Sunday, January 13, 2019

Canal Rhone a Sete


We were reluctant to leave Avignon but as we are only meant to stay a month and we had lots of places to see, we decided to "hit the road" and continue our journey down the Rhone and onto the Petit Rhone. While we had been sitting in Avignon there had been thunderstorms and torrential rain on many days. This meant that the river was flowing a lot faster than when we arrived. As we came out of the side arm onto the main river we were swept along at a cracking pace. Heading towards the lock at Beaucaire, with the engine in neutral, we were reaching speeds of 16kph. Fortunately as we steered towards the lock itself the current slowed down and we were able to moor on the Plaisanciers pontoon while the lock was being prepared. The next hurdle was the railway bridge at Tarascon - not such a problem if you're going downstream but the water does swirl and eddy a lot and can cause a few problems for boats heading upstream. As the river was flowing so fast there were no boats going upstream - many were biding their time in Aigues Mortes or Bellegarde.
I think we'll let him go first
Tarascon Chateau
Colourful "lock rash" on the walls of the lock
Shortly after passing under the railway bridge we turned into the Petit Rhone, a sidearm of the Rhone, and almost came to a standstill. Not long after, we entered the Canal Rhone a Sete and headed for our next destination of Aigues Mortes. This section parallels the Mediterranean coast and myriad salt lakes and is home to many flamingoes (and mosquitoes). Over the years, the banks of the canal have been eroded by boats moving faster than the recommended 8 kph, so it has become more difficult to discern where the canal ends and the salt lakes start.
Where does the canal end and the salt lake start?
Some of the flamingoes in the Camargue region 
Aigues Mortes was our next destination, an evocative templar knight's walled town. We managed to secure a berth here in the commercial port for 5 nights, having to leave due to the arrival of a hotel barge. We had been here a few times before by car but it is still a great place to stay and sample the fresh seafood and walk along the canal towards the Mediterranean.
moored at the commercial port in Agues Mortes
main plaza and restaurant precinct
Inside the town walls in Aigues Mortes

After leaving Aigues Mortes we headed west again towards Frontignan and, ultimately, Sete, at the entrance to the Etang du Thau. We stayed at Frontignan for 4 nights firstly on one side of the lifting bridge for 1 night then on the west side for 3 nights. Due to the age and fragility of the bridge it is only lifted twice a day to allow passage for all boats in either direction. It is a bit like a bun fight with boats jostling for position to get under the bridge and secure a mooring on the other side.
Canal at Frontignan
Traditional fishing boats in Sete
Seafood platter for lunch in Sete
While in Frontignan we caught the bus (there was a train strike so it was easier to catch the bus) to Sete to take in the sights and taste the delicious tielles that the town is famous for. These pastries are a tomato and squid concoction that will have you coming back for more.
Market Sete
Lovely fresh seafood
Our final cruise before we headed to the Canal du Midi was across the Etang du Thau to Marseillan. It's important to make sure the weather and winds are favourable as the Etang can become quite rough and if you break down it's a €450 tow back to a harbour. We departed Frontignan on a still Friday morning before 7am and had a pleasant and uneventful cruise across the Etang to Marseillan.
The end of the canal Rhone a Sete and the start of the Etang
There are many mussel and oyster farms on the etang
Entrance to the port at Marseillan
We had planned on staying here for several days but unfortunately places are limited for barges our size and a hotel barge was due in. We did have some friends staying in Marseillan harbour so we decided to cruise across to Marseillan and say hello to them from outside. When the harbour master saw us hovering on the outside he invited us in provided we departed by lunchtime. This gave us the opportunity to catch up with David and Evie on l'Escapade for coffee in town and then a very quick visit to the Noilly Prat factory to purchase a bottle of their famous vermouth.
Marseillan harbour is surrounded by many restaurants and cafes
Stills at Noilly Prat
Purchase of Vermouth
our last view of l'Escapade for the time being
While I was doing this Kevin had received permission from the harbour master to fly his drone over the port. He managed to take a great movie showing the size of the lake highlighting the beautiful surrounds. It was then time to head off to the UNESCO world heritage listed Canal du Midi.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Medoc

West of Bordeaux and bordered by the ocean and the Garonne river estuary is the area known as the Medoc. This area grows grapes that supposedly make some of the best wine in the Bordeaux wine region, if not the world. And it attracts some pretty impressive prices as well.
The best time to visit this region is mid to late summer but we were here in March so the area looked a bit windswept and bare.
The vineyards surrounding Chateau Lafitte Rothschild
The soil here looks a lot poorer that the hills around St Emilion but they always say “the poorer the soil, the better the grape”
Some examples of wine prices in a local liquor store
Certainly the prices that some of the wines sell for attest to that, as does the names of some of the labels – Lafitte Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Margaux just to name a few. The chateaux here are also impressive compared to other wine growing regions but not on a par with the chateaux of the Loire region.
Chateau Le cos d’estournal
Chateau Pichon Baron
The riverside town of Paulliac is the centre of this region and, during summer, attracts many visitors to its riverside brasseries and wine caves (cellars). There is also a port on this tidal estuary.
The jetty at Paulliac
Flotsam and jetsam decorate this bike on the sidewalk in Paulliac
This area was also important during the Second World War with the Germans establishing a base near here to try and control a sea port on the south western part of Europe. Many winemakers hid their wines in very inventive ways to stop the Germans pillaging their prestigious wines. Some interesting stories have been told about this area and other well known French winemaking areas in the book Wine and War by Don and Petie Kladstrup

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

side trips from Avignon

With the incentive of cheaper mooring rates by the month we decided that, as we weren't in a hurry, we would get our car and base ourselves here for a month. Avignon itself has much to offer and, being in the heart of Provence, there are so many little villages surrounding it that are worth seeing. With tips and advice from the capitainerie and the tourist bureau we made a list of places to visit. Ryan and Kim were also flying in to stay with us for a long weekend so we wanted to choose some interesting places to take them.
Russet red village of Roussillon
colourful walls within the village

Panorama of Gordes

Our first little village was Roussillon. This village is named for its red ochre houses and it has the largest deposits of ochre in Europe. It is a very picturesque place much loved by many artists but not quite as touristy as it's neighbour of Gordes. We thought Roussillon was much nicer than Gordes, which is probably best viewed from the road leading into it. Gordes was pretty much a dying town until the mids 1960s when someone decided to rejuvenate it and make it a tourist destination. It seems to have worked well with a number of first class boutique hotels and restaurants.
Les Baux de Provence was another town on our list, also very touristy, with its popular hill top medieval chateau and a collection of medieval war machines such as trebuchets and battering rams. During the height of the summer, medieval festivals, jousting and demonstrations of medieval crafts take place. What we really came to see was the Carrieres Des Lumieres.  The old quarries beneath Les Baux have been converted to a sound and light show, showcasing works by various artists. This year Pablo Picasso was the featured artist. I would highly recommend this even if you don't walk up to the top of Les Baux to the chateau.
Some images from the show

interesting images

Typical Picasso

Colourful produce in shops on the path to the Chateau


The Trebuchet
The Catapult 
View of the Provencal countryside from the chateau

Another highly recommended village is Uzes. Many people see this village in combination with the Pont du Gard but as we had visited this Roman site on a couple of other occasions, we decided to just head into Uzes. What a charming town. It is bigger than some of the other villages and has the more refined feel of a prosperous market town, with lovely shady treelined streets, interesting  shops, lively market square and busy restaurants. We started with coffee and cake in a small but busy one woman run cafe then wandered around the old town and up into the newer part before heading into the market square in search of lunch. The market was in full flow and the restaurants were busy with good menu du jour options. Some people make a trip to Uzes because of their love of confectionary. The Haribo museum and factory is on the outskirts but we managed to control ourselves and drove straight past!
Typical French decoration
Cute guinea fowls
Lovely setting for lunch
Lively market in the shady square
Uzes Cathedral

After lunch we drove to the colourful village of St Quentin La Poterie, so named because of the clay soil and hence all the potteries.
Some examples of the colourful tiles produced in the village
Very colourful fountain but not for drinking
Colourful house and there are even ceramic tiled drains

From St Quentin we made our way back down to the Rhone river catchment area and the town of Tavel. This wine appellation area is renewed for its rose which can combine as many as nine different varieties of grape. The colour of the wine can range from a very pale pink to a deep russet colour depending on the combination of varieties. The tastings were generous and the staff very informative about the different appellations. They even had a wine which was grown of the same soil type as chateauneuf du Pape but without the name on the bottle and without the price tag.
Tavel is classed as the best rose in France
Some of the whites are oaked for a few months
Wine and art - a good combination

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Just in case you want to bring your own container - its cheaper than petrol

Our last small village to visit on our stay in Avignon was Menerbes. This was a favourite spot with many impressionist artists but became more well known when author Peter Mayle wrote about his experiences in "A Year in Provence". Originally we were supposed to be going to the antique market in Isle our la Sorgue, but it was impossible to get a parking space so we went to plan B. We had a lovely lunch in Menerbes with fellow bargees, Mike and Gloria, and then had a wander around the town, only to be caught in a sudden thunderstorm. After seeking refuge in a small gallery we then continued our walk only to find that the storm hadn't finished drenching us. This time we managed to find a truffle shop, restaurant and information centre.
Colourful signs in a market town on the way to Menerbes - I particularly liked the one about the lunatic dog
Colourful Boulangerie
Menerbes town walls
enticing patio with views over the valley - pity about the drenching rain

Friday, June 8, 2018

Sur Le Pont d’Avignon

The Saône and Rhone rivers had abated and so it was in the third week of April that we decided to head off on our cruise south. The speed of the rivers and lack of moorings for boats our size meant that we put in long days with few stops.
Colourful apartment buildings in the rejuvenated old port at Lyon

We did manage to get into Valence marina which was a welcome stop as it was only a short distance to a supermarket, enabling us to restock the fridge and pantry.
Valence marina

From Valence we expected that we would need to moor at the end of a lock as there appeared to be no moorings between there and Avignon. So for one night we perched on the pontoon at Bollene lock with a yacht rafted to us. As commercial boats run all night on the Rhone, it wasn’t exactly a restful sleep.
The lock at Bollene looks inviting at night time

With no plans to stop for any length of time on the Rhône River we tried contacting the marina at Aramon to book a night’s stay but no one returned our calls.  Rather than get there and find nothing available we contacted the Port de Plaisance in Avignon and they said they could accommodate us. What a fortuitous decision! We liked Avignon so much that we decided to bring the car to the marina and ended up staying a month.
The bridge in Avignon from the children’s song
We had plenty of opportunities to wander around Avignon, exploring places that we may have missed in a short stay and to try out a few restaurants. There are three we can recommend: la Fourchette, on Rue Racine behind the Theatre; Le Carré du Palais, on the Place Palais du Papes, and Le Vintage on Rue Galante. All have different styles of presentation, at different price points but with great food and service.
Mains at Carré du Palais
Dinner at Le Carré du Palais

Dessert at Le Carré du Palais
The wine cellar is the old bank vault at Carré du Palais
Evening view of Palais du Papes
Pont d’avignon at night
View from Rochers des doms
The spice stall at Les Halles