Canal de Garonne
Meilhan-sur-Garonne is tantalizingly close to the end of the Canal de Garonne and the western end of the Canal des Deux Mers. Seventeen kilometers and four locks remained for us to complete our journey across France on a rental boat. If we had chosen we could have easily covered the last ten-odd miles in a few hours. We could have reached our goal at the terminus of the Canal de Garonne in time for lunch. But we would not move the Herault further along the waterway this day. Instead we chose to postpone our gratification and visit nearby Marmande.
Not far from Meilhan, Marmande rates on the standard of the region as a tourist destination. Though the town attracts many French visitors, it is not popular enough to find its way into the latest edition of Lonely Planet. Perhaps that is a good thing.
A bus that ran to Marmande literally stopped a few feet from our mooring spot in Meilhan-sur-Garonne’s canal port. Unfortunately we never seemed to be ready when it arrived. Eventually we gave up and called a taxi. When the car arrived we asked to be taken to Marmande’s old quarter. The request in English was confusing to the driver. Our attempts to make the request in French only made things worse. With our tendency to mix Spanish and French we were lucky to not end up somewhere in Spain. Ultimately we settled on a place that we could pronounce in French. We’d head to the train station located as they often are at the edge of the historic district. Soon the taxi was off to la gare à Marmande.
Marmande was established as a bastide at the end of the 12th Century. Bastide towns were designed and built as a single unit. As a consequence the street plans are logical and well organized. The arrangement of a Bastide works better for modern times than layout of a typical medieval town.
Once the soles of our shoes found the cement in Marmande we headed to the local Tourist Office. We needed a map or a guide. Marmande’s Tourist Office, perhaps ahead of its time, has adopted the latest technology. For a couple of Euros we rented two GPS-linked handheld electronic guides that promised to lead us around and explain all of the town’s attractions. In concept an electronic guide device is a cool idea. It is like having your own personal tour guide but you can stop and pause at any moment if you have a sudden urge to dart into a boulangerie and scarf down a pain au chocolat.
Outside the tourist office we followed the handheld devices’ directions. We were led to the walls overlooking the Garonne River and the River Trec and continued on to the church of Notre Dame. The device told us that the grand church with its garden-like three-sided Renaissance Cloister was completed between the 13th and 15th Centuries. The electronic guide was working well; we learned more about Marmande than we could possibly remember.
Then it happened. Before we reached the next stop Becky’s device crashed hard; it could not be restarted. Not much later my guide box failed also. Now the fancy technology was more of an annoyance than an aid. We kept trying to make our devices work but we had no success. Our once well thought-out tour reverted to a random walk. We longed for a typical tourist pamphlet or map.
When we returned to the tourist office and told them what happened they returned our four Euros and apologized. The idea behind the device is cool. Too bad all the bugs weren’t worked out.
Marmande is famous for its Tomatoes. There’s even a tomato festival in July. We expected that we’d try some tomato “stuff” when we visited. That didn’t happen. At the end of the season tomatoes were nowhere to be seen. We left Marmande wondering what the big deal is. Are the tomatoes in Marmande better than those raised elsewhere? Missed nagging little details like this evolve into full-fledge obsessions for us. At some point in the future we will undoubtedly go far out of way to find out once and for all whether the tomatoes in Marmande are superior to those grown elsewhere.
Leaving the mystery of Marmande’s tomatoes behind for the moment we returned to the Herault by taxi. This time we had much better luck explaining our destination to the driver even though it was more complicated. When we reached the boat we found our pooch Gigi waiting patiently inside. It was her time now; hours of pent up dog energy demanded immediate release. Our evening was now fully scheduled.
In truth Marmande doesn’t need to be included in Lonely Planet. After all there are at least 243 other things that a tourist in France should see before they reach Marmande on the list. Chances are most tourists won’t get that far. Still, if one’s in the area, it is a good place for a day trip. And if you are there at the right time of year maybe you’ll get a chance to make us envious by tasting the legendary tomatoes.