For our last day in southern France, we booked a lunch cruise on the Canal du Midi from a service in Carcasonne. The Canal du Midi was built to serve as a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, avoiding a month-long sea voyage (in the 17th century) around hostile Spain and Barbary pirates that attacked ships in the strait of Gibraltar. It was constructed by Pierre-Paul Riquet with additional funding provided by King Louis IV. Construction began in 1667 and was finally completed in 1681 with a total cost of 15,000,000 livres (French currency at the time). Sadly, Riquet died just months before its completion but his family successfully operated the canal until the French Revolution. The canal was used for commercial transport until 1980.
It was raining when we arrived at the dock at noon and I was afraid the boat company would cancel our cruise, especially since we appeared to be their only booking. But within a half hour another couple arrived and the crew began preparations for departure.
For our entrée we were offered a choice of either duck or Sondre, a white-fleshed fish served in a rich cream sauce made with the local Muscat wine. I had duck on our last day in Sauve so I ordered the Sondre. For an appetizer, we were brought pate and crisp toast with a 1/2 tsp or so of fruit jam. I'm not sure which type of meat was the base for the pate as it was more course than the pate du fois gras we had as a starter in Sauve but it was very tasty. I was also pleasantly surprised that the salad had a spiced vinagrette dressing. Most of the time I have been in France salad is either served plain or with only a slight drizzle of oil.
Then our main course was served. My fish was excellent and served with wild rice and thinly sliced zucchini stir fried with a little egg. For our dessert course we were offered a fudge-sauce filled chocolate cupcake or nougat ice cream. I selected the nougat ice cream and discovered it was a deliciously rich nut flavored ice cream topped with chopped nuts and served with a small mound of chantilly cream on the side. When I was in the old fortified city of Carcasonne I had seen a nougat shop with huge blocks of the confection that were sliced and sold to customers like cheese. I told my friends that in the States we usually see nougat as an ingredient of our candy bars but I had never seen it sold in bulk like a commodity.
The cruise lasted about three hours and, although it continued to rain, I found it very relaxing as we made our way down through the passageway lined with plane trees. My friends told me that plane trees have the ability to absorb pollutants in the air and rid themselves of it by sloughing off their bark. So the trees are planted along many highways in southern France as a pollution control measure.
We also saw hikers and bicyclists making their way along the tow paths running along the banks of the canal. I read that cyclists can ride the entire length of the canal from Sète to Bordeaux.
The most exciting part of the trip was when our boat navigated one of the 91 locks used to raise and lower boats to higher or lower portions of the waterway. The boat enters the lock area and a gate is closed behind the boat. Then a gate in front of the boat is opened, letting water into the lock until the boat is raised up to the level of the water ahead of it and the boat continues on its journey. When we came to our turnaround point, the crew worked each end of the boat to make the turn as the boat was almost as long as the canal was wide. Then again we sailed into the lock and the gate was closed behind us. Then the gate in front of us was opened and as the water drained out of the lock, the water level dropped our boat down to the level of the canal in the lower terrain surrounding Carcasonne.
Since it was still only about 3 p.m. we decided to drive over to LaGrasse to tour the abbey there on our way back to our gite. I had spotted the 7th century Romanesque Benedictine Abbey of St. Marie d'Orbieu and the beautiful sloping stone bridge of the Pont Vieux on our way back from Spain a couple of days ago.
The abbey, like many similar structures in southern France, has received many additions and rennovations over the centuries. During the 12th century it ruled over a large territory encompassing the dioceses of Toulouse and Béziers and the county of Urgell. But it began to decline after numerous wars tore apart its financial base as well as some of its exterior. The population of the village and abbey was devastated by the Black Death in 1348. Still, the monastic community persisted until the French Revolution when the abbey was divided into two lots and sold at auction as state property. Today, the historic part of the abbey is managed by the Departmental Council of Aude. However, a small community of monks continue to live and work in a private section of the property. Tourists are welcome in both parts although admission is charged separately for each.
Since it was getting late, we chose to explore only the historic remains of the medieval abbey. Probably the most impressive room is the huge monk's dormitory - about 500 sq. meters. It features arched stone supports with exposed timbers visible in between. This room is thought to have been built in the late 13th century. Other rooms of interest include Saint Barthelemy Chapel paved with enamelled terracotta tiles dating from the 14th century in a geometric pattern and the ceremonial hall with a monumental stone fireplace added during the Renaissance.
We made our way back across the river to the village where the friendly tourist information agent urged us to explore and photograph the Church of Saint-Michel. The church was built between 1359 and 1398 and is one of the few examples of a single nave Gothic church. Inside we found beautiful 14th-18th century sculptures, paintings and stained glass windows many retrieved from the abbey. Each of its nine side chapels offered unique works. Like many churches in France one side chapel was dedicated to St. Joan of Arc. Another had twisted golden columns adorned with vine reliefs that reminded me very much of those supporting the Pope's baldachin in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
The church also houses the seven paintings of the "Seven Sacraments" attributed to Crespi (early 18th century) and two large paintings by Jacques Gamelin - "Moses striking the rock" and "Manna in the desert" (early 19th century). The church's high altar is thought to be from the 18th century. On our way out I spotted a beautiful cul-de-lamp depicting an angel. I have been trying to photograph as many of these architectural elements as I can on this trip. I wasn't sure what these carved supports were called until I read the LaGrasse brochure and looked up the term online. Now at least I know the proper terminology.
The rain let up just long enough for me to walk onto LaGrasse's modern bridge to photograph the original 13th century stone bridge over the River Orbieu on our way back to the car park.
Then it was back to the gite to pack up and get ready for an early morning departure.