Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Adventures in the South of France

There she sits obediently like a school kid in a primary classroom. Pigasse is her name.  Just like her, about 20 other, pénichettes (long flat-bottomed boats) are moored side by side in rows of four at Port Ariane in Lattes. A brisk wind would make them sway, causing them to gently nudge one another. Lattes is a small town, 3.5 km south west of Montpellier, a prominent city in the south of France. With concrete multi-storied structures built for the sole purpose of housing restaurants, spas and other businesses, Port Ariane looks rather sterile and soulless. By the time summer arrives in two months time, this place will be filled with holiday-makers. 

Piagasse at Gallician Port

Layout of Pigasse
Pigasse is about 14 meters long and 4 meters in width. There are three cabins, all with attached toilets and showers and a central salon comprising a dining area, small kitchen, for five of us to inhabit comfortably for a week. If this passage is considered “camping on water”, Pigasse is definitely more than a tent. In fact, it resembles a miniature apartment, outfitted with all basic amenities but perhaps lacking the ultimate comfort due to limited space. The Flying Bridge, the area on the roof at the stern, is not only equipped with an outside steering but also a picnic table that sits at least five. Although much of the space on the rooftop could be used as sunbathing deck, with the temperature varying from 8 to 10 degrees, I am lucky if and when I manage to get out of my jumper. 

Canal du midi is a work of Pierre Paul Riquet, the 17th century French engineer and canal builder. A world heritage site by the UNESSCO, the canal is 240-km long and has 91 locks, which serve to raise and lower boats between stretches of water of different levels on the canals. Although some locks have lock-keepers who help with the process, many locks have gone automatic since 2012. These waterways in the south of France are also popular with tourists on self-driving pénichettes discovering historical cities such as Carcassonne, Toulouse, Beziers and Agde. As it is our first journey on a DIY boat, we have chosen an opposite, shorter route to the east, visiting small towns along the Canal du Rhône à Sète, another waterway that connects with the Canal du midi.

A scruffy-looking Sebastian comes on board armed with a thick folder, which contains a map book of the canals, an operation manual for the boat, emergency procedures in addition to information sheets and pamphlets of restaurants and services. The orientation begins shortly afterwards and subsequently he takes us out on a test drive around the port. My French, to be honest is not solid enough to understand Sebastian’s how-to lecture. Nor do I ever follow instructions in any language. Therefore I let the piloting business to my four other friends. They can take turns being the pilot while I happily take the task of washing dishes and pouring wine. Well, considering 20 bottles of red and white wine we picked up from the Loire valley last week, to be consumed on board (that is of course not counting the ones we would drink at restaurants) I realize I have a very busy schedule of wine pouring ahead.


Port Ariane is soon behind us as we slowly enter into The Canal du Rhône à Sète. Our newly appointed captain J is happily taking the wheel. A typical Mediterranean landscape with pine trees, cypresses, vines and a riot of wild flowers emerges on the left bank. Vacationers and locals alike are taking advantage of the beautiful spring day, walking their dogs, enjoying a bicycle ride or having a jog. The bouncy wind softly brushes my skin as though it has been choreographed to match the lively rhythm of “Perfidia”, the opening track from Bocelli’s new album,“Passione”. We drive at 10km per hour, only to slow down to 4km whenever there’s another boat on the horizon, as the channel is not too wide.
After 4km, we reach Carnon, a modern resort town that sits on the Mediterranean coastline. Very much like Lattes, Carnon is defined by the three ‘s’- Sun, Sea & Summer. I could even add one more: ‘Sailing’. When we leave the boat in search of dinner in town, it is almost 7:30 pm. The sun is slowly setting yet it seems rather an unusually long process. In a distance on the beach, a group of men are playing volleyball, some in their speedos, confronting the strong chilly winds directly launching an attack from the sea. Beachfront restaurants appear to be empty from outside. But in reality, diners are inside, ditching the glorious sunset for a warm cozy ambience. Five of us dash into a restaurant without even browsing their menu or checking its name. Soon, a waitress with wholesome, robust personality brings a gigantic tin tray that holds ‘Catch of the day’. Shrimps, fish of many colors, squids, mussels and other sea creatures that I can’t even identify. While my friends choose a local delight, poached white fish with Aioli sauce, I opt for a Mediterranean classic, a large plate of batter-coated deep fried calamari with salt and lemon on the side which, for me, not only compliments the very dry Sauvignon Blanc that we are drinking, also brings back warm Mediterranean memories.

A sunny Sunday awaits us the next morning, making our canal boat ride even more pleasant. Wild ducks of many colors swim awkwardly next to our boat. Mallards, with their grey heads, are good swimmers. They would come around the boat in search of food sometimes. Shelducks are larger and more rare. Upset by the sound of boat engine, they would swiftly pop out of bushes and shoot up to the sky. Flamingoes, the icon extraordinaire of Carmague region, known to be the home of 400 bird species, are such a showoff. Flaunting their beautiful white-feathered, pink-leggy selves, a flock of them would fly by way up in the sky, synchronized and suave, as though a set of fighter jets is rehearsing for a national day event. It is true. Dodging the usual congested urban environment and stepping into the nature to coexist with its natural habitats has a profound effect on your soul.

Avez-vous attrapé du poisson? Danielle shouts to a fisherman under the bridge. He answers, with a famous French shrug, that he has not caught any fish yet. I wish him luck, as it’s almost lunchtime. Till this stage, I have not seen anything significant, apart from the idyllic countryside. No castle, cathedral nor chateau yet. But I realize this is about to change as the Tower of Constance emerges when our boat approaches Aigues-Mortesa medieval city in Carmague region. We tie up our boat at the quay right in front of the tower, which was built to hold prisoners back in the day but now a tourism office. After doing the port rituals such as paying the mooring fees of 20Euros, recharging the boat and filling up the water tank, we quickly put together a lunch menu with what we have in our fridge. Packets of meaty Jabuco ham brought by our Spaniard friend, Jesus, all the way from Madrid, a salad made out of high-quality anchovies with regional scrumptious and scarlet-red tomatoes, plus a long baguette to accompany an assortment of French cheese and a box of rillettes du canard make a simple yet perfect picnic lunch. Needless to say, our spirits are as high as the blue sky above. 



The fortified town of Aigues-Mortes was founded in the 13th century by King Louis IX to provide the Kingdom of France with a Mediterranean port. A bronze statue in the main square depicts King Louis IX, who later became Saint Louis, setting out from Aigues-Mortes on the Crusades. An evening wander through cobblestone streets, medieval architectures in a town bounded by well-preserved ramparts offers a glimpse of olden days in the middle Ages. Many tourists have left the place by now. Stores and souvenirs shops that sell anything from postcards to stuffed flamingoes are already closing down with an exception of a few restaurants. People in period costumes, possibly performers from a medieval knight fight show are on their way home. I feel as though I was on the set of a Hollywood-style medieval movie. Certainly, tonight, I am sleeping right next to hundreds of years old history. 


It’s awfully quiet here considering it is Monday. Apart from the main street, which is occupied with a few shops, cafés and a bank, the rest of Saint Gilles, 25 km north of Aigues-Mortes, is rather drab. A few grand old mansions mirror a distant glorious past. The allure for tourists here is the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Gilles, founded in the 7th century by a Christian Hermit Saint from Athens named Saint Giles. Historians and architecture enthusiasts come to see the façade of the abbey, which is considered one of the finest examples of Provençal Romanesque style. As I walk along a narrow street near the abbey, I hear Middle Eastern music faintly playing from a house. A group of men sit and chat in a corner. While I cannot identify the language they use, I am certain it’s not French. Their eyes follow me in curiosity as I walk past. Perhaps tourists from Asia don’t come to Saint-Gilles much.

If one describes Saint-Gilles as sleepy, Bellegarde, our next stop, is snoring with its mouth open. During a wander, it is so quiet that I could hear the sound of someone clipping nails in an apartment upstairs. It is nevertheless a delightful little town we drop in to stock up our fridge and spend the night. What I love about Bellegarde is the fact that all small shops and services are in one place circling the church in Town Square. Charcuterie (butcher) is next to boulangerie (baker). Pattisserie (cakes & pastries) is right between crêperie (crêpes place) and droguerie (hardware store). Oh, what about chocolaterie (chocolate shop) then? It’s on the other side! How charming is that?

A market in Beaucaire
Our most challenging mooring takes place in Beaucaire, an old town overlooking the river Rhône. As we wish to be in the town center, we look for a space where our big mama Pigasse could park. Beacucaire is the most important commercial town in the entire region. Therefore, the port is busy and jam-packed with boats that came before us. All the best spots near restaurants, the market or the bridge have been filled. We have finally found a spot but it’s in between two large pénichettes, which makes it extremely difficult to squeeze in. While going back and forth for a good 35 minutes, we have woken up the entire neighborhood from their afternoon siesta. Two experienced British tourists from nearby boats guide us through this ordeal and eventually, Pigasse is moored. We thank them in our language; ‘wine’, a bottle each

Town attractions such as a Medieval Castle and a visit to the cave monastery can keep one occupied in Beaucaire, but many come here to relax or explore other prominent cities in Provence such as Arles, Nîmes and the famed Pont Du Gard. In all the places we have visited so far and also here, I have noticed a Spanish cultural influence, of a controversial yet centuries-old tradition. Not only bulls are annually run through the streets, Iberian-style, bullfights in old Roman amphitheaters are still legal and practiced in the Southern France. Posters of famous corridors visits, warning signs around town about bulls and sport pubs with its patrons watching bullfights on TV are a common sight here.  

We are having English weather on our second day in Beaucaire, gloomy, cold and wet. But that does not stop us from renting a car and driving out 18 km to Arles. The city, even at 8:30 am, is slowly waking up. I yearn for a nice long latte to help me defy the cold but in small town France, no Starbucks is around the corner. In order to grab a café au lait and a croissant, one must wait for the mercy of slow-moving owners in their morning mood to open their cafés. On the brighter side though, we get Arles Amphitheatre all to ourselves. Resembling the Colosseum of Rome, though much smaller (20,000 capacity to Colosseum’s 80,000), this two-tiered Roman structure is still very much intact and open for business with equestrian shows and seasonal bullfights nowadays. I peek inside and imagine the time where chariot races and brutal gladiator fights were a form of entertainment. Not much has changed since though. There are still those who bet on races or enjoy boxing and cage fights even today. 

Arles has always been an important city since Roman times for its strategic geographical location but its fame was furthered elevated in modern era, thanks to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh (“Starry Night Over the Rhone”, “Café Terrace at Night” and the world-famous, “Bedroom in Arles”) who was inspired by this enchanting city during his residency in the late 19th century. 

Merely 36km away from Arles is one of the primary tourist draws of France, Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge. Built in the 1st century AD, the bridge is the highest of its kind (48.8m) and still in remarkably good condition, kudos to the extraordinary know-how of Roman engineers. In its heyday, Pont du Gard was used to carry an estimated 44,000,000 imperial gallons of water a day from a spring in Uzès, a nearby commune, to fountains, baths and homes of Nemausus (the present day Nîmes). Admiring this ancient architectural wonder, down from the Gardon riverbank that the bridge spans across, makes me feel insignificant and humble. I am greatly awe-struck and astounded by what our mankind can do, both then and now.

Pont du Gard of Provence 

We head back to Lattes the next day. All day of non-stop driving back to where we came from, with a night-stop at Gallecian, a port between Aigues-Mortes and St-Gilles, seems dreary. But we have no choice as we left our cars in Lattes. Of course, if that was not the case, we could have explored further more and leave the boat at whichever port we end our journey. At least the weather is in top form - plenty of sunshine and cool breezes. I spend the day either reading in my cabin or chasing this very swift exotic bird called Guêpier d'Europe (European bee-eater) through my viewfinder.

Right before Gallecian port, we are met with our second-last lock, an automatic one. As usual, we all help to tie the boat before entering the chamber. Blame it on miscommunication or just plain bad luck, poor Michel, who’s on the canal bank, attempting to tie the rope to a pole, gets abruptly dragged when the boat tilts and ends up in the water. We all get panic. The boat is yet untied and our friend is struggling in the cold water. It is also extremely dangerous as the current could further drag him into the lock. Somehow, he manages to swim back to the bank with the help of a life ring and get out of water but the unfortunate accident has left him terrible back and chest pains.

It won’t be an adventure if there is no injury or a nail biting moment, right? We travelled almost 160 km by boat in a week period. We have gained new experiences. The luxury of not having to rush to visit a castle or queuing to enter a museum is absolutely priceless. We took it slow in order to make room for relaxation. We delved into the peaceful countryside and as our friend, Jesus puts it “We certainly would never been to these places we visited if we had chosen a different mode of travelling”. But most importantly, we took pleasures in company of good friends, fantastic French cuisine and fabulous wine.

There’s one thing I will definitely miss… falling asleep slowly on the boat listening to the soundtrack of nature - a collaboration of moody wind, swish-swashing meadows and chirping crickets.

No comments: