A rectangular red sign with a solid horizontal white bar on the bridge at edge of Valence-sur-Baïse’s port told us what we knew already—we had reached the end of the navigable portion of the Baïse River. From here there was only one direction to go, downstream.
Retracing our route meant that we would revisit our favorite places and stop to see things we passed going upstream. One place we missed on the way up river is a short distance from Valence. Mooring near a bridge, the Pont de Flaran, we took the bikes to see the rural 12th Century Cistercian Abbey of Flaran.
With an emphasis on manual labor and an austere lifestyle Cistercian abbeys like the Abbey of Flaran were often economic cornerstones in medieval times. In modern times intact Cistercian abbeys function as time capsules, rural utilitarian reminders of how life was lived 800 years ago.
As it was on the way upstream, Condom was the most practical stop on our return leg. This time through we happened by Condom’s cathedral as an organist and a trumpeter were playing. Inside the massive stone church the impromptu concert revealed amazing acoustics. An organ resonating within a large cathedral is special sound. It resists capture in a recording and must be heard live to be fully appreciated. The music provided a reason, as if I needed one, to linger inside and take pictures. While waiting for my camera’s long exposure to cycle in the dim interior light I learned from another listener that the organist was renowned and “He just returned from an engagement in London.” My informants had come to listen and not to take pictures.
For the return stretch between Condom and Nérac our map book suggested a visit to Château de Pomarède. The book told us a tour was possible as long as we phoned ahead. Once more we attached the Herault to the bank and mounted our bikes. A kilometer and a half away was Château de Pomarède, a grand old house. What we hadn’t realized when we called was that our tour guide is the chateau’s owner. For five Euros each, an 80-year-old man, the last remaining family member residing in the estate, led us around the grounds and inside a small portion of the building. Our tour lasted an hour during which we learned of the history of the family and the chateau, including the gruesome tales of beheadings during the French Revolution. The tour was in broken English and fluent French. In a way it was a mini French lesson. An explanation in French was most often followed by a quiz to see whether we understood what was said, a highly unlikely occurrence. But in the end the lasting memory was to be shown around this grand chateau by its owner. History does not get more personal than that.
Going with the flow of the Baïse we stopped again at Nérac for the night. Nérac presents well from the river whether the arrival direction is upstream or downstream. The following night was spent in Larvadac, a short cruise from Nérac. Pausing in Larvadac let us pedal over to Barbaste to see Henri IV’s fortified 13th Century mill situated near a robust 12th Century Romanesque bridge.
Even more exciting was our trip back to the boat. We figured we’d see a little more of the countryside and loop back on the back roads. In retrospect, maybe we should have brought a map and a light. We found ourselves lost on our bikes in the coming darkness in a remote corner of Gascony. Somehow we made it back to the Herault. This time dead reckoning didn’t leave us dead. If cats have nine lives home many do we get? And how many have we used already?
For a stop action movie of our time on the river see YouTube.
Days 34 to 36
Travel time*: 14.1 hours
Cruising time**: 9.9 hours
Distance traveled: 43 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 18
Weather: Cool and clear, fall has come
At the end, our trip across France was 78% complete based on cruising time and 73% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 208 of the 246 locks (85%) 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).