We arrived in the Port of Sete and settled into the port. I took the bicycle to the train station to meet my pal Janette (from Victoria) as we were a bit pushed for time. We walked back to boat, stopping on the way to have some fresh fish for lunch in a local restaurant.
GNS Ferry leaving Sete for Morocco
By the afternoon the wind was blowing and we decided on a quick swim. We took the dinghy across the bay and had a dip in the Mediterranean. We had a big wind (70kph) in the evening and Janette indicated she was not feeling well. That was an understatement because she was then violently sick, and looked like a ghost. We thought it was the lunchtime fish and she unluckily got a bad one, although we were fine. Poor Janette must have felt terrible, but she was very stoic, went to bed without any food and slept for ages.
The next morning we left Sete after waiting for the three swing bridges to open and allow us into the Etang du Thau. Sete is a major port in the south of France with lots of freight and ferries running between France and North Africa (Morocco).
Janette was still looking very fragile was we crossed the Etang – a large shallow lake full of oyster beds and mussel farms. She insisted that she was well enough, and the water was very smooth. On the way Martin decided to make a video of Skookum in motion, so he jumped in the dinghy while I took the boat for a spin. I must say Skookum looked very impressive from the water. Martin also took the opportunity for a dip in the Etang – slightly salty tepid water was the verdict, but the joy on his face swimming around the boat said it all.
We headed to the small port of Meze on the northern shore. This little port was delightful, compact and very clean. So clean in fact that we were not allowed to use the toilet and shower on board and had to use biodegradable washing up liquid. This was to preserve the pristine oyster beds in the Etang. There was a beach just across from the harbour so we could walk over have a swim, dry in the sun and then do it again. We all seemed ready for a gentle swim in the warm water – even Janette who was getting some colour back in her cheeks.
Another boat pulled in beside us – an English couple. There were lots of English people in Meze, they had obviously found the best spot on the Etang. We chatted and it turned out that they were Martin’s sister’s neighbours in the complex in Aigue Mortes. The coincidence was of course a reason for celebration. Again Janette was still suffering and declined to join us for dinner but Roger and Mary thought it would be a great opportunity to try the local oysters and mussels. There were a number of restaurants surrounding the harbour so we choose the one that looked the busiest (always a good sign in a restaurant).
The next afternoon we set off back across the Etang to the Frontignan bridge. This railway swing bridge took us back into the Rhone – Sete canal and avoiding Sete. It was opened twice per day – at 8:30 and at 4:00. It was a bit of a zoo getting through the 4:00 bridge opening as there was a line-up from the bridge down the canal on both sides. Some bumper boats (this is name we give to hire boats from companies like Le Boat, Locaboat, Canalous etc with very new drivers) were out of control. The more experienced boaters were certainly a bit nervous, as one of the rental boats did a couple of 360° turns in the narrow harbour.
The flotilla eventually got through and we all headed eastward down the canal. Janette had a go a driving. Even though she was an experience sailor (having done a Hawaii- Victoria run in a sailing yacht) she found the boat a bit more difficult than she anticipated. This was because the response time between turning the wheel and the movement of the bow as a longer than she expected (it is not quite the same as a tiller). Still she enjoyed the experience.
We stopped again and spent the night off grid at Isle de Maguelone and enjoyed a quiet night on the Camargue. Our treat was the flight of a flock of flamingos – they looked a bit like sticks with wings in the air, but in the water they were quite beautiful.
Our next destination was Aigue Mortes. Janette was leaving us in this ancient town, so after lunch we went to town to find her best way back to Bagnol. At the same time however, both Martin and I started to feel very very ill. I walked Janette to the tourist office then felt so weak that I did not think I would make it back to the boat. Martin didn’t leave the boat. We were both vomiting, feeling ghastly, aching and very weak. It takes a lot to fell me but this bug (and we think we had a stomach flu that took 72 hours to reach us) really had a knock out punch. Janette was very well by now, but was left to her own devices, however she knew how ill we were as she was in the same state three days before. I felt so guilty, as we were also terrible hosts. Janette, who feeling fine, left the next morning on the train to Nimes, while Martin and I slowly and gingerly spend the day recovering from this stomach flu bug.
Symbol of the Camargue in the church of St Louis
After a couple of days we were strong enough to look at Aigues Mortes. The settlement was founded by the Romans in 102BCE and became important as a port under Charlemagne in 720.This beautiful well preserved Crusader walled town was started in 1226 by King Louis IX, or St Louis as he is known, in response to the Pope’s request for garrison and armies to flight the Moors, and the Saracens who had invaded Spain and southern France. The walls of the city are still intact, and thoughtful planners did not build in the areas facing the sea. The Tower of Constance (visible from the canal) and the ramparts were finished in 1254. It has a rich history of war and conquest including the battles between Catholics and Protestant in the seventeenth century and more recently between royalist and revolutionaries during the French Revolutions. Today this town of 8200 people is a tourist centre, an agriculture centre and a major exporter of sea salt (check the label of your own sea salt may be from the salinas of Aigue Mortes).
The ramparts at Aigue Mortes
We recovered enough on the third day (talk about resurrection) to take the dinghy into Port Roy and have dinner with Roger and Mary. It was a lovely evening ending in a lively discussion about Brexit. We left the next morning and made our way slowly back down the canal to Avignon to meet our friends Neil and Gintare, who were arriving on the TGV after flying into Paris a few hours earlier. Our return to Avignon took a couple of days as we retraced our steps to St Gilles (which we discovered is a major waypoint for pilgrims on their way to the Compostala de Sanitago in Spain), and spent a couple of evenings off grid on the St Gilles canal.
Once in Avignon we had to organize ourselves to pick up Scarlett, our Toyota Starlet the day our friends were arriving. We were a little late getting into Avignon after almost 3 hour trip to pick up the car, which was parked at L’Ardoise about 28kms from Avignon), so Martin went straight to the train station. I took our ever-patient dog with crossed legs for a walk and waited for a phone call. Martin called but he did not have our friends – and then the thought struck me – they were at the TGV station!!!! So we jumped in Scarlett and drove to the Avignon TGV station that was 8 kms out of town. We were about 45 minutes late picking them up, but they were as pleased to see us as we them. After a dinner of mussels, salad and wine they eventually retired to bed to get over their jetlag
The Papal Palace by day
We spent the next day hanging out in Avignon. Neil is also an architect and familiar with this area of southern France. Indeed he had a trip planned to revisit some of the places he had spent time in 20 years before. Avignon, however, was a new place for him and he was quite impressed with the city walls, the hike up to the top of the ramparts, the Popes Palace and the lovely warren of streets that takes you through the heart of this city of 90,000.
The Papal Palace by night
Seven popes in made their home and the centre of the Catholic Church in Avignon between 1304 and 1377. During this time they built a magnificent albeit austere palace, which has been preserved and enhanced over the last hundred years or so. The disagreements between Rome and France during the 1300’s led the newly elected French pope to move the Papal court to Avignon and set in play a political storm within the Catholic Church. Towards the end of the papal reign in Avignon there were in fact two popes vying for power. Eventually (by 1408) the papal court returned to Rome, but it had left an indelible mark on the region, as witnessed by the names of local places.
Avignon is also famous for its bridge (or the half a bridge that is still standing) – you know ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon etc). The song was originally titled ‘Sous le Pont d’Avignon’ in its 15th century format, but was revise and popularized in (especially in Canada) during the 19th Century when the townspeople would picnic and celebrate (and dance) in the parks on the islands in the middle of the river. The first bridge was built in the twelfth century by St Benezet, who supervised building of a wooden bridge across the Rhone connecting the islands in the middle of the river to Villeneuve d’Avignon on the west bank. This structure was swept away in one of the many major floods. Eventually a stone bridge was built but it too succumbed to the ravages of Rhone floods. The last major flood was around 1958, since then the Rhone authorities got very serious about flood control. Even so the raging river can rise over 4 meters and in extreme years it can bring down ice.
After a day of sightseeing, we spent the evening with Neil and Gintare and Brigitte and Peter (our friends from Germany) dropped in. They were on their way to Spain for a week of golf lessons and a decision as to whether they would become golfers! The verdict is still out. Our evening meal was in a restaurant located in a lovely square near the Popes Palace. We all had breakfast together on the boat the next morning, after which we headed for the hills – quite literally.
Breakfast of Champions
The four of us plus Kerry jumped into the intrepid Scarlett and set off for the Luberon Valley. As I mentioned this was a return trip for Neil, who guided us through the hill towns of Provence and some of the most beautiful countryside in France. Our first short stop out of Avignon was Isle sur la Sorgue, a beautiful market town built around the river. Lots of interest here with waterwheels, tiny canals, riverfront and a fantastic Sunday market.
We then drove up to the hilltown of Gordes, perched on a cliff over looking the river valley, this lovely tiny town was an unexpected hive of tourist activity. It labyrinth of tiny streets and houses gave us an incredible view of the landscape.
We moved on from Gordes to Joucas, our overnight stop at the ‘Hostelliere des Comandeurs’ where we checked into our hotel and the swimming pool. Did I mention we were driving around in a non-air-conditioned car in 32C? The hotel and the swim were most welcome, then we headed out again to the lovely ochre town of Rousillon a few kilometers across the valley.
This town was rather amazing – about 300 meters above sea-level, offering a hilly walkabout (as cars are banned from the centre of the village). It is sitting on the most amazing red rock which seems to be the source of the colour ochre and it’s many variations. An artist’s haunt, the views across the valley from this red mountain were spectacular. We wondered around marveling at the coloured houses and the serenity of the place.
Our evening was spent in Joucas – I must pay attribution here – our friends used Rick Steeves’ ‘Provence and the French Riviera’ from his travel guide on France to find both our hotel and dinner restaurant. However Rick Steeves did not tell us about the spectacular tightrope walking show (a la Cirque de Soliel) we witnessed in the village centre. Joucas was a hive of artistic activity, and this was just one incredible performance.
After that we went for dinner, which was rather late and the menu seems to take ages to get to our table. We met a charming couple and their 4 year old daughter from Yosemite – they were Park Rangers on holiday (if you ever wondered where Park Rangers go for a vacation – now you know!).
The next day we continued our exploration of the Luberon visiting a delightful lofty village of Saignon. Neil had stayed here 20 years before stayed in the local hostel run by a local celebrity, who ran a silent film festival. This delightful place was our penultimate stop in the area before we went to Apt. I was surprised at the number of tourists in the area, apparently Peter Mayle’s – ‘A year in Provence’ created a new tourist trek.
Our last stop was Pont Julian – a Roman bridge on the Via Dolmatia that was still in use 2000 years after it was built. Bicycles and maybe the odd horse still used this amazing piece of Roman civil engineering.
Pont Julian circa 120AD
After that it was back to Avignon, back to the boat and back to the Camargue as we toured our friends down the Rhone, to St Gilles, the vineyards, horses and flamingos to visit Martin’s sister Carol in Port Roy at Aigue Mortes. Martin had been looking forward to parking Skookum outside his sister’s house – at 12.5 meters Skookum looked like a huge boat in the small private harbour.
We stopped in, intending to stay only for a night, but a huge storm blew in; thunder, lightning, buckets of rain and hurricane force wind focused their energy on Aigue Mortes. Martin, Gintare and Neil and Carol all went off to take Kerry for a hair cut in Palavas and to have a sight seeing tour of the coast while I stayed on the boat. They were a mere 20 miles away on the coast experience none of the weather mayhem I had on the boat.
Carol and Martin on the beach near Palavas
The next day the storm had abated so we made our way down the canal, river and lock to Lattes. This was our hub (or rather Montpellier was) for the various comings and goings of Skookum passengers and crew.
Yours truly went off early in the morning to catch the TGV to Paris, then across Paris (Gare de Lyon to Gare de Nord) to the Eurostar arriving in London St Pancreas on time to catch a train north from Kings Cross arriving in Peterborough around 3:00 pm to spend a nine days with my mother. Our friend Michael Mascall arrived from London into Montpellier airport around 2:30 and arrived at the boat shortly thereafter to spend a ten days with us. Neil and Gintare left Montpellier for airport late in the evening for Lithania, our visitors spent the afternoon and evening together.
Martin and Michael spent the week together along the Rhone – Sete Canal while I had a great week in the UK with my mother. More about that, our packing up and leaving France at the end of our 2016 season in the next and last blog for this year.