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Trip Report Bordeaux, la Rochelle, Toulouse & Garonne-by bike, self-drive boat & car

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In October, 2016, my husband and I (retired and in our sixties) flew into Bordeaux from the US and flew home from Toulouse. This was a very last-minute trip (like many others we have taken) that we put together quickly. We found very good airfare, and I discovered that with tickets on Delta it was only about $20 more round trip to fly from the US directly into Bordeaux (via a direct flight to Paris from MSP) and out of Toulouse (via a direct flight Amsterdam to MSP). I know many people think that a round trip out of a major hub like Paris is the way to go because it is more affordable, but this was much better routing and saved us a lot of time and hassle. And, it saved us money too because we didn’t have to pay for transportation back and forth to Paris.

Our three week trip (Oct. 2 to Oct. 25) was a mix of the usual city visits and an unusual type of trip to southwest France. We had three nights each in apartments in the cities of Bordeaux, la Rochelle, and Toulouse. In addition to these major cities we spent our time on a five night, self-guided cycling trip around the wine areas of Bordeaux and an eight day, self-drive canal boat trip on the Garonne.

If anyone else wants to do an active, outdoor-based trip like this, we’d probably recommend September rather than October, or a trip from late Sept. into mid October rather than staying until nearly the end of October as we did. We had glorious nice, warm weather the first few days of our trip (while we were in the city of Bordeaux), but after this the combination of cooler weather and the fact that it didn’t get light until nearly 8:30 am made for some days that were not the most pleasant for spending active days totally outside.

When deciding whether to make this trip we had checked the weather websites to see what we could expect, and it seemed as though it would quite nice. In fact, the weather averages for SW France seemed more like the temperatures we have at home in September rather than October. We know that no one can predict the weather, but overall we decided that the normal weather for this part of France at this time of year should be fine for what we wanted to do during our trip. Unfortunately, there were a couple things we hadn’t taken into account though. First of all, those daily high temps arrived quite slowly each day with the warmer temperatures not being reached until mid-afternoon, and the quite cool morning temperatures lingered quite a bit longer than we’d anticipated. Secondly, the pattern of the days was different than at home, with daylight arriving a lot later than at home.

The actual weather we ended up with (and I don’t think overall it was that much of a departure from the norm) did impact our trip. We’ve done lots and lots of trips, and this was the first time I have ever had to buy clothes while on the trip because I had planned wrong when packing. I needed warmer clothes than I had brought with me.

BORDEAUX CITY
Getting into the center of Bordeaux from the airport was quite easy, and we used public transportation all of the way. At the airport we bought a public transportation pass because it was cheaper than paying for each individual trip during our three days would have been. We took the airport bus directly into town where we transferred to Bordeaux’s excellent tram system. (During our stay in Bordeaux we made extensive use of our transportation passes, even riding the public boats up the river as far as we could rather than taking the much more expensive private boat tour up the river.)

The tram dropped us off less than a block from the great apartment we had rented overlooking the Garonne. https://www.vrbo.com/6690124ha We loved the location of this apartment (slightly away from the main tourist area), and it allowed us easy access to everything we wanted to see and do in Bordeaux. Plus, it was fun just looking out the window and observing life on the riverfront and river. We easily filled our 2.5 days in Bordeaux and enjoyed the city a lot; in fact, we preferred it to Toulouse. One place to be sure to visit is Bar a Vins a great place for wine tasting with some nice platters of snacks. We visited twice.

CYCLING THROUGH THE VINEYARD AREAS SURROUNDING BORDEAUX

Following our three night stay in the city of Bordeaux we started off on a five night custom cycling trip through the Bordeaux region. We arranged this cycling trip (a custom variation of the Wine Lovers tour) with Graham at Cycle Bordeaux http://www.cyclebordeaux.co.uk/Cycling-Tours-More.aspx?id=3 Our package included cycles, helmets, maps and written instructions, luggage transfer, and hotels for six days and five nights.

Graham met us at our apartment with the cycles, road maps, and instructions for the first day’s cycling; he loaded our luggage in his van to be delivered to our first hotel, and my husband and I set off. Bordeaux is extremely cycle friendly, and we set off on cycle paths out of the city in the direction of St. Emilion where we would spend our first night. It was a pleasant ride and not too difficult until we ran into a problem where some local(s) had sabotaged the dedicated bike trail.

My husband first got a flat tire due to a thumb tack, and we stopped to fix his tire. With a self-guided trip like this we’d been told ahead of time that while Graham would be available to help with major difficulties, we’d be on our own for minor things like flats. My husband maintains our cycles at home, so this was not a major concern for us. However, we soon discovered that the spare inner tubes we’d been given didn’t match the size tires we had.

Nonetheless, we got that flat fixed with some patches and set out to ride again when we soon discovered I had two flat tires. Looking at the tires on my bike we found seven, hot pink thumb tacks in the tires. There was no way I was going to go any further. Luckily we were in a town right next to the cycle trail where there was a cycle repair shop, so we pushed the bike there and had the owner repair the tires for us. In a mixture of my broken French, his minimal English, and the use of Google translate on his computer, he managed to tell us that this had been a recurring problem throughout the cycling season. He had filed seventeen reports with the police about similar incidents of tacks being thrown on the cycle path, but there had been no action in finding or stopping the culprits.

We’d had a late start to begin with (we were still dealing with jet lag and weren’t exactly hopping out of bed at the break of day) and then we lost time dealing with the flat tires, so it was approaching evening when we finally got to St. Emilion and the Logis des Remparts hotel. While seemingly fine overall (since it has secure bike parking there was also a full-fledged cycling tour staying there), this hotel Graham had arranged for us in St. Emilion was the most costly of those on our cycling trip and yet also had the smallest, least enjoyable room. After we were shown to our tiny ground floor room and discovered that some of the lights did not work, we contacted the desk and asked about this. They told us that the fixtures were broken so they’d ordered new light fixtures, and there was no way to make these lights work. Then we discovered that one of the bedside lights didn’t work either, so we asked to be moved to a different room. They said they were full, so we were stuck in a room with already dim lighting where 50% of the lights would not work.

There were nice seating areas in some gardens, but we of course had arrived too late to enjoy those. And, this was one of those hotels where you couldn’t just sit at a remote chair in the gardens anyway to relax with a bottle of wine you’d purchased during a vineyard tour or have a few snacks you’d picked up along the way. Their rules made it clear that the only things that could be consumed on the premises had to be purchased from them. When it is a small hotel like this without a real outside bar and/or restaurant area and with seating rather scattered, this seems overly restrictive. This is not a hotel we’d recommend—it was way over-priced for what it offered, and the room barely had space to turn around and unpack our suitcases. I’ve read that St. Emilion is very pricey because it gets so many tourists, so maybe this is par for the course there.

We headed out to wander the town a bit and look for a place for dinner. People are not kidding when they say St. Emilion is pricey. Restaurants were quite expensive for what they offered, and we saw a cave a vins that was even offering some wines that were over 1200 euros per bottle. After checking things out, dinner ended up being right across the street from the hotel at a very good Vietnamese place that had an interesting and affordable menu.

In the morning (as he did every day) Graham met us at our hotel to pick up our luggage and deliver/discuss the day’s maps and instructions. He told us that cycling time for the day wasn’t that long, and we’d have time to sight see in St. Emilion until noon before cycling off again. So, we took the guided “underground” tour of the city before heading on our way again. The time we spent in St. Emilion was more than adequate for us, but we are not shoppers; others might want to linger and shop. Plus, we didn't do any tastings in town either.

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    hi julies - nice start - for us if not for you! We spent 3 nights in Bordeaux too before we set off on a car tour and I'm pleased to say that we didn't get one flat tyre; perhaps the vandals concentrate on cyclists. Did you ever discover why they were doing that?

    Keep it coming.

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    I have no idea why in the world people would want to sabotage a cycle path. Perhaps they were neighbors who never were happy with the idea of a cycle path being in their back yards. I know here in the US there has often been neighborhood opposition (during the planning process anyway) when a new public trail is going to be built that abuts people's properties.

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    Looking forward to the rest of your TR, don't see many TR's about this area. We will be in Toulouse area in September. Friends did a self-drive tour on the Canal du Midi for 2 weeks, and said it was the best vacation they ever had. So, looking forward to hearing your experience.

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    Here's a standard warning, for other readers: Flying into one city and out of another is efficient but the itinerary is not based on two one-way tickets. The customer must use a multi-destination search function, as obviously you did.

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    Yes, I did an open jaw search. I can't imagine how much buying two different one way tickets would cost!

    And, yes, I don't think many people visit this area of France. I wonder why, especially since Bordeaux (the city) is often referred to as a miniature Paris because of similarities in architecture.

    Back to the report.......

    When we left St. Emilion, our destination for the night was St. Macaire where we would spend two nights at Les Feuilles d’Acanthe. It was another pleasant day cycling through the gently rolling terrain, and by the end of the cycling trip we’d decided that overall the scenery was best in the St. Emilion area of Bordeaux. It was definitely a full day, and we were happy to soak in the indoor pool at the hotel after getting off the cycles. Especially in comparison to the hotel in St. Emilion, this was a large, lovely room at a hotel that that we really enjoyed. And, we liked the small, pretty, un-touristy town too.

    The next day we did a day trip loop from the hotel through some back paths in fields before finally ending up cycling along the canal du Garonne to Castets en Dorthe. Our destination was a restaurant Graham had recommended for lunch, but we missed lunch because we arrived at 1:45, and they ended serving lunch at 2:00. Living in the US, we are so spoiled that we can drop in for a lunch any time we want; it becomes difficult for us to remember when visiting other countries that the flexibility we are used to at home isn’t available elsewhere. One night while staying at Les Feuilles d’Acanthe we had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant Le Pampaillet (highly recommended) and the other at a different restaurant in town because the hotel’s restaurant was closed.

    Our day loop from St. Macaire was the day when we started to become confused by some of the (sometimes rather unclear) cycling directions we’d been given. Unfortunately, this was to become a recurrent theme in the following days. We know we weren’t the only clients to have had this problem because one set of trip notes that we’d been given had hand-written notations on them from others who were also confused by exactly where to go in several places.

    We’ve done other self-guided, European cycling trips in the past, so our inexperience was not the issue. We decided that the issue was either that Graham was excessively verbose in some instructions (rather than being direct and saying something like just follow the xxx road) or else he knew the area exceedingly well in his head but was having a difficult time giving accurate instructions to those who were unfamiliar with the area. Twice on the succeeding days we had to call him in the midst of the day to get clarification on exactly where we should have turned. This confusion about which way we should be going did affect our enjoyment of the entire trip and, unfortunately, knocked down our entire rating of the trip to about a C overall. Graham was accommodating and friendly, the hotels he’d chosen were for the most part very good, the bikes were fine, it was a lovely area with overall nice routes, but when we are tired we just don’t feel like back tracking, being confused and riding up unnecessary hills (which we did some times).

    Day four of the cycling trip took us from St. Macaire to the Sauternes region where we spent the night at Chateau Trillon which is in the countryside in the middle of the vineyards. This day was partially on cycling paths and partially on the roads, and once again at times we became a bit confused about the instructions and where exactly we were supposed to ride. We rode past the historic Le Chateau de Roquetaillade and would have gone in for a visit, but they were not open despite the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon. This was probably good overall since it was taking us longer to cycle than we’d anticipated, and it was nearing dusk when we finally arrived at Chateau Trillon. Since this lodging is in the middle of the vineyards in the countryside, we had made reservations to eat here for dinner and were surprised that there were a number of other dinner guests too.

    The next day was another rather long and tiring day for us. Did we tackle more than we’d bargained for on this trip? Was it the cooler fall weather? Was it the hills? Was it that the description of what we would be doing was inaccurate? Where was the time we were supposed to have for lounging around with a nice lunch with wine? We didn’t do this at all on this trip. Lunch was a rest stop somewhere along the way and consisted of a hunk of cheese with a loaf of bread we’d purchased in the morning at a boulangerie, an apple, and water.

    We suspect a major issue was that in reality we weren’t leaving most places until close to 10:30, and that put our schedule off so we were always feeling rushed. The problem was that it got light late, and most mornings were quite cool (understatement at times) so we weren’t exactly super enthusiastic about jumping on our bikes and heading off very early. Most days on the trip we were both dressed in layers; I had leggings on under my cycling shorts/capris. After 1:00 or 2:00 or so it might warm up enough to take our jackets off and strip down to a long sleeved shirt.

    Once again it was nearing dusk when we arrived at our destination for the final night—Chateau de Lantic in Martillac. This was a lovely room here, and we were sorry we didn’t have more time to enjoy the place. In fact, we didn’t really have time to explore the chateau and its grounds much at all. Our description of the place mentioned a pool, but of course at this time of year it was something we wouldn’t be enjoying anyway. The chateau is set a little ways on the outskirts of town, and it was a fairly easy walk into town for dinner.

    Our final day didn’t consist of much cycling at all because Martillac is not too far (maybe ten miles or so) outside of the city of Bordeaux. Our plan for the day was after breakfast to cycle to a nearby vineyard where we had booked a tour, take the tour, cycle back into Bordeaux, and pick up a rental car and our luggage.

    Things did not go smoothly on our initial cycling leg this day; we somehow made a wrong turn (in retrospect we knew where) amongst the small back roads through the vineyards of the Pessac-Leogman area. This was one of the instances during our cycling tour where we again finally ended up resorting to using the GPS on our phone to try to figure out which way to go. By the time we definitively figured out that we had screwed up, we had to turn around and retrace our steps, and we missed our appointed time for the tour. Since we had to pedal almost right by the vineyard on our way into Bordeaux anyway, we thought it would be only proper for us to at least stop by Château La Louvière to apologize.

    Although we were nearly 45 minutes late, and we didn’t ask them to, they were gracious enough to accommodate us for the tour and the sampling of five different wines (price 9 euros each). This is not someone’s small, intimate, low-key appellation but a rather big business type place where they sell wines from a number of their numerous properties and vineyards. Although we’ve done wine tours before, it was still very interesting to take the tour through their facility and see their production. Unbelievably (since we usually have champagne tastes on a beer budget) our favorite of the tastings was their most simple and un-aged light white. We bought two bottles of their Chateau Bonnet to put in our saddlebags to take with us and headed off in the direction of the city.

    Riding into the city was quite easy, and we soon found ourselves on a dedicated bike path that led right to the heart of the city and the river. We had really liked Bordeaux a lot (in fact, it was probably our favorite of the three cities we visited on this trip), but we figured we didn’t need to unpack and spend another afternoon there.

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    I'm really enjoying your report! We will be visiting Bordeaux and Toulouse for the first time this summer, so I'll be waiting with anticipation for the rest of your report.

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    I'm really enjoying your report, thank you. The subject heading with La Rochelle caught my eye, I have wanted to go there for a long time so will be interested to hear what you think.

    Kay

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    I am enjoying your report. We stayed near Duras (I posted a report here earlier this year ) in September last year. From here we went to St Emilion which is a lovely little place. But,yes,I agree,quite pricey. We are also not shoppers, so a couple of hours to wander was enough for us. We also visited St Macaire which we thought was a really nice little place.
    We were earlier than you, last two weeks of September, and had glorious weather. What a pity your bike leg did not go as smoothly as it could. Sounds as though you made the best of it though.
    Looking forward to more. We have not done any canal trips.

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    I've cycled around Bordeaux for a week and from La Rochelle via Bordeaux to Bergerac over 2 weeks all without support.

    The tack issue sounds pretty nasty, I've never seen that before in 30 years riding all over Europe, I hope nothing got hurt.

    St Emilion is becoming more a tourist trap everytime I go near it and I may not bother another time. Certainly your hoteliers sounds like the worst type of "bufff, je suis desolee" which over the years I've learnt means "go away, customer service is not in my job description".

    Lunch and supper are within strict working hour limits set by the French state. Try doing business there, it drives you mad, you can't even continue business meetings after the end of the day.

    I havn't done a guided bike ride (written by anyone else) for years but it takes a lot of skill or just use an app. In these days there are plenty of apps to do this.

    E9 for a tasting, each! My goodness, last time I payed for a tasting it was in California 20 years ago.

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    Enjoying this report immensely, as it takes place in my backyard, so to speak.

    I'm very fond of La Rochelle, Ile de Ré, Saintes, and Royan. St-Emilion, on the other hand, has become in recent years the most despicable type of overhyped, overpriced tourist trap imaginable. I took my DH there last summer, as he had never seen it, and we were both simply aghast at the wall-to-wall tourists, the unabashed hawking of local goods like macarons at frightful prices, and the impossible parking situation. It was ungodly hot and we stopped for a drink at a rather clumsy-looking café (we were trying hard to avoid the places jammed with tourists), and they were offering 20 cl of some local wine for 32€!!! I had a panaché much to the consternation of our waiter. I will never bother going there again.

    There's a recent article by a well-known French journalist about the wine corruption scene in St-Emilion and how it has destroyed the culture there. Maybe a book as well. I'll see if I can find it.

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    Lunch and supper are within strict working hour limits set by the French state. Try doing business there, it drives you mad, you can't even continue business meetings after the end of the day. >>

    I agree to an extent, bilbo, but most big French towns and cities have at least one brasserie where you can get a meal at most times of the day and evening. Our best find was in a small town on the Dordogne where we came across an oyster bar that was open from about 10am to at least 10pm - we rolled up at about 2.30 in the afternoon and left at about 4pm, full of oysters and dry white bordeaux. But on the whole you're right - unless you are lucky like we were, you can't be certain that you'll find anything to eat outside standard opening hours.

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    To me, St. Emilion falls in the same category as so many other well-known tourist towns (Carcassonne, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Erice in Sicily etc.) that have basically given themselves over to tourist shops and restaurants. The tour buses roll in, and there is none of the ordinary life or ordinary shopping left that locals would be interested in. Typically these places do not do a lot for us because we much prefer visiting real towns where real people work and live. And, usually, within the same area there are other towns that are just as charming and have just as much appeal but haven't been heavily promoted.

    Actually, a 9 euro wine tour and tasting was among the less expensive ones we saw on offer at some of the various vineyards. This is the only one we did, but people can really spend a lot doing these tastings. Really though, for anyone who plans to spend time in Bordeaux (the city), visit Bar a Vin. They have a really good selection for trying nice size portions of wines from all different vineyards. Their cheese and meat platters are also very nice. We sat outside at their sidewalk tables and didn't even go inside.

    More than once on this trip we were out of luck when we couldn't/didn't arrive at the correct appointed hour for a lunch meal. It is something we have a difficult time adjusting to on every trip. In la Rochelle one day we did eventually find an all day brasserie close to our apartment, but we finally left because they apparently were not at all interested in our business and never even approached our table despite the fact that we'd been sitting there quite a long time. I suppose when you know you don't have any competition at that time, service can be as lackluster as possible.

    StCirq--I didn't know what a panache is and had to look it up. Sounds kind of strange to me. Are they good in really hot weather?

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    Since la Rochelle was only a couple hour drive, we decided we’d be better off by driving there as soon as we finished cycling. Showers and cleaning up could wait until we were in our apartment in la Rochelle. However, there was one major glitch we had difficulty figuring out. What to do with our luggage for the day since we weren’t moving on to a hotel in Bordeaux that night? Graham wasn’t going to be available later in the day, so he had to drop our luggage off in the morning somewhere where we could easily pick it up before leaving town.

    We though an easy answer would be to just have him drop it off at the car rental agency where we would just load it in when we arrived a couple hours later after he dropped it off. But, there were a couple problems with this idea. First, we couldn’t figure out how to make a direct call to Europcar’s Bordeaux office rather than being routed through the central call center. The central call center wouldn’t give us a direct number either. Finally, during our stay in Bordeaux we decided to just do a trial run to figure out where to find the rental car offices by the train station. And, these are in quite a confusing place to find (we thought), so we were glad we did the trial run.

    During our trial run, we went to the Europcar office and asked them in person if it would be possible to have our luggage left there for a couple hours. Believe it or not, the threat of terrorism has even caused fears in car rental agencies. We were told that they couldn’t accept baggage a couple hours ahead of time because of threats of terrorism. Their suggestion was to leave it at the train station in the secure (all bags are x-rayed before going in the lockers) luggage facility, pick up the luggage, and then come in to pick up the car. This is what we eventually ended up doing.

    The downtown car rental location in Bordeaux is a couple block walk from the train station, and in fact, it is a closer walk to just take the tram to the stop past the train station and walk from there to the rental car pickup. After collecting our luggage at the train station, we presented our voucher from AutoEurope at the Europcar desk. They asked if we wanted an upgrade to a car with GPS. Since we’d downloaded a GPS system on our phones, we declined. But, as usual, with so many car rental desks where they first try to sell you an upgrade we were given the car with GPS anyway. Once we were in the car we decided to use its GPS since we had it. But, it was programmed in French, and we had to stop back in the office to ask them how to reprogram it in English. All of this took time.

    LA ROCHELLE

    After all of these logistics it was well past 3:00, and was heading into rush hour (just what we didn’t want to deal with), by the time we finally left Bordeaux. After getting screwed up and turned around several times just trying to get through the construction in the train station area, we were finally on the expressway between the two cities. This was easy driving between the two cities.

    Our problems began when we got into la Rochelle itself. We had programmed the GPS to take us right to the apartment we’d rented. The problem was that since the apartment overlooked the harbor, there was really no parking nearby. And la Rochelle is full of one way streets. And, there were no parking places on any on the streets anywhere nearby. We circled and circled and kept getting more and more confused. At one point we actually saw some street parking but had no idea how far of a walk it would be to the apartment. We circled and circled and kept trying to find a place to park.

    We had called the owner saying that we were trying to find a place to park so we could meet at the apartment and pick up the keys. Finally, we were advised to park at Vieux Porte pay lot which is by the harbor and is a couple blocks away. After all of this circling and circling, we pulled in the pay lot there and never once took the car out again until we left la Rochelle. By this point, we didn’t care what it would ultimately cost us for around the clock pay parking for a couple days; we were just glad to find a place to leave the car. When I had been looking online for apartments, I considered one that had a parking place. If I had it to do over again, this parking spot would probably trump all other things when looking for an apartment to rent in la Rochelle.

    This was off-season, in the middle of the week; I can’t imagine what a nightmare parking must be in the summer and/or on weekends. If it were a simple matter of just going between the two cities, we would have definitely just taken the train as an easier solution. But, we also needed a car for transfers and to get us as close as possible to where we would be picking up our canal boat. Thus, the car rental.

    We dragged our suitcases the couple blocks to the apartment and found it to be just what we wanted. http://www.booking.com/hotel/fr/16-cours-des-dames.html Just the right size for two people, with a compact kitchen, and easily walk able everywhere. It was fine for our stay in cooler weather, but I don’t know that I would want this location in the summer when the windows are open. I suspect (know) that it would probably be quite noisy from all of the holiday-makers walking along the adjacent harbor basin and visiting the restaurants below.

    We had three nights and a little over two full days in la Rochelle. While we definitely liked the town, our impressions of the town were colored by the fact that we had depressing, grey, gloomy, cold, windy, and damp weather while we were in la Rochelle. The two days we had were enough to thoroughly walk the entire area that tourists would be interested in and see the sights including visiting the great food market. Having seen many similar things before, we walked by but did not go into the towers surrounding the harbor. La Rochelle’s aquarium is a real gem, and we spent the better part of an afternoon there. Perhaps if we had had nice weather we might have taken the car and ventured to Ile de Re for a day, but with the weather we had, we had no interest in doing that. Plus, we probably would have needed an additional day for an excursion to Il de Re anyway.

    Time was approaching for us to leave on our self-drive canal boat trip on the Garonne, and we were becoming increasingly apprehensive about this. If the weather during our boat rental would be anything like the weather in la Rochelle, we’d be in for a miserable time. And, I was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I needed to buy some warm clothes for the boat.

    During one of our walks through the town, I had seen an H&M. I am not normally an H&M shopper. In fact, I’d never been in one despite the fact there is one not too far from where we live, but I knew they are pretty inexpensive. That is what I was looking for. So, leaving my husband cozied up in the apartment, I set out for H&M to buy myself some warm pants and a request from him to buy us some stocking caps (something we never, ever thought to bring from home).

    My hope had been to find some very casual slacks of a man made material that would be quick drying for when I wanted to hand wash them on the boat. Nothing at all like this at H&M. All there were was sweatpants or jeans—super skinny leg jeans! I really didn’t want jeans or sweatpants because they are difficult to travel with since they take so long to dry, an important consideration on a boat where they potentially could get wet frequently.

    At H&M I didn’t really have any other choice than sweatpants or jeans, so numerous pairs and styles of jean and I went into the dressing room. I definitely need to lose weight but am still about average size for an American woman, and I wear jeans at home all of the time. But, these jeans were something else! I’d managed to find some jeans that fit me in the middle, but the legs were incredibly tight with no give at all, and I don’t carry my weight in my legs. How in the world do women manage in these when they are doing anything other than standing upright and walking? In the dressing room I was giving the jeans a try while squatting and moving and stretching—all range of motions I anticipated (correctly) I’d be doing while we were on the rental boat. No way were these jeans going to work! I ended up walking out of H&M with a pair of sweatpants, a pair of heavy-weight leggings, and a supplemental pair of regular weight leggings that could be used as an additional layer or as pajamas. And, two lightweight, knit skull caps which got a lot of use during our boat trip.

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    julies - we had similar problems with the car rental in Bordeaux - it's not exactly adjacent to the station is it? We had deliberately booked ourselves into a hotel near the station so we could walk there but in retrospect it would have been easier to stay in the centre and as you say, get the tram one stop further to the car depot. One bright spot though was the Europcar agent we had who was so nice -she even brought our car down from the garage for us.

    We also ran into trouble with the Bordeaux traffic - it was terrible even though it wasn't rush hour, and it took us about an hour to get out of the city and onto the road to Pauillac etc. I wouldn't go that way again.

    As for just parking the car and leaving it for the entirety of a stay somewhere, you're not alone in that either. We did that twice in Sicily - once in Ortigia, and again in Taormina because we couldn't bear driving in that traffic again.

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    Yes, Bordeaux traffic was bad every time we went through it. And, at the end of our boat trip we needed to get a different ride into the train station in Marmande from our boat drop off because the driver who was supposed to pick us up was stuck in Bordeaux traffic and running very late.

    So, my advice for others who may be planning a trip in the area: To see the city, stay in Bordeaux itself and do everything there you want. Then, if you want to drive around the surrounding countryside, pick a base outside of the city somewhere. This, however, still isn't a complete solution because in order to cross from one side of the metropolitan area to the other you will still need to go through Bordeaux's traffic unless you stick completely to the smaller side roads.

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    Bordeaux parking is a bi&ch. Getting in and out of town is a PITA. Same for La Rochelle. Our last trip there was a bit of a nightmare. Arrived about 8 pm in pitch black darkness - I don't know why they can't pay for streetlamps on the major roads into town. Could not find our apart-hotel to save our lives. Stopped at a Thai restaurant where no one spoke French or English or any other language we can communicate in. Never heard of it. So we stumbled on, into town and out of town again, maybe 3 times. Called the apartment owners. No answer. Finally stopped at the main hospital (they should know, right?) and they directed us to a tiny alleyway where suddenly we saw the sign for the apart-hotel. Of course it was past check-in time, so I had to call the night-desk people who weren't onsite and get a code number to punch in and get into the building. Amazingly, it worked.

    I was on crutches at the time, and the elevator in the building didn't work, so I had to butt-bump my way up to the apartment, to the consternation of several other clients. It was not a pretty day, and while I'm usually pretty sanguine about stuff that happens when you're traveling, I was not a happy camper that day.

    We had been thinking about selling our place in the Dordogne and buying a nice little place in La Rochelle. That idea went out the window pretty quickly.

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    So, we were not the only ones who found la Rochelle to be difficult to maneuver around....

    STARTING OUT ON OUR CANAL DU GARONNE BOATING ADVENTURE

    Our final morning in la Rochelle we returned to the great food market and picked up some prepared foods that we could reheat while on our boat. We would have a small kitchen facility with fridge, stove and sink, but we really didn’t want to make the effort to do any real cooking. And, we knew we wanted to have some flexibility (and some food on hand) for those occasions when we didn’t feel like venturing out to a restaurant for dinner or when we might miss out on restaurants meal times. Wise thinking on our part because, while on our boat trip, we made quite a number of our meals by just reheating already-prepared foods we’d purchased in the local markets.

    So, we packed up our gear and our newly purchased, already-prepared food from the market and set out in the car for the drive to our canal boat adventure. The weather definitely had us nervous, and we were also starting to wonder if the ten nights we had booked on the boat was too many nights. As with every trip, we had had to do some balancing and make a decision on how to allocate our time. The decision to rent the boat or ten nights meant that we’d be foregoing any real time in Toulouse before our flight home. So, while driving to the boat base we made a pact. If we weren’t having a lot of fun and/or if we didn’t think our time in France was most wisely spent by staying on the boat, we would just turn in the boat early and forfeit a couple days rental. We ended up following through on our pact.

    One of the issues that many people do not consider when booking one of these canal boats is how to get to the pick-up and drop off points because many of them aren’t exactly easy and convenient to reach. Of course, for an additional fee anything can be arranged! So, our plan for the day was to drive to Montauban (the closest car rental office we could find to Castelarrasin) where we had made arrangements for a taxi to pick us up and drive us to leBoat’s marine base in Castelsarrasin. Before turning in the car, we’d stop at a grocery outside of Montauban to pick up food, water, wine, and other supplies.

    (The cool, crummy weather we’d been having in la Rochelle was apparently nothing compared to the weather in more eastern southern France nearer the Mediterranean and on the Canal du Midi at this time. There had been torrential rains and flooding there, so we were lucky that the rain we saw was at its tail end as we headed eastward to pick up our boat. We later heard that, due to flooding, the boat rental companies had to restrict and remove their rental clients and boats on the large lake area on the more easterly part of the Canal du Midi for quite a few days. This too is another caution for those who decide to do a canal boat rental. I am quite certain that the boat agencies rental contracts state that they are not responsible for weather-related problems, so those people who’d rented boats in that area were out a lot of money. I suppose they could have just used the boat to sleep on as a hotel, but they’d have then been stuck in just one spot with no transportation.)

    I had found a last minute half price offer from LeBoat for an end-of-season, one way repositioning on the Canal du Garonne, picking up in Castelsarrasin and dropping off in le Mas d’Agenais. We knew that we really didn’t want to do a roundtrip and go up and down the river in both directions because we would probably find it boring, so we had been looking for a one way rental. We were so glad we did this rather than a round trip. This way is definitely worth the extra charges over the price of a roundtrip where you start and return to the same base.

    We’d booked the Corvette A boat for ten nights; we’d be arriving at the boat on a Friday night and basically be using it as a hotel that night before departing on Saturday morning. Most boat rental agreements (unless you want to add on additional fees) have a check-in after 16:00 and a return by 10:00 am. In reality this probably means that you will be spending the first and last nights of your rental moored at the rental boat company’s headquarters. http://www.leboat.com/boats/corvette-a (Interestingly enough, the review I submitted—a quite negative review—isn’t on their website even though I used the official form they asked me to use and in fact responded to my review.)

    Renting a canal boat is by no means cheap (even when a bargain base rental price like we had is offered); in fact, it can be a very pricey proposition. The price quote one initially sees online is just the beginning of the costs (at least with leBoat anyway). There is diesel fuel (a good couple hundred euros), insurance (not cheap either) and any extras you want. Want a lantern for evenings outside? Extra. Want cushions for the outside chairs and seating? Extra. Want a grill? Extra. Want wifi access? Extra. Don’t want to spend your last hours of the trip thoroughly cleaning the inside and outside of the boat? Extra.

    Want bicycles to get around? Extra. And, with bicycles renters need to be careful to check out the cycles to make sure they are actually comfortable and ride able rather than complete clunkers. We’d put in a request ahead of time for some decent, multi-speed bikes that would be good for a ride of more than a few kilometers on flat ground. But, we still had to take time to give each of them an investigatory ride to make sure the bike fit, was comfortable, had gears that actually worked, and had been properly maintained.

    Our original plan had been to get to Montauban by about 4:00, drop the car, take the taxi to leBoat’s base, get the boat orientation taken care of, have dinner at a restaurant in town, spend the night on the boat, and depart the next morning for Montauban where we’d see the sights. I think of this list, the only two things that actually followed the plan were that we took the taxi from the Europcar agency in Montauban, and we spent the night on the boat.

    We arrived at the rental agency office to drop off the car late because we had ended up taking a route that was a lot longer than we’d originally anticipated, and so we got behind schedule. Our plan had been to take the most direct and fastest route—via the expressway cutting down to Bordeaux and then heading east. As we were roaring along (my husband driving and me navigating) leaving the la Rochelle area on our way to the Bordeaux area there came one of those moments where a split second decision had to be made as to which way to go. What the GPS was saying and how things actually looked on the road and on our map were different. So, I made the instantaneous judgment call to not listen to the GPS. Thus, we ended up being routed along the slower route, but it was definitely scenic whereas I know the expressway wouldn’t have been. Then, we still wanted to stop at a grocery so we could get supplies—especially those that would be heavier and bulkier and that we wouldn’t want to have to walk or cycle with.

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    I am looking forward to hearing about your boat stage. Some people love them and others have enjoyed it less. It is not something we have considered as we expect it to be a bit beyond our budget. But gliding along a canal in lovely France does sound idyllic at times. We have, in the course of travels around France, stopped along canals, and some places do not seem very convenient with the shops etc a long walk away. I suppose it depends on which canal and then which places you choose to stop.
    It is always disappointing when something does not meet expectations. We were in France from mid Sept to mid Nov last year and had fairly good weather in the areas we stayed -just a few showery days until the last week when it was a bit damper. But that was mid Nov. The weather does colour one's impressions, though, and it seems to be becoming less predictable. We had the worst week in April 2012 in the Charente. It just rained all week, except for a morning we spent in La Rochelle. And I seem to remember having difficulty finding the car park as well.
    Enjoying your report.

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    rhon--

    As you will soon hear, we probably fall into the category of those who didn't enjoy it so much as we anticipated we would. Weather did play a part, but that really isn't the main issue.

    You are so right that weather is no longer predictable. Four or five years ago we spent three weeks in Italy in May; it was the coldest May in Italy in 200 years. There was aqua alta (a winter phenomenon) in Venice, and rather than sitting in the garden apartment we'd rented on the Tuscany border, we instead learned how to use the pellet stove in the living room.

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    BOATING ON THE CANAL DU GARONNE AND RIVER BAISE

    So, we were late arriving at the car agency to drop off the car and late getting to leBoat’s base. It was nearly dark and lightly raining when we arrived. We met up with the base manager and quickly transferred all of our things from the taxi to the boat. The manager quickly showed us around the boat and how to operate the basics as far as heat, bathrooms, and lights. We all agreed that the best plan would be for him to give us the orientation in the morning when it would be daylight and (we hoped) wouldn’t be raining.

    We’d done our homework prior to renting and followed the advice to get a slightly larger boat even for two people. Our boat was compact but had two bedrooms (although the second bedroom was so small that I don’t think two adults could fit in the bed), two bathrooms, and a sitting/kitchenette area with a table that could be opened for meals. There was an outside upper steering wheel, and a steering wheel inside too that we never used because the manager told us not to use it because of having less visibility in that position. (In retrospect, we should have ignored his advice and used the inside steering a couple times when it was really chilly out.) We stashed our things away and immediately decided that since it was still raining and wasn’t very nice out, we weren’t familiar with the town or where the restaurants were, and we really didn’t feel like exploring on foot in the dark and the rain we’d just warm up some of our food for dinner.

    Then, we went to wash up the few dishes from dinner. No hot water. This was strange. No hot water in the bathrooms either. So, no showers. We boiled some water to make hot water for dishes and figured we could do without hot water for one night and sort things out in the morning with the manager. The bathrooms were also extremely teeny (to be expected on a boat), and these were in essence wet rooms as far as showering. So, we decided that we would make the smaller bathroom the dedicated shower room; that way we wouldn’t have to contend with trying to mop up a wet bathroom after showers. There was one more strange thing we noticed that night. Before we went to bed I saw a small, yellowish puddle on the floor at the base of one of the toilets; this hadn’t been there earlier.

    In the morning I went off in search of a boulangerie before we met with the manager. We then signed all of the paperwork, paid some fees, chose some bikes, and gave several of them a trial run before deciding which two were the most manageable.

    When we asked about the lack of hot water, the manager seemed surprised that we hadn’t have any. After checking into a couple things he told us he was surprised to find that, even when connected to shore power, this particular boat would only have hot water if the engine had been running for a couple hours. The engine, obviously hadn’t been running--probably for days. Of course, he also told us that just running the engine to heat water would also increase our fuel bill. LeBoat’s promo materials mention, “fully equipped with all of the amenities of home”. At our home we have hot water available whenever we want it. We don’t consider hot water an amenity; it is a basic.

    As far as the toilet whose puddle was increasing, he mentioned that he’d been aware of it but thought this had been fixed already. However, it was visibly apparent that it hadn’t been. So, he went and got some tools to take care of the problem of waste water (yuk!) leaking out of the toilet. One of the burners on the stove wouldn’t work, and he couldn’t get his fixed, so we said we could manage with three rather than four burners. Then, he went to find us some extra long matches for lighting the burners (no electronic ignition here).

    We are boat people and like the water; that is one of the prime reasons we decided on this type of vacation. We own boats and have for decades, and we keep one moored on a river where watching for sandbars while cruising and fighting the current when landing need to be contended with. But, we’d never before operated a boat like this. And, we had never done locks before. My husband would be the captain, and I would be the mate who jumped off and manipulated the lines and signaled the gates when going through locks.

    Our plan had been to backtrack to Montauban because it is supposed to be an interesting town, and then return to the Garonne at Montech, and head west from there on the Canal du Garonne. The manager suggested that this might not be a good idea for people who had never done locks before because there would be nine locks each direction, for a total of eighteen locks rather rapidly one after another. Not for us we immediately decided. Even if Montauban had a lot to offer for tourists, we were not ready to jump immediately into a journey with that many locks right off the bat. A very wise decision on our part as we were soon to find out.

    Now came the time for the actual orientation on how to run the boat. The manager quickly showed us how to operate the engine, how to connect to shore power, and how to fill the water tank from shore. We had a quick discussion of how to maneuver a lock (ecluse in French). The basics of approaching a lock is that there is a cable running high across the river. As the boat approaches the lock and goes under the cable, the “mate” gives a quick twist to the long rigid pole that hangs down from the cable. This pull/twist triggers the lock gate to open.

    The manager put his bicycle on the boat with the plan to take us through the first lock and then leave us on our own as he rode his cycle back to the base. It was a fairly straight shot and not all that far to the first lock, so, with the manager watching, my husband drove while I waited to pull the rope to signal the lock to open. He was driving a bit faster than wise for approaching so I nearly missed catching the rope, but I caught it at the last second and managed to operate the opening signal. As we entered the lock, the manager showed us how to secure the lines and hold them to guide the boat as the water level in the lock dropped. Although a bit haphazardly, we’d made it through the lock, and the manager pedaled away leaving us alone to start our adventure.

    The locks on the Garonne are all now mechanized, and the former lock keepers houses are now being sold for other purposes. So, boaters do not need to adhere to a lock keeper’s schedule, but there are still set daylight hours when the entire system is operational and not shut down for the night.

    When we arrived at our second lock (the first one we’d be alone for), it just happened to coincide with the visit to that lock of a woman who was an employee of the canal system. Seeing the comedy of errors when we tried to go through, she was shouting out advice in French. My French is really, really rusty since I studied it years ago in high school and college, but I was able to interpret what she was saying. Noting our ineptness, she (not coincidentally at all I am sure) met us at each of the next two locks making sure we got through okay.

    We were having some problems with how to best approach the lock, how to tie the lines to best secure them temporarily while preparing to go through the lock, and with the best placement for me on the boat as we approached the interior of the lock. In each lock the mate has to jump off the boat with the line in hand, and I was trying to figure out where best to be standing on the boat so I could hold the line easily and be close enough to the ground that I wouldn’t risk an ankle fracture while jumping down too far. And…. my husband was having difficulty controlling the boat, something that we both though strange since he has driven so many other boats before.

    There definitely was a learning curve as to how to do this entire operation of going through a lock, and many times we discussed how it was do-able with just two people but would have been a much easier operation with three or four people. By halfway through the boat trip we had a good routine figured out that worked for us, but it was definitely a learning curve. So, we were glad we took this trip at a relatively dead time of year; it would have been much more difficult learning all of this while under pressure with other boats coming both ways towards us and waiting with lines of boats to go through locks.

    And, I was quite apprehensive about how it would be with the added complication of being in a lock that was filling rather than draining, so we were glad we were setting off in a direction where we’d be dropping down rather than going up. By the time we had that challenge, we were more familiar with things and were better able to handle what in reality wasn’t really all that more difficult or different. My big concern with going into a lock that was filling was that I would have to climb up a slippery, slimy, eight foot vertical ladder. I had to do something partially similar to that once or twice, but the entire operation was not nearly as difficult as I had imagined.

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    My experience is similar, I found the steering control just about as naff as is just about safe (I think the rudder was loose on the pintel), though I would expect to only get hot water after running the engine.

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    Great read, but you'd never catch me doing a boat ride on the Canal du MIdi. Just not my cup of tea, at all.I drive by those people on those boats frequently and alway think Thank God it' not me.

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    We too had often seen people traveling by boat and wondered if w'd like it. Since we are boat/water people, we thought we'd give it a try. The other big factor in us deciding to take this boat trip was that my husband had had a problem all summer with pain in his foot stopping him from taking long walks, and despite visits to the podiatrist things just weren't improving. We knew we wouldn't be able to do our usual vacations where we do a lot of walking, so we gave the boat a shot.

    And, no it definitely wasn't a very auspicious start. As far as the hot water issue, I guess neither one of us had given this a thought as to the mechanics of heating water. Tons of people travel in RVs or camper vans, and I assume they have hot water. Maybe the issues are the same. I don't know.

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    Oh dear. We will stick to staying in gites. I cannot see me jumping off boats! We manage to drive around France with me navigating and not have an disagreement. But trying to co ordinate grabbing things and jumping off and everything else. A recipe for divorce!?
    You did well.

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    rhon--In all honesty, I think we'll be back to gites too after this experience. But, it was the type of thing that intrigued us enough to give it a try.

    kansas--thanks for the compliment.

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    Our goal for our first night was the town of Moissac which is famous because it has a very nice eleventh century Romanesque abbey to visit. Despite the difficulty my husband was having controlling and steering the boat, we made it into the port, secured the boat, paid the mooring fee, and set out to explore. Moissac turned out to be a charming town (our favorite of the boat trip). In fact, so charming that we decided to spend two nights there so we would have time to take it all in on a leisurely basis rather than just making a brief stop to tie up overnight. After all, we had a ten night rental and could be flexible. The capitaine at Moissac had told us that Moissac is a very popular mooing and many people use it as their home base when they own boats. By the end of the trip, after having moored at a half dozen spots, we could definitely understand its popularity.

    We were lucky that we had a beautiful, sunny day which was nice for boating and wandering through the town. Nice enough that I was fine just wearing capris and a long sleeved shirt or light windbreaker. After wandering around the town, we ended the day sitting on the upper deck with glasses of wine as we looked out on the small port and the adjacent town. So far, this trip seemed to be living up to what we had been hoping it might be.

    After a leisurely breakfast on the boat (I’d been to the boulangerie), we set off to visit L’Abbaye St. Pierre and its beautiful, intricately carved columns in its 11th century cloister. The adjacent church was also interesting for a brief stop. Since it was Sunday, there were lots of visitors to the town and cloister; many were enjoying themselves in the outside tables at the restaurants in the main part of town near the abbey.

    Moissac is on the route of the Way of St. James, and in the middle of town I discovered an outdoor clothing store that was obviously operating to cater to the needs of those hikers. The shop didn’t have the greatest selection, but I found just what I was looking for—a pair of synthetic pants that were regular material on the outside with a soft fleeced inside. Later on in the trip I was so glad I’d decided to buy these, and they got lots of wear on the cooler days we were to have.

    Then, it was our chance to explore outside of town for a while on our bicycles. We found an interesting back road path that led to the outskirts of the town, some fruit orchards and a small waterway. In places some of the leaves were exhibiting bright fall colors as we pedaled along this back road. Since we’d now been tied up for twenty-four hours, I knew if I wanted a shower it would be at the public shower at the marina. Since we used to camp a lot in the past this was not big deal to me to walk over there with my toiletries and pay a couple euros for the shower. It had been another nice day (weather-wise and activity-wise), and we were definitely happy we’d decided to spend two nights in Moissac rather than just being speed demons who wanted to quickly move along in the boat. This was another day that was just the exact mix of what we’d been hoping for in a canal boat adventure.

    In Moissac moorings were such that boats were parallel parked alongside the edges of the canal, and we were lucky in that we had the room of two slips. On Monday we got a leisurely start and managed to make it out of our mooring without incident despite the fact that steering was definitely a challenge. Our goal for the night was the boat center in Valence d’Agen. The sun we’d had the previous two days had been replaced by rather overcast weather, but it was still quite pleasant boating through some nice but unremarkable scenery.

    But, my husband was having a lot of difficulty steering the boat. And often he’d have to spin the wheel three or four times in order to get it to respond at all; this was strange because on our boats at home a slight turn of the wheel produce a nice response. I kept asking if there was something wrong with the boat, and he kept blaming himself thinking that he just hadn’t figured out how to best operate this boat.

    We were lucky that this day there were perhaps only four or five locks to go through. At one point the boat was so un-responsive that we missed when aiming to drive under the pole so I could trigger the lock. We had to turn around to make another approach—no easy feat making a u-turn with a boat whose steering mechanism did not seem to be working properly. This was quite a spectacle for people who had been walking along the canal and stopped to observe the boats go through the locks. I am sure we got lots of laughs from the spectators that day. As we approached another lock, an old man who was walking along the path shouted to us, “Vous etes dans une mauvaise position.” And, we were in a bad position.

    Despite the difficulties, we made it to Valence d’Agen and our mooring for the night. This was a much smaller and much less busy or interesting mooring basin that the one in Moissac had been. This time we had to pull into a narrow slot so we were perpendicular to the shoreline, and we were definitely having problems with getting into the slip. Fortunately, here some very kind boater owners helped us get the boat aligned and moored. As we were slowly learning, most slips required backing in, and this was one of those. Not an easy feat with an unresponsive boat.

    We had another problem too. I had noticed an ever-growing yellowish puddle on the floor by that toilet again. Luckily we had a cell phone with us, so we called the base and told them about the problem. They promised to send a mechanic out within the hour to properly take care of the toilet problem. He arrived (in reality by car we weren’t all that far from the base at Castelsarrasin) and it took him about an hour to take care of the toilet leak. It was quite obvious that the toilet itself had been replaced numerous times over the lifespan of this boat, and it was probably increasingly difficult to get a good seal in the marine toilet.

    Luckily, this mechanic spoke English, and when he was done fixing the toilet he asked if there were any other problems. I piped up and said we were having a lot of difficulty with the steering. The guy tried spinning the wheel and immediately told us the problem was that there was no hydraulic fluid for the steering mechanism. He put in at least a liter before declaring the problem solved. One would think that something as important to the safe operation of a boat would have been taken care of by the company before releasing the boat for rental.

    There were a lot of other things that also weren’t up to snuff in this boat. The outside was really beat up with scrapes and peeling rubber guards, so beat up that we were wondering why we’d paid all of that insurance because any exterior damage we could have done to it wouldn’t have shown up anyway. When we picked up the boat there was a nice napkin type cover over the top of the interior captain’s chair; we soon discovered this was placed there to try to cover up the completely frayed-through upholstery.

    Before we made the final decision to rent the boat I’d asked leBoat’s salesperson how old the boat was. The answer to the question was 1999. A seventeen year old boat is not exactly brand new, but we figured it would be acceptable. Several days after the start of our trip, however, when we became increasingly disillusioned by the condition of the boat we found the manufacturer’s plate on the boat—1987. So, we got misleading and deceptive information from leBoat about the product they were selling and gave us a boat that was nearly twice as old as they had promised in their e-mail. In fact, by the middle to end of the trip we were thinking we should just be delivering this thing to the salvage yard to be junked out.

    Since we had been dealing with the mechanic upon arrival and we’d also invited the owners who had helped us with the landing maneuvers for a glass of wine, we didn’t have time to explore Valence d’Agen until the next morning. We were fortunate that we were there for Tuesday’s market day, so we set out to visit the market. There were several different areas or squares in the town where the vendors were set up, and we had a leisurely stroll, once again picking up a variety of food supplies. Valence d’Agen is noted in all of the guide books for its old circular washhouses, and these were quite close to the boat moorings so we quickly walked by them. Not too much to see really, and I certainly wouldn’t make a trip to the town just to see those.

    Our guidebooks had recommended Auvillar because it is one of les Plus Beaux Villages. So, after our stroll through the market we set off on our bikes on the back road D11 route to visit Auvillar. The initial ride was through some farmlands, and then we had a rather steep climb into the village. We had thought of perhaps stopping for lunch in the small town, but we could only find one restaurant that was open (even though we were within the normal lunch hours) and it didn’t call to us. Once again the problem was that we didn’t want a full three course French lunch, and this was all they had on offer. We only wanted a sandwich or a bowl of soup or something similar. Once again cultural differences were apparent. We had plenty of lunch supplies on the boat and decided to just return there to eat.

    The town didn’t do a lot for us either. Yes, it was pleasant enough to walk around for ten or fifteen minutes, and since it was at the top of a hill there were some nice views. But, we’ve seen a lot of small, quaint French towns and this was not all that special. In addition, the fact that we had arrived during lunch hour meant that everything was shut up tighter than a drum. So, our excursion was brief and not particularly great. To me, this might be the type of town that if one is taking a driving trip might be worth a slight detour but nothing more. For us, it wasn’t worth the effort and the time we took to ride bikes there.

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    I can't believe all the problems with the boat. The steering would be such a huge concern & a leaking toilet-yuck. Geez, at least you could get someone to fix it. I'm continuing to enjoy your story. Glad you had one town that you liked. Sounded like a very nice 2 days. I don't think a boat trip is in my future.

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    julies - it seems to me that your very well-written TR is summing up all the pros and cons of a boating holiday of this type - we've all seen people sitting on deck drinking their aperitifs and envied them but what we don't see are the battles with a dodgy steering system or leaky loo. And once you've taken delivery and paid for the boat, there's not a lot you can really do about it.

    That said, we were stuck with a dodgy gite once, and more or less the same applied.

    As for what to do about strange French eating practices, I sympathise. They can be very rigid. We have eventually come to the conclusion that if a 3 course lunch is the only thing on offer, that's what we will have and the lunch fixings will do for dinner. A case of "want what you can have, not have what you want"!

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    Friends of ours took a boat out onto the large lake near the sea as you describe it. At the final lock to the lake, they discovered the deck leaked, they stopped and called out the maintenance crew who turned up, old lag and apprentice.

    Long story short, they apprentice chopped one of his fingers off. Blood everywhere, finally sent him off with the digit in a plastic bag with all the ice thy had to have it stiched back on.

    I enjoyed my trip, but my friend had £250 of glass whipped off by a passing tree (well you know what I mean) and since the water is full of boat effluent (again you know what I mean) declined to jump in after them.

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    Trying to finish up this trip report....

    After riding back to the boat, we left with our now functioning and steerable boat up the canal in the direction of Agen. One of the things boaters see on this part of the journey that seems rather incongruous for a rural France wander is the Golfech nuclear power plant that can be seen from miles away. Apparently there were large enough financial incentives for the local people to agree to building a nuclear power plant in the midst of their rural countryside.

    Agen is a large town with some things of interest to tourists, but according to the information we had the moorings at Agen weren’t very pleasant or very quiet and interesting. So, we decided to only go about 20K and stop just short of Agen at the mooring at Boe. This port de plaisance was basically a mooring place in a county park so there were no shops or restaurants, and so we knew ahead of time that for dinner we’d just be staying in the boat and re-heating the food we’d purchased at the market that morning.

    The next morning when leaving Boe we got an earlier start than we’d been having other days since (a) there was no boulangerie to walk to for breakfast and lunch goodies, and (b) we needed to make a long day of it if we were to make our next intended mooring that was 34 K away in Buzet sur Baise. It was definitely colder than it had been previous days, and we were wearing our jackets and the knit stocking hats we’d bought in la Rochelle. I was also so glad to have the warm pants I’d bought in Moissac. It was going to be both a long day and a cool day.

    Near Agen there is a fascinating portion of the Canal du Garonne that was constructed to go over the River Garonne. So, essentially, boaters on the canal are driving through a cement-sided waterway that passes over and looks down on the river below. We took lots of photos while traversing this engineering wonder.
    In the area near to Agen there are also portions where the canal is quite close to the railway line, so this is not the most attractive area along the canal. We definitely felt that the portion of the canal east of Agen was much more interesting to travel along than the portion west of Agen. The Baise river, however, was also nice. So, I guess our recommendation would be going no further west than Buzet.

    Even though many people who are boating recommend a stop in Serignac sur Garonne for a wander or a lunch or a night’s mooring, we by-passed it so we would be able to reach Buzet sur Baise in a timely manner. In fact, we didn’t make a stop all day other than to pull over briefly by the side of the canal so we could eat our lunch I’d put together from supplies we had on board with us.

    We’d been on the canal for several days now and had noticed that we really were at the very end of the season. Many of the canal-side restaurants were closed except on weekends. All along the canal there were boats that had obviously been weatherized and tied up until spring. We didn’t see too many other rental boats either, not like it would be in the peak months.

    On the other hand, we know we would not want to take a trip like this in the peak months. Not only is there the problem of all of the competition to get through the locks, there is also the heat factor. This isn’t the kind of boat trip where people can get off the boat and swim to cool off either. And, we were told by one of the people at leBoat’s base that the interior of the boats can have the heat build up to 50 degrees C (120 F) on sunny summer days. Not for us! We’d prefer to have to turn on the heater (the boat had both the built-in heater and a small portable electric heater that we could use) at night than deal with trying to cool a boat down.

    During our trip we did meet some people (primarily Brits) who owned boats and lived on them permanently (including all winter). And, the canal does occasionally ice up; it is cold there in the winter. Most of these boats were slightly larger than the one we were renting and had some more amenities, but I still can’t imagine being cooped up in one of these during the nasty months. Granted, for most of these people a significant part of the attraction was the fact that this was a way to stretch their income, and this is one of the cheapest ways to live.

    There are two different marinas at Buzet sur Baise, and we were nervous when we went by the first because there did not appear to be any open slips to spend the night. (Lots of boats that appeared to be permanently moored there for the winter were taking up all of the spaces.) Fortunately for us, there was an open slip at Au Bord de l’Eau in Buzet. But, once again, as we approached to tie up for the night we were having a lot of difficulty with getting the boat properly into the slip. We have a pontoon at home that we keep in a very narrow slip and also have to at times deal with a really strong current when docking. How could the docking process for this rental boat be so difficult to do on a nearly motionless body of water? Fortunately, the woman who was filling in as a temporary manager at the capitainerie saw the problems we were having and came out so we could throw the line to her; she manually pulled us into the dock.

    The friendly woman whose boat was pretty permanently docked here told us about a good restaurant to go to in town. We walked the four or five blocks into town, by- passing the canal-side restaurant, and enjoyed our prix fixe menu at le Vigneron. We couldn’t believe the value for the money since the included dessert course was a dessert cart full of many delicious choices, and you could have as many desserts as you wanted. Just what I didn’t need since good home-made sweets are my weakness. We were so impressed with this restaurant that we had dinner here again when we came back through Buzet.

    When we returned to the boat after dinner we spent some time online looking at all of the different options we would have for the last few days of our trip. In Buzet we had good, fast reliable internet, something that was lacking for a lot of our boat trip. LeBoat offered the opportunity to rent a device to connect to the Internet, and we tried it our first night in the port at Castelsarrasin. It was so pathetic that we turned it back in choosing instead to rely on our phones' data services while enroute or to use the wifi connections that some ports offer as a part of their mooring fee.

    From Buzet sur Baise we intended to go south down the Baise River a ways. We’d been told that because of river levels we’d only be able to travel as far south as Condom and decided to just wing it and see how things went because the Baise had been described to us as a lovely, small, mostly wild river that has a natural course, twisting and turning, instead of the more monotonous and straight canal. Our goal for the night was Nerac, a lovely old city that had been the home of Henri IV.

    Immediately upon leaving Buzet we had a set of double locks to go through in order to get on the Baise. The locks on the Baise were different than those on the Canal du Garonne, and we needed to get a key card to operate these locks. So, at the first lock the lock keeper (interestingly enough all of the lock keepers we encountered were women) gave us the card to use to operate the locks on the Baise. Another difference with these locks than the ones we’d been used to on the Garonne was that some of these would be filling rather than emptying, so this would be a first for us.

    On the way to Nerac we bypassed two other interesting looking small towns that were set above and along the river—Vianne and Lavardec (both bastide towns). Since we weren’t sure how long it would take us to get to the port at Nerac, and we really didn’t want to just tie up wild with no shore power etc., we wanted to make sure that we would be able to get through the locks and arrive in Nerac in a timely manner. We figured we could always make a stop at these towns on our way back upstream to Buzet.

    And, once again we were having steering problems. The fix had worked for a couple days, but now we were back to having the same difficulties we’d had before. Things kept deteriorating as far as steering. As we pulled into the Nerac area, we saw a local tour boat coming in our direction and were very concerned that we might run into it because the steering just wasn’t working properly. In fact, my husband later told me that he nearly used the horn signal (we’d been given a pamphlet that included horn signals) that would indicate, “I have no control of this boat.”

    Luckily things worked out okay, and we managed to parallel park alongside the canal at what we assumed was the port because there was a tie up and electrical. But, there was no one around to take our money and no apparent center to do so since the small office by the landing was completely closed. I finally saw a sign (in French) that said the port master would come find us. Later on he finally did stop by for payment and a brief conversation.

    It was cool but clear out, so, as had become our custom, we had our wine and appetizer outside on top of our boat (wearing our jackets of course). That night we had a conversation about how our trip was progressing and what to do next. The Baise was lovely, but we have spent a lot of time on other lovely rivers. The canal was becoming somewhat boring with the same types of scenery and repetitive days and not a lot of particularly interesting towns. Traveling on the river was really slow; bikes could go a lot faster, and walkers could walk nearly as fast as we were going.

    We were in agreement; we’d pretty much had it with the boating. While the boat, and living on it, was a novelty initially, we were starting to get antsy and decided in the morning we would turn back up the Baise and return to Buzet. From there we would make run to Le Mas d’Agenais and turn in the boat two days early.

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    julies, you can congratulate yourself on having provided a public service by trying out this type of holiday for the rest of us. My DH was talking about doing this and i think that you have provided me with enough ammunition to put him off! so thank you.

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    Continues to be a great TR. So far on this boat trip the dessert cart is the only thing that has appealed to me! This will definitely make some stories for you to tell your family & friends. And I agree with annhig about providing a public service.

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    Great report, love your writing style and detail. I think the boating fantasy has just gone out of the window!

    I'm interested in the Toulouse section so lots of detail please!

    Schnauzer

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    My intent was not to bad mouth canal boat trips but to record our experiences with one.

    I'm doing a "public service" LOL. I suspect the rental companies would think I am doing a public disservice.

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    Your experience re-affirms my conviction that it's been a good idea not to do a boat trip. As I think I mentioned before, I've driven along the Canal du Midi many times and asked myself what are these people thinking? I could walk faster than that! Thanks for the well-written, candid report.

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    In the morning we set out to walk the two parts of the town (old and new, not that the new was particularly new). Nerac is a lovely town, but other than the quick stop we made in the church there are not a lot of particular sights for a tourist other than just taking in the general ambience. This is one of those wander around for an hour or have lunch and then leave type of towns.

    As we headed back up towards Buzet the steering was still extremely problematic--so difficult that we needed to call again and request that a mechanic meet us in Buzet. However, we managed to return to Buzet without incident and pulled into the same slip we’d had two days before. While we waited for the mechanic to arrive, the woman who was temporarily managing the place told us that when she first saw us two days previously and helped to pull us in, she immediately thought to herself that there must be something wrong with the boat. She was definitely right. Guess what? The hydraulic fluid needed to be filled! We must have had a boat with a huge leak in the hydraulic system. This second mechanic didn’t speak any English so we communicated in a mix of French and Spanish while he quickly sussed out what the problem was. One would think that something as important as reliable steering would be well-maintained in a rental boat. After all, lack of steering can affect safety while boating even if a boat is plodding along at about 8K an hour.

    With good internet connectivity in Buzet, we quickly made plans for our last few days in France. We would forego one day of boating and our last two nights of sleeping on the boat and end up with three nights and two plus days in Toulouse rather than the one afternoon and an overnight we’d initially intended to have. On AirB&B I managed to find a nice apartment in the center of Toulouse whose owner was willing to make a last minute booking. We’d checked the train schedules and found a train the next day from Marmande to Toulouse, so we booked those tickets. We let the base know that we’d be arriving two days early and asked them to arrange a taxi transfer for us from the base to the train station in Marmande. After dinner we spent the evening organizing and packing up our belongings we’d spread out all over the boat in the week we’d been on the boat.

    We had been in the midst of a cool front for the past several days, and when we rose in the morning the mists were once again heavily settled in on the water. Dressed in all of our layers we pulled out planning to make a direct run to le Mas d’Agenais and the LeBoat rental base. This last day there were only four or five locks to go through, we had our routine down pat, and most importantly the boat was operating smoothly. Near one town we encountered a type of obstacle course challenge for young kayakers (perhaps ages ten to fifteen) who it seemed were ending the season with a competition. When we approached, one of the most experienced young kayakers paddled up to us and led us through the route. Good thing the steering was working this day! So, we easily made the run, arriving in the early afternoon so we could catch our train.

    Would we do another canal boat trip? It’s doubtful but possible. Some people just love these types of journeys and do them frequently. For us, it was an okay but not spectacular experience. We have had lots of great time on the water and on boats (not this RV-like sleep-on type though), so perhaps this experience wasn’t all that special for us the way it would be for other people who don’t get many opportunities to have time on the water. Even though we supposedly got a very significant discount (about half the normal price) for the base price before all of the essential add-ons like fuel and insurance, this was not a cheap trip.

    Having our own little cozy place that could move with us was unique for a couple days, but the novelty wore off rather quickly. Not having to pack and unpack was definitely an advantage, but it was outweighed by all of the other factors. I know we could have had a rental car and rented a very nice gite or apartment for the same amount of time for less money overall. I know that if this had been a trip to actually “see” France, we would have been very disappointed. We’ve had perhaps six to eight other trips to France from the US, so we have already seen a lot of France.

    The two of us talked about how maybe this would be a better experience if it were more of a social experience with a small group of friends doing it together. Really good friends who wouldn’t get on each other’s nerves in the tight quarters, especially if it were raining. The weather affected our perceptions a bit but not by much. And, we were lucky in that we didn’t really have to deal with rain while traveling. Although we’d recommend going a couple weeks earlier in the fall than we went, the weather wasn’t bad enough to radically impact our impressions of the trip overall.

    The poorly maintained boat also wasn’t a huge reason why we weren’t all that impressed with the overall experience, so I can’t attribute our feelings to not be chomping at the bit to do a repeat trip to that. Certainly, we are very definitely less than impressed with LeBoat’s rental fleet (and how poorly it is maintained) and we definitely wouldn’t rent from them again even though their employees were all good. I suppose some people might comment that a boat with lots of problems should be expected at the end of a season when the boats have been heavily put through their paces all summer. But, I don’t buy that. A rental car company isn’t going to send renters off with a very poorly maintained vehicle (I hope) just because it is getting to the end of prime rental season. Why should a boat rental be any different? We are pretty laid back, and we didn’t come away seething (as some people might) that our entire trip had been ruined by the pretty significant hassles we had with the boat.

    Prior to deciding on this trip we’d done a lot of research and decided to take this route rather than the more popular Canal du Midi because in ways the Canal du Midi sounded even more monotonous. If we were to do it again, we’d seek out a different type of environment than a canal (a small river probably), and we’d look for a route that really has interesting towns all along the route. Unfortunately, in France a true river route oftentimes that means the driver has to have a captain’s license—not an easy accomplishment. A number of years ago someone on this forum said they’d taken four such self-drive boat journeys in France, and the most interesting of all was the Macon to Epinal route in Burgundy. If we ever have any inclination to do this again, I might take deep look at that route. Being further north, it, of course, would need to be done earlier in the season.

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