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Allison Doherty - Canal du Midi 2015 Travel Journal and Photos
At Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, I caught the TGV heading to the Mediterranean city of Montpellier. Founded in 985, it is the eighth largest city in France and among a handful of cities in the south without Roman heritage or Greek foundation. Roughly one third of its population attends the University of Montpellier, giving the city an impression of youthfulness. After several days exploring Montpellier’s handsome historic center, I was ready to collect a rental car and head away from a city environment. My plan was to parallel the Canal du Midi whenever possible, with a few other deviations. It was the end of July, quite hot, and I quickly discovered there was no AC in the little car. Navigating out of Montpellier was tricky, with several detours around construction, but eventually I was enroute to Béziers via the old national road paralleling the Autoroute. I explored Loupian, where excavations have revealed remains of a Roman farm villa, including richly colored mosaics which have been re-assembled. The dry air carried the scent of wild thyme and off in the distance, the blue Mediterranean shimmered in the bright light.
Taking the wrong direction at a round-point, I wound up in le Grau d'Agde, the mouth of the Herault River, just below its connection with the Canal du Midi, as it makes its way out to sea. Lucky me! This small fishing village was a welcome change from the ugly modern resorts frequently seen on the Mediterranean. In the evening, musicians performed on a beachfront stage; afterward, an appreciative audience wandered out to the lighthouse at the end of the stone jetty to pay tribute to the day's end. My canal-side hotel was perfectly situated for hopping aboard one of the cruise boats tied-up in front of it. After breakfast, Le Millesime left the dock and headed down the canal toward the calm water of the Mediterranean, which sparkled with morning light. The friendly boat captain, ably assisted by his young son, steered towards L'île de Brescou, an island three miles off the coast. Fort Brescou, a decommissioned seventeenth century fort, last saw use as a military garrison in 1944. When the island’s lighthouse was automated in 1989, the last guard living there returned to the mainland. As we approached Le Cap D'Agde, a big resort town further up the coast, the captain swung the boat around. Cruising up the canal, we saw stately pastel-colored houses, lush tropical flowers and palm trees before returning to the dock. As I drove away from the coast many hours later, the crystalline morning vanished. Beyond Béziers, a confusion of roads branch in different directions, requiring alertness at all round-points. After a few false starts, I found the Oppidum d'Enserune Musée, an ancient hill-town (oppidum) occupied continuously between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD. Below it is the Étang de Montady, a former swamp originally drained in the 13th century. Defined by wedge-shaped fields, Montady’s radial irrigation ditches allow water to flow toward the center of the circular depression, from which it is conveyed by underground pipe into the Canal du Midi.
Appreciative of the cooler temperatures under the shady plane trees, I followed the canal and took pleasure in exploring its numerous villages. Most are set up to accommodate foreign boat travellers and thus have become small global communities, as evidenced in my destination for the evening. Even in the 17th century, Le Somail offered a pleasant resting place for passengers and crew on barges in service between Toulouse and Agde. On either side of the ancient bridge over the canal are B & B’s, a chapel, a bookshop, several cafés, and a permanently moored barge which is a general store. Numerous boats were already tied up in Le Somail’s tiny port area and, at the café next to the bridge, dinner was in full swing. Umbrellas shielded diners from the still-strong sunlight and strings of lights among the trees added a festive touch. Sinking gratefully into a wicker chair at a tiny table, I sipped my first glass of cold rosé, and marveled at this place. Boats slowly motored one at a time under the low, narrow arched bridge and I heard a multitude of languages spoken aboard them. Everyone made an attempt to order in French, sometimes badly, and the good-natured waiters managed to get everyone’s requests sorted. Laughter prevailed, children ran after the ducks on the canal wall, and an easy air of contentment hung over the place.
The next morning, after exploring the rest of Le Somail, I reluctantly bade good-bye to the village and the Belgians, in whose B & B I’d spent the night. I felt at home here and indeed, during my walk, had noticed several artists’ ateliers. But it was time to push on and I drove over the ancient bridge and on into the Lauragais, a broad valley between Toulouse and Carcassone. My first introduction to it had been years ago as an artist-in-residence, my first. Living in the village of Montréal de l’Aude, I had explored the Lauragais frequently, where landscapes had invited walks down one-lane roads between fields of wheat and sunflowers, along the Canal du Midi, and on the narrow streets of small medieval villages. The residency had inspired my process of re-shuffling landscapes and combining details in my mixed media compositions to convey spirit-of-place, and I wanted to return to that which I had so enjoyed on my first visit. My heart beat faster when I saw the Collégiale St Vincent. With its octagonal bell tower, it occupies the highest part of Montréal and is a visible landmark for miles. After a visit to the village, I drove to Fanjeaux, past fields of wheat which were both blonde and amber in color. I re-visited the ancient Occitan cross, still lichen encrusted, which had so enthralled me and become a recognizable symbol in my art work. I walked up the hill to the ancient part of the village where, from its summit, views of the valley were as beautiful as I had remembered. The statue of St Dominic was discernible above orange roof tiles, hay was being baled in a field below, and the drive held inspirational landscapes. I was content.
It was time to make my pilgrimage to Montségur, one of the last Cathar hold-outs prior to their extirpation. Small numbers who escaped other besieged villages sought refuge at this fortress and managed to hold off 10,000 troops in the Siege of Montségur. After a year, though, they surrendered and were burned en masse after refusing to renounce their faith. The dramatic, mountainous fortress site is visible for miles and the road I took climbed ever higher into the hills. The air had cooled considerably by the time I reached the foot of Montségur, and I faced a sheer vertical climb to the fortress. A monument erected in modern day marks the memory of all Cathars who died during the Albigensian Crusade, and required only a hilly walk. Thus satisfied to have paid my respects at this memorial, I stopped in Lavelanet on the way back to explore the Musée du Textile et du Peigne en Corne. The textile and the horn-comb museum presents the two main industrial manufacturing activities of this mountainous region: fabrics woven from carded wool and cow-horn combs for the hair. Located in a former cloth factory, the museum has an interesting collection of machines from all periods. Other excursions included L’Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Lagrasse, a Romanesque Benedictine abbey whose origins date to the 7th century; Mirepoix, which has one of the finest surviving arcaded market squares in France and is bordered by houses dating from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries; and Amphoralis, a protected, archaeological excavation of pottery workshops that made building materials, crockery and wine amphoræ during the 1st to 3rd century AD.
One evening, after making a decision to return to Le Somail, I was meandering down a small road when I noticed clouds of black smoke billowing from somewhere. Unexpectedly around the next bend, I saw a barn on fire and had to quickly pull off the road to avoid colliding with several fire trucks racing to it. Other cars pulled over and we watched from an adjacent field as firemen aimed their hoses in an effort to douse the flames. More trucks arrived and firemen began to hose down the other buildings to prevent the fire from spreading. As the wind shifted, dark smoke advanced in my direction and I thought it best to depart. Shaken, I arrived at Le Somail, was greeted by my Belgian friends and was soon ensconced in the top floor apartment usually reserved for the couple’s son. I enjoyed seeing the mix of rough exposed beams, textured undersides of terra cotta roof tiles, and modern stainless steel appliances. The cooing of pigeons on the roof lulled me to sleep but the next morning, the smell of smoke was in the air. I hoped no one had been hurt in the fire. Returning to Montpellier, I couldn’t resist driving the coastal route. I had to see La Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Auzils, in Gruissan, a wonderfully eclectic chapel containing nautical mementoes, photos and ship models given in thanks by sailors in distress, who had implored the assistance of Heaven and survived their terrors. Accessing the chapel required a steep ascent on a rutted footpath but offered magnificent 180 degree views of the Mediterranean when finally there. I witnessed the tail-end of dragon boat races in Sete, and re-visited La Maguelone, a fragile island linked to a barrier beach, upon which rests the Cathédrale Saint Pierre de Maguelone, established in 1563. It was only an hour or so from Montpellier, but a world away.
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Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
 
Allison Doherty Travel Photos - Canal du Midi, 2015
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