Bonjour All, (well it has been 5 weeks, I should have learnt something!)
Just to warn you this could be a long one! Maybe get a wine or two?
Firstly, the Canal Du Midi is absolutely lovely, if you have seen photos or postcards, for once they didn't lead you astray!
Boating...ummmm...that is another matter........
We excitedly packed summer clothes, BBQ, great food, copious quantities of red and white wines, sunscreen and hats and after unpacking all that in 30 degree heat, onto the 43 foot boat/home we had hired for the week, we were exhausted! Five minutes of very basic instructions (thank goodness we had Captain Graeme aboard with boating experience) we were told to push off in any direction we wanted, lucky Kev had done his normal research and we had some idea where to go.
15 minutes later we encountered our first lock but being resourceful (or scared?) we had previously driven to the edge of the canal to observe lock navigation...EASY!! Our first attempt was amazingly coordinated and we gave ourselves a 7 and continued to be faced by a double lock in no time. Feeling a little better, we then promptly did everything wrong, swinging boat, rope adrift, me trying to pull the rear of the boat back with a rope around a tree (this is a no no), Noeline leaping to help me and landing on her stomach, twisting her ankle and grazing her hand, with Kev hanging on to the front end, Graeme finally pulled us into line with the motor!!!! No time to relax, as the 2nd lock was upon us, back to our stations all going well then Kev fell this time but recovered well and we finally got through! We looked like the walking wounded, I had rope burn, as we forgot to don our gloves, Kev's back, knee and elbow killing him, Noeline never wanting to see another lock and captain Graeme at the helm having a wonderful time with his favourite new toy! All this and we hadn't been out there for even an hour!
We pulled over to the nearest bollard available, tied up without too much drama, broke out the wine and 3 out of 4 crew where considering mutineering in this one spot for the week...well, it was very pretty and a few minutes down the bank was a lovely little waterside alfresco restaurant that had been recommended! All this was followed by a few drinks (ha), some first aid, a lovely meal, our first sleep aboard, lots of laughs and a resolution that maybe we should at least go more that 5 km from the starting point.
Next morning was many firsts and I'm not talking about the one metre high club!...showering aboard (being double jointed would have helped here), toasting stale baguettes under a gas griller, trying to figure out how to make the beds more comfortable (sleeping on top of several doonas helped), studying the not so helpful guides as to where we could get water as we had been told the night before we probably only had maximum 2 days worth stored, trying to decide where we would travel that day as also been told if we didn't do at least 4 hours travel a day our fridge would not stay cold overnight etc. (remember beers and wine stored here!) and yes, you guessed it, to travel that far you have to go through more locks! Yea, we said and headed towards our next double lock with Captain Bligh (I mean Graeme) threatening us with plank walking, keel hauling or alcohol deprivation if we didn't get it right this time...it must have been the alcohol threat, as we did it!!! Not perfect but another boat going through with us was so much worse, we felt great!
'Lock watching' in this area is a wonderful spectator sport if you ever get a chance! They set up picnics and just sit there, eat, drinking and laughing !!! How rude!
Life was a little better after those first 6 locks as Kev had planned a trip that meant we had about 54 km in picturesque canals with many riverside bars, restaurants and NO MORE LOCKS for a few days.
The scenery from the canals was forever changing, little villages, Chateaus and churches on hilltops, acres and acres of vines and other crops and everything was just green, green and more green! The banks of the canals are traditionally lined with magnificent plane trees providing much needed shade in these temperatures!
Anyway, having survived our six days boating we headed back through those bloody locks (not so bad) and back to home base to clean and return the boat, all going well until Captain Graeme deciding he would miss his new boat, decided to nosedive off the back into a pebblecrete path!! Lots of blood, strained muscles and bruising plus 4 stitches above his eye from the local, very young (may have been the cleaner?) doctor who hadn't heard of anaesthetic..(ouch!) and then we were off to our last dinner on the canals. Not to be outdone, Kev the next morning, whilst finishing the cleaning, decided to do the same but on his back this time......luckily no real damage, but not a good idea for one who already suffers a bad back!!
Noeline and I decided to get them away as soon as possible before we were left driverless and lots of tripping (no pun intended) still to do! No, don't worry they got lots of sympathy too. Really they did!
I have decided "The Canal du Midi Boating Experience" is 33% beauty, 33% practicality (water, electricity, discomfort) and 34% COMEDY!!
I'm not sure you could get me back here until the QE2 can fit into a canal!!
The other lovely thing about France is their obsession with flowers, they have gardens and window boxes, even a tiny one if that is all available, hanging baskets on street lights, amazing floral roundabouts, formal hedges around farmland and wild flowers to fill in where humans haven't planted, simply beautiful!! Councils here take pride in keeping their towns beautiful, not for the tourists but for themselves.
Mother nature has done her bit too, the hundreds of acres of fields with their vines and assorted crops in all shades of greens and golds, all separated by hedges or rows of hundred year old trees, very few fences are used and every available piece of land is utilised. Then just when you think it can't get better they pop in an old farmhouse, village or Château to die for. Thank goodness I am no artist, you just wouldn't know where to start!
So having all above as well as the canals waterways you can see why this boating experience has appeal! One sad thing to note is that the hundred year old plane trees that line most of the canal are suffering from an incurable cancer requiring hundreds to be felled and many more marked for the chop! Very sad as they are old, beautiful and provide most of the shade when boating or tying up. Also this is why you now can't tie up to the trees as this has been proven to spread the cancer from tree to tree. All this must be incredibly distressing for the Canal Authorities as no easy or quick fix here.
Leaving the canal we then had lots of driving to do to get us up to Northern France and Calais to catch the ferry to England. We travelled through Burgundy, Champagne and the area around The Somme, all very different but still lovely with many wines to taste. Noeline was totally in love with the tiny, winding, very narrow country tracks...NOT!! I think, maybe, she missed most of this part with her head between her knees and suddenly reconverting to childhood Catholic prayers (Tony you will totally understand).
We are currently travelling around the Somme area finding the graves of great uncles of N & G, very emotional area with this beautiful countryside scattered with dozens of cemeteries and memorials, again beautifully and tastefully maintained by the French with stone buildings and lovely gardens. So many young lives lost and having finally caught up with current worldwide news, I'm not sure a lesson has been learned.
Better let you go, if you have finished the wine bottle that is?
Lots of love and news from sunny England soon,