This article (edited) first appeared in the Sunday Times South Africa on 15 January 2017
Boating about on the Canal du Midi in Southern France
I am now fluent in boat-speak. Where once I didn’t know a cleat from a pleat or a bilge from a bulge, I am acquainted with sailing lingo, all thanks to a barging adventure down the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France.
Barging is a marvellous and increasingly popular way to have a holiday. There is little that beats easing along calm waters through a region rich in medieval history and surrounded by the great outdoors, with whiffs of fermenting grapes punctuating the breeze.
The idea to build a navigable canal linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean was first bandied about by great names like Charlemagne, and in 1516 Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to survey a possible route. But it was Pierre-Paul Riquet from Bèziers who conquered the logistical challenges and got the job done by Royal Edict. Between 1667 and 1681 he engaged a workforce of 12,000 and successfully completed the task that included the construction of 91 oval shaped locks. Winding from Provence to the Pyrenees and down to the border with Spain, the Canal du Midi is the world’s oldest commercial waterway. Meandering under ancient bridges, through tunnels and past impressive aqueducts, it courses through prime wine country with almost 700 000 hectares under vine. The landscape is verdant and lush, dotted with abodes that vary from grand chateaux and villas to humble stone cottages. Back then and to this day, the Canal du Midi is hailed as a feat of superior engineering and creative genius, with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. “It shall be a great work of peace that shall make the name of its creator live on for centuries to come” said King Louis XIV on that day in 1666 when he predicted that the Canal du Midi would survive for posterity.
My journey to the Canal du Midi began with three friends and a four-hour train trip from Paris that ultimately ended at the station in Carcassonne, a town in two parts that consists of La Cité, an imposing fortified citadel on a hilltop, and Bastide Saint Louis, the lower town that’s often overlooked by tourists focused on the Disneyesque castle above. With 52 towers ringed by two concentric walls, narrow cobbled lanes, lists, ramparts and wells, La Cité is, after the Eiffel Tower, the most visited tourist spot in all of France and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a fine example of Roman, Medieval and Gothic architecture on a massive scale. During the summer, the citadel buzzes with the annual Festival de Carcassonne and with concerts in the Theatre de la Cite amphitheatre that was built in 1908.
Our starting point was the boat base in Trèbes, fifteen minutes from Carcassonne by cab. After the mandatory boating 101 at the base, we loaded bicycles on board and pushed off from the dock, puttering down towards the first of eighteen locks along our route. Key in this type of vacation is to travel with a great group of friends who are up for a bout of teamwork when guiding the vessel as it rises and falls through the many midi steps.
The beauty of the Trèbes to Narbonne route is that it is a slow drive. With a mere 53 kilometres to cover in seven days, the pace is perfectly languid and there is ample opportunity to leisurely explore villages and sights along the way. The simplicity of it all is what makes barging so appealing. Schedules are replaced with spontaneity and the most complex decisions involve where to moor, which castle to visit and what to eat and drink and when, with nary a stressful thought. Bread and wine define life in France, so banters be warned – it’s best to just go with the carb flow.
At the end of each day, we would find an idyllic spot to moor, usually beneath a row of old plane trees, 45,000 of which were planted by Riquet. The boat needed to be close enough to do a breakfast cycle to the local boulangerie and far enough away from the nearest village for optimum peace and quiet. As the sun dipped each balmy evening, we’d pop open bottles of local wines and feast on baguettes, charcuterie and cheese and soak up the late autumn atmosphere. One particularly exquisite memory I have is of an early morning cruise through a veil of fine grey mist hovering over the surface of the canal. As the boat cut noiselessly through the water, the sun began to rise and the fog melted away in the warmth of its rays. A truly surreal moment captured for posterity on Instagram.
The canal offers something unique at every turn. Quaint cafes at locks like Puichéric beckon boaters with friendly keepers selling craft beer, wine and local fare. At Aiguille a short distance away, lock keeper Joël Barthès has, since 1992, made quite a name for himself with his quirky sculptures that line the banks, fashioned from iron and wood found in the nearby forest. From Homps, one of the boat bases, we cycled to Olonzac, lured there by the well known weekly market (open Tuesday mornings only) selling irresistible delicacies like home-made pistachio nougat, bright yellow honey sunflower bee honey and aromatic cloudy olive oil. The town is alive with the sounds of accordion music and like elsewhere in the region, the people are very welcoming.
A unique way to tour off deck is in a classic old convertible Citroën 2CV, for hire at a canal town called Paraza in the beautiful Minervois region. Take a scenic 20 kilometre drive to Minerve, said to be one of South France’s most picturesque villages, perched on a rocky outcrop above a deep canyon. Dripping in middle age siege drama, the hamlet boasts its own Michelin star restaurant, Relais Chantovent.
The old harbour of Le Somail warrants a longer stay. It has loads to see like the famous grocery barge and the Le Trouve Tout du Livre bookshop stocked with more than 50,000 books from rare editions to paperbacks, catering to all ages.
Between Le Somail and Argeliers is the Embranchement de la Nouvelle, the junction where boaters can opt to leave the Canal du Midi and sail in a southerly direction towards the Mediterranean along the Canal de la Robine. Narbonnes, the last stop on this particular route, is a spectacular city and is a stunning finale to the trip. The Robine runs right through the town and it’s worth spending a full day here to see as much as possible. From the vast Les Halles produce market, to the Archbishops Palace, the incomplete gothic Cathédrale St-Just, the Donjon Gilles Aycelin with sensational views from atop, and the Roman Horreum, a fascinating underground warehouse. Considering its proximity to Spain and the fact that Narbonne lies within a region that was once part of Catalonia, the Spanish influence is very prevalent throughout Narbonne in the architecture, language, culture and cuisine.
For South Africans feeling the pinch of the Rand against the Euro, hiring a boat on the Canal du Midi offers the opportunity to pool resources and enjoy a stint of recreational boating through one of the most glorious parts of France, if not the world.
This Canal du Midi trip was sponsored by Le Boat SA and the Rail Europe tickets were secured via World Travel.
Le Foat signing out.
Paris accommodation: www.pvalery.com (near the Champs Elysees) – great accommodation, perfect location:
Paris to Carcassonnes: Rail Europe via www.worldtravel.co.za
Boat operator: Le Boat www.leboat.co.za
France Tourism in SA: email@example.com
When to go: April to early October (September is particularly glorious)
What to take: sunblock, mosquito repellent, hat, non-slip deck shoes & gardening gloves for rope handling
Taxi service Carcassonne to Trebes: 0468106142
Precaution: swimming in the canal is not advised
Until next time,