The day after the Playing for Change concert we went to Lyon station to pick up my pal Shelley and take her to Beziers and a mind-blowing couple of weeks. We arrived back in Beziers after a 380km drive from Lyon Shelley who had flown into Paris from Portland Oregon, then on the train was quite bright despite a serious lack of sleep. We settled on the boat as the next day we had some serious steps to climb.
The Canal du Midi is of course a UNESCO world heritage site, and the nine Fonseranes Locks have been a part of that designation since 1996. There are now seven working locks, located just outside Beziers. We cruised the canal/aqueduct that went over the river and then to the base of the lock staircase.
Canal du Midi |Aqueduct at Beziers
There were several hire boats waiting – we call them ‘bumper boats” because many of the drivers are new at the wheel of a boat and not quite sure how to handle them. We met a boat full of Russians and helped them out with stabilizing their steering and they kindly repaid us with a bottle of wine, but we were still a little weary of their driving skills.
The Fonseranes Locks were quite tricky as we drove into the first lock but the gates to the second lock were open. Imagine three boats the first lock – each with a bow and stern line ( Shelley was a godsend on this stair case), then a torrent water coming from the second lock. The boats rise up to the height of the first lock then we walk the lines forward with the boat into the second lock. The gates close behind the boats and other torrent of water fills the second lock. Once full the lock gates open and we repeat the process with all seven locks. It took about an hour to reach the top of the staircase.
It was getting late so we decided to stop at the Halte nautique at the top of the locks for the night. We ate dinner, chatted with the Brits on the next boat, and then got ready for day 2 along the Midi. Martin had told Shelley that Paul had been on Skookum with him for a month – so he might call her Paul. She smiled sweetly and replied that she might not answer. Our full day on the Midi went smoothly as we traveled to Colombiers where we stayed the night. There were no locks in this part of the Midi but we had to contend with lots of low bridges, so the bimini went up and down quite frequently. It was also getting hot – a warm 30C and rising.
The canal winds through the countryside, as I mentioned some of it was in shade but mostly we were in the part where trees were being replaced. Our first night was spent at Colombier, in the morning Shelley took a bike to check out the Oppidum d’Enserune and the alien helipad. She also checked out the Malpas tunnel for us (a baby tunnel really only 160 m long). Temperatures were hitting 32C when we reached the tiny port of Poilhes where a boat was being taken out of the water so the engineers could fix the bow thruster.
It was also a place where we did some interesting wine tasting (with a kind of credit card, a machine and a variety of local wines).
We also visited a brewery where I bought a bottle of lavender gin.
Our day was far from done as we passed the turn off to Canal de la Robine (to Narbonne) to the beautiful hamlet of Le Somail.
Pont Vieux and Le Somail are very interesting and lovely stops on the canal. There is a famous antique bookshop and a small grocery store on a barge at this pretty stopping point on the canal. We wandered round for a short time, had an ice cream and resisted the temptation to buy a book or poster from the bookstore.
I have a friend who started cruising the Midi from Le Somail a few years ago, it made an impression on me as a port, but it must have been a real treat for a first time cruiser.
Time was moving on so we continued down the canal and stayed for the night in Paraza. It was a long and winding canal without locks, so the driving was relatively easy, although we had to be concerned about low bridges and the temperature kept rising. Even though we were in very rural France in Paraza, Martin found a bakery so we had fresh bread for breakfast (it was next door to Le Cave aka winery).
We meandered about 20km through the countryside then started to climb. This meant we were working the locks, many of which were double locks – you enter one lock the water takes you up, then you drive into the second lock and the water takes you up again. Shelley was a great help as some of these locks needed a third person to woman the ropes(lines).
Our route down the canal paralleled the River Aude, which gives its name to the region. Cruising past the former wine port of Homps (now a Le Boat centre), we continued through the locks (there were often three boats in one lock) with an interesting couple from the Isle of Man who were on a hire boat, so we invited them for a drink. I learned a lot about the Isle of Man (now on the list) during the evening, not least of which was its status within the UK. We had all stopped on the side of the canal at a bridge near the small village of Puicheric to rendezvous with another friend.
Ivan Komaroff is a friend Martin met at a “ Compassion Week at Stanford’ in San Francisco a couple of years ago. He was on his way back to his home to the Pyrenees from Paris (TGV to Montpellier then by car to our boat) so arrived quite late (11:00 pm) so he stayed the night on board with us. Ivan is a very interesting man who speaks excellent English, and works on the edges of possibilities. He is an entrepreneur/coach who works with environmentally and socially sustainable ‘start ups’, he is also a Buddhist, vegetarian and photographer.
He and my pal Shelley Koorbatoff had a good connection, not only because they are from the same tribe (Russian immigrants from “off”) they also work in similar fields. Shelley works in ‘change management’ for large organizations, coaching governments and their employees through major changes. So there were some work conversations, some life conversations and some mystical conversations, which went on until about 2:00 am.
The next day Ivan, who is a very good photographer, offered to take black and white ‘energy photographs’ of us all as a gift. He has a website showing this kind of work
It was a different kind of experience, especially in these days of the ‘selfie,’ as he requires his subjects, in very gentle and soft way, to forget about the camera, focus their gaze and use their eyes as the window to their soul. Easily said, but harder to do!
Ivan returned to work (reminding us that people do still have to work) on the understanding we would meet again soon. We (three) went further down the canal and the days got hotter.
Our next stop on the Midi was the port of Trebes, which it seems has been taken over by Le Boat as there was no-where to moor and no services available. We had a triple lock to get into the port, and were waiting about 45 mins just to use the lock. Trebes was a party town and it was 35C, so we moored around the corner (where the big boats moor) and went out for a light seafood dinner – which was delicious. Our route continued the next day as we edged closed to the famous city of Carcassonne. After a few more locks in the sweltering heat and we had the famous citadel in view. We had made it to the fabled city of the Cathars.
A historical note about the Cathars, as their name and their history have shaped much of this area. They were a military force and a sect that differed with the Catholic Church in the twelfth century. Their power to challenge the Church on doctrine and belief was halted when Pope Innocent (I love the names of some of these ancient rather vicious Popes) decided to end their power and influence over this region of France. The Catholic Church and the French monarchy led a war of extermination of the Cathers in the Langedoc region, massacred in 1209 and almost wiped out by 1229. The last vestiges of the Catheri were hunted down through a Cathar Inquisition and finally extinguished in 1321. The brutality of the Catholic Church in Middle Ages against any challenges is repeated shortly after this period with the removal of the Knights Templar – another story for another day.
However the Cathar castles and ruins remained – a testament to an interesting and more liberal society that flourished for a few hundred years with this region. Interestingly the territory ruled by the Cathars corresponds closely to the linguistic region of Occitania. This ‘native language’ region was made into an official administrative region by the French government in 2016, so Occitania is now use on city road signs, government buildings etc.
Carcassonne Mairie (City Hall)
Cruising into Carcassonne was a bit like arriving in Disney movie. It is a medium sized city of around 45,000 with a suburban population of about 100,000 but its place in history far outweighs its current size.
The city got its name from Dame Carcas who tried to trick the Emperor Chalermagne into peace during a ninth century siege. Her effigy greets visitors in the restored Citadel.
The citadel was left in ruins by the war against the Cathars in 1209. It was rebuilt in the nineteenth century under the architect Viollet le Duc who was commissioned by an enlightened French government and monarch to restore the ramparts, and medieval buildings to their former glory. This work took almost 50 years and was not without controversy, but le Duc prevailed and his work continues to inspire awe from visitors over 150 years later. The citadel is perched on a hill with a commanding view (and military position) over the valley below. But much of the new town developed on the plain of the River Aude and the Canal du Midi.
Ramparts at Caracassonne
We cruised into Carcassonne as this was our moorage for the next week. Martin was off to Madrid and Shelley and I were on the boat for a few days. I am not an intrepid sailor as I would not take the boat out without Martin, but felt quite comfortable staying on the water with Shelley. It was getting hot – 35C when we arrived in Carcassonne. Our first job was to pick up the car so Shelley and I took the train back to Beziers. Shelley was quite amused at the fact it took us one hour on the train to cover the distance we had take six days to cover in the boat. But there are no locks on the train.
Cathedral at Bezeirs
Once in Beziers (another Cathar centre) we had a walkabout – up to the park dedicated to Pierre Paul Riquet and looked around the town. Scarlett was fine so we drove back to Carcassonne in the evening.
The next day we did some exploring of the city on the little train, up to the Citadel and a walk about in the lower town. Most French cities seem to have one of these ‘little trains’ and they provide a commentary (in French) of the local places of interest (and dogs are allowed). Our trip to the citadel did not disappoint – lovely medieval town with a beautiful church.
Martin then took the train to Toulouse (about one hour away) to catch his late flight to Madrid, and Shelley and I planned our next few days.