29. The Baïse (Part II)

This post continues our journey up the Baïse River as far as Condom.

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Tuesday 27th August.  Apparently there had been a massive thunder storm overnight – but I didn’t hear it or was woken when Dave had to get up to close the hatches – I must have been sleeping the sleep of babes.  It was still quite cloudy and cool when we got up (as it has been the last few days).

Dave has been wanting to go on a little red train on a tourist route since the beginning of the year – and today was the day it finally happened.  There is a train that makes a return trip twice a day (except Saturdays and Mondays) from Nérac to the small village of Mézin, about 20 kilometres away.  He had checked out where the train station was on an earlier reconnoître on his bike, so after breakfast we headed to it  (it was about a kilometre away on the outskirts of the village).

We had overestimated how long it would take us to get to the station and arrived about 15 minutes before the office was due to open.  We therefore decided to visit the chocolate factory, about 100 metres away.

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The Chocolaterie Artisanale La Cigalehas been owned by several generations of the Sarrauste family and apparently inspired the novel Chocolat by the English novelist Joanne Harris.  Joanne Harris commented “When I thought about this novel, I knew that the story would happen in a village like the ones we meet on the banks of the Baïse, and I’ve always had a soft spot for good chocolates and that of the Sarrauste family in Nérac left me with an unforgettable memory.  Of course, the story is romanticized, but it is resolutely registered in the atmosphere of the Néracais”.  It was later made into a film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. The river scenes were supposed to have taken place on the Baïse but were in fact filmed in Wales.

The shop had many tempting goodies on display, and encouraged by the display that chocolate is good for your health, Dave bought a few things.

The factory could be seen through glass windows next to the shop but it wasn’t operating.

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However, a very friendly Mr Sarrauste served us.  He said he was going to New Zealand in a month’s time for a holiday with his family. We therefore wished each other bon vacances as we left the shop and headed back to the railway station.

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By now the station was open and we bought our tickets.  There was a lovely old steam engine sitting on the track, and that is what Dave had thought we would be going on (he had told me to bring a handkerchief to put over my mouth when we went through the tunnel he knew we would be going through).

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However, we soon realised that what we would be going on was an old shunting engine and an open carriage – and while we knew the trip was along an old railway line, it looked positively derelict – methinks the brochure somewhat oversells the quality of the train.

We boarded the carriage and Dave was somewhat alarmed to see that lights would be turned on when we went through the tunnel by connecting a lead to a terminal post on a battery that was sitting on the floor.  The engine driver (dressed for comfort) showed the young female guide how to do this but as the other terminal post was almost next to the one that had to be connected Dave believed there was a real danger she could touch that by mistake and short everything out.

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The guide had given us some pages that had an English translation of the main features that we would be seeing. She said she had translated it herself – she had gone to a lot of trouble with adding pictures and done a good job of the translation (better than my French would have been had it been the other way around, that’s for sure)  but I always wonder why they don’t get a native English speaker to polish the translation up.  She was very animated and I could understand the gist of what she was saying but an American woman (who we later learnt had lived in France for 35 years) asked us if we needed a translation, and then set about saying, somewhat dismissively, that the guide was just making a few jokes.

Anyway, we set off and at as we approached the first intersection the driver had to jump off the train and manually put down the barriers, drive the train across the crossing and then lift the barriers up.  The next intersection had automatic barriers, but at another one the driver had to get off and stretch a fabric barrier across again.  At a small country road intersection he just tooted the horn.

Shortly after leaving Nérac we went through the 1.237 metre Lamothe-Duoazan tunnel.  It was built during the 19th century by a combined team of Spanish and French workers.  Apparently they couldn’t agree of exactly where the tunnel should go and so construction was delayed.  Restoration work has been carried out to allow the tourist train to run through it, taking care not to disturb the European Barbastelle bats that now live in it.  It was quite cold in the tunnel so couples snuggled up to keep warm.

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We went through rolling countryside past castles and fields of sunflowers, their petals faded and their heads hanging down and fields of maize.

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It was interesting to look at the old cottages the railway ‘gate keepers’ used to live in.  They had to go out and close the sliding gates to stop people crossing the tracks when trains were approaching.

We went over a couple of viaducts.

Towards the end of the trip to Mézin we went through the Landes forest (the largest man-made forest in Western Europe.  It is planted mainly in maritime pine (Pinus pinaster).  It was initially started in the 18th century in the Pays de Buch area of Gironde, to halt erosion and cleanse the soil, in what was previously swampland).  Everyone had to keep clear of the open sides of the carriage as tree branches overhang the line in many places (maybe Dave could see a bit of a tree stuck at the back of my hair).

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We only had a five minute stop in Mézin, as the train was running late.  During this time Dave spoke to the American woman and her French husband – he let us know he was a Doctor.  He told us about the best cities in France to visit.  His wife contradicted him on practically everything he said so we didn’t bother sitting too close to them when we re-boarded the train.

A number of people had got off the train to spend a few hours in Mézin, but we had decided to catch the same train back.  Everyone else was French speaking and the guide got them altogether to play quizzes and games at the front of the carriage.  We were happy to sit at the back of the carriage by ourselves as while she was very friendly and it seemed passionate about her job, her voice was a bit grating.

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The return trip was much the same except we saw a couple of deer scampering across the tracks and down into the forest.  They were too quick for me to get a photo of them.

Once back in Mézin we cycled back to the boat, stopping on the way to buy a baguette for our lunch.  It was quite hot so we put on the air conditioning unit and kept cool in the boat, while we waited for Mike and Gloria who were driving from GEM, which is moored at Laguère to join us at the night market in Nérac – reputed to be one of the best in the area.

Late afternoon they arrived and we enjoyed appéro (aperitif – pre-dinner drinks and snack) on our boat before walking over the Pont Vieux and past some lovely old timbered houses, to where the night market was being held (on the other side of the canal).

Dave pointed out markers on a building that indicated how high some significant floods had come.

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The market was already buzzing with activity by the time we got there.  There was a huge variety of cooked food stalls and several hundred people milling around.

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Dave and I had hamburgers and chips, washed down with some very reasonably priced local wine.

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Gloria was a bit more adventurous and had snails (something she has whenever possible).  Much to my surprise Dave asked to taste one.  He wasn’t impressed and reckons “never again”.

There was good music playing, first a woman singer accompanied by a guitarist and then a four piece reggae band. All in all it was a great evening and it was good to catch up with Gloria and Mike again.

Wednesday 28th August.  Neither of us slept particularly well – the band from the night market played until quite late and it was quite hot, but we were keen to get away early, as we anticipated some of the other boats moored at Nérac would be heading upstream – we didn’t want to have to have to share the locks with any other boats.  We also figured that the downstream gates should be open.  We therefore got up and got ourselves organised so we could get away by 8.30 am to carry on up the Baïse to Moncrabeau, 15 kilometres and seven locks away.  Everyone else seemed to be sound asleep and the port was very quiet.

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As we left the port we saw several people out walking, several with their dogs.  We cruised through the Garenne Garden and got some glimpses of the things I mentioned in my last post.  The river was lovely and calm so there were nice reflections.

We reached the first lock just before 9am and the lock doors were open, so Dave drove in and I went up the ladder. We then had to wait another 10 minutes or so for the operating terminals to be turned on (this is France afterall). All went well with locking through.

As we moved out of the lock we went by a big barge that is used for clearing trees from the canal – the overhanging trees seem to present quite a problem here.  We had to put the bimini down as it kept getting scraped by overhanging trees.

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AS we moved along I could hear a banging coming from the front of the boat and saw that we had collected a small tree and were dragging it along.  I was able to free it with the boat hook before it presented any major problems.

The next lock we came to was open. It was in an attractive setting with a tree in blossom. We also noticed how much narrower the locks are now (as well as the lack of depth, the narrow locks also mean a lot of boats aren’t able to navigate the Baïse).

The next lock was open and all went well, although it was quite a struggle holding the boat in the lock as the water came in very forcefully.

Surprisingly, the next lock was closed (no boats had passed us going downstream, so in theory all the locks should have been open for us).  It was a bit of a challenge for me to get off onto the landing pontoon as it was quite high (to allow for high waters).  The other problem was that La Caunette’s gunwales were lower than the platform so Dave had to quickly arrange some fenders to make sure our windows didn’t get broken – as Dave says it would make more sense to have them on poles that can lift when the river floods.

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I went up to the lock and started the process so the lock emptied of water, the doors opened and Dave could drive in.

Once we left the lock we entered in a long narrow and shallow stretch of canal (to bypass a very winding part of the river).  We scraped the bottom once and at times Dave zig-zagged along – he said it was the conditions, but I also saw him looking around at the scenery quite a bit – maybe it was a combination of both factors..

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The next two lock ‘experiences’ were similar, but as we entered one of the canalised bit of the river we saw a hire boat at the end.  It is too narrow to pass so they patiently waited for us to re-enter the river. Because of the minimal depth the boat could only idle up slowly to prevent being sucked to the muddy canal bottom.

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The next lock was open but as it was three metres deep and I had quite a climb up the ladder.

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As at most of the other locks the remains of the old manual turning system remain – I am thankful the locks are automated now.

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One of the reasons why the river levels fall in summer, apart from the lack of the rain, is that farmers draw water from the river to irrigate their crops.  We saw a number of quite elaborate irrigation systems along the river.

We were also plagued by mosquitos. At one stage Dave was so busy trying to swat them away we nearly ended up on the river bank.

The last lock was open and we went on through a short distance before mooring up at Moncrabeau.  We managed to get into a spot that was partly shaded (a good thing as it was now 30°C). There were no other boats (or people) and it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere.  It certainly is lovely being on the Baïse and we are realising we won’t get to spend as much time as we would like on the river this year.

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After our customary cold beer and lunch we both had a nap – Dave’s turned into a marathon five hours of sleep. Once he was awake, he went for a walk into the nearby village while I cooked dinner – which we enjoyed eating at the picnic table next to the boat.

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Thursday 29th August.  Despite having quite a long nap yesterday afternoon, I slept like a log and didn’t wake up until 8.30 am.  Dave also slept in so I guess we must have needed the extra sleep.

Our washing was starting to pile up so Dave set up a series of lines while I got stuck into washing it all, using a tap ‘on shore’.  As the photo shows that Dave took from the bridge, we certainly needed all the lines he had put up.

We then cycled to Condom, as we were keen to check out with the Capitain there if it would be possible to go on to Valence-sur-Baïse (i.e. if it would be deep enough).  It was a nice ride through hilly country, some of which was tree lined.

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When we arrived at the Capitainerie in Condom, the office was open but no one was there.  We waited a while and picked up some tourist brochures.  We were just leaving when a man arrived and advised that the Capitain was away but would be back in about an hour.  We asked the man about taking La Caunette up as far as Valence-sur-Baïse, but I couldn’t really make myself understood.  He was however able to give us a map and his female colleague showed us where there was a supermarket (so we could buy something for lunch to eat in the park we had seen on the map).  We found the supermarket, and as always, bought more than we planned but at least now we are well stocked up on mosquito spray – they are a bit troublesome here.  We also got a plug so Dave can replace an old base for an electric jug with a plug I can use for the slow cooker (which I am finding to be great for cooking meals on these hot days).

We then cycled to the park, but ended up on the wrong side of the river.  However,  we found a bench in a shady spot to have our lunch (overlooking the Baïse and the park we had been wanting to go to) .

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We then went back to the Capitainerie and this time spoke to the Capitain.  He was very cheerful and spoke good English.  He was reluctant to say if we would make it to Valence, suggesting maybe we wouldn’t as the river is quite silted up and the authorities don’t seem to clear it.  He told us about a few good places to go to on our bikes, when we are moored at Condom.  The area is rich in Roman history and there are three of France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages within a 15 kilometre radius.

We then cycled back to the boat. While some of the road was shaded, a lot of it wasn’t and the hills seemed steeper going back – it was a bit hot (the temperature was 31°C).  We detoured to have a look at the first lock we will go through tomorrow – a hire boat was locking through and it was interesting to see how they managed that.

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This area is famous for producing Armagnac – a distinctive kind of brandy.  It is distilled from wine, usually made from a blend of grapes including Baco 22A, Colombard, Folle Blanca and Ugni blanc, traditionally using column stills rather than pot stills used in the production of cognac.  The resulting spirit is aged in oak barrels before release.  Production is overseen by the Institut national de l’origins et la quality (INAO) and the Bureau National Interprofessionel de l’Armagnac (BNIA).  This was one of the first areas in France to begin distilling spirits, but the overall volume of production is far smaller than Cognac production and therefore is less known outside Europe.  In addition, it is for the most part made and sold by small producers, whereas Cognac production is dominated by big-name brands.  We have seen several Château that produce and sell Armagnac and today passed by a more modern plant.

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I also stopped to admire some huge hibiscus flowers.  The town of Condom seems to take a lot of pride in their floral displays – they are beautiful.

Back on the boat, Dave set about fixing the plug.  What should have been a relatively simple job, turned out to be a bit of a mission as he found some things wrong with other wiring.  However, he did a great job (as usual) and there is one less botched piece of wiring in the boat now.

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I got the washing in and folded it so Dave could take down the washing lines – he was also keen to wash down the boat.

We discussed our plans over dinner in a very nice setting ..

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We decided not to risk going to Valence.  Instead we will move on to Condom tomorrow and spend a few nights there.  It’s a pity we don’t have more time to spend on the Baïse (as La Caunette is booked to come out of the water in Castelsarrasin in three weeks’ time) – maybe we will spend our 2020 in the south rather than going up the Rhône?

Friday 30th August.  Before heading off to Condom, we went up to the village of Moncrabeau, where we understood there was a market.  As I had suspected, given it is such a small village, the market turned out to be two very small stalls (one of which was just the grocer displaying his wares on an outside table).

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But I also wanted to look around the village which I had heard is rich in history.  It is perhaps most famous for its  festival des menteurs.  This translate literally to ‘Liar Festival’.  However, it seems to relate more to storytelling and embellishing or stretching the truth.  The story goes that at the beginning of the 17th century, several returned soldiers, who were enjoying a peaceful retirement at Moncrabeau, met regularly in the market place to talk about local events.  But in those times, without radio or television, news travelled slowly so these men began to “add news of their own invention to those which they did not come quickly enough”.  A visiting priest from Condom was so impressed by this unusual gift of story telling that he proposed to create an Académie des menteurs, of which he would be president, and Moncrabeau would become officially “le chef-lieu .. menteurs, hâbleurs et craqueurs du royaume” (the head town of .. liars, boasters and story tellers of the kingdom). This tradition has been preserved and even today, members of the academy have the right to “mentir finement sans porter préjudice à autre que la vérité” (to lie without prejudice to anything other than the truth).  Each year, on the first Sunday in August, the annual meeting of the academy takes place.  The incumbent king (or queen) is ceremoniously accompanied to fauteuil des menteurs (the liars’ chair) and new candidates come and tell their tales.  Members of the academy vote using spoonfuls of salt.  The winner (i.e. the person with the biggest pile) receives 10 spoonfuls of salt as a prize (in addition to being crowned the king or queen).  Dave sat in the chair, but didn’t say anything.

On the other hand I read a quite different story about this.  This one relates that in the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the peasants of Moncrabeau cultivated mint (They were called “mentheurs”) and the leaves were stored in a fortified mentherie. Moncrabeau was at that time very famous for its mint.  So much so that when Henri IV came to see Baron de Ricles, it is claimed he said “I go to Moncrabeau to drink the strong mint that comforts me!” but people thought he said “I go to Moncrabeau to see my strong lover who comforts me!”  From there was born his reputation of  Vert-Galant.  However, the mint crops were ravaged in 1736, ravaged by several attacks of grasshoppers carried by sandstorms.  The mentheurs were ruined and when they wanted to tell their misfortune, nobody wanted to believe them – they were called liars.  So who knows what the truth is about the origins of the town’s reputation.  There is a building that has a label referring to 15th century mint drying and a plaque that refers to Henry IV’s love of mint and visit to the town..

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Regardless, of its true origin, the village is obviously very proud of this tradition and they have a well sign posted circuit that takes you through the town, and at various points explain key elements of the history of this tradition (an example is of the Liar’s Chair above).

We then cycled through the village. While it has a population of less than 800, it sprawls out over quite a distance, with many of the houses having huge back yards.  Interesting buildings included a 16th century prison and the inevitable church.

Moncrabeau was settled by the Romans during the first century AD and remains have been excavated of mosaics from the village (called Bapeste).

The village is set up on a hill so we had some great views out over the river, valley and hills beyond.

We cycled back down to the boat and left the port for our planned journey further up the Baïse to Condom, 10.5 kilometres and three locks away.  It was a very pleasant 23°C.  The river was very calm.  It looked like there was a white film on it – Dave reckons it was sewerage but I think it was more likely to be pollen.

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Leaving Moncabeau, we also left the Lot-et-Garonne Department and entered the Gers Department.  We had heard that the two Departments manage the river quite differently – this became evident when we arrived at our first lock.  The mooring pontoon was right next to the lock gates – this can present problems holding the boat as the water is emptied out of the lock. The gates were closed so I stepped off at the pontoon and then helped Dave tie up the boat.  He also needed to rearrange fenders.

Once he had the boat secured to his satisfaction I went up a steep flight of stairs to insert the card in the terminal to start the process of the lock emptying and the doors opening.

It seems that we hadn’t mastered the art of tying La Caunetteup to the pontoon as she was moved about a great deal as the water gushed out from the sluices in the lock gates.  Dave also had trouble lining her up to bring her into the lock, resulting in her taking a couple of big knocks to her bow.  However, once Dave had driven into the lock the rest of the locking through process went okay (albeit the water coming back into fill the lock came in very fast and it took all my strength to hold the boat).

Coming out of the lock we passed a few fishermen who appreciated Dave’s slowing down as he passed by.

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It was two kilometres before the next lock – enough time for Dave to rethink how to tie up the boat at the waiting pontoon.  This time it worked well and the boat held steady against the rush of water leaving the lock.

He also managed to line La Caunette up so she entered the lock without any more bumps. We had similar success with the third and last lock.

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By now it was 30°C so we were both feeling hot during the locking through process – it had also been quite hard work going through the locks today – mainly because of how difficult it is to hold the boat both before and in the locks.  On the plus side, the scenery is always great and I love the lock houses and also seeing plants growing on the sides of the walls.  It was also quite cool for the last part of our journey under the shade of the bimini and with a cool breeze.

Leaving the last lock, we went along the canal that lead us into the port of Condom, where we moored up without any difficulty.

I went and registered at the Capitainerie while Dave set about putting up the gazebo and turning on the air conditioning unit.  As seems to have become our habit we had a beer, then lunch and then a nap.

I then carried on with the blog while Dave looked at maps to work out some bike rides we can do from here. Early evening he decided he wanted to explore a cycleway he had seen on one of the maps.  He said he would be back in a couple of hours (from 6.00 pm).  At 8.50pm I got a text telling me he was “10 minutes away”.  He said his ride had been “magic – just as good as the one from Langon to Bazas” and that he is “looking forward to escorting Petal on part of the same track”.

We sat and ate dinner as the sun set – the reflections on the river were (to use one of Dave’s favourite words) magic.

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With that I will end this post and start a new one to cover the things we see and do from here.

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