01 July 2017

Mysteries Around a Canal Boat - Medieval Laundries, Pagan Crossroads, and Death on the Canal

Living here, on the Canal du Midi, there is time to solve mysteries. I like that.
There are plenty of things we don't understand. Mysteries.

For example - this building, just across the canal from us.

Maggie May is the second boat - the dark blue one.
What in the world is it? A nautical bus stop?

Turns out - when the canal was built, in the 1600's, (!) they provided laundry areas, or "lavoirs" along the way, as a service to the villages.
(The villagers were cranky about the canal taking up so much valuable agricultural space. Plus, they had to help dig the canal, whether they wanted to or not.)
Now, they are used occasionally by local fishermen.

Here's what they might have looked like - back in the day:

Now - every evening, the doves come down to drink unsuspectingly from the lavoir.
 However, there are large fish lurking underwater, waiting for prey.

Suddenly, a fish GRABS the bird as it drinks - and it's gone! Not a feather left!
The first time I saw it, I thought I must have imagined it.
Then - we both saw it.
- No wonder not many ducklings make it.

Then - there are cormorants. They dive smoothly to the bottom - and catch the fish.
They bring it back to the surface, swing it in the air and swallow it - in one gulp.

-Poetic justice in the world of eat-and-be-eaten.

A poor photo of the cormorant eating a LARGE fish.

(I might add - I have NEVER seen anyone else catch a fish here.
In spite of the number of fishermen, complete with all the equipment - boots, gear, chairs and multiple poles. Nary a fish.)

Another mystery:
We  found these round metal disks - on bridges, churches, towers.
Were they a sort of inventory system?

No decent map of France existed until surprisingly recently.
The hinterlands of France (which includes Languedoc, where we are) didn't care much for Paris.
 - If they even knew it existed.

We're in Languedoc-Roussillion. WAY south - on the Mediterranean.

Strangers running around with odd instruments, peering through strange eyepieces - this was bad news. Plague, pestilence, two-headed cows - anything was possible.
The safest thing to do was - kill the mapmaker.
It took decades to complete the map.

Turns out - these round disks are survey markers - and are still there.
Mystery solved. Cool.

The next mystery we found in the engine room of the boat.

Under the floorboards, between the huge engine and the huge generator, there were 2 spiffy looking jerrycans - and a heavy duty dolly. What for?

After we owned the boat for several months, we asked: Where the nearest fuel pumps on the canal?
The answer: There aren't any.
Really? All these boats - and no fuel pumps?
Pretty much - no.

So where do you get fuel?
-At the supermarket gas station.
-With the dolly. And the jerrycans.

The other option is to call a fuel truck. You share 1000 liters with another boat. Or two.
-No wonder you have to get along with your neighbors.

However - the tanks on the boat hold 900 liters (about 240 gallons) of diesel.
I got to thinking - 900 liters of diesel - that's almost $1000 to fill your tank.
-No wonder they do it a bit at a time!

The steps up from our boat to the road. No dolly here.

Then: We got bicycles.

Tour de France, here we come - well, maybe not.
(There are a LOT of bicyclists here, and they take it seriously. Up and down mountains. )

We're just exploring the countryside. Trails along the canals are flat.
(Although we DID go up one pretty good sized mountain, and I cycled all the way to the top. Well, actually, I took a long break or two part way, then cycled up the rest of the second half. A passing Tour de France type saw me and gave me a surprised thumbs-up.)

The winding canals - and the vineyards - provide good trails.

En route, we find odd markers - tree trunks, carved into the shape of crosses.
Stone monuments at corners of fields, with an old iron cross on top.
Even dolmens with crosses.

So what's the story?

Apparently, when Christianity came to France, it wasn't very popular.
Most people were strongly pagan.
The Church used the existing sacred sites - trees, stones, menhirs - where the spirits already lived.
That way, the locals wouldn't destroy the monuments.
Over time, the ancient sites became conveniently "Christianized".

Maybe everyone was happier that way.

And then -- the bikes go back onto the boat.
 - In just the right place - over the propane locker .
And - that's another story - until next time.

And the next mystery.


  1. This is your best article yet. Fascinating! How'd you learn the answers to all these mysteries?

  2. Amazing capture and cool blog! I initially noticed your "cormorant vs fish" shot (a little hard to see, but still!) That looks like a big fish (do you know what kind?) caught and staring down its captor's throat here!

    So does the cormorant really manage to win the battle and gulp that whole thing okay? Does the fish put up a good fight, if eaten does the unlucky prey get swallowed wriggling all the way down as well?!


    1. Yes! the cormorant just swings the fish up into the air, and swallows it whole. Pretty amazing. And the fish is a HUGE catfish!

  3. Just stumbled across this interesting capture again! That must be some hungry bird!

    Still, it seems difficult to me that the bird can deal with this large fish! So the bird was actually able to fit (swallowed alive?!) that whole thing down its long/skinny throat completely somehow?? I have never witnessed an event like this before.

    I feel somewhat perplexed over how it actually happens, wouldn't the fish stand a chance of escaping or even damaging (it’s sharp fins, wriggling, biting, etc.) the bird's throat/stomach if eaten in that condition?!

    It’s hard for me to imagine that the formidable-looking fish (wouldn't the prey also go into a desperate "survival mode" once it realized that it hit the stomach?) doesn't turn around inside the elastic gullet and how the bird can keep down/digest such an object with no issues?

    I don't have much knowledge about these events and am mostly curious, I appreciate any feedback/explanation.
    Sorry for all of the questions, have a good week ;)

  4. I have NO idea how it works! I am certain the birds are VERY surprised.