Sunday, February 21, 2010

Excursion on the Canal du Midi

In late October of 2004, Nancy and I embarked upon our excursion on the Canal du Midi. We rented a small boat in Agde and headed out for a week. The plan was to cruise west for 3 and half days, and at noon on that fourth day, turn around and come back to our rental car. And that's pretty much what we did. I was our captain and while it wasn't as exciting as piloting a fast boat on Yellowstone Lake, it was interesting, if slow. Boats are required to stay below 8 knots and the rental boats have governors to keep them at or below that speed. Faster than 8 knots erodes the banks of the canal.

The interesting part about piloting a canal boat is avoiding the other boats and the bridges and other obstacles. As you can see in the picture below, other rental boats were on the canal during it's final week of operation for the 2004 season. Those boats weren't the problem. About a half hour into our first day on the canal, a very long private pleasure boat rounded the corner ahead. As you might imagine, trees hide any possibility of seeing what's around the corner up ahead. The crew of the other boat were yelling and honking and gesticulating that we needed to abandon our position on the right side of the canal and forfeit it to them. It was an old working canal boat that would once have carried grain or coal, and it was so long it could not negotiate the tight corners without occupying both "lanes" of the canal. It was an scary moment made more scary by the fact we'd been on the water for such a short time and the fact that there is nowhere else to go. We were able to avoid a collision, and while exciting, it was not as dangerous as it seemed at the time.
The weather was cool but not cold, cloudy but no rain. Pretty perfect for late October. The scenery was very pleasing if not spectacular.

There were many small towns along the route and many small bridges. When larger boats, old working boats came to a bridge like this one shown below, (small, old and low) they would dismantle the pilothouse that was on hinges, and flatten it to the deck. It must have been a real pain in rainy or cold weather. It was very interesting to watch the routine. We encountered some British canal boats that had either made it across the channel on their own or had been towed across.

We ran into many locks. Some were all by themselves and then there was the Fonserranes Staircase (which I have written about elsewhere on this blog) that is six locks in a row. But most were like the one below that were very simple to navigate, just like threading a great big needle. At 8 knots, it didn't take a lot of skill.

The canal is loaded with boats that probably never move. They are actually floating homes for those who want to have a very unusual and inexpensive place to live. I'm sure they must buy a canal use permit, but other than that, I don't think they are subject to the 'tax habitation' or the 'tax fonciere' which French landlubbers must pay. They do however have to keep their boats afloat. Some of the boats had obviously been abandoned and were in terrible shape. Others were occupied but looked like they might sink at any moment. Others had sunk and must have been siting on the bottom of the canal. Others were beautiful and well taken care of and looked like they were the object of someone's love.

Here's a map of the canal. We started out in Agde which you can find on the far right of the map and our plan was to make it to Homps on the far left, which we never did.

Above, you can see one of the maintenance boats dredging the canal. I'm sure dead leaves and sediment, not to mention a host of items such as bicycles, tires, automobiles, bodies human and animal, and things I can't imagine have been taken out of this water. You pay a fee to use the canal, which at this point is all recreational, and it goes to keeping the locks maintained and staffed and the canal itself maintained.
You may wish to "google" the Canal du Midi. I did, and I learned that when it was built beginning in 1666, they hired a large number of women to work on the canal. You can go to Wikipedia and learn that although they were hired just to move dirt, they became indispensable in the design of the canal. Apparently, and I know this sounds strange, but the peasant women of the Languedoc had the hydraulic experience and knowledge that men lacked at the time.

Nancy took all these pictures but I think this one of the full moon over the canal is one of the best.

Probably the most unusual sight along the canal is this agricultural feature. At one time in history, this pie shaped group of fields was a shallow wetland. It was drained by monks during the 13th century by digging ditches leading toward the center of the picture, (and the center of the former wetland) and then digging of a tunnel to drain the water away. The tunnel went through the nearby hillside and is what gave Riquet, the engineer of the canal, the idea he could dig a tunnel that his canal (pictured below) could pass through. The tunnel for the water draining the lake and the tunnel for the canal go in different directions and are a different levels.

We tied up the boat before we went through the tunnel and climbed to the top of the hill for a view of the 'Etang d'Montady', the pie shaped agricultural fields. Also up on the hill is a visitor center full of information on the two features. It can also be reached by car, you don't have to go by canal boat, and is not far from our house in Leran.

This is one of the last days on the boat. We went back through the Fonserranes Staircase, visited Beziers, and the next day returned the boat to Agde. Little did we know that about three years later, we would return to the Midi-Pyrenees looking for a house to buy.


Bill said...

As others have posted here and Nancy could publish a coffee table book of your photos at Costco and make a million bucks. These are great shots!

Anonymous said...

The pictures are great! I agree with Bill...a coffee table book should be in your future!