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

Untitled

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!

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.)

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Inside the wine cooperative.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

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.)

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

The port of Bram.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.