20. Carcassonne, canal port

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May 9th, 2011
20. Carcassonne, canal port

The Canal du Midi

Carcassonne was/is a market town but once was also an inland port – an important node on the grand Canal du Midi, which connects the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic coast. In the old days the canal was a major transportation shortcut (they could avoid going thru Gibraltar past the north African pirates and the long trip around hostile Spain). But today it is only open through spring and summer, for tour boats, converted longboats and pleasure craft. The last working barge carrying barrels of wine to the Atlantic from the south of France went through this canal in the 80’s -only 20 years ago.

The port of Carcassonne. Our wooden cruise boat 'Solal' in centre

But the canal, even though it couldn’t compete for speed with trains or the pantechnicons on the highways, has been kept alive and in good repair, like the town of Carcassonne itself. Thank goodness the French value their history enough to know that it’s worth keeping stuff from the old days. Who are we as people if we don’t know our history or how our grandfathers lived?

So on a beautiful warm, sunny Friday afternoon we stopped work after lunch and bought tickets for a trip on a converted wooden canal boat, the Solal (catalan or Oc language for Soleil – sun). It’s an hour and a half cruise up the canal in the direction of Toulouse, cruising north for a short 5 kms, and going through a lock just for fun.
We picked a seat at the back near the driver (helmsman?) because the boat has a high prow at the front which would block the view. Also on the back deck (the quarterdeck?) we could stand up to look about as we proceed sedately down the smooth, duck-populated canal.

A watery avenue through the town and under the bridges

Under a bridge or two with cars zooming overhead, and then we are soon outside the town. Mature plane trees line both banks just like a city boulevard, and sunlight sparkles through the canopy of fresh new leaves and bounces off the water. The banks are held in place by the huge tough roots of these trees, which underlie the towpath and grasp and preserve the banks, a living, organic reinforcement. Lush grass and wildflowers including a few wild yellow iris, decorate the edge of the canal. There is only the occasional piece of floating rubbish. Birdsong provides the soundtrack as we glide past romantic old houses and rich farmland. I could do this forever.  Sometimes we float past above the level of surrounding vineyards. Occasionally we meet another boat pootling along in the opposite direction: these are private boats with holiday people on their decks, looking completely relaxed as they languidly wave, glasses of white wine in hand.
The ducks we meet often come swimming strongly towards the boat as we pass – people must chuck bread in for them. They are mostly mallards with the glossy dark green head and neck, but we meet a white domestic duck (an escapee from the cassoulet pot?) who has a new brood of ten ducklings of all different colours, bobbing like leaves in her wake. What a tart.


Our young tour commentator gives out information in french, then english, then spanish. If there had been any german speakers on board she would probably have obliged us in german too. She shows us the overflow weir which lets excess water out if it rains heavily, and tells us how they clean the canal in winter – by closing the locks at the top of a stretch, letting the water all drain away, then getting in there with cleanup crews. She says the canal used to be 2.5 metres deep in the days of the heavy freight carriers, but now they let it stay silted up to 1.5 metres deep.
To fill up the canal, they channeled water from streams rising in the nearby Black Mountains into a holding dam, which via a system of water-gates, feeds the waterway to this day. At the highest point, the water flows in the other direction, joining up at Tolouse with the navigable section of the Garonne river and thence into the Atlantic. The stretch we are on flows in a southerly direction towards the Mediterranean. Amazing. In the 17th century it took 12 thousand workers 14 years to build the canal. Today every one of the locks is electrically operated and the lock doors are made of steel instead of wood, and open from the bottom up.

All the lock gates are steel and electrically operated these days

We go thru the lock ‘de LaDouce’, which fills up in about three minutes, floating us up about 3 meters onto the next stretch of canal. The LaDouce lock keeper is on duty, a young woman in jeans and her early twenties. The lock house is a plain square set building, with shutters and a good chimney – but she doesn’t live there, it’s a summer job only. Nice job if you’re not into clubbing every night.
Our little cruise was all about enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon and seeing the countryside from a peaceful, quiet and unusual point of view. Local inhabitants use the old towpath for cycling or running or walking their dogs, as it is nice and level, one can go for miles. They return our waves and smiles as we go by. Our helmsman then executes an expert manoevre and does a u-turn on the canal with barely a foot to spare on each side. Then we putter slowly back the way we came, back through the lock again, and returning along the liquid avenue into the 21st century.

———————————————————-
Saturday -  is market day in the central square – the weather having turned cold and overcast for once, we dashed out for some stall-baked croissants, farm cheese and fruit. Seasonal veg included asparagus (still), artichokes (too difficult to cook) and big tender fava beans, aka broad beans still in their foot-long pods at 0,50 cents/kilo.

A very French knocker - they play boules here a lot...

But then we stayed indoors at the Cube house most of the day, catching up with work via the Orange pay-as-you-go wireless connection. In the afternoon James was still busy so I went out for a walk, but only got as far as the covered market and was gusted off my feet – so ducked into the nearby library for shelter. 
Found and read the latest issue of the weekly comic ‘Pilote’ which I haven’t done since the seventies…. ! Just as funny now as it was in the Geneva days of my carefree youth. There were also 2 big bins (instead of shelves) full of adult & sci-fi/fantasy graphic novels of the most wondrous variety. All in pristine condition, all easy to browse through as arranged by author in waist-high flat bins, similar to those found at a market bookstall.

The library then closed, so I went exploring in the narrow streets and went ito the old cathedral. There I found a saint who was canonised because her dead body wouldn’t rot. Long story, but they dug her up for various reasons and each time she was still not decomposed – even though the graves next to her held skellies already. Hm…..

This set the spooky tone, and wandering further up the street in the gathering gloom, I chanced upon a section of the old-time city walls, enclosing a circular  bastion with an ancient gloomy and tiny chapel, on top of which was a grotesque scene from the Calvary, plus a few tomb slabs. Torture and death.

One of the thieves crucified next to Jesus.......

And, curiously, a couple of ugly Roman statues. Snapping quickly away, conscious of being quite alone under the darkening sky and with tall clipped hedges surrounding the spot (what could be lurking?), I continued round the circular path to the heavy iron gates – to find them locked and chained! Argh! Grasping the bars, I give them a shake to check they are really closed, eying the spikes at the top. Then right behind me, heavy footsteps!

‘Bonsoir madame’, said a deep voice, while I practically jumped out of my shoes. Skin crawling, take a deep breath, turn round, put on very confident and strong attitude … the apparition was wearing French labourers’ blue pants and top with some kind of logo on the pocket – the park keeper obviously -  I enquired if the park was closed. Yes, he said, but did I not want to stay with him a while? Gitane-breath.

Ha ha, merrily laughing, no thanks monsieur, I must get back home now. with a grin he silently indicated the side door, standing innocently open, which I had not noticed in my panic. I bolted as casually as possible and went straight home to the Cube, whew, a fertile imagination is not always a great thing.

 

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