Canal du Centre

Canal du Centre

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Over The Top, Aug. 12-17

 We should have known better than to leave Friday morning. There’s a pretty big hireboat base on the other side of the summit, about two days away, and the hireboats usually have to be in either Saturday and Sunday. Traffic can get…fun. And the canal had been closed due to the damaged locks.

We left our spot on the bank around 9 and headed over to the port to refill our water tank, then it was off to the first lock of the day, 4 k up the canal. We arrived to find 2 of the bigger hireboats already waiting for the lock so we would have to wait; we wouldn’t all fit in the lock. Two other smaller hireboats were behind us and one of the boaters already in the lock, thinking one of the smaller boats could fit in pushed the red button (These are totally automated locks; there is no eclusier). Big mistake. You only push the red button when there’s a problem because it puts the lock out of service and a waterways technician has to come and reset it. Cathy Jo hiked up to the lock and used the interphone to call the VNF office and let them know there was a problem. We finally got through that first lock at 11:30. We arrived at the next double lock just in time to make it through before the lunch closure and, after the break, navigated the next three lock flight to find a spot for the night right above it.

It was just over a kilometer to the next lock so we were there when the light came on at 9 on Saturday, managed that double lock and then our last up lock on the Midi this year. We cleared the first down lock just before 11, tied up and threw the bicycles over the side. Le Pas de Naurouze is a very nice restaurant right at the canal summit and we wanted to make reservations for dinner Saturday night. Unfortunately they were complet for dinner but we could have lunch. Luckily for us, the menu is the same for lunch and dinner so we scurried back to the boat to change into more acceptable attire and had a very nice lunch.

I’m not a big fan of food pictures but this meal was very good and the service was excellent. It started with seared tuna fillets on a bed of cold ratatouille and crunchy green beans with peanuts on the top.

That was followed by roasted quail on a pastry crust coated with a red onion and strawberry sauce on a bed of creamy eggplant.

When the server delivered the quail she informed us that it was allowed to use our fingers, something not usually done in a French restaurant.

We had a very nice house merlot with the meal and a sorbet for dessert. Then we rolled back to the boat, luckily very close by.

Sunday we took a long bike ride up the Rigole de la Plaine. One of Pierre Paul Riquets great ideas was to use water from several streams in the Black Mountain to feed the canal. He also had two big reservoirs built to hold water. The Rigole is the channel that brings this water to the summit pound of the canal. Because of this innovation the canal has not had the water problems of the canals in the north, although this year there has been some strain.

Part of the bike ride took us through what used to be a big holding basin for the canal but silted up soon after the canal opened. It’s now a giant park with an amusing “statue” of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

There’s also a giant stele erected as a monument to Mssr. Riquet.

Luckily, this part of the canal has not suffered too severely from the plane tree disease so the “green tunnel” still exists in many places.

Monday morning we set off, now going downhill, much easier in the locks. Unfortunately, just a couple k after the summit, the canal runs close beside the A61, a major freeway. Not very quiet and peaceful. Nevertheless we found places to moor the next two nights that weren’t right beside the highway, arriving Monday about 3 pm right after the lock in the small village of Negra and about 3:30 pm on Tuesday on the outskirts of our next big destination, Toulouse. 

Wednesday morning we just had one lock and about 12 K to get to the big city.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Castelnaudary, August 1-12

 We had a little break in the weather while we were in Carcassonne. In fact it rained a little on our way in and by a break I mean the temperature was about 90 as opposed to close to 100 degrees.

Monday morning we were off and made the 40 k to Castelnaudary in fits and starts. 9 k the first day then just 2 k the next to find some better shade as the temps were ramping up again and we try to only do locks in the morning when it's relatively cool. Wednesday we stopped outside the small village of Bram as we needed to get our daily bread and there was a boulangerie just 1.5 k from the canal on a very nice bike path. Thursday was a longer day; 11 locks and no stopping (except for the lunch closure) until after 2 pm. We wanted to be close enough to make it into Castelnaudary by late morning.

Friday morning it was up and at ‘em, arriving at the first lock just after it opened at 9 am. Then it was just the 4 lock Chapelle St-Roch flight into the Grand Bassin. We found a spot along the bank with good afternoon shade. We intended to spend the weekend.

Our mooring was along the wall just below the Ile de le Cybelle

The harbor here is famous for the Bassin, a large pond that was dug out to hold water the four lock flight. It was also a major shipping point for grain grown on the Lauragais plain. Now it’s headquarters for a very large Le Boat hireboat base and a very popular private port. Our spot was on the quay wall just after the hireboat base but before the bridge into the port. We had a great view of the comings and goings of the hireboats and the town across the basin.

The Collegial St-Michael church and 

to the right on the hill the Musée Lauragais, 

formerly a courthouse and prison in the 16th century

First mentioned in documents from 1118, the town was fortified during the Crusade against the Cathars. Crusaders took the town in 1211 but it returned to Royal hands in 1221. In the mid 1500’s, Castelnaudary became an important administrative center and, in the early early 1600’s when the Canal du Midi was proposed, the city administration paid the princely sum of 30,000 “livres” to make sure the canal came through town, cementing it’s position as a major port. The Bassin was surrounded by boat related commerce; wood drying shops and carpenters, rope makers and dry docks for repairs. 

The Bassin was also exposed to winds from every corner and maneuvering boats was a problem with men and horses being pulled into the water when it gusted up. In the mid 1700’s Ile de le Cybelle was built to provide some protection from the winds and until the 1940’s was home to an open-air restaurant featuring music and dancing.

Castelnaudary is also famous as the home of cassoulet, a dish of white beans with chunks of duck, pork and sausage. We saw at least four large “factories” that turn out the dish and you can find cans and jars of it in markets throughout France. It’s a very hearty dish, however, and with temps in the 90’s we were going to give it a pass until the weather cools off.

A quick trip into the tourist office gave us our agenda for the weekend. Friday night we would see Antoine Garrido perform traditional French chanson in the garden of the city hall and Sunday evening featured the music of Andalusia, a musical combination of Castillian and the Maghreb and one of our very favorite genres, with the group El Candil in a courtyard at the Musée Lauragais, all free, of course.

Antoine Garrido emotes in true chanson fashion.

To make matter worse (for our livers) Lenny and Di on Elysium were in port so aperitifs ran long.

We decided to stay an extra day as Monday was market day. It turned out to be a good decision because Cathy Jo came down with some sort of stomach bug Sunday night so we weren’t going anywhere anyway.


Then things got a little more harrowing. The drought is putting extreme stress on the local farmers who pump from the canal and someone decided the boaters on the canals were a waste of water. Three of the locks on the way to the summit pound out of Castelnaudary were vandalized. One lock gate was disconnected from its hinges and a gate motor was destroyed. Graffiti regarding water usage was scrawled on the lock walls. We wouldn’t be leaving for awhile. We were moored right next to the VNF office and when asked when things might get fixed we got the famous “gallic shrug,” although they were obviously working on repairs.

We put our waiting time to good use, visiting the last of the 32 windmills that used to dot town. The Moulin du Cugarel operated until 1921.

This view from the mill looks down on the site of a major battle over royal control of the region in 1632. The Duke of Montmorency lost the battle and subsequently lost his head.

We also visited la Chapelle Notre-Dame de Pitié with it’s amazing gilded panels.

Quick work (and a big crane) by the VNF and the damage to the canal was repaired late Wednesday afternoon. However, Castelnaudary was having a night market in the Port Thursday night so it was over to Elysium for an evening of food a drink. John and Gill on Millie had also appeared so there was much hilarity.

Friday morning we joined the parade of hireboats leaving town headed for the last 8 locks to reach the summit.


Friday, August 19, 2022

Carcassonne, July 29-August 1

The fortified town of Carcassonne dates back to the Roman Empire of the 3rd and 4th centuries. The site fell into ruins but was restored at the end of the 19th century by the architect Viollet-le-Duc who was active in many of these types of reconstructions. The Cité (the walled part) is above the town and across the Aude River.

We arrived Friday just after lunch. We found a nice place to moor and made a quick visit to the very helpful tourist office to make plans. Music in the Place Carnot both Friday and Saturday nights, market and then a visit to the Cité on Saturday. Sunday was a day of rest (well, and laundry). 

We were only going to spend the three days because we will be back here several times over the next 2 years so we’ll have plenty of time to take in the sights. Plus, it was a weekend at the beginning of August. All of France is on vacation and things are crowded! In addition, Cathy Jo had twisted her knee getting off the boat when we stopped for lunch in Trebes. She was having a little trouble getting around and we were trying to keep our walking to a minimum so she could get back to normal.

Plus, it continued hot. Daytime temps were still in the mid 90’s but luckily our mooring spot had shade almost all day long so we were able to cope by using our fans and it was cooling off some at night. France, however, was really suffering. There has been almost no rain this summer. Farmers fields are shriveling, rivers are drying out and some villages are having to import water by truck as their water supplies have dried up. It’s really a crisis here.

Friday nights music was an opening act of Bel Avril, two guys making a stab at “World Music”. It was acceptable but not rousing. 

 Not a huge crowd yet.
It wasn’t even dark at 9 pm.

The main act was an American named Keziah Jones. A guitarist, he was billed as performing a combination of funk, rock and blues. We left after two songs. We're not fans.

Saturday morning we were back in Place Carnot for the market. It was a pretty good one with a wide selection of fresh vegetables, meats and the usual sundries. After dropping off our haul back at the boat we were off again, headed for the medieval city. First we stopped off at the Saint Vincent church. Built in the 14th and 15th century the interior was beautiful. Nice tower, too.

Then it was off across the river to the Cité and its imposing walls.

The view from the bridge over the river.

We wandered around the streets of the old town, dodging hoards of tourists and taking in what sites we could.

We went into a pottery shop and did succeed in finding our holy grail for the year; a french butter keeper (search for it on the internet).

We crossed town to check out yet another church, this time the 11th century Basilica of Saint-Nazare and its windows. 

This window in particular, “The Tree of Life,” is amazing in its intricacy.

Then we just circled the walls and headed out of medieval village to a quieter spot for a pizza lunch.

The Saturday nights music was much better. Akim and Janoz, a couple of dj’s, started off the evening, but the headliners were Synapson; two guys on keyboards with a rotating cast of collaborators depending of the song. The highlight was an African singer, Victor Démé. He raised the roof! Our ears were ringing when we left around midnight. Just like the old days!

Just the guitar for accompaniment on this song.

Bonus. The performances we went to are free.

Sunday was a day of household chores and Monday morning we headed out. At our current pace it would take about a week to cover the 40 k to our next major destination, Castelnaudary, home of the famous cassoulet.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Continued Hot, July 19-28

 France’s unrelenting heat wave and drought continued. We ended up traveling in the morning and then around lunchtime finding some patch of shade we could tie up in for the afternoon and evening. If it was a really good shady spot, we might spend a couple of days. Bonus if there was swimming. We can’t complain too much, though. The canal is still open and running freely while due to lack of rainfall over the last 4 years the entire canal system of northern France has been shuttered. People are stranded from their winter moorings and you may have seen on the news that some French villages are running out of water.

You may also have seen some coverage of the tree problem on the Midi Canal. When built in the 1600’s, the canal was lined with plane trees, a type of sycamore. Since 2006, thousands of the trees that used to form a kind of green tunnel over the canal have become infected with a fungal disease, canker stain, that kills them. The only solution is to chop them down and burn them. The waterways authorities and their partners have undertaken the monumental task of replanting trees along the canal banks (read about it here. The movie is a pretty good explanation. English subtitles.)  but, as all these new trees are still pretty small, major parts of the formerly lush green tunnel are pretty barren.

That also means moorings that provide some shade are a little sparse in some sections.

After the flight of locks at Fonserrannes, the next lock is almost 55 k away. This is the Grand Bief, twisting and turning across the countryside to maintain its level; pretty advanced construction techniques for the 1600’s.

Tuesday morning we left our moorings just before the Malpas tunnel a little after 9 am. We found a good spot along the bank just before Capestang so we could make a quick trip to the nearby grocery store and, after squeezing under one of the lowest bridges on the canal, made our stop for the night in a shady spot about 4 k further on. Wednesday morning we put the bicycles over the side and made a quick trip back to town to visit the market (we bumped into John and Gill from Millie there) and the Saint-Etienne Collegiate Church, built beginning in the 13th century by the archbishop of Narbonne on the site of an old Romanic church. Never really completed, construction stopped and started for over 200 years. 

The church has some beautiful stained glass windows with a couple in the roof, something we haven’t seen before.

On our walking tour we also came across this great example of some trompe l'oeil on the side of a building.

Thursday we traveled about 16 k. We had intended to moor somewhere before the entrance to the canal that travels south to Narbonne (we’ll make that trip next year) but couldn’t find a suitable spot. We ended up at the abandoned Port Minervois. There used to be a restaurant/snack bar and small trip boat there but they are no more. It is right next to la Cesse river so we could get in a little swimming to break the heat. And we weren’t the only ones that knew about the swimming hole. It was hireboat madness!

This swimming hole is right under the canal which crosses on that bridge.

Saturday we found our next mooring just after the village of Roubia but first we had to make a brief stop in Ventenac-en-Minervois. There is a cave cooperative right next to the canal so we could replenish our wine supplies.

Roubia is about halfway between the towns of Peraza and Argens-Minervois so on Sunday it was bike ride time.

We visited the church in Peraza and were impressed by their collection of statues.

And from the park above town we got a good view of the countryside.

It was about 6 k from Peraza to Argens-Miervois and its hillside chateau but we couldn’t find a way in to the castle.

Monday we traveled 11.5 k and did 7 locks, including 2 double locks, and settled in for the night in the village of la Redorte.

While walking around town we saw a blown up copy of an old postcard that gave us an indication of activities on the canal when it was first built.

Lots of wine!

We were tied up about in about the same place as that barge on the right.

Our friends Kevin and Eleanor on Milou showed up there too so we had a great evening apreo session. It’s also a very popular spot for hireboats as there’s available water and electricity. We had lots of company.

Wednesday we put in a longer day, only about 11 k but 9 locks, including 3 double locks and one triple to find some shade about 2 pm out in the countryside near the town of Marseilette.

Thursday morning we pushed off at 9 and about 1145 were tied up just after the flight of locks into Trebes. We wanted to have lunch at the Moulin de Trebes waterside restaurant. That task complete (beautiful setting, excellent service, adequate food), we managed two more locks and just before 4pm were tied up. Our next stop would be Carcassonne, just 7 k but a few locks away. That was Fridays job.