Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 13)

Évol, Département Pyrénées-Orientales  – Ireland

Tuesday, 22.10.2018

by car and plane

There would be not much to tell about this day, as it was basically the trip back home.
But.
We are no frequent fliers, but all had a few flights in our lives. Never so, have we been so lucky as today.  The whole flight across France there was not a single cloud in the sky and the views are most spectacular.

Shortly past take off, we pass the Bassin de St. Ferréol. A very fitting end to our trip.

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The Pyrenees.
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The centrale Nucléaire de Golfech. The two tallest cooling towers in Europe. The Garonne river behind the towers, the Canal de Golfech in front of them and the Canal Lateral de Garonne parallel to it. We past here by boat on a ragingly hot summer’s day two years ago.

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The Garonne (back) and the Dordogne meeting to form the Gironde estuary. The vinyards of Bordeaux beyond and the Atlantic coast in the background.

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The mouth of the Gironde.
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The lower reaches of the Charente. (Spoiler: that’s were we will be going in 2019) Tee town of Rochefort in the centre.
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Ile de Noirmoutier.
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And finally a view everybody that ever went boating in Britany should instantly recognise. Redon, the crossroad of the Breton waterways.

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That’s it for the moment folks. Let’s hope summer is coming soon.

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Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 12)

Évol, Département Pyrénées-Orientales  and surroundings

Monday, 21.10.2018

by car

While yesterday was all about nature and exercise, today is about technology and technology that reduces the need for exercise. Lucky me.

This area has the highest count of sun hours in Europe. And for that reason the Heliodyssee-Grand Four Solaire of Odeillo, the great solar oven was built in the Capcir. I always wanted to see it since is was on the cover of my physics book more than 30 years ago.

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Picture copyright of Google Maps.

Alas, it shall not be. It is not quiet clear if the Grand Four is open for visitors at the moment. And the road to Odeillo is closed for roadworks. The detour is also closed for road works.
Thus we settle for a smaller working model in Mount-Luis.

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With the added advantage that the lad can set fire to some stuff.

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Then it is down the valley of the Têt to Villefranche to Conflent. Another of Vauban’s magnificent fortifications. Thus there is no excuse that I totally missed taking meaningful pictures of this small town.

But before, have a look at these impressive bridges. We are coming to them in a minute.
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The highlight at the end of the holiday is the ride on a very unique train, le Petit Train Jeaune, the little yellow train.
It is not only unique in one, but in quite a few categories. Its narrow gauge, its the only narrow gauge railway in the SNCF network, it has got a third rail (which supplies the the power, a bit like at some undergrounds), serves the highest station in France, Bolquère at an elevation of 1593m and it is part of the Unesco World Heritage List since 2002. The track is most spectacular und the rolling stock is rather unusual.

We tried to get some tickets online as well as at the station in Villefranhce-de-Conflent. And failed.
About-France has a helpful website about the train, and also a clever strategy how you can actually pre-book tickets. Wikipedia also writes about the Ligne the Cerdagne as its officially called. And there is a very interesting TV program about it, alas in German.

With the service part done with, we arrive at the station in Villefranche-de-Conflent well in time. Villefranche is the centre of operation for the line and is a very impressive station for a town with just 200 residents.

Four mainline tracks, with the narrow gauge tracks at the other side of the shelter.

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We don’t know it yet, but we will travel in the old train. Very good.

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All here is manual. The conductor/guard checks all the paper tickets and punches a little hole into them. But eventually the about eighty passengers have boarded the train and we start at time.
Past a turntable:
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Soon the track starts to rise. Over 40 kms it climbs over a 1000 metres in altitude.  Not only the nature is breathtaking. Also the amount and quality of engineering works is astounding.
Note how this small station building clings to the mountain side.

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Just one of a few dozens, mostly shortish, tunnels.

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The whole area is famous for its hot springs and its associated bathes. With the approach of evidence based medicine they are not as popular as they used to be. A lot of hotels are thus empty or in ruins.
This is a particular nice example, fully covered in ivy, that colours it red in autumn.

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With the help of the Pont Séjourné, opened 1910, the line crosses the River Têt.
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There are over 20 stations along the line, but regularly it only stops at a couple of them. But you can just wait at any station and flag the train down, or tell the conductor, were you wish to get of. As those guys do.

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The biggest engineering highlight must be the Pont de Cassagne.
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The siffler sign announces a level- crossing and tells the driver to the sound the signal.
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Our train reaches his terminus at Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via. But there are although trains that travel the whole line to Latour-de-Carol.
We have 30 minutes stop before the train returns to Villefranche.
Font-Romeau is too far away to walk there and back in 30 minutes. So we just enjoy the sun and the scenery of the Cerdagne.
The line has reached the high plateau and the scenery is much more benign that deeper down the narrow valley.

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Winter is round the corner.
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After a very enjoyable ride down the valley we settle for a very nice dinner at Le Patio in Villefranche. Then back for an early night at our mountain home.

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Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 11)

Évol, Département Pyrénées-Orientales  and surroundings

Sunday, 20.10.2018

by car

After breakfast in our beautiful mountain residence we have another stroll through the village and then it is off to the Gorges de Carançà for some hiking.
The Gorges offer a breath taking walk along the ravine of the river Carançà.

The Gorges are entered under a railway viaduct of the “Little Yellow Train”. We will come to this tomorrow.

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At the beginning the walking is easy as the river is followed on the level.
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But soon it climbs out of the valley bottom, high up the sides of the Gorges.

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From this elevated position we can se the path we will be using on the way back.
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The views are glorious…
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… and the crew exhausted. Alas Cptn. Beerbelly might be the leader in this discipline.

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Eventually the path falls down to the valley floor again and starts following the river very closely.
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All this is achieved with the help of all kinds of aids to cross the river Indiana Jones style.
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Wildlife.
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Then it is back up from the valley floor to negotiate the way out of the Gorges.
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We have some well deserved refreshments at the little kiosk by the car park and then it is off to Vernet-les-Bains. It is the only village that sports any meaningful food shops in this part of the world. Oiled and watered up, we go on the last quest for today.  We want to see the Pic du Canigou. With 2785 m the highest mountain in this part of the Pyrenees. A map reading error leads us to the wrong road, but still is very interesting. And eventually, there it is.

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Then it is back to our mountain retreat for dinner and a relaxed evening.

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 10)

Lattes – Évol, Département Pyrénées-Orientales

Saturday, 19.10.2018

by car

The boating holiday now also comes to an de facto end. The boat is returned, the car loaded and the fuel payed. But not all is lost yet, as we have booked a house in the Pyrénées for three more nights.

What was planned as an easy road trip turns out to be a rather long day. The going in the French Pyrenees is slow, if once wants to avoid the main roads and enjoy the scenery.

Our first stop is Axat. We have a bit of duck confit in a café right next to the Aude, the river that drowned 13 people only a few days ago.

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Just past Axat the Aude has cut through a deep valley, the Gorges de Saint Georges.
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Picture Source Google Maps.

From here the road constantly climbs up to the plateau of the Capcir. Very nice, but I forget to take pictures. At Matemale we take a left up into the mountains of the Conflent. And again the most French of qualities becomes apparent. The country is just huge and once you leave the cities there is just nobody. Like nobody at all. We swerve through the mountains for two hours and only meet two old ladies collecting chestnuts.

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Eventually we arrive at Évol, one of the Plus beaux villages de France. And very beautiful it is, glued to the mountain side, built from the local stone and slate.
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The ARGO residence for the next three nights. Not too shabby at all.
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And a nice view from the small patio.
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Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 9)

Lattes – Cevennes – Lattes

Friday, 18.10.2018

by car

I always had an urge to visit the Massif Centrale. But this healthy fixation on boating kept getting in the way of this. There are just no navigable rivers or canals. But now this boating has tripped itself up, we grab the opportunity for a spin into the Cevennes.

As this trip got no planning whatsoever, we just draw a pencil line on the map in the rough direction of the Cirque de Navacelles. After a spell on the motorway, we are right on top of the Causse Blandas. A limestone plateau not unlike the Causses around the Lot. And again the area is almost devoid of people. In an hours drive we meet three other cars. And a hamlet of a dozen houses would be a centre of civilisation.

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First stop is the Vale de Vis. But the river carries no water at the end of the summer.

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Then we find the Cirque de Navacelles. The Cirque is a large erosional landform, an incised meander of the river Vis. The meander eventually broke through and left an ox bow lake that later dried up. The little village of Navacelles in the centre of it is largely isolated from the outside world, as the dried up lake is the only arable land for many a mile around.

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We enjoy a lovely lunch in the sun at the brand new visitor centre. Usually I would preferer a little restaurant, but there just aren’t any.

Then it is down the brilliant road to Navacelles itself. loads of hair pin bends. The lad is delighted.

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From this point onwards we run out of plan. But a look at the very good Michelin map of the area (always have good paper maps when you want to go exploring) tells us that there are several cols (summits) and roads with plenty of hairpin bends just north of us. Just what we are looking for.
We skirt Le Vigan and enter the Parc National des Cévennes.  And then spend the whole afternoon in this most beautiful area. And meet exactly one hiker.

Winding roads in and out of wooded valley in a gorgeous mountain scenery.

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Spectacular Waterfalls …

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.. quaint streams…

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… and fiercely dangerous looking insects. Please drop a line, if you can identify this beast.

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The lad, approves, also he keeps giving out about the crappy Peugeot. Rightly so.

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As we get back to our B+B, aka the boat, it is already dark.  Over a Cassoulet, although from a tin, and some local red we bring the day to a close.

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 8)

Frontignan- Lattes
Malpas and Fonserannes by car

Thursday, 17.10.2018

18 km, 1 lock

Another early morning, ready for the bridge opening at 8.30 a.m. After we have made it through the bridge a stroll into town to get fresh baguette. While we are having breakfast we can hear the roar of an engine in the distance, but cannot make out its source.

Once we leave the town and have a clear view the source of the noise gets apparent. An agricultural aircraft is busily doing its rounds.
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Not only do we get treated to a free air show. Also the flamingos get excited about it.

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Further on the canal gets quiet again and is a far cry from the mayhem two days ago.

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With the good weather we also manage to moor up at Manguelone. Ready to visit the island and its cathedral. It is closed, of course.
At least we make it to the beach, at long last.

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And that is almost the end of our boating trip. We stop on the Lez, where there is a Carrefour with a boat filling station right by the canal. Very handy.
Again we wait an hour for the lock keeper on the Lez lock to arrive, moor up at the marina, turn off the engine, plug in the electrics and prepare to use the boat as a stationary holiday home for the next two nights. Not the greatest outcome, but a very good reason to come back.

But it is not the end. We fire up the hire car in a quest to visit at least a few highlights we missed by boat.
First stop is the Oppidum d’Ensèrune. The hilltop of Ensèrune has been inhabited from 800 BC well into roman times. With it unique location it must have been hugely wealthy at the time, as it was able to control trade on the main routes in this part of the world. And thus there are traces from Celts, from the Greeks and Romans. All very well presented.

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From up here the floods of the last few days are well visible.
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And also to be seen, the Ètang d’Montady. This land was drained by 13th century monks. the star shaped drains meet at the centre into a main drain that slopes towards the Malpas hill. The monks then build a tunnel through the hill to drain the water towards Capestang. Tunnel Nr. 1.

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When Riquet met the Malpas hill, he also figured that the only way to get past it was a tunnel. Thus tunnel Nr.2, the 160m long Tunnel de Malpas was dug. The first canal tunnel in the world.

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Tunnel Nr. 3, a railway tunnel was dug in the 19th century.

A memorable site. Back to the car and on to Beziers and the Fonserannes staircase. It is testimonial to Riquete’s genius, that he managed to keep the canal on the level for 52 km before reaching the seven locks at Fonserranes. In a great leap the canal drops by 20 metres.

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In the 1960s a lot of building was done on the Midi to modernise it to Pichette standards. Thirty metres long locks had to be lengthened to 38 metres. While this was not much of a problem with single and double locks, just ad a bit of lock at one end, this was clearly not feasible at a staircase lock.
As a solution the engineers decided to bypass the locks by means of a water slop. Not too many details can be found on the web. But there is a  Wikipedia article and a short video about its sister slope at Montech on the Garonne canal.

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Also on offer beautiful views of the Béziers in the evening sun.
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Back to Lattes it is late already and we are too lazy to cock dinner. The little Thai restaurant at the marina looks inviting. And although the maitre is unfriendly to the extreme, the food is absolutely top notch. Red wine on board and a good nights sleep.

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 7)

Canal du Midi, ecluse 65 Bagnas – Marseillan – Canal du Midi, ecluse 65 Bagnas – Frontignan

Wednesday, 16.10.2018

33 km, 0 locks

Yesterday we got a call from Locaboat asking if we are fine, where we are and where we intend going. They also made it clear that they would appreciate, if we would make it to their base in Argens-Minervois. We could even keep the boat for a few more days at no extra cost. Quite obviously the base in Argens is theirs and they won’t have to pay for winter mooring.
Lets see what we can do.

We are primed and ready when the lock keeper turns up at 9.00. Having had watched the Avis à la Batellerie (the shipping forecast) on the VNF website over the last few days we are only mildly optimistic. And lo and behold the lockie, who speaks perfect German, tells us we cannot move on for now. Two kilometres from where we are, the canal runs in the bed of the river Hérault. The Hérault is still in flood and cannot be navigated at the moment. But the situation might be normal, come the afternoon. Again we consult the chart, shuffle plans and timetables and come to the conclusion, that we still could make it to Argens, if we could finally set off onto the Midi in the afternoon. Big if.

For now we decide to get back out onto the Étang de Thau and visit the small town of Marseillan.

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Marseillan water front.
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Marseillan is the home of the famous vermouth Noilly Prat. A tour would be nice, but the only one is in the afternoon.
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We take on water, do some shopping (better get the larder filled, if you don’t know where you might end up) and go for a nice lunch. Then it is back onto the canal with high hopes.

Another chat with the lockie makes us realise, that we are set check mate. The Hérault could be crossed now, but a few kilometres after that the river Libron needs to be crossed on the level. And now this crossing is closed. Also there are more and more red lights shining up on the VNF website and it is most likely that most of the Midi might be closed for navigation for at least a week. In fact, some sections are still closed as I write this four month later.
We ring the base and let them know that we have decided to cut our losses and will return to Lattes. They are not pleased, but have worked out by themselves that there is no other option.

So it is down the canal again. We really have not made a dent into cruising the Midi. But at least we travelled its first, or last, four km four times in two days. Plenty of birds this time.

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The lad is happy at the wheel.
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Just before we reach the Étang, a hotel boat comes our way. A bit too much plastic on either side for good measure…
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Finally the Étang is calm as a mill pond.
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Two cardinal markers announce the approach to Sète and the proximity of the Canal Rhone á Sète.
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Again it gets late and we moor up at the lift bridge in Frontignan just before it gets completely dark. Dinner cooked, wine, early bed.