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Travelogue: France - 2002

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(All photographs can be viewed at a larger size by clicking on the image)

December brings on the usual pre-holiday excitement in Toulouse. Shopping, eating, music and festivities are all about. The city has gone out of its way to trim each street in the old town individually with lights and decorations; the crowds of shoppers and restaurant patrons jam the narrow sidewalks and fill the one-lane roads. Cars inch along at a snail’s pace and even walking can be a challenge. But no one seems to mind, it is a happy atmosphere. The main square is called La Capitole; the mayor’s office is located here along with the Alliance Francaise and many elegant brasseries. It is a huge plaza and for the holidays an alpine scene of about 50 little wooden boutiques has been set up, each with a different product to sell. There are many regional foods and wines along with individual artisans. For three weeks it is constantly filled with hundreds of people.

Xmas lightsWe have made a circle of friends amongst the other boaters and fellow music and art lovers. The Ambassade is a popular jazz club where we often meet on Sunday evenings to enjoy great music. Odile is the manager of a couple of these musical groups; she is great fun and helping Rob to improve his French. We enjoyed a fabulous ‘cassoulet’ at her apartment; Jacques was also in company, he paints huge tableaus with wonderful texture. The photos say it all.

Jacques is a great character, devoted to his work. He has a superb atelier eight stories up at the top floor of a grammar school in St. Sernin across the street from a magnificent cathedral that is beautifully lit up at night. Several large rooms house his pieces, which vary from small to enormous. For fifteen years creating art has been his intense passion and it shows.

JacquesThey introduce us to a wine bar near the Place Esquirol. It is hard to find since it has no sign out on the street and needs none. The name is Nabucodochon but patrons all just call it Nabu. It’s the owner’s name; one of the customers is Portuguese and cannot pronounce a ‘b’ so he says “Navu” which sounds like the French name for ‘turnip’. This makes people collapse in fits of giggles. He doesn’t care, he wants to buy the bar but Nabu won’t sell. It is standing room only and foggy with cigarettes and conversation. We manage to get a table and have some of Nabu’s recommended wines and local saucissons. It seems that everyone knows each other and Jacques and Odile are old friends with many of them. Shouting, laughing and generally uproarious, the owner closes at 8PM because he doesn’t want to deal with the effects of too much inebriation. So just as a high pitch of carousing gets going the lights go down and he locks the doors. But it takes about an hour to get people out and he serves us some more wine. A great local place with loads of character. Afterwards we retreat to Oo-La-La to continue the party; I think we might have got carried away since none of us realized it was 4AM and we were still dancing in the boat. Odile and Jacques are great people who know how to have fun.

Marlane OdileThe weather is not cold but very rainy and this December is one of the rainiest on record in Toulouse. It’s better than last year when it was so cold that two inches of ice formed on the canal. Apparently the El Nino effect is following us as London had a record warm winter when we were there last year. There are several sunny days and we take advantage of them to visit an outdoor café. Our favorite is the Fregate on Place Wilson where the people watching is best.


Domi PartyAt night the restaurant/nightclub boat called “The Occitane” passes us. The driver usually gives us a friendly honk. We wave but cannot make out his face inside the boat. For a couple of weeks this goes on. One day a gentleman comes walking down the dock and knocks on the door. “Hello, I just wanted you to know that I’m the one who honks at you at night.” Ah, the Capitain! His name is Domi (short for Dominique) and he lives in the marina on his boat and invites us over for an evening. About ten others in the marina join us: Sylvianne, the head of the marina office, her husband Bruno who drives the other excursion boat La Capitole, Michel who works on the Occitane, and Domi’s girlfriend and her kids. Domi brings out the biggest bottle of Ricard Pastis I have ever seen and we proceed to make a small dent in the contents as we pass a convivial time getting to know one another.

The holiday season is special in Toulouse, and most likely the rest of France, for the incredible food and ambiance of the outdoor markets. The French like to eat special foods at Christmas that they don’t normally have the rest of the year. No turkey or roast beef for them. In Toulouse they want Coquille St. Jacques (scallops), fresh raw oysters, sea escargot, smoked salmon, lobster, shrimp, crabs and all kinds of other shellfish I am still getting to know. One of them is called “une violette”. No, it is not a flower and does not resemble a violet in any way. It looks like some sort of rock but has a rubbery texture on the outside. With a sharp knife the vendor cuts it open for me to reveal a bright orange mollusk inside. I taste it with some reluctance because it doesn’t look too appetizing. But the flavor is fabulous, like an oyster but stronger and I can understand why people enjoy them.

Foie gras is also high on the menu as well as truffles. Truffles are enormously expensive, about a thousand dollars a kilo and small amounts are cooked into anything such as eggs, sausage, breads, pates, pasta, you name it. Christmas marks the opening of truffle season it seems. Posters advertising truffle fairs and truffle vendors suddenly appear. One offers us a whiff of the precious nugget. It smells oddly like the sea to me. An acorn-sized bit is a mere twenty-five dollars. Thanks, but I can’t afford it today. Besides we have our eyes on some huge lobster tails.

Just before the holidays we make it to Ax le Thermes for a couple of days of snow in the Pyrenees.

Ax-le-ThermesMost of our friends have left town for Christmas week; the tradition in France is to go back home to visit family, similar to the USA. We decide to do some traveling as well and see old friends and family in different places. It really is a good break and makes us look forward to 2003.


.....on to January 2003


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