We arrived in Toulouse France from Toronto on May 30 2018 got to the boat after a long journey and five hour lay-over in Paris. After leaving Victoria on May 24 we spent five days near Toronto visiting pals and playing tourist in Cabbage Town (or the Little Apple as it is sometimes called).
We did the CN Tower tour – $34.00 and an hour wait for a few minutes of a brilliant view 300 meters in the sky. We also toured the city courtesy of Laurie and Jere who kindly made the hour long run into the city and gave us the historical tour (Martin’s history).
Martin and I also visited some other friends from his youth – his pal Ed and wife Irina who live near Hamilton. They have a delightful property with a lovely garden. Ed was kind enough to take us out and let us drive his new Tesla X- I thought the car should fly it was so smooth.
When we arrived back in France after 10 months; the longest we have been away from Europe in the last 6 years. Actually I had been back in the UK twice in late 2017 and early 2018 but there is another story. I was only in France for a couple of days before catching and Easyjet flight from Toulouse to Gatwick to visit my mum. Yes, she is still around and as fit as a 91year old fiddle – mentally sharp although she tires easily and walking is slow and limited (91 year old legs have their limitations). I spent 5 days in the UK only to find that my uncle Albert was very ill and at 92 did not have the strength to carry on. Lilian (my mum) is now the last woman standing on both sides of my family and feeling her age. I just tell her that Queen Elizabeth is a year older, so she can’t give up until the monarch does.
Leaving Castelnaudary after a week I remember that going downhill through the locks is much easier than going up. There are a few bumper boats on the way which reminds me of last summer (almost a year ago) and a lot has happened since then. My apologies dear readers but I will recount some of the interesting stories from the end of last season and the intervening year – cos they are worth reading.
Classic Canal du Midi oval lock
In Castelnaudary we remembered our previous year (2017) when we started our journey to Toulouse. We left the port (and the home of the cassoulet) in June 2017 we were still climbing. Our goal was to reach Toulouse by Canada Day 150. Martin had written to the Canadian Consulate in Toulouse to ask if there were any local festivities to mark the 150 years since Confederation. The answer was a resounding ‘non’ but we were cordially invited to the Canada Day party in Paris – a bit far for us. So we invited the writer to join us for pancakes, Canadian Maple syrup and champagne on our back deck. The writer did not reply, nor did she join us – well we tried.
The canal rose to its summit six locks outside Castelnaudary, a couple of singles, a triple the a double followed by another single and voila we were at the summit of the Canal du Midi. It was downhill from here, but before we started down we went to Naurouze the watershed of the canals and rivers between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, which is about 190 meters above sea-level. It is now a park with an obelisk dedicated to Richet the Midi engineer, built and paid for by other engineers from around the world who recognized and honoured his genius.
Riquet’s genius was that he used an unexpected water source for the canal, as he brought water down from the Black Mountains and financed the creation of a feeder canal to the proposed location of the canal. The Canal du Briare (visited by us in 2015 but built in 1642) pre-dated the Midi and showed that it was possible to link two river systems with a canal.
Work on the Midi began in 1667 and the first lock was built in Toulouse. At this point the distinct oval shape of the locks on the Midi was developed. Work continued from 1667 for the next 12 years but Riquet died 6 months before the completion of the canal in 1681. In the following years other engineers –noteably Vauban were also involved in the creation of feeder systems.
We moored in Toulouse on July 2nd 2017 at newly developed Port Saint Sauveur. Toulouse is on the Garonne river which was connected via canal to the Midi, it later became a shipping hub. However the Garonne was not canalized until 1850, even though Vauban had proposed the project in the 1690’s, until then goods were moved from large barges on the Canal to small river boats.
We were in Toulouse for the Sunday market – I have never seen so much fresh food on display – in the market hall and along a main street for about six blocks. Toulsoue will always live in my body – as I came off my bike and hurt my arm and shoulder. Happily I heal well and quickly although the first couple of nights after the fall were a tad painful.
Toulouse – Occitan (Haute Garonne) Regional Government building
We continued to head west along the Canal de Garonne, which is about 248 kms long and has 54 locks. There were some interesting spots between Toulouse and Agen including a short canal that leaves the Garonne and goes to Montauban, but we gave it a pass. One place that especially fascinated Martin was the waterslope at Montech. The waterslope was built in 1974 when water transport was still significant. Two large diesel engines were used to go up or down a 13.3 m elevation pushing a volume water in a channel which carries the boat. It saved some time (around 45 minutes), compared to the alternative of five smaller locks but was only used for boats 20 m long or longer. It was one of many interesting engineering devices to move water and boats up and down slopes (remember Belgium). However Montech has recently fallen into disrepair and disuse.
We met our friend Graham Bristol in Toulouse after we had seen the Airbus exhibit. He spent a brief but seemingly memorable day or so with us on the Canal du Garonne.
Moving on down the canal we came to the lovely town of Moissac, where we met Captain Jim (a larger than life Brit who ran the port) who suggested we go down to the Tarn river. There are a couple of locks that step down from the canal onto a 12 km stretch of the Tarn river that is completely navigable and swimmable. Given the heat we were experiencing last year it was a delight to just hang off the boat in colder water. We had lots of company in the shape of a chorus of frogs (who never seemed to sleep). Moissac also had some interesting buildings including the 11th Century Church of St Peter. We stayed a couple of days before heading down to Agen and beyond.
Agen is a major town in the region like many of the places along the canal full of treasures and places of interest. We stayed for a while, collected the car and prepared for the arrival of Lilian and Joan. This was my mother’s fourth visit to the boat, considering she was 90 years, was quite spry and young Joan (now 86) was positively athletic. We drove to Bordeaux airport and picked them up. Even though the Aquitaine and areas west of Toulouse are cooler than the eastern side (Aude) driving there and back was a hot journey. Scarlet has no air-conditioning and is quite cramped with 4 people, one dog and cases).
After a day in Agen, we four plus Kerry set off the complete our journey on the Garonne canal and take a little side trip down the Baise river to a highly recommended port called Nerac. We pulled into Buzet-sur-Baise and prepared to again take a couple of locks down. The river was low but we found ourselves cruising through a gladed valley to the magical town of Nerac. I am going to devote another episode to Nerac as there are tales to tell. Lilian and Joan were with us for a week, so once we had spent a day or so in Nerac we decided to drive them to Bordeaux. Their flights were in and out of Bordeaux airport thus it was appropriate to some spent time in this gorgeous city. It was so lovely that Martin and I returned this year for another couple of days in the wine capital of the world.
Visiting with my mum and Joan in 2017 meant we needed to get Lilian some extra help, so we rented a wheelchair from a Bordeaux pharmacy to tour the city. In addition we caught the ‘Hop-on Hop-off’ bus with a great English commentary that told the tale of this legendary city.
The ‘never give up’ tourist in Bordeaux
This year Martin and I were more directed in our tourism focusing on the marvelous ‘Cite Du Vin’, the fountains on the waterfront walk way and the lovely eighteenth century buildings. Bordeaux is the sixth largest city in France (population 250,000, metro area is 1.2million) but rates secondly only to Paris when it comes to monuments, and architecture
A UNESCO World Heritage site (surprise surprise) this wealthy city with its beautiful churches and eighteenth century wine houses, changed over the last fifteen years when the old warehouses along the Garonne estuary were demolished and a public park along the estuary with water features, cafes, tall ships and even some shopping. We had thought of bringing Skookum to Bordeaux but were pleased we had decided to leave the boat in Nerac because the Garonne is tidal at this point and running about 12 knots – turning every 6 hours with very few places to moor.
Historically Bordeaux owes much to its geographic location on the Atlantic coast where the sheltered estuary gave sanctuary from the Bay of Bisque to the trading boats since Roman times. Wine became important as a traded commodity for the tin and other metals from the north isles. It was a garrison town used against the Basques and other tribes to south in the eighth century. By the twelfth century it was annexed as a part of England after marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet.
It was not until Louis XIV took Bordeaux in 1653 that the city became truly French (even today there are remnants of Englishness that have survived including being home to the best cricket team in France). The eighteenth century was Bordeaux’s golden age, when the magnificent wine houses, warehouses, customs buildings and opulent churches were built to service the vast wine industry. There are over 10,000 chateaux in the Bordeaux region (appellation) growing delicious grapes that blended and sold at a premium all over the world. The wine trade in Bordeaux is worth €14.5 billion per year.
Cite du Vin – the swirling carafe
We drove the 650km round trip from Castelnaudary to Bordeaux to visit the Cite du Vin which opened in 2016. (France is always so much bigger than I ever anticipated). Please add this marvelous museum to your bucket list as it was worth every kilometer. The building represents a swirl of wine in a carafe. It takes a minimum of 3 hours to tour the permanent exhibition but I could have lingered longer. I felt I had completed a sommelier course by the end of visit and for an entry fee of €8 it was really a good deal.
On both occasions we stayed in Ibis hotels around the Gare St Jean – the biggest station in Bordeaux. It was a bit confusing as there are three Ibis hotels around the train station. There is a great tram connection with the downtown core that runs along the river.
Our Bordeaux visits are over for now – last year we took Lilian and Joan to the airport, then went back to Nerac, this year we returned to Castelnaudary for more adventures.