The Canal du Midi, France

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Martha and I left early on Easter Sunday to spend the holiday week on the Canal du Midi in the South of France with three of her daughters and their guys. Three of the ladies are teachers and had the week off. Martha and I would stay in Paris afterwards for a few days.

We arrived in Paris on Monday and met Paul and Vanessa at the train station. The four of us took the train South to Beziers and a taxi ride to Port Casafrieres where we boarded our rented boat. The other four would join us at Beziers the next day. After travelling for a day and a half with no sleep, I was glad to stay overnight at the dock before having to pilot the boat. We had a nice dinner at the cafe at the marina and slept on the boat.

Marina at Port Cassafrieres

Upper helm of our giant boat It was a large boat, the largest of the Crown Blue rental fleet at 48 feet long and over 13 feet wide, very comfortable with 5 separate double cabins, one of which we could use for luggage, and three bathrooms. I was a bit concerned about how I would manuver such a large boat since at home, docking my own 28 foot boat is still a challenge. The rental agency "technician" showed Paul and me the controls and took us on a short run on the canal. We were told that to get to our destination, Castelnaudary, and turn over the boat by the next Monday AM, we would have to motor about 6 hours per day. We would travel 157 km and go through 64 locks. The speed limit on the canal is 8 km/hr and the boat couldn't go much faster so we were aware of keeping up our pace. The lock keepers (who push the buttons to control the motorized locks) don't start until 9AM so there was no point in starting too early. That was OK by us. Paul at our first lock

Martha and Dave and our canal boat at Beziers

So Tuesday morning we motored out of the marina heading upstream about 9 AM and were "on our own". We passed through our first few quite narrow locks, getting the feel of it and finding that the big boat was easy enough to manuver using the bow thrusters. I'd never had the luxury of bow thrusters before and they were great!

We arrived at Beziers (14 km from start), docked at the quay, and walked into town to a grocery store before the others arrived by train. It seemed a very long walk back heavily laden with 3 or 4 grocery bags each, clinking and clanking with food and drink for 8 people for the next few days. Martha and Vanessa at Park of the Poets in Beziers

Martha and Dave at Park of the Poets in Beziers

Vickie and Doug, and Ginger and Jeff arrived as scheduled and unloaded all the food they brought. It turned out that among us we had brought to France 8 pounds of salami. To save on groceries, we had also brought cheese (into France!) and tons of snacks. Vickie, Vannessa, Paul, Dave, & Martha on our boat

Before the trip I had downloaded the map of Western Europe and put it into my little GPS. I was pleased to find that even though designed for car travel, it showed our progress and speed on the canal and identified nearby towns, highways, etc. Although there were few decisions in our canal route, it was still helpful to place us exactly on the paper maps supplied to us.

In planning the trip, I was concerned that we had three separate parties meeting at two locations so there was exposure for major disconnection if anyone's travel went wrong. At my encouragement we arranged for three cell phones which would work in France. It took a bit of research and some expense. As it turned out all our travel and meetings went as scheduled and the phones weren't truly needed, but I still think they were a good idea and would do it again.

Our boat in the stair-step locks after Beziers

Series of 7 stair-step locks

Wednesday we left Beziers and followed the canal across a water bridge crossing the Orb river. After that is an amazing set of 7 stair-step locks, where the upstream gate of one lock is the downstream gate of the next. The stair-step locks open for upstream traffic at 10 AM and it appeared we were the first to go through that day. They had doubled up the locks, keeping between gates open to speed passage, but resulting in a very high lift and a lot of water coming at us.

Waiting while doubled-up locks fill

Waiting while lock fills

There was not much traffic on the canal since it was early in the season. I imagine it would get very crowded in July or August. The boat "technician" told us that during summer, they send out as many as 36 boats in a day.

Drained lake, cultivated and visible from space

Martha, Dave, Ginger, Vickie, and Doug at Oppidum

After passing through a tunnel (160 m long), we tied up to the bank and hiked up to an historic site, the Oppidum (800 BC pre-Roman town) of Enserune. There was museum but it was closed. We did get a good view of a lake below that had been drained, then cultivated in a perfect radiating circle. We saw it on Google Earth before our trip and wondered what it could be. (Look up Montady France in Google Maps or Google Earth to see it.) We continued motoring and got to le Somail, a total of 43 km in 5 1/2 hours because there were no more locks that day. We filled up our water tank and tied up on the bank near the town, but there was not much to see or do in the town. There was a grocery barge where we were able buy more beer and wine.

Rainbow from canal

Ginger and Jeff

We motored out early (6:30) on Thursday since there were no locks for a while and after about 8 hours of motoring we arrived in Trebes (49 km) and tied up at the quay. They had boxes for shore power but none were working. We didn't seem to need it anyway since the 12v system always seemed adequate for the heater fans and for lights.

Friday we motored for only about 3 1/2 hours and arrived in Carcassonne (11 km), the famous medieval city with fairy-tale castle. It's a big city with a fancy marina that charges for docking and has a lot of rules. We had to dock stern-on, and I did a creditable job of backing in our huge boat with town and tourists watching. We topped up our water and for the first time hooked up to shore power. We walked to the Cite, the castle, and saw the shops, museums, etc. along with the other tourists. The cool part was that we could come back to our impressive boat parked in the middle of the city. Medieval city of Carcassonne

Carcassonne walls

Ginger and Jeff and Vickie and Doug had a hotel booked in Paris for Sunday night so needed to get the train out of Carcassonne since we wouldn't be in Castelnaudary until too late Sunday. So they got a hotel in Carcassonne for Saturday night and we left them there, motoring out about 3PM after spending more time shopping and looking around. We motored for about 3 1/2 hours and tied up at Bram (24km). Martha and I walked to town to see it's famous houses built around a church, but it was kinda grim and the walk seemed cold and long.

Panorama of the marina basin at Castelnaudary

Sunday we motored the remaining 16 km to Castelnaudary, taking our time with the locks and not paying attention to the time. After our lunch we hurried to get started with a long series of locks before the 12:30 lunch-hour closing and thought we had missed it and would have to wait. But it turned out that France had changed to daylight savings on Saturday night, so we didn't have to wait. The weather was deteriorating with rain threatening, so we were glad to be on our way. But as we were starting the last set of 4 locks before Castelnaudary the heavens opened and dumped water down on us. The four of us were soaked, but had little choice but to keep moving through the locks. We pulled into the marina as the wind was howling and managed to pound in stakes and side tie the boat. It continued raining so we stayed in the boat, ran the heater, ate left-overs, and cleaned up.

Original deco Metro station entrances at Abesses

Cafe on Abesses street, near our hotel

Monday AM we returned the boat and caught the slow train to Paris. After a 7 hour ride Paul and Vanessa took the Metro to their hotel and we took a taxi to ours. Our hotel was in Monmartre, near Sacre Coeur basilica. The street we adjoined (Abbesses) was a lively neighborhood with lots of cafes, and young people visiting and hanging out late into the night. Not too many people who looked like tourists. We saw other parts of Paris and I agree with Martha that this is the best place to stay.

Martha at Fouchon, fancy food store in Paris Eiffel tower I hadn't been to Paris before and I wanted an overview of all the sights and the city. So we spent a fair amount of time the first two days on the OpenTour bus, a fairly comprehensive tour where you can get on and off at will. We went up in the Eiffel tower, up the tower of Notre Dame, and up the stairs to Sacre Coeur basilica. We climbed a lot of stairs and are now in grand shape.

Panorama of Paris from top of Notre Dame

Martha at top of Notre Dame

Martha at flower market in Paris

Near our hotel we found a restaurant we liked and ended up dining there three times. I was very impressed by Paris and understand why people love it. There seem to be a lot of young people, maybe moved in from the countryside, or students from other countries. Except for some Carribean thugs hanging out near Sacre Coeur extorting money from tourists with the "woven yarn around the finger/wrist routine", the black people we saw seemed well integrated and accepted and didn't have the belligerent attitude we experience in the US. This would be a good place to recover from one's prejudices.

Sacre Coeur basilica, near our hotel

Ship model in Maritime museum

Martha and I took Thursday to do our separate things: she shopped for fabric near Sacre Coeur and I took the Metro into town. I tried to see the famous sewers of Paris but they were closed for tours on Thurday and Friday. I did however go to the Maritime Museum, which had been recommended to me by a fellow ship-model friend. It was great, but that was my limit for museum visiting. I saw the Louvre - from the outside.

Elegant hall in Versailles chateau

Martha in Vesailles grounds

On our last day we went out to Versailles. It seemed like a long walk, but was very grand and regal. The grounds are extensive and it's a picnic and park destination for Parisians. We had purchased a round-trip RER train ticket and when we returned to the train station I was confused to find no mention of the same line we had used earlier. Finally we asked and were told briefly that the train to Paris was leaving in 2 minutes. We got on it but discovered it was a different train line and would return to different stations. We also wondered about the validity of our tickets. It came out fine since no one asked for tickets and were able to connect with the Metro using a slightly different route. Their train and Metro system truly is amazing and impressive, if a bit baffling at times.

We took a shuttle van to the airport and got home after a long uneventful flight and were met at the airport by Martha's sister and brother-in-law. The next week our carrier American Airlines cancelled thousands of flights and stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers due to maintenance issues. I guess we got lucky.

France 2008 All Pictures

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