France 2013
Landing in Toulouse

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The plan for our vacation was to fly to Toulouse, catch a train to the small village of Castelnaudary where we would rent a small houseboat and travel just north of the Mediterranean coast for a week along a very short 75 kilometer part of the 1000s of kilometers of canals and locks that are in operation all over Europe. At the end of that week we planned to take the TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse), France's high speed train, to Disney Paris. One day at the Disney Parks and one day taking a tour bus to see the sights of Paris and then back home. We were so fortunate that Tyler, our 13 year old grandson, was able to travel with us because we definitely would have had a lot more difficulty navigating the canal locks if it were only the two of us. He was not only vey helpful working the locks, he was a funny, pleasant and absolutely delightful vacation companion.

Sam, Tyler's mom and our daughter, drove us to Ohare after a short stop to find Tyler's picture ID. We had received an email early that morning to print our boarding passes so we had them before getting to Ohare. Security was a pain as usual, but no real problems. Then a couple hours wait for the flight.

The plane was a 737-400 with 3 seats by the windows, an aisle, 4 seats, an aisle and another 3 seats by the other windows. Tyler had a window seat. This was his first time flying. It was a nice smooth flight with very little turbulence. The on board screen showed we were at 38000 feet and had -65 degree outside temperatures at one point.

Clouds from the airplane window.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Seven hours and the following morning later we were in Amsterdam where the airplane had a very long taxi to the terminal; it must have been 2 or 3 miles from the runways to the gates. We also had a very long walk to our next gate. We had to go through security again half way to our gate. The flight board showed our flight was delayed from 9:10 to 11:00. We were told Toulouse airport workers were on strike. We had several more announcements of further delays so they gave us a free bottles of water and a 5 € (Euro) voucher which was just enough for a sandwich at the airport food booth. Finally we were told to board a bus that took us to a plane parked in a lot with a bunch of other identical puddle jumpers. On the plane they told us we had another half hour wait before they would taxi to the runway. We finally got off the ground about 3 hours late and napped for more than 1/2 the flight.

We finally landed in Toulouse at 3:00pm. A very friendly person at the airport told us about different options to get to our hotel and we opted for the taxi because the bus directions seemed like more than we wanted to handle our first day here. The town was clean and beautiful. The desk workers at our Novotel hotel spoke English so check-in went easily. The room was sort of small, but nice. We had a view of a very nice park to the East of the hotel. After situating ourselves in the room we went for a walk. Tyler saw what he thought was a joint in a nearby alley and took a picture.

Is this a joint or a hand-rolled cigarette butt?
We'll never know.

We walked around the park and at one end could see a section of the canal we would be on in a couple of days. The park had a Japanese rock garden and a rope jungle gym created to resemble the Eiffel tower. The park was surprisingly full of young people, probably college age. They were mostly sitting and talking in small groups, some on blankets. Some were doing tight-rope walking on straps they had strung about a foot off the ground between trees. Some were juggling and some were flipping batons. We saw several people rolling their own cigarettes which made Tyler's thought that he had seen a joint suspicious. We ended up seeing quite a few people rolling their own cigarettes over the course of our trip. It seemed like a lot more French people smoke than we are used to seeing in Chicago.

Zen rock garden.

Oriental bridge near the zen garden.

Wierd plant life in the park.

One of several monuments in the park.

We went back to the hotel to swim in the pool which was surprisingly very cold despite that it was 80 degrees. After a while we dried off and got dressed to eat dinner. Went to a nice café with outdoor seating about 1 block away and ordered a glass of wine. We asked about dinner but were told they don't start serving dinner until 7:00 and it was about 6:00. After our wine we shopped in a couple of stores and got the toiletries we didn't want to risk being confiscated at the airport because of all those restrictions for only very small amounts of liquids like our toothpaste, shampoo, etc. We went back to the hotel and had dinner there; sea bass and duck. Tyler went for a swim after dinner while we ate dessert cheese by the pool. Not long after, about 9:00pm, we crashed.

The very cold outdoor pool at the hotel.
Notice how crowded it is?

All the room light switches were upside down from what we were used to. The bath fixtures were all Grohe. The toilet was wall hung and in its own separate closet.

Tyler and Joyce watching TV.

The bathroom sink fixtures were mounted on the side wall.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Got up about 7:00am and went to the lobby for coffee. The breakfast buffet was pretty nice and the double expressos hit the spot. (We saw it spelled espresso and expresso at various times.) They even had a full array of teas which Joyce liked. Then we waited until the taxi arrived to take us to the train station where we had reservations to go about 60 kilometers (about 35 miles) to Castelnaudary. The taxi driver told us the train workers were on strike and the trains weren't running. We went to the hotel desk where the clerk checked the internet and said it looked like our train was not cancelled. So we went to the station where we saw the strikers picketing near the doors. About the time we got inside someone lit a smoke bomb near the strikers. Shortly after that the strikers left.

Striking railroad workers in Toulouse.

We had to take a number and wait for people at ticket windows to get our train tickets because we had a reservation number, but no actual tickets. The waiting system was similar to what they have at the DMV buildings in Illinois. Television monitors around the room showed which ticket number was next and which window that person was supposed to go to. After about 20 minutes our number came up and the person at the window didn't speak English so she said to wait for the person in the next window to finish with his customer. Jeff didn't want to risk trying to understand in French what was happening because the strike was obviously disrupting things and we needed to be sure of what we were doing.

The clerk looked up our reservation number and said it had been cancelled some time ago over the internet. We certainly didn't intentionally cancel it, but maybe we did something wrong. Anyway, he was willing to sell us three new tickets and tols us the train would leave in about an hour. He said we needed to certify our tickets at the small machines near the departure gate. We walked there and saw two different types of machines and weren't sure which to use so we went to the information window to ask. The clerk said that because of the strike, our tickets were not for a train but for a bus. She said the bus station was about a half a block away and there would be machines to certify our tickets there. We walked there and verified at their information window that we were at the right place. The clerk told us where our bus was parked and where the ticket certification machines were. Good news, the buses are running on time and so far the drivers are not on strike. We went to the restrooms before getting on the bus and found the men's room had no door so anyone walking by had a perfect view of the urinals. Vive la France?

Our "train" from Toulouse to Castelnaudary.

We had about 45 minutes to wait until the bus driver started letting people on the bus. A short while later we were on our way. The streets are pretty narrow and almost all only 2-lane. The corners cannot be made by the bus without taking up both lanes and cars were very good about giving the bus its room. Most of the roads are not straight either. It looks like it would be very easy to lose your sense of direction with all the winding around you need to do. Glad were not driving a car. Many, many intersections had roundabouts and some small towns had chicanes so you couldn't drive straight through.

The scenery along the way was stunning. Lots of views of hills and mountains and very small villages and we were fortunate enough to be in the front seats which offered great views of the French countryside. The bus stopped in Castelnaudary very near the hotel we were staying at. It was closer than if we had taken the train, so that was a plus. We checked in, got situated and walked toward the main part of town. We stopped to eat lunch at a café right along the canal with outdoor seating. Despite clouds and a few tiny drizzles, lunch was good. Tyler discovered he liked Steak Hashé with frites. After lunch we walked along the canal shops and found a wine shop. We wanted a couple bottles to take on the boat, but thought they might be pricier here than at another shop since it's right on the canal. We told the owner we would come back later. He said he was open until 10:00.

View of the canal from our window at the Hotel du Canal.

View of the canal from the pathway behind the hotel.

Interesting art near the canal.

We saw a good number of these swans along the canal.

We walked North of the canal through the main part of the town and did some window shopping (or as they call it in France, leche-vitrine which literally means licking the windows). We bought a hat for Joyce at one shop. We stopped at a war memorial to take some pictures. Stopped at a bar to use the restroom which had the men's urinal in the corner just outside the women's toilet which was in its own small closet, but at least it had a door. Once again, any woman going to the bathroom would have to pass right by the men's urinal. They really have different sense of modesty here.

Lots of narrow streets in French villages.

A very narrow AND steep street. This one has been closed to automobile traffic

Ornate facades. This one celebrates the French wardrobe malfunction

A memorial to WWI and WWII soldiers.

The village church was just behind the memorial.

We went back to the hotel to nap, charge our electronics, watch TV and wait for the drizzle to end. At dinner time we walked into town for a Cassoulet, which was originally created in this city and which is very popular in the entire region. The restaurant, La Maison du Cassoulet, didn't open until 7:30, something we were going to have to get used to. We went to the café next door and had a couple glasses of wine while waiting for 7:30. The Cassoulet at dinner was sort of a ham and bean stew but instead of ham they put a confit duck leg and a confit pork rib and a pork sausage link in each bowl. Very tasty comfort food.

After dinner we walked to the wine shop along the canal (we didn't find another wine shop in town). The shop was closed and we discussed among ourselves that it was supposed to be open until 10:00 and it was only 9:30. A group of people talking and smoking nearby overheard us. One of them was the wine shop owner who said he would let us in and we should follow him through a side entrance into the back of the shop. The hall was pretty dark and cluttered with boxes, etc. After a few moments of fear that we were about to meet with an unpleasant surprise, he opened a door and we were in his shop where we bought a couple bottles.