The Canal du Midi

For the final leg of our trip to France, we putter gently down the murky brown waters of the Canal du Midi.  Built to create a continuous water way between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it was completed in 1681 and has flowed ever since.  We start our little sojourn at the port of Le Somail (having been raucously ripped off by the taxidrivers on the short trip from the train station at Narbonne) and after much too-ing and fro-ing, and a quick tutorial in barge driving we are off up thecanal.  Mike is the designated captain (thank goodness, since I manage to crash the boat at least four times before we travel 100m!).  Much of the canal is lined by ancient plane trees, which cast a dappled light across the waters and help stave off some of the steamy heat that we come across down in this part of the world.

 

Many of the original structures remain (albeit maintained and repaired), and we pass under small stone bridges that allow the traffic to travel over our heads, and over amazing constructions which allow the traffic to carry on beneath us.  As we go, we float past small, sleepy villages and eat fresh produce grown by the lock keepers (they seem to grow so much in France, I am inspired to get into my garden and get ready for spring).  It is a wine region and the surrounding landscape is awash with vines.  In the distance, wind turbines spin lazily and I am reminded how backwards Australia is in grasping the natural resources we have at our disposal to become more environmentally powered.

We pass through about 20 locks over the 7 days, and while the first one was hair-raising and the second interestingly enjoyable, they soon become a chore.  These locks are old though, and oval shaped (apparently unique) and fascinating from a science point of view.  The kids are enamoured with how we enter below the wall and float up to the top in a rush of white water and a lot of bumps (which has their mother screaming at them to get inside or put their life jackets on).  The locks are all manned by French lock keepers who keep to strict hours of lunch between 12.30 and 13.30 and closure at 19.30.  Getting to the locks soon becomes a game of race the lunch clock and each day sees us having lunch docked up under some trees, waiting for the lock to open, along with several other boats.  The moment the clock ticks over and the gates open with a creak, there is a mad rush to get ourselves sorted, ropes at the ready, one or other of us ready to leap crazily onto the small, wet, slippery ladder and haul ourselves to the top, to catch the ropes (which are often wet and on their third throw), to screech bonjour to the bemused lock keeper and to secure the boat.  We did get better as time went on.

Our days largely consist of puttering along, eating, lock-running and chilling out.  We did find a lake to go swimming in (you definitely don’t want to be swimming in the canal) and rode our bikes there, with the kids balanced precariously on the handle bars.  I found the lake extremely weird though.  With its stone beach and low blue sky and swimming platform, it had the colour palette of a 70’s Hitchcox movie and I felt unsettled by the dark water. Nonetheless, a quick look around assured me that I could probably swim faster than some of the other paddlers, so in we went and had a nice swim to wash away the grime of two days on the canal.

We had a delicious fish dinner in Trebes, a town I was largely unimpressed with having been ripped off several times, but one of my favourite memories will be eating on the banks of the canal, at a little picnic table, as night settled about us.  The highlight of course was the wonderful city of Carcassonne, the whole reason for the trip in the first place.  Apparently the Cite of Carcassonne (the old walled city) is the second most visited tourist attraction in greater France behind Euro Disney.  I don’t know if that is true but certainly it was tourist central and crowded with both tourists and tourist paraphernalia.   Nonetheless, it is an incredible sight and even though it is largely restored, rather than original, it is meticulously done, and the history drips from the walls.  As Mike remarked, even the restorations are a couple of hundred years old!  We stayed in the port of Carcassonne for two nights, using their showers and nabbing wi-fi from McDonalds late at night, sitting outside like cyber-squatters.  Mike and I have the most delicious cassoulet, the regional dish (and I realise the problem with the ones I make is that they contain too many veggies and not enough beans!  Of course this comes with its own issues.)

We spend the last night at the port of Bram, where the children construct a massive stone walled city and cathedral and castle out of stones they find.  And then its off to London for us and we have to wave goodbye to beautiful France.  We were lucky to see so much of it, but there is so much more to see and I will definitely be back one day.  I love the pace of life in France and the seeming simplicity of it all.  The food is exquisite and fresh and inspiring and delicious, as is the wine.  I can see why people move to France in their droves.    Our final view of this lovely
place is the view from the sky – we look down on the quilt-cover-like countryside with its neat, luscious fields of grapes, sunflowers and wheat laid out under a clear blue sky and we know we will be back.

The Dordogne, France – Road Trip

We’ve exchanged the sophistication of Paris for rustic, rural France.  We arrived into Bordeaux via the high speed train network and headed straight out again in our newly acquired campervan.  On the way to St Emilion, in the heart of acres of green, luscious vineyards, we stopped at, what seemed to me to be, the world’s biggest super-market.  I have never been in a grocery store so big.  It was massive and the choice on everything incredible.  Cheese counters that stretched forever, with at least 20 different types of goats cheese alone.  For a girl from the miserly world of Coles, it was a complete revelation.  But we didn’t come to France to admire the Carrefour, so eventually we were on our way again in our bus, to the constant refrain of keep right, keep right.

St Emilion is an absolutely stunning medieval town.  Meticulously restored and clearly aimed at the more sophisticated tourist, its narrow cobbled streets, terracotta tiled roofs and ancient weathered ramparts were a delight to explore.  It seems to sit in the heart of the vineyards, with a view across verdant countryside, where every possible space is given over to old vines.  There is no wasted space.  The vines themselves grow right up to the verge of the roads and to the numerous old chateaux which emerge from a sea of green like stone ships in every direction and around every corner.  We bought wine.  You have to.  I’ve always been rather disdainful of French wine, thinking our new world alternatives equal to the task, but the smoothness and delicacy of a French wine (white or red) is quite outstanding.  I am converted.

After a couple of days we head inland and make our way to the “Venice” of the Perigord.  We are now deep in the heart of the Dordogne and around us are fields of sunflowers, corn and in a contrast to the endless green, wheat – brown and dry. Brantome is a beautiful little town, surrounded by a moat of clear water and brooded over by an imposing monastery.  The moat itself was built by Benedictine monks in an effort to cut themselves off from the rest of France, a little island of piety and security in turbulent times.  Unfortunately we have chosen a Monday to visit here and very little is open.  However, we do manage to wander through the town, watch canoeists float gently alongside the dish of the day (duck, if only they knew it!) and find a café to have a drink in.   We camp alongside a river and meet “locals”, retired English people who have moved to France and tour about on a regular basis.  I also want to move to France.  Who wouldn’t?

On Tuesday we head back south, into Perigord Noir where there are castles on every hill top and caves and cavemen paintings abound.  This is an area geared up for the tourist and feels a bit more like Disneyland for grown ups.  It is beautiful none-the-less, everything is so green and luscious and each and every town is quaint and rebuilt in keeping with old traditions.  On route, we stop in a little town and eat at a very local restaurant – a highlight of the trip so far.  We have the Plat de Jour, which consists of goose to start, rabbit in wine, the fomaige plate and a to-die-for Pannacotta.  Mike was incredibly rapt by the food and the localness of it all.  An excellent experience, all the better for being unplanned and unexpected.

We head to Sarlat, which feels like it makes its money from American tourists.  Indeed, 45 films have been shot here, including Chocolat, but it is beautiful, once you head off the high street of mainstream stores and overpriced souvenirs.  The church is magnificent and the back alleys of cobbled streets and narrow doorways incredibly quaint.  This is the home of Foie Gras and I have never seen so many tins, bottles and pictures of over-fattened geese in one place.  You can have pottery geese, geese on tea towels, geese on table clothes, geese in a painting, goose for dinner, goose liver by the truck load.  We buy chocolate and nougat instead and head further south on our way to something less developed.

Although we were heading for Vezac, we end up instead at Castlenaud, at a wonderfully green campsite full of trees, alongside the river Dordogne. The castles of both Castlenaud and Beynac cast their shadows over us as we sleep, and glare at each other across the valley as they have done for hundreds of years.

From our campsite we are able to walk into the village for croissants and an explore, climbing winding rocky streets upwards, through the higgledy-piggledy village clinging to the side of a hill, in the shadow of the castle walls.  The houses sit one on top of another, with green vines across patios and neat, orderly vegetable gardens on whatever flat land exists.    The view across the valley is momentarily obscured by mist and rain, but when it clears we can see for miles down the valley, as the river snakes its way east.  The castle is an homage to warfare, with massive medieval-styled trebuchets and the later weapons, like the cannons, which signified its demise.  The history of France is as fascinating as that of England, and they are both so intertwined with each other.  I find myself thinking about the havoc religion has wrought on this part of the world, but also how the grand relics we come to visit – the castles, the cathedrals – are only there because of religion, which I suppose was merely the nationalism of its day.

Long weekend in Paris

We have been in Paris for four days and today we make our way south to the wine capital of Bordeaux.  Paris is absolutely gorgeous.  And the Parisians are wonderful.  People often say Parisians are rude and obnoxious, but we have only found them to be courteous, helpful and very relaxed.  Compared to Londeners, their consideration of fellow travellers on the Metro is first class, with people always getting up and offering seats to those in need (which apparently includes my two children).

We arrived on Wednesday, via the Eurostar from London, which was an immensely easy trip.  I must have fallen asleep while we were under the channel, because I missed it.  TMOTH (the man of the house) headed off to his bucks day and night (boys!) and the kids and grandparents and I traipsed around Paris.  In truth, the kids are too young for city site-seeing, but they have been troopers (literally) and have walked this city flat.  We had a lovely boat trip on the Seine, counting all the bridges we went under (Matt in Spanish – too much Diego), Arabella in Italian (from school) and me practicing my French.

We went to the Eiffel Tower, which is less impressive from a distance, and much more striking when you are standing right under it.  The queues for the lifts went on and on snaking under the vast iron underbelly of this amazing tower.  However, since we are unlikely to be here again in the near future, I decided to walk up the 760 steps to at least get up the tower.  Actually, I decided to walk up the first 300 steps to the first floor, but once there, I figured I may as well just go for it.  The kids had ice-lollies and a play on the vibrant green grass of the Parc du Champ de Mars with granny, granddad had a sleep on the very same, in the shadow of the tower and I walked and walked and stepped my way to a fabulous view of Paris.  The sun shone, the hours in the gym paid off and a blissful hour was had by all.

On Wednesday night I spent some time in the nightlife of the Champs Elysees, where everything was still open and doing a roaring trade at 2 in the morning.  On a Wednesday!  The Arc de Triomphe was lit up and it was beautiful. Romantic, historic, exciting.

Thursday was our day for serious site seeing and we started with a trip to Sacre Coure and Montematre for breakfast.  A beautiful stark church set against blue sky and a view of all of Paris greeted us at the top of yet another steep hill.  We meandered around the back to the artists square and ate a breakfast of croissants and oeffs (eggs) and watched the portrait trade set up for breakfast.  Afterwards, I got to spend the whole day on my own while Mike took the kids to a more appropriate kid site (an amazing science museum) and I visited the Louvre.  It is exactly as they say – you cannot see even a tenth of what they Louvre has to offer in a day.  And I would add it is best to come with a plan.  Braving the gazillions of tourists I decided (having done no research at all) to see the Mona Lisa.  I was mostly blown away by the building itself – truly awe-inspiring, with vast marble halls and ceilings that reach half way to heaven.  I traipsed up and down the cavernous halls in search of, what is supposed to be the worlds most perfect painting.  Past reams and reams of stark Italian renaissance art – with its religious themes and sexual undertones – following the crowd until I came to the Mona Lisa and a gaggle of tourists pressing forward for a photo (I annoyed a whole bunch of people by meandering my way to the front and literally standing and staring at the piece of art, rather than just taking a happy snap and moving on.)  I did however get the picture, as well.

By some sort of miraculous intervention, on my way out, I ran into my mom and dad and so together we took a bus back up to the Hotel de Ville, and Dad went home while Mum and I shopped for shoes.  We shopped for shoes together in Paris!  Awesome! That night, Mike and I had date night, at a gorgeous little restaurant around the corner where the ambience was understated and the food was sublime.  They can cook, these French people!

On Friday, yesterday, it was the day of the wedding, the whole reason for coming to France.  We began the morning with breakfast at a French café, eating croissants and drinking café au lait.  Then we took the train out into the suburbs (past the ugly parts of working france) to a little village called Villenes sur Seine.  Absolutely quaint and gorgeous and green with cobbled streets and old houses and only 20 minutes from Paris on the train.  Why wouldn’t you live there?  The wedding was lovely.  Very unique and special.  It was set in the green garden of a friend of Matt and Lisa’s, under the heavy boughs of an old fruit tree.  The tears were thick and heavy from everyone as emotions ran high, the wine was unbelievable, the cheese was exquisite, the company great.  All in all, a very successful event we feel blessed to have been a part of.

And so onto the Dordogne via high speed train!