Sunday, October 09, 2011

Le Boating the Garonne Canal ...

The last two weeks of September, we joined friends Tony Kay and Lin Hullen for a week-long canal boating trip in the Bordeaux region of southern France.  We met in the Montparnesse district of Paris, on the Left Bank, and then caught the TGV - France's fast train - down to Bordeaux and thence to the village of Le Mas d'Agenais on the Garonne Canal.

We had a quick check-out on the boat during which they failed to give us any on-the-water instruction.  That was too bad, for a bit of advice on approaching and going into the locks would have been helpful, particularly since we're all sailors and used to keel boats rather than flat-bottomed buses.  Oh well, we had insurance, so the dents and torn-up fiberglass would be their problem.

Once we'd signed away our first-born child for the boat, we hiked up from the canal to the village and shopped for provisions at Max Lespine's small grocery.  Mostly wine plus Tony's favorite drink Ricard and a bottle of bourbon for Pen and me, and actually food: cheeses, meat, bread, condiments, vegetables and fruit, which they kindly delivered to the boat for us.  Chef Lin prepared our evening meal and we had a wonderful time imagining the days to come and solving all the political problems of the world.  Thank heavens we're all of the same political persuasion.

Not too bright and early in the morning, at 10:30 and after James had hiked up to the bakery from some fresh croissants and a couple of more baguettes, we let go the lines and pulled out on to the canal.  Our overall trip was 123 kilometers and through 42 locks and we six days to do it, so we were confident the days didn't have to be that long in duration.  At six kilometers per hour, the speed limit on the canal, we went about ten km to a pretty little spot just below Pont la Folotte, where we tied up for a sort of picnic lunch under the umbrella topsides on the boat.  On a walk along the canal's tow path (now a bike path), Penelope fell in love with the giant Sycamore trees, and we could barely tear her away!

Another ten km and a third lock brought us to Buzet-sur-Baise, where we side-tied in front of the Aquataine Navigation Capitainerie for the night.  We had hoped to be able to just stop in some quiet and beautiful spot along the side of the canal some of the nights we were on the canal, but once on the water we discovered an intermittent short in the boat's charging system, so we decided to spend nights only where shore power was available.  No matter, it was quite nice at every little marina, and they are indeed quite small.  Perhaps if we'd been there at the high season (July-August) we wouldn't have found berths, but we never failed to find a spot.

In Buzet-sur-Baise, we went down to a market in town, and had a wonderful dinner at Auberge du Goujon qui Fretille.  The dock master called to see if they would be open and then recommended it to us as well as three other boat groups.  Turns out we were the only ones being served that night (Sunday), and more it was one of the best meals we had in France.

Next morning we shed our mooring lines and slipped out on to the canal under threatening skies.  As Captain, I put on my slicker, pulled up the hood, and enjoyed the crisp air topsides at the wheel.  It misted off and on through the morning, and the weather no doubt explained why we only saw a couple of other boats this day.  Just before our third lock of the day at l'Auvignon, we pulled over to a small dock next to an apple orchard laden with the most delicious looking grapefruit sized apples.  We had a nice lunch and then the crew set out to pick and buy some apples.  Alas, there was nobody home, and clearly apples needed to be picked, so the stealthy crew loaded up a bag with it turns out far to few apples, while the Captain revved the engine for a fast 4 kmph getaway.

One, two, three, four, five locks or ecluses and about 18 kms away, our boat Clipper crossed the Pont-canal d'Agen, taking the canal over the Garonne River, and into Agen.  We headed for the Port de la gare du Pin, Agen's marina, and after unsuccessfully trying to back the damned bus into the slip, we gave up and nosed her in bow first.  We got there just in the nick of time, for the dock master was about to close up shop ... it was 17:45, and she closed at 18:00.

Here we enjoyed a lovely sunset, got some great photos of other canal boaters tied up along the shore to our north, and enjoyed another evening of spirited political and economic debate about life, the universe and everything.  (All in all there were 42 locks on our trip, and you'll probably remember that the answer to the question "What's the meaning of life, the universe and everything" in the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy is 42.)

If it's Tuesday we must be somewhere in Bordeaux.  We departed at 11:00 - we seemed to be sleeping later and later every day - and puttered our way down past Bon-Encontre and Boe, the latter a tiny marina looking like a very pleasant overnight spot.  But we had ecluses to pass through and kilometers to putter, but we'd made a late start so at ten km and our first lock of the day, we decided, once through it, to tie off the boat on the canal bank and walk back a hundred meters to L'Auberge de la Poule a Vilo, a picturesque little restaurant in the old canal keeper's lock house at Mouynes.  Run by a mother and daughter, among several customers we were the only non-native, almost a guarantee that the food will be excellent.  And although we had a terrible time figuring out the menu, what we ended up with was truly wonderful.

The afternoon cruise down through three more locks was lovely and peaceful.  Beautiful Sycamore trees lined the canal in so many places, we got a steady view of the region's nuclear power plant cooling towers and we arrived at Valence-d'Agen at 17:15, in plenty of time to walk up into the village for baguettes and to replenish our liquor supply - we got a deal on some St. Emilion bordeaux wine and got six bottles - as well as food supply and still return for a sunset.

It was such a nice night that Tony, taking air on the poop deck, decided to fall in.  "Man overboard!"  We all rushed out to fish him out, which took about five minutes.  No ladder on the boat and no ladder on the pier, so we had to get him around to where we could get a good purchase under his arms and lift him up.  He was very wet and embarrassed, but in good cheer.  He just needed some more Ricard to warm him up!  Or was it too much Ricard in the first place, Tony? 

Four the next three days of our trip, there were more ecluses each day, it seemed.  Wednesday brought twelve ecluses and one drawbridge (the only one on the canal).  After replenishing bread and a couple of other things at the bakery and supermarket, we set off through farming country.  Lots of apple orchards, lovely fields of produce lined the canal.  At one point Penelope, who would go ashore at each lock to be there to handle lines when we came in (we were going up stream, so the lock walls were over our heads), probably walked three or four km, never getting back on the boat.  I don't know why it never occurred to us to take one of the bicycles down so she could ride the pathway rather than walk.  And, to think that only James rode once (at our next stop).  Renting the bikes was unnecessary.

Along this stretch we saw a couple of sailboats heading from the Mediterranean up to Bordeaux and the Atlantic.  They carried their masts on frames and no doubt had a boatyard on the Med take them down and would have another yard in Bordeaux raise them back up.  We went through four ecluses a bit later with a sailboat, and they did have quite a time holding her steady when the lock started filling - the keel apparently really captured the turbulence and buffeted the boat around.

As a side note, the locks were all automatic, and an electrical switch was activated by twisting a rubber-covered rod hanging from a wire suspended over the canal (the woman on the right has it in her hand).  There were three lights in front of each lock - red, green and yellow - in a triangular pattern.  Once you turned the rod, the yellow-light would begin flashing, indicating the lock process was beginning.  The red and green lights were on, and boats waited until just the green showed, which was your signal to enter the lock.  There was quite a bit of eddying in the water at the lock entrances, so you had to go in at a couple of km/hr to avoid being thrown on to the sides of the lock or lock doors.  Hence, all the boats had dings despite their heavy rubber bumpers and being lined with fenders.  Once in the lock and tied off on the bollards, one of your crew had to push a button ashore to complete the lock cycle - that was almost always Penelope.

Our destination on Wednesday was Castelsarrasin, where we knew they had a market on Thursday morning.  We were very eager for that, for we had miss-timed market days in two previous spots.  At the marina we had to parallel park the Clipper, which I say as Captain we managed very deftly.  We all enjoyed showers, and after cleaning up we went to Le St. Louis Restaurant, just a couple of blocks walk in toward town.  What a wonderful meal!  The best escargot we had in France and perhaps anywhere.  And wonderful steaks!  Yum, yum, yum!

Next morning we had our market!  Oh how we wished we'd found this at the start of the boat trip, for we would have bought so much.  But now, with only a couple of days left, we held back and feasted with our eyes.  They had every imaginable bit of food from meats and fish to vegetables and fruit, they had a live-animal section, they sold shoes, clothes, mattresses, furniture, household goods of every imaginable type.  Cafes were crowded with happy folks and every old friend in the world was meeting every other old friend.  It was a potpourri of goodness!

After we'd had our fill at the market, we moved onward through the next eight locks and on into Montech, the little town where we would leave the Garonne Canal the next day and go to Montauban, our final stop, at the end of the Montech Canal.  Going through Moissac, we had to pull over and wait ten minutes for the draw-bridge tender to come back from lunch.  We pulled ahead of four other boats, to find a spot to stop, and then let them go past us when the bridge finally opened.  I was a bit fearful they'd all be heading for Montech, but all four stopped in Moissac's marina and we went on.

At Montech we pulled in beside a couple of Brits who were settling in to spend their fifth winter there.  They were most friendly, and we chatted a bit, then Tony and Lin walked into town, I took care of business with the Capitainerie and then I road one of our bikes into town to explore.  As luck would have it, the chain came off have way through my ride, and I returned with greasy fingers.  After cocktails and good conversation with the other boaters, we went to a little restaurant at the end of the marina quay, Maison Eclusier.  Of course, the food was splendid!

Our final day on the water started around mid-morning.  We had only ten km to go, but had to pass through nine ecluses.  Turns out that we were now on a down stream course to Montauban, which meant that Penelope could stay aboard through all the locks.  Actually, she got off and walked between one set - they were all pretty close together - so she could take some photos of us on the Clipper.  We arrived at Montauban around midday, a Le Boat boat boy backed us into the appropriate slip, we arranged for a taxi for o-dark thirty the next morning (our train for Bordeaux and then Paris departed at 0720), and we set off on foot for downtown and a fashionably late lunch, which we found around 14:15 in the old city square. This was followed by a lovely final evening on the Clipper.

On Saturday, the TGV took us back to Gare Montparnesse, where Penelope and I caught a taxi to our new hotel on Rue de Monge nearer the Sorbonne.  That night we returned to join Tony and Lin who were joining us for my birthday celebration at Le Beliere Welcome, a well-known small jazz dinner club, where happily I got to play music a bit.  (See photos here.)

The next four days we spent wandering Paris, a couple of those days with Tony and Lin, the rest on our own.  We did all the logical spots: Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Jardin des Plantes, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur on Montmartre and of course another wonderful market at the Place Monge, near our hotel.  We got caught up in and marched a short ways with the French teachers, who were demonstrating by the Sorbonne against the Sarkozy government.  And we had more Recard, more good food, more good wine, more good company ... and then it was over.  If you get the chance, you should try it, too.  :)

Don't miss Penelope's slide show


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