Follow the ongoing travels and adventures of Rob and Marlane as they cruise the Canals of the UK and Europe aboard their narrow boat 'Oo-La-La', read the monthly account of their travels and view photos documenting those travels. Follow the adventures of Rob and Marlane as they cruise the canals of England and Europe aboard their narrow boat OO-LA-LA
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Travelogue: France - 2003

France Map - showing our current area of travels, click to view larger version
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(All photographs can be viewed at a larger size by clicking on the image)

The month starts out cold and windy at first, but it's an April Fool's joke; by the first Sunday the weather is sunny and warm. It's perfect for a day at the races.

Race dayThe Toulouse racetrack is a popular place to watch people as well as horses. Jacky is a happy horse bettor and has invited us along with Maud, Odile, Flo and Cyril. The restaurant is completely booked so it's a good thing he reserved a table for seven with an excellent view of the track. The setting is elegant with white linen tablecloths and black tie waiters and we all order a sumptuous three-course lunch starting off with a couple of bottles of champagne. The food is delicious and the wine excellent.

Racing starts around one o'clock and continues until six. The horses are raced two ways, as trotters with the riders on buggies as well as the traditional horseback style. They are showed off to spectators in a special small ring before going to the starting gate. It's great Sunday entertainment even if none of us were big winners. Funny to see the horses names; the first race features one called Marlane God, surprisingly enough.

Since the weather is now consistently sunny and warm, it looks like we'll soon be saying goodbye to Toulouse to continue down the canal. New boats are coming into Port St. Sauveur regularly, from the direction of Bordeaux. They are mostly sailboats with English owners. One of them, Challenger, has a cat named Sam. He instantly makes friends with the whole marina as he fearlessly jumps from boat to boat to say hello. When he gets to Oo-La-La it is love at first sight as he spies Nikita through the saloon window. She is riveted as well and they play Romeo and Juliet for the next couple of days, through the windows. Knowing what's on Sam's mind, Nikita is kept indoors. But he is persistent and every morning there are cat paw prints all over the deck.

Canal GaronneBy the second week in April it is finally time to go. The tanks are topped off, the boat is stocked with food and wine and 'a bientot' has been said to our friends in Toulouse. As Oo-La-La pulls away from her winter home, Sylvianne and company wave goodbye from the Capitainerie.

It's perfect boating weather; a balmy breeze and soft spring sun grace the day's travel to the town of Montech, the first recommended stopping point outside of Toulouse. There is almost no traffic on the canal, not even hire boats. The industrial outskirts of the city fade away into green countryside and then small villages start to pop up. Montech has the first real mooring available, shared by a hire boat company and an excursion boat. Jumping off of the boat onto the docks must be done with great care: they are very wobbly and bob beneath the water if one jumps off too hard. Locals must have great fun watching new arrivals.

Captain MarlaneAnother new experience is automatic locks. They are a wonderful invention and work great, for the most part. As the boat approaches the lock, a flexible pole hangs down the middle of the canal, suspended by a wire that stretches across. In French this is called 'le perch'. One twists 'le perch' to the right. As this is done, a traffic light at the lock blinks a small orange light. This means the lock is working. A red light above the orange one means that the lock is not open yet, the green light means move ahead, the gates are open and the lock is ready. Once inside one pushes a button that closes the gates and empties or fills it, whatever the case may be. It goes much faster than manually operated locks. The drawback is that without an 'eclusier' or lock keeper around, there is no one immediately available to help if it does not work. But there is a callbox. When there was a lock that would not respond to the twisting of 'le perch', it worked perfectly as there was help within ten minutes of calling. But usually they operate as intended.

The large village of Castelsarrasin is a good spot to visit the local outdoor market that features live rabbits, ducks, chickens and even turtles. It's very extensive and blankets the entire town's main streets of which there are several since it has a population of about 10,000. There are buskers, musicians and artists along with the merchants who sell everything imaginable. The cafes all open their doors and their outdoors tables and chairs melt into the scene as people use the occasion to socialize and hang out. It happens twice a week here.

Wisteria and MarlaneThe wisteria is amazing as well. Everywhere it hangs lush and fragrant. At a café it acts as a canopy, about 30 feet in length and ten feet wide, perfuming the sidewalk and people. Representing at least a hundred years of growth, the main stem resembles a tree trunk.

In Valence d'Agens there is a large English population that has settled here permanently. The town also has an enormous market on Tuesday mornings where we find a nice Oriental carpet for the saloon. Everywhere English is spoken and the French seem to welcome the friendly invasion.

At the docks we make friends with Judith and Barry and enjoy a wonderful dinner of Basque Poulet onboard their beautiful restored tchalk called 'Friso'. Also in company are Graham and Shirley, neighbors on board 'Fregate'. They have a house in a nearby village that they are restoring as well. The night is convivial and the wine delicious. It's capped off when Marlane takes an unintended dive off the stern while saying goodnight. Luckily the water is very clean in this part of the canal. Let's just consider it a baptism of sorts.

MoissacAgens is the next day's stop after passing through Moissac with its pretty swing bridge. At Agens there is good mooring at the hire boat company docks, which certainly beat the city mooring alongside a busy highway. Agens is called the pearl of the Canal du Midi, it is definitely the only city. Bordered by a hilly settlement of charming houses, the streets are vibrant and gritty so it feels like a cross between Cannes and Brooklyn. While walking over the arched bridge from the canal into town, Rob spots a bit of wet cement and immortalized Oo-La-La therein.

JoelJust outside of Agens, after four automatic locks, there is a wonderful stretch of lock free cruising to the tiny village of Buzet. Though it is small, it has a big reputation for good wine. So a visit to the wine cooperative is a 'must'. There we are especially impressed with a white 2001 and the red 1997, both from Baron d'Ardeuil vineyards. It is said red Buzet wine should only be consumed after it is about 5 years old and a tasting at the spiffy cooperative proves it. Our sommelier is a tall handsome fellow named Joel who is also hosting a couple of wine buyers from Belgium. A friendly chat reveals that they travel around the southwest of France to these small wine-producing villages to buy up large quantities to sell in their shop near Dinant. They avoid Bordeaux, saying that it is overpriced due to its huge reputation, but wines from nearby towns such as Buzet are becoming very popular due to their proximity.

After Buzet, the land around the canal rises up and the villages are built on high crests. In Le Mas d'Agenais and Meilhan the walk to the village is very steep, up several flights of stairs. There one is rewarded with a panoramic vision of the Garonne valley along with a view of the Garonne River itself that runs alongside the canal.

River meets canalThe big moment arrives in Castets en Dorthe, where the canal ends to meet the river. After passing through a very deep lock, Oo-La-La is released at high tide into the Garonne traveling 56 kilometers in three hours, helped tremendously by the four knot current. Though many boats run aground in the summertime, there is plenty of water now, an average of 20 feet below according to the depth finder. This is due to the melting of snow in the Pyrenees, flooding the river. In the past it has been too much, markers show flooding of over twenty feet higher than now, completely covering some riverside villages.

BordeauxArriving in Bordeaux, the beautiful Pont de Pierres Bridge greets us; a lovely arched structure decorated with cast iron art deco street lamps. Bordeaux is much larger than anticipated; it has a smaller population than Toulouse but the old town stretches along the river for as far as the eye can see. The buildings are Parisian in style and innumerable. It is plain that this city had a great past. It is now in the throes of renovation and much of the main roads are torn up as they make way for a new tramline. At the same time several large plazas are being redone in pale granite bricks and other roads are being repaved. It is all an incredible mess right now, but should be gorgeous within a couple of years. It's still very enjoyable, exciting and beautiful. A hard working town, the restaurants don't have a leisurely crowd hanging around after 2PM such as seen in Toulouse. Everyone hops up and back to work.

There is no real marina, surprisingly enough. We stay on a pontoon located directly on the river with no protection from the fierce tide and current. During the night whole tree trunks bang the back of the boat at times and sleep is as choppy as the water. We develop a new appreciation for the tranquility and peace of the canals.

But the excitement of exploring this ancient city, founded in the 3rd century by Celts, then occupied by Romans and dominated by the English for three centuries, overcomes the discomfort. The days are passed discovering the huge place des Quinconces, the largest public space in Europe (12 hectares), the enormous Botanical Garden that resembles Central Park, and the romantic cobblestone streets and pedestrian only avenues.

Bordeaux SunsetThis marks a milestone for we have now traveled the entire waterway from Sete to Bordeaux, completing a tour of Monsieur Paul Riquet's dream, that of a canal between two seas, the Mediteranean and the Atlantic known as well as 'Le Canal Entre Duex Mers' in French. It is a splendid waterway, incredibly varied and gifted with much natural beauty and lively culture. In the next few weeks we'll do it again and have a chance to visit places that we missed the first time.

.....on to May


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