3. Castelsarrasin

3. Castelsarrasin

We are still moored in Castelsarrasin waiting for an engine part, so this post covers the last couple of weeks we have been living at Jacques-Yves Cousteau port and enjoying all that Castelsarrasin and the surrounding area offers.

The port

The port is very attractive, equipped with electricity and water, and is very well maintained. It is lively with lots of social interaction – groups of locals come and sit on the benches each evening and there are a number of couples on boats passing by and chatting throughout the day. There are two (female) Capitainerie who are very helpful and friendly.

The port is named after Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the famous French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water. Cousteau co-developed the Aqua-lung (with Émile Gagnan)pioneered marine conservation and was a member of the Académie française. At the Northern end of the port there is a fountain and sculpture (representing a steel ship) as a tribute to his boat Calypso (it is the work of the Dutch artist Ruudt Wackers).

On the other side of the canal, there is a large sports stadium, the railway station, and a large pétanque playing area. This is always busy ,especially over lunch time and the early evening, with people playing pétanque. From the cheers and laughter we hear, it is obviously a popular and enjoyable sport. 

From the Southern end of the port, the other side of the canal is accessible by a pedestrian footbridge. This was built in 1889 by the Eiffel Company. Further along there is an interesting water tower. There is also a small park, the square Aristide Briand, where there is a bronze statue (the work of the Toulouse sculptor Paul Ducuing) installed in memory of those killed during many past major wars and another one to men who fought in the Resistant movement and were deported.

About Castelsarrasin

Castelsarrasin is an interesting town of around 14,500 inhabitants. It shares a similar history to many of the towns in Southern France. The presence of a settlement here was first noted in 961, although it was not until the 12th century that the original name of the town, Castel Sarracenum, was mentioned. There are different theories about where the name originates from. One suggests that a castle was built here in the Saracen era (Saracen was a term widely used among Christian writers in Europe during the Middle Ages to refer to Arabs and Muslims). Another suggests the name came from the possible founder of the town, Count Sarraceni, a high dignitary of the Compte de Toulouse who was responsible for establishing new towns in the Tarn-et-Garonne.

The early history of the town is marked by wars; against the English until the end of the 12th century, then in the first part of 13th century during the Albigensian Crusade (or the Cathar Crusade – the 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in Southern France). 

In 1306 a small Jewish community was expelled from Castelsarrasin. It is unclear if a Jewish community was re-established after the Jews returned to France in 1315. However, in 1320, at the time of the Pastoureaux(i.e. Shepherd’s the name given to the participants in Crusades in France) persecutions, many Jews took refuge in Castelsarrasin. There are different accounts of what happened to them, with one source claiming 200 Jews took their own lives when they realised that they could not escape their persecutors. Another account, written at the time, says the Pastoureaux massacred 152 Jews, not just at Castelsarrasin but also in neighbouring localities. 

In the 14th and 15th centuries the town was also ravaged by floods and the plague. The region was significantly impacted by the Hundred Years’ War, and again, during the religious wars of the 16th century, the city’s largely Catholic population was in frequent conflict with the generally Protestant surrounding region. Things were a bit calmer during the following centuries, up to the time of the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

In the mid-19th century, the town enjoyed an economic revival and population increase, due to the development of the canal, a railway station, the establishment of a metallurgical plant, a barracks, two colleges and various urban developments.

In the 20th century, despite the terrible bloodletting of the two world wars, the city continued to expand until today when it is now the second most economic site of Tarn-et-Garonne.

Architecture

The town is centred around a large town square (Place de la Liberté) with an impressive Hôtel-de-ville (town hall) one side. The town hall was built between 1823 and 1825 by the famous French architect Rivet.

The pediment has an illuminating clock made in 1847, by the Parisian watchmaker Lepaute, who is regarded as one of the greatest French watchmakers. The clock is framed by the statues of Minerva (trade) and Ceres(agriculture) – the work of the Toulouse sculptor Palat. The clock chimes on the quarter hour and we can hear it four blocks away at the port. There is also a large bell and sirens mounted on the building that are used to warn inhabitants of impending danger.

Radiating from the square, is a maze of one-way (at times very narrow) streets, but bikes can still go in either direction. There is a fascinating array of architectural styles. Some of the buildings date back centuries, with timber facades and mullioned windows.

Saint-Sauveur Church 

One significant building is the Saint-Sauveur Church which is located in the attractive Place de la Raison. It is listed as an historic building – it is easy to see why as it is quite magnificent. It was first mentioned in 961, but was rebuilt in a Southern Gothic style in the mid-to late-13th century. It has undergone several refurbishments since, including the addition of a ‘flamboyant’ Gothic style portal in the 16th century, rebuilt octagonal bell tower in the 19thcentury and a huge stone staircase at the turn of the 20th century. The church also houses elaborate baroque style 18th and 19th century woodwork (pulpit, stalls, statues) from the Abbey of Bellperche, a spectacular marble High Altar and marble Holy Water fonts. There is a carved walnut reliquary that holds the remains of Saint Alpienien, patron saint of the town. The Saint’s relics are carried in an ornate ‘canopy’ through the town in a procession at the end of April each year. Other memorable works of art are the stained-glass windows, large paintings and mosaics that decorate the floor of the choir and apse.

The church also has an impressive organ (built in 1864 and restored in 1978). The organ is a bit unusual in that each of its stops is crowned with a wooden statue. King David is in the centre and seems to be commanding musician angels. We thought that the most stunning part of the organ was the three stories of carved wooden support structure.

It still amazes me that every small town seems to typically have one, if not more, churchs that have such stunning architecture, furniture, paintings, stained-glass windows etc. All that wealth yet no doubt poverty and hard times being experienced by many in the town over the centuries.

Une ville fleuris

As is the case with most cities, towns and village we visit, I love seeing all the floral displays and plantings. In fact Castelsarrasin belongs to the Villes et Villages Fleuris (literally this translates to ‘cities and villages in bloom’). 

The title of Villes et Villages Fleuris was established about 60 years ago with 4,626 municipalities labeled last year. A city/village is awarded a rating of up to three ‘flowers’. Castelsarrasin has three. The rating is based on the place given to plants in public spaces, care for the environment, preservation of natural resources and biodiversity, the promotion of French botanical heritage, the ‘green’ reclaiming of city centres, the tourist attractiveness and the involvement of the citizens in the projects.

Hanging baskets, huge pots, small gardens are everywhere and certainly add a cheer to the place.

Market days

We continue to enjoy the weekly markets and also make frequent visits to the nearby huge supermarkets just a few kilometres away along the canal tow path. We were once again surprised to see New Zealand onions, in abundance, for sale (we first saw them at supermarkets in 2019). Dave reckons they are from Otaki but that is just speculation on his part.

Kiwi/Aussie friends in port

Friends (Aussie) Kathy and (Kiwi) Richard were moored on their boat Rangimãrie next to us for about 10 days. For a couple of days they had a Parisian-born friend, now living in New Caledonia (another Richard) stay. We’ve had some interesting and fun times together.

Laying carpet

Dave and Richard helped each other out with various chores on our boats. This included laying the carpet Dave had bought earlier. They did a great job and La Caunette certainly looks tidier. 

Stocking up on wine

The most memorable outing we did together was stocking up on wine at the annual Buzet-sur-Baïse wine sale. We decided to get there (about 70 kilometres away) by taking our bikes on the regional train. Trains run regularly and the train station at Castelsarrasin is quite close. We needed to get the train to Aiguillon, which is only around eight kilometres away from Les Vignerons de Buzet (where the wine sale was taking place).

We made our way on our bikes to the station at Castelsarrasin and were reminded the train leaves from the far track. So bikes needed to be taken down a flight of steps, under the tracks and up more steps on the other side. Dave gallantly took my bike. When we got on the train we discovered that there were six places for hanging bikes – but all places were taken so we had to hold our bikes in the aisle. There was no guard and we managed that part of the trip ok.

We had to change trains at Agen. This was across a few tracks. However there was a lift to take us up and over the track. The lifts were quite small but we managed, one at a time, to get our bikes to our waiting train. 

It was just a short trip to Aiguillon. Once again we had to change tracks but there were lifts to take us up and over. All went well going up, one by one, albeit once again the lifts were very small. But the lift to take us down was broken – so more lugging of bikes down stairs.

By this time it was about one o’clock and we knew the Les Vignerons de Buzet would be closed for lunch, so we found a restaurant in the town square and enjoyed a leisurely lunch.

We then set off for Buzet-sur-Baïse. The annual wine sale lasts a week, and we visited about half way through. While it was still in full swing, with lots of people loading up their trolleys and there was still plenty of wine in stock, it did not seem as vibrant as when we had been there in 2019. Dave bought 14 bottles of his favourite red wine and I got three rosé and three whites. Kathy and Richard bought a similar number of bottles, but Richard also had his 10 litre plastic barrel refilled. As they had fewer saddle bags than us, he had to carry a few bottles in a back pack. We could have fitted more onto our bikes but I think we’ve got enough stock for now.

Kiwi friends, Vickie and Linsay (were moored (on Tui) at the port in Buzet-sur-Baise and we caught up with them under the shade of trees at the nearby restaurant/bar. We were entertained by a small self-propelled lawn mower (decorated as a lady bird) that meandered over the lawn, as we had seen in 2019. It did not seem to do much in the way of mowing the lawn – as we discovered when Linsay picked it up, it only had three tiny blades.

We cycled back to the train station at Aiguillon. Luckily the train departed from the platform next to the station office so all we had to do was load the bikes on. Once again there wasn’t really any room for the bikes but we squeezed on and no-one seemed to mind. We had to change trains in Agen. As we had an hour to wait, we had a drink at a bar at the station. 

At Agen we had to cross over to a track in the centre ‘island’. We could see our train was waiting and the lifts were working so we made our way over to that. Once again there was no room for all of our bikes in the allocated bicycle space but we got them on and the guard was helpful in telling us where to position them so people could get out at the intermediary stops.

It wasn’t quite as easy at Castelsarrasin. Firstly the train was at least 30 centimetres above the platform which made it a wee bit challenging to get the bikes off. Then we (royal we here as Dave did all the work) had to take our bikes down stairs under the lines and then up again. Luckily I could easily take my saddle bags off which reduced the weight, but it was still an effort. It surprises me that there are not ramps/more consideration for making sure there is easy access for everyone, especially people in wheelchairs of who have mobility issues.

It was just a short cycle back to our boats where we unloaded our ‘loot’.  

It was a busy, and at times somewhat frustrating, day but it had been fun. There’s no doubt that had we hired a car it would have been cheaper, and certainly much easier – but where is the adventure in that (and I guarantee we would have bought a lot more wine)!

Ka kite ano i a koe

Kathy and Richard have now left the port. It was a bit sad seeing them go as we’ve had a really good time together – but we will see them again soon no doubt, and wish them all the best for a safe and happy cruise as they head east towards the Rhône.

Socialising

We have regular chats with other boaters moored in the port, especially Charlie when he is out walking Jacques. We also enjoyed chatting, and having wine one evening, with Americans Laura and Don who are moored next to us on their boat Largo (our sister ship). They have now moved to the boat yard so Don can repaint her. Dave helped Don on the boat and Laura took Annie in a carry bag in their car.

Last Friday Kathy and Richard’s friend Richard drove us to Moissac where we joined in the weekly night canal side drinks with fellow boaters. It was good to catch up with people we already knew and to meet new people.

Last Saturday we cycled to Moissac with Kathy and Richard to have coffee with Carol Erdman Grant and her family (plus a few other boaters). Carol set up a Facebook group Women on Barges a few years ago. There are now 3,000 members. I am not very active on it and probably technically shouldn’t be on it as La Caunette is not a barge, but it was very interesting meeting her.

We then enjoyed strolling around the market at Moissac and having another coffee at our favourite Moissac café.

That evening Kathy organised a dinner get together alongside our boats at the port for Carol, her family and other boat people in the port. It was very enjoyable although at one stage we had to shelter from a passing rain/thunder storm.

We welcomed Charmaine and Willem on Attitude. They hail originally from Pretoria in South Africa but have been in New Zealand for 15 years (and hold Kiwi passports). Willem is a passionate All Blacks supporter. They have just bought their boat and have encountered a few problems with all the paperwork and requirements but that is getting sorted out and they are now able to live aboard, albeit they have experienced another hiccup with flights they had booked to travel to Birmingham to gain an ICC were cancelled at the last minute and they are now needing to find an alternative ICC provider. (the International Certificate of Competency, commonly referred to as ‘ICC’ is a certificate of competency. It confirms that an individual is competent to the level required to meet the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Inland Water Committee requirements).

We invited them on board for apéro (predinner drinks), which lead to my rustling together an impromptu supper later in the evening. It was a very relaxed evening with Charlie and Richard also joining in for part of it. The next evening Charmaine and Willem invited us, Charlie, Lynne and Jacques on board their boat for a fun evening and delicious meal. Jacques took a liking to us both nights.

Charmaine and Willem bought their boat off the same broker as we did (Graham Wharmby of Boatshed Bourgogne) and it was nice to catch up and have a quick chat with him. He was very impressed with the remote wiring Dave is installing to be able to cut off the diesel supply and another to stop the motor in an emergency. He’s asked Dave to send him a photo of it once complete as Graham described it as “an ingenious solution, [he’s] never seen before”.

Concert

During the summer every village has a programme of free concerts. Dave and Richard wandered off to one of these last Friday. Dave described it as being ‘a bit different’. There was a Brazilian inspired percussion band playing (Batucada Tout’Eclach) and a very scantily dressed dancer. But they enjoyed the atmosphere.

Italian Week

For a number of years now, apart from those disrupted by Covid, an Italian village has been set up for a week in Castelsarrasin. (The organisation that arranges this tours a number of villages in the area). There are stalls selling panettone, charcuterie, wine, oil, leather, jewellery, i.e. a full range of Italian craftsmanship is on offer in the village. There is also entertainment including bands, singers, free cooking demonstrations and other events that promote Italian products. We did not go to the area over the weekend and I think we missed out on quite a few events (as when we visited on Monday there was hardly anyone around). 

There is also a restaurant set up in a big marquee and we enjoyed lunch there on Friday with our dear friends Gloria and Mike who drove up from Villesquelandes for the day. A Scottish friend of theirs, Junior who lives on his self built boat Grace Ann not far along the canal from us, also joined us. Not unexpectedly the menu focused on pizza and pasta. We were a bit frustrated at first at the slow service but the wait was worthwhile as we all agreed the pizza we had were among the best we had ever eaten. Dave had spaghetti bolognese which he also said was delicious.

Dining out

In addition to our lunches at Aiguillon and at the Italian Village (mentioned above) we have enjoyed some other delicious meals at restaurants. This has included cycling about six kilometres towards Moissac for lunch at To Panda. This is an Asian restaurant that has a huge buffet that offers an amazing variety of food – traditional Chinese and Vietnamese food, sushi, cheeses, seafoods, salads, European style deserts, fresh fruit, ice-cream etc. You can also select raw meat, poultry and/or fish along with raw vegetables that are stir fried for you. All the food is beautifully presented and the restaurant is very spacious and clean. It would have to be one of the biggest buffet style restaurants I have ever seen. It only cost €14 each (about $NZ20) which is amazingly good value.

Another meal we enjoyed was at L’Auberge de Moulin (The Moulin Inn) located on the outskirts of Castelsarrasin. A former mill was converted into the restaurant at the end of the 1960s. It offers traditional French cuisine and most of the food is sourced locally. We had dinner there one night with Kathy, Richard and their Parisian friend.

The setting was fabulous and the food divine. The ‘boys’ ordered a bottle of the same wine Dave had bought on our Buzet-sur-Baïse expedition – his cost €5.30, the bottle at the restaurant cost around €40.

Bike rides

Other than biking to the supermarket, lunches and other rendez-vous, I haven’t ridden my bike much but I always love cycling along the canal pathway.

Dave did a couple of bike trips with Richard, out to the Tarn and another one earlier in the week by himself. Among other things he discovered a great place where we can going swimming in the River Tarn, not too far away. He also enjoyed seeing interesting buildings such as an elaborate pigeonnier (dove cote), various churches, bridges, fields etc.

Weather

After the heat wave temperatures ‘plummeted’ to below 20°C for a couple of days, due to a cold front moving in from the Atlantic. I was about to get my suitcase out to retrieve a cardigan and my slippers but the cold snap soon passed and on most days temperatures range between a low of 16-19°C and a high of 30-35°C. There are reasonably frequent electrical storms, accompanied by a down pour of rain but these only last a few minutes. There is often a nice breeze that helps with managing the heat.

The coronavirus epidemic in France

Covid-19 is still spreading in France and the government is now referring to a seventh wave, with the number of new cases sky rocketing. The Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants are the major strains.

The latest statistics I have seen (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus) indicate France has 1,784,489 active cases (population 65 million +) with 485,231 cases and 2286 deaths per million to date. New Zealand is recorded as having 57,586 active cases (population just over 5 million) with 280,497 cases and 312 deaths per million – quite a significant difference, especially with regards to the number of deaths.

The mandatory wearing of masks at schools and in enclosed spaces and vaccination passes for entry to restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theatres, museums, stadiums etc were abolished in mid-March. However, the Minister of Health, in addition to recommending wearing masks in crowded places, is encouraging the most vulnerable people to have a second booster vaccination. We have noticed more people wearing masks in recent days.

An elderly couple on a boat moored near us contracted Covid on a cruise and are now being very diligent in self isolating for seven days as is required by French law (10 days if unvaccinated), unlike some Kiwis we know who disappointingly did not isolate when they returned from a cruise. They did not tell us they had Covid and we had exposure to them while they should have been isolating. Luckily we did not contract it (especially as we are both now classed as ‘elderly’ and I am immunocompromised).

Prescription

Dave usually manages to stock up on his thyroid medications but as we are away longer this time and his doctor also would not give him more than three month’s of the prescription before we left, we went into a pharmacy here to find out how to get more. Typically Dave’s medication is not available in France without a prescription but as he was en vacance the pharmacist happily provided him with three month’s supply – no details requested beyond Dave’s New Zealand pill packet. This was all attended to immediately and only cost €7.50 – about a third less than the doctor and prescription fees he would have to pay in New Zealand. 

Rupert

In my first blog, I mentioned that our neighbours, Jill and David, had kindly offered to foster our 14 year-old cat, Rupert, while we were away (their cat Bella was not quite so keen!). They kept him inside for a number of days but as soon as they allowed him outside he started returning to our home. The tenants fell in love with him, especially their four year old daughter, so they took over fostering him. He still made regular visits to Jill and David, especially when the tenants were away – so everyone was happy – especially Rupert who had two loving homes to go to for food and attention.

However, sadly, he is no longer with us. Jill and David had to take him to the vet last week. He had been losing weight and while he was still hungry and spirited he was obviously in considerable pain when he ate – pawing at his mouth. The vet prescribed antibiotics and anti-inflammatories but advised she suspected he may have a tumour. He showed some improvement once he started on his medication. When he went back to the vets for a reassessment on Friday, the vet gave him a heavy sedation to better examine his mouth and found an extensive mass that involved a lot of jaw bone. Plus he had lost even more weight over the week. It seems the cancer was very aggressive as he had lost 0.7kg since we left, but had thankfully it seems only been in real pain for a short period. Apart from his increasing pain and discomfort with eating he was his usual loving and playful self. 

Unfortunately there was no treatment or surgery available to help him and it was agreed that euthanasia would be the kindest thing to do for him. Jill and David were with him and they said the vet was very kind and gentle with him. He is now resting in peace in one of his favourite spots, under the trees in the front garden where he would spend hours watching the world go by.

We are hugely grateful to Jill and David for their kindness, love and attention that they have given Rupert. It must have been difficult for them being with Rupert at the end as they had grown very fond of him. I am also extremely grateful to Erin and Vicky at Raumati Beach Veterinary Clinic. They have always provided wonderful treatment to Rupert (and Chloe who has since passed away) and were especially kind in their email communications to me about Rupert’s declining health. 

It breaks our hearts that Rupert has gone and also that we were not with him. He was a wonderful pet. As my daughter-in-law said “he was one in a million, a special cat is many ways”. He was very friendly, affectionate and quite a character. He looked and acted way younger than his years. He had beautiful green eyes, lovely soft fur and a ginger tummy he loved showing off. He was always close by, would come running down the drive to greet us when we got home and would appear whenever we had visitors and flirt with them.  He gave us, and all who knew him, a lot of joy – we will miss him greatly.

À bientôt

In my last blog I said we would definitely be moving on but (not unsurprisingly!) our engine part has still not arrived. As I mentioned above, Dave has rigged up an alternative method of safely stopping the engine and intends to test the systems soon, so can start cruising even if we don’t have the engine part we are waiting for.

We have booked in to stay at the port another week. Kathy and Richard on Rangimãrie; Lynne, Charlie and Jacques on Acadia; and Laura, Don and Annie on Largo have left the port so it is a bit quieter. New people arrive on a regular basis and there are plenty of chores and bike rides to do, so there is little chance of our getting bored. Nevertheless, I really do hope we get away in the very near future.

In the meantime, we hope you are all keeping safe and well

9 Comments

  1. Hi Barb and Dave
    Condolences on the loss of your much loved pet. Sounds like he had a great life.
    Thanks for the update on your very social life. From cold and miserable Wellington, it is great to see your adventures. Take care.

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  2. So very sad to hear about Rupert – never easy parting with a pet especially when not there to say farewell – in some respects sometimes that can be easier. He will live on in your memory.
    Apart from that upset looks like life is being enjoyed to the full. One suspects you may have to find longer bike rides, or at least some inclines to burn off the calories being consumed on and off the boat. Winter continues here in NZ – cold, wet and sometimes windy. Life is conducted indoors most of the time – not like you lucky guys. Keep enjoying and hopefully you’ll be on the move to a change of scenery soon,
    Luv Watson’s

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  3. Chėre Barbara,
    Félicitations pour votre blog. Vraiment intéressant de lire vos aventures et découvertes.
    Je suis désolée que votre adorable chat soit décédé.
    Profitez de la belle vie en France, du pain du vin et du boursin..
    Santé.
    Gerda, ton amie et ex collègue de Belgique
    Dear Barbara,
    Very interesting to read your adventures and discoveries in your last blog.
    Sad to read that your lovely cat passed away.
    Enjoy the good life in France. Wine and….
    Your friend and ex colleague from Belgium.
    Gerda

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  4. It looks glorious Barb. Green eyes all around here as we slog through this very cold winter. Keep having a great time! Anne

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  5. Hiiiii its Maleeya here I hope you are having lots of fun it looks like you are having a lot of fun i miss you!!!! I can’t wait until you get back so can tell me about your amazing travels love you have fun

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