A few of weeks ago some friends of mine in Victoria got dressed up and went out to the movies. They camped it up for the new ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ movie starring Joanne Lumley as Patsy and Jennifer Saunders as Edwina (Eddie). For those unfamiliar with this BBC TV sitcom, which ended about 10 years ago, I should explain the series features two sort-of successful vice-riddled women who have never the left the early 1970’s in terms of attitudes and actions. It is an incredibly funny, no-holds barred, no sacred cows spared, but no swearing, BBC classic called Absolutely Fabulous. It has now been turned into a movie of the same name, much of which is set in the south of France.
Ab Fab movie goers
The other south of France (on the east side of Rhone delta) that is – you know; Nice sans terrorists, Cannes, San Tropez, Marseilles, Monaco, where the rich and famous play in the casinos and on their mega-yachts, wander the palm studded streets, and pay $5000 for a string bikini. But Martin and I took a left turn at the bottom the Rhone river, headed west and ended up on the real side of the south of France, where the middle class and ordinary play with gusto, and the wilderness is all around.
Our first stop on Rhone after Avignon was quite unofficial. We took Skookum to Arles – a wonderful Roman city (once a port) famous for its art and artists. Vincent Van Gogh ended his days in this area (painting 300 pictures in the process), as did many of his contemporaries. Our moorage was rafting up to a peniche (barge) restaurant moored on the Rhone on the west of the river bank. The deal was ‘moorage for dinner’ in the restaurant. Prices were reasonable and it gave us an opportunity to see Arles again (we were there in January 2013) and have an interesting experience. All went well with the moorage and we clambered to land via the peniche restaurant. The Rhone is very fast flowing and at this point we were very close to the sea, so we hung on tightly to the big barge. We were taking Le Petit Rhone through to the Rhone – Sete Canal, but this experience was a short detour.
Skookum with big mama
We took in a long walk around Arles – looked into the photographic exhibits that were the main attraction of the day, listen to the singer in the main square and followed the crowds around the edge of the Roman amphitheatre. Arles is another architectural gem with a large floodwall.
Arles river defences
Dinner was a bit more complicated than the moorage. A couple on a French boat out of Marseilles saw that we were rafted up to the large peniche and asked to do the same thing. It was getting dark and the nearest moorage was about 20kms away. The owner of the barge told them they could stay if they bought dinner. They agreed, came aboard and started to chat with Martin. The waiter/owner of the restaurant was all over the place, offering us menus, then forgetting them, offering us drinks then forgetting them – it felt like a French version of Faulty Towers. The French couple were most interested in the information Martin had to offer in our French/English conversation so the time passed quickly, which was good, because dinner took forever. It was tasty, and our French dinner companions were very patient with the waiter/owner. Then the kindest thing happened – our companions bought our dinner, despite Martins protests, to thank us for all the information they had received. We thanked them profusely, made them copies of map/charts they would need to go on in their journey (as they had no river charts) and said farewell to Jean-Claude and Chantel.
Onward down the Rhone – Sete Canal took us off Le Petit Rhone as we passed through the St Gilles Lock. We made our way to St Gilles and moored for a couple of days in this small port to avoid dealing with another Mistral. It was ‘rodeo’ time in St Gilles, with a big market, and the running of a few bulls. The market was great, the bull ring was active with an evening show featuring horsemanship and picadors fearlessly facing some big animals (none of which were killed, as it is illegal in the EU – the antagonists just taunted and baited them to make them angry). I could not bring myself to go, as I am not a fan of circuses or zoos, so did not want to be a part of the tradition.
But we are in the Camargue where horses and cattle are semi-feral, the marsh lands support a variety of bird life, and the tradition of the Camargue cowboys or guardians has become mythical.
Camargue horses are a particularly ancient breed: semi-feral, grey in colour – black skin underneath their white coat, hardy, strong, and with great stamina. They are considered small by horse standards, (13 – 14 hands) but can carry an adult human with ease. It is lovely to watch them with full mane and tails running beside the canal. We saw several groups with quite a few foals.
However the running of the bulls in St Gilles seemed rather tame compared to the stories, the bulls looked rather tired and not easily provoked despite the best attempts of teenage boys pulling their tails. The riders were impressive though, looking very elegant on their strong horses clopping on the cobbled streets. Needless to say we left Kerry on the boat when we went to see the bulls.
Our last stop on the branch canal was Beaucaire. This once prosperous city is actually on the Rhone, but at the junction of the short branch of the Rhone –Sete canal. It, unfortunately, does not have a functional lock that enters the river at Beaucaire (although it has been proposed to fix it over many years). Pity as it would save boaters a lot of time and fighting the upstream current. It may also bring back some of the trade that made Beaucaire famous in the 13th century. The castle was built by St Louis (King Louis IX, beatified for his contribution to the Crusades) after 1229. This fortress, the home of the Counts of Languedoc and Provence, was dismantled in 1632 by the notorious Cardinal Richelieu, during the wars between the Protestants and Catholics in France. The town was reconstructed under Louis XIV and grew into picturesque market city serving the river and the canal community.
13th century Beaucaire market
We walked the ramparts and the streets (which were immaculately clean) of the old city and thoroughly enjoyed the ambience of this ancient place. Then we met some local people who told us the town was actually full of crazy people – like an asylum without walls. I guess we are crazy enough not to notice.
After a couple of nights in Beaucaire we made our way back to the main canal and settled into a tiny port called Gallician. Small in size but big in wine! There were a couple of vineyards in this village so we obligingly sampled and bought a few bottles of smooth wines – Tres Poules – very nice.
I was desperate to have a swim, the weather was so hot and it was August and we were almost at the seaside. We followed the canal almost to the sea at Aigues Mortes, but turned westward along the canal that goes straight (very straight) through the Etangs, while paralleling the coast. The Etangs of the Camargue are large shallow lakes that form the Rhone delta. They are a great source of fish and seafood for both humans and birds, and have become an ornithologist’s paradise. The canal is a deeper channel that has been cut between them and cordoned off using short rock walls.
Palavas across the etang
Our next port was the seaside resort of Palavas-les Flot. We ducked under the low bridge and had a bit of a dodgy bow-to mooring which scratched the bow of the boat to arrive at a holiday resort we re-named “Skegness on the Med”. It is modern resort built for families, yachties and the not so rich (and certainly not famous). It was a fun place full of kids, and sun worshippers playing on the beach. We spent the evening walking the strip with lots of restaurants, stores, galleries etc, and finished up in a place where we had a delicious dinner and music. The restaurant owner was a great guitarist (he played for the patrons) and seemed to really like Hank Marvin and the Shadows, so we sat back and enjoyed the live show. The next morning we went for a swim in the sea. It was perfect – warmish water (although I thought it would be warmer) and lovely very clean beaches.
No dogs allowed on the beach so we did not tarry, and returned to Skookum in the late morning to head up the Le Lez river, through a small lock (2.5 m) to the suburban town of Lattes. The river was full of small wrecks submerged along the narrow river bank so it was quite a feat navigating our large boat up this narrow channel. Lattes ‘Port Arianne’ is a newly created port off the river, surrounded by new apartments and restaurants. Obviously it is very popular as we met people who had waited five years to get winter moorage. In Roman times Lattes was a thriving seaport but is now too far from the sea.
Lattes will be an important port for us in the coming weeks as it is only 5 kms out of the lovely city of Montpellier, which will be a place of many comings and goings for Skookum crew and visitors. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and found Lattes was at the end of the tramline that goes directly into the centre of Montpellier. So we paid our €1 boarded the brand new tramway for the 5kms into town.
Visiting Montpellier was like being in ‘Paris with palm trees’ (Martin’s term) as we wandered the narrow streets, looking at the spectacular building and intricate facades, balconies and entranceways. It seemed to be a city of gardens, quiet streets and lots of young people.
Montpellier is one of the oldest University towns in the world with the University of Montpellier dating back to 1160. It was known as a centre of learning for law, medicine and literature. Today, thirty percent of the city’s population, of almost 500,000, are students. I immediately thought of Montpellier as the Heidelberg of France and was not surprised to find it was ‘twinned’ with this city. The internal transportation system was a sleek new looking tramline that meandered through the downtown area. We waxed wistfully about the possibility of Victoria ever ever, ever having a decent public transit system based on electric trams – then shook our heads in despair and defeat.
The importance of Montpellier for us was its role as a transportation hub. The French super-train system, the TGV, extends from Paris to Montpellier and now to Barcelona, taking passengers at 300kms per hour across France no-stop to Spain. Montpellier also has a major airport serving the western side of the Rhone delta where it welcomes holidaymakers from all over Europe. Cheaper airline companies like Easyjet and Ryan Air seem to be frequent users of this airport.
Our quick trip into Montpellier walking the pedestrian areas and enjoying local tapas lasted about three hours. We located the train station, found the tram timetable and oriented ourselves to the city in preparation for my departure from the TGV station very early (7:25) on the morning of September 16.
The next day was Sunday so we went to the Lattes market. It was amazing – we have not seen such a large diverse market for while, and it made shopping a pleasure. The produce – fruit and vegetables – were fresh, lakes of olives and tapenades, lots of roast chicken places and fresh cooked food, and some interesting stalls selling Madagascan baskets and ‘old’ new French knives etc.
We were asked our nationality several times – people thought we were Dutch or German or British and seemed positively thrilled when we said we were Canadian. Our country has such a positive reputation in Europe, my only concern is that I don’t speak French (which most people expect given we are from Canada). I am still persevering but a second (or fourth in my case) language should be learned at a young age, as it is much more difficult to become fluent in your 60’s.
After the market we took Skookum back onto the Rhone-Sete Canal and made our way along the long straight waterway surrounded by shallow Etangs (lakes) to quiet stop just before a swing footbridge. We moored and decided to visit a Cathedral build about 1000 years ago on an island in the middle of an etang and go to the beach for a swim. We jumped on the bikes (again no dogs on the beach) rode to the church and its surrounding vineyards, then off to a shale beach for a delight dip in the Med.
The Cathedral de Maguelone was abandoned during the 16th century. Although a Bishopric of some importance, even sheltering a beleaguered Pope or two, it was not restored until the mid nineteenth century when the local Fabrege family restored it to its former glory. While we were there, a woman was practicing for a concert. The ethereal voice echoed perfectly in the old church – it felt a bit like hearing angels.
The evening gave us a perfect sunset and the breeze kept the bugs away as we spent a night off grid. Our destination the next morning was Sete as we had an appointment at the train station to pick up my pal Janette for a few days on the boat. We left early, and departed from the canal to take the intrepid Skookum on the sea route to the yacht harbour in major Mediterranean port of Sete.