Sunday, May 08, 2011

Medieval France - More canal de Garonne


[Kyle]Another 9am sharp turn of the lock control bar started our next day on the canal. We made excellent time until arriving at the town of Moissac when a low swing bridge blocked our passage. We sounded the horn as instructed to request the opening, but to no avail, it was lunchtime, and we’d have to wait. We tied to a ring in the wall of the canal and set about having our own lunch. Moissac seemed a very picturesque town, and the walls of the canal were at such a height that it was just possible that a mad jump from the boat could get me over the wall and onto its streets. Maryanne asked me to buy a baguette if I was going to leave the boat, and that was all the incentive I needed to jump that wall.

I had thirty minutes before the bridge tender came back, so I had to make it fast. Oh what a lovely little town it was, with stone bridges crossing the canal every block or so. I walked towards the prominent church steeple and just across the street found a perfect looking boulangarie where I purchased a grand baguette to eat with our lunch. I squeezed in a whirlwind tour of the small town and fell in love with it. Passing an outdoor bazaar, alongside the moored barges, I walked down to the bank of the Garonne and revealed in the pleasure of walking through a pretty French village with a fresh baguette tucked under my arm.

I got back to the boat jumped the gap (helped by Maryanne) and begged her to go out and see the town. It was just too far of a jump for her comfort though and she decided to give it a miss despite my protests. A few short minutes later the bridge tender showed up with apologies for taking her lunch, and let us through. We’d had some boats back up behind us during the wait and were expecting we’d need to share the next lock with them just outside of town, but they pulled off before we made it to the lock so we felt guiltily relieved to have it to ourselves.

These locks surprised us by not having the usual traffic lights and pole, but were controlled by a young lockkeeper who would operate the lock and then jump on his moped to ready the next lock for our arrival. He didn’t say much but was very nice, and at the last lock of the series Maryanne offered him chocolate in way of small thanks – he acted like she’d given him keys to a new moped.

As we stood in the locks waiting for the water level to rise, several passers by stopped to enjoy the spectacle. These ranged from little kids running towards us, pulling their parents behind and yelling ‘le bateau! le bateau!’ to many others watching silently using us as an excuse for a rest on a long walk. One family had an adorable little girl on a pink bicycle whom kept boldly running up to us out of curiosity and then, standing before us silent with shyness. They followed us for a couple of locks and eventually it was the father who raised the courage to talk with us; he spoke with Maryanne at the bow while I had a conversation at the stern with my 5-year old level French (Maryanne: he thinks he’s that good), with a woman passed retirement age. She asked the usual questions, where are you going? Where did you come from? Did you cross the Atlantic? Is it just the two of you? Where do you sleep? And as I gave every other answer or so she would respond with ‘très formidable’; I liked that. She asked where we lived, and when I told her we lived on the boat, she responded with another ‘très formidable’. She and her friends were completing an equally ambitious adventure – they were cycling the route between the two seas and staying at hotels along the way, living out of the tiny panniers they carried on their bicycles; and yet she called us très formidable, I liked that very much.

We made it to the top of the flight and passed over another long aqueduct, crossing the Tarn river (a Garonne tributary). At the next lock we arrived as the lock keeper was having a heated and animated argument with a drunk on a bicycle who wanted to use the lock door cat-walk to cross the canal (rather than walk the extra 20m to the bridge). There was lots of yelling back and forth and arm waving that from a distance could have let them be mistake them for Italians.

At some point in the afternoon as we were in a lock about the start the locking down process when we turned back to notice another boat trying to make it, and called to the lock keeper to wait for the 2nd boat. The second boat turned out to be more Brits (they seem to make up at least 80% of the canal users); but when Maryanne tried to chat with them she bristled at all their ‘friendly advice’ as they treated her like an idiot and answered every question with a quite irrelevant statement made to make them look fantastic. At the second lock we shared with them, the ‘gentleman’ requested us to speed up. Maryanne was confused at this. The speed limit is 8km and we were (kind-a) pushing it ourselves.. ‘The speed limit is 8, she told him, but he insisted we were only going 3 or 4 at most. We suspect our great superior sailors had confused km/h with knots (normal boat speed measurement), so rather than argue, we asked them to pass us once we exited the lock and enter the next lock without us. We were glad to be rid of them, and have the locks to ourselves again as it’s much less intimidating when you don’t have to worry about other boats in the lock with you.

Alone we then had a series of locks operated by another friendly kid (who also loved chocolate) who shuttled himself between locks on a bicycle. Finally we arrived at the last lock before Montech, just 5 minutes before closing and were ‘greeted’ by a dour faced woman with arms folded across her chest and sending a clear message that she had no intention of moving or helping in anyway. Apart from the motion to push the button on her remote, she didn’t move nor change expression for the full process of locking up. I guess we are seeing the full gamut of human nature – all part of the great flavour of travel!

More canal stuff! Includes Kyle hidden in the trees and the derelict chic of French buildings

Arriving at the little town of Montech we attempted to do something that should be fairly straight forward for us – to pull into a slip. It turned out to be way harder than we expected. There was a cross current and it was such that if I tried to land Maryanne on the tiny little finger pier, I’d be pushed sideways and she couldn’t reach. She attempted to reach for the rings at the end of the float with the boat hook, but they seemed to be sized and weighted in such away that the boat hook would not grab them. Eventually, after about 5 attempts, entering at an alarming angle, Maryanne was able to climb off the boat with a line, and we hoped to soon gain full control of the docking situation. However the float I landed her on was very narrow and as soon as her foot touched it, entered some sort of fairground ride harmonic of increasing oscillation that would surely result in pitching her over into the drink. Instinctively she dropped down on all fours to lower her center of gravity which didn’t reduce the oscillations but did make it much more entertaining for the crowd that by then had gathered. The main spectator was an older man who sat at the bench directly beside the dock, staring at us with the same blank look of the teenage lockkeeper the day before. Eventually Maryanne managed to make her way gingerly to the point where the pontoon attached to the concrete wall, here the motion calmed down slightly, and for the benefit of the dispassionate observers we proceeded to go through a Laurel and Hardy routine of tying lines the wrong way, tripping over them etc. We somehow managed to make even first time canal boat rental captains look like old salts by comparison. Once everything was finally safely in order, and not a moment before, the Port Captain arrived and demanded payment - now, and dragged Maryanne off to the office to complete the paperwork before they closed. Then she immediately shut the whole place down and once closed there would be no access to the shower, toilets, laundry or Internet. All we got for our fee was to entertain the locals! Luckily it was a very small fee.

We had been hoping to find wifi, but of course the port didn’t have any once we’d arrived, so we spent the next few hours wondering around town looking for a signal or any internet cafes, we asked at hotels, restaurants and coffee shops – nothing. Nobody was even able to send us anywhere else they knew had it.

The town of Montech was somewhat interesting, dominated by an enormous Cathedral, and surrounded by buildings with a distinctly French look (shuttered windows, patches of plaster fallen off, etc). On one pretty little side street we were surrounded by swifts nesting for the night using every available crevice between the bricks of a worn out building. It was getting dark, we were tired, so we called it a night on our wifi search and retired to our rickety dock and Footprint.

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