Log #18r Rhone to the Med.

January 27, 2001 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 18 France, The Logs

Log #18r Rhone to the Med.

Jan. 27, 2001
Covers the period Dec. 17 to Dec. 20, 2000

This log starts after the extra log I wrote about the French strikes, and our first 2 days’ travel afterwards, Log #18x, which for the sequence of my numbering system, I have renumbered as Log #18q. It took us to St. Etienne des Sorts at PK 204 where we arrived after dark alongside a 35 metre plaisancier, “Ambiorix” with which we had been in company all day through the six locks and 50 nautical miles we traveled that second day (Dec. 17) after the strike. We spent a pleasant evening with Pierre and Ghylene Andre on their large comfortable floating home. Those peniches converted to plaisanciers have as much floor space as most one or two bedroom apartments, and are very comfortably appointed inside.

There was a halte a couple of hundred yards downstream, but the two German boats occupied it and we would rather raft up to the plaisancier. The pontoon halte looked OK, and is located right beside the town, accessible to the limited town facilities.

We left at 0730, three quarters of an hour before sunrise, to head the 20 nautical miles down to Avignon. We cleared the first lock, Ecluse de Caderousse, efficiently, but it took an hour in Ecluse d’Avignon before we were through because of debris around the gates. Within a half hour of clearing the lock we rounded the southern tip of Isle de la Barthelasse, heading up the west section of the Rhone towards Le Pont d’Avignon of fabled song. Just past the pont, we went alongside the Port de Plaisance Avignon (43 57.2N, 004 48.4E) just before noon hour, and secured with our stern a couple of hundred yards from the historic bridge, originally known as the Saint Benezet Bridge. It was an economical marina, costing only 80 Ff for the night with electricity, water, and showers available, located just outside the town wall, a few hundred yards from the Papal Palace (le Palais des Papes).

After a lovely lunch in the old town, we toured the bridge and le Palais des Papes which was the Papal Palace for seven Popes from 1309 to 1409. The old town is completely surrounded by ancient ramparts. There was a Christmas Market in the central pedestrian mall. The area has been inhabited for over 2000 years and reeks of history, from Roman times through conquests by Saracens, Franks, Burgundians, Ostrogoths, and Moors before the century of French popes.

It was cultural overload for one day’s touring. We left early the next day for Arles, another 22 nautical miles downstream, arriving at a free pontoon halte at noon in warm sunny weather, and subjected ourselves to another intense afternoon of touring. We were definitely getting closer to the Med. On our way down this stretch we passed Beaucaire and Tarascon which were the border towns on opposite sides of the Rhone, one in the Holy Roman Empire and the other in France, and past the offshoot of the Petit Rhone going west towards the Canal du Midi as it winds its way down the delta area into the Med. At the halte in Arles we saw a few lateen rigged fishing boats, but we were the only yacht alongside the long pontoons.

We enjoyed Arles more than Avignon, as we strolled through the Roman amphitheatre, which is still used for bullfights, and through the Cryptoportiques which was the substructure of crypts on which the Roman Forum of the first century was built. Now these underground crypt caves lie beneath a large area of the mediaeval old town which was built upon the forum. The amphitheatre, though smaller than the Coliseum in Rome, had a capacity for 21,000 spectators, with the outer façade over 21 metres high in two levels of 60 arches. There were several good museums showing local life from Roman to modern times in the Provence region. We saw the remains of the Roman Baths, and the open air theatre with several of its Corinthian columns still imperiously towering over the stage, the skeleton of a structure which accommodated a vertical drop curtain in its original incarnation. We noted that many ancient Roman walls were still standing and were incorporated into currently inhabited structures. Of course there were several magnificent churches, and a cloister testifying to the Christian era. In the cloister was an interesting display of Creches from different countries, and of sculptures and dolls characteristic of the Camargue.

Something else we noted in this area and throughout France, many of the ancient structures, castles, fortifications, turrets, arches are illuminated at night, casting a patina of gold light accentuating the beauty and the architecture of these cherished venues. On the river, in the black of night, a castle on its precipice and the rock substructure would be bathed in a yellow or white glow, testifying to its endurance and place in history. Often the bridges too would be directly or indirectly floodlit, casting golden reflections of their arches, ancient or modern, on the inky waters flowing beneath. The arches of the amphitheatre were entrancing as they carried the eye along their ancient contours, rising above the duller illumination of the surrounding town and contrasting with the star studded night.

There is a mystique, looking at shorelines across a river at night, the shadows, lights, reflections, little movements of people, trees, cars, or water, animating an absorbing nocturnal spectacle. Similarly there is a beauty to sailing on open water at night, looking from our enclosed cocoon of the boat out into the vast darkness of the sky, with stars, moon, clouds, wind and water providing eternal mystery.

Next day, Dec. 20, we left at 0800 and headed back up the Rhone to the Petit Rhone, a short upstream trip of 2 miles. There was little civilization until we reached the St. Gilles lock. This was the only lock which asked if we had our canal permit, and then the lock keeper just took our word for it without looking at it. This was our last lock! This 30 day pass lasted for 3 months, but less than 30 days of actual travel.

Past the lock we were in the Canal du Rhone a Sete, an extension of the Canal du Midi.

We initially thought we would go only as far as Aigues Morte and on to Sete the next day. We knew that our friends on Ambiorix were there, and we would be invited to raft up with them again, but as we seemed to be making good time, we decided to try for Sete itself. There we would put up the mast and a twenty-four hour sail would get us to Barcelona for Christmas.