Part 4 France – Are We There Yet

“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship,

“Thomas Aquinas

 

Fourth day aboard the boat and the weather turns wet and cold. First mate and quartermaster are beginning to grumble under the gloomy conditions within the mildewy floating shoebox. It occurs to me that canal boating would really suit honeymooners who would just love this confined living space and can’t get enough of each other, snuggled like cosy puppies ALL the time!

But my teenage son and me are not feeling like cosy anythings – we are damp and miserable and can’t help but complain. Our Captain seems to have brought along a pair of rose-coloured glasses, spouting, ‘Come on, guys, it’s not that bad?’ (For the record, Harry has been known to sail regularly on a racing yacht in the freezing Melbourne winter for sheer pleasure.)

The claustrophobic sleeping quarters aboard the Kim Jane would suit a trio of skinny wombats. On the window side, if you call two tiny oblong holes windows, there is a fibreglass contour creating a shelf just perfect for hitting one’s head when sliding into bed. The closet shower, where elbows and knees collide, is like trying to wash inside a cardboard box. The toilet is a test of grace and elegance: perching over something like a large salad bowl… and the aroma of mould is creeping into our sleeping quarters as the rain sets in.

Maybe natural tunnel vision has kept my eyes more fixed on the confines of our boat rather than the continuous Languedoc fields because everything, both inside and outside the boat, is now grey and dull. Dripping rain blankets every window, and my heart feels for soggy Mike, who still has to jump on and off the bow regardless of rain, hail and little sunshine, to let us through the numerous locks. We speed along at the cracking pace of 5 knots.

Mike points out to us as he jumps ship, “You know we could walk faster than this?” and only has to stride a short way down the tow path to disappear.

I call after him “Come back. That’s not fair!” Chug – chug – chug…our Captain manages to avert the mutiny by promising his crew one night’s accommodation in the luxurious tower room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse near the medieval town of Carcassonne – if we ever get there. Harry also appeases our grumbles by giving both Mike and me a turn at steering the Kim Jane which I admit is much harder than I had imagined for she has an affinity for the river bank – especially when the blind quartermaster doesn’t notice her drifting off course.

No Mooring Here

After a slow damp day, we dock in the tiny village of Marseillette. The crew are in high spirits with the thought of a hot dinner in a village restaurant. Engine switched off, ropes coiled in preparation for tomorrow’s journey, camera gear hidden away, we head off chatting, ignoring the drizzle, in search of a cosy den. The village has one restaurant – and it seems that other travellers have all had the same idea and have made it to the food tables before us. There is no room left at the Inn and we are ushered out quickly and firmly. Harry persists in a disgruntled tone but the waitress simply directs us to the town bar 3 km down the road. We file in to the local beer house in the town square, but one does not need eyes to sense we are not welcome here either – men glare from bar stools, Mike tugs at my coat sleeve at the same time that Harry turns his crew around – Let’s get out of here. We discuss the possibility that the residents of Marseillette are retirees from it’s famously rough namesake. Our discouraged trio make their way back to the damp vessel, having to be content with bread and goat’s cheese, cocopops and hot tea.

 

The following morning, our last on the Canal, Mike sits behind the wheel, merrily tooting the horn before corners, knowing we are reaching our destination ahead of schedule. Suddenly the sun begins to shine! Divine Chateau, here we come! Well done, crew – we have two days to explore the medieval Citadel of Carcassonne and recover our land legs

 

 

Miraculously we also recover from the symptoms of ‘micro-raga-boolean-mystic-atrophism’, a rare disease caused by sleeping in close proximity to mould spores and whining crew aboard canal boats. Principal symptoms include instant loss of memory as we promise the Captain to do the trip again – in a larger boat and with our own drunken band of pirate friends, next time!

 

Carcassonne – the Gateway to the Pyrenees

We approach the Citadel of Carcassonne among crowds all flocking past the gates of this fortified town. Towers stand as if on guard on the top of the cliff overlooking the river Aude and we amble into the stone courtyard, once known as Colonia Julia Carcaso. The Romans settled here during the second century but fell to the invading armies of the Visigoths, the Saracens and the Franks.

I tap my cane over narrow steps in the tiny streets within the castle walls. Crowds of tourists admire the stone houses and the lanes ooze with mystery. Harry leads us on a climb up to the ramparts – long narrow paths leading from one section of the castle to another to another…and it is eerie, awesome, fascinating. I imagine soldiers guarding the Keep with arrows poised: and run my hands over the same centuries-old wooden doors that kept out invading intruders. Thankfully, those who visit the region today are most welcome – but it was quite a different story several centuries ago.

Between the 11th and 13th century there arose a Christian sect in southern France known as the Cathars. These believers were convinced that they alone knew the way to salvation and desired to build their castles on the peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains to be as close to God as possible. Legend has it they came from the East, through Hungary and ended up in the Pyranees Orientales.

The sect gained many followers and as their popularity grew, the Roman Papacy became extremely concerned by the growing strength of the Catharist church, fearing it as a threat to Christian unity. A Catholic Crusade against the Cathars persisted for many long years of ferocious struggles, assaults and massacres. Even though the fortified walls of their stone Chateaus gave the Cathars a stronghold for some time, by 1321 most of the sect had been burned by fire – ending the era of Catharism in Languedoc.

Next post: Castle mysteries ; heart songs in the stone…

© Maribel Steel 2012

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