Canal Boating

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Hotel du Canal served la petite dejeuner (breakfast) and had a sign hanging on a wall in the dining area that said it was rated 2 stars. We didn't want to see what a 1 star breakfast was because we were not impressed at all. They had coffee, baguettes, dry cereal, plain yogurt and apple sauce in small cups not much bigger than the jelly servings. They ran out of croissants and had to send someone to buy more. Tyler found plenty of Nutella packets to satisfy him, but we were disappointed with the food and it wasn't cheap at 6.50 € apiece.

We packed out things and left the bags at the hotel while we walked to get the boat. It didn't take long to sort out the paperwork and get on the boat for our training lessons. They pointed out the controls, the sinks, the shower and the toilet, which worked by hand pumping water into the bowl then flipping a switch and hand pumping the water, etc., out. Hope it doesn't give us trouble. They also showed us the starter supply of groceries we ordered with the boat. It had most of the basics like salt, pepper, butter, olive oil, cookies, bread, jelly, water, wine, soda pop, beer, etc., and shrimp chips. Yes, shrimp chips. Tyler tried them several days into the trip and declared them not very good. No one else tried them because it was hard to get past the smell.

An unknown critter we saw on the walk to the Le Boat facilites.

The lesson on driving the boat was one small loop around the pond and instructions on docking the boat by turning the wheel full left and running the motor forward and then in reverse in the right sequence to make it turn sharply to the left and then back into the dock. We signed off that we had completed the lessons and headed out to return to the hotel to get our bags. One of the trainers rode his bicycle to a point near the hotel to tell us we were heading the wrong direction. We explained about getting our bags and then he understood we were not totally daft punks.

Our boat.

The beautiful Sheba 24.

Driving the boat across the pond area by the boat rental docks gave Jeff a bit of practice steering the boat before we, all too soon, got to a narrow section under a bridge which seemed not much wider than the boat. It took a lot of wheel turning at a very slow speed to navigate through, but we made it. After a very slow ride the rest of the way to the hotel we needed to learn how to park it. We had stakes and a hammer and the idea was for one person to get off the boat when it was very close to the shore and stake the rope for the front of the boat, then use the rope at the back of the boat to pull it snuggly against the shore and stake that rope. We gave a few onlookers quite an exhibition of how NOT to park a boat. It took quite a few tries, but we finally got it secured enough to run in and grab our bags before our novice knots started untying themselves (something we'll need to figure out pretty quick).

We headed for the first set of locks which was a very short distance past where we picked up the boat. All the locks we will go through are controlled by lock-keepers and have specific hours of operation; 9:00am to 7:00pm but are closed from 12:30 to 1:30 for the lock-keepers lunch break. We got to the locks at 1:00 so we had to wait a while. We tied the boat near the lock which gave us our second chance to practice staking ropes. Between Jeff's difficulties getting the boat to go where he wanted and our difficulties securing the ropes, we were staring to worry that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. Once the locks opened, we would have to navigate in much tighter spaces with other boats moving around and we had almost no confidence we would be able to manage.

Our first set of locks.

The locks opened and we were very fortunate that a couple who were going to start their own canal trip the next day were willing to help us through the locks. We watched the other boats to learn what they were doing to go through locks and by the time we got through the fourth lock in this first set we were starting to feel we might be able to do this. We went through 12 locks over the next few hours and were gaining more and more confidence with each one. We even had a couple that went so smoothly you would have thought we actually knew what we were doing.

Jeff and Tyler learning to drive the boat.

We stopped just past the Ecluse (lock) Guerre (yes, the lock was named 'War') and tied up to a small dock with wooden posts for tying your lines so you didn't have to use the stakes. Our map showed a small town, St-Martin-Lalande, about 1 kilometer from the canal and according to the little graphics on the map, it had a bakery and a grocery store. We decided Jeff & Tyler would ride the bikes to buy some food and supplies while Joyce minded the boat.

The road to the town was pretty flat until we hit the city limits where it went uphill steeply enough that we walked the bikes part of the way. The grocery store was in the center of this little village but it was closed. As we would soon learn, all the little villages are built around a church which has the highest tower in town so it is easy to know where the town center, and the shops, are. We rode toward the church and saw no other open shops. In fact we commented that, except for two kids playing in a lot, we saw no one. Tyler called it a ghost town. We turned around to head back to the boat and saw a woman setting up a table and chairs in a small park area. We stopped to ask where we could find food. She pointed across the street and said her store was open. We looked across the street and the store that had been closed a couple minutes ago was now open. What a blessing.

It was a very small store, but it had enough so we could buy sliced ham for sandwiches and some links of sausage to grill for dinner. We also bought some cheese, paper plates, paper towels, toilet paper, disposable cups and probably a couple other things I'm forgetting. The woman asked if we wanted baguettes. We considered getting one, but hesitated because we already had more than would fit in the backpack. The woman, in broken English, continued to pressure us to buy one. You want baguette? No thank you. No, you want baguette!? This continued three or four times before she understood we weren't buying one. (This became an on-going joke between us the rest of the vacation.)

We loaded up the backpack and carried two plastic bags by hand and headed back to the boat where we ate one of the best ham and cheese sandwiches ever (undoubtedly because of our starvation and tiredness).

As we contemplated cooking the sausages for dinner we discovered a problem. Both the stove inside the cabin and the propane grill on the deck required matches or a lighter and we had neither. One demerit to Le Boat for failing to provide matches.

An old canal landing of some sort that is not in use except by adventurous teens.

Jeff & Tyler walked to the lock keeper who lent us his lighter. We had to return it right away so we cooked the sausage and saved it for dinner. We asked a few people biking along the canal path, but none of them had matches (bikers are probably not the type who would smoke, I guess). A little later another rental boat parked about 1/2 mile from us. Jeff walked there and they gave us a lighter but said they were going for a bike ride and if they found matches would want their lighter back. Meanwhile, a man walking his dog who had earlier said he would try to get matches for us, but hadn't come back for about an hour so we thought he wouldn't, came back with a box of matches. He said he had walked to the next lock keeper and had been chatting with him for a while and that the lock keeper gave him the matches to give to us. Now we have a lighter and a box of matches. The bikers who gave us the lighter returned later with a box of matches and traded us for the return of their lighter. Now we have two boxes of matches.

Today is our wedding anniversary and one of the bottles we bought at the wine shop last night is Champaign so we enjoy our dinner of sausage and cheese with the bubbly. Bon Anniversaire!

It was a beautiful evening following a hot-ish day but it cooled down to a very enjoyable sleeping temperature.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Our first morning on the boat we brewed coffee in a French Press (how appropriate), which looked like the only way to make coffee on the boat. There were a couple of coffee pots, but no filters or baskets for coffee grounds. Not really a lot of utensils on board, but enough to make do especially if you've ever camped with minimal equipment. Tyler complained about how many mosquito bites he had when he woke up. The number started at 17 but kept growing as he found more and more. The windows on the boat don't have screens but you really want to keep them open to let in some breeze. As it turned out, that was the only night anyone got a mosquito bite and Jeff and Joyce went the entire time without getting a single bite. Guess Tyler was the most attractive mosquito bait! We thanked him for taking one (or several) for the team.

Yesterday was fairly hot and we want to use the umbrella today but found there wasn't one on the boat. We called Le Boat who said we didn't get one because, while it's free, you don't get one without paying the damage deposit that they never told me about when we picked up the boat. They said they would try to get one to us but they were busy and didn't know when they would be able to. They said they would call to let us know.

Joyce took a solo bike ride this morning.
Notice that she's riding past the same place Tyler was jumping from earlier.

We head for the day's first locks. Waiting there was a Le Boat SUV and a man with an umbrella which he gave us once we paid the 25 € damage deposit.

There were very few other boats on the canal and most of the time we were the only boat in the lock. After going through the next lock, we stopped to visit the lock-tender. We thanked him for providing us the matches and bought Tyler an ice cream and also bought some bread, some wine and a necklace for Joyce. The lock-keeper's wife makes all the necklaces and other jewelry on display in his little shop. He told us that after a couple more locks the distance between locks greatly increased with some longer 5-7 kilometer stretches. Sounded good compared to the much shorter distances we had seen so for.

This is one of many place the canal crosses a stream that passes beneath it undisturbed.

We had many stretches where the trees formed a beautiful tranquil canopy over the canal.

We stopped in Bram for lunch. The map showed a nice public docking area but when we got there it was completely consumed by a boat rental company; Nichols. The map also showed laundry facilities so we decided to wash a few things while we ate lunch. We hauled some dirty clothes to the buildings and were told there was no public laundry. So much for accurate map information. Lunch was very good. Swordfish and Cuttlefish for Jeff & Joyce and a huge Nutella crepe for Tyler.

Tyler takes a shift at the helm.

Some parked boats were tiny. We called them Little Tyke boats.

Our next stop was at Villesequelande where the map showed a bakery, a grocery store and a place to fill the boat's fresh water tank. (We were told to refill the tank every couple of days.) We walked into town and found the grocery store was closed. It showed it would open again in a couple of hours but we didn't want to wait that long so we headed back to the boat to fill the water tank. The water spigot had fittings that didn't match the hose they gave us with the boat but a man working on his boat, the Rijnkeller, offered to help us. He rigged some connections and we filled our tank. It took quite a while. Maybe it wasn't full when we got it?

Several more locks later we were in Carcassonne where we spent the night. There was a fee for docking in the city's public docks, but that included a shower house with laundry machines. We showered and headed to the nearby G20 supermarket for groceries. We ate at the outdoor tables of a nearby café then headed back to the boat to relax (code for drinking wine) for a while before turning in. The boat is leaning slightly to port which is the side with the fresh water tank. We probably had more weight on that side because of the full fresh water tank than on the other side with the partially full fuel tank. It's not much of a lean, but you notice it when you're in bed.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

We got up and out at 7:30 because the man at the Rijnkeller said we should visit La Cité, the Medieval City just outside Carcassonne, before all the tourist busses arrived. We figured we would grab coffee and croissants at some café as we rode our bikes, but we didn't find anything open. We rode the long way around the La Cité because we were confused by the street signs. We finally got to the drawbridge gate, parked our bikes and went inside. There was a café just inside the gate so we stopped for our espressos and croissants.

Our first view of La Cité as we rode toward it.

We parked our bike here by the drawbridge entrance.

Almost empty streets first thing in the morning.
They were jammed with tourists a couple of hours later.

La Cité had a central building that was probably a couple of acres in size and surrounded by your typical castle walls with stations for archers, etc. Outside this wall was a pretty large market and living area that was probably 20 or 30 acres and it was surrounded by 2 more walls. This gave La Cité three walls of defense for whoever lived in the innermost building and 2 walls of defense for the rest of the people. It cost 8.50 € for adults to visit the innermost building but Tyler was under 16 and got in free. At one side of the fortress we could see the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains. Everything in La Cité was pretty well restored and gave a very good idea what it was like when it was first built in the 11th century or maybe even earlier. They had quite a lot of historic artifacts on display in the innermost building. Most of La Cité is now restaurants, cafes, gift shops and hotels. The gift shops specialized in one of about 4 genres; Renaissance Faire clothes, medieval weapons, jewelry and candy. There was also a very old basilica with beautiful stained glass windows and lots of gargoyles. There was also La Maison Hantée (haunted house) and the Musée de la Torture which was actually two museums of torture devices and dioramas from the Spanish Inquisition. Tyler wanted to visit both of them. When Joyce and Jeff declined La Maison Hantée Tyler also declined, but we did go through the Museum of Torture. It's truly amazing how cruel and inhumane those devices were. Glad we don't live in the era.

View overlooking Carcassonne from the outermost wall.

The innermost of the three walls protected whoever was powerful enough to live there.
The Basilica can be seen in the distance.

The main entrance of the innermost walled area.

The Basilica.

Two of the many Basilica gragoyles.

The Basilica had very high ceilings and extremely elaborate stained glass windows.

Another view of the windows.

There were at least three sets of these windows in the Basilica.

La Maison Hantée.

The rack.

The Comfy Chair.

There were several modern art sculptures on display around La Cité.

One area of La Cité was a bunch of cafés with outdoor seating filling the entire open space. Sort of like a food court at a mall; except all the cafés were very nice. One boasted they were ranked number 4 for pizza in France. (There were actually quite a lot of pizza places everywhere we stopped.) Each café had staff specially trained to try to get you to eat at their tables instead of the tables a couple of feet away. Tyler wanted his favorite, Steak Hashé, and the first couple of places we looked at didn't have it but we found it at the third one we checked.

After lunch we asked the waitress where a butcher shop was in Carcassonne because we wanted some steaks to grill on the boat. She told us where to find it and when we left La Cité we rode our bikes there. Most of the shops were closed long the route and so was the butcher shop. I guess Sundays are not big shopping days. At least the G20 was open so we bought some nice pork chops and some Steak Hashé for dinner.

We headed our boat out from the dock despite strong winds and with the lock-keeper's help got tied up in the first lock. The lock-keeper said we had to wait for another boat which was a 50 passenger tour boat that was a few minutes from departure. We let the tour boat leave the lock first because we didn't know how hard it was going to be to drive with the high winds. We stopped a short distance later where the map showed a café just outside of Carcassonne but there was no place to eat there. Once again the maps were not accurate. Besides, the strong winds and having almost no bank to set our stakes into made tying up almost impossible. We headed out again and stopped just short of the next lock, Ecluse l'Eveque, where there were posts for tying the boat ropes. The winds were blocked by trees there also so the boat was very stable. We spent some time relaxing before dinner. The pork chops and Steak Hashé came out great. After dinner, Jeff went for a solo bike ride down the canal for a couple miles. It was a great way to spend Father's Day.

Joyce and Tyler manning the ropes.

Waiting for the lock gates to open.

Relaxing on the boat.

Monday, June 17, 2013

We had our morning coffee and baguette and waited until 9:00 for the locks to open. We had lots of wind again but the lock keepers and other travelers were very helpful. We had to wait for a while in Trebes for the boats coming upstream and Jeff nestled the boat against the downwind side of the canal where he could keep it in position with minor forward and reverse motor control. He asked Tyler to maintain the position while he went to the restroom. Jeff heard louder and longer motor revs and came back to the controls to find the boat drifting sideways in the canal. It took some work but we finally got the boat to an area with docking posts and secured it. After those locks, we stopped in Marseillette for lunch. We rode the bikes to a nearby café that had a steep last uphill section before the restaurant. They had a very good pork fricassee. They sold bottles of local wine so we bought a couple to take back to the boat.

Pulling into a lock to descend to the next level.

The locks can be very tight to maneuver your boat through sometimes.

The forecast was for on and off rain for the next couple of days so we pushed on to Homps. We got there about 6:00pm and docked at the Le Boat facilities where we will return the boat Friday morning. Since it is a Le Boat facility there is no cost to us to dock there or to use their shower facilities. We walked into the town to buy groceries at the one stop gas station, supermarket, boulangerie, patisserie, boucherie, charcuterie, liquor, etc. store. We scoped out the cafés and found one very near the boat docks. Everyone was tired of fighting the winds and the locks so we planned to spend a day in Homps and explore the town. The nearby restaurant had very good food and a 2 for 1 offer. If you bought a bottle of the local rosé wine you got a ticket to get a free one the next day at the wine coop shop. The family of velocationers sitting next to us were from South Africa and explained that the wine shop was just a couple doors down from the restaurant. What are velocationers you might ask? Velo is the word used in France for bicycle, so they are bike vacationers. There was even a velocation shop a couple doors from the restaurant. We have seen scores of bike riders along the canal and now understand that just as we rented boats and booked our accommodations to travel the canals, lots of people rent bicycles and travel the same route, but by bicycle.

The everything store in Homps.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

We had a few raindrops in the morning but the forecast was for a nice day. Tyler was feeling sick this morning and thought it was because he ate one prawn from Joyce's dinner last night, but he's eaten so much ice cream and Nutella that the jury is still out. His Nutella mania is so strong that he bought an 8 ounce jar at the grocery store in Castelnaudary and when that ran out he bought a 32 ounce jar in Carcassonne; and that bottle is nearly empty today.

We lazed around on the boat until midday. Rode our bikes to the Le Boat office to book a taxi for Friday to take us to Narbonne after we turn in the boat. Rode around the town and checked out some stores and restaurants. There weren't very many. We ate lunch at a restaurant with somewhat slow service, but tasty food. Pork tenderloin medallions for Jeff and Tyler (who is feeling better now) and chicken nuggets for Joyce. We had a couple of glasses of Rosé as well. Rosé wines are pretty popular here and definitely not the overly sweet wines we usually think rosé wines are in the United States.

Look ma, no hands!

A memorial to WWI soldiers.

After lunch we stopped at the wine shop for our free bottle but were told this is the wrong place. Apparently our velocation dinner mates made the same mistake. They directed us to another shop a couple of blocks away, but the streets wind in every direction so it's not easy to figure out the turn left then right then left again directions we were given. It's a small town though so we found it and asked the woman for our free bottle. She said they don't do that. WTF!? (Pardon my French.) Her English was not good and my French was probably worse so she asked another woman about it. She seemed to be the store manager and knew about the free bottle. After way more punching on the register than it seemed like it should have taken, we got our free bottle. We asked about shipping wine home and were told it was 'not possible' because of all the government restrictions. (We asked at a couple of other wine shops too and got the same answer).

We went back to the grocery store to stock up for our last two days on the boat and then stopped at a souvenir shop and picked up a few things to bring back home. That night we cooked rib steaks on the grill then walked to the café for ice cream. Then we went back to the boat to relax until bedtime.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We had a couple short spells of light drizzle during the night and awoke to an overcast sky but with a forecast for much less windy conditions. We walked to the café for coffee but it was closed. The only shop open was the souvenir shop which sold us coffee to go from a 'K' cup coffee machine (not a Keurig brand, but a Nestle brand). We also bought croissants and a baguette. We had our breakfast on the boat and toasted the baguette to enjoy with some jelly. Toasting the bread taught us it was very easy to blow out the flames in the oven if you didn't close the door very slowly.

We don't want to spend our last couple of days in the Le Boat dock so we planned to head east until we found some place to spend the night. The locks are so easy now that we aren't fighting the winds. Just past the Écluse Pechlaurier is a short path up a pretty steep path to a lookout point above the canal with a beautiful view of the canal and where we could see the Pyrenees Mountains in the distance.

View from the top of the scenic lookout point.

The path up to the lookout point had dozens of rocks careflluy piled by hikers.

Some of the bridges don't leave much headroom for people sitting on the deck of the boat.

Tyler piloting through a very low bridge.

What we think is a field of lavender.

We stopped for lunch in Argens-Minervois at La Guinguette café that gave us their 'Anglais' version of their normally French menu. The translations were so bad Jeff asked for a French version to try to figure out what something like 'Picked the leaves off by cod in the potato' and 'Tasting on a wooden board of products of countries worked by our boss' meant. Jeff's translation was 'cod and potatoes and with a lettuce salad on the side' and 'A variety of local items selected by our chef'. A couple other 'good' ones were: 'wipe house in the choice', 'bar in the butter of Montpellier' and 'pavement of cod'.

After lunch we wandered around the village and went inside the church in town. No one was in it, but the doors weren't locked.

A church destroyed during WWII.

The sign telling of the destruciton of the church.
it says, "Our Lady of the Assumption, Roman church from the 10th century destroyed in 1922. Remains of the North Wall:.

Entryway mosaic of the unlocked church we explored.
It proves Frisbees were invented hundreds of years ago.

A statue of Joan of Arc inside the church (They call her Jeanne d'Arc.)

A public restroom. We saw a lot of these.
Not sure how you'd use it for number 2. And where's the TP roll?

Interesting pruning of the trees in this cemetary.

After lunch we explored the village then headed east to find a nice bank to park at for the night. No sooner had we tied up when two ducks, a male and a female, swam over to check us out. We figured they were probably just begging for food because they probably get a lot of scraps from other boat people. They even climbed on the very back ledge at the bottom of the boat but they couldn't get to where we were without climbing the ladder so we weren't concerned. They stayed milling around the boat for quite a while. Later we watched as three other male ducks flew in and battled the first two for their territory. There was a lot of quacking and a couple of waddling ducks charging with their beaks low to the ground and the three intruders finally swam slowly away.

Begger ducks.

We went for a walk and a short distance from the boat we saw the three male ducks that were harassing the ducks by our boat earlier. We talked about how these mean hooligans were a menace to the other ducks and then inspiration struck and we started singing the theme from the telvision series, "Bay Boys", but with modified lyrics
Bad Ducks, Bad Ducks.
What you gonna do when they quack for you.
Bad Ducks!

I guess you had to be there?!?

After walking a short distance were in the village of Ventenac-en-Minervois. There were several cafés, shops, and a winery right on the canal with a sign offering free samples. Who could refuse? Unfortunately the signs said no pictures, but this winery had three huge barrels with hoses with nozzles just like a gas station pump hose so you could fill up whatever size bottle or container you wanted with however much you wanted them to pump for you. We bought a bottle naturally. On the walk back to the boat we saw two black swans

Black swans.

We grilled our steak tenderloins for dinner to go along with our baked potatoes and our new bottle of wine. The butane bottle on the grill ran out partway through cooking the steaks but we had a second one to replace it with. The first bottle only cooked two meals??? The food came out great.

After dinner we played gin rummy and listened to the French radio stations like we did a lot of days. A couple of times we heard silly phrases that caught our attention like the disk jockey that frequently shouted, "Da Clickety Clack". We couldn't understand enough of what was going on to make sense of why he kept saying it, but we picked it up and would blurt it out anytime we thought of it. The other radio spot we repeated to each other a lot was an advertisement for a French department store named "Babou". The ad featured people singing the name twice in a row (Babou Babou) in a sing-song voice. We sang "Babou Babou" and shouted "Da Clickety Clack" more times that we should admit.

This night we played gin rummey until Tyler begged to play War. Jeff was out pretty quickly and Joyce finally gave up when it was time to go to bed.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lazy morning with coffee etc. We were heading the other direction on the canal today and will have our first up-lock experience. Going down-locks is a little easier because the pollards that you use to tie up the boat in the lock are below you and easy to get a rope around. Going up-lock, the pollards are above your head so you have to have someone get off the boat before you go into the lock so that person can grab the rope and place it around pollards you can't see.

This was the coldest weather we had so far so we put on all our layers and headed out. We managed the up-locks easily. They really weren't any more difficult than the down-locks once you had as much experience as we had (LOL).

We stopped for lunch at the same café where we had lunch yesterday. Jeff wanted to take pictures of the menus because the awful translations were too hard to remember. Joyce had a Cassoulet which she liked better than the one in Castelnaudary, home of the Cassoulet. Jeff had the cod fillet and Tyler had a rib steak.

First page of the La Guinguette menu with some pretty poor translations in its "Anglais" menu.

Second page.

third page.

fourth page.

Our last lazy morning.

Joyce looks happy to be here.

The line of clouds passed by while we were eating lunch and left us with beautiful blue sunny skies. The chill of the morning w as replaced by a very nice warm climate.

We made our way slowly back to Homps. The clear blue skies gave way to beautiful puffy cumulonimbus clouds. We saw many, many vineyards and a few ther crops, like lavender. We saw several small farms with horses and donkeys and discussed the naming conventions of Jack versus Jenny asses.

After we were docked back at the Le Boat area in Homps we took showers and relaxed until dinner at the restaurant. Jeff had a goat cheese and honey salad, then duck. Joyce had steak tartar with a raw egg yolk, which she said was awesome. Tyler…wait for it…had Steak Hashé.

We played cards then went to bed.

Daybreak at the Homps Le Boat docks.