Between the sky and the sea – the Canal de Rhone a Sete + Etang de Thau

 

 

Calliope joined the canal from le Petit Rhone at St-Gilles lock – a lock already mentioned in the last chapter, with the minuscule drop of 15cms –  with ropes fore and aft and lifejackets as required . . . . 

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Now we were truly away from the delights of rivers and back on a canal, albeit quite a wide one.

On the stretch we were cruising the PK (Kilometre Points) have been replaced by PR – Rhone Points. I’m not sure why, but they still measure kilometres and were useful markers of our progress.

 

 

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We quickly discovered that we were out on the Camargue – a beautiful wild area that we had visited before by car and on foot, but the boat trip was another experience.

The wide flat panoramic views were to both sides of the canal, broken by a few carefully planted trees, and a scattering of nature’s bushes, reeds, grasses and other Mediterranean plants. You are not encouraged to stop through the Camargue, any moorings being for much smaller boats than us or full of liveaboards – so I did not get any plant or insect close ups!

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Sluice points along the canal indicated a water management system to keep enough water in the canal for boats, and point the étangs and marshes for the wildlife.

We spotted our first purple heron (which isn’t spotted) (or purple), and plenty of cattle egrets, usually with some of the famous wild white Camargue horses.

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TheseI hadn’t realised, but the lesser egrets (see photo) that we have in the UK have bright luminous green feet, just visible on the stone in my rather blurry ‘please-slow-down’ photo.

Actually we were going slowly already as the speed limit in this canal is only 8kph, dropping to 4kph at crucial places.

Needing bread for lunch we looked for a mooring at Gallician; the only free space was reserved for a hotel barge, but with no hotel barge in sight along the kilometres of straight canal in either direction we decided to take a risk and tie up. I walked briskly into a small town that was preparing itself for the bull running festival at the weekend, managed to buy bread, and a delicious leek quiche and some local wine (that has to be drunk ‘immediately’ apparently), and walked briskly back.

I found Stewart waiting to go, having been harangued by the local Capitaine, worried that a hotel barge was imminent. We got underway immediately and indeed met said hotel barge about 15 minutes later heading our way.

aigue_mort_junction_We cruised through mile after mile of blue sky, blue water, and occasional flocks of birds and herds of horses. At the second Aigues-Mortes* junction the canal widened; as we approached we thought it was covered in white foam, but as we got closer we realised it was a huge flock of gulls who took off in relays around our bow. * Great name for a holiday destination, translates as Sickly-Death.

les_portes_du_vidourle_The Next landmark was les Portes du Vidourie – two massive gates that are lowered when the intersecting Vidourie river is in flood – another part of the intricate water system to manage the natural state of the Camargue.

cabanes_des_pecheursFishermen (and they do all seem to be men) still live on narrow strips of land and put out their nets each day – sometimes across the canal! Here at Cabanes du Roc is one of their settlements. am pleased to say that I can play the theme from Deliverance, but do not currently own a banjo . . . 

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The canal passes between nine differently named Étangs between Aigues-Mortes and Sète. Each is a huge salt water lake, at sea level, and only separated from the Mediterranean by narrow strips of land. They have inlet/outlet channels here and there – above is one for Étang de Mauguio.

_la_grande_motte_1980s_architecture__Quite a surprise on the skyline is la Grande-Motte, a ‘leaser’ town created in the 1980’s, with architecture to prove the point.

We began to see flamingoes, appearing and disappearing between the scrubby bushes which, with us moving as well, made it nigh on impossible to get a photo – but here are a couple.

le_lez_river_southwardsWe continued past Carnon, with its crossing of our larger canal and a small canal that goes inland to a marina and seaboard to a small port.

Further along was another crossing, this time with the river Lez. Smaller boats can go under the bridge and continue down to Palavas-les-Flots marina /port and the sea; Calliope knows her limitations.

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We moored up on the canal just after les Quatre Canaux crossing for the night with pleasant sea breezes to cool us a little before bed.

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Next morning another blue sky and blue waters. We moved on westwards between étangs.

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It is very much a fishing area; fisherman whizz by in small boats to tend their nets; fishermen on bridges and at the canal edge; evidence of their nets in the étangs, and old, possible still used, pontoons.

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We had the beautiful Étang de l’Arnel on our right, its waters mixing with those of the canal through all the breaks in the barrier. We felt suspended in the blue, between sky and sea.

The map showed an interesting area to our left – a flat island with a cathedral marked on it. Maguelone was founded here in Roman times, but the 5th century cathedral is all that now remains. The current town, now named Villeneuve-les-Maguelone, is several kilometres inland, whether to escape the marauding arabs of the 7th century, or the invading sea, I do not know.

There is a footbridge over the canal to allow tourists to visit the island, cathedral and beach. Opening the bridge to allow the passage of boats involves tooting ones horn and waiting for a man in an orange T-shirt. He opens this hinged, floating bridge by means of motorised propulsion on a centre section. I have never seen anything like it! But it works well.

More flamingos drifted in and out of view and I focused and refocused in attempts to get just one decent photo, but sadly not.

Next on the starboard bow was Étang des Moures, opening out into Étang de Vic  – another smooth expanse of shimmering blue water, sparsely spotted with the white dots of gulls and only broken by an old fishing pontoon or set of nets.

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Etang de Vic

frontignan__beforeThere are a number of commercial quays along the canal, but apart from hotel barges we had not see anything of the commercial aspect to the canal – perhaps because it was August, the customary holiday month in France. Then, just outside Frontignan, we met a fully loaded coal barge heading east. Good to see the canal still working as intended.

We noted two bridges in the centre of Frontignan. The first, from our direction, is a high, very busy, rail bridge. The second is a low road bridge – too low for all but the smallest of craft to go under. Twice a day the bridge is raised – just long enough for all boats waiting to go through; no longer.

We moored up to wait for 4pm, and then having walked to look  at the full moorings the other side we decided to stay put. At 4pm chaos descended as about 15 boats tried to come upstream at the same time as about 8 boats tried to go down. Wonderful to watch, including one boat who arrived to late. The red light was on; the bridge was descending. Reminded me off the line from Oranges and Lemons – “Chip chop, chip chop, the last man’s head”. Luckily the boat stopped, moored up and waited until 8.30 next morning, and kept its head.

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Twilight at first mooring, above lift bridge

Our first night at Frontignan was not exactly beautiful or peaceful, being on the industrial side of the bridge and very close to the rail bridge, but never mind. The photo, taken at dusk, includes one of the two boats used at the Frontignans’ ‘joutes’ We were not here to see one, so a photo from the web is shown here to explain……. It happens right by our mooring; we would have got wet!

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Frontignan Joute

Next morning, under anther blue sky, we made ready for our advance under the 8.30am bridge opening. Naughty upstream boats started to stream through first, but began to move aside as the mighty Calliope set forth.

Fortunately there was a good size mooring available for us within an hour and by 10am we were secure, and off to the view the town and the amazing Thursday market.

We made some purchases, including lunch for each of us from the paella stall, but not paella.

frontignan_stu_s_lunchFor Stu it was a warm salad of potato, chorizo, mushrooms, red peppers and a tasty dressing.

For me – well it was my turn for cephalopod, but not pie. I had cephalopod pockets, or encornet farcis to be precise. Not sure what I had eaten I looked up a recipe. It includes cutting the head and tentacles off a squid, turning the body inside out and back again, and stuffing it with chopped tentacles, fins, rice, shallots, peas and saffron. frontignan_encornetThat’s ok then. Good Med food. Ugh – really really is as bad as it looks  . . . 

We had a wander round the town in the cool of the evening, with the inevitable stop at a bar under a plane tree.

The old town is a real maze of narrow streets running almost in concentric circles. The church was built into the original ramparts of the town.

The area is famous for wine, especially Muscat, so there are a number of wine caves and old wine warehouses too. Overall a town with real character.

On our last day there we walked the two and a half kilometres down to ‘la plage’; we set off to catch the bus, but the timetable had changed the day before and we missed it! So a super warm hour later we stepped onto the sand and while Stewart made himself comfortable on some rocks in the breeze I did the inevitable and went for a swim in the azure Med – mmmmmmm.

frontignan_port__This was followed by a shady drink at the marina, before we did manage to catch the bus back. After a six minute journey we were back in town, ready for supper in the square, all extremely pleasant and with that pervasive sense of southern France.

After three nights in Frontignan it was time to carry on towards our final waterway this year, the Canal du Midi. To reach it we must cross the Étang de Thau, which is like being at sea, but with a thin isthmus separating you from the Mediterranean proper.

thau_1We had a final half hour of cruising down the canal de Rhone à Sète to bring us to the brink of Étang de Thau near Sète. Then, with wind speeds thoroughly checked to ensure safe passage we set out for the 14KM crossing.

Etang de Thau, Sete

Etang de Thau, Sete

We could see Sète across the water on our port side as Stu aimed out between two very widely spaced yellow marker poles, and on towards the red and green marked channel.

The Captain investigated the charts and seeing that we could take a short cut across the étang without running aground or filing any fishing nets or oyster beds he set course towards the far end.

It was a beautiful day; sunny and with enough breeze to keep us cool and send up a few splashes over the deck.  We did feel as if we were back at sea! Well, maybe a little bit of a sea that’s 20 feet deep in the middle . . . .

thau_nets_2The oyster beds are marked with rows and rows of poles over to the North of the lake near Mèze, Bouzigues and Marseilles. We looked at them from a good distance, their neat regular shapes standing out and upright from the blue waters.

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We made good progress , leaving Sète way behind as a small mound on the horizon.

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After an hour across the étang we could pick out the red topped light house marking the entrance to the Canal de Midi; other half hour took us there and we were off the inland sea, and back onto another new inland waterway – the last one this year . . . .