Canal du Midi, Canal de Jonction, l’Aude, and the Canal de Robine
Languedoc-Roussillon is the biggest wine-producing region in the world. The region produces one third of all of the wine produced in France. That’s a lot of wine! Today Languedoc’s wine production is modern and industrial. It yields endless gallons of imminently quaffable table wines.
When we passed through in late September, the wine grape harvest was in full motion. Mechanical picking machines roamed the fields straddling the trellised rows of vines and collecting ripe fruit. The harvest occurs quickly.
Our canal-side mooring in Le Somail was adjacent to one of the regions many vineyards. On arrival I crawled over the canal bank into the vineyard and sampled a grape hanging in a bunch from the vines. The big red grape was fresh, plump, sweet, and definitely “grapey” with a thick, chewy skin. (Grenache, I’d guess, mainly by the size of the fruit.)
Early the next morning Gigi woke us with a bark. She let us know that something was up outside the boat. Now awake in bed we listened as farm equipment rattled away in the field near our canal-side spot. The noise didn’t last long. Later, when we climbed out of the boat, we could see that the large adjacent vineyard had been stripped clean of its fruit. The mechanical insects had done their job quickly and had left for another field. Now vineyard debris remained where the heavy grape clusters had recently hung. The vineyard’s growing season ended abruptly.
The harvest alarm clock triggered an early start. After firing up the boat’s diesel motor, we took a U-turn on the water and headed back to the Canal de Jonction. We had passed the intersection between the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Jonction on the way in to Le Somail. This time we turned south onto the Canal de Jonction heading to ancient Roman enclave of Narbonne.
Built nearly 100 years after the completion of the Canal du Midi, the Canal de Jonction is similar in character. Even the locks have the same ovoid-shaped chambers.
There are also some differences between the canals. Rather than Canal du Midi’s signature plane trees, distinctive Parasol pines line the banks for stretches of Canal de Jonction. On the Canal du Midi, at least until the Ocean écluse, fulltime lockkeepers man the locks. With fewer boats traveling the Canal de Jonction and the Canal de Robine, the locks do not have full-time keepers. Instead the Jonction’s and the Robine’s locks are automated. The electrical powered lock mechanics have been converted so they can be operated directly by the boaters. We were not quite sure what to expect when we approached our first automated lock.
There is no universal actuation process for automated locks. The particulars vary, often for seemingly no reason, with the canal or river segment. On the Canal de Jonction and the Canal de Robine, the locks are generally activated by a set of buttons on the side of the lock. A crewmember must get on shore, climb up to the lock, and trigger the lock cycle. Though inconvenient, if everything works right, it’s not so hard to use. But if the lock is not functioning it can turn into a small adventure and a brief French language lesson issued over a fuzzy intercom.
Fortunately our passage to Narbonne went smoothly though there was a delay to let a boat stuck in the Gailhousty lock clear. At least this stop gave our young pooch a chance to stretch her legs running full speed on the bank. Just past Gailhousty, the Canal de Jonction ends and the route jogs left on the silting Aude River for a short distance. Nearby the Canal de Robine begins.
The Robine splits off the Aude through a guard lock (essentially a gate that can be closed to protect the canal against river flooding) and continues to the Port La Nouvelle on the Med. The famous military architect Vauban built the Canal de Robine as an open channel in 1686. The channel was later improved by the addition of locks.
After transiting two locks on the Canal de Robine, we were on the outskirts of Narbonne, a commune of 52,252 people as of 2008. The approach to Narbonne is interesting. The canal travels under flower box lined bridges and beneath buildings as it flows through the center of town. The last lock into Narbonne’s lower port is triggered by a different method. In the urban area the chamber-side locking sequence actuator is no longer practical. Instead a twist of a pole suspend over the canal activates the lock. This arrangement, a switch-pole hanging over the channel and lights on a pole nearby indicating the cycle status, is the most common variation on the automated lock that we saw on our journey. This set-up usually works well.
Eventually we made it to Narbonne’s main port area. We could have continued on the Canal de Robine to the Port La Nouvelle and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea but we thought better of it. It was time for a break. We decided to stay in Narbonne. Besides, we needed to buy food.
Narbonne turned out to be a good stop. Near the canal is the Les Halles des Narbonne, a marché couvert or covered market. We desperately needed to shop for groceries and Narbonne’s historic Halles was perfect for our needs. The market had it all; fresh fish, shellfish from the Étang de Thau, lamb, rabbit, quail, duck, beef, pork, goose, chicken, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fresh pasta, artisanal cheeses, breads, olives, and olive oils. That list just scratches the surface of what was on offer. For dinner we bought some beautiful tuna in the market. (Becky later complained that it was so fresh that it didn’t taste like tuna!) When we left, we’d miss shopping at Narbonne’s Halles for the rest of our trip.
An edgier town, Narbonne has a distinctively young feel. It seems there’s always some sort of party going on, particularly near the canal. Not far from the water is the adjoined combination of the hôtel de ville and the cathedral . The cathedral dates from 1272 and though it is one of the tallest churches in France it was never completed. This complex, the church and city hall, forms one side of a central square. Inside the square is step down area where a piece of the old Roman road, the Via Domitia, is visible. In youthful Narbonne the historic buildings and the old road are reminders that the Canal de Robine is a relatively modern addition to the town.
Old or new, the Canal de Robine is central to Narbonne. Staying on a boat on the canal is a great way to visit the town. We liked it so much we stayed an extra day. Even then, we could have stayed longer.
The full set of pictures is on Picasa.
Days 6 and 7
Start: Le Somail
Travel time*: 5.7 hours
Cruising time**: 4.9 hours
Distance traveled: 13 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 10
Weather: A little warmer, hazy overcast, and stronger breeze in the afternoon, brief rain in evening. On the following day it turned cool to cold and was windy.
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 17% complete based on cruising time and 18% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 24 of the 246 locks (10%) of the locks that we would cross.
* The time between the start of the day and the end of the day.
**As measured by the hour meter on our boat. When the motor is running we were either moving or standing by to move (like in a lock).