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Posted by: nauticalchronicles | November 14, 2011

TOILET TIPS FOR TRAVEL IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

NAUTICAL CHRONICLES                                       

Toilet Tips For Travel In The South of France

If you don’t already know it…we’re back!  All we can truly suggest is that if you ever have the opportunity to try a trip like this, DO IT!  Our crew agrees (at least on this one thing) that the best way to truly experience any place is with a boat in the water.

Our 1st Mate Debbie’s comment on the bus ride home from the airport after our trip to France pretty well summed it up…”you could write an entire story about just the bathrooms in France”.

Louise & I, with our friends Debbie & Paul, scheduled this trip a year ago.  It included three days in Paris and a week on a 42’ canal boat…a bare-boat cruise on the Canal du Midi in the south of France.  Since we have done bare-boat cruises three times in the British Virgin Islands, we thought we had a pretty good handle on this one.  Well…it certainly was an adventure; a holiday…not so much.

Our trip took us: from Logan Airport to Dublin Ireland to Paris (by plane) to Toulouse (by plane), to Castelnaudary (by bus), to Port Cassafieres (including a side trip to Marseillan near the Mediterranean coast, (all by bare-boat [120 miles+/-]), to Beziers train station (by taxi), back to Paris (by train), to Shannon Ireland (by plane) & back to Logan.  This does not include the various taxis, buses, boats & bicycles we used while on our trip (we recommend the open-top sight-seeing, on-off buses in Paris to make the most of a short, sight-seeing trip in the city).

Three days in Paris is not enough time to see everything you want to see.  We did, however, see most of the main attractions: Notre-Dame de Paris, The Musee du Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees and the Seine. Unfortunately, we missed Monet’s Giverny & the Moulin Rouge.  The food was good, but different (fish come complete with head & eyes as do the shrimp [prawns], escargot come in the shells and are hard, vodka/tonic comes with one ice cube in a short, narrow glass [and is very expensive] and wine is plentiful and cheap; the breads are the best in the world).

  • Compared to driving in Paris, New York City is a piece of cake. Small cars, taxis, buses & motorbikes all compete for the right-of-way; pedestrians are always in peril and have no status what so ever.
  • Luggage is a problem; even rolling luggage.  Too many modes of transportation make moving & storage an issue.  Everything in Paris is SMALL: small hotel rooms, small elevators (or small stairways where there are no elevators), small vehicles, small door openings… small.
  • Language is a barrier, especially in Paris.  Everyone is too busy to try to communicate with you; and many seem to be impatient.  Our limited knowledge of French helped, but not much.  The country-side was much different; very friendly folks, lots of waving, patient…definitely not in a hurry.
  • Getting the check after dinner is a bitch.  Eating dinner is a relaxed affair taking quite a bit of time & several courses.  Apparently, there is only one seating since there is never a rush to get you in and out.  In fact, very rarely could we get the check in a timely manner.  And you can never appear to be in a hurry; you must be relaxed & ask several times…but never appear to be impatient when you ask; otherwise, it will take even longer; stay relaxed.
  • And then there are the bathroom facilities…but we’ll get to that later.

Our flight from Paris to Toulouse was quick, and our stay at the Hotel du Canal in Castelnaudary was delightful.  We lucked out on the weather; had wine and cheeses on the patio overlooking the Canal du Midi where we would be spending the next 7 days & nights on our bare boat.  We also got our first look at the 42’ canal boat…oh boy!

Our rental was through Le Boat which is a sister-company to Moorings which we had chartered through in the BVI’s.  They provide hundreds of boats to cruisers throughout Europe & have literally hundreds of cruising packages available.  We had chosen a one-way trip on the Canal du Midi since it explored wine country as well as old cities, quaint villages, expansive countryside and, eventually, the Mediterranean Sea.  It turned out to be exactly the cruise we were looking for.  Additionally, this trip only included 62 locks that we needed to pass through!

The inspection of our craft, prior to departure, was brief…it only needed to be brief; there is not much to the systems on board or the electronics on board (there are no electronics).  Several times on our trip, we thought we could have used a VHF radio, a GPS, a depth finder, a compass, a generator (all on-board lights, AM/FM radio, pumps are run by battery), an emergency flare gun.  Amenities on board these vessels are meager.  In fact, we were sorely disappointed that the pump-type toilets in the heads did not pump into a holding tank, but pumped directly into the canal; and they didn’t pump all that easily (Paul suggested we use butter on them to help lubricate the pumping action, but it didn’t help Louise at all).  The Le Boat folks were apologetic but indicated that no pump-out facilities were available on the canal making use of the holding tanks impossible.  We did not swim in the Canal du Midi, and we washed our hands after handling the lines.

After disembarking in our newly-acquired craft, we immediately came upon our first four locks.  Paul (our captain on this voyage) maintained the helm as two mates climbed onto the edge of the lock & secured the boat to the cleats.  “Calypso” (our boat’s name) was then lowered 8-10 feet to the next water level, allowing us to continue our journey…to the next lock 200 yards away.  And so it went until nightfall when we put two stakes in the ground along the side of the canal & tied ourselves for the night.

NOTE:  there is no tide & no water movement to speak of in the canal; the boats don’t need much anchorage to stay in place, but we found the best way to tie up was to run lines to the trees which border the canal for hundreds (if not thousands) of miles; you are permitted to tie up anywhere on the canal on either side unless posted otherwise, and rarely is it posted.

Words & photographs do not do justice to the sights, sounds, smells…the senses which are activated while traveling the Canal du Midi in the south of France on a bare-boat charter going, at maximum 7 knots.  We are truly fortunate to be able to enjoy the experience of such a journey, and to have the choice & freedom available to us to do so.  It is easy to see how the French Impressionists were moved to paint as they did.

The banks of the canal are lined with old Sycamore trees, evenly spaced and truly a vision to behold.  Unfortunately, many are now succumbing to a disease requiring them to be taken down.  Also along the bank of each canal is a tow-path from a time when canal boats were pulled along by horse, mule or oxen (we didn’t see any oxen) or hand.  These paths are now used by hikers, joggers and bicyclists as recreational areas (motorized vehicles are not permitted).

There are long stretches of canal which overlook vineyards and open fields. There are also stretches of the canal which penetrate into the backyards of cities, with derelict boats moored to the canal sides right next to large, renovated, expensive canal boats which, in many cases, appear to be homes for the folks aboard.  Most memorable along the canals are the quaint villages we stopped at, usually between noon and early afternoon.  We know this because they are deserted; literally no one is in the street anywhere in these villages from 12:30-1:30.  Do not try to provision your boat during this hour…nothing is open.  It’s like walking in a ghost town with only a few sounds emanating from behind closed doors.

And there are the locks. 

We had over 60 locks to pass through.  We were traveling down-stream for most of our voyage which allows for easier tying up of the lines (we could get out at the edge of the lock, wrap the lines & get back aboard; the up-stream side means that a mate needs to be let out prior to entering the lock to be able to have a line thrown up to them to tie the boat which is now lower in the lock).  We got the hang of it after two or three locks so our crew actions became fairly rote early-on…not so for many of the skippers and crews we were able to watch.  As in most boating activity, it is difficult not to laugh out loud (or be laughed at) while watching such antics; it is fun. There were two exceptional locks: a-six step lock, literally stepping down the side of a hill, and a round lock allowing access from three different canals. Again, though, our crew was up for the challenge.

And there are tunnels and bridges.

The canal goes over several roads and several rivers in its journey.  It was interesting to look down, over the side of the canal and see cars passing below and underneath us, as well as see rivers and streams below us.  There was also a tunnel we needed to navigate through for several hundred yards.  This tunnel, as well as most of the bridges which we passed under, were very low and narrow.  We wondered how many of the vessels we’d seen along the way could pass through these areas since our boat was much smaller and narrower than they were.

The fairest port we visited was in Marseillan.  There is a long stretch of canal which goes toward the Mediterranean just past where our boat was to be returned on our final day.  This stretch of the canal is desolate; the banks of the canal are lined with old, older and derelict boats, some occupied but most not.  The canal empties into a lake which is home to many shellfish beds; caution must be used in crossing this lake to the port of Marseillan. The town and the port were a welcome destination for us as we neared completion of our trip.  We had power hook-ups, water hook-ups, WIFI, showers, hot water and safe dockage for the night, all for 18 Euros…a bargain.  And the Taverne du Port was one of the best restaurants we visited on our trip (and they had, in stock, three different types of Jack Daniels including…Gentleman Jack).

Ah…but what about the toilets, you say. After all, that’s what this story is about. Well; one of the most memorable aspects of our visit to France: Bathroom facilities.  It really is a different culture. 

Near the Eiffel Tower (as in many areas of the city) there are public facilities (green & dome-like), usually marked by the long lines (or queues) of people waiting to use them.   Near Montmartre there is a bunker-type facility which serves as a public rest room. It usually costs something to use these facilities although the cost is minimal; the problem is that you need to have the minimal .50Euro coin with you; if not, too bad.  Also, since I personally did not use these accommodations, I was told by “a friend” that the men’s toilet fixture is not used in the traditionally accepted seated position, but rather requires a semi-standing position (if you can picture such a thing!)  Additionally, rather than urinals, there are “water walls” which you are to just kind of pee against. In the Montmartre facility, there were no seated toilets for men, only women.  There is also a French woman who does not speak English presiding over the women’s side of the restroom; her sole responsibility, in life, is to yell at men who need to sit down (she also monitors payment for the stalls & collects a modest tip for doing so).

All of our hotels had “ok” bathroom facilities; however there are very few shower curtains.  We found it difficult to keep the water inside the tub/shower areas; depending on the shower head (hand-held or fixed) we could create quite a mess.  And then there is the bidet.  In the middle of the night after having had a fair amount of wine (it is France after all), and keeping the lights off so as not to wake the 1st mate, the bidet “senses” to be a toilet…oh well; it was only pee, thank goodness.  The one item we all agreed on though was the quality of toilet tissue in France; it is superb.  Whether purchased & carried with you or found, where possible, in the stalls, it far exceeded our expectations.

The boat and the countryside also presented a new set of circumstances.  The mates used the shower on-board “Calypso” only once, and quickly.  The electric battery water pumps throbbed on and off, causing the water to pulsate hard & soft.  The hot and cold water worked alternately…1st hot & then cold; no mixing valve. Those were the only three showers taken on the boat during our trip (I opted not to follow in their footsteps).  We kept a sharp eye out for other shower facilities since ours were of little value.

The alternative shower facilities varied from unusable due to poor maintenance or disrepair to unquestionably the best we had ever used.  The worst were at the Le Boat basins; the best was a small marina we did not stay at but which allowed us to use the showers for 2 Euros each…a bargain.  One shower which did work was so filthy, the mates could hardly use it but, out of necessity, they did.

And finally…toilet seats.  How is it possible to visit a home port boat basin which has 4 men’s toilets/stalls and 4 women’s toilets/stalls and find that 8 out of 10 don’t have seats? Who has toilets without seats? Are they broken…how do you break a seat?  Were they just not installed?  Some of our crew managed to use the toilets without the seats, but how does this happen?  And this wasn’t limited to this particular boat basin.  Many of the outhouses we used in our travel down the Canal du Midi were equipped with toilets, but sans seats.  Is there a shortage of seats in France?

So here they are: Toilet Tips For Travel In The South Of France

1)      Always carry your own toilet paper.  Purchased in stores it is usually pink, but of a high quality.

2)      Always carry your own toilet seat.  We did not find any for sale which may support the idea that there is a shortage  of them in France.

3)      If the men’s side doesn’t work, use the women’s side; it usually does work and nobody minds.

4)      Be prepared to go for days without a shower or,

5)      Be prepared for cold showers or,

6)      Be prepared for dirty showers.

7)      Practice peeing against things to prepare for the “water walls” (men usually don’t have a problem with this; Paul liked it a lot)

THE BOTTOM LINE

Our Le Boat bare boat excursion through the south of France was a memorable, exceptional & valuable experience.  All of our boating experiences have been adventures, but this one was truly outstanding.  It was nothing like boating in the near-coastal waterways of New England or the bright, blue waters of the BVI’s.  It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But then, as I’ve said before, there is nothing more exciting than doing something for the first time.  And now, like I tell Louise, “We’ll always have Paris”.

 Captain Bob Brown

First Mate Louise

Captain Paul Fougere

First Mate Debbie

the little man

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Responses

  1. Wonderful story, so glad I got to SEE the photos before I read this. Sounds like so much fun. Love you, Betsy

  2. you’ll always have paris!!!! you crack me up, capt bob!!
    another wonderful adventure shared, thanks! martha

  3. Another hilarious installment of the adventures of Nautical Chronicles! Thank you so much! I’m going out to purchase my toilet seat today for my next trip to France.

  4. Great story—

    i guess i won’t be taking carol (aka- the holiday inn is roughing it-)

    how about a BVI story?


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