Retired and on the Move

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Location: BC, Canada

Saturday, December 30, 2006

La Grande Motte

28-29 December

If by now you are wondering whether France has built any towns or villages since the 12th century we will put your mind at ease with a visit to La Grande Motte.

We “discovered” the “Big Mound” during a 44 kilometre bicycle ride from Palavas-Les-Flots along the Sète to Rhone Canal to La Grande Motte and back. It is quite a contrast to be in a town that was conceived in 1965 and built over the next 15 years.

In 1962 then Président Charles de Gaulle decided to give a big push to the development of tourism in the Mediterranean region of France. Canadians “of a certain age” will remember “le grand Charles” as the only head of state ever to be expelled from Canada. It was, of course, M. de Gaulle who on the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville de Montréal declared in his pontificating manner “Vive Montréal! Vive le Québec! … Vive le Québec ---- libre!” In the height of separatiste challenges in Québec, Canada’s Prime Minister, Lester Pearson was not amused by the last of the three Vives, and made it clear that de Gaulle was no longer a welcome guest and le Président left.

Meanwhile the project to expand tourism progressed and the dredging and filling of lakes and canals moved ahead. The town actually sits on 5.7 million cubic meters of silt dredged from Lac Ponant. The architect who won the contract for the design of the town, Jean Balladur, decided on pyramids as the basic design theme partly to reflect the shape of waves, dunes and hills of the area and partly because of his interest in Mexico and its Aztec temples.

The town boasts 8000 permanent residents, thousands of summer visitors, 385 hectares of green space, more than 29,000 trees, 113 hectares of lawns and hedges, more than 20 kilometres of bike and pedestrian trails and a marina that can accommodate about 1400 boats. And it has an excellent Cyber Café – 10 Euros for 2 hours and a welcoming ambience.

The following pictures illustrate how different this town is, from others in our series.

We cheated a bit to get this aerial view - a brochure is always free here, whereas a helicopter cost some serious money. But this gives a good perspective of the overall design and layout of the town plan and its "pyramids".

Notice how warm it is - Marie-Claire is out of her world famous yellow winter coat.

And finally to close ... no pressure Maria but hey Uve here's another Super Maramu for sale.


Canals criss-cross France, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Historically they were the major means of transport, but have been replaced in large part by trucks, and to some extent earlier by trains.

Today they are extensively used by pleasure craft in the warmer months and to some extent for bulk transport. They also make excellent bike and walking trails on what were historically the towpaths. In the south they are typically open all year. The Canal Sete to Rhone is a good example. This self-powered barge is lightly loaded and his bow is high out of the water. To get under the bridge ahead he will power right down so that the bow drops as far as possible.

But then he will have the problem of getting the aft cabin and in particular the car under the bridge because if the bow goes down, the stern comes up.

So once the bow has cleared the bridge, he applies maximum power, as you can see by the large wake he creates as the car passes under the bridge.

All the canals support wildlife and fishing. Traversing hundreds of kilometres of salt lakes and marshes, this canal sees thousands of flamingos and a large population of great blue herons seen here.

This canal takes us to our next destination, La Grande Motte.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Order of Posts

We have had a lot of trouble finding Internet outlets. Along the Med coast, WiFi seems to be non-existent, at least for travellers outside of major hotels. When we do find wired outlets they are quite expensive and often in shabby settings.

The paucity of outlets has made it difficult to do regular postings. So we have just added about 4 postings and corrected a couple of others we were hastily making at one outlet that was going out of business the next day.

The order to read them in, if you want to follow us chronologically is:

Maguelone Cathedral
Friendly French ?

Remember that if you want to review old postings they are at the bottom of the menu under « Archives ». If you want to enlarge pictures to see them in all their glorious detail – left click on the picture – when you are finished click on the Back Button on your browser.


Friendly French?

The French have the unenviable international reputation of not being very warm with strangers and tourists. In general we have found the opposite to be true. While we have a few bad experiences with people in the service industry who didn’t want to give us the time of day, most are friendly, about 25% of the French we have dealt with or met are interested in who we are and where we are from – willing to engage in conversation, and a small percentage are willing to take the extra step to make us feel very welcome.

The gentleman running the municipal campsite in St. Valery-en-Caux was particularly helpful in making sure that all the facilities were shown to us and were in working order. When he saw Marie-Claire’s last name – Rucquoy – which is admittedly unusual, he said that he had a person in the summer with that name and that their motor home had had a breakdown and had to be taken back to Belgium on a car carrier. Of course, this was Marie-Claire’s sister.

Fello "camping caristes" (motorhomers) have been really friendly, always wanting to chat - tugh its is sometimes a challenge for Roger to follow some of the machine-gun French, especially the jokes. They will stand around for hours chatting.

In Cap d’Agde, the young woman in the Tourist Office was very helpful and friendly. When she learned we were Canadians she recounted her experience visiting Quebec with her parents as a teenager and then driving to Ottawa and Timmins and being impressed with the distances one had to travel. Every day that we came back for more information her greetings remained warm and very friendly.

Maybe Cap d’Agde has something in the air, because it was here that we met a very friendly and helpful young woman when we were riding around on our bikes looking for an Internet outlet in a business called Barracuda. We saw a young woman putting her recyclables in community bins and stopped to ask whether she knew the Barracuda and the street we were looking for because we needed the Internet. She showed us which direction to go and that the Barracuda was just up the street, but she didn’t know of any Internet capacity there. We continued down the street and a few minutes later Roger heard her calling to us as she tried to catch up to us. Turning around we rode back and she offered us the use of her computer in her house. Now that’s what we call extending the hand of friendship to strangers. It turns out that she and her husband are sailors and keep their 10 meter boat in Cap d’Agde. Hats off to Dalila and Olivier!!!!! ( They are now following our trip on this blog).


19 – 27 December

Mix an historic fishing village with a modern resort town; add a water tower converted into a revolving restaurant and voilà – Palavas-Les-Flots. Nestled between large but shallow salt water lakes and the Mediterranean, Palavas-Les-Flots boasts a series of canals leading into your choice of several canals to other towns, the salt lakes, or the sea.

The salt lakes support many species of fish, large eels, two types of herons, large flocks of flamingos, many other types of waterfowl and is a major staging area on birds’ migration routes.

On the other side of the village are the Mediterranean and a pleasure vessel harbour for about 1000 vessels. With a depth of 5 meters and two large travel lifts the harbour is definitely functional. In addition much of the inshore fishing fleet is accommodated in the major canal running through the town.

Fresh fish can be purchased every day from the canal docks.

Like most of the coastal towns on the Med, Palavas has numerous summer activities and amusements, including in this case a ski lift surrounded by palm trees. And while it only takes one across the canal it is indeed a chair lift. The small "cranes" in the background are actually lifts to help you do air sommersaults on a trampoline.... Come oooonnnnn down Aydin.

The old village center is a rectangular labyrinth of narrow streets of single family homes and small family run businesses.

The village church played host to Belgian refugees during and after WW I.

Christmas Eve (Le Reveillon) we attended midnight Mass in this packed and beautiful church. For Roger this was a completely new experience. For Marie-Claire it was in many ways a new experience since this was the first time she had ever heard a Mass entirely in French, having grown up with them conducted largely in Latin. While many things remained very familiar and she was still able to recite most of the Catholic Catechism, she was surprised by the much more relaxed atmosphere and the higher level of participation by the parishoners. While it is almost 50 years since she attended Mass she was raised in the Catholic Church by her mother who, as an orphan, grew up in a convent.

For 10 Euros a night we enjoyed a Halte de Camping Cars (literally a motor home stop) beside one of the village's canals, and wrapped around a marina for small craft. While not a campground per se, it had electricity, water, toilets and more or less “hot” showers and an incredible view.

From the canal, boats like this can be in the Mediterranean within 15 minutes, or in the Sete to Rhone Canal in 5 minutes and through this linking to canals throughout Europe – another very interesting and relatively inexpensive way to travel.

Every day at about 1600 a flock of 200 or so flamingos would fill the salt lake behind the canal - a truly incredible sight and sound.

So this is where we spent Christmas 2006 and while we definitely did miss family and friends we had turkey (filets) at home Christmas Eve before Mass, a late and full lunch on the seafront on Christmas Day, and our very own Christmas tree.

A footnote: We did a lot of cycling along the major inter-city canals, and in one of our trips we came across a new version of Marie-Claire’s (almost) favourite car. Click on the picture to see the make.

Will it be in her stocking next Christmas? Merry Christmas to all – and to all a good night.


December 12-13

The walled town of Carcassonne between Toulouse and Montpellier holds 2500 years of history within its scarred towers. The site was first occupied by in the 6th century Before Christ by a Gaullish settlement, followed by an urban center in the Roman period. In the 3rd century AD occasional invasions and attacks resulted in the construction of the town’s fortified walls. By 435 it was a frontier town on the north of the Visigoth Empire. From 725 to 759 it was occupied by the Moors and subsequently passed into the control of the Franks. Its location between Barcelona and Toulouse resulted in its playing an important role in the 11th and 12th centuries, eventually becoming the principal defensive structure on the frontier between France and Aragon (Spain). Since 1997 it has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Imagine travelling in 1215 through the Pyrenees from Barcelona and sighting this in the distance.

This might have been an olive grove below the impressive ramparts as you approach the town.

And as you approach the gate to the town you might be wondering about the welcome you would receive.

If you were allowed to enter the gate to the town a sight like this would greet you.

If it were near Christmas you might even meet Carcassonne’s Père Noël and his servant Pierre with his donkey.

Or you might see this restaurant.

And we thought she was diligently working in the Langley Campus Admissions Office of Kwantlen University, not running a restaurant in a medieval town.

But back to the past. Within the walls of the town are two major structures: the castle to which the inhabitants would retreat in case of attack and the cathedral – their spiritual retreat, except perhaps during the Inquisition.

Once you have gained entry to the walled town, the castle has an entirely separate set of walls and defenses.

The castle was designed to be self-sufficient in water and stores of food.

And the capacity to create enfilading fire on attackers.

Located on a hill the castle and town had commanding views in all directions including the Pyrenees in the distance.

Imagine gazing through these clouded windows near sunset on a winter evening with the temperature outside just a few degrees above freezing and the drafts inside about the same bone chilling level.

It wouldn’t have been much warmer in the cathedral which depended largely on the body heat of the parishioners.

The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse harmoniously combines a Romanesque nave and Gothic transept. The earliest church was built sometime during the 6th century AD. In 925 the bishop transferred the Espicopal See from a church in the surrounding country to this site. It remained a cathedral until 1803 when the See was transferred to a church in the newer lower town.

We have seen Carcassonne's walled town, castle, and cathedral in the summer and now in the winter. The winter is much less crowded, almost deserted, and the town has much less of a commercial feel with many establishments closed for the season. Take your pick. But if you ever pass this way on your travels, take refuge within the walls of Carcassonne.


December 9-10

We finally hit the road for France and the Normandy coast on December 9, 2006. Wanting to stop at Dieppe we made an early start to arrive in time to visit a museum dealing with the ill-fated Canadian raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942. Sometimes described as an ill-conceived concoction of Louis Lord Mountbatten, sometimes as a source of good lessons for D-Day it resulted in a high rate of losses for the attacking Canadians. Although the museum was closed we did find one of the war cemeteries.

Canadian links to Dieppe are remembered in the names of streets.

While this is a small road leading to the cemetery, a main street leading to the center of Dieppe is also named after Canadians. Check out Roger's new look. (You can enlarge any picture by clicking on it.)

Canadians were pinned down at the bottom ofthis cliff and subjected to withering German fire that resulted in such a high casualty rate.

From Dieppe we headed south another 20 km. to St. Valery-en Caux, a small town, typical in many ways of the Normandy coast with an economy based historically and to a limited extent today on the sea.

In North America boaters associate “Jenneau” with luxury sailing vessels, but in France the company is still known for its roots in construction of fishing and other working vessels. Click on the picture and you will see the Jenneau trade name proudly displayed.

The harbour has seen fishing vessels come and go since the 1500’s.

Today the sea focus includes many more pleasure vessels than fishing vessels – might sound familiar to British Columbians who have also seen the preponderance of fishing vessels of the 1950’s and 60’s outnumbered today by pleasure craft.

This house on the waterfront, constructed in 1540 by a rich ship owner, remained in the family’s hands until the late 1900’s and now serves as the town’s tourism office. The construction is typical of Normandy well into the 20th century.

While less common today, thick thatched roofs can still be found in family homes.

While we did enjoy one beautiful, though brisk, day of sun, the weather reverted the next day, 11 December, to the pattern of high winds with rain so we resolved to pursue our dream of warm, sunny days by resorting to the French “autoroutes” to get as quickly as possible to the Mediterranean. They save a lot of time and fuel over the much slower and circuitous “routes nationales”, our normal preference because they allow much greater experience of the culture of the towns through which they pass. But the savings on fuel are counterbalanced by the high tolls on the “autoroutes”. In the end we saved time, lost on culture, and broke even on expenses. In fact we gained a little on expenses by sleeping in the “autroutes aires”, or rest stops.