Monday, May 09, 2011

Exit the Canal de Garonne, enter the Canal Du Midi

[Kyle]We started our day knowing we’d have to find a way to leave that rickety dock, but before that Maryanne wondered off into town to find a boulangerie and buy bread for the day (oh, and a Chocolate croissant thing for me!). We’d hoped the marina office would open before we left (no hours were published) and we’d be able to use the Internet, but no luck. The shutters were still fully down and lights out when we left around 8:30am.

At our first lock, some way from the town, we encountered our first boats heading in the opposite direction, one British, the next French.

The canal then took us towards Toulouse, and as we approached its NW outskirts. We were not impressed; the pretty French countryside gradually became more and more industrial and more and more run down. There were warehouses, factories, train stations and urban decay everywhere. The route the canal takes was not intended to highlight the city. We must remember that the canals were primarily built for commerce, not tourism, and it is only relatively recently that the ‘waterfronts’ of the world are being turned into tourist attractions, and family friendly destinations.

Entrance to Toulouse; we couldn't work out if this was a fancy fishing shack or a Homeless camp

Finally we made it to the center of Toulouse, the canal de Garonne ends, and an abrupt left turn took us into the canal de Midi. The canal de Midi is a much older canal (built in the 1600’s), and we had been warned in our guidebook that the locks had not been automated and we’d have to operate them manually, winding up the sluice gates to stop/start the water flow and winding open and closed the gates as required. It’s considered so special a canal it is actually a UNESCO world heritage site for its full length.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but the gates were open and a green light at the entrance to the first lock was showing and we proceeded in. There was no sign of a lock keeper, so as a default we did what had become our habit and one of us climbed up the ladder with a line while the other stayed on the boat and tossed the other line up. We stood their for a second wondering what we needed to do next, when a guy in a VNF shirt came out of a hut and asked if we were planning to enter the canal; seemed moot at that point! We politely said we were, and could we please purchase a pass (we’d been trying since Castets), but were again told no, not here, and were handed an cartoon information pamphlet on how to operate the newly automated locks in the coming stretch. The VNF employee then escaped back into his ‘hut’ and ignored us for the rest of the locking process.

Some big locks

The first part of the Canal du Midi passes right through the center of Toulouse, and all of the locks have been ‘upgraded’ from their 17th century originals, to more modern, larger locks. I’m sure Toulouse has many beautiful and historic districts but by this point we’d not seen any. The canal went through a slightly run down part of town, lots of traffic, smog and litter. At one point we picked up a garbage bag that had completely wrapped around the propeller, it was not nice cruising. The next lock was enormous, having been converted from 3 of the original smaller locks into a modern one. With our new instructions to hand, indicating we’d have to land someone to press a button to open the doors, we were surprised to find the doors opening as we approached. This time because of the position of the ladder it was Maryanne’s turn to go up with the first line while I stayed on the boat and attached my line to a bar recessed into the lock wall for the purpose. The climb was quite high, and the ladder had spent most of its time submerged in pretty miserable water so the climb was not pleasant, easy, or safe, but Maryanne made it. She then went in search of the control panel (per the instructions) to start off the locking process, she could find nothing, and found it very confusing. After some time, the locking process began without her intervention, we can only assume that the cameras looking down on us were being monitored by a control center, and we soon wondered why we’d been given the instruction sheet at all.

Each lock as we passed through the center was entirely different in setup. The ladders, rails, and bollards were all in different locations from the previous lock, so we were never able to feel comfortable that we knew what to expect. As we found ourselves in the more pleasant true city center, one lock had floating bollards on one end, and I happily used it for both fore and aft lines to the boat. Unfortunately it was too far back, and nothing else was placed at a convenient point forwards. Maryanne luckily noticed this problem as the water rose, and just in time to stop our mast being caught on the lock door gangway I managed to maneuver the boat forward out of harms way. Close call! We were not enjoying these locks at all.

Apart from the locks, the rest of the canal through the city center was an obstacle course of obstructions. We lost a fender passing through a narrow tunnel (we were too close to the side, and it was ripped off). There were bridges, logs and litter everywhere, we were concerned for our rudders, prop and engine intake. It just wasn’t fun at all.

Footprint floats up in front of Toulouse Railway Station

As I’ve already said, I’m sure Toulouse has some wonderful parts of the city, but we weren’t there and we found no appeal to what we saw from the canal, so we just kept going. As we started to exit Toulouse however we saw a much nicer side to the city: park lands, manicured gardens, University buildings, etc. - so much nicer than the SW corner of the city. Lots of converted working barges (Peniches) now line the canal as homes. Some are beautiful, some practically derelict. Often the presence of the barges narrows the canal significantly and we have to get quite close to pass. One scared us, having two very frightening, fierce looking, barking, growling rottweilers, clearly not liking us so close. They looked very much like they were looking for a way to jump on our boat and dig their teeth into us. We were very glad to be passed that barge, but most just added to the charm of this stretch of canal.

We moored for the night at Port-Sud (only 12km/8miles from Toulouse center) where we expected to refuel the boat and hoped to get Internet at last. The fuel pump turned out to be broken, as well as the water and power connection at that dock. The Port captain said if we didn’t need any water or power we were fine to spend the night at the fuel dock (fine with us as it was an easy dock and close to the facilities).

At last, some of the nicer parts of the Canal du Midi

Maryanne asked about wifi (pronounced weefee) and was told they had Internet (yay!) but we had to plug in our computers at the office and could only use it while the office was open (it would close in 1 hour). This caused a mad dash to do my June schedule bid, book flights, trains and other Internet essentials, but still not enough time to post blogs and catch up with emails. After 10 minute of use however, the captain decided he’d go home early and rather than say anything just turned off the internet while we were frantically trying to catch up – I was right in the middle of booking my train ticket! We decided we’d have to leave late next day, to wait until the office opened at 9am when we could plug into the Internet again to finish off these critical tasks. This hurt our progress but we felt much better after abusing their shower faculties to remove several days of sweat and dirt.

No comments: