Category Archives: Europe 2015
We are now in Amsterdam aboard the Amabella, heading off tomorrow on the cruise down the Rhine and Danube to Budapest. We have spent the last couple of days in Amsterdam gathering strength to survive on the canals and locks. Apparently, we are going to go through 68 locks on this trip, a few more than we did on the Canal du Midi. These though are a bit bigger and we don’t have to throw ropes.
In Amsterdam we have wandered around the canals and streets taking in the scenery, dodging bicycles and motor bikes. Bicycles are everywhere and they have their own lanes and have right of way over pedestrians. You have to keep your wits about you otherwise you will be mown down in the traffic.
In our wanderings we have spent some time in the Rijks Museum, the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Franks House. The later was particularly moving, the house was largely empty, the story explained by wall mounted exhibits, excerpts from her diary and a number of scale models of the rooms. It is hard to imagine 8 people living in hiding for 2 years in these small rooms. In the Rijks Museum we saw the Dirk Hartog plate left on the West Australian coast at Pt Inscription in 1610. Allthego had stood at Pt Inscription a few years back when on his trip from Exmouth to Geraldton aboard the Endeavour replica. This plate is the oldest piece of European memorabilia found in Australia.
The streets and canals are full of human activity. Eating and socializing along the canals. It seems every one is on holiday around here. There are some big steel hulled barges on these canals to be wary of if one was in a smaller vessel. They make the one we bumped into on the Canal du Midi look midget like.
A highlight of our trip was calling in at the Amsterdam Ice Bar. It was a chilly minus 9.5 degrees C as we consumed our drinks in ice glasses along with all the other 25 year olds. Bit of an adventure for us mature types.
On our way tomorrow we first head off on a bus trip into the Dutch countryside to catch some windmills, clog makers and a cheese establishment. The Amabella cruises off without us and we rejoin her down the canal a bit before heading for Cologne overnight.
Amiens and the WW1 Battlefields
We left Castelnaudary by train for Amiens, via a train change in Paris. It took all day. This was good. It allowed recovery time from the seemingly non stop go-go of the canal trip. It also allowed the cassoulet to settle.
Arriving in Amiens we were met at the station by our host at L’Escale 80. This is a very neat little apartment right in Amiens beside a canal off the River Somme. It felt like a palace, compared to the Maison du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary; with a bedroom, kitchen and sitting area overlooking the canal and parklands.
We had two days here, the second was a guided tour of the nearby WW1 battlefields on which Australians were engaged. So we spent our first day in Amiens. Amiens was little damaged in WW1 but WW2 saw extensive damage. It was largely rebuilt after 1945 so it appears relatively ‘modern’. Still though with feeling of a much older place. This is particularly so in the huge Cathedral that was built from the 1200s, it suffered little damage in WW2. The Cathedral is the largest in France and has a floor area big enough to hold the Notre Dame in Paris twice over. It contains the usual side chapels and adornments of these ‘big old beautiful churches’. It is particularly rich in wooden carved scenes from the bible. These are in fact ‘illustrations’ for the worshippers in the days that preceded printing and when many had limited reading and writing skills.
There are also a number of plaques acknowledging the contributions of each of the allies in defending Amiens and the surrounding countryside in WW1. Amiens was a key spot because it was the transport and provisioning hub for the allies and the Germans were keen to get hold of it for exactly the same purpose. Villers- Bretonneux (about 15 km from Amiens) was were the Australians stopped the Germans on 25th April 1918, coincidentally ANZAC day, in their attack on Amiens.
Jules Verne also lived here in Amiens and it was where he wrote many of his books. There is of course his restored house and exhibits to visit, but we didn’t. Dinner was calling.
Next day we were off on the battle fields tour. There were 5 of us, all Australians, plus the guide. She was French but spoke great English. And obviously immersed in the history of WW1 and WW2. First stop was the Australian memorial at Villers -Bretonneux, VB for short. We walked through the cemetery which carries headstones for the many identified (not necessarily by name) Australian, British and Canadians who died in and around the VB battle arena. The Australian Memorial here, however, contains the names of the 11,000 or so Australians who died in France as a whole, but have no known grave. The countryside here is rolling agricultural plains, apparently little different from 100 years ago. It is a total contrast to the rugged topography of Gallipoli, which we visited a couple of years ago for ANZAC Day. Allthego climbed the 140 steps to the top of the Memorial and took in the panorama and view across to the VB village about a kilometre away.
Leaving the VB memorial we called next at the VB school. This is the school that was built from funds supplied by a Victorian school after the War. It has an Assembly Hall in which a museum of WW1 memorabilia is currently displayed, pending refurbishment of the actual museum space. This assembly hall is unique in France. Our guide tells us that French schools don’t have assembly halls, they don’t even have assemblies for that matter! The inside walls are adorned with carvings of Australian animals and the floor is made from timber from Daylesford in Victotria. The school in its playground has a big red sign ‘DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA’.
We move onto the town of Albert for lunch and later visit Pozieres, another significant Australian site. On the way we visit a mine crater caused by the explosion of tonnes of explosives at the end of an allied tunnel under the German lines. This was one of many along the German front.
Later at Beaumont-Hamel we wander around a network of preserved allied trenches and gaze across no man’s land to where the German lines were.
On a slightly lighter note we stopped by the ‘location’ of where the famous German air ace the ‘Red Baron’ was shot down, not by Snoopy in his Sopworth Camel, but by an Australian gunner. Our guide was convinced by Allthego to try to point out the exact spot where this happened, she was a little reluctant to do so. But she did oblige with a pointed finger at ‘the spot’, but then again perhaps it wasn’t!
Back in Amiens we had a late dinner in the apartment and packed up to prepare for the next leg of our trip by train on the following day to Amsterdam.
Now cassoulet is an authentic regional dish from the south of France. Castelnaudary claims to be the birthplace of the cassoulet, others are just ‘imposteurs’. When we were in Carcassonne there was plenty of cassoulet around town so there is a bit of inter town rivalry for this complex dish.
Cassoulet is cooked up in a pot/pots in various stages running over a couple of days. This is the authentic Chez David method. He reckons others create theirs in an “industrial” way and it is therefore not half as good as his! In fact you can buy cassoulet in tins of various sizes, which seems to reinforce chef David’s “industrial” model.
It seems to have 5 main ingredients. It comes to your table in a pot and each serving there from will consist of a duck’s leg, a piece of pork (shoulder perhaps) and a piece of pork sausage from Toulouse. This lot swims in a white bean sauce, with some onions, carrots and special herbs and spices included. Now the meat portions have been slow cooked for several hours in duck fat (the 5th ingredient). The beans are separately marinated in some fluid and desalted. The whole lot is then combined and baked in the oven for a bit longer. This is Allthego’s take on how it is done. It is mostly/probably wrong in parts and I am open for correction from others, including Chef David.
It tastes alright. Allthego and Tony Watt shared a pot. Rosemary and Homealone avoided it. It is a bit greasy. I must say I wouldn’t go looking for it again, but if it found me then I would feel that I needed to give it another go.
What a way to finish our trip on the Canal du Midi! Cassoulet! A regional treat. A must do!
We have had a wonderful 2 weeks of visual and gastronomic experiences on the Canal du Midi but the Watts and us must now go our separate ways. We are off by train to Amiens for 3 nights to visit some of the WW1 Western front battle fields. The Watts go to Edinburgh via train and then plane from Paris.
Next blog from Amiens. Actually, I’m cheating a bit we have been in Amiens for 3 nights already and are heading to Amsterdam today from where I will update the blog on Amiens.
Heading for Castelnaudary
Leaving Carcassonne our original plans had us staying the next night at Bram, about half way to Castelnaudary and only 6 locks. But the Bram stop was disappointing, a bit rundown. Also the town was 1.4 km from the mooring and at this stage of the trip no one was of the mind to amble in. So we passed by and sought out a shady spot further along the Canal bank to tie up to. We saw the sunset but did not see the full moon rise, which would have looked good gleaming down through the Flame trees onto the Canal. Homealone ascribed to the theory that as the sun sets (at about 9.30 pm in these parts) the moon rises. But she was asleep, as was Rosemary. Tony and I sat up to midnight waiting for the moon, to no avail. Not sure about the theory. Then again we don’t know a lot about the moon.
We set off as the locks opened the next morning. It was to be a long day. 18 locks to Castelnaudary, the last 4 being a staircase into ‘Le Grand Basin’. This is about 7 hectares of water that feeds the Canal with water in both directions. This is near the high point of the Canal and the locks all step down from here in the direction we came from and also step down as you leave Castelnaudary in the other direction. This is where we leave our boat and get back on land. We have the night on board and leave it the next morning for our hotel the Maison du Cassoulet, the ‘home of the Cassoulet’.
Dinner that night was at Chez David, a small restaurant in the back streets. This was special indeed, a superb piece of beef with a smooth brown Marsala sauce and a roasted vegetable stack. It is at this place that we will also be having our Cassoulet dinner the following night. David, the chef spoke to us convincingly of the merits of his cassoulet over that of any other place in town. His was a labour of love compared to the mere “industrial” cassoulet of other establishments, including he said the Maison du Cassoulet. Who could argue with such passionate convictions?
After divesting ourselves the boat we spent the next day wandering around Castelnaudary, having coffee in the town square and taking in the magnificent views over the hinterland and Grand Basin. We retired to our hotel for a brief breather ahead of the return to Chez David and the cassoulet.
But more of that next time.
Carcassone is a mere 13 km from Trebe, but it takes us nearly all day. There are 9 locks to get through and we don’t set off early. Who cares! The countryside continues to amaze. But it is hot. Mid 30s. And the sun beats down out of a clear blue sky.
The team continues to excel at casting ropes and holding steady through the lock uplifts. Homealone jumps ashore at the side of the locks and then heads to the top were she catches the ropes thrown up to her by the boat team. The lock then closes behind us, fills and we cruise out the other end. All pretty simple at the end of the day. Sometimes gets a bit dicky with 3 boats in the lock as we can get tossed around a bit as the fill happens. Two or three locks are frequently strung together in short staircases which keeps the intensity up.
As we travel towards Carcassonne we are continuing to gain height and get great views across the valley and rolling plains. The grapes now seem to be giving way to cereal crops and mixed agriculture. During our passage along the canal we stop and tie up for lunch along the banks. Try to get some shady positions under the Flame trees to enjoy an hour or so break. The locks are all manned and stop at 12.30 and then resume at 1.30, to allow the lock keeper a lunch break. So there is a bit of a timing involved in getting through the locks to fit this schedule.
We have had two days in Carcassonne exploring first the ‘new town’ next the to the Canal and then the medieval walled city. Some really great old building work here that dates back to the 1200s. The walled city is a great massive stone structure that spreads itself across the horizon as we come in along the Canal. Inside it is full of souvenier shops and eating places. If you can get away from the crowds there are some interesting spots.
The city is approached by a long arched bridge across the river that then leads up to the draw bridge entrance. Very imposing. We arrived early and had breakfast in a small cafe, followed by lunch in a terraced side bar. More wandering around and finally back down to the boat. A very full day.
Next stop is Castelnaudary. The end!
Trebes is a pleasant village with our mooring right in the middle of the cafe precinct, a short walk for croissants and baguettes across a bridge adorned with flower boxes in full bloom.
We had a great tapas lunch here at the local wine bar and cafe. This was to be 2 night stop to allow a little R & R after the last few days of lazy travel along the canal. Coming into Trebe we passed through one lock where the lock keeper fills in his spare time with a welding rod creating all sorts of figures that are spread out on his lawn. A wooden carved crocodile greets you as you start-up the lock with a tin elephant on the other bank. All his work has created a great atmosphere for boaters.
Being here for a day allowed us time for a good walk around. Tony and Rosemary were seduced by the offerings of an antique shop, full of all sorts of stuff. A day could be spent pouring over its contents. Allthego took a stroll down the canal for a couple of kilometres to a bridge and indulged in numerous photos of said bridge. It had been described in one of the brochures as a must photo or paint opportunity.
The Canal continiues to be a great boating experience, the weather is starting to warm up and the French, Germans and Brits are taking their shirts off. Bodies of all shapes and sizes are emerging on the decks of boats as they pass us. Enough said of this.
Our next stop is at Carcassonne, the old walled city.
As we are a bit over half way through our journey along the Canal I thought it was timely to update you on croissants. We have eaten quite a few of these now for breakfast on the boat.Tony Watt has also knocked up a couple of breakfasts of croque-madames. Althego normally goes ashore around 8 am and hunts
the local bread shop and brings them back to the boat fresh from the oven (along with a couple of baguettes for lunch). On another occasion we went ashore in Trebes and had them in a cafe. The french seem to eat them as they come with a coffee or juice of some description. Allthego likes them with honey. We have also had them with a runny blackberry jelly. very nice indeed!
Croissants have an interesting history. They did not originate in France but in Austria. Apparently, to celebrate a victory against marauding Turks back in the 1700s sometime bakers in a town invented the croissant. It was very much in the shape of a cross though (hence the name croissant) unlike the french version which is more like a crescent shape. Anyway the croissant came to France when Marie Antoinette arrived to marry the French King, one of those Louis. The good french changed the shape in adopting it and made it look a bit more fancy. It’s a bit like what they did to the humble English potato chip creating a french fry. I hope this information is helpful for my readers next trivia night.
Despite this we will continue to eat them along the way!
Just a short hop to La Redorte
It was only one lock and 6 km along the Canal from Homps to La Redorte. We arrived at lunchtime after getting away from a Homps’ wine tasting at 10 am in the morning. Just can’t drag Homealone and Rosemary Watt away from the Chardonnay.
La Redorte is another pretty little village with a cafe and restaurant right beside the Canal. We made this our base for the rest of the day, having a couple of french style Pizzas for lunch and then merging into dinner. Again another great sunset to see down a crepe. The moon is now getting pretty well full and it casts its pale reflections down on us illuminating the canal in the early night-light.
We took the opportunity here to find the laundromat and set it going. The Watts stayed at the cafe to keep our seats warm. We took our directions from the charming waitress who spoke a little English and combined with our little French these directions were quite clear to all. She was good at giving hand signals so that we did not get lost. She looked particularly good giving a signal to turn ‘a droite’, right.
La Redorte is more or less the halfway mark for us on the Canal and we are now heading towards the larger town of Trebes, followed by the old city of Carcassone. We are planning a two night stop at Trebes and three at Carcassone, to enable us to catch the market day there. We have been missing these along the way so far and are keen to wander around seeing all the local produce, meats and of course cheeses!
Steak and Crepe
The story continues as we meander along the Canal from Port La Robine to Homps, with a stopover for the night at Argens-Minervois. This seems to be like the heart of the wine country. There are vineyards lining the banks of the canal stretching in every direction. The countryside continues to amaze with its patterns of vineyards punctuated from time to time by small villages and farm houses. Wind farms are plentiful in these parts but they do not seem to have affected the vines. Port la Robine is a junction point for another canal joining the Canal Du Midi from Narbonne in the south closer to the Mediterranean coast. We keep going along the Canal du Midi, although there was a slight inclination to go down and see Narbonne. It would have been difficult time wise as well as a good number of locks to go back and forth over. Another time maybe!
We are now back in lock country and we have to pass through one before entering the port at Argens-Minervois for our night stop. The team on board are getting quite good now at casting ropes up the lock wall and getting us set for the inflow of water in the lock as we rise up. Our trip involves us going up all the locks as the Canal does not reach its highest point until east of Castelnaudary, where our trip concludes.
At Argens-Minervois we had dinner out at a great little BBQ resteraunt. There is a big open wood fired BBQ .and we order steaks of various types followed by a crepe house speciality. The crepe was substantial. On top of the crepe was placed a big lump of ice cream, covered with chantilly cream and then topped with some strawberries and grand marnier. The crepe was then folded over this lot and drizzled with strawberry sauce. How to finish a meal! Slept like a log.
The next day we resumed the Canal and went the 5 km on to Homps a short distance for our next stop over. Homps is an old canal port which was a transport hub for the wine industry in the ‘good old days’ . It is now a little weather beaten and is trying to reinvigorate itself around tourism. Still a lot of wine here to enjoy. We dined on a Toulouse sausage of some sort cooked on board by Tony Watt and eaten on our top deck. We had some clouds in the early evening sky and these were painted a pale pink as the sun slowly descended in the west.
Cruising the Canal du Midi
Fully recovered from our encounter with the steel hulled tourist barge we have now moved on from Colombiers and reached Port la Robine, a bit over a quarter of the way on the journey to Castelnaudary. Weather has been exceptional, clear blue skies with mid 20 degrees temperatures. Only issue has been a strong wind which blows the boat about a bit. After leaving the Fonserannes locks we have 54 km of canal without locks, just gliding along between the Flame trees that line the Canal banks. These trees are are having to be cut down because of disease which is a great shame. There is a big environmental campaign being implemented to replace them progressively over the next 20 years with a variety of other species. There are about 40,000 of them along the length of the canal to be dealt with. So it is a big job.
Part way along we have gone through the Malpas Tunnel, a one way traverse of 160 metres. The are actually 3 tunnels here on top of each other, the Canal, under that a modern rail tunnel and below that a drainage tunnel that takes water from an agricultural area that is actually a dried up lake bed. This tunnel predates the Canal tunnel. Quite a complex set up. To top it off on the top of the hill under which the tunnel go are the remnants of the Domitian Way. This was a road route linking Spain and Italy built by the Romans in the first century (I think, might have been the second). We climbed to the top of the hill and took in the scenery and the information centre. The lady here was so helpful in explaining the set up that the Watts presented her with one of their mini stuffed Koalas. She was quite pleased!
At Port la Robine we tied up on the bank at the entrance to the port looking back across the water to the bridge we passed under. Had dinner on the top deck overlooking this scene as the sun slowly sank into the horizon. It was about 9.30 pm and we had another half hour of twilight before heading for bed.