Chris, Erf and Toby (Jack Russell) stayed with us for another couple of days as we cruised along the peaceful, though increasingly winding canal from Carcassonne towards Castelnaudary. Erf helped Peter dismantle the wheelhouse at Port Marengo which gave me a rest (it is very heavy!) He also acted as lookout on long sections of the canal.
The bridge at Port Marengo with Toby looking on.
Erf and Christine with the wheelhouse roof stowed for the day.
Peter can’t rest of course but relishes the challenge of steering the barge and never seems to tire of it. Our main problem was how to stop the bow swinging across the oval locks as the sluices were opened. It was fine when the lock keeper was happy to go ‘doucement,’ but this was rarely the case and on some occasions we had barely sorted the ropes out before the gates were closed and the sluices opening! The other difficulty was that unlike on the Nivernais and Bourgogne, the lock keepers do not help with ropes on the Midi. Trying to lasso a bollard which is several feet beyond the edge of a curved lock is a bit of a challenge.
Eventually we adopted a method which worked reasonably well. Peter would almost come to a stop in the entrance and put the stern rope over the bollard, preventing the early closure of the gates. Then he would edge the barge over to the ladder for me to climb off from the bow. I could then use my boat hook to grab the bow rope. This didn’t solve the ‘bow swinging out’ problem though.
Later that day we heard about another strike and realised that we would not get to Castelnaudary as planned. We stopped just below the port at Bram from where we shuffled the cars around the next day. This took much longer than it should, owing to the traffic congestion caused by the strike………….’La Greve’ has been easily added to our growing French vocabulary.
Saying goodbye to Erf and Christine, we hunkered down against the unseasonably cold and wet weather. I looked eagerly through the waterways guide to see just how far it was to our winter port at Meilhan-sur-Garonne. 254km and 77 locks to go! Still a long way off and I have to admit that I was now quite keen to stop for the winter.
The next day we left Bram and were whisked through the locks with such haste that we surprised ourselves at how well we were managing. The persistent rain probably had something to do with it as well as the ill feeling of the lock keepers in the aftermath of the strike. However, our new method kept things more in our control.
Several locks were doubles and triples and one was operated remotely by the lock keeper from his first floor window. The best was saved for last – a quadruple lock as we approached Castelnaudary; which was operated from on high in a tower by a keeper -almost like a time trial!!
The last lock opened onto a huge lake or ‘bassin’ with a spectacular view of the town. We were too tired to appreciate it at the time as the rain was heavy and we were weary. We passed under the rather tricky bridge into the main port where I persuaded Peter to moor up so we could get shore power and top up our water. At 24 euros a night he did take some persuading! Unbeknown to us, someone was taking photos of our manoeuvres and later emailed them to us. Di and David live by the canal at Meilhan and recognised us when we reached there at the end of October.
Heavy rain as we enter the port at Castelnaudary.
By noon the next day we had topped up the electrics and water and I had done three loads of washing to try and justify the mooring fee. Having chatted to Barry (‘Ballestra’ )who was moored further up and surveyed the available spaces, we decided to turn around and go back into the basin where there was a quiet, sheltered spot behind the island.
The following day and a sheltered spot in the bassin by the island.
We ended up staying there for the weekend, so we explored the town, checked out the height of the ‘La Planque’ bridge further up and admired the local wild life. On the island there were coypu, water fowl and red squirrels. Peter fished and I watched the other ‘wildlife’ …men from the nearby French Foreign Legion base on their training runs around the port.
The temperature had dived and we used our wood burner and central heating for the first time since leaving St Leger-des- Vignes in April. We left Castelnaudary on Monday 27th September at 10 in the morning, after dropping the wheelhouse in preparation for the bridge at La Planque.
The morning’s cruise went well and unusually the lock keepers were sympathetic, making the last locks of our uphill climb a more pleasant experience. Just beyond the Mediterranee lock (last of the uphill ones,) I spotted a fallen tree half way across the canal. Fortunately we were able to pass through the small gap and made it up to the Navrouze, the watershed between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea at Ocean Lock.
It would be downhill now all the way to Meilhan-sur-Garonne! After a fairly long and winding cruise we arrived at Port Lauragais. Sadly there was not enough space for us and after some nifty manoeuvring at the helm, we returned to the main canal. Moorings were fairly scarce in this area and we were getting tired. Eventually at 6pm we stopped at Gardouch on an old quay. We had done 26km, much more than we had intended.
The village has a small supermarket, boulangerie and greengrocers/cheese shop, but there is also a large Super U on the main road to Villefranche-de-Lauragais, which had the cheapest white diesel we had seen for a while.
We stayed at Gardouch for three days and it was here that Paul, Martine and Jeannine joined us for one night. Paul and Peter used to work together. We went into Villefranche-de-Lauragais where Paul treated us all to a lovely meal. The following day they kindly dropped us back to Castelnaudary to collect our Micra.
Breakfast at Gardouch.
Our route back to the barge was quite convoluted, due to our sat nav taking us off-road up a steep hill which eventually became impassable. Back on the right road again, we stopped at the park at Navrouze and had a walk round the octagonal settling basin for the water coming from the Black Hills (now silted up) and the memorial obelisk to Pierre-Paul Riquet who was largely responsible for the construction of the canal in the seventeenth century. In fact, Riquet is remembered all along the Midi where ‘Rues de Riquet’ are as common as those elsewhere for Victor Hugo!
With one month left to reach Meilhan and after several trips to the petrol station with Jerry cans, we left Gardouch on 1st October, narrowly avoiding damage to the wheelhouse on the very low bridge as we exited the lock.
Our final stop before Toulouse was above the lock at Montgiscard. I cycled back to get the Micra while Peter prepared the famous and tasty Toulouse sausage with roast potatoes and onion gravy for dinner. The next morning we took a chance and left the wheelhouse up again.
The canal is now accompanied by the railway line and a busy main road. After three locks we reached the outskirts of Toulouse. Soon we were passing boats, barges and houseboats of varying designs, the most peculiar one being made from the middle section of an old commercial barge. We reached Port St Sauveur by mid afternoon and as usual we had not phoned ahead to reserve a mooring. Fortunately, as we were hovering midstream Sylvianne (the Capitaine) called us over and offered us a space on the quay next to the office.
Sylvianne is a pleasant, cheerful lady and after helping us moor up and taking the boat details, she issued us with our security keys and maps of the city. After a quiet afternoon relaxing on board we decided to ‘hit the town’. The port is very central and much of the city lies between the canal and the River Garonne. It is here that the Canal du Midi joins with the Garonne to link the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
In the mid nineteenth century the Canal lateral a la Garonne was dug to avoid navigating the river which could often be dangerous. I had visited Toulouse thirty years ago but could remember none of it. It is a lively, bustling city with lots going on. We walked along a wide boulevard to Place Wilson with its carousel and busy cafes, then through the main square (Le Capitole). The sun was setting, casting a red glow over Pont Neuf which spans the River Garonne and we walked back to the port via one of the many parks, where there was a huge funfair.
Sunset over the Garonne in Toulouse.
The following day we cycled a fair way, exploring the canal and the Port de l’Embouchure where the two Canals meet. There is also a small branch canal, Canal de Brienne which passes through the city a short distance to link with the River Garonne. Later in the afternoon I enjoyed another walk. I came across a ‘brocante’ in one of the boulevards and went into the Cathedrale de St Etienne just before it closed for the day. To my surprise the caretaker called out a few times then walked out locking the door, leaving all the candles alight. I was glad to have been within earshot as I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the night alone in there!
With poor weather forecast for the following day, we decided to leave in the morning and reckoned it would take about and hour to get through the four locks to the Port de l’Embouchure. Here we would commence the final leg of our long journey, on the Canal lateral a la Garonne.