Our grande finale on Canal de Garonne

Text in italics is from Captain Stu – I take no responsibility!

Agen viaduct fireman

After a great weekend in Agen we left on a grey day, heading for the viaduct. At the bridge we saw two spots of red – one each side. On the right was the expected red lock light; on the left was the red of a fire engine, and on closer inspection two fireman in the canal with diving equipment!

Agen viaduct 2A quick interrogation using my simple French ascertained that we could proceed, it was a training exercise , and they had not lost a body in the water. Phew! So over the point-canal sur Garonne. I note with interest that the front garden is starting to take hold . . . 

As we passed over the aqueduct we could look back at Agen and down on the river; shame it was rather a grey day.

Agen, leaving, end of flight

Looking back at Agen from the last of the lock chain

There is a pleasing chain of four locks downwards after the pont-canal (to give it its official name), with wide basins between each pair of locks, surrounded by green.

Leaving Agen flight

Under bridge; turn to starboard!

Coming out of the last lock, and under a stone bridge, the Captain was prepared for the sudden sharp right-angle right-handed turn into quite a narrow densely wooded area of canal; pretty, full of birds – and not great if you need to pass anyone! Luckily we didn’t.

Serignac mooring

The popular Serignac mooring

We arrived at Serignac to find it full of boats as long as ours, a surprise! There was one space – but was it long enough? The four captains of the four boats already moored appeared and started pacing the length. They decided it was long enough and, in a mixture of Dutch and English, began waving us in, taking ropes, pulling and pushing – but like Cinderella’s glass slipper on an ugly sister’s foot, Calliope was not going to fit. Twenty paces of short legs does not twenty metres make . . . 

Then, as is the way with batteliers, one Captain suddenly realised that his boat was 2m smaller than ours and would fit in the space, leaving us his mooring at the end of the row. His generosity led to our safe mooring – and a thank you beer next day. A friend for life; Capitain Boogie, merci.

Serignac close mooring

And then …… one more barge arrived! Our English friends on Jazz were also hoping to moor at Serignac, and were willing to squeeze into a space behind us against the bank – some close parking was required! (and accomplished with finesse).

Serignac is a tiny place – and full of character! It is a Bastide village, or fortified town. There are quite a few along the canal and across the south of France, built in the Middle Ages. Many are linked to the Hundred Years’ War, and have been alternately in French and English hands.

Serignac morningMorning dawned bright and quiet with such a mirrored surface on the canal that even the fisherman’s rod is reflected – look carefully. The silos may not be so beautiful, but their simple shapes act as a foil to nature, in my opinion.

Serignac party

There was much to thank our Dutch friends for after their help in mooring, plus it is fun to occasionally socialise with other captains and crew. So we set to in building relationships with our EU friends, Dutch and English. Much jollity and entente cordiale ensued.

SArignacAs so often happens, sundown is a time when ordinary things take on a new shape, beauty and character. At Serignac it was the seats, boulders and waste-bins on the opposite shore that caught my eye.

After a couple of days we set off from Serignac – the first time with our front window down so early in the day and for cruising. Yum yum, South of France! We headed West once more, with the early sun silvering our wake behind us.

A couple of beetles thought that they would join us on our journey – am I alone on finding them endlessly fascinating?

Buzet, Passing lock down to Baize

The lock leading down to la Baize at Buzet

Calliope had a relatively short day ahead, passing by the rather hectic port of Buzet-sur-Baize – are all those boats waiting to go down on the river? – and on to another Bastide, Damazan.

Just before Buzet the canal crosses la Baize on another of the beautiful little aqueducts we have been passing over on our journey.

Lock 39 Baize

 

Most of the locks along the canal are automatic so we see few of the absolutely necessary VNF staff, but now and then one appears. At écluse 39, Baize, we found a guy opening, or maybe closing, a sluice to help manage the water levels through the canal.

Alongside another bridge for another mooring in the sun; let’s put up the awning; I cooled the scalding hot metal decks with buckets of water before relaxing.

Damazan 38 degreesWe walked up to the village, and I mean UP, up those steps in the photo and some more.

It was a really warm day, as evidenced by the Pharmacist’s sign.

Like Serignac, Damazan is small, but with plenty of beauty remaining from its medieval past. The shady bar in the central square was an excellent place to start cooling down ….

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… then back to the boat to tip cold water on my head to complete the cool down!

 

 

 

 

 

Damazan frog

 

 

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the water either.

 

 

 

 

Danazan mooringWe left our lovely mooring below Damazan after only one night because we sought some shade after a high of 38 degrees the day before, but recommend it as a place to go, with its set of small shops and restaurant, friendly people, and massive history.

Mas-d'Agen mooring

Le Mas-d’Agenais had received good reports from other boaters, and we half expected it to be full,  but the little port only had one other boat, belonging to German friends of ours.  They helped us moor up (still in the sun!) at yet another well kept, floral lined quay.

Lesley-the-lavoir-lover was pleased to find two lavoirs at Le Mas-d’Agenais. The older one is a beautiful old timbered building half way down the hill from the town. The other, newer, one was in the bank-side garden to our mooring.

IMG_4393.jpgThe canal runs next to la Garonne here and a beautiful bridge crosses them both. Walking half way across gives tremendous views up and down the river – a wide and mighty sight.
Mas-d'Agenais 'beach'It was a hot day; we walked down to the river and found a little ‘beach’ used by locals when the current is not too strong, but I was warned against more that a paddle on that particular day. So cool tootsies only.

We went up the very definite hill into the village where, like so many of the villages in this area, there are magical old buildings and an usual church. Firstly it has a stubby tower, following the collapse of the steeple, and secondly it has a genuine Rembrandt hanging inside – the crucifixion with Rembrandt using a self portrait of his own face for Christ’s agony. Apparently the last of a set of seven, the first six of which are in Munich.

Mas-d'Agenais by gateWe had hoped for a beer in shade of the market place, but despite the bar being open and customers in the square there was no-one serving. After ten minutes of waiting we decided that there was cold beer on the barge and retreated back down the hill, through the old gateway, remarking on the HUGE axe leaning up against the wall outside!

Yes, we were moored in the sun again, but we put up the parasol, opened the beer, and stayed because it was both quiet, and quite pretty, with beds of lavender and contented insects all around – including (we’ve been told the Humming Bird moth above) 

We had a lazy second day at Le-Mas-d’Agenais, apart from a walk up hill to the shops, and a good washing of Calliope’s roof. In the evening we walked back up the hill for a beer, meal and free concert, but the bar/restaurant was closed again!

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A gentle stroll back down a different road resulted in us finding the pizza cabin by the lock, and enjoying one of the best pizzas we have ever had! Don’t be fooled by the café style exterior – the pizzas are superb.

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Sunset over la Garonne

The end to a perfect day was a stroll half way across the bridge to watch the sun go down through the clouds.

Leaving Le Mas-d'Agenais

So next morning we bade Le-Mas-d’Agenais ‘au revoir’. We sailed under the grand bridge I stood on the night before  leaving the port behind us.

 

 

 

 

dragonfly on geranium

dragonfly on geranium

We had a couple of ideas for the night’s mooring, but nothing definite, so enjoyed the wander through the French countryside, past potential port and wild moorings, looking for our spot. We were joined along the way by a dragonfly seeking a rest amongst the geraniums.

The area around écluse 45 l’Avance was interesting, firstly with a widening of the canal just after another little pont-de-canal (this time over the Riv. l’Avance), and then, within the lock, the first wrought iron ladder I have ever seen.

Meilhan approachWe continued to look for a suitable mooring and eventually found ourselves approaching Meilhan-sur-Garonne – another town perched on a hill that towered above us.

Meilhan-sur-Garonne  coming into

coming into Meilhan-sur-Garonne

Captain Stu noticed some green buoys in the water and a sign to steer to starboard of them, so obeyed the instructions.

We later discovered that a huge boulder had recently tumbles down the hill into the canal, making it non-navigable on one side. Although the boulder has subsequently been removed there still fears of further landslip and one side of the canal, plus the road alongside, remains officially ‘barrée’.

IMG_4575At the little port we saw just the pontoon length to suit Calliope, bow to bow with a beautiful 1903 tjalk. We moored up, checked with Captitain Mike that we were ok, and settled in for the rest of the day.

(For the observant amongst my readers, this photo was taken a few days later when we were moored bow to stern!)

Stu walked up ……

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…. yes, UP, 119 steps and added slopes …..

to the town for a look round and to buy bread whilst crew caught up on sleep.

He discovered fantastic views from a terrace at the top, over the canal and la Garonne together.

Later another walk for the two of us disclosed a picturesque town, full of hosiery (I meant history! Glorious typo) linked to the 100 Years War with England – and it seems the locals hadn’t forgotten. There had been a huge castle, now disappeared.

Of course the petrol pumps are somewhat more recent, but are old enough to have been selling litres of petrol for prices in francs.

We made good friends of several other British couple who live on boats and in houses nearby, enjoyong good company, wine and beer with them under the plane trees.

I returned to the terrace, all 119 steps, both in the evening and on a misty morning of see how the view changed. The little lights in the centre of the night-time photo are at the port far below where Calliope waited.

Next day we took the final step of our cruise to the end of Canal de Garonne. we passed by clumps of arum lilies growing wild on the banks – startlingly white amongst all the green.

We passed some different canalised activities, from ‘market garden’ style agriculture to gravel pits.

Later we discovered that a lot of the fields were growing tobacco; the local town of Tonneins is called ‘the capital of the Gauloise’. Stewart had been fascinated by the tall wooden barns we were passing; we are fairly sure that they are the old barns for drying and storing tobacco leaves. Confirmed by the DBA Forum the following day.

We passed more examples of the differing canal styles, with the PK (kilometre) marker here being of stone and the lock overflow emerging under the front of the lock in a continuous torrent.

Ecluse 50 cafe

We passed a funky little café next to one écluse …..

Heron near lock 50

Heron near lock 50

…. and a brave young heron near another.

The paucity of water birds down here has been very noticeable. We are surprised when we see a moorhen family or a swan, or even a pair of ducks, as there are so few on the canal. Probably all been eaten . . . . 

Fontet portWe passed the port at Fontet, set in an old gravel pit I think; obviously a popular spot and seemed to be in a lovely setting.

Dovecote near lock 49

Dovecote near lock 49

We passed, and admired, many dovecotes of all shapes and sizes for which the area is famous.

Fontet, past, weed

The stretch from Fontet to the Castets-en-Dorthe was remarkable for the amount of weed growing in the canal – everything was so green, it was hard to tell what was the reflection of a tree and what was weed.

Birds walked across the dense surface quite comfortably, but my photos were too blurred to show you. In the photo the tree line top is reflected on the left and the darker underside of the trees in the middle; the more in-focus foliage to the right of that all the way to the bank is under-water weed, running the whole length and width of the basin.

Castets approacingThe final bief up to the lock into Castets-en-Dorthe is lined with a boats of all shapes, sizes and colours, giving plenty to see as we cruised towards our final écluse of the day.

And what an écluse! We have been lulled into expecting locks of 1-2m depth. This one is over 3m, and whilst much shallower than ones we encountered on the Rhone and other canals, it felt interestingly deep.

We had booked a mooring at the port of Castets; my understanding of the phone call in French was that the Capitaine would not be there, but we could choose between the mooring on the bank and the mooring on the plastic ….. so not absolutely sure what we were looking for!

The very first mooring was on the bank and was free and was long enough for Calliope, but was it the waiting pontoon for the lock???? Luckily a young man appeared on the next barge up and understood enough of my française to reassure us that we could moor there, and even came to catch our ropes. Merci.

The sky was particularly grey as I executed a masterful express walk up to the little town for bread … and back, empty handed. Everything was shut. However we made a good lunch with provisions that were aboard.

Then, despite the rain, we went for an exploratory walk. To be fair, we did not cruise right to the end of the canal – we walked the last half kilometre to where the canal de Garonne entered the river Garonne. The bridge over the river is known as the Gustav Eiffel bridge, so we presume he designed and/or built it.

Castets-en-Dorthe eclusiers house 52/53

Castets-en-Dorthe eclusiers house – locks 52/53

Next to the écluse into the river is an unusual lock house. It has stairs leading round the sides from a higher level and into the second floor, so that the occupants could get in when the Garonne was in flood.

Castets flood scale

Bear in mind that the river was a good 3m below the road, and add on the depth up to the second floor, and you can see that the river can flood mightily! In fact a gauge on the front of the house marked the height of various floods back through two centuries. Absolutely humbling.

Castets debris collecting boatWorking away on the river below us was a small boat collecting debris, from whole tree trunks to small boughs and dead animals, keeping the river clear. It seemed to be a nice gentle job, but I guess it has its moments.

The town is another of those perched on a cliff, way above the possible flooding and soldiers. The Chateau de Hamel takes pride of place overlooking the river.

We climbed the road past the chateau into town and out onto the public terrace. Both of us stood in awe of the view, despite the dull weather. (Think there must have been a break in the clouds for the photo of me!)

Castets wallWe descended the steep road from the town, looking back up at the old defences.

Castets mooringsAs we returned along the canal bank to our barge – last in the row – I took a photo along the port and its many ‘live-aboard’ and all year mooring boats; another fascinating collection. Calliope is the little blurred shape at the far end of the row.

Castets mooring

For our one night at Castets Stu settled on the back deck in slightly better weather for an evening beer, whilst I messed about with photos!

Castets storm sunset

The rain came and went and came again, resulting in beautiful skies as the sun went down, but alas no rainbows.

Castets turning to leave

Castets – Stu turning to go East

Finally, next morning, we did something we have not done for a long long time – a U turn, or in fact something of a 33 point turn. Stu put me ashore to catch ropes in the 3m lock, leaving him to navigate both the turn and the pole to operate the lock. He managed both superbly. Well, you know, OK, no problem.

Castets, entering lock

Goodbye Castets; Calliope enters the lock heading East

Calliope moved majestically into the lock, ready for our return trip.

Farewell the westward end of Canal de Garonne; we have enjoyed the trip.

And now, for the first time in two years, we are retracing our steps and half know what to expect around the next bend. There will be a comfort in that, an easiness that we haven’t felt since the Thames and I’m looking forward now to a slow, comfortable summer on one of the most beautiful canals I’ve seen.

Next year will see us re-embracing adventure back up The Rhone and into Belgium, Holland and Germany, but for now excuse me while I retire to the back deck . . . .  

Oh, and here’s another Biblical Thunderstorm . . . .