Marty is a little nervous because our boat doesn’t have a scratch on it and some of the others in the yard have more than a few. On the other hand though, the sides of every boat are very well protected with inflated bolsters so that’s a relief! It is our personal challenge to return the Gardouche in pristine condition!
Our technician advised us to get on “the road” as the canals close down at 7pm and it was already 4pm, so that’s what we did. We struck our first lock within 3 minutes of leaving the marina and had a moment of panic, but aced it with the help of a slightly grumpy French lock keeper who must see the worst of the inexperienced travellers, being the first lock on the canal after Argens depot!
We decided to head for Ventenac-en-Minervois to overnight before the curfew and one of the first villages passed was little Roubia. Just after the next village Paraza, was an exciting moment crossing a canal bridge that crosses the small River Répudre and where you are looking down from a suspended bridge to the valley and river below – it’s quite unreal and an absolute feat of engineering genius given the era in which it was built.
After tying up for the night we had the chance to test drive the kitchen facilities. With the convection hob and oven, and a great range of kitchen equipment, it was just like cooking at home and while there was only 2 of us, it would easily have coped with cooking for 4. Fresh mushroom omelettes and salad washed down by some leftover Medoc from Bordeaux was just what the doctor ordered! The bedding is all supplied and the fitted sheets, pillows and duvets made making the bed at night simple. After folding down the dining table, it was a matter of pulling out a spring-loaded base and “voila” – instant bedtime! If there had been 4 of us, there was the option for another double bed at the front of the boat, so would easily have coped with a small family or two couples.
The beauty of sleeping on a canal boat (as opposed to a yacht) is that there is no tidal movement and no waves, so a good night sleep is pretty much guaranteed. We certainly had a great sleep and couldn’t wait to head off the next day…
As it was Sunday, the only thing we heard in the morning was the Ventenac church bells. A quick walk around the town showed that everyone was either at said church or still in bed, so we got prepared to “cast off”.
Next stop was the small but important town of Le Somail. The approach is quite dramatic as you pass under a picturesque bridge with a peek of the Palm trees on the other side of the bridge. Lining the sides of the river are clusters of pretty little restaurants and cafes and there were quite a few canal boats of varying sizes moored there, as well as some of the very popular “hotel barges” which can accommodate larger groups and where you have a skipper, small staff and meals are provided. They tend to operate more in the high season, so were probably moored for some maintenance or downtime.
On the Canal du Midi (and probably other canals in France) the locks close down for lunch between 12.00pm and 1.00pm, so you need to plan your lock transit activity around this time. We decided to head along to the Port La Robine and lunch at the start of the series of 7 almost continuous locks that are the final stretch before the Moussoulens Gate. Lunch in the sun on the deck was followed by a flurry of activity after the lock-keepers returned from their “dejeuner”.
This stretch of locks is the perfect place to become expert at the lock operation procedure (which is actually quite simple). I grabbed the cycle off the boat and cycled the short distance to the operation console and pushed the button to ready the lock, while Marty waited for the “green” light. When the gates opened and the light went green, he manoeuvred into the lock and moored to the side, while throwing the forward and aft ropes to me to hold. Once in position, you push the next button which starts the slow release (or fill depending on which direction you are going) of water from the lock. When your lock is at the same level as the waterway you are heading for, your gates will automatically open, at which point the ropes are thrown back on board. Normally if you have only been through one lock, the land operator (me) will board the boat again after the lock, but as we had another 6 to go, I chose to ride the bike between the first 5 – which was a bit of fun.
At each lock, there is a lock-keepers residence which is usually a quaint older cottage but sometimes at the larger locks, maybe a larger building that is not usually occupied. All of the lock buildings have a painted sign about their door which gives you your elevation and the distance between the beginning and end of the canal. This would have been very useful in the days before Google! While we didn’t see any of the lock-keepers, there is a bell which can be used to summon them for help or in the event of any problems. I believe they are more visible in the Summer months when there are many more craft on the canal and so they supervise each lock operation.
The last lock in this series, at Sallèlles-d’Aude – is in a very pretty little village and was a particularly deep one so took a while to fill. After this last bit of excitement for the day, we decided to pass through the Moussoulens Gate, where the River Aude joins the canal, to head for Narbonne for the night.
Coming up…arriving in Narbonne and then heading for the coast in our next blog!