Thursday, February 7, 2019

Adventures on the Canal du Midi - Part 1

Our first major town on the canal du Midi was Beziers. Another barge, MicMac, had arrived in Beziers a few days before us so had organised a mooring next to them. This was handy considering the number of hire boats around. On other canals we tended to just roll into a town/marina and generally would be able to snag a mooring spot. However, on this canal we deemed it prudent to book a berth a few days in advance. For smaller towns and villages we took our chances but in larger towns it was better to be safe than sorry.
Beziers is one of the oldest towns in France and dates back to about 500BC. It was also a stronghold for the Cathars in the 12th century before being attacked by catholic crusaders when all the population of the town  (20000) was massacred and the town was pillaged and burnt. The town was rebuilt and eventually in the 18th century prospered due to the cultivation of vines.
Beziers sits on the Orb River which is crossed by the canal du Midi over the Pont Canal de l'Orb. The town is undergoing a rejuvenation programme and has some lovely areas near St Nazaire cathedral, which has a great vantage point above the Orb River.
St Nazaire Cathedral
The Old bridge over the Orb River
Throughout the town are a number of tromp l'oeil
Feeding the local canine
more street art
On leaving Beziers travelling west, you need to go through a series or staircase of locks, the Fonserrannes Ecluses.There are only certain times of the day when you can go through these and unlike other locks everyone is either going up in their time slot or they are coming down. Normally a boat goes up and then another boat comes down and so on. These locks are a major engineering feat and, as such, are a huge tourist attraction. So, in consequence, are we as we travel up it. It is a challenging set of locks as there are few eclusiers and they refuse to take ropes so you are forced to walk the boat from one lock to the next and try to hold the boat in place while driving onto the rope. Added to that is a low bridge in the middle where you have to get back on the boat to go under the bridge and then hop off again once you are on the other side. Then there are the tourists who think nothing of getting in your way or stepping over the rope to get a good view down inside the lock.
this is the second lock where tourists aren't allowed, however the first one is open slather for the gawkers
While in Beziers we did a recce of the bridges up ahead and also prospective mooring spots. Capestang would be our next major stop as this would be where we may need to take the wheelhouse down. Capestang bridge is considered one of the most problematic on the canal, not just because of its height but also its slightly lopsided shape. During our recce we watched a hotel barge go through and scrape on the wheelhouse.
Kevin pointing out the bump in the arch at Capestang
Roi Soleil scrapes as she comes through
We spent a lovely week in Capestang, luckily, under the shade of the trees. We have now heard that these trees have been chopped down as they were diseased. Unfortunately it's not just the diseased trees that are culled but a couple each side as well to reduce the risk of the fungus spreading. This means a large hole in the canopy. While we were in Capestang the tourist bureau conducted informative walks highlighting the history of the canal and the town. Originally the town was on the edge of a lake with Narbonne on the other side but over the centuries the lake has dried up.
peaceful evening in Capestang
looking towards Narbonne and Capestang cathedral from the canal
From Capestang we cruised to Le Somail and Homps before reaching another series of locks at Trebes and then into the lovely town of Carcassonne. At Le Somail, we arrived in town at lunch time and found a nice mooring near a restaurant. Of course we decided to take advantage of a restaurant so close.  It was also the day that France defeated Australia in the rugby. The lovely staff at the restaurant were very sympathetic once they found out we were Australians. The mooring was so opportune that we decided to stay here for the night.
Restaurant and mooring spot in Le Somail
Pizza for lunch
pasta version of paella
there are about 50000 books in this second hand bookshop on the side of the canal in Le Somail
Dusk at Le Somail
Our next stop was Homps, a major hire boat base. We arrived here in time for lunch and also managed to fill the boat up with water before heading off again. This time we decided on a wild mooring.
Another lovely bridge
Between Le Somail and Carcassonne we negotiated a couple of staircase locks and some pretty low bridges but the lowest bridge was yet to come. The entry to the final lock before the port of Carcassonne is under Pont Marengo. This is the lowest bridge on the canal du midi and would be a test of nerve and excellent steering skills to keep us in the centre of the bridge.
we've finally gone through the lowest bridge to enter the port at Carcassonne

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi’s reputation precedes it, especially amongst the barging world. There are many myths, tall stories and warnings about this canal and we had heard them all before we headed into the canal from the Etang du Thau. We had been warned that the first impression of this iconic canal would be a disappointment as there were many disused and derelict boats lining the canal. This was true but it still didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for finally being on this canal.
The construction of the canal was started in the mid 1600s during the reign of Louis XIV to facilitate the passage of goods from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean without cargo ships having to run the gauntlet of English and Spanish ships keen to plunder goods from the French.

Entrance to the Canal du Midi

The second thing that we had been warned about was the number of hire boats on this canal, and how most of the occupants had no idea how to control a boat. Apparently they only receive about 10 minutes instruction before the keys are handed to them. Also if you have one hire boat coming towards you, then you can usually expect at least one other close behind. They also tend to panic when they see a boat of our size and can act quite unpredictably, so be prepared for anything. This also seemed to be true but we did manage to avoid most of the hassle by staying in a town or mooring during the week and moving on Saturday which is generally changeover day.
Typical shape of the locks on the Canal du Midi

Thirdly we had been warned about the shape of the locks. Most locks are rectangular in shape with straight sides. We had come across some on the Yonne River with sloping sides, which I wrote about in a previous post. Some of these were problematic so I wasn’t really looking forward to the elliptical ones on the canal du Midi. The gates are only wide enough for one barge but the lock opens out in the middle to accommodate more boats and is especially good for the hire boats as they can usually fit 4 of them in the lock. This solves issues if the water levels are low in the canal. However, boats of our size can’t fit along the walls so we are basically straddling along one side and frequently can only get one rope on and have to drive onto the front rope. When you have a deep lock and a lockkeeper who won’t take your rope there can be some strong words used and lots of frustration. I would have to say that, in general, the lockkeepers on the canal du Midi are among the most unhelpful on the French canal system. When a hire boat is in with you as well, stress levels can reach an all time high. Having said that, once we found a hire boat crew who understood the issues we tried to travel with them for the whole day, making the experience more of an adventure. 
Typical arched shape of the bridges on the canal du Midi
 The fourth thing was the height and shape of the many bridges on this canal. While we have an air draft of 3.15m we are able to collapse our wheelhouse, so if we do come across a low bridge then, with a bit of effort, we can dismantle it and cruise under. The wheelhouse, however is only 2.6m wide, so the slope of the arch will determine whether we will fit under it. We had been warned that there were potentially 10 or so bridges where we may have difficulty. This was not want we wanted to hear. I will dedicate a whole blog to the bridges on the CdM and our journey through them. Fortunately for us, we were able to fit under all of them without dismantling the wheelhouse.
The fifth thing we had been warned about was that the plane trees, for which the Canal du Midi was famed, had been decimated by a disease which had seen many of them chopped down. This fungus was believed to have been bought to Europe during WWII in the ammunition boxes used by American soldiers. 42000 trees were planted in the 19th century but unfortunately about 12000 are diseased. While many of them have been replaced with resistant species, it will be a long time before they will be large enough to provide shade from the relentless sun that beats down on the canal during the height of summer.
Lovely plane tree lined canals are not so frequent any more