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As promised in our last update, we have a surprise in store this month. July ended returning to Braunston to renew friendships and to do some maintenance on the boat. It was 11 months since we began and a lot of miles had passed over water so reblacking the bottom was in order. A look at the map shows you OO-LA-LA traveled on most of the major canals, a few rivers and completed a circuit of the entire southern half of England. Going as far north as the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, we returned to the Midlands since the industrial environment around Manchester and Liverpool did not entice us to go further.
Braunston Marina is full of activity and holidaymakers in August. The balmy weather also brings out lots of folks who are looking to buy a narrowboat. While at the marina we put our heads together and decided to make a leap. Narrow boating in England was a wonderful experience that gave us courage to go for the next adventure and explore more canals in other territories.
OO-LA-LA was put up for sale so that another vessel could be found in France to go through its numerous and beautiful waterways. We had thought about trucking our narrowboat over to Europe, but it is not suitable for the Seine or the Rhone; both rivers can have fairly strong currents. Not wanting to be restricted in our travels, we sadly decided that a change of boat was needed. Our beautiful narrowboat had three full price offers in as many days and was sold within two weeks. It is now having a new life with owners that love her as we did. We enjoyed meeting them and had a great time at a celebratory dinner.
A whirlwind of activity followed the completion of the sale. Internet travel showed us a couple of excellent candidates for the new OO-LA-LA in southern France. Eurostar had the best deal on short notice to travel to Montpellier, a city in the southern Languedoc-Roussillon region. Even though the economy airlines such as Ryan Air advertise very low fares, they are only obtainable a month in advance, especially in high season such as August. We still have a considerable amount of luggage, even though intense efforts were made to reduce our baggage. Eurostar works with Esprit, a luggage handling service for large bags, (200kg) so that we transported our belongings as far as Lille, France where they were sent to Montpellier on the SNCF or French rail system later. If the boats near Montpellier were not what we hoped then we were going to visit a couple of marinas in Burgundy further north and closer to Lille.
It sounds a bit ‘off the cuff’ but after leaving our home in the USA with no boat and no place to live we found our perfect narrowboat in a short time. Hopes were high. We had already made two trips to France exploring the waterways. The first time was for three weeks on bicycles along the Marne au Rhine canal. The second time we were on mopeds and traveled through the center of the country, from Paris to the Riviera, making side trips along the way to look at different canal towns. However, we had not been to Montpellier, so were looking forward to it.
Before saying goodbye to Braunston, Tim Coghlan invited us to grouse night at Dorje’s Restaurant in Leamington Spa. It was a grand experience of incredible food and several different wines to go along with the various courses. Grouse season in England is akin to the Beaujolais in France; it only comes once a year and is the cause of lots of festivities and fun. This year’s season was no exception, yet another part of English life that we will always remember. Pat and Trevor Scott also treated us to an excellent dinner at their lovely home in Braunston. Trevor’s hobby is “Metal Detecting “ and has discovered Roman artifacts buried in the ground for centuries and he has some great stories about some of the incredible things left behind by Roman soldiers in Great Britain. He presented Marlane with a 1700-year-old bronze coin with fascinating detail, which she will always treasure. We look forward to seeing our friends in France and making more great memories.
First leg in our transition was Braunston to London via car and driver we hired complete with trailer for the bags. An overnight stay was required since the baggage company, Esprit, required us to check in 24 hours ahead of our travel.
Amazingly Ted Reisinger, with whom we lunched in New York prior to embarking on the QEII, had just moved into his new home in London, not far from where we had moored for the winter. A circle was completed as we enjoyed several hours of his company and retraced our footsteps in Primrose Hill and Camden Town. While we were walking the towpath in Camden we met some our old neighbors, Gary and Mat, and were quite surprised to see Dave from Chavori who we had met back on the Grand Union last March and traveled with in company for a while. There could have been no better way to say farewell to England and begin the new adventure in France.
The next day we caught the 11:20 Eurostar to Lille from Waterloo, England. Even though we traveled under the Channel, we never saw it or the coast. After traveling above ground for about an hour, the train went underground and popped up in French countryside in about 45 minutes. The first thing we saw was a huge barn like building with the words BEER-WINE on it. Many people take advantage of the cheaper prices of wine and beer in France and stock up on their way back to England. We are looking forward to enjoying France’s wines as well.
Once we arrived in Lille, a modern and huge train station, the baggage was located and tickets purchased to forward them to Montpellier. That done, we found a huge supermarket, Carrefour, and stocked up on some dinner for the train ride to Montpellier since the food on board was not too appetizing, mostly convenience store packaged goods. At Carrefour we found a seafood salad and good bottle of wine along with a baguette and cheese. Boarding the train at 5PM we immediately launched into supper. This was a good thing since the train was packed with people by 7PM and our table was crammed with various families and children who needed the space for toys and coloring books. August is a very big holiday month for the French and people were returning from or going to their vacation destination. We felt fortunate to have a hotel and train tickets with reserved seats.
The trip from Lille to Montpellier is about five hours, so we arrived at 10PM. In the dark of the night, the warm summer air felt stuffy; the hotel did not feel much cooler. Hotel Floride was found via a guidebook and recommended for the air conditioning, cable TV and splendid flower filled courtyard. The room was stifling hot and spare but clean. Air-conditioning was obviously not on and no control switches available. A sense of ‘oh no’ was vaguely washing over us but a phone call to reception found that they had control of the A/C. Magically the room started to cool and we closed the windows. We decided to walk into town while the A/C did its trick.
Ten o’clock at night is not a great time to arrive in a strange city and such was the case in Montpellier. Without a map, we groped our way around dark and ominous looking streets and seemed to be going nowhere but into more blackness. The city is old and the buildings shuttered close; we thought perhaps it was better to turn back. Just then we spotted some lights and broke into a huge town square full of sidewalk cafes and hundreds of people enjoying food and drink in cheerfully lit up places. Feeling much better, we plopped down in one of these cafes and enjoyed a late night meal. The atmosphere was festive and it was amazing to see so many people out late and in the streets.
The room was comfortably cool on return and we blissfully fell asleep, wondering what the next day would bring.
Rain. We woke up to a very rainy day, unusual for southern France, but not for us after the UK. So it was not a bother and we strolled around looking at this beautiful and vibrant city in the daylight. Despite the rain, Montpellier’s charms were evident in the open markets, winding pedestrian streets and huge town square resplendent with Opera House and park. Much of the sidewalk is made of smooth marble and alabaster, there are beautiful statues everywhere.
Recovered from travel, we decided it was a good day to pay a visit to one of the boats of interest. Rainy days are great for looking at boats since leaks are easier to see; a beautiful day can also cloud reality. Better to see it at its worst.
Port Ariane de Lattes is about 3 miles from Montpellier where Bentekihutch, a 40’ Dutch steel de Groot is located. Paul and Jane Hutchinson greeted us warmly as we swept in with raincoats and umbrellas dripping. Exclaiming that it never rains so much as this day we had to agree that we probably brought the rain with us.
The first impression inside a boat is most important. Your senses say within five minutes or less if a boat is for you. So to say that we stayed on the boat for about four hours is to say a lot. It smelled good, which is to say that it did not smell of diesel or heads all, especially there was no scent of mildew. It was cool, thanks to a combination of fans and A/C. The woodwork was bright and the color scheme light and airy. Most of all it felt clean, the floor squeaky clean under our feet, the decks immaculate. Shoes were removed before even stepping onto the deck and we saw this boat was well cared for. The engine room was a showcase. Jane and Paul graciously served us sandwiches and wine and we thoroughly enjoyed the wet and rainy afternoon.
The next day dawned bright and blue so we luxuriated in the warm sun and freshly washed town. After coffee, we decided to call into the next candidate, “Boat B”, located in Aigues Mortes, a quaint walled city not far from Montpellier. We had a hire car so made the drive in about ½ hour. “Boat B” looked really nice in the photos we saw on the Internet and packages we had received from the owners, a group of professionals. With original striped Philippine mahogany inside, we thought this could be ‘the’ boat. It also had an attractive dark blue hull and a thick sisal rope along the gunnels. On this lovely south France day we arrived full of anticipation.
On arrival, it looked very much like its photos and hopes were raised. Once entering, our senses started clicking over various impressions of the interior. We had a decision in less than five minutes – it was not for us. Sticky surfaces everywhere, sad upholstery, junky furniture and an unbearable smell of diesel told us the same story. She was unloved and uncared for. An offer to show us the engines was made but we politely declined. A tour of the exterior showed spongy, leaky teak decks. We let our hosts know this boat was not for us; after twenty terrible minutes we escaped and had to visit a bar for a glass or two of the local wine to recover.
We walked around the beautiful walled town of Aigues Mortes, pondering the situation. We really loved Bentekihutch but were loathe jumping onto the first boat we saw. Then again, what more were we looking for? She had two cabins, each with queen size beds (a real luxury), had been lovingly looked after by a competent young couple for the past ten years and lacked nothing; in fact she was loaded with extras such as a large RIB dingy + outboard motor on davits, a motorbike that fit on the front deck, A/C and diesel fired heating. Plus all the electronics any boat could have. We called the broker and made an offer. After some back and forth, a sales price was settled on three hours later. Excitement crackled in the air, we were elated. Now the hard work of surveying and international funds transfer began. We had a few days to relax and then begin a minute examination of Bentekihutch.
The time was spent along the numerous beaches in the area, soaking up some sun. We also started to learn about wines, their fantastic quality and low price. An excellent Merlot, for example, was only two Euros (about one pound thirty or two dollars). The surrounding territory of Provence invited us to explore the hills, see some of the small villages and try local olives and breads. September arrived with our new home in sight.
.....on to France!