26. Bordeaux barge and bike adventures (Part I)

This post covers the first three days of our adventures going to and stay in Bordeaux on GEM– the beautiful 20 metre barge owned by our friends, Gloria and Mike (GEM is an acronym for Gloria et Mike with ‘et’ being the French word for ‘and’).

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Wednesday 15th August.  We were up early and set off on our bikes, just after 8 am for Meilhan-sur-Garonne.


It was a lovely still morning with mist rising from the canal.  It was a very easy 40 kilometre ride along the canal cycle way.  The cycleway is tree lined and as it was cloudy, it was actually on the cold side.


We cycled by and had a quick look at the boat that had been destroyed by fire at Villeton. It looked a sorry sight.

We stopped about half way (at Pont des Sables) for a quick breakfast – coffee and a croissant.


We arrived in Meilhan just as Mike returned with several cans of diesel (he had suddenly thought GEM was low on fuel so he went and got 100 litres of diesel – he later realised he had misread the fuel levels – at least we had plenty on board).  Gloria showed me to our cabin – a big room with an ‘island bed and our own ensuite that includes a push button flush toilet!


While Mike was refuelling, Dave went and chatted to Tony and Trish who are once again moored in the port on Anneke.  We had initially intended to have lunch before cruising along to Castets-en-Dorthe but there was a sudden flurry of activity in the port, with a number of boats needing to reposition themselves.  This meant GEM needed to leave the port to free up her mooring.

Mike went to turn on the engine, but nothing happened.  After a few more tries, with no luck, we called Dave back from chatting to others and he suggested what the problem could be (by methodically working through things, as he does) and suggested something could be shorting out the starter motor.  This turned out to be correct – next turn of the key, the engine started and soon we were off.

We cruised along 16.5 kilometres of the canal to Castets-en-Dorthe, passing through four locks.  Dave had a go at steering under Mike’s tutelage.


It’s hard to describe how different our experience on GEM was compared with when we made the same trip on La Caunette.  Dave and I were both surprised by how fast Mike drives GEM into the locks and also how he can make a controlled move from one side of the lock to the other (the benefits of bow thrusters) to firstly tie up and then press the button to start the locking through process.  It all seemed so easy!  There was also very little for me to do – Dave helped with the ropes at the locks – and I just sat and enjoyed the view/experience from a very comfortable seat on the front deck.  It felt very luxurious!

We stopped about half way to have lunch where Dave spotted lots of blackberry bushes – he went off and picked a bowl of them.


Dave helped untie and push the boat off from the mooring.

Rowers looked much more vulnerable.


We then continued on to Castets-en-Dorthe.  As we approached the fourth lock, Mike phoned Pierre (Capitain at Castets) to let him know we would soon be there – Pierre informed him he would go and “arrange a mooring”.  When we came through the lock into the Castets port, we saw Pierre waving and indicating GEM was to moor in exactly the same place as we had a couple of weeks ago. It was difficult enough for Dave to get La Caunette into the space, so we were impressed by how well Mike manœuvered GEM (7.25 metres longer) into her mooring for the night.


Pierre advised we needed to be ready to go through the locks at 10 am tomorrow – going downstream to Bordeaux, we had to leave Castets when it was high water there in order to be carried down by the outgoing tide and river current.

Once GEM was tied up securely we walked along to the other end of the port – Mike and Gloria to ‘register’ GEM’s stay with Pierre, Dave and I to see Simon and Heather, who had emailed to tell us they were back from their trip to Bordeaux on Madeline.  On the way we went by Valerie’s little drink cart – she seemed delighted to see us and greeted both Dave and I with bises (kisses on our cheeks).  I wonder how many more times we will see her (and her poor blind and disabled pug dog) this season.  She had made use of an old pair of jeans to make an interesting flower pot.


We met up with Simon and Heather and suggested they join us, including Mike and Gloria, for a drink at the bar by the port.  Dave made friends with a cat while we waited for everyone.


There was quite a bit of confusion about whether the bar (restaurant) was open and whether or not we could just have a drink – but in the end that got sorted out and we enjoyed catching up and hearing about Simon and Heather’s adventures.

Unfortunately, Heather and Simon (in the photograph on the right) seemed to focus on all the issues which unsettled both Mike and Gloria a bit as they were already a bit apprehensive about going to Bordeaux. While we were chatting, Ian (from Hells Bells) came by – he was out walking his dog Jess.  Ian will be sharing the locks with us into the Garonne tomorrow and so he too was interested to hear about the ins and outs of navigating the Garonne and tying up at Bordeaux.

We then went back to the boat and were spoilt with a delicious three course meal – dessert was a blackberry crumble made from the fruit Dave had harvested earlier in the day.

We went to bed feeling very well fed and looked after – we are lucky to have such great friends.

Thursday 16th August.  I slept well in our very comfortable ‘accommodation’ and was spoilt with a cup of tea in bed.  Dave and Mike had some porridge and then we all enjoyed a breakfast of baguette, croissants, and pains au chocolat that Mike and Gloria had ordered last night and which was delivered by Pierre this morning. After breakfast Mike got things ready to leave our mooring (albeit I needed to remind him to unhook the power). He moved out into the canal demonstrating the same skill he had used to moor GEM last night.

Valerie waved us good bye from her boat, and a bit later from her coffee cart.


Mike had to hold GEM steady in the canal until the éclusier (lock keeper) arrived.  In the meantime, Hells Bells had also moved out into the canal in front of us.


Pierre and the éclusier arrived in due course – Hells Bells, and then GEM, moved into the first lock.  Once again there wasn’t much for me to do so I sat on the front desk and watched the goings on.

All went well and we moved out into the basin before entering the second lock.


This lock was much deeper and the éclusier also got Mike to move GEM forward a bit to make sure she was clear of the sill at the back of the lock. The locking through process went smoothly.

And then we were on the Garonne.  The distance from Castets-en-Dorthe to Bordeaux is 54 kilometres and there are no locks.  This stretch of the river is tidal and forms part of the main waterway route across southern France, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  Navigating it presents no exceptional difficulty, but in addition to being tidal there are also significant areas of sandbanks, shallows and other obstructions – care is therefore needed to keep to the safe channel, including using the appropriate bridge arches.

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Once out of the locks we went past the Château du Hamel and under the ‘Eiffel’ bridge (both of which I mentioned in an earlier blog).

The river is very wide and with a strong current and outgoing tide, we ‘zoomed’ along.   It was quite overcast and a bit cool and at times we had spits of rain but it was great sitting on the front deck taking in the scenery.  For a while Dave used my bicycle to sit on while he chatted to Gloria.


Early on the trip we went past a lock and wharf used to unload Airbus 380 fuselage parts.  The barge comes into the huge chamber, and thanks to a series of pumps, it is loaded onto a truck which then continues its journey to Bagnac, in Toulouse


We saw Bordeaux moored up – this is the barge my brother and sister-in-law had been on in May.


We went by a number of castles, churches, and château d’eau (water towers).

Among the many interesting looking villages we cruised by was LangorianStone quays line the riverbank, where in days gone by wine barrels from the first Bordeaux vineyards, and yellow stone from the neighbouring quarries were loaded onto barges.  The little houses along the quays used to belong to river folk such as barge captains and matelots (sailors).


We went past countless wooden fishing huts which have been built on stilts with a square-shaped pulley-operated net (filet carré) hanging over the water from a pole – it is these nets which have given the shacks their name – carrelets.  Some of the carrelets were very elaborate and quite colourful, others very simple structures which are reached by what looked like very precarious walkways.

Apparently, while some of them appear to be quite flimsy, each carrelet has to meet stringent standards and the construction of new ones is closely monitored by local authorities.  There are also strict laws relating to ownership and use.

While the word carrelet dates back to 1360 (originally spelt quarlet), the associated square net fishing technique developed in the area in the 18th century.  Fishermen found they were getting their feet and trousers wet, so they designed the first stilt-borne huts, combined with a winch system for their nets.  These are used to lower the nets into the estuary at high tide, before quickly raising them (hopefully) laden with whichever fish happened to be swimming above the net at that time (common species include estuarine shrimp, meagre, mullet, shads or river herring and lamprey eels). There is generally no need for bait although some fisherfolk do place bait in the middle of their net.  Often catches are consumed more-or-less immediately in local restaurants. 

Carrelets similar to the ones we saw, with their walkways back to dry land, started to be built in the early 20th century.  At the time, carrelet-owners were generally wealthy people (doctors, traders and rich land-owners) who employed fishermen to watch over and maintain their property in their absence.  As the standard of living increased throughout the 20th century (along with the amount of time available for leisurely pursuits), carrelets became accessible to an ever wider cross-section of the population.  There have, however, been some ‘troubled’ times for carrelets.  The first was in the 1950s when they became a source of conflict between advocates and opponents who claimed the fishing huts were an eyesore on the otherwise unblemished landscape.  However, the advocates won over and carrelets cemented their status as treasured local heritage by the time massive storms hit the region in 1996, 1999, and again in 2010.  Virtually all carrelets were either destroyed or seriously damaged.  It is estimated that around 80 per cent of the carrelets have now been rebuilt with many fishermen lobbying for carrelets to be officially listed as petit patrimoine régional (small regional heritage).  I can understand why as they are very interesting both in terms of their history and to look at.

There was also a bit of debris (rubbish bags, logs etc) floating by at great speed – at times we were going almost 14 kilometres per hour (as opposed to more typical six to seven on the canal).

Another thing we saw was a small tidal bore (wave or mascaret) – a phenomenon in which the leading edge of the incoming tide forms a wave of water that travels over a distance of up to 40 kilometres up the river, against the direction of the river’s downstream current.  The ones we saw were quite small but they can get large enough for people to surf.


About four hours later we got our first glimpse of Bordeaux.  We went by some interesting looking buildings on the left bank (which reminded me of the buildings that lined both banks as we left Lyon last year).  This included the Halle Boca– a huge concrete hall, built in 1938, as the home of Bordeaux’s abattoirs until it caught fire in 1977. In recent times it has been refurbished to host several food businesses and a huge food court made up of 14 restaurants, covering 1300 square metres and catering for up to 350 people at a time.


Another interesting build was MÉCA.  MÉCA is the French acronym for Maison de l’Economie Créative et culturelle en Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Centre for the Creative and Cultural Economy).  It only opened last month and is dedicated to the region’s live performance, literature and cinema, as well as the its contemporary art collection (FRAC Aquitaine). Designed by the Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, the building reaches up to 37 metres high.  It certainly looked quite spectacular.


We went under three bridges, one had a big gap in the middle.  Later internet research suggests this is the structure that will be used to build a new railway bridge.


Going through one of the other bridges, GEM was caught by a strong current and Mike had to put her in full power to avoid our slamming into the pillars.


At the Pont de Pierre,  the river becomes a maritime waterway.  In 1808 Napoleon I proposed that a wooden bridge be built.  However, given the ‘bad-tempered’ nature of the river and its strong tidal currents,  engineers suggested stone should be used for the pylons, then iron was suggested to replace the wooden carriage way, but in the end the whole bridge was built in stone.  Builders used a diving bell to put the pillars in place.  Each pillar rests on 220 pine and fir trees.  It was opened in 1821 and until 1863, crossing the bridge insured a toll fee.  The bridge is 500 metres long, 15 metres wide, 17 arches each 20.8 metres wide except the centre one that is 26.50 metres.  The middle arch has been specially equipped for the passage of barges carrying pieces of the Airbus 380 aircraft on their way to Langon. 


Once we were through that we headed towards Pont d’Honeur, immediately downstream from the bridge, on the left bank.  As we approached the mooring, we saw Hells Bells was already there (Ian and Maggie had raced away from us as soon as they were out of the locks at Castets).  Ian came out to give ‘us’ a hand with mooring up.


Mike initially landed GEM facing up stream but after finding out that the incoming tidal speed is twice that of the outgoing tide (4hrs in, 8hrs out) he decided to face the bow downstream (leaving Dave onshore, hoping we made it back).


As the current was very strong it took a couple of goes for Mike to be able to turn before the boys (Dave, Ian and Mike) could get her tied up securely.


Once we were moored up, we had a late lunch. While we were eating it, we saw Ian racing along the pontoon towards the gate.  He came back a short time later and set about moving his boat behind GEM, where the pontoon is further from the quay.  Apparently, a couple of lads had thrown some fire crackers down into his boat and he had chased them – they got away.  He therefore moved Hells Bells so it wasn’t so close to the quay.  We wondered what he would have done to the youths if he had caught them – he was a Captain in the Royal Marine’s Parachute Regiment (similar to our SAS) and not someone I would want to be on the wrong side of.

He told us the story of the Operation Frankton – a commando raid on shipping in this part of Nazi Germany occupied France during WWII.  The raid was carried out by a small unit of the Royal Marines.  The plan was for six two-man canoes to be taken to the Gironde estuary (the Garonne changes its name to Gironde just past Bordeaux).  The mission was for the twelve men to paddle by night to Bordeaux, attack docked cargo ships with limpet mines, and escape overland to Spain.  To reach their targets the commandos would have to paddle for nights on end, laying up under cover on isolated stretches of riverbank during the day.  One canoe was damaged while being deployed from the submarine, and it and its crew could therefore not take part in the mission.  Two canoes were swamped by waves, the crew of one made it to shore but gave themselves up to the Germans.  The other crew did not make it to shore and they died from hypothermia.  Of the other eight, six were executed by the Germans (In October 1942, Hitler issued a secret order authorising the execution of captured commandos).  The two surviving men were rescued by French fishermen, given disguises as vagrants and made their way out of France.  Despite the loss of life and the fact that the material damage was limited (six ships were sank in shallow water), it boosted British morale and forced the Germans to devote more resources to defense. It is a very interesting story and a film was made of it in 1955 called The Cockleshell Heroes (after the codename Cockles given to the canoes).

After lunch Dave, Gloria and I went out for a bike ride (Mike stayed on board –playing his ukelele).  We are moored right next to the 4.5 kilometre quays along the Garonne.  It was a public holiday in France today (Assumption Day) and they were packed with people out strolling, running, cycling, going along on scooters and generally enjoying the day.  Towards the end of the quay there are numerous shops, cafés, and restaurants.  We managed to weave our way through all the people and make our way to the Cité du Vin, where Gloria wanted to check out the mooring pontoons there (friends of hers had moored there earlier).


We then went on to the Bassins à Flot (a neighbourhood embedded in Bordeaux’s naval past – refineries, shipyards and wet and dry docks all replaced vineyards and marshes in the 19th century).  This is the area where the Cockleshell Heroes placed their limpet mines.  (At low tide you can also see wrecks of 204 boats sunk when they left Bordeaux in August 1944 –  to obstruct the estuary in order to stop the Allies from coming down the river.   The port was blocked until 1949).

On the way we went past the impressive and interesting looking Musée Mer Marine (Sea and Marine Museum), where Gloria posed for a photo.


We then cycled around to look at the submarine base.  This is one of five bases built by the Germans on the Atlantic coast, to house their submarine fleets during WWII.  This huge bunker is divided into 11 cells, linked by an interior corridor.  It has been converted into an underground cultural centre.


With Dave leading the way, the next bit of our ride took us over the stunning Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a vertical-lift bridge opened in 2013.  Its main span is 77 metres high and 110 metres long – at the time it was built it was the longest and highest vertical-lift bridge in Europe.  As night falls the pylons are lit in blue at high tide, and green at low tide.  We stopped half way to admire the view and also the magnificent structural detail. It would be amazing to see it opened but unfortunately no big boats are scheduled to come through during our stay.

Once on Bordeaux’s right bank, we cycled through the La Bastide district.  Originally a land of salt from the Bastide was finally connected to Bordeaux in 1822, with the construction of the Pont de Pierre (stone bridge).  This work led to rapid urbanisation along the river banks, plus the development of its harbour and industrial activity.

We passed by queues of people waiting to get into La Guinguette Chez Alriq (typically French, it recreates the atmosphere of village fêtes) and Les Chantiers de la Garonne (a former shipyard designed as a seafood bar).

Both are obviously very popular with locals.  We also went by an outside gymnasium, which lots of young men seemed to be making use of.


Before crossing back over the Pont de Pierre we went past the Lion de Veilhan.  Made of composite materials, it resembles something between a toy, design object and a decorative piece.


Once back at the boat we had a light meal before moving to the front deck where we had more wine and a coffee  and watched the sun go down.


After an hour or so, I was ready for bed but Dave and Gloria still had energy to burn so they walked the short distance to look at the Miroir d’Eau (water mirror) – a key feature of the waterfront development and the biggest water mirror in the world (3,450 square metres with a 300 cubic metre underwater tank).  On their way back to the boat Dave took a photo of the full moon rising above the Pont de Pierre, reflected in the mirror.

Their quick walk ended up to be an hour or so walking around some of the key landmarks in the area, including Place des Quinconces and its magnificent statue and fountains.

Friday 17th August.  Dave was up early and keen to see what the Miroir d’Eau looked like first thing in the morning.  He came back after about half an hour later wanting a paper and pen so he could write down the email address of a young Belgian couple he had taken photos of doing dance moves on the mirror – they are professional ice skaters and were delighted that Dave offered to send them copies of the photos he had taken of them.

He also took some interesting photos of the buildings and plants as the sun rose.

Meanwhile, I had a leisurely get up, followed by a light breakfast.  Hells Bells left with much good cheer (they are headed to the Atlantic and will enter France again to go up the Charente river).


Just as we will need to do, they had been waiting for ‘slack water’ (also known as ‘the stand of the tide’).  This is a short period in a body of tidal water when the water is completely unstressed, and there is no movement either way in the tidal stream, and which occurs before the direction of the tidal stream reverses.  The time of slack water, particularly in constricted waters, does not occur at high and low water,and in certain areas, the ebb may run for up to three hours after the water level has started to rise, and the flood may run for three hours after the water has started to fall.

We wanted to go to a market, so we went for a bike ride to find one. On the way we passed by the Basilique Saint-Michel, and its stand along bell tower (which I wrote about in more detail in one of my earlier blogs).  There was a ‘flea’ market taking place next to it but we didn’t stop this time to look at it as our destination was the Marché des CapucinsThis market and surrounding square has a history that dates back several centuries and represents the tradition of local commerce.  Named after Capuchin monks, who wore sackcloth robes and a capuce (hood) it was a cattle market in the 18th century, before the market gardeners from the surrounding area moved in and set up their stalls.  The Baltard-style market building, with atrium windows and cast-iron pillars recovered from pavilions at the Paris Exhibition, was opened in 1881.  In 1999, the addition of a glass roof and awnings let more light into this vast building, which houses over 80 retailers and a number of refreshment stalls and restaurants.  It has been nicknamed ‘the belly of Bordeaux’ as it plays such an important role in feeding locals. 


It was a hive of activity with loads of mouth-watering items on display. Mike and Dave went off to buy some bacon and other chacuterie, while Gloria and I focused more on buying some fruit and vegetables.

I spotted a dog relaxing while its owners chatted.


Gloria wanted to have coffee and some choux boules (balls made of choux pastry filled with cream) at a nearby café recommended to her by a friend while Dave and I were keen to go to a cat café I had heard about.  To get to these two cafés we passed through the Grosse Cloche (big clock).  This is a historic belfry and the only remains of the old defensive gate of the 13th century.  Italso served as a prison where people were locked in behind 10 centimetre thick doors with huge locks.  Prisoners used to joke they were staying at the Lion d’Or hotel, an allusion to the weather vane on top that represents a golden lion, symbol of the Kings of England.  Cast in 1775, the bell weighs 7,800 kilograms.

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We found the Le Comptoir des Chats but saw it was not going to be open for 15 minutes and they only provide restaurant service (i.e. we wouldn’t be able to just have a coffee).  I still got to see a couple of cats sitting in the window.

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We therefore went and joined Mike and Gloria.  I had got mixed up on the detail on where the choux boules are sold (i.e. it wasn’t at the café we were at) but we still enjoyed a good coffee (and some cheesecake).

We made our way back to the boat where we had a light lunch, after which Gloria, Dave and I cycled off to have a look at MÉCA – the impressive building we had seen from the boat yesterday.


It was an easy ride along the quay and we weren’t disappointed when we saw it. It has a very wide undulating ‘promenade’ up and down the centre of it which meant it was possible to ride up one side, through the centre, and down the other side (Dave describes it as “magic, perfect for bike riders”).


There is an interesting sculpture of half a face, which Dave has captured well (along with his bike) in some photographs.

The building has been made for professionals, but the general public can enjoy the outdoor area and there is currently a display of contemporary works by artists of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region.  We went and had a look at this – it was very interesting.

The exit from the display is via a terrace that provides a panoramic view of the city.

On our way back to the boat we stopped at a supermarket to stock up on beer.  Once back on GEM we had pre-dinner drinks before going to Le Chien de Pavlov for dinner.  We had been to the restaurant in May with my brother and sister-in-law (to celebrate Anne’s birthday).  We enjoyed a delicious ‘surprise’ five degustation menu (with the chef catering admirably adjusted to take account of various things that Mike and Gloria don’t eat).

I had an interesting cucumber cocktail and we enjoyed a bottle of local wine with the meal.

Dinner was our ‘shout’ to thank Mike and Gloria for their wonderful hospitality.  Unfortunately, when Dave went to settle the bill, our credit card was declined. Luckily we had enough cash to pay.

We strolled back to the boat through the back streets.  The area was buzzing with people out enjoying themselves.  The Église Saint-Pierre was lit up.  This building stands on the site of the former Roman castra.  Its oldest elements, including the beautiful carved gate, date from the 14th and 15th century.  The church was reconstructed in the 19th century, keeping some features of the mediæval church.


A short distance further on we came across a band playing under the Porte Cailhau.

As we continued our walk back to GEM, we were in perfect time to see the full moon rise up from behind the Pont de Pierre (much to the delight of Gloria who absolutely adores seeing a full moon).


Once back on the boat we had coffee (and the boys a whiskey as well) on the front deck of the boat.  A police launch cruised by to ‘check us out’ but presumably were satisfied as they then left to continue their patrol of the harbour.  By now it was just after high tide and quite calm (presumably slack water), but we are finding that it is a new and very different experience being moored here.  Although Bordeaux is 98 kilometres inland, it is a sizeable and busy port.  It is very tidal.  There is about 5.5 metres difference between spring high and low tide.  We are moored on a ‘floating pontoon’, which rises and falls with the tide – so twice a day GEM rises to be level with the Quay.


Twice a day she goes down.

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In between, the river becomes very choppy, especially, if a ferry or another boat is passing by – then we really rock and roll.


It’s only been three days but already this post is getting quite long so I will sign off here and continue with Part II as a separate post.

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