Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 6)

The middle of nowhere (pk51) – Sète – Canal du Midi, ecluse 65 Bagnas

Tuesday, 15.10.2018

36 km, 0 locks

We figured that we can make the 8.30 bridge opening in Frontignan when we set of with the first light of dawn at 7.00. Thus the alarm goes of really early.
The storm is only a faint memory. But the sky is still pitch black with clouds. And at the time we can finally see anything it is almost 8.00. Still we give it a try, maybe we are lucky.

Nobody around but an early fisherman checking his fish traps.

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We notice how lucky we have been yesterday. Most of the canal bank on this stretch is reinforced with huge rocks. Have we been blown against these, the night would have been at least uncomfortable, if not worse.
Plus there is one acute bend just before Frontignan. Had we gotten that far, we would have had no chance to make it. Plus more rocks. Turn to the right between the green and red marker.
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As we arrive at Frontignan we can just see the bridge keeper drive of in his car. Damn.
At least time for a good breakfast. Off to the baker, fresh bread and all the trimmings. The bridge will only open at 16.00, so we have a lot of time at our hands. With the train station right next to the moorings we decide to take the train to Sète, in an attempt to finally make it to the sea.

The train ride is only five minutes. But when we arrive at Sète, it is torrential rain, monsoon. So we wait to pass it by. The telly in the waiting hall tells us that 13 people were killed last night, when the river Aude rose by seven (!) meters within a timespan of one hour only.
The rain won’t stop, so we make dash across two roundabouts and a bridge to the Brasserie across the bridge. We decide to have a light lunch here and wait out the rain. And a good decision it is. By the time we are fed and watered, most of the rain is gone and we are ready to explore the town.

Séte is almost like Venice, minus the million of tourists. Boats and canals everywhere, right in the middle of the city.

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We make our way along the canals to the sea front. And find the Med still in a sour mood.
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Back to the station, just to find out, that the 3 o’clock train is cancelled. But the 2 o’clock train is two hours late and would bring it to Frontignan just 5 minutes before bridge opening time. Alas I have no trust on a train being two hours late already. Another of our plans is threatened to fail. But, hurray, there is also a bus. But the bus station is almost at the sea front, so back on the road in the drizzle…
But, this plan finally works out, we make it in time and finally are through the bridge.

The surroundings of Frontignan are rather industrial.
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And then, finally, the Etang de Thau.
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Thankfully the wind has not fully died a away, but is at a rather benign force 3. Crossing the lake is rather straight forward, just follow the line of markers. The only real problem: In case you loose control over your boat you might get blow straight into the oyster beds. Not an opportunity to make new friend.

Nice views back at Sète.

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Impressions of the lake.
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Towards the western end, the wind has got more fetch on the waves and it gets slightly choppy. But nothing too bad.
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And then the little lighthouse at the Pointe de Onglous, that marks the entrance to the Canal du Midi.
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With two and a half days beyond schedule, we finally make it to the …
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At first glimpse, the area is equally run down as the Canal Rhone á Sète.
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With the last light disappearing we reach the ecluse Bagnas, the first lock of the midi. We hammer in our mooring pins, cook dinner and hope for the best for tomorrow.

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Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 5)

Aigues-Mortes – the middle of nowhere (pk51)

Monday, 14.10.2018

28 km, 0 locks

The morning dawns wet and windy. Just as the forecast promised. And this is only the beginning. We need to make a move westwards if we want to cross the Etang de Thau tomorrow. We plan to make it to Frontignan, so we can avail of the 4.00 pm bridge opening and are at the starting line to cross the lake tomorrow morning.

Just as we untie the harbour master turns up to relieve us of of 72€. Moorers beware.

The first obstacle are the flood gates at Vidourle. Just as we arrive they are getting closed. Damn. Luckily the keeper sees us coming and opens them to let us through. All that is already rather hairy as the wind pushes right from the back towards the gates. I do struggle to keep the massively underpowered Penichette in position.

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On the other hand the wind makes for a quick passage giving us another klick or two sailing down the canal.

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The Flamingos seem untethered.
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The scenery is run down, but sure has seen worse.
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Maguelone is an island with an 11th century cathedral on it. It has been an important bishopry and a wealthy town. Even the pope resided here in the 15th century. But in the 16th century the sea took most of the town and the cathedral was given up. In 1852 the Fabrège family bought the island and restored the cathedral. A stopping point that is high on the list.

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Alas it shall not be. The wind is at force 7 or 8 by now and is pushing too hard. And the boat is ways too underpowered to get the bow through the wind. After 2 or 3 failed attempts we give up. Shortly after we are flagged down by the crew of another Locaboat.  They call for help and with a make or break manoeuvre we manage to make fast to their boat.
They tried the same thing we did. But one of their crew has gone missing after he managed to jump onto the towpath, while the boat was blown to the offside. Now the crew is gone, no phone with him, any bridge at least 5 km away in any direction.
They ask if we can tow them off, but I refuse, as it clearly is a silly and most dangerous idea. We sit them down and feed them coffee and cookies in order to calm them down. After about 30 minutes the crew turns up, stormblown and totally soaked. He has found somebody with a car that volunteered to drive him to the other side of the canal. Well done unknown knight in shining armour.

We just about manage to set of from their boat and get on our way. But only a couple of 100 meters onwards, the boat makes ground contact in the middle of the canal. Out of reflex I throttle back. By the time I have established that we are still afloat and everything is ok, it is too late. The wind has blown us against the offside bank.  And that’s it. We are stuck at the muddy bank. Nothing is moving. Wind too strong.

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It is just after lunch time, the windfinder app tells us, that there might be an weather eye at around 5 p.m. So we settle down for an afternoon of reading and games, still slightly optimistic.

But it just gets worse. The weather stations in nearby Sete and Carnon measure Force 10, with gusts of 11. But not all is bad.
The bank is soft an without any rocks. The wind presses us against it and the boat is just solidly wedged in, nice and stable. I get the mooring spikes out and try to find a solid spot in the muddy bank. But it only is a token gesture. If the wind turns, no mooring spike will keep us secured.
This is the first time, I ever bought a damage waiver when renting a boat. It really adds some peace of mind.

Between us and the sea, there is only the Étang du Prévost, about half a mile wide, and a strip of sand dunes. The breaking waves are a good bit higher than the dunes. Spectacular. These pictures come with a very angry roar as a sound track.

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With nothing left to do, we cook diner and prepare for the night. The noise during the night is incredible, but at the same time we feel save and cosy.
Will try an early breakout tomorrow morning.

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 4)

Aigues-Mortes – Gallician – Aigues-Mortes

Sunday, 14.10.2018

24 km, 0 locks

At dawn the town is suspiciously quiet. Most citizens are probably tending to their hangover.
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What a party last night. We really are keen to find out what is going on here.
Before we do so,  we have to do the touristy bit and do some sightseeing. In 1240 Ludwig IX. bought some land, because he needed a harbour on the Med, so he could take part in the crusades, without being dependant on Venice. He first got the “Tour de Constance” built, the fat one in above picture, and subsequently the city walls and a whole new town. And while the town prospered Ludwig didn’t do so well. He got caught during the 6th crusade and had to pay a huge sum of ransom money. On the seventh crusade he wasn’t killed by the enemy, but by typhoid.

For a few Euros we are allowed to walk the city walls.
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The walls also offer a great view of the Ètang da la Vile. It really is that pink. With the Salins du Midi in the background.
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A good look at the arena. It appears that every family involved with this bullfighting owns a little mobile stand that could be towed behind a car. And all these stands together make up the arena.
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The Tour de Constance features an impressive vault.
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More stunning views including the railway swing bridge.
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There is just enough time for a coffee in the market square, when the cannon is fired again.
The proceedings start with a presentation of the Camargue horses, some flowers for the officials, the obligatory kissing and the singing of the Marseilles.
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Then its back to the bullfighting. But before you get too upset, this is not like the Spanish version with gayly dressed toreros trying to kill the animals. And also I did not really understand the rules, if there are any, its more an opportunity for the youngsters to show off. And to snatch a little ribbon from the bull’s horns. All very chaotic and very, very archaic. Apparently they are doing this since the times of the ancient Greeks settling in this area.
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All in all great crack. Thus we are very lucky that the weather forced us into having this detour. Once its done and over, we decide to have a go towards the Camargue itself. We figure, that if we keep going east to Galician we might be able to have a walk into it.
The lad approves.

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Along the canal there is more evidence of the modernisation program.
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At Galician the harbour master arrives within a blink to get our money. Fortunately we can convince her, that we only want to stay for a few hours. Really for the better of it. The bridge over the canal is the highest point for miles.
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And it looks like that in any directions. We make an attempt to find some tracks that would allow us to explore a bit. But there aren’t any. Its just a huge swamp.
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But not a bother. We turn round and motor back to Aigues-Mortes. Here we have another nice evening with our friends from B.C. Early night.

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 3)

le Ségala – Lattes – Aigues-Mortes

Sat, 13.10.2018

28 km, 1 lock

Understandably we haven’t done much boat hiring since we got ARGO. Because the whole point of a boat of our one was to save on expensive boat hire.
But then we have been hiring boats for almost 20 years and thus are dab hands on doing so.
Lesson No.1: Be there as early as possible, try to avoid the crowds. If you are too late, it takes all afternoon to get your paperwork done and also the wait for the instructor drags on, while you could actually be out on the water.

We had a nice breakfast, returned the house keys and hit the motorway down to Montpellier. We got our shopping done at a supermarket and headed to Lattes.
50 years ago a lot of this length of coast was hardly populated at all. Then it was still an area rife with malaria. With a massive use of chemicals, the tsetse fly was exterminated. And subsequently about a dozen new towns were build along the coast. But all of them strictly for tourism.   Imagine Blackpool and Milton Keynes having an ugly child together and you get the idea.
Lattes, were our boat is waiting for us, is one of these towns.

But there is our boat, its ready for us. we stow our gear, deal with the formalities and within the hour we are out on the river Lez.
This little costal river is navigable for 5 km from Lattes to its junction with the Canal du Rhône á Sete. Not the most inspiring river.

Leaving Sete behind.
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Towards the sea.
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But we are stopped soon enough, by the first and only lock on the Lez.
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The keeper takes its time and we have to wait an whole hour for him to arrive. Just enough time to explain the predicament we are in:
To get to the Canal du Midi, we would go westwards, parallel  to the Mediterranean coast, until we would reach Frontignan, were we would be presented with a lift bridge that only opens twice a day, at 8.30 and at 16.00. Just after that, one has to cross the Etang de Thau, a big salt water lake. And because it is so big, it must not be crossed at winds higher than a force 3. We won’t make the bridge today, and the forecast for tomorrow is force 6, before it gets even much worse and then maybe better on Tuesday.
No point in hanging around in front of a bridge that won’t open for three days.

So once we reach the Canal de Rhône á Sete, we turn left instead of right, east instead of west.

Oh, and before that we pass this multi-storey boatpark.
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The crossroads.
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The canal really is not pretty, or interesting, or anything really.
Its outstanding feature is its absolute featurelessness.  And its dead straight. To make matters worse, VNF spends 29 million Euros to get the canal up to scratch for commercial traffic. It gets dredged over miles and endless miles. This is a good thing of course. But the spoil is deposited right next to the canal. So where one could see the sea and wildlife till not long ago, one now sees spoil, and nothing but spoil.
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And were there are gaps in the spoil, one can admire 1960s concrete architecture gone stale.
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Yes I admit, I am not fair. I am in a sour mood because things don’t go to plan. But it will get better soon, before it gets a lot better and then really, really bad.
But first of all: Better.
Flamingos, loads of them, everywhere.
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There is no real place to stop, as all the moorings in the charts seem to have just been dredged away as well. So we plan for Aigues-Mortes to be our port of call. Only problem with that plan: We are running out of daylight, but if nothing serious happens, we might just make it with the last light.
And we have met a lovely couple from British Columbia. They have never hired a boat and are a bit worried. So I had told them, in all my chivalry, to just stay behind us, and we will lock after them.  But now I am worried that they might be worried as it gets really late. But, no place to stop, is no place to stop and we just press on.

The lad doesn’t mind.
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And then we reach the flood gates at the river Vidourle. Everything here is already at the level of the Med. There is no space for aqueducts or such nonsense. The Vidourle crosses the canal on the level. If the river is in flood, the gates are closed and the canal thus protected. This obviously stops all shipping until the river finds his manners.
Not a problem now, but guess what…

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Then we hit traffic. A real biggy. That’s bad, but luckily he just moors up at one of the brand new jetties. Which are strictly for freighters.

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The Canadians still hanging in.

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But, just before it gets pitch-black, we reach Aigues-Mortes. And what a place this is. There is a huge funfair, together with the bad music, right next to the harbour. The place is absolutely heaving with people. And its well past 7 p.m. A time where every self-respecting French citizen  should be having dinner. Very strange.

The lad and myself of course have to check out the funfair.
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Back to the boat its dinner and a few glasses with our new friends. When they retire, the party is still in full swing.
We walk back to town and find public concerts all over the place, thousands of people drinking and dancing, really cool. At midnight a canon gets shot. All the people seem to gravitate towards the other end of town. We follow them. And what we find is makeshift arena for bullfights. And bullfighting they do. Well past midnight. We stay till the wee hours. What a day…

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 2)

le Ségala – Montagne Noire – le Ségala

Fri, 12.10.2018

lots of km

We wake up to a dark house. No electricity. The RCD keeps dripping. I ring the landlord and he turns up within five minutes. We fiddle about and diagnose a dodgy socket, that has got a treatment by some vermin.
While he changes the socket, I take the car to the Boulangerie in Labstide – d’Anjou. Once I am back the coffee machine is back in service. Brilliant.

The Canal du Midi is not the first, but the second summit canal ever to be built. The first one was the Canal the Briare, finished in 1642, thus proving the concept. A summit canal connects two river systems. To do so, it has to climb up the watershed between the two river basins with the help of locks. Trouble is: whenever a boat passes through the summit it takes with it a lock full of water. And this water needs to be replaced (+ the water for evaporation, turning locks, and so on).

To achieve this, the canal needs a feeder that supplies it with water. But remember, the canal is already high up, away from any stream or river. The solution is to get the water from further away and higher up. And that is just what Pierre-Paul Riquet did. Riquet was the visionary that got the Midi build. His real strike of genius was the  elaborated feeder system in the Montagne Noire. And today we are going to check it out.

The Montagne Noire is not exactly a centre of population and we spent most day on small and smallest road, sometimes even on gravel, through fantastic wooded hills. So it is a surprise when we get to Saissac, that even sports a proper castle. That would usually qualify for a stop, but we have other things to seek out.

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Navigation is not easy. Even Google Maps gives only a vague representation of the area, just shy of noting down “there be dragons”.
The Rigole de la Montagne Noire starts at the Prise d’Alzau. First we find a little reservoir that collects the water from the Alzau. So we found the river, but are not at the right altitude yet. Never the less a lovely place.

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Second try lucky. In the foreground flows the river d’Alzau. Through the gate water is taken off into a culvert.
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Past the keeper’s cottage.
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And here it resurfaces.
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From here it flows along the flank of the mountains, eagerly hugging the contour.
All in the great setting of an autumnal beech forest.

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From here the Sat-Nav guides us along forestry tracks, which seem to be part of the official road network around here. Mostly due to the lack of much of a road network.
We find the Bassin du Lampy Neuf. The first and highest reservoir along the Rigole.

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There are outlets and canal on various levels of the dam. Little bridges and a whole network of tracks, again in the middle of an old beech forest.

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Further on to Cammazes. Not only the Midi has got a tunnel, even the feeder canal was fitted with one.

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From here it is on to the Bassin de St-Ferrol. The oldest and largest reservoir.
At the end of the summer, it is rather empty.

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At the dam the water does not only flow onwards in a profane canal…

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… it also feeds a waterfall and a fountain in a quaint park.
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Past St-Ferrol the Rigole de Montagne Noire leaves the mountains and changes its name to Rigole de la Plaine. That will be the next part of our expedition.

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Quite a trench for that bit of a stream, isn’t it? The reason for this huge cross-section: Initially the Rigole de Plaine was navigable through six locks to the town of Revel. But is was badly plagued by silting and the navigation didn’t survive very long.

Just before the Rigole finally reaches the Midi, Riquet had a huge hexagonal Bassin dug. He envisaged the Bassin de Naurouze to be a grand inland Venice.
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Again, the Bassin silted up fairly quickly and nothing came out of it.
This proud alley crosses the Bassin today.
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And then the grand finale: After more than 70 kilometres the feeder hits the Midi.

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A short stroll from here we reach the aptly named ecluse de Océan. As from here the canal starts his decent towards the Atlantic Ocean. The lock at the other end of the summit is called, you might have guessed already, Méditerranée.

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We had a long journey today and are reasonably tired. Back to out cottage and, as it has to be, a dinner of Cassoulet.

Autumn in France 2018 (DAY 1)

Dublin – Carcassonne – le Ségala

Thursday , 11.10.2018

lots of km

The Canal du Midi. The canal of canals. The story goes that Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater travelled along the Canal du Midi on his gentleman’s tour through Europe. And thus got the inspiration to built a canal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. It was opened in 1761. And yes, it was a great success, it kicked off the canal mania, and there might not have been an industrial revolution without it.

But what faint memories Egerton must have brought home. Compared to the grandeur of the Midi, that was almost a hundred years old by the time the duke visited, the Bridgewater was not more than a muddy ditch. There was one aqueduct (hurray!), and not much else. The Midi is far away from being such a modest affair. It has got dozens of aqueducts, it has got 65 locks, a huge and elaborate feeder system, a tunnel, and hey, it has got the weather.

Now that my English readers are sufficiently disgruntled, lets go into medias res.

I have been toying with the idea of visiting the Midi for years. But in the summer it seems to be absolutely mobbed, extremely hot and a very long way to tow ARGO. But then Locaboat made me an offer that was hard to resist. A one-way trip from Lattes to Argens-Minervois, very cool, would take in all the major attractions. Maybe even a detour down the Émbranchement de la Nouvelle?

A flight was booked, a hire car hired, and two nights at a cottage by the canal and three nights in a cottage in the Pyrenees paid for.

Thus we set of at 3.00 in the morning to Dublin airport, enter one of Michael O’Leary’s finest, upwards and beyond to Carcassonne.

Before we get to the Midi, we have to talk about the Cité de Carcassonne. We arrive around lunch time, pick up the hire car, a Peugeot to the lads utter disgust (we all remember the Top Gear episode, where Jeremy pretends to be a Peugeot driver), and drive directly to the Cité.
As much as the Midi is the quintessential canal, the Cité is the quintessential medieval castle. But this is not a well kept secret, its rather aggressively advertised in any travel guide from the Americas to the Chinas. Meaning: Even in the off-season the place is packed.

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We look for a place to eat. Which is not difficult, while being really difficult. Practically every house in the Cité either hosts a restaurant or a tacky gift shop. Eventually we settle for pizza. Nothing too special, but al fresco, in the sun, in October. Makes it very special.

Then its a tour through the Citè and the castle.

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The lad approves.
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In the distance the Montagne Noire. We will have a closer look tomorrow.
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Out into the countryside. We have booked an old cottage in the hamlet of le Ségala, right at the summit of the Canal du Midi.

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A very nice place on a sunny evening.
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The landlord has gone to great length to accommodate us and has booked a table for us at the restaurant next door.
Good food and wine. Early bed.

France 2018, Brittany (Days 27 to 30)

Glénac – St-Pol-de-Léon

Monday to Friday , 14. to 17.08.2018

lots of km

Tuesday morning we load up the boat and get the rig ready for the journey to St-Pol-de-Léon near Roscoff.
Big hugs and farewell to Regina, Martin and Drew. They will continue up the Oust to Rohan, where Martin owns a house by the canal. So it is a matter of pride for him to get there on his own keel. They eventually make it after a lot of trials and tribulations, and adventures. But this is their story to tell.

The trip to Roscoff is only 220km long, but more than half on it is on small and smallest RDs across the rural heart land of Britany. Beautiful but time consuming. But none the less we eventually reach Camping Ar Kleguer right by the sea at St-Pol-de-Léon. As usual I had pre-booked, as usual we get strange looks for the rig, as usual it is a tight squeeze to maneuver ARGO onto her pitch.

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The camping is grand. Mostly picked because of the waterpark. The lad likes it. But then its a campsite….

On the Tuesday we are reasonably tired. So just a swim in the pool, a quick trip to town for some food shopping and a quick look around. Plus, and that the highlight: We pass the La Pomme d’Api. We always wanted to visit a Michelin star restaurant. And this is the chance. And indeed after a bit on and forth we secure a table for Thursday evening.

Wednesday:

After a more frugal dinner at the campsite, its time to admire the sun set.

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On the Wednesday we take it easy. Driving along the coast and enjoying the scenery. And the rugged coast line really is spectacular.

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In the late afternoon we are booked in for beach sailing. But that is called off due to a lack of wind. But not a bother we do some messing at the pool, cook up some dinner and then walk down to the beach front. There the Fete de Mer reaches its climax, with the “Johnny Depp Revival Band” giving their very best.

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Once they have finished and it is dark, we enjoy glorious fire works. Deployed from a boat out in the bay.

Thursday.

Today its rather overcast and dull, but nonetheless sightseeing is called for. The word Tahiti Beach sounds very promising. And its really beautiful, although not quiet like I would imagine Tahiti.

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But the clouds bring wind with them. And that is just what we need.

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All in all there could be a bit more wind, but nonetheless great fun.
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Covered in sand, we have the rush back to the campsite to get brushed up for fine dining. The finest in fact we have ever been to.

When we booked the table, we were told to be there at 6.30 sharp and that’s the last table they have got. Like really 6.30, not roundabout that, like Irish time. Thus we are very surprised to find the place empty when we arrive. But then we find out that they stagger the tables. Everybody getting greeted by the staff and getting the utmost attention.
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The whole thing is an incredible experience. The service is so good, that you cannot possibly refill your glass, as the sommelier will rush to do it for you.
And the food. We get four different Amuse-Gueule.
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The entrée. Foie Gras marbled with smoked eel.

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Red snapper.
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Tarte.
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All of sheer indescribable taste. The best money ever spent on food. Go whenever you are in the area.
Before bed a digestive walk by the sea.
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Friday:

Time to go home. We drag out the morning at the pool, as there are few places we could go, once the trailer is attached to the car, and the ferry is only leaving in the evening.
We are the first at the ferry port and park the rig up to one side of the waiting area, hoping to be in nobody’s way.

From here we walk along the coast into Roscoff proper.
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A nice crepe lunch and then a detour to the supermarket for some fresh food aboard the ferry.

The Oscar Wilde is quite a sight.
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Just as we leave the Pont-Aven arrives.

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And that’s really it folks. An uneventful crossing and the slog through half of Ireland gets us back home.
But please stay tuned and watch this space, as this year we had the privilege to spend a  second holiday. At the Canal du Midi, which turned out to happen almost anywhere else but on the Canal du Midi.