Last days in Toulouse ……. It’s early April and preparations are pretty well ready for our departure on the 12th, we’ve just enough time to cram in a few more meals with friends one of which is a delightful dinner with our boatyard fixer of just about anything Serge and his wife Vanessa which didn’t exactly help my cause as I’d been on a serious diet and shed 12 kgs since my return in mid- Jan from down-under with me looking for all the world like the evil twin brother of Mr. Blobby. The problem with losing those 12 kgs was that I felt certain I knew where they all lived and they’d soon be back to take up residence around my newly svelte waistline. I don’t often post pictures of food but this was such a delightful meal I couldn’t resist including some.
Everyone it seems likes the French markets, and let’s face it what’s not to like, there’s lively activity everywhere and stalls crammed with fresh local produce of every kind imaginable it’s near impossible to come away without bags filled with the few things you came for that you needed and a squillion more of stuff you just couldn’t resist. This, I’ve discovered is Evey’s achilles heel, she’s a food market junkie and needed a last minute fix to feed her addiction with a last sortie into the nearby market at St Aubin browsing through the various produce venders stalls buying this and that until we get marooned at the strawberry stand with its early crop of fresh sweet French strawberries, so mouth-watering we barely have any left by the time we get back to the barge…so much for the promised dessert that evening.
Another thing we’d long promised ourselves was a visit a visit to the Airbus factory, and so at last we did along with fellow Aussies Phil & Kathy Tyson who joined us for the tour that pretty well centred around the production facility for the huge superjumbo A380, a fantastic plane to fly in but sadly whose days are numbered due to a lack of sales, it’s a pity but hopefully those still in service will have a few more flying years in them. It’s an interesting build project given that Airbus parts are produced by a consortium of countries with major components being made and brought in from various places in Europe then to be assembled in Toulouse, little surprise then with 21,000 employees that it’s one if not the biggest employer in the city. Adding to this, one of the oddest sights see is the fuselage sections being brought up the Garonne river by barge before being transferred to road transport just south of Bordeaux.
Another Round of The Wheelhouse Game………..We call it a game but it’s really more like an ordeal that we play twice a year when in the south west of France along with a few other locations. The problem is we can’t navigate the Canal du Midi with our hardtop winter wheelhouse up, it’s simply too high for many of the low and twisted Midi bridges so we need to take it down piece by piece and stow it securely on the aft deck replacing it with our rather impressive canvas wheelhouse it’s a fab piece of kit we had designed and custom built six years ago, a bit like a cabriolet top that can be collapsed in around 5 seconds as required. So with just four days to go before we blast off we take advantage of the dry conditions and get it done, enlisting the help of fellow boat skippers, it’s an exercise that takes around 2 hrs to complete but in the end it’s all done and stowed for the trip north.
12th April, Now is the time to say Goodbye……Departure day arrives and we’re all set, fuelled up and ready to go. Leaving Toulouse is always a little sad for us as we’ve come to love the city very much. Leaving on a Friday means it’s relatively quiet but our timings good as the sometimes violent ‘Gilet Jaune’ protests are expected to hold a major demonstration the next day and we want to be well clear of it given some of our previous experiences. All the remains is the last minute farewells to our friend Christian and of course to the Capitainerie ‘girls’ Nelly and Cherazade who’ve looked after us over the winter again, and with that we turn around and head off.
Considering we didn’t depart until 14.30 we were never going to travel far that first afternoon traveling just 10 kms at a leisurely 4kph in glorious 20C sunshine to our overnight stop at Castenets- Tolosan for an evening rendezvous and BBQ with our old friend Arthur Robbins and his cruiser ‘Compass Rose’. Arthur never ceases to amaze me and is always full of surprises, like Zoe and Juliette the two young and attractive twenty something year olds he’d enlisted to assist his passage up to the canal summit through several locks and onto Castelnaudary. He might be 80 but I reckon we can all still learn a trick or two from Arthur and crew selection would be right up there!
Springtime along the Canal du Midi has to be one of the prettiest sights you’ll see, the light is stunning, streaming through new leaves as buds burst on the bank-side trees and shrubs making it one of the loveliest times to cruise the Canal. Words seem inadequate to describe the scenes as we cruise along with almost no other traffic to disturb our passage.
Arthur gets a bit of a wiggle on with a tight timeline to get the girls to Castelnaudary so leaves us at Gardouch locks where there’s a convenient mooring opposite a wee restaurant – L’Estanquet – in the former lock keepers cottage. We’ve had some good nosh here before at this family run place and judging by the packed tables business is doing fine. It’s pretty much traditional French fare with slabs of fois gras, platters of charcuterie and a range of steaks and duck dishes. Reasonable prices and pleasant service all make for a very enjoyable evening, unless of course you’re one of the many ducks that get served up that is!
Reaching Ocean lock marks the summit of the Canal du Midi, a place where it’s feed waters are sourced from and the point from which it’s downhill all the way in both directions to the Mediterranean to the east and the Atlantic to the west. This water supply reaches the canal via man-made streams (la rigole) that wind their way stretching back for many kilometres inland to the Black Mountains and the reservoirs that collect the water from the surrounding hills. As it turns out it also marks the end of our run of good weather for while with rain and high winds forecast for several days ahead.
A few days later we’re in the grip of the Tramontane, a strong wind that can blow for days on end down the corridor from the Atlantic ocean to the Mediterranean funneled between the Pyrenees and Massif Central ranges. Five days straight with winds gusting 55 – 85 kph it’s unpleasant to say the least and among other things makes cruising unpleasant and locking challenging at times though with a displacement of some 70 tonnes we’re better placed to deal with it than the plastic hire boats for whom it can be a nightmare getting in and out of the locks. The best thing you can do in these conditions is simply stay tied up somewhere secure and preferably as sheltered as possible to wait it out, easy for us of course with unlimited time but for those renters with a weeks’ vacation that’s a luxury they can’t afford and while at times their struggles getting in and out of locks can provide mild entertainment but of course if they get into real trouble we will go out and help!
In no particular hurry we find a secure place to moor with some shelter from the relentless wind and hole up for a few days, there’s only one thing to do and that’s make the truly awesome steak and kidney pie I’ve been promising for months and this seems like the perfect time. I dedicate the crust to Evelyn as a token of love!
Eventually the winds die down enough for us to slip into Castelnaudary where we’ll stay for a week. We wait nervously like expectant fathers watching the weather as we’ve got an installer coming this week to replace the deck matting and it can’t be done in the wet. As sod’s law all too often stipulates, that which can go wrong, will go wrong, and it does! After multiple delays to the new decking installation back in Toulouse we’d moved on and agreed to defer the work to Castelnaudary but demonic agents had conspired against us with the first being that the only day with rain forecast that week was, you guessed it, the installation day. It mattered not, as the installers incredulous face conveyed it all recoiling in shocked surprise when he saw the barge’s outside deck. Apparently no-one had advised him it was outside and he’d brought the wrong adhesive, this would never work he said and we’d have to defer the installation yet again while he sourced the new adhesive. We agree to rendezvous again after the weekend a few locks further on and complete the job then. At this rate we’d be in Amsterdam and still not have the job completed.
In the meantime Evey had firm plans to get her deck planting done having already scoped out the suppliers, plants, colours and the species she required along with all the cooking herbs we’d want in the months ahead. All that remained were a few more lunches, the first with friends Pete & Nikki Skerritts on their lovely barge ‘Aurigny’ and another at the Hotel Central in town where they serve up an excellent entrée of pelourdes and couteaux en persillade which translates into clams and razor clams with garlic, olive oil and parsley, trust me it’s to die for and if that’s not enough they deliver one of the best tarte au citron (lemon tarts) around.
Peyruque or rather the mooring just above the lock at Peyruque is a spot we’ve moored at several times previously, it’s a delightful rural spot that looks out over adjacent farmer’s fields with the old lock keepers cottage now a small café selling drinks, ice creams and souvenirs. Cyclists, hikers and boats all stop here during the season taking a welcome break. Over a number of visits we’ve seen a variety of crops grown here, mostly sunflowers, but on this occasion it’s large fields of peas though alas the large deep ditch between us prevented us from performing some independent quality control sampling. Maybe that was just as well because shortly after we’d got tied up skies darkened as large brooding and ominous storm clouds rolled in just as cruising pals Bergy and Deborah turned up.
The storms moved on as storms do and so did we, after all we’d a rendezvous with the deck matting installer two days ahead. Thinking about the job it occurred to me that with just the one guy coming he’s most likely to just rip the old material off and then slap down a coat of new adhesive for the new mat, which as I learned later was exactly what would have happened leaving a very uneven result. Reluctantly that expectation meant plans for a lazy weekend went pear shaped and two long 12 hr days ended up spent scraping old adhesive off the large deck, cleaning then painting a protective waterproof membrane onto the deck in readiness for the installation. Imagine my sheer delight when appearing around the corner on the Sunday morning came the cruiser ‘Peary’ mooring up along-side. A huge thanks goes to Paul ‘Bergy’ Bergson and his lovely wife Deborah……her for letting him spend an entire morning helping me with the odious task of scraping the deck and him for being such a pal and volunteering to do it, what a guy!
Install Day and a Welcome break at Lalande Locks……..Monday arrived along with bright sunshine and our installer armed this time with the correct adhesive, better still he was early and work got underway, well it did for him, I was busy supervising. All done by lunchtime which still left enough time for the four hour run to Villesquelande for the night meeting up with the Bergy’s again along with crews from Polaris, Antonia & Bosch Plaas. It was here that after several ‘welcoming ‘ beers a sustaining dinner with sustaining wine that the mood for some creative writing ensued through the medium of calvados. Little wonder the six kilometre journey to Lalande locks had to be handed over to the Co-captain next morning due to a slightly incapacitated crew member.
Lalande lock flight consists of three locks looking down a stunning tree lined valley just seven kilometres from the historic city of Carcassonne. It’s one of our all- time favourite wild moorings in France and a place we’ve shared some memorable times with fellow aquatic nomads as well as times here just on our own. It’s pretty and tranquil for the most part though occasionally entertaining with the passing hire boat traffic depending on the conditions. On this occasion we’re joined by the Bergy’s, filling our days with walks, bike rides and an excellent lunch at the nearby Chateau Pennautier. It seems at times as if one could stay here forever but it’s now May with other commitments meaning we have to move on down to Carcassonne