Wednesday, June 27, 2012

France Day 6 - Canal Du Midi & the French diversion

Had a bit of a lay in this morning, as it was quite a late one the night before, so by the time we’d got up at eight, then arsed around for a while, we didn’t leave the gite until around ten, which is practically unheard of, so we headed to the car, roundly chastising ourselves, little knowing it would set the tone for the day ahead.

Again, most unlike us, we didn’t really have a plan for the day, we did think of going to see some of the finest Cathar castles in the area, but by the time we’d have got there it would've been baking hot, and they are quite a climb to get to. So we decided to stay around the local area and just go for a bit of a drive.

Unfortunately as we had been doing quite a lot of driving already (we would notch up over 1000 miles before the week's end), it meant a lot of the places we ended up going we had been to before, either because we couldn’t remember we’d been there, or we recognised the name but couldn’t recall the place, so the whole thing was an exercise in voluntary déjà vu.

Accompanying us on this voyage nulle part, were the constant clatter of the DJ’s on the radio, who I believe love the sound of their own voices even more than their British counterparts. And that, is really saying something. So we drove through Villalier, which had more one way and no entry signs than any small town has a right to, Villegly, Cannes, Peyriac, Reux Minervois and Aaille to name but a few, sometimes stopping to walk the deserted streets and play a game of dodge the dog turd, which the local mutt population seem to leave in epic quantities, but mainly continuing to drive around wondering what we could do with ourselves, all the while getting tetchy and crabby with each other.

To give us a break from our sulky disagreeablness we stopped for a rather ropey coffee in Siran, a place I remember very little about, before heading to a rather nice spot on the Canal du Midi near Quarante. This lifted our spirits as we unsheathed our camera gear, to fire off a few shots. By this time it was mid day and the light was very harsh so it didn’t look its best, but it was a nice spot to be. The canal was built in the second half of the 17th Century by Pierre-Paul Riquet under the reign of Louis XIV, with a view to improving the movement of wheat, wine and textiles, the main export products from the midi region, across the south of the country.

A section of the Canal du Midi with its many trees
And here is a black & white stretch of the same canal, amazing what they can do.
And this part even has a person stood next to it with a camera and a vacant smile

It is one of Europe’s longest and widest canal systems, with its 64 locks spread along the 240 km stretch from Toulouse to the coast, all under the shade of 250,000 planted trees, no surprise it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Of course it no longer has any importance as a trade route, this was taken care of once the railways arrived in the 19th century and it was left to decay. Strangely enough though it was the British who reinvigorated interest in the Canal, and spurred its economic upturn, as after WWII they took to boating on it as a form of relaxation, in a way the French never did, and even today most of the boating companies that serve the Canal are British owned.

After that we drove to Pezenas, a lovely little town with many old buildings, and we had a good old wander around the medieval part, keeping to the shade wherever possible as the day was somewhat warm, which is part of the reason we didn’t bring our cameras out for a stroll, that and the general listlessness that had overtaken us.

Afterwards we decided to head back to the gite along the main roads, as the back roads would have taken too long, and we fancied a speedy return drive. As it happened though, the road was closed at Mazamat, which somewhat impeded our journey, but luckily for us the local transport officialdom had put in place a diversion. Yet the word diversion hardly does this piece of thoroughfare digression justice, it barely hints at the impenetrable depths it contained. If their brief was to try and be as vague, abstruse, cryptic and downright mysterious as possible then they had applied themselves with aplomb.

We trundled back and forth between the various outskirts of Mazamet, arguing with the sat nav as it tried, with increasing stubbornness, to take us back to the main road (obviously this was normal practice for Sarah, who’d even started to carry an alarming looking cudgel to threaten the device with, but new to me, being the trusting sort that I am), always hoping that each new street might possibly be the one that would lift the veil on this inscrutable puzzle we had been set. But to no effect, we just couldn’t penetrate its arcane, labyrinthine intricacies no matter how hard we tried, but we did get to see a great deal of Mazamet, far too much in fact, far, far too much.

Luckily for us we were saved by a passing local with knowledge of the dark arts employed in such situations, and who managed to ascertain two very salient points about us in a very short time, 1. We were tourists, and 2. We were lost. He pointed us in the right direction and with a jaunty wave and a thumbs up from me, which I fretted about for the next half and hour in case it was somehow offensive in France to raise one’s thumb into the air, and we zoomed in haste to the gite, along back roads, which actually took us longer than if we had just taken the back roads from the beginning. Ho hum.

I'm afraid this isn't anywhere we went that day, it's just, apart from the canal, we didn't actually take
any other pictures, so here are a few from Alet les Bains the day before, just break up the tedium.
Spotted this house for sale, might have potential.
An little old road
After freshening up we decided to have dinner at the local eatery again, but because there was a band playing that night, they had decided to forgo their usual excellent dishes in favour of a set menu. This had two rather pertinent qualities that were missing from their normal bill of fare, in that it managed to be both expensive, it was in fact the most expensive meal we had whilst in France, and also awful, the dishes were half cold, tasteless and slopped onto the plate like a particularly distressing school dinner.

Whether this was because they’d decided that if we were going to get free music, we should pay for it in others ways, or that, because these nights were a bit of an ex-pat hang out, they had the solemn conviction that British people genuinely took delight in paying over the odds for grub an emaciated tramp would turn his nose up at, I couldn’t really say.

But on the plus side the band were very good indeed.

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