle to keep the boat steady under the onslaught of heavy water.
Aiguille Lock is a hoot. The lock keeper is an inexhaustible wood sculptor; he sits on a huge hand with red painted fingernails as he operates the bottom lock. Once we have risen to the top lock we are entertained by bawdy and comical carvings planted around the well-kept garden. A fish catches a man in the pond, there are rude monkeys in the trees and as the paddles rise a wood figure bobs into action.
Since the lock keepers break between 12:30 and 1:30 we stop as well outside the Saint Martin lock for a pasta lunch. Only a few more locks and we overnight in Trebes, just outside of Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is a large town, just a short trip from Trebes. There are excellent public moorings for 10 euros a night including water and electricity. We stay for the weekend in order to see La Cite, the heart of the old city.
La Cite can be seen from the canal before entering Carcassonne; it is Europe’s largest fortress. The sight of this immense city fortification is breathtaking. No photo can do justice to the medieval towers and colossal ramparts of this 11 BC edifice. In all there are 26 towers forming a three-kilometer circle around the town; the architect Viollet le Duc restored it 100 years ago.
The ‘new’ town, founded in the 13th century, is situated right on the canal. A convenient place to stop, Rob wisely chooses a mooring away from the towpath and curious onlookers. We spend two much needed restful nights; holding the ropes in these tumultuous locks has sorely tested our arm muscles.
Monday morning we are up and about town, a busy place with a very long pedestrian alley right through the middle. It is good weather so we get some ribs to barbeque off of the back of the boat. The scent attracts fellow boaters and even the capitain has to lean out the window to say “Hmm, ca scent du bon.” (That smells good.) Well rested and ready to go we push off at 1:30 to continue down the Canal du Midi to Toulouse.
We make it to Ville Pinte lock at 6PM on the dot. Just to be sure they are closed I walk over to the lock keeper house where a man and woman appear to be ignoring me as I approach. Very politely and from a safe distance I ask if the lock is closed for the day. The man puts his hands on his hips and says defiantly “Bien sur, c’est ferme!” (You bet its closed.) I thank him and wishing them a good evening return to the boat, our day is done even if we are not. We park just outside the lock and settle down for the night.
Bright and early we go through the lock the following day. Most of the locks are double and triple; they are not automated so the lock keepers are working hard, cranking the paddles and gates by hand. That means we work harder too, helping them with opening the gates so they don’t have to walk all around the lock (and we don’t have to wait). Signs from the VNF say that these locks will be worked on during the winter, we are assuming they will install push button controls.
Now the countryside prevails over villages until we reach Castlenaudry. Here we find the first diesel pump that is operated independent from a hire boat company. It is in a large basin just as we enter Castlenaudry. A bright blue sign with GASOIL tells us where to go and we slog across the basin since it is very shallow. We make it and ring the bell on the sign. Within a couple of minutes the door rolls up and our gas attendant greets us and asks how much we want. Plenty. We fill up the tanks since this is the least expensive diesel yet, 82 cents as compared to one euro at the hire boat companies. He shows us the deepest path back to the canal as we tell him that we most likely dug a new trench through to basin to get there.
We stay overnight in Castlenaudry, renowned for cassoulet, a dish of white beans, goose fat, sausage and meat. A fancy beanie-weanie is how it tastes to us, but it has considerable prestige in this town. Stores are dedicated to cooking it in special clay pots that they display in different sizes in the store window. The VNF guidebook even has little drawings of casseroles at the towns where cassoulet can be found.
The gorgeous Mediterranean weather leaves us as we depart under leaden sky the next day. We manage to make it the Le Segala and find refuge from the rain lashed onto an old VNF barge that conveniently has some large bollards and rings on the side.
We are now 189 meters above sea level, as the lock house said on the last lock we passed through. This is the summit of the Canal du Midi and now it descends as the locks are emptying instead of filling as we go through. Going down is a lot easier than going up and much less scuff on the boat as well. There is no turbulation going down, the water is calm and the boat doesn’t have to be as securely tied off.
The next day the rain pounds on us mercilessly but we continue on. At lunchtime we moor up in Negra, a small village and decide to call it a day. Rob takes a nap and I read in the saloon when I hear a knocking on the window. Hoping we are not about to be chased out in this weather, I am shocked to see Bob from Grand Cru in Port Ariane du Lattes. Coincidentally he is here to help a friend with some boat work. We meet later on and have dinner in a tiny mom and pop restaurant, the only one in town.
The rain persists and so do we as we go through several multiple locks the following day. Finally we are out of the locks and into a flat area of several miles that leads to our destination, Toulouse. Many gigantic Dutch peniches line the banks on our approach. The towpath is wide and popular with pedestrians and there are also cafes and restaurants in many of these barges.
We pass Port Sud, a mooring in the suburbs of town and continue another 6 kilometers or so to arrive at Port St. Saveur. Just as we were told, it is in the heart of the city, yet gated and well off of the road. Sylvianne, the Capitain, comes out with greetings and settles us right away into a T-head slip; we have an uninterrupted view of the canal on one side and the dock, with water and electricity, on the other. We are home for the winter.
.....on to November