Canal du Midi

If you’ve seen Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, you’ll remember he travelled down the combined Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne in his much acclaimed TV series ‘A French Odyssey’.

He created some great looking dishes using a wealth of fresh local produce, prepared on-board various vessels as he cruised down the canal or stopped off to enjoy local food at any one of the nearby restaurants. Basking in what appeared to the idyllic south of France climate.

The canal just behind our aire

Our travelling hotel has brought us to Castelnaudary on the Canal du Midi. After the excesses of skiing we’ve now tightened our budget, so there’s less dining out and more dining in. I’m eating salad (which is unheard of) especially nice with goats cheese on toasted french bread. When we’re on hook up Lesley is still experimenting but making some great stuff in the Remoska. And although I’m biased the chef’s also much, much better looking than Mr Stein…..!

Running from the city of Toulouse down to the Mediterranean port of Sète, the Canal du Midi is considered an extraordinary 17th century feat of engineering and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1996.

The idea of building a waterway joining the Atlantic to the Med was voiced by the Romans, but it took one of Louis XIV’s tax inspectors to realise it.

Pierre-Paul Riquet, who designed and built the Canal du Midi, was a local farmer with intimate knowledge of the rivers of southwestern France, in particular the Montage Noire (Black Mountain) and its abundant springs.

Riquet ‘s main brainwave was to get over the lack of any major nearby river by creating a huge dam and artificial reservoir, the Bassin de St Ferréol and a two-way feeder canal.

Originally Riquet had not planned for the canal to go through Castelnaudary however the town’s councillors – showing more vision than those in Carcassonne – paying the sum of 30,000 ‘livres’ to have the canal flow beneath their town walls and have the basin built in, this caused Castelnaudary to develop substantially in the 18th century.

The Grand Bassin

The Grand Bassin is a large man-made lake and is reputed to be big as Carcassonne’s walled city. But the Bassin is exposed to every single wind that blows and the day we were there it was blowing an absolute hooley! The Cers and the Autan winds were/are a real hindrance to manoeuvring boats and before a breakwater was constructed, when it properly blew, real havoc could be caused so that men and horses would be frequently blown into the water.

On this exposed position this windmill whizzed round at 1 revolution per second

The building of the canal gave a significant boost to the flour mills transporting grain and flour and combined with the strength of the Cers or Autan winds, the 32 windmills were no doubt very productive.

Lesley revelling in the warm weather

A bit of a change from the low temperatures we had whilst skiing, we saw 16 degrees in the van today, but with wind-chill in Castelnaudary I doubt the temperate ever got above “IT”S BLUMIN FREEZIN”……… Quick let’s go find somewhere warm!

Toodle Pip

Hey Lesley’s just told me you can make even CAKES in the Remoska…

Triskaidekaphobia

As the saying goes travel broadens the mind, although you don’t have to go that far to realise how little you know of other cultures of the world – their languages and our shared history.

Here’s a case in point, we parked up last night in Olargues ‘one of the villages from the book‘ and decided to stretch our legs and explore. Walking up through the town’s inclined cobbled streets, we entered a really old stone staircase that went up though the heart of the town, where after 5 or 6 flights there was a glass window into a room displaying Knights Templar.

Knights Templar

Who were the Knights Templar then? After a bit of research, I discovered they were medieval crusading knights who lived like monks and fought in some of the deadliest battles in the Middle Ages.

The Order Of The Poor Knights Of The Temple Of Solomon (aka The Templars) were founded in Jerusalem in 1119 to protect pilgrims travelling around Christian sites of worship in the years after the armies of the first crusade had seized the holy land from Muslim rule. Over the next two centuries they developed into an elite paramilitary organisation with a side-line in banking and financial services!

Well there ya go, all we need is to get Lesley some chain mail….

I think an apology is overdue to all the photographers both professional and amateur reading this blog. Many of the images have been shot, not I’m afraid with a Hasselblad H4D-60 or a Canon EOS-1DX Mark II, but usually with our iphones. So sorry to all our friends ‘on the spectrum’ for some the quality. Yes, I know that’s not an excuse for poor composition, but in our defence,  I would argue some shots have only been included to help with the storytelling.

Anyway, If I were French I might respond to any criticism with a Gallic shrug and emit a nonchalant “Bouf”.

The village is clustered around the belltower,
which was formerly the main tower of the castle.

Dominating the town from the top of the hill behind, is the ruins and remains of an old fortified castle from the active days of the Knight Templars. It is the Castrum fort of Languedoc dating back to the 12th century. It was later destroyed by a king of France, when the church crushed the Templars into hiding.

In addition to the castle and château, once on top of the hill, you can see the infamous Pont du Diable – The “Devil’s Bridge” is said to date back to 1202 and is reputed to be the scene of transactions between the people of Olargues and the “devil”.

THE ORIGINS OF superstitions can be hard to pin down. There are often several theories about how they started, and a bunch of people ready to debunk those theories. Friday the 13th is one such example.

If you read Dan Brown‘s The Da Vinci Code, you might remember learning that members of the Knights Templar—a medieval society—were arrested on Friday the 13th. Brown’s book helped popularise the belief that these arrests are the reason people fear the date. But although some of the Knights Templar were arrested on Friday, October 13, 1307, that isn’t the origin of the superstition.

Montpellier

Getting to our target Mediterranean aire Palavas Les Flots, like its namesake it all ended up being a bit of a palaver.

Firstly, the motorways (which we’re avoiding) especially the A9 south of Montpellier. This is a completely mad 12 lane wide affair with the six middle (paying) dual three-lane carriageways, separated by a barrier from a triple (free) carriageway in either direction on the outside….

All very fantastic, however if you happen to go wrong (which of course we never do) and find yourself on the wrong bit, by the time you realise your mistake you have to carry on to Bournemouth before you can turn around.

The new A9 is actually amazing and cost € 800,000,000 to build and carries the through traffic to Spain which in summer peaks at 170,000 cars a day.

The new A9 12 lane motorway

When we finally make it to the location of the aire there’s nowt there except a dusty disused car park with a low barrier.

However we eventually find another spot by the sea at Le Grau-du-Roi and everyone’s happy. Well not quite (this is a recurring theme). It says on the very confusing parking meter up to 35€ for 16 hours! mmmmm that’s not good. If that’s the price we’re off!

Lesley eventually figures out with 2 free hours and only staying till 9am and as it was Monday and it is the low season so it’s only 9.50 €.

La Grande-Motte nearby was far too, far too much for us…. even out of season

And seeing all that water reminded us it was time to do our washing.

Yes, one of the joys of touring in a motorhome is you have to wash your smalls. As we’d be passing by a big city where a laverie or laundry should be easy to find. Lesley took Charlie to the centre of Montpellier, but not before a final wrestle with the outer lanes of the A9. That accomplished, negotiating the city was an easy task and our luck was in as we found a laundry with the aid of Google maps near the centre of town and a bonus – we were able to park Charlie very conveniently outside!

le laverie
Time to head west

Where next? Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is another spot counted among the Plus Beaux Villages (most beautiful villages) of France. Here in 806 Saint Guilhem established the monastery of Gellone. It is now home to numerous artists, many of whom may be found in their studios around the square that is dominated by a huge and ancient plane tree.

This town was on an important pilgrim route, through Arles, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert and Toulouse the path crosses the Pyrenees to join other routes to Santiago de Compostela.

One of the many colourful nooks and crannies in the village

As parking is limited, in the high season to cater for the visitors there’s a huge car park 9 kms away where a bus service operates to shuttle visitors along the road and up the gorge to the town. In February, with no bus service running we were able to park Charlie on his own in the small coach turning area directly at the foot of the village.

The aire at Aniane

After a long day we ended up in a free aire in quiet part of the small town of Aniane. There were no facilities just a designated patch of land, but we were very comfortable and had two other vans for company.

Toodle-oo

A head for heights

One of the minor considerations when driving a motorhome is how big it is and particularly how tall and wide it is… Therefore, as we slowly started to enter the gorges of the Ardèche, it was not very wise, (when your clever motorhome size specific SAT NAV says go this way), to repeatedly ignore it……, maybe it’s for a reason perhaps??? what about a narrow series of tunnels and overhangs with a 3.1M height limit. So a bit too close for comfort in a motorhome that’s 3M high!

it really wasn’t as high as it looks

So it was with much relief we arrived at the Aire in Ruoms near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, with that bit that keeps us dry, still largely in place. Although I still have nightmares about a giant sardine can opener!

Next day after servicing Charlie (emptying waste water & loo, refilling with fresh water) we took a short detour to the Pont-d’Arc, the region’s postcard landmark, a natural arch that spans the river Ardèche.

Luckily the tunnels were a bit bigger on today’s route

This place is simply beautiful and provokes all kinds of thoughts and questions about the history and geology of the gorge and the people who’ve lived here.

We’ve been to the region before with Josh when the three of us canoed down the Ardèche river and under the Pont-d’Arc. I remember it being super busy and very touristy so it was a real pleasure to go out of season and see the real beauty of the place and literally have it to ourselves.

Leaving the Ardèche behind we pointed Charlie south stopping for lunch at Uzès.

Typical tree lined french roads but why?

Tree-lined roads stretching into the distance are one of the best-loved features of the French landscape. The myth that Napoleon is credited with lining French roads with trees, to enable his soldiers to march in the shade is explained in this article.

Lesley and I are not quite in the rhythm of France yet, as we seem to be making a habit of arriving when things are closed. Today we missed the chance to go to the Happy Lab at the Haribo Candy Museum in Uzès.

Uzès is a Languedoc Rousillon town and one of those places you feel you could come back to spend more much time exploring the car free streets and soaking up the atmosphere of the old part of Uzès town, where the houses are built with an attractive pale limestone with matching creamy coloured smooth pavements.

Uzès, like many Medieval towns, was built in a circle around the Duke’s Castle, which you can go and visit and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Duke himself, whose family have resided at the castle for the most part of the last 1,000 years!

The main square had these ver nice arcades around the edge
Parking for once was easy – “Lesley is that van following us”?

Unsure if the French Passion aire nearby was open on a Sunday we ‘headed for the med’ and Montpellier – Can you see the sea yet?

Toodle Pip D&L

A Change of Scene

The plant where Charlie was manufactured is in Tournon-sur-Rhône in the Ardèche, where they produce nearly 6,600 motorhomes and 4,000 caravans each year.

Whilst we we’re in Tournon we hoping to get a tour of factory, but unfortunately the visitor programme is currently suspended. It would have been nice to have seen where Charlie was born especially as the Chausson 640 has  recently been awarded the best layout of the as part of the European Innovation award at the Stuttgart Motorhome show.

The Vineyards overlooking Toulon sur Rhone

Plan ‘B’ was a visit to the Valrhona city of chocolate but parking Charlie anywhere nearby proved so difficult we ended up in the vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage AOC which the cognoscenti amongst you will know produces very fine Cotes du Rhone. So Lesley how exactly did that happen?

Our next stop was a very typically French town of Crest. According to the tourist information, the castle in the Drôme Valley has the highest medieval castle keep in France.

The aire for the night was perfectly positioned just over the bridge below the centre of town. So we were able to cross the bridge and get our morning pain au raisin. We were also lucky enough to be there on market day and didn’t miss the opportunity to stock up on some great local produce.

Setting off the next day, we couldn’t find anyone to pay the 5 euro per night fee to, so although there were no facilities (water or electric) you couldn’t beat the convenience of the location and all for free!

As pert of our Christmas presents we had been given some great guide books including ‘The official Guide to the most Beautiful villages in France’.

We both like rural France, the simple pleasure of French bread and cheese (and wine), we love the markets, the traditions and culture. There is a frustration especially for me of not being able to speak the language in such a way that I might be able to have a meaningful conversation (no not necessarily about Brexit or the gilet jaune opinion of Macron) but something more than just ‘Je voudrais une bagette s’il vous plait.

We have been away only for a few weeks but we’re already we are starting to consider the why’s and the wherefores’ of what we’re up to. I know we just want to rush around, ticking off places we’re been, pressing on to the next castle or church, snapping the views, covering the ground just to be able to say….. “we’ve been there”. I think for me, yes I am looking to visit nice places, but it’s more about getting under the skin of the country.

“No one ever asks me my opinion?

Anyway the guide is easy to follow and has just a few selected towns in each (some areas are better served with more locations) of the four corners for the country. Today’s target was Mirmande a medieval hilltop (there’s often a hill) with great views of the Rhone valley from the top.

In the height of the summer season I can imagine it can get pretty busy as there were quite a few cafes and artist galleries. We particularly liked this old railway sleeper filled with glass for 4,700€ by Bernard Froment (just in case anyone is looking for xmas present ideas)

That’s all for now folks

Toodle Pip D&L

I’m sorry I haven’t a clue

So today we’re heading back to the Ford garage in Cluses to finally get the brakes fixed. But first just a short recap. On our first day in France whilst cruising down the A26 near Arras we had a worrying brake system failure message appears on the dash….although the brakes appeared to work ok.

Note the handbrake light, ABS and the hill start assist light

After visiting a Ford garage in Dijon, another in Bourg en Bresse and because it was on our way to Les Gets, the Ford service centre in Cluses, where they diagnosed the problem to be a faulty brake sensor. So arranged for them to order the sensor and for us to come back in 10 days, the day after we left Les Gets.

Which we did…. But after 3 hours the service manager returned and said “Ah oui Monsieur”, “t’was not the brake sensor after all”, “but, we now confident it’s definitely the ABS unit”! Unfortunately we need to order this part from Ford Germany, so can you please come back in 10 days’ time.

Ok, so we changed our plans went to Montgenerve and Vaujaany (to make use of the 10 days) and went back to Cluses.

Now Lesley and I are both fans of the BBC Radio 4 comedy panel show. Where, a dazzling array of comedians and performers are set hilarious, embarrassing, and – frankly – bizarre challenges by the chairman, Jack Dee.

So we try and see the funny side of it when we returned to Ford Cluses and after waiting 2 hours for them to say, I’m sorry it was not the ABS and it’s not a problem with the Ford side of the motorhome so it must be a Chausson problem! in other words et je ne sais pas… or  I haven’t a bloody clue!

My French being what it is – not good, he might well have said, I think it was Colonel Moutarde, in the study, with the lead piping!!

In times of stress there’s always a compensation, yes you’ve guessed, its CAKE.

Me thinks it’s time for a change of scene so with the light fading and rain now starting to fall we decide to head far-away from Cluses and the clueless and set a course SW towards Valence.

The up and downs

The villagers of Vaujany thought their lot was hill farming on the side of a steep remote mountainside, with the only one road in and out and prone to regular avalanches. But in the 1980’s they struck unexpected gold when the French government compulsorily purchased a giant chunk of land for France’s largest hydro-electric scheme.

The bypass tunnels just prior to the village

The astute villagers invested the money in what was then the largest cable-car in the country, to reach the slopes above the neighbouring Alpe d’Huez ski resort.

As well as being famous as a stage finish in the Tour de France Alpe d’Huez is also a sought after ski area that includes 250km’s of pistes. The top station offers great views of the Alps including Mont Blanc and apparently on a clear day a fifth of France can be seen from this point, so linking to ‘Le Huez’ was a fantastic opportunity.

Now all that’s great if you want to go skiing but what about going for a pint of milk a baguette or a ‘bit-a-cheese’ grommet?

The canny locals came up with a solution while constructing the cable car infrastructure, “lets put in escalators and lifts everywhere’. So visitors and villagers alike whether carrying skis or the groceries can now go up and down the steep inclines via a series of lifts and escalators, without the need for donkeys or oxygen!

Motorhomers are also spoilt in Vaujany, as the aire is right  beneath the cable car and gondola it’s also next to a swimming pool /spa complex, an ice rink (with it’s own restaurant) and a bowling alley, all just a hundred yards walk away…

The wagons have been circled for protection from the Indians
Charlie centre stage

The convenience of having the swimming pool with its Haman and sauna so close to the aire is great. However, the downside is before you can use these facilities, men have to do some smuggling! My UK swimming shorts are, apparently too loose fitting. The French, don’t ask me WHY? Insist on the tight-fitting speedo style trunks. So 22 €’s later and my favourite pets and I were allowed in.

Dave’s budgie smugglers