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Day 3 - This is more like it
March 2, 2010                                    Béziers to Capestang                                     13 miles
Bridge at Gourgasse Vielle
Ladder locks at Foncerannes
DNM at Foncerannes locks
I emerged from the Hôtel le Revelois in crisp, clear weather at 9.15 am. It was a day to remember.

With nav made easier by preparation the night before, I navigated out of Béziers' jungle of  roads, canals, rivers and rail lines on to the Canal du Midi in the vicinity of the ladder locks at Foncerannes. The sequence of seven or eight locks are all connected, so that there's no clear sailing between any two. You descend one level and operate the gates to descend again to another level, and so on - and, of course the same going up. The total height is about 70 ft (21 m), which is significant as locks go.

There's also an alternative boat-lifting system right beside the lock ladder, bypassing the locks themselves. It's a chute on which a locomotive-powered lifting vehicle operated. The lifting vehicle straddled the chute, running on tracks up and down the sides of the chute, with a boat slung beneath it over the chute itself. It could carry larger boats than the locks themselves could accommodate - and do the job more quickly and with less usage of water. Old photos exist of the chute in operation, but it's clearly disused today. I read that engineering problems were never quite solved.

A friendly gentleman took my photo here.

Beyond Foncerannes, the canal and its environs become bucolically pastoral. The canal passes through vineyards, and its towpath becomes - to the eager hiker - a juicy country footpath. Trees line the banks with a grace that the French have learned better than anyone. Bridges adorn rather than merely cross the canal.

I passed through Colombiers and Poilhes, two sleepy villages with flowers in pots. They're both places to put on the "must-return-to" list. Relaxing places to visit, and you can arrive by boat and go on to others just like them.

Between Colombiers and Poilhes lies the famous Malpas tunnel, the first canal tunnel. Steve (my Champaign, Illinois hiker friend) and I had discussed which side of the canal the towpath runs. The maps are clear that it enters on one side but continues on the other - not a situation conducive to hiking without also swimming. But that's how it is. Having walked through the tunnel, one must climb some steps to the ground above and cross the canal atop the tunnel, and then descend to the other side. After all, the tunnel was built for boats and not horses or humans. The tunnel itself runs some 200 ft (60 m), and is unlit. One feels quite entombed in there, but at least it is dry. In places the walls and roof are quite unsupported. Today, a rail line runs through the same hill at a lower level than the canal.

The weather was cool, but it felt like autumn. Even the dead leaves had survived the several months since they fell, and scrunched underfoot. The sun was ever-present, which makes the forecast of rain for tomorrow hard to believe. I walked while the going was good, and reached the village of Capestang at about 3.30 pm. There, I wandered the village, and had a slow coffee at a bistro, because my Au Citronnier chambre d'hôtes hosts, Alex and Valérie Bory, weren't due to arrive until 6.30 pm. I had taken so many photographs today that it took at least an hour in the bistro to process them to some semblance of usability - cropping, color adjustments, and the like.

After that, it was sardines-in-a-baguette time on a bench in the main square, attentively watched by a bassett hound and a spaniel who waited for tidbits.

I think I walked about 13 miles (20 km) today. It felt good, almost like I've hit my stride. But conditions were too perfect for it to be a test of anything. Experience tells me that I've hit my stride when the hike takes on a daily tempo like a relaxing march. I've not reached that point yet, but I think I heard distant drums.

I hope that's not the drumbeat of the rain that's forecast for tomorrow.
Malpas looking west
In Malpas tunnel
Malpas looking east
Hilda May
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