Barging into the South of France - Page 4

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Frontignan, just east of the great etang, is the one place where schedule does matter because its drawbridge opens just three times daily. Past Frontignan the canal widens heading into the Camargue. Along this stretch are tiny fishing villages perched on spits of land separating the canal from small etangs and flocks of pink flamingoes stalking the reedy shores. The Mediterranean is less than half a mile away in many places, and the occasional historic site rises unexpectedly from the coastal marshes.

One afternoon we climbed to Cathedrale de Maguelonne, a formidable church on a broad hill flanked by vineyards. One would think an old church wouldn't engage kids, but this one had a palpable sense of mystery that drew us all in. Biking down the hill at breakneck speed was also a draw.

From the church we sailed quietly past the wild white horses and black bulls of the Camargue. Behind them the flat green wetlands of the refuge dissolved in the distance, and though the map said this was Provence, it was as unlike the celebrity-studded Cote d'Azure as imaginable.

In Gallician we filled our water tanks (an every-other-day occurrence and about the only maintenance chore), before turning back to the town we fell in love with, Aigues-Mortes.

When we first saw Aigues-Mortes, its 13th-century walls appeared otherworldly, bathed in that peculiarly pale shine of a crescent moon. Inside, medieval and modern co-exist in a real, lived-in way, despite the tourists. On its streets, fruit stands and high-end clothing shops sit beside patisseries and ice cream stands; in one market the heady aroma of herb-roasted chicken and pâté was so heavy in the air it was almost filling. But not as satisfying to our girls as the ooh-la-la French tops they bought. The haute designers must have unexpectedly run out of fabric because one shirt had only the front half and the sleeves of the other were mostly holes.

Aigues-Mortes is classier than Carcassonne, France's more famous canalside medieval town and a must-visit according to travel brochures. We visited Carcassonne, too, and while its towers are impressive, most of us felt it was too touristy (McDonald's is not a medieval eatery).

My son felt otherwise, having found there the souvenirs of his dreams: weapons. "Mom, this is what I've always wanted."

"You've always wanted a working miniature crossbow and a replica antique pistol?" Ignoring my wit, he paid 120 francs, the bulk of his travel allowance, and left, blissfully armed.

Others could probably have sailed farther than we did, maybe as far east as Saint-Gilles or even Arles before returning the boat at Port Cassafières. But we had no regrets about our relaxed pace. We created enough memories for several lifetimes and shared experiences that profoundly altered our view of the world and ourselves. We saw parts of France few U.S. citizens visit and explored towns whose names we'd never heard before mooring in them. Simply put: if you're yearning for the unseen France, take to the water.

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