Tales from the Tow Path

I’m continuing this mini series on favourite places with a look back at experiences along the Canal du Midi, France. The canal runs for 240 km from the lovely old city of Toulouse, south to beautiful Narbonne, connecting via a shorter section, the Canal de Robine to the Mediterranean. There is a corner along this shorter section where waterways merge and it is here that a gorgeous old stone cottage stands, crumbling and neglected, so that whenever we’ve cycled past I like to imagine living there between the two canals in the green, watery space.

Taken bit by bit we’ve cycled all of the canal at some time or other, the experiences punctuated with stops at picturesque or historic sights like medieval, walled Carcasonne, [touristy but fun] or Beziers with its stunning run of locks and the canal crossing the river via aqueduct.

Cycling canal tow paths is not challenging and is unlikely to suit those who pedal purely for exercise, but for those who enjoy leisure cycling, where scenery, tranquility, beautiful wildlife, occasional stops for coffees or beers and a chance to explore iconic and historic towns and cities it offers great rewards. The hardest slópe is a short pull up and over a lock, the trickiest navigation stray tree roots.

There are long stretches of canal where nothing much changes, avenues of trees- mostly planes but with some poplars or oaks, flank the sides and the banks are riotous with wildflowers.

Parts of the waterway are popular with boat users, usually hirers who are in the process of learning the business of lock negotiation, which can provide entertainment in the height of the season. It is mostly good-natured although we’ve had occasion to witness some disputes over lock access at times.

Other stretches are occupied by houseboats, like Dutch barges, but, unlike UK canals there are few narrow boats- we did, however watch one being taken down the nine Beziers locks once!

At the southern end of the Canal du Robine lies Narbonne Plage, from which cycle paths extend either way along the coast. We stayed on the beach site with a tent many years ago, a first stay in the area which was followed by several more, latterly with vans. The town, though not picturesque has all the ingredients necessary for a beach holiday [including lovely weather]. A preferable option for staying, and one we’ve taken up a few times, is Gruissan, which certainly is picturesque from any angle and has narrow, cobbled streets with interesting shops and bars, the streets winding up to a high pinnacle topped with an old church tower.

I’m sure we’ll return to parts of the Canal du Midi- not least because we’ve deliberated following the waterway north east from Toulouse at some point- although not, of course this year.

Another trip, however is imminent, here in our own UK [but not in England!]. We’ll be setting off as you read…watch this space!

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Eating Lessons

We are approaching the end of another extended trip, meandering around the South of France but this time, with somewhat more sophisticated facilities we have taken advantage of what the French call ‘aires’. The French have taken to motor-homes more than any other nation. The vehicles are becoming larger, more equipped and more elaborate. One result is that an industry has sprung up to address the needs of ‘camping car’ owners with numerous, vast areas set aside for, and only for campervans. Tent campers and caravanners can eat their hearts out. They are not invited.
An ‘aire’ will typically have a services point consisting of clean water, electricity, waste water disposal and a ‘vidange’ [for emptying toilet cassettes]. These facilities are more than enough to satisfy the needs of your average motor-homer. Increasingly aires are unmanned, with entry via a machine like a parking meter. Some are little more than vast car parks with electric points and waste disposal. Others are beautiful, landscaped spaces with attractive planting.
Getting sandwiched in our modest van between two gargantuan motor-homes allows plenty of opportunity to study the dining habits of others. In fact, anyone who is thinking of swapping their regime of TV dinners for something a little more formal, sociologically developed and a more gratifying gastronomic experience should look no further than the French model of dining, which can, it seems take up almost all of each day.
Take the three elderly folk sharing an equally elderly motor-home in an aire at Hourtan Port [for 10€ per night-a lovely, spacious, shady, tree-lined area]. They ambled out together mid morning-two mature monsieurs and a madame-returning at midday laden with bulging plastic bags plus several, substantial ‘artisan’ loaves. The bags turned out to contain dozens of fat, glistening oysters. Lunch was sorted! Later in the afternoon they wandered off again and reappeared with more bags, this time containing kilos of mussels. The next day’s catch was a batch of enormous fish, one of which filled an entire plate. Each meal, of course was accompanied by a bottomless bottle of wine.
At an unashamedly seaside aire in Gruissan a couple nearby would take their breakfast [plucked from the nearest ‘artisan’ boulangerie] of croissants, orange juice and coffee, then cycle off together purposefully. By lunch time their bike baskets would be laden with all the goodies they’d acquired. Lunch was prepared together-a serious and painstaking task of cleaning, chopping, table laying and cooking [no quick sandwich job for them!] There would be three courses and of course, wine. Later they would disappear again to seek out the components of the evening meal, when the procedures would be repeated.
In the small town of Gruissan, market day clogs the streets as everyone turns out to fill their basket with cheeses, charcuterie, fruit and vegetables, olives and preserves. Everything can be sampled before purchase, making the shopping excursion a gastronomic pleasure in itself. We joined the crowds, queuing for tasty lunch items and bearing home the spoils in anticipatory glee.
In contrast, the weekly supermarket drudge seems an impoverished experience, as does the regular ‘what can we have tonight?’ conundrum. Ho hum!