(11) Beziers to Carcassonne September 2010

After staying one night in Port Neuf at Beziers, we were up early the following morning to dismantle the wheelhouse (in a new record time of 10-11 minutes). We left the port at 8.30am (another record for us) in the hope of being at the front of the queue for the Fonserannes flight. We ended up third in line as two passenger boats had priority and went ahead of us. Finally it was our turn and we negotiated the sharp left turn into the approach like experts.

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 The Fonserannes flight.

 The next hour or so was one of full on concentration as we moved slowly up the flight. Basically they keep the gates to the lock ahead open and let enough water down so that you float into the next lock. Then they close the gates behind you and open the sluices again and then the next set of lock gates. So it goes on until the top. I had hoped to stay on board as we had been taught in our barge handling course. However, the lock keeper insisted that I leave the barge and work on the lock side. Lugging my long bow rope between the seven locks as we rose, was no mean feat and hurrying back with the boat hook to secure a stern line was quite tiring. I was relieved when we reached the top. Sadly, although the subject of many photographs that day, we were too busy to take many ourselves.

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 Looking back, nearly at the top. Quite a spectator sport.

 On reaching the top we cruised through some beautiful countryside and no more locks! The tranquillity was only spoilt by a hire boat which raced up behind us and tried to overtake in a narrow winding part of the canal. He gave up after coming up on the wrong side and ending up as a shrieking and crunching sandwich filling between us and the bank. Further on at an appropriate spot, Peter waved him past.

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 On Lookout.

 By now we were thinking that we might just make it to Capestang. This name struck fear into my heart as it was here that we would encounter the lowest, narrowest Roman bridge on the canal system. It could well be our nemesis as there was a good chance that we might not get through. If that was to happen, we would need to find a new mooring for the winter and would miss out on exploring the rest of the Midi and also the Canal de Garonne.

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 Exiting the rather curiously scuptured Malpas tunnel.

We passed ‘Riccall’ at lunch before the Malpas tunnel and arrived at Capestang mid afternoon. The bridge did indeed look very tight and we had a quick discussion as to whether or not to proceed. The wheelhouse was the deciding factor. If we tried to go through now, the wheelhouse was already down.

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 Nemisis, Capestang Bridge. Time to see if we measure up.

If we waited until tomorrow, we would have to put it back up and dismantle it again. With that in mind we approached slowly, nosing the bow into the tiny space. Peter was ready to leap to the bow and lay the BMW down if necessary and I was watching the top of the crane like a hawk. The angle of approach was tricky, and we jokingly asked onlookers on adjacent boats if they thought we would make it. Apparently they were taking bets!

Fortunately, all was well. The BMW cleared it with4-6’’ to spare and the crane by about 3’’. The only touch was the starboard side rail which lost a bit of paint. To the claps of onlookers and with sighs of relief, we made it through and moored up on the left in front of barge ‘Balestra’ using the available tree roots. Barry (‘Ballestra’) helped us out and later he and his wife Margaret joined us for drinks on deck. It had been a long and demanding day, but we were delighted with our achievement.

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 Only just… had to angle it slightly to get the car crane through.

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 Looking slightly smug but mostly relieved after a ripple of applause from onlookers !

The following day we were joined at the mooring by Louise and Alex who were also pleased to have made it through the bridge. Apparently, Alex had his angle grinder at the ready in case he needed to remove Riccall’s handrails. That evening we relaxed aboard Riccall, comparing notes and toasting our joint success with a couple of bottles of Cremant de Limoux.

We stayed three days at Capestang during which time we provisioned the barge at Lidls and also visited the Canal de la Robine where we were able to book our dry dock at Gailhousty for next July. Barry kindly gave Peter a lift to collect the Micra and also mended the bow thruster by correcting an electronic fault. We had not been able to use it since the start of our season’s cruising back in April.

For the next week or so, ‘Aurigny’, ‘Riccall’ and ‘Balestra’ leapfrogged along the canal often mooring close by. We couldn’t moor at Le Somail as it was full up and stopped instead right outside the Chateax Cave at Ventenac en Minervois. We went in for a tasting of course, surely the shortest distance ever between barge and Cave.

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 From Barge to Cave and glass in hand, about thirty paces !

On the day we left there, it was as a convoy of three; we were heading for Meilhan sur Garonne, ‘Riccall’ for Buzet and ‘Balestra’ for Toulouse. At a particularly low bridge I put one of our broken fenders on top of the wheelhouse to facilitate our passage and gave Alex and Louise a good photo opportunity as we just squeezed through. In this section of the canal there are a number of double and triple locks, which are quite interesting. My long bow rope was proving too heavy to carry through and I had started using a shorter more manageable one.

We all stopped at Homps, taking advantage of the free mooring, water and electricity for the first 24 hours. As the weather turned wet and rather chilly, we were pleased to stop at La Redorte for a couple of days, although we did not avail ourselves of their very expensive electricity and water (1 euro for 30 minutes).

The countryside was full of ripening grapes and the ‘vendange’ was in full swing. The cave at La Redorte was evidently in full production as there was a sickly smell of fermenting grapes in the air. Whilst there we made use of the quayside mooring to crane the BMW off and drop the Micra at Trebes, where our friends Chris and Erf were due to join us. We had a welcome beer on ‘Balestra’ which was moored opposite ‘le boat,’ and then motorcycled back to La Redorte, stopping briefly when we saw ‘Riccall’ moored near a bridge for lunch.

Our next overnight stop was at Marseillette, on the water pontoon, but the promised shops proved elusive when I went in search of bread. At Trebes, we moored at the spot recently vacated by ‘Balestra’ and were joined there the next day by ‘Riccall’ . Alex and Louise were made to feel very unwelcome by the nearby restaurant owner who said they were blocking the view for his punters! They very graciously moved to the commercial quay beyond the bridge and joined Chris, Erf and us for aperros that evening.

While we were there we took the Micra to Carcassonne and did a recce of the moorings before cycling the 12km back along the towpath to Trebes. I also visited the town’s ‘vide grenier’ which literally means ‘empty attics’. What a lot of old toot- most of it only fit for the ‘decheterie’ (dump). The quay area was quite pretty and moorings free. Water was also available but no electricity. Sadly, many of the Plane trees lining the canal on the approach from the triple lock have the disease which is threatening much of the Canal du Midi.

The following day we headed for Carcassonne and arrived there mid afternoon. We walked the 2km to the old city and had a lovely meal of Cassoulet in the pretty square. As we returned to the barge at dusk the illuminated city looked very grand.

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 Cassoulet et Carcassonne.

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