Report Number 11
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Canal du Midi

December 18th, 2006 to January 25th, 2007

Mishaps, bad luck and breakdowns persued us during the past five weeks. The major ones of these we are going to report right away , before we get to the more enjoyable experiences.

* One morning we discover lots of oil below the floor boards in the bedroom - that means half a day working on our knees, absorbing oil with "incontinence diapers" (they come in very handy for leaks on board), taking out and wiping off and restoring all cans, glasses, pots and tubes. Oil also in the bilge of the foredeck, probably from a defective can. Hence draining and mopping there as well.
* Per’s provisional crown breaks while he tries to bite something. The dentist is able to glue it and offers free repair work, in case the crown breaks again prior our return to Berlin. Nice offer, but hard to take advantage of.
* Despite many efforts to line up the satellite dish we all over sudden no longer receive any TV or radio station signals. We just aren’t able to pick up signals from Satellite Astra IB. We can't buy a 0-modem-cable before we reach Béziers. (Can you image making such a purchase with rudimentary knowledge of the French language?) That cable allows Per to re-install the necessary software in the satellite receiver. Now we are receiving all of our programs via Astra IA.
* The generator frequently dies after a few minutes due to overheating. It draws air from the cooling water cycle. But Per manages to get it running again.
* There is a leak where the water enters the toilet in the shower cabinet, plenty of water in the bilge. So, here we go again: draining and mopping. Then repairing the toilet. Some parts are completety worn out and can no longer be used. That means that the toilet can only be used in real emergencies.
* Next day the bath room has water all over the floor. When the water heats up the pressure increases in the pipes. Somewhere in the pipes there is a leak which causes plenty of water to spray all over. So, here we go again: draining and mopping. And then fixing the leak.
* The heating system breaks down every so often: problems with the fuel injection. After the last break down Per installs the spare heater which we brought along.
* Washing machine and dish washer accidentially are connected at the waste water end of the system. When the dish washer is ful,l the remaining 30 liter overflow into the bilge. That means: taking up all floor boards again, and here we go again: draining and mopping.
* The engine of the generator is running but it no longer produces electricity. Per fastens block and tackle at the mast and pulls the very heavy generator onto the deck. He is able to diagnose the problem: A worn-out bearing caused the destruction of rotor windings. We are docked in Poilhes. The kind Englishmen docked next to us know of a generator specialist in Sète. They drive us (and the generator) to Sète. There we find out that it is not worth it to repair the generator. We’ll have to buy a new one. Too bad that we just had invested 1,000 Euros in a new cylinder head.

But despite all those mishaps we have a wonderful time. Before Christmas we took the bus to Nimes again, a city which I particularly like very much.

The first thing we do is re-visit the 1st century Roman Arena, the spectacular building which once housed 24000 spectators.The arena is impressive,but a fresh breeze makes us look for a sheltered area where we can listen to the detailed information presented by the audio guide.

Another must while in Nimes is the Maison Carrée, a Roman Temple which allegedly is one of the best preserved Roman building anywhere.

Next to the Maison Carrée an ice skating rink is being set up. The small wooden huts are being covered with white material so that there is the slight illusion of snow; a vivid contrast to the many palm trees to be found in the city.

The city park "Jardin de la Fontaine" presents itself in lush green colors. Inside the park we climb the Tour Magne, a climb which turns out to be quite strenuos. But we are rewarded by a magnificent view of the city: well-kept homes, a large pedestrian zone, inviting squares, chairs on the side walk, a few people sitting outside enjoying the warm sun -- Nimes has a very special atmosphere about it. For Cristmas decoration we see fir trees sprayed with white paint and many, many inflatable Santa Clauses and snow men. How practical – one can use them year after year. However, the non-stop music everywhere gets on our nerves. At the end we take a stroll across the Christmas market. Looks like the ones we have in Germany, except it isn’t that cold here.

On Dec. 23th all of St. Gilles is in a happy mood. Attractions for kids have been set up, a marching band dressed up in Santa Claus costumes parades through the city; Christmas carols are being played in swing and jazz style. One can’t escape this happy mood. We stand in line at the butcher for the fondue meat we have ordered. The sales woman hears the band play, smiles "C’est la fète" and then starts dancing behind the counter. A number of customers let their hips get into the rythm of things. Only the two stiff Germans stand there a feeling a bit awkward.

In the evening we are looking forward to "crèche vivante", the live nativity scene. The tourist office gave us the very valuable hint to be in front of the church no later than 5:45 p.m. We are lucky to be able to get two seats. The night is cold, +4°C. It is very uncomfortable to wait until 7 p.m. Despite our warm clothes the cold is getting to us eventually. At 7 p.m. sharp the performance begins and the beauty of the scenes lets us forget the cold. Mary and Joseph enter the area riding a donkey. They sit down on the straw on the steps of the church and angels hand them the child. From the gallery of the church another angel heralds the joyful tidings, and the shepards arrive with live sheep and lambs. And finally, if we got it right, a boy from the St. Gilles area ,having witnessed the birth of Christ, passes on the story to the citizens of St. Gilles. And thus it makes sense to us now that all sorts of historic St. Gilles groups in their costumes (citizens, occupations, "VIPs", and even a group of gipsies) enter the area now and pay homage to the Christ child. The entire setup, combined with the music, never lets the performance leave its sincere background. At the end the Three Kings appear on real dromedaries . We are happy to have witnessed this unsual "live display" and return to the cosiness and warmness of our boat.

We want to spend Christmas Eve alone aboard "Moses" in a pleasant area. So we are getting ready to leave. Per refills the fresh water tanks and I go to the local open air market to buy fresh baguette. I see oysters being bought by the case. They cost between 2.60 and 8.50 Euros, depending on their size. At one booth someone is cracking sea Urchins. I see small mussels which open and close. A precious dark lobster displayed on ice blinks his eyes. Does he look at me ? I almost get sick and hurry to get away.

Under a calm and cloudless sky we make our way into the Canal du Rhône at Sète . Here we find the perfect spot for our Christmas Eve, a wooden landing-stage in the middle of nowhere! The fondue sauces are ready. Per made them as I was at the helm. We can appreciate the sundown and then start to set the table. We unpack the gifts from Grit and Olaf and enjoy our fondue along with a good wine. Only Felix upsets our harmonious Christmas spirit. He catches his very own Christmas meal, drags it into the cockpit and we have to listen to the little mouse shriek while its life is being ended.

At sunrise the thermometer shows –2° C and MOSES is covered with hoar-frost. Within a short time the canal crosses the Etang d’Ingril. We have plenty of water on both sides now . Flamingos stalk around at some places, their beaks under water in search of food. Without any problems we make it to Frontignan. Here, however, things come to a stop for a while because the draw bridge is closed. A notice at the attendant’s cottage reads, "During the winter season the bridge will only be opened once at 1.30 p.m. and only after prior request by phone." We make that phone call and then have time for taking a look at the town and for some wine tasting. Beyond Frontigan there are ugly sights of refineries along the canal. But only five kilometers further we reach the Etang de Thau. Wind can make the waves get dangerous. There are signs reading, "No entry in case of 3 Beaufort or more". We are lucky: 0 Beaufort and the glaring light of the winter sun just above the horizon make the crossing of this large, deep-blue body of water directly behind the Mediterranean Sea a real delight.

We spend the night in the picturesque harbor of Marseillan – complete with electricity hookup.

The morning sun rises like a red ball above the water - and hoar-frost all over again. A few minutes after leaving the harbor Per and I embrace: We made it ! We made it to the Canal du Midi. Built by Paul Riquet, it was opened in 1681 and today it is the best known canal in France. The canal originally was built to allow barge traffic between the Mediterranian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, but now only recreational boats use this waterway. Yesterday we called in our passage through the locks at Bagnas and Ronde d’Agde. During the winter season one has to call in at least one day in advance since there no longer are lock attendants on permanent duty. The lock is opened at 11 a.m. sharp. A woman attendant is on duty. The next lock (Prades) is open and at the lock Ronde d’Agde (yes, the lock is circular!) the same woman attendant is already waiting for us.

In Agde one should pay the black lava church a visit, but we happen to get there during lunch time when even the church is closed. No problem! We’ll stop by on our return trip.

A few hundred meters beyond the next lock (Portiragnes) the canal is covered with ice. MOSES turns into an ice-breaker. Ice-floes are all around us and Felix comes up to the helm being very disturbed: he is frightened by the sound of the breaking ice. We find the sight just wonderful.

After a while we pass a large amusement park. During the summer season it will be very crowded here – most likely. The following passage could be straight from a picture book : a lagoon with flamingos on our left and fields with grapes to our right, with medium sized mountains in the background. 40% of the French wine is produced in this area. Our map shows a few harbors where we would like to stay, such as "Cassafières". But since all of the harbors are the home base for charter boats there is no room left whatsoever. Therefore we have to keep going. There is not much time left. Today is Dec. 29th and we have to be in Béziers by the end of the year. The lock operation at Béziers shuts down on Dec 31th. That means that our return route will be cut off and we can only keep going towards Toulouse.The Toulouse lock does not open until March 1. So we are confined to the 200 km between Béziers and Toulouse for the next two months.

The trip on the canal, starting at Villeneuve, is unpleasant. On one side of the canal is a street with lots of traffic, partly even on both sides of the canal. Many buildings, industrial areas. Beyond the lock at Béziers we find the city harbor with docking free of charge and plenty of room. New buildings around the water front : not necessarily a dream place to stay at ! At the quayside we find the outlets which once offered electricity and water. The power outlets are destroyed, some of the water faucets are still intact, though.

We get on our bikes and make it up the steep hill into the city. Unfortunately the main boulevard is taken up by rides and booths set up for amusement. Therefore we aren’t taken in by the city upon first impression. However, we like Béziers from the distance. It is located on a hill on the banks of the l’Orb River and is towered by the gigantice St.-Nazaire Cathedral (12th – 14 th century).

New Year’s Eve - it is sunny and warm. I have just sat down in a chair on deck and am reading in the warm sun when a German passes by on bike. He starts talking to me. 70 years old, he has lived on a boat for many years and now ended up in this part of the world. He lives in an abandoned cottage inside a vineyard which he took over with the consent of the owner of the vineyard. He tells wild stories about burglaries on ships and advises us to never leave our boat both at the same time .When he tries to invite himself for the evening we are a bit frightened. We don’t really want to get that close. He obviously is disappointed. His French is rather poor and most likely he normally doesn’t have anyone to talk to.

On New Year’s Eve we follow our tradition and enjoy a fondue meal. At midnight we go up on deck and clink glasses. Next to us there are new apartment buildings. But we can only see a light in two of these many apartments. Nobody is in the streets, nobody sets off fireworks. That wouldn’t be a problem if we were outside alone with mother nature - but here we feel a bit lost. We are looking forward to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends again – next year !

We stay in Béziers until January 4th , coping with the problems mentioned in the beginning. But we do take a few bike trips through the confusing array of small streets of the town and its surroundings.

After Béziers we cross the l‘Orb River on an impressive channel bridge made of stone with arches like an aqueduct . It once again allows us a to have a marvelous view of the town.

Then we reach the ascent of the canal at Fonsérannes. 13.6 meters have to be overcome via seven locks. According to our reference books there is a ship lift (sloping elevator). The ships enter a trough, which then is moved by an overhead travelling crane on an incline up or down. The system was installed 20 years ago, however, it has never worked and now is a "technical monument" right in the middle of nature. With the sloping elevator the difference in altitude should be taken care within 6 minutes, it takes almost an hour via the locks. There are allegedly waiting times in summer up to a day but we are immediately channeled at the registered time and are the only ones in the lock basins today. Per is his own lock-keeper. That turns out to be very laborious, particularly since all of the lock basins are oval . The water pours in in a very powerful way. I am confined to take pictures and to operate the video camera and to pick up the rope at the quay.

We now reach the great canal water reservoir: 54 kilometers without locks. But that stretch of the canal includes the of tunnel Malpas. It is only 161 meters long, however, it was the first channel tunnel worldwide. Paul Riquet , the brilliant designer of the Canal du Midi, had it built against the scepticism of his contemporaries. Dark slim cypresses form a lane on the bank of the canal after the tunnel passage, but predominantly plane trees spread their branches like a roof across the channel and make for a pleasant shade in summer. Their roots secure the channel embankment so that no further bank reinforcement is necessary. We wonder why still nobody has come up with this inexpensive solution in Germany.

We spend a night at a small jetty at Poilhes where a couple of boats have tied up as well. We are approached from an attractive Tjalk and asked where we are heading for. The people seem to be nice, we like the place and so we decide quite spontaneously to stay here. A woman comes toward us, wants to take the rope . That is quite normal in Germany , but we almost never experience that here. The people on the neighboring boat are really friendly as well. It turns out that our immediate neighbors are English, the couple onboard the Tjalk are Canadian and the couple onboard the large hotel ship (30 m long) is Belgian who even speak German . We describe the problem with our generator. After that we are offerd to hook up to the power connection of the Canadians which the Englishmen already have done as well. The Canadians have a contract with VNF (the responsible agency for all waterways) and that includes access to eletricity. The Englishmen have a contract with VNF as well and pay € 260 rent per year for 15 meters quay. They have been in Poilhes for 2 1/2 years now and live on a smaller boat than ours. Shall we stay here and give up the apartment in Berlin? Financially be would be doing just fine. But spending your life on the banks of a French canal ??!! The Englishmen find it just great and never want to leave again. The weather at least speaks for a long stay. We already have been here three weeks now and have received lots of very friendly assistance. On the warmest day during this time (18° degrees Celsius) we organized a barbecue. Per , as always, prepared so much food that we were able to eat together one more time the next day. Everyone has lots of time here.

The channel runs elevated above the valley. On walks and cycle tours one has a panoramic view of the wine fields and of the small town of Capestang, approx. 4 km away. A bike ride led us to the Oppidum d´Ensérune, the excavation site of an Iberian town from the 6th century b.C. It is located on a mountain top . From here one can see as far as the Pyrenees Mountains on one side, and on the other side the Cevennen Mountains are visible. But there aren't only beautiful views and culture - there is also something nourishing to eat. Everywhere on the meadows we enjoy the smell of herbs, thyme and rosemary as much as we want to. Down in the valley we see a strange-looking circular area which has been planted in the shape of a star. It is the former Lake Montady, now drained.

The temperature went down the last three days. Today, January 25th, we had -4 ° C in the morning but the sun is shining and the sky is cloudless. A decision has been made regarding our generator problem: We bought a second-hand 6.5 kW generator for 7,500. We only need a 3.5 kW one, but that, being new , would have cost us € 11,000. Fortunately we have another big pot of pea soup and therefore don't have to starve.

In approximately 2 weeks we will in Argens, a bit further on the canal, and there,at the Locaboat station, we will be able to install the generator..

Please keep your fingers crossed! It will help us.


© by Sylvia & Per Pehle
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