The last few days have seen us paddling through one of the more southerly points on the route as we came off the canal lateral de Loire and onto the canal du centre, moving out of the Loire valley and away from the river on which we first started almost a month ago. The canal is different from the river but just as interesting with wide expanses of countryside in view, cow after cow on the edges of the canal, and cyclists and tractors passing on the quiet roads. The canal, once an important trade route, is also lined with old industrial areas, mills and grain stores which reach out over the water to load the old boats and reflect the history of the waterway. It's all interesting and new as we glide by in a steady rhythm.
Aside from the sights, the route is also broken up by the many locks we have to pass and with each one we grow in efficiency. Lugging our heavy bags and food barrels up the banks and carrying the canoe out and past the lock takes up a lot of the day and will only increase as we now approach the hillier sections. But it's a chance to get out of the boat, sometimes chat to the lock-keeper, steal apples from the tree without them noticing or, if we're lucky, ask a timely boat if we can ride up in the lock with them... If we're very lucky.
We've camped at the mooring spots where the canal boaters stop, using picnic benches, water supplies and toilet facilities. The people on the water are no longer just fisherman but actual boat users who have advice on what's ahead. We lunched on a picnic bench with an Australian couple who kindly gave us milk, after we said we'd ran out for a few days, showed us some helpful points on the map, and warned us of a coming storm. We've had boaters help us charge our phones on board, plenty more taking photos of us, and a runner who was the most jaw droppingly shocked at our journey yet.
And that warning about a storm wasn't a false one. Day 28, whatever day that was, saw us waking up to heavy rain bouncing off the roof of the tent. We waited for about an hour, pretending we might sit it out, then got the boat in the water and paddled all morning stopping only to race around locks. The rain didn't stop. By lunch we were soaked through and sheltered in a barn where we hung up our waterproofs, dried, changed and ate. Again we waited half an hour or so before canoeing to the evenings end point in Digoin. It's fair to say it was the first day of truly testing weather and it seemed to be a test we stood up to... or rather, sat down and paddled till we dropped.
And now we're here, another day paddled since the rain, in Palinges, a tiny village in the countryside. We're in a campsite by a lake good for swimming and got here through a garden good for breaking into. The only access to the village was through the front garden of houses along the banks and after politely knocking on the door we realised our chosen home was empty. Gate easily unlocked, we took a 17ft canoe and our gear over the wall, up the cobbled steps, through the potted plants, past the garage and onto the road. But, of course it never happened; and on the way back in the morning it won't happen again.
Here we're resting and taking advantage of being in the middle of nowhere. A village with only a post office for our postcards, a restaurant for our steak lunch (an area famous for its steak and didn't disappoint), a bakery for our bread and a bench to chill on and write. Couldn't ask for much more, except a friendly campsite owner who's driving into town for the weekly shop and has space for one more... Food shop done in a massive supermarche, we're stocked for the week ahead.
So a full week learning the ways of the canal and a day in the countryside with good food and nice people. It's not bad right now, not bad at all, perhaps a little muggy but I'll just go swim in this lake, that might do the trick.