Way Down South
As we discussed plans for last summer, Sandra realised that it would probably be the last time that Ian, our 16 year old, would be coming boating with us for the summer and as such we ought to do something that he would particularly enjoy. So it was that it was decided to go back to the canals of the south of France and in particular to the sections that run just behind the Mediterranean beaches. As it happened, his sister Sarah decided to fly out to be with us for a fortnight and so it became almost certainly our last family summer holiday on “Bobbles”.
Having towed to the south twice before, the total distance of about 840 miles from our home in Suffolk was less daunting than previously. The trick we had learned is to break the journey up in to manageable chunks. We left home about 9am on the Saturday, caught an afternoon ferry from Dover and having filled up with cheap diesel at Carrefour in Calais drove 250 miles before staying overnight in an aire on the autoroute south of Troyes. Up early next morning, we did another 150 miles before detouring through Dijon to find more cheap diesel, eventually stopping for lunch north of Lyons on the Autoroute du Soleil. A quite long afternoon later we stopped for tea in sight of the Med and eventually reached Colombiers, just west of Beziers, at 7pm, allowing us to slip in the cool of the evening. The journey had obviously not been too taxing as we did a further 200 mile round trip the next day to allow us to drive over the spectacular Millau viaduct before giving up the car.
After transferring the car and trailer to Beaucaire alongside the Rhone, we set off west along the Canal du Midi heading for the fantastic old walled town of Carcassonne. This did not disappoint and we had a lovely evening meal before walking back to the boat in the dark enjoying the smashing sight of the floodlit battlements complete with a full moon. We then returned east, calling at several attractive small villages before arriving at our favourite, le Someil. Although it consists of little more than a floating grocers, a café/bar and a book shop all gathered around a stone bridge, it feels special.
A few miles further on we turned south down the Canal de Jonction to Narbonne before continuing along the Canal de la Robine to go swimming in the Med for the first time on this trip at Port la Nouvelle. Retracing our steps, we continued east, passing over the world’s oldest canal aqueduct and through the world’s oldest canal tunnel before arriving at the top of the Fonserannes seven lock staircase just too late for the last descent of the day. Our plan to be first in the queue next morning turned pear shaped when the Yamaha decided to be very awkward about starting. I was convinced the cdi unit was playing up and cursed myself for not carrying a spare. We seriously considered returning to the slipway and going home. Fortunately it picked up eventually and we continued east although we did arrange for a spare to be posted out to us, care of the helpful Crown Blue Line base at Port Cassafieres. Now on the stretch of the Midi that runs close to the Med, we had a great time swimming from the beaches, visiting Aqualand and watching the water jousting in Agde whilst waiting for the part to arrive. Sadly when it did it failed to cure the difficult starting on a morning which I then discovered was down to the electric choke sticking on, perhaps due to the heat.
Although we had had only one damp morning, it had so far been windy for quite a lot of the holiday. This was a concern because just the other side of Agde, we had to cross the Etang de Thau to reach the Canal du Rhone a Sete and our car and trailer at Beaucaire. The etang is a 12 mile long, 3 mile wide saltwater lake only separated from the Med by a thin strip of land. In calm weather it is fine, with wind it had claimed 5 hire boats the previous season according to a hire boater we had spoken to earlier. After one false start, we did make it across very early one morning after the eclusier at Agde correctly predicted the wind would drop briefly the next day. We set off in the dark at 5.45 am, passing the lighthouse at Pointe des Onglous and out on to the etang at 6.30 am with the Sun still just an orange glow beyond the horizon.
The water was still choppy but manageable and our nerves calmed a little as the sun came up above Mont St Claire just before Sete and the official end of the Midi. As we sighed with relief as we passed the marker and entered the Rhone a Sete I realised that we had just over 30 minutes to cruise the 3 miles to Frontignan if we were to catch the 9 am opening of the road bridge. If we missed it, we would have to wait until 5pm. Fortunately we didn’t but it was very amusing to see what happened when an Italian family failed to finish filling with water in time. As it dawned on them what was about to happen they set off, hose still attached and the horn blaring as the red light flashed and the bridge slowly came down. I was very surprised when the bridge keeper stopped a busy road for a second time to let them through, although I too had found the young woman’s athletic protestations quite appealing.
The next 40 miles of the Rhone a Sete passes alongside or across a series of smaller etangs, a few of which are populated by hundreds of pink (ish) Flamingos. The Med is never more than a mile away and there are several popular resorts with fine beaches. Our favourite is Carnon, a modern town grouped around a marina with bars, restaurants and amusements on all sides. The last chance to swim in the Med comes at le Grau du Roi where if it wasn’t for the need to swing a large bridge we could have continued a further 200 yards, passed the lighthouse and gone out to sea. After spending the afternoon on the beach we cruised a further 3 miles to moor beneath the walls of yet another medieval fortified town at Aigues Mortes.
The canal then turns inland and the last 30 miles runs along the edge of the Camargue, famous for its white horses and black bulls. We saw the bulls but sadly no horses, before arriving at Beaucaire. This is a very popular mooring for ex pats and the Capitainerie’s library reflects this. It also has very good showers and an internet connection included in the mooring fee. Once reunited with the car we travelled from here to go canoeing down the Gardon, passing under and swimming beneath the famous roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard – magic. We also visited the pont at Avignon and the beautiful little hill top village of Les Baux de Provence before putting Sarah back on her plane and setting off home ourselves.
Just a few more details, the total cost of diesel, ferry, road tolls and VNF licence was approximately £600, not bad for 4 weeks cruising in the South of France. We did have several overcast days, quite a lot of wind but the log mentions rain only 3 times, 2 of these overnight. The rest was blue sky and hot sun, tempered by that breeze. A far more pleasant type of heat than that experienced further inland in other parts of France. The contrast with the UK on our return was very striking.