A Travellerspoint blog

France

Carmen - Queen of the Canal-du-Midi

sunny 27 °C

The weather gods must be blog readers … No sooner had we mentioned that we were being climatically prepared for our return home than the wind dropped, the clouds parted, and the temperature shot up to 27 degrees. We are now approaching the city of Toulouse, where both the Canal-du-Midi and our cruise will end. Carmen, with David at the wheel, will carry on to Bordeaux .
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Carmen was originally built in 1925 as a working barge and over the past few years has been lovingly converted by David into a luxury cruiser. She is three or four times the size of the ubiquitous hire boats; has cabins more spacious and far more lavish than many hotel rooms; has air conditioning and absolutely all home comforts. She is undoubtedly the Queen of this canal. Camera wielding gawkers appear at every lock and bridge to wave us on our way and we bask in the glow of Carman’s notoriety, and feel like minor royals, as we glide regally past while nobly acknowledging the onlookers. Crewing this magnificent vessel has been a sheer delight and we will be sad to leave her. Here’s Jim at the helm…
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And here is Sheila tending the herb garden on the top deck at 6.2 kilometres an hour as we pass Villefranche-de-Lauragais…
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Creating local culinary delights has kept Jim busy in the galley for the past two weeks and here he is preparing tomato salad with herbs from the top deck – Now that’s what we call local!
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Over the last few days we’ve enjoyed duck breasts with cherry sauce, lamb’s liver crusted with herbs, and pintarde au pot, (a special variety of chicken that is normally eaten by the French as a Christmas treat), together with a slew of accompanying dishes. But this evening, in Toulouse, Jim handed the ropes to the chef at Le Bistrot de l’Etoile and let him take the strain.
Here we are enjoying the ambience and food at Le Bistrot...
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Posted by Hawkson 00:24 Archived in France Comments (2)

It's All Downhill from Here

semi-overcast 21 °C

We are on the top of the world as far as the Canal-du-Midi is concerned, 600 feet above sea level; the high point of our trip. Behind us, to the east, is the Mediterranean – ahead is the Atlantic Ocean – and from now on we will be going down in the locks. As if sensing that we are on the downhill run of our journey the weather gods have decided to re-acclimatise us to our Canadian home and have dropped the temperature ten degrees, ratcheted up the wind and turned on the showers. However, the sun shone on us in Castelnaudary – a canal-side town of terracotta houses with an Italianate feel – and Sheila put out the laundry on the foredeck.
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Castelnaudary is renowned for cassoulet, a dish of white beans, (lingots), duck thighs and Toulouse sausage, and, as expected, it was superb. Cassoulet may look just like Heinz baked beans to the uninitiated, but that’s where the similarity ends. It has the flavor of duck, the smoky aroma of cured ham and a crisp golden crust. We ate in the restaurant that claims to serve the finest and most traditional cassoulet – but they all say that. Here is Captain David enjoying his…
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We also visited the market – one of the best in our experience – and provisioned the boat with local lamb, duck and chicken, together with the freshest of fruit and vegetables. Tonight’s dinner began with escargot en vol au vent, (snails in puff pastry with garlic butter), followed by stuffed cutlets of lamb, petits pois, baby carrots and tiny new potatoes. Primeurs is the name given to these first vegetables of spring and the tender newborns are highly prized in France. The main course was accompanied by individual flans of infant leeks topped with a local cheese,
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The French are justifiably proud of their cheeses. Here’s a small selection especially for Gary and Jane to consider for our Village Store…
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Castelnaudary is a pick-up point for hire boats and, in the space of a few hours, we had bumped into four groups of British Columbians, including a whole boatload of people from Powell River. But visitors from all over the world come here to cruise on the Canal, and that’s not surprising with views like these around every corner…
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Posted by Hawkson 23:14 Archived in France Comments (1)

Locks of Languedoc

The Locks of the Canal-du-Midi

sunny 30 °C

As we steam serenely along the Canal-du-Midi aboard Carmen we are greeted by a chorus of birdsong, and we watch ducklings scampering under their mother’s wings, while curious fish leap into the air to see what’s disturbing their watery world. This must surely qualify as one of the world’s most tranquil places…
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However, the canal is home to several fleets of rental boats and many of the amateur skippers are more accustomed to tearing around the M25 in a Jag, or barreling down an autobahn in an Audi, than driving a boat. These speed merchants are so determined to get their money’s worth that they squeeze a fortnight into a week and all they hear is the roar of their own engine and all they see is a green blur. The only thing that puts a brake on these maritime mavericks are locks like these…
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As the canal winds its way across Languedoc it gradually climbs a range of hills in a series of locks; each one a minefield for an unschooled skipper and crew. The entrances are narrow, the lock keepers are impatient, and the waters churn as the gates open and close. Here is David at the wheel of Carmen as she enters a lock….
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Jim hangs onto Carmen’s ropes to stop her from crashing into the gates …
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…then a wall of water cascades towards him, while Sheila takes a breather before cycling ahead to catch the ropes at the next lock. It’s great fun, though serious work – but, as Captain David says, “Someone has to do it.”

The gracefully curved locks, built in the late 1600s by Louis XIV’s stonemasons, are surrounded by pretty gardens maintained by the lockkeepers.
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We have had many culinary delights on our trip, including Toulouse sausages, Collioure anchovies and Mediterranean sardines. And, in the town of Bram, we ate Gallette – giant round biscuits that purportedly represent the shields the locals used as weapons to fight off the Roman invasion.
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Today’s lunch, taken in the wheelhouse between locks, was bouillabaisse with homemade bread, several Pyrenean cheeses and tapenades of olives and aubergines…
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And tonight, in Castelnaudary, we will eat the famous Cassoulet.

Posted by Hawkson 10:38 Archived in France Comments (1)

Life is just a Bowl of Cherries

sunny 30 °C

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The vines of Languedoc-Roussillon may sag under the weight of grapes in the fall, but at this time of the year it’s the cherries that take the cake. And here is the most traditional of French cherry cakes.
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This cake is called Clafoutis and Jim made it as dessert for a dinner that began with a Salade Caprese, (using marinated cherry tomatoes and mozzarella) followed by a local Languedocien rabbit dish called, Lapin au soupiquet; rabbit cooked in a pot au feu with thyme and garlic and garnished with a pate made from the rabbit’s liver. Round courgettes stuffed with mushrooms topped it off and here’s the result …
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As we meander gently along the canal in Carmen we are constantly reminded of the beauty and bountifulness of this land. Ancient planes, oaks, cherries, and trees of all kind, line the banks like a guard of honour, their giant green parasols shading us from the hot Mediterranean sun. Beyond the trees, vistas of verdant landscape roll across the hillsides to the distant Pyrenean mountains. Vineyards and fields bursting with all manner of crops blanket the countryside and are punctuated occasionally by quaint villages of traditional stone houses clustered around a medieval church.
Here is the laverie, (a communal wash-house), in the canal-side village of Villesequelande….
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Most French towns still maintain spring fed laveries as historical artifacts, (although we have seen them used), but this one is unusual because the women laundered their finery directly in the canal.

The ever changing panorama of the canal make us constantly dash for the camera. Here are a couple of views…
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While the views are stunning, the scents and sounds of this beautiful land give it life. How we wish we could bring you the songs of the nightingales and skylarks and the swish of the water as we cruise along. And if only you could smell the scent of these roses…
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Posted by Hawkson 01:24 Archived in France Comments (4)

Dining Afloat

semi-overcast 24 °C

Jim started his working career as a chef aboard a cruise liner so it’s no surprise that he has taken over the galley aboard Carmen and is working a little culinary magic for the delectation of the captain and crew.
Last night’s dinner began with a salad of local greens tossed in balsamic vinaigrette, loaded with herbes de Provence, and topped with Pyrenean goat cheese and avocado.
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For the main course we had saumon aux amandes, (sautéed salmon fillets with almond slices tossed in nut-brown butter), together with a macedoine of fresh vegetables and Jim’s special hollandaise sauce.

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And for dessert – la piece de resistance – this tarte aux fruits frais…

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For this evening, we have perhaps the quintessential Mediterranean food – fresh sardines.

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We would like to say that we are going to cut down on our eating – but why lie. We are surrounded by markets and stores selling the most wonderful foods. So we will do what everyone else does on a cruise… and hang the consequences.
And now a little bit of local colour for non-foodies.
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Carcassonne castle is a magnificent sight as it towers over the new city, (“New” being a purely relative term – it was built in the 14th century). The castle itself was originally Roman and was gradually added to until the mid 13th century. Its massive walls encompass an entire city, with houses, shops, hotels and even a cathedral, and had a population of many thousand in medieval times.
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Today the city within the walls is a tourist mecca catering to visitors of all types. There are plenty of sandwicheries offering lunch for a few dollars, but at the other end is La Barbicane where set dinners run up to $200 a head. Here’s the cheapie menu – about $100.
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Bon appetite!

Posted by Hawkson 04:52 Archived in France Comments (2)

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