France 2011: Flight Home

Adding Insult to Injury

Saturday      8 October 2011

All good things must come to an end. We’re up before the sun (again) and grab breakfast in the hotel before our taxi comes to take us to Charles de Gaulle airport. At such an early hour, the drive to the airport takes far less time than a week ago and we arrive in plenty of time. The plane is delayed two hours, due to a part malfunction, and I try not to think about how much I could have eaten from the bakery by the hotel in that time. As if to add insult to injury, the airline serves us the foulest excuse for food on the return flight. Not even the free wine they dole out (as an apology for the delay) makes the petrified sandwich palatable. It’s a rude re-entry back to reality.

France 2011: Day Ten

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Friday      7 October 2011

Homps to Paris

Strike! It’s time to say “au revoir” to our boat and our brief life on the canal. We wake to more seasonable weather, a breezy and overcast morning; by ten, the sun is shining through and it’s beginning to warm up. I struggle to pack my suitcase with the added heft of two mottles of Minervois. We spend the last hour unloading luggage and tidying up, trying as best we can to leave the boat in the same condition that we found it.

At 9 o’clock, Rick checks us out at the Le Boat office and we climb in a cab for the ten-minute ride to the station in Lézignan-Corbiere and what will become an unexpected adventure in civil disobedience. No trip to France is complete without a strike!

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The Lézignan-Corbiere train station is a ghost town for a day.

Yes, we have no trains to Paris today! Tooling along the highway, I overhear the cab driver say something that, with my limited French, I hope I’ve heard wrong. Did he say train strike?! At the train station, we learn it’s true. The TGV is on schedule, but our connecting train (from Lézignan-Corbiere to Montpellier) isn’t running today. Though the woman working the ticket counter can’t sell us the tickets we need to take another connecting train, she defies every French stereotype and is as helpful as can be, patiently explaining (and re-explaining) our options for catching a train to the nearest TGV to Paris.

While there’s nothing available in second class, we learn there are 42 empty seats in first class on a Paris-bound train leaving from Narbonne. Because time is tight, we decide not to wait for the bus and instead call our cab driver, who smartly left us his card just in case. Thirty minutes after climbing back into his cab, we’re in the Narbonne station where we learn we don’t need new tickets–just grab a seat if you can when the train pulls in. We’re told to show the conductor our existing tickets, should he ever come by, which he never does.

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Narbonne station.

Trains are running late, fifteen, then thirty, then sixty minutes behind schedule. When our train finally pulls in, there’s a mad dash to stow all our luggage and find some seats on the top level. Unlike second class, seats in first class are assigned so with each stop, we play musical chairs as folks get on with tickets to our seats. An hour into the four-plus-hour ride, things seem to have settled down, the car filled with fellow travelers scrambling for a train back to Paris.

The French countryside sprinting past my window is beautiful. First an abundance of vineyards, through a mountainous region, and then rolling green fields, dotted with grazing cows and sheep, and ancient-looking villages. Once again, I appreciate the train’s smooth ride and the quiet inside the car, free of loud conversation or intruding cell phone monologues. The pleasant journey passes quickly.

At six in the evening, we arrive at Gare de Lyon, an impressive (so big! so old!) train station bustling with traffic, fallout from the strike. Ignoring the threat of rain, we enjoy the fifteen minute walk through the National History Park, back to our hotel. The best part about making our train connection is that we can still make our final dinner reservation. (My greatest fear was having to spend my final meal in France at a MacDonald’s, should we have arrived in Paris too late to dine anywhere else.)

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Dinner of a lifetime. Our dinner at La Rotisserie is one of the best and most memorable in my lifetime, let alone the trip. Upon entering the restaurant, I see the flaming rotisserie behind the chef’s small prep area, as well as the warm, homey decor, and I have an inkling that we’re in for a good “last meal.” Our table is near the rotisserie, with a great view of the kitchen area where the plates are staged for serving.

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After an apéritif (porto for me), the entrées arrive and oh-my-gawd, are they amazing. Snails prepared with a final grilling over the open flame to start, and an outstanding duck foie gras, crispy on the outside and like butter on the inside, served with a grilled pear that’s the perfect complement. Karen and Mary order chicken and Rick the leg of lamb. In all cases, the cooked meat is skewered and then finished by hanging in the rotisserie. I order steak with pommes frites, a classic French meal I’ve yet to have on this trip. It’s delicious, with a béarnaise sauce that’s the best I’ve ever had and thin, crispy pommes frites seasoned with just the right amount of salt.

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This duck foie gras is one of the best things I have ever eaten.

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For dessert we share chocolate mousse, a gâteau made with rolled pastry dough and vanilla custard, a lemon tart, and apple macaroon. Throughout the entire meal, we’ve been oohing and ahhing with big smiles on our faces, much to the amusement and appreciation of the chef and his staff.

We leave three hours later, absolutely thrilled with our fantastic final dining experience and thankful that we’d made a reservation a few days earlier and not left the all-important ultimate meal to chance. We were doubly thankful that the train got us in on time.

France 2011: Day Nine

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Thursday      6 October 2011

Puichéric to Homps

Our last full day on the canal. This morning, we fry up the remaining bacon and have another round of the captain’s scrambled eggs, with coffee, juice, fresh bread, jam and cheese. Afterward, Rick, Karen and I walk into town to replenish the staples: bread and wine.

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Puichéric

We find a bakery where we pick up a couple of baguettes and then walk over to the local wine cooperative to purchase four bottles, enough to cover our last lunch and dinner on the boat.

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Inside the wine cooperative.

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The road from Puichéric to the canal.

Back on board, we head out for our final day on the canal. There’s a scary moment when we cast off from the shore and immediately discover the captain has no power at the upper deck controls! Yikes, we’re dead in the water, drifting free! Thankfully, there isn’t any traffic coming or going and Rick has time to scuttle down below to take control from the helm inside.

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After navigating through a narrow bridge–Is it our imagination or are the bridges getting narrower as we navigate south?–we tie up to the shore and reboot our giant, floating computer for what must be the sixth or seventh time this trip. Viola! The controls up top are once again operable.

We stop for lunch near La Redorte, snacking on the remainder of the cheeses, pâté, bread, steak and, of course, wine. For the first time all week we see clouds, wispy and white in the blue sky.

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Our summer weather turns to fall as our glorious ride comes to an end. Our last leg of the trip takes us under a series of narrow bridges and through our final lock. Around 3:30, we arrive in Homps, our ultimate destination, where we back the boat up to the dock (our first attempt at this maneuver) at the Le Boat marina. Some of us stay on board while others explore the town. All that remains to do is clean up, pack up, and dinner in Homps before our last overnight on board and an early check-out tomorrow in time to catch our train back to Paris.

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Le Boat terminal at Homps.

The weather is definitely turning. The wind has picked up and faint clouds continue to roll in. Anne discovers that the Capitanaire nearby stocks our favorite wine (Chateau Sainte-Eulalie) and we all snap up bottles to bring home. These are really our only souvenirs of the trip, but in my opinion, the best kind. (Back home, I’ll discover this wine is available at Binny’s and for not much more than we bought it France. Reminder to self: check the internet before you lug home bottles of wine in your suitcase.)

Writing postcards, reading, resting, and journaling fill the last hours of the afternoon until the cocktail hour when we break out wine and cheese. Then, it’s over the blue walking bridge that spans the canal and a five-minute walk in the now driving wind to Auberge de l’Arbousier for dinner. The wind has brought with it cooler temperatures, so dining al fresco on the patio overlooking the canal is unfortunately out.

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The restaurant has a comfortable, casual atmosphere. We’re among the first to arrive when they open at seven and the place quickly fills with fellow boaters. After our customary aperitif to start (I try a regional wine, something thick and slightly syrupy), we get down to our final meal on the canal. I have fish soup, chicken breast encrusted in hazelnuts with polenta, ratatouille, and squash. Everything is flavorful and delicious. To finish, chocolate mousse, café, and what I just might miss most about France, the cheese course.

Back on the boat, we all pack up as best we can before turning in. Our final night on board is a noisy one, with the wind gusting and moaning through the rigging until morning.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: Day Eight

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Wednesday 5 October 2011

Trèbes to Puichéric

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’re up around 7:30 and a group of us head into town to pick up fresh bread and croissants for breakfast. I snap a few more photos in the early morning light and purchase a few bottles of, you guessed it, Minervois.

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Once we’ve breakfasted, we set off again down the canal, heading to our overnight destination of Puichéric. We pull up to the shore near Marseillette for lunch on board, under the shade of the plane trees.

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Karen and I hustle into town to spot the clock tower/signal station erected by Napoleon. Lunch is fresh sausage bought in Carcassonne and cooked by the captain topside on the built-in grill. (There’s a mini-fridge, grill, and sink on the upper deck, as well as seating and two tables for dining–everything you need for entertaining al fresco on the water.) The sausage smells great grilling in the open air and tastes terrific when served with fresh bread, some leftover cassoulet, and a glass of red wine.

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We’re off again, starting the afternoon cruise with a triple lock. We all agree, these multiple locks are our favorites. This one, near Blomac, is particularly scenic.

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Once in Puichéric, we take a spot behind a couple of other boats, just west of a bridge and the road into town. Karen and I take a brisk photo walk on the road into town, passing an old church and large community gardens in the gorgeous light of the setting sun.

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The plan to grill our steak dinner topside is altered when it becomes obvious that the grill (really more of a glorified hot plate) doesn’t want to stay lit, so the chefs move into the galley where dinner preparations are in full swing. Radishes with butter and salt, green beans, garlic potatoes, salad, and a blue cheese garnish on the steak make for a flavorful meal. Two bottles of wine accompany the food.

The nightly ritual. Since we’ve been on the boat, my new routine is to shower at night. Working the boat in this warm weather is dirty business. The lock walls are mucky, the lines used to secure the boat are often wet and messy, and there were a few times when I’ve had to scramble around in the shrubbery to tie off the boat. Add to that a generous layer of sun screen and believe me, there’s no way you want to crawl into bed until a nice, hot shower. Afterward, my nightly ritual concludes with a final glass of wine while my hair dries before I turn in.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: Day Seven

Carcassonne Tryptic

Tuesday      4 October 2011

Carcassonne to Trèbes

If only grocery shopping were always this much fun. We start the day with a number of chores to be done, namely laundry and reprovisioning. Jenny, Anne, and Rick head out in search of the laundromat, Karen and I go grocery shopping, and Mary remains on the boat to meet a Le Boat technician–another electrical glitch requires service.

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In order to get everything on our shopping list, Karen and I make multiple stops: the open air market for fruit, vegetables, cured meat, and tapenade; the meat market for pate, cheese, and steak for tomorrow’s dinner; and the bakery for bread. We find everything we need within a five block radius, including a very friendly butcher who throws in a few extras, continuing our trend of encountering friendly and helpful people everywhere we go.

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We take a quick cafe break and then hit the grocery store for milk, eggs, water, and beer. By the time we’ve finished, our fold-up luggage cart is loaded down and we carefully wheel our haul back to the boat, quickly ducking into an ancient church set in the midst of a row of fashionable clothing shops.

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Following the mail. Back on board, we stow all our provisions and pull out, following a postal boat through a twisting, turning section of the canal. Locking down with this large boat makes for some tricky maneuvering.

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It’s another warm and sunny day on the canal. The terrain changes noticeably south of Carcassonne. There are fewer plane trees and more open areas, giant pine trees, palm trees, and a more Mediterranean feel overall.

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Further south. We arrive in Trèbes around five o’clock and stop at the Le Boat mooring to get water and switch out three of the bikes we’ve rented, all with flat tires. We decide this is as pleasant a place as any to overnight, with a lovely view of a bend in the canal, close to restaurants and the all-important boulangerie.

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Karen, Mary, and I head into town to scope out dinner options and take some photos in the late afternoon light. It’s a pleasant walk through town and we make it to the 13th-century church located, of course, in the center of town.

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Back at the boat, after a cocktail on deck, we head over the bridge to have dinner at a seafood restaurant directly across from our boat, dining al fresco right on the edge of the canal. Scallops, and mussels, and prawns, oh my! Everything fresh from the nearby Mediterranean. Our entertainment is a gaggle of quacking ducks and a swan hoping for hand outs.

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Observations:

  • No matter how sleepy the town, the boulangerie is always bustling in the morning.
  • Shopping for cheese and dried meats always involves plenty of tasty sampling.
  • To find the center of town, just look for the ancient church.
  • Our typical on-board lunch is fresh bread, cheeses, apples, pears, pate, and a glass of wine.
  • The sun has been bright, with a wonderful southern light and cloudless skies all along. Temperatures are cool until the sun comes up and then it quickly heats up into the 80s.

Boat Issues:

  • Trouble with the hose connection. We learn halfway through the trip that you need to get a connector/adaptor from the Capitanaire at each port, in order to get water from the “private” spigots along the way.
  • A couple of times, we completely lost water pressure; both times it happened when someone was in the shower. :-/
  • Bow thrusters–a blessing and a curse. They help when maneuvering up to the shore (by pushing the boat sideways) but they require a lot of power and make a horrendous grating sound that’s very in congruous with the tranquility of the canal. And be sure you’re holding on to something when they’re engaged as the boat will suddenly jerk to one side, as if the rug has just been pulled out from under you.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: Day Six

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Monday      3 October 2011

Villesequelande to Carcassonne

Exploring Villesequelande. In the morning, Rick and Jenny bike into Villesequelande to buy wine and a few necessities and Mary, Karen and I follow on foot to explore and take photos.

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The road into town passes a walled cemetery; we wander the quiet streets, making a point of seeing the ancient church in the center of town and an elm tree, said to be one of the oldest in France. We take lots of street-scape photos, and I concentrate on the variety of interesting doors and shuttered windows.

Villesequelande Tryptic

Carcassone, here we come. Back on the boat, we set a course for six locks before the day is out. Our final destination is the medieval city of Carcassonne, a trip highlight we’re eagerly anticipating.

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As we draw closer to town and the landscape turns decidedly more urban, I keep an eye out for the ancient walled city-within-a-city high on a hill. (It’s not until later that afternoon, when we’re walking through the “new city,” that I’m finally able to catch a glimpse of the medieval fortress in the distance.)

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Time traveling in Carcassone. After floating into downtown Carcassonne, we tie up just beyond the train bridge, secure the boat, and hit the streets for a twenty minute walk to the ancient city, where we step back in time. Even if the fortified city is a restoration–and in some respects, inauthentic to the period–it’s still impressive. As we walk between the two walls and enter the cité near the church, we have the place nearly to ourselves and in the dusk light, the past is tangible. Inside, the church is dimly lit by candles and stained glass, a breathtaking sight.

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After wandering the narrow streets for a while, we seek out a place for dinner and settle on the unexceptional Dame Caracas, where we have a meal of pork spare ribs and lamb chops. Afterwards, we walk the parapet again, this time under the dramatic lighting that illuminates the fortress after dark. Talk about your spooky castle walk–very cool.

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Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: Day Five

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Sunday      2 October 2011

Villepinte to Villesequelande

Getting into the rhythm of life on the canal. Today is the first day we’re able to sleep in and everyone welcomes the extra shut-eye. As usual, Captain Rick is one of the first up and he prepares his excellent trademark breakfast, a crew ritual, including scrambled eggs with some salty, flavorful bacon (purchased in Castelnaudary), fresh croissants (picked up by Rick on an early morning bike ride into Villepinte), jam, and coffee.

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At some point during the night, the bathroom electronics reset and all lights return to green. Nevertheless, we call Le Boat to have them come check it out. Though we feel as if we’re miles from anywhere, it takes the Le Boat technician less than five minutes to get to us from Castelnaudary. Within half an hour, he’s fixed the problem.

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We pull up the gang-plank and get under way in time to make it through the first two of the day’s four locks before we have to stop for lunch. With our previous day’s experience under our belts, and the more leisurely pace of eleven fewer locks on the route today, we do well and there are no major incidents.

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Each lock continues to be more charming than the last, stone and terra cotta cottages with green wood shutters, surrounded by lovely Mediterranean plantings. Lock keepers are friendly but not chatty, most of them controlling the lock doors by a remote control they wear around their waist, communicating with each other up-and-down the waterway via walkie-talkie.

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The lock at Bram.

At 12:30, we stop for lunch, eating up on deck under the shade of overhanging plane trees. (Canal traffic stops between 12:30-1:30 when the lock keepers break for the midday meal.) Afterward, we push off and pass through the third lock of the day and tie up to shore near the town of Bram, again under the canopy of the tall trees that line the bike path along the canal. We walk half an hour into town, traveling on a path lined by more plane trees. Bram is known for its town center, built in concentric circles.

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The port of Bram.

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Strolling the sleepy town of Bram. It’s Sunday, so Bram is mostly deserted. Every shop is closed; only a beauty salon and Chinese restaurant appear to be open. Other than a few groups of kids playing in the park, not many locals are out and about. We cross paths with fellow canal cruisers from Southern California, searching in vain for a grocery store. Having done quite a bit of research on each stop we might make along the canal, we mention to them more than once that it’s Sunday, nothing will be open; after circling the town center twice, they discover what we say is true. One person in their party suggests we all crash the Chinese restaurant together, but we beg off. That’s definitely not on our culinary tour of the South of France.

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We walk back to the boat, eager to get down the canal in time to make our final lock of the day. What follows is a gorgeous twisting-turning, gentle ride along the most beautiful section of the canal that we’ve seen so far. The light at the end of the day and the chorus of lightly fluttering leaves overhead are in perfect combination. We drift along peacefully. It’s altogether perfect.

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Overnight in Villesequelande. Gliding under the last bridge of the day, we arrive at our destination, Villesequelande. A gentleman from one of the other boats moored along the shore comes over to catch our line and help pull us in. We’re “home” for the night. Laundry is hung on the rails up top, cheese and bread make for a pre-dinner snack, and Anne manages to string enough hose together to reach the water spigot to top off our water tanks.

Tonight, dinner is on board. Rick and Mary prepare roast chicken and while it’s cooking, we all gather on deck to watch the sunlight fade as we sip the complimentary champagne from our Le Boat gift basket.

We eat in the galley, sitting around the large dining table loaded with chicken, pasta, salad, bread, and two bottles of red wine, Minervois, of course. Everything is delicious. Over dinner, we discuss our plans for tomorrow and laugh as conversation turns to misadventures of the day and from trips past in the BVIs.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: Day Four

Plane Trees

Saturday      1 October 2011

Castelnaudary to Villepinte

Bon voyage. We’re up by 7:30 to prepare for a final run-thru with the Le Boat representative. This is our last chance to have questions answered before we get underway. While Jenny, Rick, and Anne stay with the boat, Mary, Karen, and I head into town to do the grocery shopping. We three have a great time–the grocery has an amazing selection of meats and cheeses–and we go a little crazy buying beaucoup du fromage.

Working the locks. Once back on board, after a brief crew meeting, we pull out, bidding Castelnaudary au revoir as we motor the short distance to the first of the fifteen locks we’ll pass through that day. Navigating the locks is fun, but depending on conditions (wind direction, size of your boat, and the number of boats squeezing into a lock at one time) it can be a bit tricky.

Since we’re heading south, the canal is stair-stepping down toward the Mediterranean, so what we’re doing is called “locking down”; with each lock, the water is drained out, lowering us (on average) eight feet to the level of the next section of the canal. Motor along the canal until you come to the next lock, rinse and repeat. If the lock is open and there’s no wait, you pull right in, loosely tying up the boat both fore and aft by looping ropes around the bollards on shore.

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Room for two more boats, believe it or not.

You wait for any other boats to enter the lock–a lock can hold three boats at once, a tight fit–and then the lock keeper closes the gates behind you. Using electronic controls, the lock keeper opens the sluice doors and the boats in the lock gradually descend with the decreasing water level.

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Going down.

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The air is filled with the sound of rushing water and everyone takes care to keep their boats steady. You don’t want to bump into another boat, scrape the side of the lock as you sink past the wall, or worse yet, have the lip of your boat hang on the edge of the lock. Once you’ve reached the level of the canal below, the doors on the other end of the lock are opened and the boats exit in the same order they entered.

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Waiting in line.

As you exit the lock, you may pass boats waiting to “lock up,” tied up to the shore and waiting for you to clear the lock. They enter the lock in the opposite direction, reversing the entire process, and so it goes back-and-forth throughout the day. (The locks don’t operate at night and they close for lunch between 12:30-1:30.) As you approach a lock, you look at the doors and for signals (when available.) If the doors are open, go right on in, no waiting. If the doors are closed, you pull up to the shore nearby to wait your turn. Some locks have signal lights to direct traffic.

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Signal at the Trebes lock.

Since we’re cruising on the off-season, there isn’t much traffic coming or going on the canal. This means we rarely have to wait for a lock and when we do, it’s never for more than twenty minutes. With room for only three boats, traveling during peak vacation months can mean a fair amount of down-time spent waiting in line for multiple locks-full of boats to pass through before you get your turn. Because we rarely have to wait long (if ever) to get through each lock, we’re able to cover more territory in a day. And with a view like this, waiting in line has never been more enjoyable.

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Above the quadruple lock at Saint-Roch.

The staircase locks at Saint-Roch Lock. Our first Canal du Midi locking experience is the set of four stair-step locks at Saint-Roch, which we do on our own before catching up to another boat on the canal going our way. Throughout the rest of the day, we tag team in and out of the next eleven locks; they enter first and pull up on the left, and we follow, hugging the right wall of the lock. It’s a tight fit, but we all get into a rhythm and it goes quickly.

Lock keepers are the envy of us boaters, living idyllic lives canal-side in the South of France. Each lock keeper has a charming home surrounded by flowers and trees, eucalyptus, palm, and tall juniper. Occasionally there’s a cat, a dog, a vegetable garden or all three. Gone are the days when lock keepers have to manually crank open the locks, now most of the labor is performed at the push of a button. Some locks have a little shop, selling souvenirs and staples (water, wine, fruit, honey). One lock yard we pass is decorated with metal sculptures for sale, presumably made by the lock keeper during his down time.

Bonne Journée

The lock keepers, young and old, men and women, stand watch as boats enter and exit the locks. Friendly all, they rarely give verbal or physical assistance; that’s not their job.

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Overnight in Villepinte. After about three hours of traveling south on the canal, we tie up along the bank, just south of a bridge on the outskirts of Villepinte. It’s a peaceful and picturesque spot, straight out of the brochure.

We all enjoy the quiet afternoon napping, reading, photo taking, and wine drinking before dinnertime, when we take a fifteen minute walk down a plane tree-lined road leading into town. We’ve made reservations at Les Deux Acacias and enjoy a terrific meal feasting on the house specialty, cassoulet, a duck, sausage, and beef stew cooked to perfection. It’s delicious, especially when paired with a Minervois, which has quickly become our go-to local red wine.

Cassoulet Again!

Cassoulet at Les Deux Acacias

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Having packed head lamps (always handy on a boat), we use them to light our way back to the canal, climbing the gangway safely back on board our home for the next six nights. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the electronics that flush the toilets. Unlike a sailboat toilet that has to be manually pumped to flush, this boat has the luxury of a toilet that flushes with the push of a button–when it works. Earlier in the day, one of the toilets stopped working. (There’s a green light that resets when the plumbing can be used again. No green light, no working toilet.) Coming home from dinner, we discover prohibitory red lights in all three bathrooms. Ugh. So much for the two-month-old new-fangled high-tech boat.

Not once when imagining my trip on the canal did I ever dream we’d be camping in France and peeing in the woods!

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: Day Three

Castelnaudary, our starting point.

Friday      30 September 2011

High-speed getaway. We’re up early (the sun rises later here than in Chicago) to catch our cab to the train station and our 8:10 a.m. TGV to Toulouse, where we change from the high-speed rail to a standard train for our final leg of the journey. Our destination is Castelnaudary, a town on the Canal du Midi where our boat charter, Le Boat, has a base. After a bit of confusion, we climb aboard our 2nd-class train car and take our seats. For most of the ride, we have the entire front section of the car to ourselves and enjoy a relaxing five-hour journey through the French countryside, rolling corn fields, and vineyards dotted with windmills.

During our layover in Toulouse, we grab lunch from the Paul counter (ham and Camembert sandwiches on baguettes). Then a final hour on the train to Castelnaudary. They don’t always announce the stops, so when we reach our stop sooner than expected, we make a mad dash to get off the train.

We walk from the station to the Le Boat mooring at the Great Basin (about an eight-minute hike along the road) and after a quick check-in, we’re aboard our Vision 3 houseboat, setting up housekeeping for the next week.

Bedroom, one of threeHome floating home. The boat is amazing, and amazingly spacious compared to what we’re used to from our sailboat charters in the BVIs. This canal cruiser has three large staterooms, each with plenty of storage space, sleeping room for three, and a separate spacious bathroom, complete with a full shower! The beds are large (for a boat) and comfortable with plenty of blankets and there’s a flatscreen TV in every room, including the galley.

Up front is an incredibly well-appointed kitchen, with everything you need–from carving knives to egg cups and a salad-spinner–to comfortably cook and entertain for ten. The boat’s state-of-the-art controls include small screens displaying the battery charge, water tank levels etc. It’s equipped with a camera in front and back for maneuvering and “parking” the boat. The craft can be driven from inside (from a captain’s station near the galley) and outside from the upper deck. Upper steering can even be performed with a joystick!

Topside
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And then there are the bathrooms. In my humble boat-chartering experience, I would simply describe them as palatial. Chances are, if you’ve ever been on a sailboat and had to use “the head,” you’ll understand. And if you’ve had to shower on a sailboat, you’ll really appreciate the upgrade we experienced on the canal. The bathroomWhen we were cruising the British Virgin Islands, the bathroom situation involved a standard marine pump toilet–always a fragrant joy–and because the waste tanks are dumped at sea, paper products had to be discarded in the trash. Enough said. On top of all that, the shower is the entire bathroom itself. An efficient use of space but not the most pleasant set-up. The houseboat bathrooms, on the other hand, have electronic toilets–no pumping!–and the showers are separated by a shower door. Except for the size, you’d almost swear you were in a hotel. And with three bathrooms between the six of us, it was an ideal set-up–when it worked. (More on that to come.)

Our first French test. After a quick unpacking, a Le Boat representative comes aboard to give us the boat run-through. Ordinarily, learning the ins-and-outs, do’s-and-dont’s of a new charter boat is challenging enough; now we factor in a language barrier between the Le Boat staff and our captain. Karen earns the first glass of wine by acting as an extraordinary translator. (For weeks leading up to the trip, she’s been practicing with language tapes and conversing in French with anyone who will listen, and in this two-hour session it all pays off.) This is the first–but not the last–time when we call upon her French skills to get us out of a tricky situation.

Welcome Aboard

The charter company surprises us with a wonderful gift basket filled with champagne, wine and canned cassoulet, as a thank you for renting one of their brand-spanking-new 1500-series boats. As the week goes on, and we experience a few issues that go hand-in-hand with breaking in a new boat, the good will of the gift basket becomes clear.

Once the boat run-through is complete, we take a test drive in the basin so Captain Rick can try his hand at the controls with the staff member standing by to answer questions. After we return to the dock, we break out bread and cheese before taking the 20-minute walk around the harbor and into town for dinner.

Belle Epoque

Our first meal in the South of France. Everyone has a terrific meal at La Belle Epoque, a family restaurant recommended by Le Boat. We dine on outstanding duck confit cassoulet (brimming with complex flavors), quiche with the creamy consistency of custard, grilled salmon, and steak. So near Minervois wine country, we enjoy the first of many bottles of a fantastic wine from the region.

Cassoulet!
One of our favorite wines of the trip.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

Also, today is the last day for this month’s Le Boat photo contest. I’ve entered a few photos from this trip. The contest is through Facebook, so if you’re so inclined, I’d really appreciate your voting for my photos. The contest page is here; scroll to the bottom and you’ll currently find my photos around page 11. The grand prize is a boat charter in France. Thanks!

France 2011: Day Two

Thursday    29 September 2011

A full day in Paris. Karen, Anne, Jenny and I make an early morning pilgrimage to the patisserie in our favorite square to get breakfast. We take our pastries down the hill to the garden at the Natural History Museum (Jardin des Plantes) to sit and eat while watching the joggers, not feeling guilty in the least.

Ancient sycamore

An ancient sycamore in the Jardin des Plantes, planted in 1785.

And all that was left was his foot.

Graphic statue in the Botanic Garden.

Afterward, we head back up to the square for coffee at a sidewalk cafe. We meet up with Rick and Mary to walk down to the river and over to Sainte-Chappelle on the Ile de la Cité.

Un cafe creme

Sainte-Chappelle welcoming committee.

Sainte-Chappelle on a sunny day. After a brief wait in line, we enter the grounds and tour through the 13th-century church, built by King Louis IX. On the ground floor is the oldest mural in Paris and up on the second floor, the king’s chapel is a riot of color, with brilliant stained glass windows stretching far above to meet with a brilliant blue vaulted ceiling. The light from these walls of glass play off of the columns, stonework, and floor; it’s gorgeous and impossible to capture in a snapshot.

Annunciation--The oldest mural in Paris.

After we get our fill of Gothic light and color, it’s time for lunch. Unfortunately, in all our restaurant pre-planning, we failed to make a reservation for lunch, so we’re shut out of the restaurant we’d hoped to try. (Oh well, next time!) We substitute with the next door neighbor, Restaurant Paul. It’s pleasant enough but nothing special and is easily the least memorable of all our meals.

Berthillon: Rhubarb and salted caramel

Rhubarb and salted caramel.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for Berthillon. Afterward, Rick and Mary split off to visit the Caravaggios in the Louvre and we four walk through the Marais to La Place de Vosges and then over to a must-see on our Paris itinerary: the legendary Berthillon Ice Cream. Tiny scoops of a creamy salted caramel and sorbet-like rhubarb were phenomenal.

Before returning to the hotel, Karen, Jenny and I hike back up the hill to have a beer at what is now our favorite neighborhood hangout, one of the outdoor cafes in the fountain courtyard. While enjoying the ambiance and people watching, we flip through a guidebook and discover there’s the ruin of a Roman amphitheater a few blocks from our hotel. With just enough time to spare before dinner, Karen and I make a detour that way to check out the Arènes de Lutèce. I’m glad to see it’s a living ruin, bustling with activity. Pick-up games of bocci ball and soccer are in full swing, while groups of people socialize in the stands.

Arenes de Lutece

Best. Meal. Ever. At 6:15 sharp, we leave the hotel for a thirty minute walk to our dinner destination, Le Timbre, a tiny storefront restaurant with most tables against the wall and diners squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder. Our meal is nothing short of phenomenal. As we’re being seated, the chef greets us warmly and brings us a round of champagne and white wine aperitifs to start. Then, after wishing us a good meal, he steps into the tiny kitchen just a few feet from our table to get down to work.

The second seating waits outside Le Timbre.

This meal has gone down in history as one of our trip highlights. We start with snails in a tomato sauce, duck fois gras, sautéed mushrooms, mushroom soup, and the specialty of the day, pig cheek, a loaf of succulent, pan-seared pork with capers. Think of the best bacon you’ve ever had and quadruple it. The next course includes duck breast, white fish with mushrooms, port sausage with lentils, pork back and red cabbage. To finish, we have chocolate mousse, a blue cheese tart with sherry, a Napoleon, roasted figs in red wine, and an amazing poached pear. Every dish was phenomenal. A Bergerac white wine accompanies the meal.

This was a fantastic, leisurely meal, stretching three hours, the norm in France. We were all raving to the chef as we stood up to leave and as soon as our crowd had cleared the place, the staff rushed to prep for the late seating, and we walked home in a culinary glow.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.