Martin left to present a paper at the World Mediation Conference in Madrid. Madrid being relatively close (compared to where we normally live in Victoria British Columbia) he took a quick flight out of Toulouse to the Spanish capital for a week of empathizing and mediating. I must admit to feeling nervous at being alone on the boat so Shelley’s company was highly valued by yours truly. Not only was she good company but she learned a few mechanical tricks on the boat, like how to reset the hot water system on Skookum when it went off (as it did when we were not plugged in).
Our few days together in Carcassonne were really hot (37C – 38C), luckily my MacGyver man (Martin) had devised a few strategies to help deal with the heat. The first one was mine – buy a small air-conditioning unit. We did this last year and it is great when we have shore power, to have at least one room where we can get some respite from the fierce heat. We also took lots of cold showers – which helped for a while. The canals are not really swimmable and the water isn’t that cold anyway. White linen sheets draped around the bimini also helped to create shade and reduce the sun’s fierceness, as did the awning and blinds. Martin would hose down the sheets and the floor of the back deck (which is carpet) and the evaporation would have a cooling effect on the surrounding air.
Wet sheet shades
The best thing was the spray – we bought this mister system (a friend said he felt like a vegetable in a supermarket being sprayed with cold water), which really cools the air and us as we sit in the mist.
Misters in Bimini
We also have an outside kitchen, which includes a gas BBQ, a hot plate and a panini grill, all of which saves cooking in the lower deck. We have a fan, lots of cool drinks and cold wet cloths draped around the neck all help to keep cool. We tried to help Kerry stay cool by letting her paddle if there was a boat launch or wrapping her in wet towels, although she really liked the air-conditioned room.
Regardless of all these strategies it was still really really hot. Climate change skeptics must be out of their minds (maybe from heat stroke) if they haven’t noticed the planet getting hotter.
Shelley and I spent a day cleaning the boat – it took forever as it was so hot, but the next day we took the heat more seriously and headed down the coast where it was much cooler. So we girls, Scarlett, Kerry, Shelley and I headed to Narbonne. I had told Shelley this was a delightful place to visit – so we had had a seafood salad lunch, a look around the market place, the canal and the old Cathedral (unfinished in the 15th Century). Then we took off to the coast – here we were at the Mediterranean at Narbonne Plage and not prepared for the beach plus we had Kerry (and dogs are not welcome on the beach). So we three walked along the sand – paddling in the warm water. A life guard kindly told us dogs were not allowed on the beach but if we went further along (outside his area of responsibility) it would be fine. So we walked further along – Shelley could stand it no longer, stripped down to her all black underwear and did a “Halley Berry (007) “ into the sea. She was in heaven. I was still paddling with Kerry, but Shelley immersed herself in the warm Mediterranean Sea – a bit like Aphrodite.
Shelley doing Halley Berry
The drive home got hotter and hotter as we went further in land and higher. I find the French drivers ( who are usually quite polite ) are much more aggressive in the south – young men in black cars seem to be the worst and actually at times, quite threatening.
The next day we went to the supermarket and stocked up a bit – needless to say Shelley thought the supermarket (Carrefour) was amazing with its fresh fish, meat, veg, cheese, and deli counters. They call them hyper markets – and they are big. Shelley also did a bit of shopping for herself and got ready to leave the next day.
Comings and goings make Kerry a bit nervous – so when I walked with Shelley to the train station on the Friday morning (she was going to spend a couple of days with a friend in Paris), the dog got confused – Martin not there now, another person leaving it was a bit much. I spent the rest of the day in the heat reorganizing the boat and getting ready to pick up Martin from the airport in Toulouse. The Easyjet flight was of course late – two hours (which is remarkable for a one hour twenty minute flight), so driving to the Toulouse airport was a nightmare – I have never been there before and was driving into the setting sun which obscured the road signs. Luckily there was not much traffic because it was so late (9:30 pm). Mission accomplished and we got back to the boat around 11:30 ( Carcassonne was about one hour by car) and stayed up late talking about the conference and winding ( and wine-ing) down from the trip.
It was still hot (35C) so we staying in Carcassonne for a couple more days – hanging out on the boat, walking around town and planning our next few weeks. It was the first time Martin and I had any time alone for a while so we had a lot to talk about. We left Carcassonne in the late morning, meandered through the French countryside on the Midi and spent our first night out in a rural mooring near the village of Villesquelande where Ivan joined us for the evening zooming in on the Lat/Long map reference Martin had sent him. It was nice to see him again – especially as he brought gifts – locally made Violet ice-cream and some soft calming organic red wine. Ivan also invited us to visit him at his home in the Pyrenees – given the heat of the day and the adventure we gladly accepted. We spent the evening ‘putting the world to rights’, talking about his book on the ‘Dynamic Spiral ‘ a very interesting sociological construct originally developed by Clare Graves who was a student of Maslow.
We bade farewell to Ivan the next day and continued down the canal noting some of the eccentric lock-keepers including one double lock that was operated by a metal sculptor who had some quite wacky pieces on display. Another rural lock-keeper operated a small shop. Our second night we moored under the plane trees and ordered some bread for the morning from the lock keeper.
We had a four lock staircase (St Roch) to climb to get into Castelnaudary our next port of call. The St Roch staircase was electrified during World War II by German engineers to speed up traffic. This is the biggest port on the Midi with a Grand Bassin where boats of sizes could turn around and it accommodates the Le Boat (hired company) fleet. It was also well serviced with a dry dock and shipping repair facilities. We moored in the old port and were greeted by the Captain, a very efficient woman called Odile, who ensured us a spot, and gave us a card to get the electricity and water from the utility supply boxes on the side of the canal.
Castelnaudry at Dusk
We moored behind a Danish couple (Benny and Joy plus their little Westie Mutti) we had traveled with through the locks a couple of days before. It was really hot so put on all our cooling devices.
Castelnaudry marina at dusk
It was June 21st – Solstice or Mid-summer which is celebrated in France with lots of music. We were in Paris for Solstice a couple of years ago – there were 81 bands playing around the city. The scene is Castelnaudary was more modest – we saw 5 bands (not bad for a town of 11,300 people) and they were excellent. There was a traditional French folk band – with people dancing, a great blues trio, a swing band, rock band and lounge music all within the town centre and all free (provided by the City to celebrate Midsummer), the streets were cordoned off and the restaurants spilled out into the street until late into the evening. We walked around after dark (when it was cooler) and soaked up the music and ambience; kids, dogs, loud young men, crying babies, old people, and giggly teenage girls all out together for the evening in town. French family life is strong, especially in rural areas and we often attribute this to lunch. Lunchtime (noon to 2:00 pm) is highly protected in France – people make time to go home to their families, sit down and eat together. This seems to have a bonding affect that is really great to see and experience.
Castelnaudary is famous for its cassolet (pork and duck casserole) . There are lots of food factories in the area producing this famous product, in fact you could order one from the Captainarie and receive not only the food but also the ceramic dish it was baked in.
We moved the boat across the port on the quieter side of the ancient bridge that marks the entrance to the marina. We invited our Danish friends and an English couple (Heather and Simon)traveling on a Pedro called Pedro over for a drink . Turned out that Heather and Simon had seen us in different places in France over the last few years but it was the first time we had chatted. They also knew our friends Marc and Mary who have a Dutch barge in Roanne.
The next day we set off for the Pyrenees, which was quite exciting and a bit intrepid as we did not know how Scarlett would perform in the mountains. We were off to visit our friend Ivan who lives in the high Pyrenees in a ski town called Porte Puymorens – population 124. He suggested we visited the Grotte de Niaux on the way, so we booked an English tour of caves where prehistoric paintings of bison and deer decorate the deep limestone caverns.
Entrance to the Grotto di Naiux
Many of these caves had been discovered in the sixteenth century and had the graffiti to prove it. Entering the main cavern with our lanterns in hand (these caves were not lit by electric systems) I was struck by the majesty of nature and ingenuity of humans interacting through art that was 14000 years old, deep inside the earth – 800 meters from the entrance to the cave. There are many theories about the paintings but their location in a bell shaped chamber with incredible acoustics, most suggested that it was a place of ritual and ceremony.
We arrived at Ivan’s just as he was finishing work – he suggested we go out for dinner – in Spain! The Tapas restaurant he suggested was about 20 minutes drive from his house down the valley and across the border (but there is no national border) to the Spanish town of Puigcerda. We wandered the town for a short while and took the funicular train up the hill to restaurant, which was an incredible view point over the fabulous valley in Spain. Dinner was fine – a bit expensive but the view and stories were spectacular.
The view from Ivan’s
The next day we had a long intellectual breakfast with Ivan then set out to see another country – the mountain principality of Andorra again about 20 minutes drive from Ivan’s mountain home. It was a hot day, however we know very well that mountain weather can change very quickly. Andorra is tiny, about 180 sq. miles in size with a population of 85,000. It has one road that goes in, through and out the other side depending on where you start. In Andorra the official language is Catalan (then Spanish), and it’s main industry is tourism – mainly skiing because this place in high in the Pyrenees. It is also a tax haven and many of the 10 million tourists a year come for the tax-free shopping. My history with Andorra is interesting – I first heard of the country when I was in high-school studying German ‘A” level (a university entry certificate from the UK school system at the time). It was a part of my German literature studies that really made me think (I was 16/17 years old) and taught me about racism and the damage it causes.
‘Andorra’ was a play written by the Swiss writer Max Frisch. He wrote the play as a salve to the Swiss ‘war guilt” (for not standing up to the Nazi government in WWII) and to demonstrate how easily generalizations about people can turn into racism and genocide. So it felt very strange to be in the country – a place rather than an idea, and see that the impact of commercialism and the shopping culture. Needless to say Andorra itself did not relate to the Max Frisch’s play.
Regardless, it was a beautiful little country whose independence acts a safety valve within the EU. We were tourists in the town and enjoyed some of the preparations for the mid-summer celebrations taking place in all the towns and villages – June 24, the feast of St Jean Baptiste is a big deal in France, Spain and Andorra.
Driving through this mountainous country we decided to avoid the really long hills in favour of the tunnels (Scarlett is an old car and gets tired), which required we use our lights (they were 10 km tunnels) and unfortunately we left our car lights on which meant we could not start Scarlett. A dead battery at 18:00 on Saturday evening on the eve of St Jean Baptiste was not good, so after trying a variety of different options we finally paid €75 for a jump start.
We drove back to Ivan’s mountain home via Spain then to France – coming from Canada it feels a bit weird to be so proximus to other countries and having no borders. It was also good to celebrate St Jean Baptiste (lots of fireworks and bonfires) as this is also a big holiday in Quebec (much bigger than Canada Day), thus we had a little taste of Canada.
Rock art in Andorra
The next morning we said goodbye to our delightful host and headed down the mountain to the coast, it was quite a winding road and stopped at a famous fort Mont Louis.
Ivan – Mountain Man
It was designed by the famous military engineer/architect Vauban (during the reign of Louis XIV) so Martin was very interested in the buildings and fortifications. He was also fascinated by the sun-powered kiln that an intrepid potter had set up using the solar reflectors built by Felix Trombe of Trombe wall fame. He was selling his wares – so we bought a piece of sun-fired pottery. Then we continued down the mountain to Perpignan (Perpinya in Catalan) the lovely French/Catalan city between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. It was hot – the temperatures were rising as we drove down the mountains.
Sun kiln mirror
We arrived mid Sunday afternoon, and the city was very quiet. After wandering for a while through the old medieval town and looking into St. John’s Cathedral we headed to the cool of our air-conditioned hotel room J. The next day we checked out the Place of the Kings of Majorca, which was another Vauban construction. More about Vauban in the next blog as he was a very influential engineer during the reign of Louis XIV.
Place of the Kings of Majorca
We took the coast road back to Narbonne along the Etang de Bages et de sigean, other etangs and salinas following the holiday traffic. The winding road took us through some delightful fishing villages that had now become places for hikers and birders to wander the marshes. It was quite cool (26C) and damp (on a relative scale) and we stopped to see the tiny beach side town of Gruissan to look out at entrance of the Canal de la Robine that enters the Mediterranean at Port-la Nouvelle .
View from Gruissan tower
Back to Castelnaudry for one more day, which we spent driving out to a delightful medieval town of Mirapoix. We invited our new friends – the Danes Benny and Joy ( who also had a car) and Heather and Simon to come along with us. This delight town of 3500 people had the best example of medieval covered walkways in France (Le Couvert). This ancient market town was just too photogenic for words as it built between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries. The Maison des Consuls has these amazing rafter ends carved with dozens of images of animals, monsters and medieval professionals.
Mirapoix – Les Couverts
Even the Cathedral of St Maurice was a spectacular example of Gothic church architecture with the second widest arched Nave in Europe.
Cathedral of St Maurice
We had a walk about and a beer before driving back to Castelnaundry. The next morning Martin and I set off on the last leg of the Canal du Midi to the city of Toulouse.