Canal voyage and giving thanks

Day trippin’ on the Canal du Midi

Several of us were invited to join our friend Tim aboard his beautiful boat Mary-Lou on the Canal du Midi, a few days before the canal closed for the season. It was a glorious early-November day, the air fresh and crisp, and the colors vivid. There was eager anticipation in the air that morning when we arrived in Carcassonne, and later, the on-board atmosphere was relaxed and full of joy. That, and a lot of great food!

A little background
I’ve had the intention of writing a post about the engineering marvel that is the Canal du Midi, but that’s a bit of a project. For now, there are a few key things to know. One is that people have tried to build a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea since the Romans first attempted it 2,000 years ago.

Others tried—including Leonardo da Vinci—but it wasn’t until the 1600s that Pierre-Paul Riquet, of Béziers, figured out how to get water flowing where he needed it in order to have a functioning canal. In 1666, King Louis XIV granted permission to begin construction.

The canal opened in 1681, eight months after the death of Riquet. It had taken fifteen years and about 12,000 people—including women—working with shovels and pickaxes to dig the trenches for the 240-kilometer canal.

And finally, Riquet didn’t just build a canal. He built a graceful waterway that blends in with its surroundings, celebrating the nature it flows through. Structures such as bridges and locks were designed to a classical standard of architectural beauty. It truly is a lovely canal. Let’s go see a tiny piece of it!

Setting out on the Canal du Midi on a crisp November morning.
Gleaming teak provides the backdrop for an antique bronze wheel, cast and polished by hand.

Tim’s boat, the Mary-Lou, has a remarkable story. She was built in 1908 by Samuel White’s, a shipbuilding firm on the Isle of Wight. Originally, she was a picket boat, a small naval craft used for harbor patrol and work close to shore, and sometimes carried aboard larger vessels. The Mary-Lou was carried on the deck of the World War I battleship Dreadnought.

Later the Mary-Lou was upgraded to an admiral’s barge by the addition of the counter stern and a cabin, and even later she was converted from steam to diesel (1945). Tim acquired her as a young man, spent over eight years on the restoration, and then sailed her across the English Channel and down to Carcassonne.

Big thanks to Tim for providing the information above, as well as the following three photographs.

The Mary-Lou in 1918, in either Malta or Gibraltar. Photo courtesy of Tim Harris.
The Mary-Lou shown in Richmond, where Tim spent many years restoring her. He and his young family lived aboard the boat for a while, too. Photo courtesy of Tim Harris.
The Mary-Lou in the French coastal town of Agde. Photo courtesy of Tim Harris.

Tim told us that he once had 17 people on board—his extended family, with lots of kids all over the place, including the roof. We were a more sedate group of, well, older kids.

One of the major activities on the canal is drinking. Another one is navigating the locks. In the hands of a novice, these two things don’t really go well together. Happily, we weren’t in the hands of a novice.

Our day was warming up a bit, and we were lucky that there wasn’t any wind. We went through two locks, and then tied up to shore to enjoy a splendid feast, accompanied by some of our regional Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wine.

Passing through a lock usually involves notifying the lock keeper, who lives in a house located right at the lock. At least one person aboard will jump to shore to handle the ropes.

Phil jumps ashore to help with the ropes.
Inside the lock, Captain Tim prepares to toss the rope up to receiving hands.
One of our friendly lock keepers.

The boat enters the lock through one set of gates, which then close. The water level begins to change by either adding or reducing the amount of water inside the lock. The boat rises or drops, and when the water level matches the level of the destination side of the gate, then the gate slowly opens to allow the boat to proceed. Here are some photos of our progress through one lock.

Top left, approaching the lock. Top right, just outside the gate. Center left, going through the gate. You can see the gate at the far side of the lock, and you can tell the difference in water levels. Center right, the water level is rising, and the boat is inching closer to the level of the bank. Bottom, the far gate begins to open so that we can continue along the canal.
The water looked like liquid gold as we passed through one of the locks.
At every lock along the canal, there’s a house for the lock keeper. Mounted to the wall of the house is a sign that indicates how far it is to the next lock, in each direction. “Écluse” is French for “lock.”
After lunch, we all leapt ashore and took a stroll along the banks of one very pretty lock. This worldly signpost stands near the upper gate. The view is facing the direction of Toulouse.
Looking the opposite direction from the worldly signpost above, there’s a lovely view of the Canal du Midi, looking in the direction of Carcassonne. Near the top of the picture, you can just see the white hull of the Mary-Lou on the left bank, peeking out from behind some bushes (follow the line of the walking path).

After admiring the view, we made our way back to the Mary-Lou, and Tim turned her around for the return voyage. The shadows had begun coming out much earlier than even a month ago, and the close of day wasn’t too far off. Everyone reached for their jackets.

Thanks to Tim for a fantastic outing aboard the Mary-Lou! A gorgeous day, a lovely canal, a really cool boat, and a group of friends sharing food and conversation. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

The golden light of late afternoon tints the trees and the water on our return trip to Carcassonne.
Mary-Lou’s wake on a beautiful blue-sky day.
Captain Tim enjoying the camaraderie of a day on the canal with friends.

Parting thought: American Thanksgiving
Thursday, 24 November is the American holiday of Thanksgiving. There are as many ways to celebrate the day as there are families in the United States, but the heart of it is to share a feast with those you love, and maybe to express gratitude. I like both of these very much.

Everyone has their own style with gratitude, and one option is to do nothing at all. But I’m a big fan of expressing it. I like to start with the fact that I was able to get out of bed this morning, and then I move on from there: I’m grateful to have that bed, and the roof over my head. I’m grateful for the wonderful, loving, beautiful people in my life. The food on my table. The sun. The rain. The birds. The trees.

There is so much to be thankful for, and while I express it regularly, Thanksgiving is the day in my calendar for going full-throttle on the gratitude. So that’s what I’ll be doing on Thursday: eating rather too much, and saying thank-you a lot.

Seen in a different section of the Canal du Midi: the surprising red of an ivy plant that has completely taken over a tree.

Antiques and antiquities

Pézenas antiques

Twice a year, the village of Pézenas hosts an antiques fair known as the Foire à la Brocante. (A brocante is a shop that sells vintage or antique goods, including all manner of tools, musical instruments, furniture, linens, pottery, mirrors, art and sculpture, and housewares such as dishes, glassware, crystal, copper, and silverware.) The fair in Pézenas brings together vendors from all over the region for one huge market day. I was invited to go with friends, and eventually decided to stay longer and turn it into a brief getaway.

Catherine and I met in Bize at oh-dark-thirty—also known that day as 7:00 a.m.—and we each drove our own car an hour northeast to Pézenas. We arrived just as the market opened at 8:00, enabling us to see a lot of wares without the bumper-to-bumper crowds that we would experience later in the day. We had fun bantering with the vendors.

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Chemin de Compostelle (Part Two)

And they’re off!
As I wrote in the previous post, we began our walk in Le-Puy-en-Velay, a lovely historic city about two hours southwest of Lyon. It’s one of the ancient starting points in France for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in French) in northwestern Spain, 1,522 kilometers away (946 miles).

This route is often called the Via Podiensis, although its more utilitarian name is the GR 65, where “GR” stands for Grande Randonnée (great trek). All of the GR routes are marked with a white-and-red blaze, which you’ll see in the photos below. This section of the GR 65, between Le Puy and Conques, is considered by many French people to be the prettiest in all of France. Our plan was to walk half of it now, and half later. When we started out, I tried to say “Conques or bust!” to Claude. As often happens, it fell flat, but we finally figured out that “Conques ou rien!” would be the translation (Conques or nothing).

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Chemin de Compostelle (Part One)

Too many photos! Too many stories! So I’ve divided our adventure into two blog posts. Part One is the background of our journey on the Chemin de Compostelle and the big kick-off in the historic and beautiful city of Le-Puy-en-Velay. Part Two covers our eight days of walking, through lovely, ever-changing country (with a lot of cows) … (and flies).

How did I get here?

As often happens, I was chatting with my friends Maryse and Claude about interesting places to visit in France. Somehow, we landed on the Chemin de Compostelle (Camino de Santiago, or The Way), and in particular, the portion that starts in Le-Puy-en-Velay and ends in Conques, a walk of about 220 kilometers. They agreed that this is widely considered to be the prettiest section of the Chemin in France.

Claude gave me a wistful look and said that he’d wanted to do this for 40 years. So I said, “Let’s do it!”

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The Pyrenees

Santazi, or Santa Grazi, is the Basque name of the village Sainte-Engrâce, in the French Pyrenees.

That was then…
Twenty-seven years ago, I set off from my home in California and paid a visit to my friends Mindy and John, who were living near Paris at the time. Part of the vacation involved Mindy and me taking a road trip, with our first stop landing us in Saint-Émilion. Wine and hilarity ensued, but that’s a story for another day. We continued south, passing through Auch long enough for each of us to air-kiss a giant statue of D’Artagnan, and then we continued toward the towering Pyrenees, where we explored towns and hiked and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

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Pink party!

Pink dinner party
A few months ago I participated in a wine tasting at Château Capitoul in nearby Gruissan. Of the many wines they produce, there was one that stood out: Rive, their signature rosé. This is notable for two reasons: one is that I don’t generally drink rosé, and the other is that this is definitely a unique wine. I tasted roses, which seems apt if a little unusual.

I enjoyed talking with the fellow who did the tasting for our group, and we spoke a lot about the foods that might accompany the wines. When we tasted the Rive rosé, he said something that stuck in my head: it would be fun to feature this wine at an entirely pink dinner party.

So we did just that, last week, and it was a lovely pink evening on my terrace. Here’s the evidence:

Pink togs for a pink dinner on the terrace.
There’s plenty to eat in the pink/red/purple range of foods!
The idea began with this Rive rosé from Château Capitoul.
Left, pink peppercorns and pink salt. Right, a small bowl of cherries on the dining table.

If you think you’d like to do something similar, you can start by making a list of pink foods, and then use that to build a menu. We did our best to stick with seasonal foods, so watermelon was off the menu, but it would be a great addition.

For appetizers (entrée in French) we drank pink champagne and nibbled on red radishes with butter and sea salt. We also had small cups of puréed tomato gazpacho with crème fraîche. (Purée is itself a French word, but puréed soup is called velouté in France, meaning velvety.)

We served the Rive rosé with the main course (plat in French), which consisted of two protein dishes, salmon and ham. We kept them both fairly simple, making a sauce that worked for both. We also had a salad made of purple endive and red oak leaf lettuce, with grapefruit, avocado and pomegranate seeds. The salad dressing was made with a raspberry coulis. At the grocery store, we happened to find some edible flowers in a medley of pink hues, and those went into the salad and also decorated the serving dish for the ham.

For dessert we had a lovely raspberry sorbet topped with fresh berries, and a delightful box of Mon Chéri candy.

The color theme was continued when we found some pink Himalayan salt and bright reddish-pink peppercorns. A vase of pink peonies and roses completed the picture.

Katie and I found luscious flowers for the event.

Parting shot
I was driving along a country road and spotted the sign below, an amusing bit of street art that’s similar to the work of an artist I’ve met, Clet Abraham. Clet has altered many street signs in his home city of Florence, Italy, and more of his work is found around the world. I have no idea who helped this deer to fly, but it’s fun!

When deer fly