31. Back down the Baïse

This post covers our journey back down the Baïse and our stay in Buzet-sur-Baïse before beginning our cruise up the Canal Lateral à la Garonne towards Castelsarrasin.

Thursday 5th September.  It rained steadily during the night, but the weather had cleared by the time we got up. We therefore decided to press on with our plan to start our journey back down the Baïse.  We weren’t quite sure how far we would go – we wanted to play that by ear, depending on how things went.

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As we left Valence, we entered a very narrow canalised stretch.  It was difficult to see what was ‘around the bend’ but we were pretty confident that we wouldn’t encounter any upstream boats, as the locks don’t start operating until 9 am (and so no one could have got through the first one).

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We were correct with that assumption and were pleased to find the first lock open.  Dave drove straight in and I only had a couple of rungs to go up on the ladder so I could insert the key in the terminal to start the locking procedure.  Unfortunately, I forgot that I should have got back on the boat at that stage, which meant I had to go down the (wet and slippery) ladder once the lock had emptied – but that went okay.

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As we motored along the sun came out and we enjoyed the scenery.  We saw a stag in the bushes (the 14th one Dave has seen this year now).  I was amused by how a tree trunk had been used to hold a buoy (to indicate shallow water).

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We went past Château TrizacThis is a large (1400 square metres) 17th century château, set in a 30-acre estate that has recently been renovated, and is now used solely for private luxury rental accommodation and exclusive events.

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We then entered another narrow canal as we approached the double lock, where the same two cheery men, we had seen on our way upstream did all the hard work to lock us through.  They said we only needed to use one rope, the back one, which Dave was a bit worried about, but it seems they knew what they were talking about as I had no difficulty holding the boat steady as the lock emptied.

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They work very quickly and it took less than 10 minutes to go through both locks, whereas it takes around half an hour if the gates are closed and we have to moor up and then wait for the automated system to work (which has a bit of a delay as it works through each procedure).

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The fisherman was still sitting at the lock.

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The next lock was closed when we reached it.  Dave had decided to try a new method of tying up, which I misunderstood – suffice to say things did not go well and at one stage Dave was frantically trying to steer the boat to stop her hitting the other side of the canal while trying to pull in a rope – I couldn’t do much more than watch helplessly from on the mooring pontoon. However, Dave managed to get everything back under control and everything else went fine with locking through.

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There were patches of sun but it was quite cool – nevertheless still very pleasant motoring slowly down the river.  For a short distance we were joined by a little hire boat.

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Soon we were back in Condom.  We noted that the fisherman was still there (a bit like the old man we used to see everyday at Sérignac-sur-Garonne).

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We moored up and Dave was pleased to find that the hose fitting he had left on the tap at Condom was still there.  We then went to the supermarket, as we needed to buy a new electric jug and some fresh fruit and vegetables.

Once back at the boat we had lunch, before continuing our journey downstream.  As we left Condom we passed by a huge flour mill.  It has recently been converted into a hydroelectric power station, that produces enough power for 200 households.

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The sun had come out and it was a bit warmer.  All went well with the next few locks.  We passed a hire boat going upstream (which meant the locks ahead would be open) so we decided to carry on past Moncrabeau to Lasserre (another four kilometres and two locks further on).  The only problems we encountered were in a couple of very shallow stretches of canal leading into locks, where we churned up a lot of mud and scraped the bottom a few times.

In one lock I saw a big log floating towards the exit doors, I was worried it might get jammed in behind the doors when they opened, but luckily the current swept it back into the lock (hopefully it floated away down the river after us).

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We saw a lot of bird life today and I managed to get a good shot of a heron.

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We also saw lots of kingfishers diving down from trees to catch a fish before flitting away to enjoy their meal.  They seem to follow us, calling out to each other to let them know where we are.  I had been surprised recently when someone told me they were protected and I had looked that up and found that they have indeed been protected since 1981.  It is forbidden to catch them, hunt them, or even pick one up when it is dead.  Apparently they also only ‘fish’ in very clean water, which suggests the Baïse, despite its murky appearance is quite clean.

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We saw groups of ducks and also spotted a water snake, slithering along on the surface of the water.

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There were a few coypu (large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodents) about too.

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Although it had been less than a week since we had come through this area, I noticed quite a change in the trees – they were now starting to put on their Autumn coats.

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We went past a large barge that has wheels on it – we weren’t sure what it is used for – maybe for clearing weeds or removing silt from the bottom of the canalised stretches of the river?

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Late afternoon we arrived in Lasserre, having travelled 24.5 kilometres and gone through eight locks.

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It had been a long day and I was ready to chill out over a glass of wine and relax for the rest of the day.  Dave of course, had the urge to go out and explore this new area.  He enjoyed his ride, once again through rolling countryside.  As well as castles and churches, this time he saw variety of interesting structures.

I cooked one of Dave’s favourite meals – burger and chips – but he still can’t wait to get back and have a Burger King meal.

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Friday 6th September.  We woke to a beautiful cloudless blue sky this morning.  We were all set to continue our journey downstream when Dave’s daughter phoned to say there was a leak in the bathroom (in our house at Raumati Beach, which she and her family rent).  Dave suggested getting a plumber in straight away and then we headed off.

As with yesterday, we started our journey going along a very narrow and shallow canal – Dave managed to get us under the bridge without hitting the sides but we scrapped the bottom a few times and Dave had trouble steering every so often.

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The first lock was open and the water was very still.  Unfortunately it looked and smelt like there was a lot of sewerage on the surface, which wasn’t very pleasant.  But the locking process went smoothly.

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The river was still, the sky a brilliant blue and the reflections were stunning.

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We then went through another narrow and shallow channel.  This one was a kilometre long and it took us 35 minutes to get through it (so we were doing than less than two kilometres per hour).

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We churned up a lot of mud and certainly scrapped the bottom again.

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The next lock was closed but we had no problems with my getting off at the pontoon and Dave’s securing the boat. The lock was around a slight bend and several hundred metres away, so I had to phone Dave to let him know once the gates were open.  While I waited for him to come in, I was entertained by a cat that was keen to have its chin tickled.

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The next lock was also closed and I had to get off and go up to it to insert the card to get the lock gates to open. I had to walk quite a distance to get to it – almost out into the country past a large estate.

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When I got to the lock, I found the area was fenced off and I had to insert the card in the gate to be able to get to the locking terminal.

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Once again the pontoon was around a bend and as a hire boat was in the process of coming up the lock and I had to phone Dave to let him know there wasn’t another boat waiting (i.e. the gates were open and it was safe for him to come on into the lock).  This time I was watched by a huge dog.

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As always, despite having been along this stretch of the river already, we see different things on our retun trip. This included seeing a lot of craggy outcrops of rock on the left bank.

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We went past an area in the river where there is a warning to look out for cows that come down to the river – but we didn’t see any.

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The tree clearing barge had been busy, but the men were at lunch so there was no-one to be seen on it.

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Dave was pleased to see what he referred to as a “cute little” boat.

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And then we arrived in Nérac (almost four hours, 11 kilometres and five locks later).

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We had lunch and then relaxed a bit. I was feeling quite tired and happy to continue relaxing and reading on the boat, but Dave wanted to go for a walk (we were moored in such a way that it was very difficult for him to get his bike off).  He ended up visiting the Château du Nérac, and enjoyed learning more about the history of this area, especially about Henri IV and why Nérac is known as the “royal town”.   He can tell you all about it, if you’re interested, when we are back home in a few weeks.

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Saturday 7th September.  When we woke up everything in the harbour was super still and there was a mist rising from the water beyond the hump back Pont Vieux.  It looked so tranquil.

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After a video call to my middle son’s family, we went to the weekly market, that takes place close to where we are moored. This turned out to be one of the biggest markets we have seen.  It stretched for well over a kilometre down a tree lined alley, branching out several blocks along side streets.

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It was great to see that all the stallholders were local producers, selling a huge variety of fruit, vegetables and other food.  It is obviously popular with locals.  We bought some tomatoes and another couple of the famous Quercy (rock) melons.

Dave resisted the massive blocks of nougat.

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Further along there were stalls selling clothing, bags, furniture, jewellery and other items – all of good quality.  Dave managed to buy himself a set of spectacles (for €5) to replace the pair that went overboard at Condom.

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We then headed back to the boat and got things ready for our trip further down the river to Lavardac (7.5 kilometres and four locks).  I felt a bit sad about leaving Nérac as it has been so nice in this area – but there’s always next year!  A green light signalled that the first lock was ready for us, so I walked to the lock – I chuckled when I saw a sign suggesting they have a problem with dogs in the area.

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Dave drove La Caunette in, (under the watchful eye of pigeons perched on the roof of a building next to the lock).

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Everything was going well when Dave yelled out that the back ropes were jammed and that the boat was starting to tip over.  Luckily he has a pocket knife ready for such an emergency and cut the rope.  However, because of the tension, it ‘pinged’ up and hit him across his hand – at first he worried he had broken it but he could move his fingers and the pain soon eased.  Meanwhile the boat bobbed around a bit as she was only held by the front rope I had, but all was okay (and Dave had had the presence of mind to cut the rope at its base, so it wasn’t shortened more than a few centimetres, and he was able to retie the severed rope while we were in the next lock)

The remaining three locks were all open and so we just had to drive in, I grabbed the ladder and went up a few rungs, and the locking through process went smoothly each time.

At one of the locks there was a rope hanging down that I could hold, to steady the boat as we lowered as the lock emptied.  Luckily I had some gloves, as the rope was incredibly dirty and slimy but very easy (not that holding the ropes when going down in a lock is difficult – it just made a change and was a bit quicker).

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We passed by a château, beneath which a father and son were fishing in a canoe – an idyllic scene.

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It only took us two hours after leaving Nérac to reach the empty port at Lavardac.  It had been an easy journey.

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The town of  Lavardac was built as a bastide in the 13th century.  In the past it was the most important barge town, and the ‘beating heart’ of commerce in the area due to its proximity to the nearby confluence of the Baïse and the Gélise rivers.  Navigation upstream was always more difficult from here, so goods had to be transhipped from big 100 ton barges into smaller boats for the trip to Nérac and beyond. The main river transport companies were located at Lavardac with repair yards, loading facilities, etc.  At the end of the 19th century, when the river was at its busiest, more than 100 boats were tied up here at any one time. 

Once Dave had the boat tied up we had lunch.  I then did a bit of washing as the dirty clothes seemed to be piling up again, after which we went off for a bike ride to the nearby village – Barbaste.  Despite having a pretty good idea of where this was, we managed to end up going in the opposite direction to where we should have been going. Never mind, retracing our route I was able to harvest some yummy figs from a roadside tree.

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Barbaste sits quietly on the banks of the river Gélise.  Its best known feature is the Moulin des Tours de Barbaste– a fortified mill, built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Because of its four large square towers it looks more like a castle than a mill.  After a fire in 1937, the buildings were renovated and the mill is now open to the public on guided tours (with limited hours which weren’t when we were there).

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We reached the mill by going over the adjacent 12th century arched stone bridge.  Together the mill and bridge played an important defensive role for Barbaste in the Middle Ages.

We went to have a look at the church, but it was closed, but I stopped to admire one of the wonderful flower gardens.

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I wasn’t really interested in going further afield, so we agreed that we’d go back to the boat and then Dave would head off on his own for a cycle around the area.  Despite his having been to Lavardac/this area three times already we managed to get lost again – this time leading the way up a narrow, winding hill – the steepest we have been on I think this year.  I couldn’t get to the top.  We therefore went back down and cycled back to the boat along the same road we had taken to get to Barbaste.  The one consolation on that detour was that I saw some red sunflowers (I have grown them in the past and always enjoy seeing them).

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When we got to the port there were a couple of hire boats moored up – but of more interest was a large group of children out on the water in canoes – they seemed to be having a great time.  They swam and frolicked in their canoes for a couple of hours.

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Dave got back from his bike ride early evening.  He had been to Mézin (the long way – in all he had cycled 65 kilometres today).  He said “it included lots of back roads, up and down, lots of castles – all in good condition and lots of churches. Same old, same old”.

Sunday 8th September.  There was low lying mist and fog on the river, when we got up this morning – it looked quite eerie from the front of the boat. Dave explained (as he is fond of doing) that this is very similar to what you see in the Waikato when the weather shifts from warm summer sunrises to crisp, cold autumn mornings.  He continued explaining that on a clear still night the warmth from the air escapes into space, and as the air over the land cools, it drifts over the warmer river. Water then evaporates from the river’s surface into this thin layer.  Next the thin, warm, moist layer of air over the river mixes with the cooler air from the land, water in the air condenses and droplets fall to create the mist. So now, thanks to Dave I can appreciate not only the beauty of this scene, but also the science behind it!

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Anyway, we were on the move again today, completing the last downstream part of our journey on the Baïse – heading for Buzet-sur-Baïse, 13 kilometres and three locks away.

As Dave was looking out the front door at the fog, he noticed a lot of classic cars crossing over the bridge. He went up to the bridge to have a look and after following the route the cars took for a short distance, he discovered there was a Vide grenier (second hand market) taking place, along with a few food stalls.  He texted me to let me know, as I was still in the process of showering and getting dressed when he’d set off to look at the cars.

I soon joined him and found him soaking up the atmosphere of the market from the rotunda in the middle of the tree lined market place.  He had half a baguette with him – he said something had happened to the other half while he was waiting for me.

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It was a lively and colourful market, with all sorts of bric-à-brac for sale.

As we walked back to the boat, Dave had one of his very noisy sneezing fits, much to the amusement of a couple of women who giggled away at him and shouted out soyez bénis (bless you).  He indicated it was the sun and they laughed le soleil – once the fog lifted the the sun had indeed come out and the sky was a beautiful blue.

The villagers must be avid readers as we noticed a couple of book exchange libraries.

I stopped at the boulangerie to get another baguette and also something for our morning tea.  We then walked on back to the boat through the village. The church bells started ringing and they went on for about 10 minutes – I guess they were calling the villagers to prayer.  We could see the bell swaying from side to side through the slats below the clock.

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Once back at the boat, Dave filled up the water tank and disconnected the shore power.  I then walked over the bridge to the first lock we would need to go through.  It looked like it would be difficult to get off at the waiting pontoon (as it was quite high) so the idea was I would go to the lock and insert the key to fill the lock and open the gates.

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As I was going over the bridge, I could see a boat was coming up.  I therefore texted Dave to let him know what was happening (as he couldn’t see the lock from where we were moored) .  I texted him again when the other boat was leaving the lock and he appeared soon afterwards on La Caunette.  Everything went smoothly with locking through.

As we came out of the lock there were two hire boats waiting to go in.  Saturday is usually the start day for boat hires, so it wasn’t a surprise to see a few hire boats heading upstream today.

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We went under an unusual looking railway bridge – it looked like it had been damaged.  When we went under it Dave confirmed it had been undercut.

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A few kilometres later we arrived at Vianne and the last lock on the Baïse where I would have to use the card to set the locking process in motion.  I was pleased to see the lock was open and all went well with going down and out of the lock.

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We were then on our final 9.5 kilometre stretch of the Baïse.  As we didn’t have any more locks until we reached Buzet-sur-Baïse I made a cuppa and we had a rather decadent morning tea – the chocolate eclairs here are filled with chocolate cream rather than plain whipped cream, as we typically have in New Zealand.

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As we were going along a hire boat came towards us from the opposite direction – the river was quite wide at this point but there was a very low over hanging branch we thought could rip the bimini, but we managed to get just under it.

We also crossed paths with a small boat with two couples in it – we managed to get through the bridge in plenty of time so we didn’t need to squeeze past each other under the arch.

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Dave needed to have a leak so he asked me if I’d like to take over driving the boat.  I haven’t driven it much and luckily Dave got back in time to steer us away from a tree I was rapidly approaching.

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As I’ve mentioned before, all along the river (and canals) there are little huts and areas where fishermen have set up their ‘possie’.  We have seen some that look very comfortable.

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We talked quite a bit about whether we really wanted to moor at Buzet tonight or turn left, when we left the Baïse, and start heading upstream along the Canal Latéral à la Garonne. In the end we stuck with our original plan to turn right and go to Buzet, for two reasons – to go to the wine co-operative so Dave could refill his 10 litre plastic keg and to go to a restaurant that is highly recommended for its ‘as much as you can eat €10 lunch which includes, we have heard an amazing ‘dessert trolley’.  The wine co-operative is closed on Sundays and the price at the restaurant is doubled on the weekend (plus the restaurant is closed on a Monday) – so it looks like we’ll be getting the wine tomorrow and possibly stay another night and have lunch at Les Vignobles on Tuesday.

We moored up quite easily at the same spot we were at last time we were here.  Jehan (from Les Vieux Papillons) came to say hello/welcome back.  I set about making some lunch.  Dave disappeared and came back an hour later – he had been “talking to a few people”.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening, reflecting on the great 16 days we have had on the Baïse.

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Monday 9th September.  The main thing on our agenda this morning was to go to Les Vignerons de Buzet (the Buzet wine co-operative) so Dave could refill his 10 litre plastic keg with good quality Buzet AOC red wine (only €2.60 a litre) and for me to get a more modest three litre ‘château cardboard’ of rosé.

When we arrived at the co-operative we realised that the harvesting of grapes and wine production was well underway. (Other than when we saw some people picking strawberries when we cycled to Villeneuve-sur-Lot earlier in the year, we hardly ever see anyone working in the fields.  However, over the last week or so we have seen quite a bit of activity in the vineyards.)

We noticed that the machinery to the side of the shop was operating, spitting out bits of leaves etc into a container and  tractors arriving, one after the other, with trailers full to the brim with grapes, which they reversed into and tipped into a big stainless steel ‘pit’ – the grapes were then presumably treated in some way so the shoots and unwanted parts were separated off.  It was quite a hive of activity and interesting to watch.

We cycled back to the boat.

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Dave decided he wanted to find out where the tractors were coming from.  He therefore went back to Les Vignerons de Buzet and tried following a tractor once it had delivered its grapes and was returning for the next load.  He came back a bit disappointed as the tractors went too fast for him to keep up.

Late morning we left our mooring and cruised out of the Buzet port.

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This seems like a good place to end this post – as we started our ‘homeward journey’ upstream, along the Canal Latéral à la Garonne.  We need to be in Castelsarrsin by 18th September, when La Caunette will be lifted out of the water and we prepare her for her sojourn on the dry dock.

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