Unexpected pleasures

Florence from North Carolina (the lady who made the famous Tomato Pie) is staying at Acanthus in St Chinian again this year, and yesterday, on the spur of the moment, we went canoeing together.  We had both done the run from Vieussan to Roquebrun before, so decided to explore a different stretch of the river this time.  We ended up at Réals Canoe Kayak for our adventure.

The departure time for the 5km discovery trip was at 11am, and all was beautifully organised.  The receptionist opened the car park barrier for us, and once we had the car tucked away we filled in the paperwork at her desk.  As soon as that was done we went down a flight of stairs to get kitted out with life jacket, waterproof drum and paddle. Since we were getting a single-seater kayak each we also got a drum each for the things we wanted to take along:  sun screen, water, mobile phone and watch (both inside a zip-loc bag), towel, etc.  Here’s a tip if you are going to do this – the larger drums make great back-rests!!  Once everyone had arrived and been kitted out we had a briefing session about the route, and then Olivier, the manager, took us on board the minibus and we were off, with a trailer fully loaded with canoes and kayaks coming along with us!

Our starting point was along the road to Roquebrun, just after the newly painted bridge across the Vernazobre river.  Olivier expertly reversed the trailer as close to the water as possible, and held another briefing session, explaining how to manoeuvre the boats and how to paddle.  And then we were off and right away there was a fantastic rapid – more of a waterfall really, but not too challenging!  The boats soon spread out, and as ours was only a small group we soon had the river more or less to ourselves.

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And it’s a beautiful river – until we got to Cessenon there were hardly any people along the banks, and even in Cessenon the beach was not busy.  We pulled up for a break there, and a drink and a dip in the river.  The water was pleasant and refreshing and definitely not cold!

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After Cessenon there is a set of gentle rapids and then a long stretch of  calm water – the pond for the Moulin Neuf hydroelectric power plant.  There was a fair bit of paddling, but it was so still and beautiful.  We saw a heron and some egrets, and, perched on a bit of wood in the middle of the river, a seagull.  As we approached the Moulin Neuf dam we started to look out for the flourescent orange markers Olivier had told us about – the entrance to the water slide.  I must say I had very mixed feelings as I tried to steer my kayak into the channel, remembering to hold my paddle above my head as I’d been told.  But oh what fun – and oh how quickly it was over!!  We both agreed that if there had been a way we happily would have carried our kayaks up for another go 🙂  but alas…

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Once past Moulin Neuf we had the joy of a few more rapids.  At one of the rapids people had built cairns in the water – beautiful and somewhat otherworldly.

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We soon got close to Reals where our adventure was to end – we’d been warned to look out for the stop sign, and were on no account to go further.  Going past the stop sign would have brought us into the slalom parcours which is used for international competitions.  Neither of us felt up to that quite yet, although the rapids did look very exciting and inviting.  We pulled our kayaks onto land, and then walked to the base with our paddles and drums.  Back at the base there were changing rooms and showers, both of which were very clean.

The 5km route is supposed to take 2 hours and that’s about right – we were back in St Chinian at 2.30pm

The other unexpected pleasure that day was in the evening – a visit to Causses-et-Veyran for a performance of Boo Cosa Vostra, by the CirkVOST company of artists.  Our friendly postie had tipped us off about the show in the morning, telling us how fantastic it was.  We headed right for the stadium to have a look at the set-up.

P1030737I think you’ll agree that the set looks impressive – a 15 mt high structure, entirely made of bamboo!  The performance was due to start at 21:45 and we had arrived early enough to grab a bite to eat at the Guingette del Catet, a temporary tavern set up in the bouledrome next to the stadium.

Two stalls were doing a brisk trade:  La Carriole Gourmande offering quiches, savoury tarts and crepes;  Le Traiteur Sagne had a mobile wood-fired pizza oven and grill and was offering a range of food such as regular burgers and duck burgers, several different kinds of pizzas (one with strips of duck breast, creme fraiche and cheese – yummy!), and a plat du jour of strips of grilled duck breast with a peppery sauce.  We placed our order, got our bottle of rosé wine and found seats at one of the long tables.  Soon enough our food was ready, and not long after we were joined at our table by a couple from Beziers.  We had a wonderful chat, they offered us a taste of their duck pizza, and we shared our desserts with them.  You couldn’t imagine anything more congenial!

Soon it was getting dark and it was time to bid our new friends farewell and head for the stadium (they were waiting for friends to join them).  On the way I spotted this lovingly decorated bicycle – and couldn’t resist a picture!

IMG_7890Once inside the stadium we grabbed some folding chairs and found ourselves a strategic place from which to watch the show.  The sunset was particularly beautiful and made the set look even more dramatic.

And once everyone was settled the show began:  almost unnoticed the acrobats had climbed up into the structure, and when the lights came on there they all were, perched perilously high up!

One by one they fell into the net below, and then climbed up again in a choreographed kind of way, and then the real acrobatics started.  A duo of ladies in long dresses on a trapeze, which oscillated around the central area, all the movements incredibly slow, and beautiful to watch.  More daring hand-to-hand acrobatics up high,  and then the ladies came on again, this time on two separate trapezes.

The grand finale came with some incredible flying trapeze stuff, people flying through the air and being caught, all done with incredible precision that must come from endless hours of practice!  I managed to take a few short videos to give you an idea of the amazing spectacle (e-mail subscribers, please visit the page to watch the videos).

All too soon it was over 😦

IMG_7984And as we walked back to our car we caught a last glimpse of the Guingette

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Summertime…

… is a time for festivals in the area, and there are so many of them that it’s very easy to lose track!  I went with friends to Beziers for the last night of Festival Swing – les pieds dans l’Orb.  This three-day festival concentrates on what the French call swing,  not necessarily the swing of the old-fashioned big bands, but definitely with a French twist.  The venue for the festival is the Amphithéâtre du Pont Vieux, right by the river.  The Pont Vieux dates from the 12th century, and a few years ago restoration work was carried out which opened up a number of arches which had been filled in over the centuries with alluvial deposits.  During the renovation a park was created on either side, and on the upstream side of the bridge an amphitheater was built.  It is a glorious site, with the backdrop of the cathedral and former archbishop’s palace across the river.

We arrived early and waited patiently with a few hundred people outside the gates.  The security guards allowed people to enter in groups of about 20, so that there would be no pushing – very civilised!  We were heavily laden with a picnic, and were pleasantly surprised to find rows of chairs set out.  As we were early we managed to get perfect seats, and as people filled the empty chairs around us we started on our feast.  If you are tempted to go next year, there were two big stands selling (fast) food and drinks, so bringing a picnic is not absolutely necessary!  Wine could be bought by the glass (plastic) or in plastic measuring jugs.  What a very good idea not to have any glass on the site, and all those people running about with their measuring jugs full of wine made me smile!  I’m sorry there are no pictures of our picnic, we were too absorbed with eating all the food:  Smoked salmon and spinach in puff pastry, chicken salad with celery, pecan nuts and raisins, an Indian style potato salad, cheeses accompanied by some salad leaves, followed by a blackcurrant cheesecake mousse.  And of course we had brought some wine – this is France after all :-)!

As we were finishing our food the concert began.  The first act was a duo called Nadja, and they performed swing/jazz standards.

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Next up was Lady Ya’ & The Swing Makers.  While they were playing there was the most gorgeous light, bathing everything in a golden glow.

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There was a little break while the stage was slightly changed for the main act of the evening: Michel Jonasz accompanied by the Coll Orchestra Symphonic Big Band.

All the musicians were dressed in impeccable white suits and they started out with some fantastic instrumental music.

On came Michael Jonasz with his backing singers, and the crowd got very excited.  He’s a very well known artist in France, with a long career, and most people in the audience knew his songs by heart and could sing along.

The evening was balmy, the Pont Vieux beautifully lit with coloured lights, and the atmosphere fantastic – what better way to spend a summer’s evening?

One of the many un-missable events over the course of the summer is La Fete Nationale on the 14th of July.  I spent it in St Chinian this year, and took a couple of videos of the fireworks (e-mail subsribers use this link and this link)

Neighbours of mine, James and Maggie, went to Carcassonne this year to watch the fireworks, and allowed me to share some of their pictures with you.  I went to see the Carcassonne fireworks a long time ago, and I am very tempted go again next year – they are absolutely spectacular!  Thank you James and Maggie!

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Gently gliding by

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than by the waters of the Canal du Midi.  A little fete had been organised in Capestang by the tourist office a couple of weeks ago, and since the weather was perfect I couldn’t miss it!  One of the main attractions was a replica of a post barge from 1818, offering a glimpse of horse-drawn transport from a bygone age.

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Le Cairol was moored up in harbour when I got there, and Robert Mornet, the man behind the construction of the boat, welcomed us aboard for a brief tour.  It soon became evident that travel in the early 19th century was not particularly comfortable – the main room of the boat would house 30 passengers, and there was only one toilet on board! In the salon next door, those who had more money could travel in a little more comfort, but I imagine that it was not in the lap of luxury.

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The post barges were put into service by the administration of the Canal du Midi when it was first opened in 1681, and in the early days passengers got off one boat and onto the next one at each lock, so as not to waste time and water by going through the locks.  Later on the service got somewhat faster and from 1834 the express service took only 36 hours to cover the 240km between Sete and Toulouse.  At its peak, the barges transported 100,000 passengers annually, but with the advent of the railways, passenger numbers declined and the last post barge sailed in 1858.  Except in the records, no trace of these boats remained and so in 2007 Robert Mornet started to recreate a barge from plans found in the archives.  You can find out a little more about the barge and its construction here.

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One thing to remember is that the barges were strictly for transport – no food was served, and passengers could not sleep on board.  For eating and sleeping there were auberges along the canal (see my earlier post about the Musee du Bitterois for a picture of the reconstruction of the interior of one such auberge).  There would also have been places along the way where the horses were changed. Take a walk along the Canal du Midi from La Redorte towards Homps and you can still find the buildings of a former auberge at La Dinée.

But back to the fete though!  There was a roving band which consisted of four musicians, and they played some wonderful traditional music.  I  took a brief video for you (e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog page to view the videos on this post):

After a quick visit to the tourist office alongside the harbour, it was time for the post barge to start its horse-drawn voyage.  The horse was harnessed and attached to the boat by a long rope.  The horse didn’t seem to be all that willing at first, but it soon got into its stride, and the boat picked up the speed required to get it under the bridge.  The early bridges on the Canal du Midi were only wide enough for a barge to pass, the towpath didn’t pass under the bridge but around, and the bridge in Capestang is one such narrow bridge.  This meant that a boat had to have enough momentum to pass through.  The horse(s) would be unhooked just before the bridge, and attached again on the other side.  Later bridges were built wide enough so that the towpath would pass under the bridge.  The Cairol made it safely through, despite a bit of a to do with a pleasure boat 🙂

The design of the barge is ideal for the canal as it creates hardly any wash, so no disturbance to other boats nor the banks of the canal as it passes by.   After all this excitement I took a stroll into Capestang for a drink – I decided that the restaurant/bar on the banks of the canal was taking just a bit too much of an advantage of its location.  In the plane-tree-shaded square to the side of the towering gothic church in the centre of Capestang are two cafes and it was very pleasant sitting in the shade, sipping a drink and eating an ice cream :-).

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Back to the Canal and across the more modern bridge, where I caught another glimpse of the Cairol floating along, this time under motor power rather than horse power.

I made my way back to the port, past the marché des producteurs (farmers market), and while I was gone a small theatre set had been erected in front of the tourist office, and I was just in time for the show to begin.  “Tandem” was a mix of acrobatics, circus and music, very touchingly enacted by two performers who make up L’Appel du Pied theatre company, Geneviève Guillaud and Pierre-Alban Monfreux.

The show lasted for nearly an hour, and I did not feel the time pass – it was just delightful!  At the end they got a great big round of applause from everyone, and a well deserved rest, I hope!  I made my way back to the car and caught this lovely scene…

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Wheels in motion

By the time you read this, the 2013 Tour de France will be on day 7, the stage from Montpellier to Albi.  On the following day the race will start at Castres and head for the Pyrenees, as close to St Chinian as it’ll get this year.  The Tour de France 2013 is 21 days of sometimes gruelling physical exertion, with only a couple of rest days in between.  You can find the whole schedule at the official website.

A few years ago, Le Tour actually came right through St Chinian, and what a thrill that was!  For months before everyone was speculating exactly which roads the cyclists would be taking through the village.  Would they come past the windmill, or via Fontjun, or from the opposite direction altogether via St Pons?  And would they take the sharp corner from the grand rue to the avenue Raoul Bayou (impossible, some said) or go on towards the Cave Coop and take the bypass?  A few days before the event, excitement reached fever pitch in the village.

On the day, everyone lined up along the streets hours ahead of the race.  Then the Caravan started to come through.  If you’ve never seen the Tour de France sur place it really is worth the effort – at least once!  The caravan is a seemingly never-ending succession of promotional vehicles, and a lot of them have goodies to distribute among the waiting crowds.  The caravan can be more fun than the race!  The advertisers/sponsors always come up with fun ideas for their vehicles!

There are also the official souvenir vans, and of course I just had to get some for my nephews in Germany!

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In amongst the caravan are the support cars, laden with bicycles, the VIP limousines, and of course the photographers and TV cameras.

And once all the cars in the caravan had passed there was the road-sweeping truck – what a sensible idea!!  I hadn’t thought about that, but of course those racing bikes really don’t do all that well on loose gravel and other stuff!

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Now the crowds were beginning to get impatient – are they coming yet??  All kinds of nationalities were present among the spectators, and many had brought their national flags along!

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After several hours of watching the fun, I heard some shouting further up the road, there appeared the noise of a helicopter, and then the leading cyclists came whizzing round the corner.  And I really mean whizzing!!  I would never take that corner as fast as that in a car, let alone on a bike!

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There was a little lull, while I waited for the peloton (the pack, made up of all the cyclists except the leading riders), I think there was something like a three-minute gap.  And then more and more cyclists came pouring around the corner, it was almost as if someone had turned on a tap.  Everyone was clapping, cheering and shouting encouragement, and as fast as they’d arrived they were gone, whizzed by.  A few more cars came by, ostensibly with spare parts, and then one lone cyclist brought up the rear.

And then it was all over and we all went home… :-).  Oh, but some people put in a fair bit of effort afterwards, and put some wonderful videos of the event together.  I don’t take any credit or blame, but thank you for the two people who posted these on YouTube: