France

So this page I am trying a slightly different format. Rather than simply create a page of thumbnails I thought I might add a few words about what we did and thought around some contextual photographs.

This year Tom took the photographs using his birthday camera. This is only 3 Megapixel and lacks some of more sophisticated features of the Canon I normally use, but I think the results are worth looking at.

Friday 31 March

Well no photographs at this stage, Friday marked the official start for our holiday. The plan was that I would get off work around 16:00 and get back to home around 17:00 – 17:30. There would then be time to pack and attend to the myriad of last minute details that are necessary before leaving in good time to make the ferry in Plymouth. Boarding commences at 22:00 with departure at 23:00. Being a long night crossing I had booked a cabin for the night which would put us in Roscoff ready to start the first leg of our journey south with a full day in front of us.

The best laid plans of mice and men, I didn't get away from work until nearly 19:00 and arrived home around 20:00. Fortunately bag packing had been completed and the car was packed and on the road within 20 minutes. 22:20 saw us queuing to board the ferry in Plymouth without a hitch.

The crossing was rather rough and the night fairly sleepless as a result.

Saturday 1 April

The first of a total of 5 so called "travelling" days. Having disembarked at Roscoff early on Saturday morning I pointed the car south from Roscoff to Niort for an overnight stop at the Hotel Formule 1. These are part of the Accor group who are probably best known for their Ibis chain. These are a real budget chain but fine for an overnight stop like this.

Sunday 2 April

Day 2, the second leg of the long run south. Once again I pointed the car south and pulled out of Niort to resume the RAC route plan to Narbonne. The plan was to get down to Narbonne in time to pick up the boat and go through the formalities, however a recurring theme this year was a complete inability to plan journeys and arrive anywhere on time. I managed to get to Narbonne just after 18:00, but being a Sunday the office was already closed. I hadn't bothered to phone ahead once it became obvious that our journey was behind schedule mainly because there was nothing meaningful about anticipated arrival time etc. that I could offer since the last legs of the journey were through rather empty sections of France and I really had no idea exactly how far we were from Narbonne. To the credit of the operators they left a note pinned to the door and the boat was open. Thanks to their thoughtfulness everyone got to sleep in a bed that night even if the formalities had to wait until Monday.

The total journey covered 943 miles. I started with a full tank of fuel in Roscoff and didn't have to refuel until a filling station around 630 miles into the journey which was well into Day 2. I didn't do a full refuel just a "splash and dash" so an accurate fuel consumption is difficult to determine, but this sort of distance on a full tank equates to upwards of 50mpg.

Monday 3 April

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Cruising starts officially today. After a breakfast of Croissants and Pain au Raison the formalities were completed and a quick introductory cruise with a member of the staff clarified the controls and rules of the water. We were helped through the first lock immediately outside of Narbonne. Then we moored up, went into to town to sort out a few last minute things and buy some provisions. After lunch we headed off in earnest.

At this point we had yet to join the Canal du Midi, Narbonne is located on a spur called the Canal de la Robine. It's quite a large town and a good base to start from although the office lacks much in the way of parking. Either you take their secure garage at around €40 or you park on street. It was with some trepidation that I left my brand new company car car on street, although worries about this were to prove unfounded.

We didn't get too far this first day, the locks are only operable between 09:00 – 18:00. We went through the single lock at Raonel. The lock at Moussoulens is open, it's simply a guard lock that allows the canal to be isolated from the River Aude. The two lock flight at Gailhousty was operating as a single lock although this requires that the water levels have to reach the absolute top of the lock gates. Technically the Canal de la Robine becomes the Canal de Jonction at this point. We made it through the Sallèles lock before the locks were closed and moored for the night in the village of Sallèles-d'Aude. We'd made about 10km and climbed through 4 locks, which lifted us a total of 10.31m.

Mooring for the night brought about the first mishap of the holiday, and the only really serious problem that occurred. Tom managed to fall into the canal as we moored. It was a complete dunking and we're pretty sure he inadvertently took in a mouthful or three of canal, but he was otherwise unharmed. We found out later that the French cruisers don't have an on-board sewage tank at present so every toilet function is simply recycled to the canal. When you think about it a regular mooring point like this one is probably the worst place to fall in given this, after all what do you think is the first thing most people do after they moor up for the evening? We kept a careful eye on Tom over the next couple of days but he showed no signs of any upsets so chalk it up to experience.

Sallèles-d'Aude was typical of a lot of the smaller towns and villages that we would moor at. It offered the basic facilities needed such as a Patisserie, Boulongerie, Pharmacy and usually a small Supermarket of some kind. There would also be a restaurant in most of these towns but not much more. We made a habit of walking around these towns and villages in the evening, usually before our evening meal but there was rarely any reason to stay longer than the overnight stop.

Tuesday 4 April

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The first lock after Sallèles d'Aude was visible from our overnight mooring point. So given that locks were inoperable before 09:00 there was little point in setting out until then. Never the less, not long after 09:00 we were once again underway. We continued along the Canal de Jonction, passing through the last 5 locks and reaching the Canal du Midi junction around 11:00. Here we had to make a choice: left to Carcassonne which is about 12 hours cruising away or right to Béziers which is about 4 hours cruising.

We had seen the medieval section of Carcassone from the Autoroute on the way down and decided that this was to be our primary destination so after a break for coffee we turned left and started towards Carcassonne.

The section of the Canal du Midi that we joined is known as the 'big pound', a section of canal totalling over 54km without locks and stretching from Béziers to Argens-Minervois. Although we were joining midway we still had some 16km before the next lock.

We went on to Homps for our overnight halt, a total of 26-27km passing through 11 locks for a total lift of 30.37m.

Wednesday 5 April

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Like yesterday, the day dawned cool but quickly warmed up and by 10:30 or so it was perfectly possible to cruise in shirt sleeves with the canopy open. Homps is another Connoisseur base and we thought to get the sewage tanks pumped out here. However this is where we discovered that French cruisers don't have this facility and all sewage discharge goes straight to the canal.

Our lunch stop today was a simple bank side location since there wasn't a conveniently located town this time. In general the number of boats cruising this week was quite low, although this is early in the season and not part of the typical Easter holiday period.

We went from Homps and made it as far as Trèbes, although we were not quite in time to get through the flight of 3 locks outside of the town to obtain a town centre mooring. However, it was only a short walk to get into town for dinner.

So today we made 27km and traversed 11 locks for a total lift of 31.76m.

Thursday 6 April

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I knew that we would reach Carcassonne today, in fact the boat company recommend those on a 7 day cruise to take a taxi from Trèbes to Carcassonne, since it's only about 10 minutes by road. However with our longer cruise period we were able to complete the journey by boat.

We met up with the owners of "Whistler" today at the Fresquel flight of locks. She's owned by a retired English couple and had spent the winter moored up at the Canal du Midi/Canal de Jonction junction. They had now returned to France and were starting this years cruising season heading towards Toulouse. We shared locks with them as far as Carcassonne.

A short run today, 13km and 9 locks for a total lift of 24.93m. We made Carcassonne in the early afternoon.

Friday 7 April

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A day without cruising. We decided to take the time to explore Carcassonne and particularly La Cité.

This is a wonderful historic section of what is now a modern city, and it is still occupied by a small number (around 60) permanent residents.

La Cité dates back to the Roman Empire (3rd and 4th centuries AD). Later on, the ramparts served as a fortress for the Visigoths and were then reused in the Middle Ages by local nobelmen. La Cité was taken over by the Kings of France following a crusade against the Cathars which although ostensibly religious to support the Catholic church was more probably supported as an opportunity to annex to France the then independent land around Carcassonne. Once the Cathars were overthrown the French doubled the defences with the construction of the outer wall.

Used as a garrison in later years, the site fell into ruin but was restored, somewhat imaginatively, at the end of the 19th century by the architect Viollet-le-Duc.

The site is now one of the International Heritage sites and has been used as a set for a variety of films, notably 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves'. By a quirk of coincidence this film was on TV the weekend we returned to the UK and we watched it with a renewed interest to see the various shots of La Cité in this case masquerading as Nottingham Castle. We took an English speaking guided tour of the castle in the afternoon.

We spent most of the day exploring La Cité and returned at night. As Tom forgot his camera for the day visits we are restricted to night shots which have not turned out so well.

Saturday 8 April

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After a brief council of war we decided to see if we could make it through to Béziers. Although we knew that there would be no chance that we could traverse the flight of 7 (or 9 – see later) locks that marked the canals entrance to that town we felt that it would be nice to see what was quite a feat of engineering when the canal was originally constructed between 1667 – 1681.

Accordingly we pulled out of Carcassonne in the morning having taken on water and turned the cruiser around. Today probably marked the start of the Easter break and there was likely to be an influx of new boats onto the canal in the afternoon. Despite this we made very good time assisted by the fact that the locks were going downhill this time which accompanied by our increased familiarity with boat operations was much faster than going uphill.

Lunch was in Trèbes, then we pushed on mooring for the evening at Roubia. This meant that we had made it into the 'big pound' so future days cruising would not be constrained by the operation of the locks. We cruised 50km and passed through 27 locks, although some of these were flights of multiple locks.

Bit of a highlight was when returning through the Fresquel flight we had to pass a boat coming up at the same time as we were going down by waiting in the impound area.

Sunday 9 April

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Having made it past the last lock into the 'big pound' we should have made good time today. However yesterdays Herculean efforts must have taken their toll as we slept in and only made it to Argeliers. A total cruise of 18km with no locks.

Monday 10 April

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With no locks to enforce travelling restrictions, we decided to press on. The boat had to be returned on Wednesday morning so to achieve this we really had to be at Béziers this afternoon. We pulled out of Argeliers at around 08:30, paused in Capestang for breakfast and Colombiers for lunch.

We made Béziers around mid afternoon having passed through the Malpas tunnel. The main reason for getting to Béziers was to see the Fonserannes Staircase. This is operating as a flight of 7 locks now although it seems that the original flight may have included 9 locks.

After seeing the locks and having a wander around Béziers itself we turned the boat around and started back towards Narbonne stopping for the night back in Capestang. Total cruise distance 55km.

Tuesday 11 April

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We had to get the boat back to Narbonne and so began the long run to get back through the locks of the Canal de Jonction and the Canal du Robine. We left Capestang around 08:30 but our early start was set back by the loss of one of our bumpers. These hang from the gunwale and get rubbed every time the boat draws up to moor. Consequently the line holding it gets worn and our front right bumper chose this morning to detach itself from the boat.

Fortunately we spotted it and were able to reverse and retrieve it but we lost about half an hour in the process.

We made a mid morning stop at Argeliers, and made it to the top of the Canal de Jonction just before lunch. The party ahead of us had some problem in the Cesse lock, requiring the attendance of the VNF (Voies Navigables de France) mechanic to manually release the the downstream gates. The lock didn't completely refill but lunchtime had started by the time the fault came to light so we were held up until someone could get out to us and clear the problem.

Unfortunately trouble seemed to dog us today as the very next lock was also jammed and required the attendance of not one but some 6 or 7 members of the VNF maintenance team to replace a faulty sluice gate on the Truilhas lock.

Despite these setbacks we made it into Narbonne passing through Gua lock into Narbonne at 18:00 or thereabouts. Total cruise distance 34km and 9 locks for a total fall of 24.69m.

Wednesday 12 April

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Well cruising is over. After the handing the boat back and settling for fuel (bit of a con this in my opinion) it was back in the car, which was exactly as we left it no damage, no theft, and off on the second part of this holiday. This second part was by way of a change of pace mainly for the kids. After 10 days of canal cruising through what can reasonably be described as pretty but more or less uninteresting scenery we had no doubt that the kids would be more than a little bored.

We headed north to Orleans for an overnight stop. Again we went off the planned route fairly early, and although the ultimate route was very attractive through the hills it increased both the distance and the journey time considerably with our arrival at the hotel in Orleans not occurring until 22:00.

A highlight of this journey was the Millau viaduct. It was doubly impressive as we came upon it unexpectedly so there was no preparation for the sight. This is engineering on a truly grand scale, something to rival the great works of the Victorian engineers such as Brunel and something they would undoubtedly see the purpose of.

It is difficult to describe the scale of this structure, even the photographs do not convey it fully. If you get a chance go see it for yourself.

Thursday 13 April

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Disneyland Paris. Tom worked out where the second stage of our holiday would be by reading the road signs, but for Ken it was a complete surprise. We got to Disneyland around lunchtime and spent the rest of the afternoon there, mainly in Fantasyland on the smaller rides. 'Pirates of the Caribbean' was probably the most eventful ride today.

Friday 14 April

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More Disneyland. This time we got a full day here from opening at 10:00 right through to closure at 20:00. We spent the whole day in the park and still didn't have any time to visit the studios part of the complex. Rides today included 'Thunder Mesa', 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril' (French Translation), 'Buz Lightyears Laser Challenge', and of course 'Space Mountain Mission 2'. Even though these were the very popular rides we were able to get on most of them with around 45 minutes wait by choosing the time of day carefully.

Saturday 15 April

Off to Le Havre, however due to yet another navigational cock up at the Paris Ring Road we missed the ferry. Unfortunately unlike Calais there is only the one ferry from Le Havre. At Calais it would more than likely be possible to get onto a later crossing the same day. At Le Havre we had to wait a full 24 hours. Despite the convenience of Portsmouth as a port of entry to the UK future crossings will use Calais or one of the busier ports just in case. In fact the Euro Tunnel might be the best idea since it is possible on the Chunnel to get on any crossing within a couple of hours of the booked crossing.

Sunday 16 April

The Le Havre – Portsmouth route used to be run by P and O, but now a company called L D Lines operate the single ship. We got back on Sunday night, arriving home around midnight.