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.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Down the Road it Goes

When we bought our house, it came complete with a kid's playhouse. The door is about four feet high. It had a little front porch, which, when combined with the tiny door made it almost impossible for me to get into, not that I wanted to. It wasn't much good for storage because of it's location and small size, so we decided it had to go. One of the guys who helped us move offered to take it off our hands and so we took him up on the offer. "Haul it away and it's yours."

Jared thought he could dismantle it and take it through the gate. However, it became obvious that to dismantle it would reduce it to a pile of lumber with a roof. Jared moved on to plan B and called in reinforcements.
A friend of a friend had a Bobcat and I said we could take down a panel of the fence to let it in. The opening in the fence was six inches wider than the playhouse, not including the roof. They had to get the roof up above the top of the fence. It almost worked. I had planned to replace some of the fence posts later this summer because they were listing several degrees out of plumb, making the gate into a parallelogram rather than a rectangle. As the playhouse went out the opening, they bashed into the posts pretty good. It was not planned, but it will make the posts easier to remove when the time comes. I just have to take on that job earlier than I planned.

I'm not too riled up about the grass being torn up either. The former owners apparently hadn't ever heard about fertilizer and it's role in strengthening roots, and improving the grass plant's ability to stay green without so much water. Apparently they thought it was easier to put a hundred dollars of water on the lawn than seventeen dollars of fertilizer. (We looked at their summertime water bills. Astronomic!) In any case, the lawn has almost no root structure, meaning it was easily damaged by the Bobcat. (It also is easily damaged by Fergus and he wears a lot of grass into the house whenever he lies on it and it sticks to his fur. A healthy lawn wouldn't come up that easily.)

And we weren't horribly upset about the grass being torn up because we plan to landscape with some drought tolerant native plants, like we did in Moab, and remove a lot of the areas that are now in grass. Hopefully, we'll eventually have a yard that requires less maintenance and will be more interesting to us and attract birds as well. And I plan to actually fertilize the remaining grass so it is healthy and vigorous (and uses less water).

This is a picture of the playhouse going down the alley behind our house, on it's way to it's new home. I hope it makes someone very happy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pictures from France in 2004 Offered Without Comment

Well, no comment except that they were all taken by Nancy. Remember, kids, click on em' to enlarge em'.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bathroom Update

I know you've been holding your breath waiting to hear about our progress on the bathroom addition. And now your patience has been rewarded. However, if you were hoping to see some pictures of France, and read some words about us traipsing around southern Europe, you'll just have to wait til September. Our lives are very boring right now and blogging about our bathroom remodel is the best we can do.

If you will recall, our bathroom looked like this (above) a few weeks ago. We abandoned the heating duct which went to the bathroom upstairs and so far it doesn't seem significantly colder in that room. We continued with the demolition and removed the drywall and trim and cut through a couple of studs. I added a header to support the weight of the missing studs and framed out the new shower, which as you will recall is under the stairs and will get infrequent use.

Here's the newly framed space and you can see the fiberglass shower pan sitting under the stairs. Luckily, the new shower space was about 36 inches square by a little over six feet tall, and lo and behold they just happen to sell shower pans that are 36 inches square. They do not sell shower enclosures that size. We were going to have to make our own.

The old framing was covered with plaster and lath and no had insulation between the studs. This is one of the few walls that remain uninsulated (until a few days ago, anyway). They must have burned a lot of coal in the old days.

This is a view of the bathroom, looking through the front closet, which of course has louvered doors. The toilet sits just out of view and I can say with some authority, that it was rather embarrassing for a few days. Using the bathroom was very un-private, but at least we didn't have any guests and Fergus didn't seem to mind. On the plus side, you could use the toilet and easily monitor the coming and goings at the front door.
Today the auxiliary shower is all but finished. The shower and closet are separated and insulated and it is no longer an option to yell "Come in!" to visitors while using the facilities. The shower space only needs a shower curtain to make it functional. We used galvanized roofing metal for the shower walls, and while it may sound horrendous, it is quite attractive, in an industrial kind of way.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Geography of Spirits

As I've said before in another post, I love maps. Here's a map that isn't self evident in it's subject matter. What does it inform us about? Is it climate? Yes, in an offhand way it's about climate. Is it about politics? Maybe. Is it about culture? Yes, definitely. Is it about history? Oh, yes. Is it about agriculture or geomorphology? Yes, those too. But more than anything, I guess it's about geography, which encompasses all of the above.

It is a map of who drinks what where. The red areas drink wine, the greenish areas drink beer and the blue areas drink distilled spirits. It's pretty obvious when you think about it. The regions that have the climate to grow grapes drink wine. In areas that are too cold to grow good grapevines, they grow the components of beer; barley and hops. And the colder regions distill spirits from whatever they can grow, say potatoes or rye.

Wine, beer and spirits. But what about Scotch? Scotland is represented as a beer drinking country, and I'm sure that's true. But it's famous for a diststilled spirit aged in barrels. If they drank all they produced, instead of exporting it, I'm sure they would show up as blue. And what is it that Iceland drinks?

But, with some anomalies, I think this map is pretty accurate, at least in my experience. Your thoughts?

I found this map at