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
Click map to view larger version

May

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

May 1, Labor Day in France, we find ourselves hanging on the pontoon in the Garonne River in Bordeaux. ‘Hanging on’ is literally speaking: the current is swift and threatens to tear the boat off of the mooring unless the lines are tied tight. Also, as a consequence of this terrific water flow, huge tree branches come hurtling along and occasionally slam into the boat, creating a terrific ‘boom’ throughout the interior. We have stayed for almost a week to enjoy the city and also to follow the tide back to the canal.

OO-LA-LA BordeauxEvery day, for about eight hours, the river rolls out toward the sea; then for only three hours it comes back in again. So timing has to be chosen carefully so as not to buck the four knot current returning. Saturday morning, May 3rd, the tide turns around at 7AM, giving three hours until 10AM to ride it in. Then we’ll most likely have to fight the current for an hour, but by then most of the river is behind and the water flow is not as strong. The total trip time is about four and a half hours. It sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?

So at 6:30 we awake and, after coffee, take off with a whoosh as the current snatches up Oo-La-La and holds her in its clutches. Travel speed is nine knots, with a good four-knot boost from the water surge. The day looks fine as the sun comes out in a rosy dawn. A fine mist along the banks swirls and dances on the water surface. Bordeaux fades behind and the fishermen in their skiffs have huge gill nets spread across the river making us hug the bank to avoid entanglement. The curling mist is spreading thicker now and a little worry grows with it: could this turn into fog?

Sure enough, by 9AM it is impossible to see ten feet beyond the boat. The throttle is on idle, but travel goes forward due to the current. The banks are invisible and there is no clue what lies ahead and in our path. Fishing boats zoom in and out of the fog apparently unconcerned with poor visibility. It may be a common occurrence for them, but all we know is that two large peniches are permanently moored in the middle of the river and coming up soon - we don’t know where they are.

Foggy BridgeGoing as slow as possible, it doesn’t help that the depth finder is not working, it is saying there is 0 feet of depth. It is obvious that is not the case and that there is SOME water beneath the hull, most likely a piece of moss got caught on the indicator. A mooring at the town of Langoiran is just visible to the left but a U-turn is necessary to get to it. Just then the ghostly outline of a big dredge appears dead ahead. That and the barest shadow of the large bridge ramparts make us U-turn for the pontoon with eagerness and gratitude. It’s a real pea soup kind of fog, and travel is simply too dangerous. Just the image of the spiky dredge says enough is enough.

Disembarking from the boat a freshly baked ‘baguette’ and some apple tarts are found in the town bakery. After a mid-morning break, the fog is all burned off by 10AM and the day is sparkling clear. What a beautiful day it is indeed, all the more so for the good visibility.

Travel is slowed down for the next two hours the tide has turned against us as an hour was lost waiting out the fog. No one is complaining since the sheer relief of avoiding collision makes the current a welcome challenge. The noon hour is approaching and that means lunchtime, so I put a call through to the lock keeper at Castets.

The number rings to a fax machine. I try the next lock and the next, all with the same results. Why the guidebook has these phone numbers is a mystery, they’re completely useless. So, as a last resort, the restaurant at the river lock is called. “Oh, he’s usually around here, but not now, so I’ll call you back,” says the friendly lady who answers. I sure hope so, since it means holding onto a pole in front of the lock gates if no one opens up.

Chris IvorApparently she doesn’t see him since there’s no return call. But just as the lock becomes visible a white VNF truck is spotted running alongside the river toward the canal. A light blue sailboat, ‘Cariad’ is waiting at the poles and we enter the big gates together, both happy to be inside and going off the river onto the canal. It’s absolutely wonderful to be back on the peaceful, placid waters and away from tides and other big river dangers. At the pretty town of Meilhan we enjoy a happy hour with the crew, Chris and Ivor Jones, a Welsh couple living their dream of sail boating, they just spent winter on the coast town of La Rochelle and are going to Spain via the Canal du Midi.

Spring weather is doing its thing and the air is thick with white tuffs of pollen or tree seeds floating in the air like snow. A small child nearby exclaims that it IS snow, he doesn’t care what the adults say. It certainly looks like it as the boats and ground are blanketed in a light dusting.

Marlane & RosesA week later finds us back in Toulouse, saying hello to Sylvianne and neighbors and rendezvousing with friends, Pat and Trevor Scott, of Braunston, England for a grand reunion. We met the Scotts in September 2001, just at the beginning of the narrowboat adventures in England. They arrive in a beautiful electric blue Mercedes sports car that Sylvianne graciously keeps an eye on during their stay.

Pat & TrevorAfter an unseasonably chilly day sightseeing Toulouse, we’re ready to take off and cruise. The boat is stocked up and departure is around 9AM on a cheerful sunny morning with temperatures warming up into the low 70s. The weather continues to cooperate and five days of glorious cruising pass all too quickly. Pat and Trevor help out with the ropes and get good suntans in the process. Along the way we meet up with friends of theirs who have coincidentally hired a boat to cruise in the opposite direction, toward Toulouse. An instant party gets going as both vessels tie onto tree trunks for the evening. Three couples aboard the hireboat are David and Leslie who also have a narrowboat, Raven, Christina and Mike of Barbie near Braunston and Brian and Diana of Lowestoft, also narrowboaters. Chatting about websites, we discover that we’re both featured in the same issue of Waterways World, theirs being www.cutweb.org.uk, a boating site. It’s a cozy neighborhood on the canals.

Canal PartyAt Carcassonne we bid goodbye to Pat and Trevor as they catch the train back to Toulouse to pick up their car. They are great crewmembers and a joy to have onboard. Maybe we’ll catch up again during Christmas.

Marlane & TreeAs it turns out, their timing is perfect, for the next day there is a general transportation strike including the VNF, which means that the lock keepers won’t be working. So we sit in Carcassonne, a good place to wait. There is a ‘manifestation’ in the streets of the striking workers who burn a huge hill of tires in the road, severely disrupting lunchtime traffic. These strikes have been going on all winter and appear to be getting worse, for the first time we are directly affected. It isn’t so bad since we’re not on vacation, but the holiday boats have only 7 or 14 days to enjoy. A sociable couple from Cherbourg, France is disappointed to lose their last cruising day; it is a shame to see. But this is only the beginning, it gets much worse later on.

Carcassonne BridgeAt Carcassonne some other friendly hire boaters from England turn out to be readers of this website. It is a great pleasure to meet with Dot and Ian Hart who enjoyed their cruise on the French canals and whose own website is www.the-river-thames.co.uk.

TrebesThe ‘neighborhood’ is getting friendlier every day of cruising. We have a lovely time again with Patsy and Andrew of ‘Floraposte’ in Trebes (last seen in Toulouse) and Bob and Maureen of ‘Grand Cru’ in Homps (old neighbors from Port Ariane). In Capestang we meet Sue and Brian of ‘Orion’ a couple that spent 20 years in Gambia, Africa, running an excursion boat business. They are retired on the Canal du Midi, finding it ‘not too cold’ in the winter.

 

Midi SunsetProbably the most beautiful part of this waterway between two seas is the lock-free run between the towns of Le Somail and Capestang. There the land falls away and down from each side of the canal giving off a beautiful long vista of the valley that gently undulates toward the far away mountains. Large fields of lavender and vineyards surround centuries old estates, some modest and others grand but each charming in its own fashion. It’s the end of May and cruising season is full blown. Even though it officially opens on June 1 the canals are already humming with life.

.....on to June

 


 
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