Follow by Email

Saturday, 5 September 2020

The Hidden Treasure


Imagine what it would be like living in the Middle Ages, the early period. In a town blessed with a formidable natural resource which contributed to its reputation as a significant trading centre.

It all started around the 8th century. This place has history coming out of its ears, and I was dying to visit. I reminded my excursion-averse husband about his promise.

“Come on, Jack, you said we could go.”

“I’m sure I didn’t.”

“Honestly, you did. It’s a beautiful day, perfect for sight-seeing.”

“Alright, alright, but we have to be back mid-afternoon, I still haven’t fixed the tractor.”

After a minor contretemps with SatNav lady, we set off on our two-hour journey. A voyage into the unknown to Saint Antonin Noble Val. A mouthful of a name, but one we would soon realise was fit for purpose.

Our route took us past Montauban, the principal city in our area, through several pretty villages including Caussade. Also known as la cité du chapeau (hat city), straw hat making was their thing. The hatter industry flourished here, peaking in the late 19th century.

Deeper into the countryside, we went. There were none of the gentle fruit-growing landscapes we see in our area. This was big-boys rugged terrain.

“Wow! Jack, quick, look right.”

“I can’t on this bend, obviously.”

“Never mind, you’ll see it in a moment.”

Jack negotiated another tight corner, and there it was again. A slash in the landscape. We had reached the Aveyron Gorge, a natural feature more than 50 kilometres long. Vertical cliffs, some over 500 metres high, towered above the river flowing far below. A vast forest covered the landscape like a verdant duvet, bisected by the limestone fissure. It was an incredible scene.

Blind hairpin bends marked our descent. Jack slammed on the brakes as we were halfway round another.

“What on earth is that man doing in the middle of the road?”

“Blimey, that’s dangerous! He must have been crossing to reach the viewpoint. What a shame we missed it.”

“Bloody hell, we only just missed him. What a ridiculous site for a picnic place.”

“It’s a strategic viewing point, Jack.”

As we descended, the gradient became steeper still. Stone slabs the sizes of houses were stacked into skyscrapers on our left. To our right, we snatched more sightings of the gorge through a blur of scrub and scabby trees. Another tricky bend, and there it was, Saint Antonin Noble Val, a secret town nestling at the confluence of the Aveyron and Bonnette rivers.

The closer we got, the clearer it became that this was no ordinary settlement. Narrow streets guarded by fortification fragments, archaic buildings and stone obelisks, I couldn’t wait to start exploring. There was just one problem. Modern cars and medieval towns aren’t a match made in heaven. Finding somewhere to park was impossible. It didn’t take Jack long to get frustrated.

“We’re going to be driving around in circles all day at this rate. You get out here while I find somewhere to leave the car.”

“Okay, where shall we meet?”

“I’ll find you.”  

I leapt out and walked beneath a massive cathedral-like archway into another world. Just for a moment, I was completely alone on a cobbled way lined either side with medieval buildings. Some looked like homes, others, shops with living quarters above.

Entranced, I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see men appear wearing tunics, and ladies in light robes. After all, it was a hot day. Instead, a cat strolled into view and then a fellow tourist. The spell was broken.

The narrow street was interrupted by openings to intriguing allies. I couldn’t resist a peek. There were balconies, twisty passageways, old and new masonry and planters, which suggested these were folks’ homes. Oh, and another cat.

Back out, and I passed several different shops. Chapeaux and Casquettes, a thumbs-up in support of neighbouring Caussade, was impressive with its frontage buttressed by a massive timber beam. There were épiceries, boulangeries, even a book shop. Did I nip in for a quick browse? Of course!

A magnificent building caught my eye; it seemed somehow grander than the others. Maison Romane is one of the oldest civic buildings in France. Retired from duty now, way back in the 12th century, the Town Hall was used as law courts and base for the governors.

I admired the great tower, solid and dependable against the blue sky. It was a Tuscan-inspired creation by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who knew a thing or two about architecture. Among his major restoration projects, Viollet-le-Duc was renowned for his work on Notre-Dame de Paris and the medieval walls of Carcassonne. It was he who restored this building in the 19th century.

As the way broadened, cafés came into view with residents and visitors enjoying morning coffee in the shade of squashed together buildings. Soft pastel paint, pretty flaky now, was evident on walls, as were the gnarled vines. Wood stanchions, battered shutters and balconies with intricate ironwork designs, I gazed in wonder at them all, as did another cat, who had become my guide.

Ruing my decision not to nag Jack into coming with me, I dragged myself away to explore the market hall. Another imposing building, it dates back to 1840, and it is still fit for purpose.

I love the thought that this hall and the surrounding streets are filled every week on market day with flowers and flavours from the locality. It’s a tradition observed by most towns and villages in our part of France.

I continued, passing more intricate alleys, no cats down those. There were little restaurants snuck discretely behind protective walls, lit by lanterns, and candles on tables, each as charming as the other.

Before turning back, I looked along a narrow street with its immense limestone backdrop. It was so skinny, the roofs of houses almost met across the way.

Reluctantly, I left my feline companion and returned to find Jack relaxing in the shade, suspiciously close to the car.

“I thought you were going to join me?”

“I decided to leave you to it. It’s far more peaceful here.”

“You’ve really missed out. Never mind, though, I grabbed some tourist info. Listen to this.”

“There’s no need.”

“Ah, but I have to tell you, it’s such an interesting place. Oh, and there were cats all over the place.”

“Lord, we’re covered in cats at home, I don’t need to hear about more! Stick to the fascinating facts, please?”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Where to now?”

“Can you take us to the old bridge, please? If I’ve got the right one, it was first mentioned in 1163.”

“That’s old, are you sure it’s still passable?”

“Absolutely. Interestingly, the governors used to levy tolls on it. And talking of wet stuff, believe it or not, the town has several underground canals, some of which provided water for the public baths.”

“That rising damp wouldn’t be much good for rheumatics in the winter. Huh, and I thought the medievals were a mucky lot.”

“Perhaps it was the Roman influence. Anyway, several industries thrived here. Tanneries were established in the 13th century, and provided much of the town’s wealth during the Middle Ages.”

“H’m any idea how many hides were processed?”

“Hang on, yep, 200,000 a year during its heyday. Eventually, the industry declined and was replaced by others, including walnut oil production.”

“Time to put away that tourist blurb and enjoy the view in front of your nose. It’s superb.”

We parked and walked onto the bridge. The studded steeple of a splendid church dominated one side. A cluster of buildings surrounded it, some whose bases were lapped by the Averyon. There were homeowners taking tea on balconies. The scenes were spellbinding.

The other side marked the point where La Bonnette flows by the town, and a river walk, which in ancient times was favoured by the town’s monks. The benign river was a-bob with enthusiasts exploring in canoes and kayaks, the perfect way to enjoy this waterway on a hot day.

Time was against us now, so we returned to the car. Jack took us out on a different route. A skinny one-track road, he pulled off at a rough entrance.

“Here you go, I reckon if we walk down here, we’ll be able to satisfy your passion for panoramas.”

I bet he wished he hadn’t said that. 

In amongst the brush, we discovered a rocky trail. We had no idea whether animals, drovers or even pilgrims had used it, but the rock base was smooth with use.

Now both determined to reach a point where we could catch one last view of this remarkable phenomenon; we trudged on in the heat. Cussing and puffing, we fought through a patch of gorse, and suddenly there it was. The vista was utterly extraordinary.

Those cliffs, ledges, rocks, and forest as far as the eye could see, it felt as though we were on top of the world. We stayed for a while, absorbing the views, enjoying the moment.

“Thanks for this, Jack, it’s been a lovely day.”

“The geology is certainly impressive. I’m not sure I’d like to live in the town today, though, it must be seething with tourists. Well, that’s if they can find it.”

“True! I wouldn’t trade it for our place either, but you must admit it was worth coming. What a fantastic hidden treasure.”



Saturday, 1 August 2020

An Unexpected Adventure

An ancient bastide, the home of a world-famous person, extraordinary architecture, and more. Did I go to visit this? Nope, I was sent there to trace a lost parcel.

We live in an area so remote it takes years for posties to learn where each home is hidden. When one of these experts takes time off, it’s mayhem in the sorting office. Letters get pushed through the wrong slots, and parcels regularly go missing, as did mine.

“Go to Beaumont de Lomagne, Madame ‘aslam,” said our local postmaster.

“Why? It’s a long way from here.”

“You must make a claim for your lost parcel. This is where you do it.”

“So, you don’t think it will be re-delivered?”

“Oh, no, Madame. Anael, your usual facteur, is on paternity leave again. We have the temporary staff to cover while he is away and there have been many problems already. It is definitely our fault. I am sure your parcel will never arrive.”

And that was that.

The following day I drove to Beaumont and found the post office easily enough. Observing the new standard protocol, I waffled through my mask, and the lady hooted back through hers. After a verbal tussle, we worked out what one another was saying.

“You need a compensation claim form, Madame.”

I live in France. This wasn’t a surprise. The lady produced a dangerously complicated-looking document with many spaces. I had a bash at filling them in, quickly got stuck and asked for advice. She got stuck too, and the process ended up as a team-building event with two colleagues brought in to help.

I left the post office feeling a mixture of mental exhaustion and relief. It then occurred to me that having come all this way, I might as well have a potter, and why not? The weather might have been glum, but I was in a place of great historical significance. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The bastide town was created between 1276 and 1279 following a feudal treaty between the abbey of Granselve and the king of France Philippe III le Hardi (the Bold). Today, there is an air of tired crustiness about the place, but therein lies part of its charm.

As with many ancient towns, the market hall is a centrepiece, and this one is a favourite of mine. It was a quiet day, which allowed me to have a proper look.

Although planned from the original 13th century bastide foundations, it was not built until the 14th century. It became the focal point for the weekly market on Saturday mornings and still is. Silly though it sounds, I love having bought goods on the same site used by folks in medieval times.

I looked up. Talk about a wow factor. The immensely complex oak frame of this square building always fascinates me. 

No wonder it needed 38 posts to support it. Each of these rests on a stone plinth set at a different level to compensate for the slope. As I was soon to realise, Beaumont is town suited to those with mountain goat tendencies.

I paused to read an information panel. The base I was walking on was paved with differently coloured pebbles. It had been sympathetically restored. In total, about 370,000 stones were placed manually to recreate the original base. The work took a year to complete. Imagine that!

The hall is sheltered on two sides by arcades. Faded yet splendid, cafés, fruit sellers, pharmacies and pâtisseries, all the essentials are represented here. Ahead, on the incline was the Mairie. Pride of place as usual, with plaques of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité emblazoned across the front wall. The town hall looked magnificent.

 As I strolled past, I admired the unusual attractive additions to civic floral decorations. Metal music clefs, notes and instruments sprouted out of plant pots, all celebrating la Fête de la Musique which had recently taken place, as had the Fête de l’Ail blanc de Lomagne, albeit in a tiny form this year because of COVID-19.

Traditionally, the garlic fête takes place at the end of July, after harvesting and drying the yield. Over 15,000 devotees flock to this annual festival, keen to immerse themselves in a packed programme bursting with garlic-related festivities.

A wide selection of local produce is offered during the fête, but nothing can compare with the star of the show. An estimated three tonnes of garlic are sold every year. One of the main attractions is the hotly contested garlic-peeling challenge, the very thought of which made my eyes water. Yes, despite its sleepy appearances, Beaumont is a happening place.

Keen to learn more about the town, I headed uphill towards the tourist information centre. En route, a magnificent bronze statue caught my eye. It was Pierre de Fermat. But just who was he?

Pierre de Fermat (Beaumont de Lomagne 1601 – Castres 1665) was possibly the most productive mathematician of his era.  He is considered to be one of the fathers of analytic geometry, along with René Descartes. He, in collaboration with Blaise Pascal, was also one of the founders of probability theory.

Maths fans will be aware that Fermat's most important work was done in the development of modern number theory, a favourite subject of his. He is best remembered for Fermat’s Last Theorem. I don’t profess to understand it, but for those of you who do, here is the link.

My mind bristling with unfathomable theories, I headed into the tourist information centre. Unsurprisingly, it was based in the quadrangle of another magnificent mansion, which appeared to be part of Fermat’s old home.

A masked-muffled exchange took place between the girl behind the counter and me. Now hopelessly inspired by the history and determined to share my photos with you, I asked for further information about the town. Her eyes lit up.

“Here you are, Madame,” she said, thrusting a wad of leaflets in my hand.

“Lovely, thank you.”

“You are welcome, and I can show you a 360 degree view of the town. You must see this, come with me.”

Intrigued, I dutifully followed the girl out through the quad, down several steps and along a dark passage. Just as I was beginning to think something had got horribly lost between the folds of my mask, she abruptly stopped.

“Here,” she said, plunging an enormous key into an archaic lock. A clunk released the internals, and the door swung open. “Take these stairs,” she said, pointing at a stone spiral staircase, “at the top, you will see the view. Please close the door when you return.”

And with that, she left.

So, there I was, down a shadowy passage looking at a set of medieval steps. Not exactly The Raiders of the Lost Arc, but I did feel slightly intrepid. I started climbing the stairs. Up and up I went.

And up and up.

Still going up, I paused to take a photo of an extremely short person’s door, but I was kidding myself. I was trying to catch my breath.

Inexorably up, and finally, there was light – a skinny flight of steps which I presumed led to the top.

Thigh muscles screaming, I finally made it. Two thoughts occurred to me. This was very likely to have been where Fermat’s theory of probability was hatched. That being the probability of the stair climber having a heart attack before reaching the top. Secondly, the brilliance of the suggestion made by the lady, who had wisely decided not to accompany me. Mind you, those views were fantastic.

I grabbed my camera and started clicking. A bastide town built on hills, I could see it all, and the gorgeous Gers countryside in the distance. Another half turn and a mass of geometric roofs lay before me. The pic could make a terrific jigsaw puzzle.

Another turn afforded a stunning view of a new focal point – the massively imposing red brick church, what a remarkable building that was.

After another few turns, it was time to retrace my steps. For someone who spends hours and hours rambling with dogs, I was surprised how wobbly my legs felt by the time I reached ground level. Extreme stair climbing evidently requires the use of niche muscle groups.

Still puffing, I returned to the tourist office to thank the girl for her help. I was about to stagger out when she had another bright idea.

“But have you seen inside l’eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption yet?”

“The church? No,” I gasped.

“You must! It’s around the corner and up the hill.”

“Yes, I did see it. Oh, another hill?”

“Yes, you can’t miss it.”

The French are a forthright lot.

But she was right. It was such an imposing building I couldn’t leave without at least having a peek. I’m so glad I did.

Building work on the catholic church began in 1280. Withstanding wars, famines, religious struggles and storms, like many buildings of its age it suffered. Restoration work has been almost continuous throughout its history, the aim always to maintain the magnificence of the construction.

There wasn’t another soul about as I walked down the bevelled flag stoned aisle. It was dimly lit, but I could still see how magnificent the alter was, as were the side chapels. I paused to admire each one – some extravagant, others unassuming.

I looked up at the vaulted ceiling way above. It was contrastingly simple. Tranquil. Yes, the wear and tear were apparent, but it couldn’t detract from the inherent beauty of the architecture. The purity of lines and arches were intensely appealing.

I turned back to face the doorway. Above, was a magnificent organ, one day I would love to hear that played. I could easily have spent much longer enjoying the serenity and artefacts, but time was against me.

I headed back downhill over the cobbled streets, passing crumbly shutters, massive oak doors and truly outstanding buildings. It had been a wonderfully unexpected adventure, one to remember. Oh, and did my parcel ever turn up? No, of course not!

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Guest Blog - Kathryn Occhipinti

I have great pleasure in introducing you to my friend, Kathryn Occhipinti, an incredibly talented lady. Kathryn works as a doctor of radiology in Chicago. She is multilingual and has used her skills to write language books.

Kathryn's vision to develop an easy method to learn Italian was realised in the publication of Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases. With the help of Nada Sneige Fulihan, a French teacher in the US, she has used the same formula with French. Conversational French for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases was published last year - and I think it's a terrific guide. 

When Kathryn is not treating patients and writing books, she loves to cook. Today I have asked her to share a recipe I'm dying to try. Once you've read her account, I'm pretty sure you will too.

First, before all else, a huge “Mille mercis!” to Beth for letting me share her blogging space. We “met” through Twitter, where I discovered her “Fat Dogs and French Estates” series and quickly became a huge fan. As I’m sure the readers of this blog know, Beth’s wit and perspective, along with a touch of exaggeration, yields hilarious results. I laughed out loud while reading every chapter and can honestly say it was the most enjoyable book I have read in years.

With the above in mind, I was thrilled when Beth asked me to share a favorite French recipe for her blog. When my children were young, I decided I would do my best to be a good home cook. I had already learned classic Italian dishes from my mother. But, I turned to French methods to find out how to make “the best” omelette, roast chicken, beef stew, and vegetables (vegetables that my children would actually want to eat). To my surprise, I found that the “best” method was often not as time-consuming or difficult as I had imagined it would be.

Take a French classic, for instance, like Roast Duck a l’Orange. The name conjures up a stern male chef dressed in a perfectly starched, white uniform with a very tall chef’s hat standing in the middle of a gleaming kitchen and barking orders to his staff. A dish for special occasions to be enjoyed in a white-tablecloth restaurant.

Over the years, I have come across a simple method to make roast duck in a casserole pot, originally from Julia Child, I am not ashamed to admit. Cooking duck in a casserole, “à la poêle” stir-fried on the stove-top and then finished in the oven is a simple, classic method and has certainly been a mainstay for me for many years now. It can be served simply, with a gravy made from deglazing the pan with wine, and the addition of potatoes for the presentation.

For this past New Year’s Day family dinner, I browned my duck and tucked it into its pot, and while it was roasting (it really needs virtually no attention at all with this method, trust me), I decided to make a cherry sauce with the extra time on my hands. (I didn’t have any oranges on hand but I did have dried Montmorency cherries, and cherry sauce is a favorite.) The cherry sauce did take up some time and a bit of effort, but was well worth both in my opinion. A few boiled potatoes for garnish and “Viola!” we had a special New Year’s Day dinner that was “enjoyed by all.”

I have a short video clip that I took with my phone propped up by the stove and a time-lapse photography App. Not professionally done, of course, but it gives one the idea of how making the dish should go. I am delighted to be able share my recipe and short video today. For more of my practical French cooking, please visit me on Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french or on my Facebook page, Stella Lucente French.  Bon appétit!

Casserole Roasted Duck 
(Caneton Poêle)


Le Creuset Casserole Pot (Size: 7 ¼ lbs. or 6.7L) 
1 whole duckling, about 5-6 lbs.
4 Tb. Bacon Fat or 2 Tb. olive oil and 2 Tb. butter
Herbs: Tie together fresh parsley, sprigs of thyme, bay leaf
*Optional: Par-boiled turnips


Preheat oven 325° with shelf on the lower middle rack.

Prepare the Duck:

Prick the skin of the duck all over (so the fat will render more easily). Clip the wings and reserve tips.
Tie the legs together so they rest above the cavity with a bit of kitchen twine. (Truss the duck. If you need help with this, check out this simple video by
Jacques Pépin.)

Brown the Duck:

  • Melt the bacon fat or heat the olive oil/butter in the casserole pot.
  • Add the duck on its back. Then turn onto each side for a minute or two with two large spoons, until it has lightly browned on all sides.
  • Remove duck and pour out browning fat.
  • Sprinkle duck with salt and pepper and return to pot, breast side up.
  • Place the herbs tied in twine or in cheesecloth over the duck breast.
  • Reheat on stovetop briefly until duck is sizzling.

Cook the Duck in the Oven:

  • Cover the casserole pot and cook the duck in the preheated oven until done. No need to baste!
  • Estimated cooking time 1 hour and 30-40 minutes. The duck will not brown further, but should maintain its shape nicely. Always test if the duck has cooked through by making a small incision between the thigh and body. Juices should be from light pink to clear yellow.
  • Remove duck from pot to deglaze pot.
  • Return duck to pot to keep warm in oven under low heat while finishing sauce.
To serve: remove trussing from duck and set on platter. Cover in a bit of sauce and top with cherries.

*Optional: Remove roasting fat after 60 minutes and add good French yellow turnips that have been peeled, diced, and par boiled in salted water for 5 minutes for a traditional French accompaniment. In this case, you will need to baste the turnips occasionally as they cook. 

Montmorency Cherry Sauce

*Note: You will need to prepare the duck stock and cherries before making the brown sauce base. Then, right after the duck has finished cooking, deglaze the casserole pot and finish the sauce.

Prepare the duck stock:

Put 2-3 Tb. of butter into a small pot and brown wingtips, neck and gizzards of duck, 1 small onion sliced, 1 carrot chopped. Add fresh parsley and thyme and a small piece of bay leaf and enough chicken stock to cover. Should reduce to 2 cups duck stock after 2 hours.

Prepare cherries:

For 7 oz. package. unsweetened, dried Montmorency Cherries: Partially reconstitute in water about 1 hour. For traditional sauce, use fresh or frozen cherries. Then add 1 Tb. lemon juice, 3 Tb. port wine, and 5 Tb. sugar and let soak for 30 minutes or more. (The entire package of cherries will provide extra cherries to pass around along with the gravy.)

How to Make the sauce

Prepare the brown sauce base:

Dissolve 2 Tb. arrowroot or cornstarch into 3 Tb. port and set aside. Put into a 4 cup saucepan: 3 Tb. sugar and ¼ cup red wine vinegar. Boil over moderately high heat until a brown syrup forms. Pour in ½ cup of duck stock and after it has dissolved, the remainder of the stock (2 cups total). Then add the starch/port mixture. Cook over medium heat until sauce is simmering and has thickened.

Deglaze the casserole pot and add to the sauce base:

When the duck has finished cooking, pour off as much fat from casserole pan as possible. Add ½ cup port and boil, scraping up any roasting juices and bits to deglaze until you have about ¼ cup. left. Add to the sauce base.

Add the cherries and finish the sauce:

Add the prepared cherries to the sauce and heat briefly. If using fresh cherries, heating too long will cause them to shrivel, but this is not a concern with dried cherries. Remove cherries and spread over the plated duck.

Finish sauce by boiling briefly to thicken. Add salt and pinch of pepper to taste. Off heat, add additional 2 Tb. of butter.

Pour a bit of the sauce over the duck and put the rest into a gravy bowl and serve along with the remaining cherries.

*Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume One)” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, Updated edition, 1983.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

The Canal, the History and the Stinky Discovery

My sister, Di, had found a new favourite walk and she was dying to share it with me.

“D’you fancy going for a dog trek along the canal?”

“Absolutely, I’ll pick you and Sprite up later.”

Sprite, Di’s Jack Russell is best pals with our Aussies, Aby and Max. What he lacks in stature he certainly makes up for in personality, he’s a wonderful lad. Much to my sister’s disgust, it was my mutts who taught him the deafening pre-walk howl routine. He now embraces it every time he sets paw in a car.

Off we went, dogs bursting with excitement, crossing Le Pont de Coudol. Built in 1850, it is an elegant bridge spanning the River Garonne. If you know North Wales, it looks like a mini version of the Menai suspension bridge.

Careful driving is required here as it is ultra-slim. Passing another vehicle coming from the opposite direction is apt to be precarious. It’s one of those moments when, mid-pass, one takes an involuntary sharp intake of breath.

We made it unscathed and followed the road snaking alongside the Canal du Midi to our start point. The famed waterway is sandwiched here between asphalt and the River Garonne. The river, vast in comparison, flows lazily on the other side, on its way to meet the River Tarn where they converge at the ancient abbey town, Moissac.

Moissac is another favourite haunt of ours. Not least because of its charming cobbled streets, the arty shops and to die for cafés. The abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a splendid Romanesque door with a wow-factor all of its own. And the 11th-century cloister is famous for its 76 capitals with biblical carvings. It is a place worth visiting.

We parked next to a lock gate and set off along the towpath lined with majestic plane trees. Not just lookers, they were planted so their roots could reinforce the banks, and their foliage affords welcome shade from the hot summer sun.

“I suppose you know what you’re walking on?” said Di, looking supremely self-satisfied.

“A path?”

“Ah hah! But this isn’t any old path. It’s been used by pilgrims for hundreds of years.”

“Really? Which ones?”

“This is a section of the catholic pilgrimage Route de Compostelle. It’s also known as the Camino Way. The destination is the legendary tomb of the apostle Saint James the Great. It’s in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there.”

“Wow, imagine that!”

“Yep, I knew you’d be impressed. There’s a network of routes in Europe leading to the shrine. For many people, they are considered a spiritual path or retreat for spiritual growth.”

I studied the path, which had assumed a new significance.

Dring dring!

I turned just in time to avoid being run down by an approaching cyclist. Max was keen to go for the ruby tackle, but I didn’t fancy his chances against those whirring spokes. I hung onto the dogs and stood back.

Bonjour et merci!” cried the pink Lycra-clad fellow as he zoomed past.

“Blimey, that was a close one!” I gasped.

“I forgot to mention that. The towpath can be very popular with cyclists too.”

With not another soul in sight, we continued our amble along this tranquil stretch of water. Just in case you’re not familiar with it, the Canal du Midi is a major link in the inland waterway system from the Atlantic Ocean Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.

It was built in the 17th century at a time when France was the centre of civil engineering excellence. The canal at 241 km (150 miles) long was Europe’s first long-distance canal. It connects Toulouse, using water from an artificial reservoir built in the Black Mountains, with the Mediterranean at Sète via the Thau Lagoon.  

We watched beautiful barges putt-putting past on their way to Moissac.

“Now that’s a great idea for a holiday,” I said. “Just think how much fun the dogs would have lolloping on and off for a swim.”

“True. Well, it is the most popular canal in France for leisure boating. Not sure I’d fancy opening all those lock gates, though.”

“Good point. I wonder how many there are?”

“I’m so glad you asked!”

“You’re looking smug again.”

With a grin, Di produced a well-thumbed handbook.

“Ooh, you sneak, you’ve got a guidebook! No wonder you know so much. Go on, then, tell me.”

“Hang on. Ah, yes, it has 91 working locks, although there used to be more. Oh, and it’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

“Huh, we’re bristling with them here. I don’t know much about it, but I’m pretty sure there’s a canal tunnel somewhere. See if that’s mentioned.”

“One moment please,” she said, flicking through the pages. “It is! At the time, it was the world’s first. The Malpas tunnel was 165 metres (541 feet) long and 7.4 metres (24 feet) wide. And it was 5.85 metres (19 feet) above the water level.”

“Gosh. Uh oh, dog problem!”

Aby and Sprite, partners in crime when it comes to digging, had started excavating something that looked suspiciously like a ragondin (coypu) nest. Stopping a dedicated Australian Shepherd digger is hard, but have you ever tried to stop a Jack Russell doing anything it wants to do? It’s nigh on impossible!

Ragondin look a bit like beavers. Mature adults are a similar size to Sprite. They have enormous orange teeth which can be used to great effect when threatened. It’s something Sprite doesn’t seem to have realised yet. Rapid action was required.

I yelled at Aby while Di dashed over and grabbed an indignant Sprite. By this time he was halfway down the hole so took a bit of hauling. But we were a dog down.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “where’s Max?”

I gave him a call. Strangely, he appeared from under the bridge we had just passed. And he was looking incredibly proud. He trotted up to Di first.

“Oh my God, Beth, do something!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Max, he’s covered.”

“In what?”

“I don’t know, but it stinks.”

“Go on, Maxy, give Di a big kiss!”

“I’m warning you, Beth, this is toxic!”

“Okay, okay.”

She was right. Some dogs love rolling in carrion, others fox poo, but not Max. However, he had evidently found this substance irresistible. So much so, he had wallowed in it and savoured its dubious delights. We were on a public footpath. It could have been badger poop, it could have been a different type of deposit altogether. Neither of us could bear to think about that. The fact was, Max reeked.   

“Right, Max, it’s no good. You’ll have to go into the water.”

Luckily, Max is a devoted water dog so getting him in wasn’t a problem. One belly flop later, and he was happily splashing around. The challenge was getting him out again. We had now reached a point in the canal where the sides were sheer.

There was nothing for it. We had to haul him out. And, of course, what was the very first thing he did? Joyously shake all over us.

“Argh! Beth, he’s shaking muck all over us!”

Poo! and he still smells. Sorry, take your mind off it by telling me more about the canal.”

“I doubt that’ll help, but alright,” she said, reaching for the guide. “Listen to this! The canal also had to pass a steep rocky slope at Pechlaurier. Pierre-Paul Riquet, the canal builder in charge, commissioned the use of gunpowder, which was possibly the first use of explosives for civil engineering. At one time 12,000 people were working under his command.”

“Wow, what a huge undertaking.”

“Yes, and it took its toll. Apparently, there were huge problems associated with building the canal. Despite these, Riquet pushed ahead with construction, though it affected his health. He died eight months before it was opened in May 1681.”

“After all that work, how awful!”

“I know. Oh my God, so is that pong coming from Max. See if you can get those bits of sludge out of his ruff.”

“You do realise what they probably are, don’t you?”


“In that case, you’ll understand why I’m not going to touch it!”

“Well, he is your dog. Huh! Anyway, following Riquet’s death, his sons, together with the French engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, continued work on improving the canal. By 1692 these improvements had been completed, and travellers from around the world came to examine the canal. Although it was successful financially, the canal never carried ships from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. So there you have it, a potted history of the Canal du Midi.”

Dring, dring!

Au revoir, monsieur!” we yodelled at our pink cyclist on his return journey.

“You’d make a great tour guide, Di. Aside from being run down by a cyclist and dealing with a stinky mutt, this has been terrific.”

“I’d rather deal with a cyclist than the shower you’re going to have to give Max when you get back. He still pongs! It is lovely, here though, isn’t it?”

As we rounded another bend, we paused to watch a canal user struggling with his manoeuvres.

“Absolutely. It looks as though someone else is having a great time too. I wonder how many bottles of wine they consumed over lunch?”

We left them chugging around in circles and turned for home. Our footfalls still soft on that well-worn path, new views of graceful boughs brushing the water and those magnificent lock gates. It had been a truly lovely walk, with one exception.

“Beth, open the car windows, please, I can’t stand that stink!”