Maiden voyage

We are moored just out of Homps, currently catching our breath after two days induction with John and Pascale on Mere Maria. They were extremely helpful and hospitable, but the reality of driving a 90 tonne barge proved to be pretty daunting. The challenges include the sheer physicality of using the wheel (without hydraulics) to keep her on course in strong winds, through narrow openings under bridges, into the uphill locks, and at the same time avoiding the numerous pleasure boats on the canal. That was mainly Alan’s job. Mine usually involved ropes and locks – six of them over the two days

Locks … In the training course I was told never to get off the barge, but ‘simply’ to lasso the bollard on the quay, which could be 3 metres above you, and proceed to secure the boat (an almost impossible task for me). Down here, it seems you jump off, or climb a ladder, and the skipper throws you the rope. From there it feels as if you have an extremely large, very wilful dog on a leash as the water surges in and pushes the barge about and you try to hold the bow in place. Well the skipper is trying to do this too, but the deck hand is hauling as hard as she can. All this under the critical eye of the eclusier (lock keeper) who once had to come down and impatiently clear my rope which was trapped round the bollard at a critical moment.

In between all this physical and mental stress, there are tranquil stretches of nothing but canal, lined by the famous huge plane trees. Sadly there are many bearing a couple of green paint stripes and they’re destined for removal because of the disease that’s attacking them. I’ve heard that the locals blame the Americans and their ammunition boxes from WW2 for the problem.

For anyone who, like us, has watched Rick Stein’s culinary tour through France on a barge, you may recall that at one point he changed onto a hotel barge called Anjodi for the final part of the trip. Well, at one point we were a bit excited to pass her, moored up at her base port.

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Narbonne

Potentially an interesting place to explore, Narbonne has served mainly as a stopover where we regrouped, made onward bookings and engaged in futile struggles with the telcos to give us a reasonable pre-paid programme for the phone. So far we’ve had to buy top-ups almost every day.

Alan did a little research and discovered that the town was established by the Romans as a seaport and it became a crossroad on the Via Domitia, the route between Italy and Spain in the 2nd century BC. The port eventually became silted up and now the Canal du Robine joins the Mediterranean with the Canal du Midi.

This was our first encounter with a canal in the South – it slides through the town like an extra roadway.

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Eating out in Paris and beyond

Thanks to a couple of very generous wedding gifts, we were able to indulge in three lunches in Paris at Michelin starred restaurants (heaven!). They were chosen from a useful list of ‘best value’ starred places. Each one was so delicious and so different that I had to make some notes …

Au Trou Gascon
This restaurant serves south-western French dishes in quite a formal environment with the most attentive wait staff I’ve ever experienced. Of the three course ‘Dejeuner Passion’, I chose:
St Jaques emincees a cru, veloute de petits pois frais, mini lardons de magret fume (sorry, this programme doesn’t allow for French accents)
followed by
Cul de lapareau ‘Retour des Indes’, ble casse bohemienne
then
Baba a la blanche d’armagnac et citron vert, caille de brebis en sorbet.
I’ll work on a proper translation later, but basically it was a scallop soup, young rabbit and an amazing lime concoction. Yum!

La Fourchette du Printemps
Much more casual this one, with a lunch menu of five courses (some quite small) for 45 euro. From memory, I chose langoustines with artichoke, a casseroled veal dish and a dessert that involved pistachio icecream. The other two courses were tiny delicious tastes between the main ones.

La Bigarrade
Perhaps the most interesting of the three. There is no printed menu – the chef prepares an impromptu selection of tasting dishes every day, depending on what’s in season and available at the markets. I tried to sneak some notes based on my best guesses about the ingredients as we progressed, but later found this review which not only explains it all, but provides images as well. Definitely worth a look if you ever plan to visit. http://www.alifewortheating.com/paris/la-bigarrade

Finally, in Montmartre, we followed a friend’s recommmendation and had dinner at Le Zebre a Montmartre, a cheerful bistro serving huge, robust dishes like the salad with ham and cheese, followed by duck breast with honey and raisins. Fortunately the apartment was within staggering distance! Very delicious and great value.

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Meli Melo at Narbonne
Idiosyncratic I think is the word to describe this restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. Run by a couple equally interesting men, it combines antiques and bric a brac with southern French food grilled over an open fire. The name seems to mean ‘a bit of everything’, and that’s certainly appropriate, even and especially including the stuffed animals. At night they’re permitted to set up tables outside on the road and given the heat yesterday, it was a pleasant place to eat. The photos give a better impression than I can.

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Another day in Montmartre

Monday 28 May

Took advantage of a warm sunny day to do another local walking tour. First stop was the Musee de Vieux Montmartre. This is the oldest house on the hill and many of the well-known painters and writers associated with Montmartre lived here: Renoir, Valadon, Dufy among others. You enter through a shady old-fashioned garden.

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Inside there are many original works by Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec and Willette, but also a comprehensive history of the area. You learn that gypsum was mined here, hauled out by donkeys, and used not only in the construction of local buildings, but also taken to Paris. It was used to make plaster casts as well (hence ‘plaster of Paris’).

Montmartre was the site of a siege during the brief two-month rule of the Paris Commune in 1871. The Commune had come about as the result of an uprising in Paris after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. A high proportion of the Communards were skilled workers, many of them leftist political activists. Women too played an important role.

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As the Central Committee of the National Guard gained authority, the government moved to seize the movement’s cannon, some of which were stored on the Butte of Montmartre. Many were killed here, as well as in other sites across Paris, and thousands more were executed or deported to New Caledonia.

Much of the collection is given over to a celebration of Montmartre’s famous night life, with dozens of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters for the Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir, Le Lapin Agile and other venues.

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Le Moulin de la Galette as it is today. The windmills used to grind flour for Paris and, here, to make and serve galettes.

Our second visit was to the Espace Dali, a beautiful gallery with a huge collection of his statues, as well as paintings. Plenty of commentary about Dali’s use of symbols (eg the melting clocks and their relationship to the changing nature of experienced time). And lots of photographs of Dali and his outrageous moustache.

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On and around the Seine

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The two day Batobus pass was a good investment in so many ways – respite from walking, a different perspective on the cityscape, and an opportunity to practise recognizing the buoyage and prohibition signs along the way. Also, we noticed many pleasure craft moored along the way and fantasied about having a boat of ours berthed in central Paris.

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On one trip, in early evening, the light was quite golden so we snapped away, along with the other tourists …

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It being Friday evening, it seemed that most of the young people in Paris were relaxing along the banks, picnicking or just enjoying a bottle of wine.

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Down the hill

Not far from the apartment is Montmartre’s red light area – Boulevard de Clichy is lined both sides with sex shops and night clubs, including of course the Moulin Rouge. Curiosity took us to the Musee de l’Erotisme, an eclectic collection of objects and images from every culture across the ages. It includes some very amusing cartoons and some laughable 1930s pornographic silent movies.

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The bike and pedestrian way in the middle of Boulevard de Clichy is typically Parisian and quite lovely, full of dog walkers, African nannies with their white charges and various people just whiling away the time.

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Coming back up the hill, we stopped off at Amelie’s cafe for a coffee and a cliched photograph. I suspect the locals regard us tourists with barely concealed disdain.

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This morning early I walked back up to Sacre-Coeur to see how it looked in sunlight and without the hordes of tourists. This is much the best time to go.

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Montmartre

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Paris at last!

After settling in to the surprisingly roomy and well-equipped apartment, we checked out the local providers of bread, cheese, wine etc – a wonderful selection. Alan lingered excessively over the patisserie with a window full of fruit tarts.

Next day we found to energy to hike up to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. Supposedly you can see Paris spread out beneath you, but in the rain it was just a grey blur.

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Inside there’s a plaque showing where 13 WWII bombs fell. The fact that none of the worshippers was killed apparently reinforced the locals’ dedication to the church.

On to the Place du Tertre, the bohemian heart of old Montmartre, but it was so full of tourists, souvenir shops and con artists that we sloped off down the hill through streets and cafes frequented by the likes of Picasso, Renoir, Utrillo, Edith Piaf and Gertrude Stein. I was rather taken with the account of Utrillo’s wild mum, a former trapeze artist, who was a painter in her own right and who engaged in a torrid affair with Eric Satie.

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Alan outside the Au Lapin Agile Cabaret.

The Clos Montmartre Vineyard is a surprise. Ever since the 12th century, monks and nuns have produced wine here (and Parisians came to drink it tax free because Montmartre was outside the city limits).

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The final port of call on this walk was a good lunch at ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’.

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