I confess I’ve always had a fantasy about canal barging in France…gliding slowly alongside sunflowers and vines, biking to local bakeries, lunching at canal-side cafés, and snoozing away balmy afternoons. No more rushing about not appreciating France’s bucolic riches: our family of five travel a mere 157 kilometres in seven days along the Canal du Midi.
We start our journey at the Le Boat Company’s port in Castelnaudary, near Toulouse, where a staffer gives us a 15-minute boat handling class. “Yep, we understand how to go forward, reverse and sideways; sure, we’ll remember how to swivel and jiggle the toilet pump for the requisite flushing into the canal…nope we won’t be swimming there; yes, we see how to fill the water tank and hook up for power. Mais, bien sur, we’ll stick to the speed limit. What is it again…eight kilometers an hour?”
After a full inspection of the 11.5-meter Tango barge boat, we are mightily impressed with its design. Up top there is a large recessed deck with a steering console, table and chairs, and lounging space. Downstairs is a second steering console in a spacious living area with kitchen, fold-down table, and comfortable couches which convert to a double bed. Large windows let in fresh air while a glass door opens onto a small front deck. In the back are two bedrooms each with two single beds. The bathroom facilities consist of a hand-pump toilet and sink in one room and a walk-in shower in the other.
Okay so it isn’t the most pedigreed boat on the canal…there is a definite pecking order starting with lock-length, low peniches with mighty steering wheels and sometimes even mini pools but our traveling home is very civilized, especially with bikes loaded on the back for touring.
I take the wheel and head towards our first lock. Feeling chuffed that I haven’t hit anything yet I hear a polite “ahoy there”. We’ve jumped the queue and, lord blimey, there’s nothing like a traveling Englishman for knowing queue etiquette. I professionally engage my sideways propeller and edge to the side. Then we figure out just what those hammer and picks are for…my barge lackeys jump off and do the requisite tapping and rope tying.
It requires considerable effort to respond to four broom-wielding (informal wall-pusher-offers), rope-holding, self-appointed bosses who yell at cross purposes, “Go right.” “No left.” “Slow down, go sideways.” “Reverse, no I mean cut the motor.” It’s enough to make a captain wear her captain’s hat and give them gruel as rations.
At noon we are tied to a plane tree awaiting lock-lunch break. The French are precise about lunch. They didn’t call this the Canal du Midi…midi meaning midday…for nothing. Locks close promptly between 12:30 and 2pm. Yet it ain’t so bad relaxing in the shade to enjoy goat’s cheese salad with chilled local rose. Daughter number three is feeding the ducks; birds are a twittering; sunflowers are standing to attention in the summer haze.
We begin to admire the locks instead of smashing into them. Flowering oleanders, kitchen gardens and window boxes offer a riot of summer color on peach stucco buildings with mint-green shutters and red-tiled roofs. Each lock or ecluse has a lock keeper who proffers a friendly “bonjour” and enjoys a chat as you sink or rise in front of them. Most do a roaring trade in gelato and ice-cold Orangina; others have enterprising side businesses selling local wines, fruit and vegetables, bread and honey. There’s even a creperie at l’ Ecluse Herminis.
My favorite is l’ Ecluse de l’Aiguille where lock keeper and self-taught sculptor, Joel Barthes, makes whimsical otherworldly creatures and humanoids out of tree trunks and a motley array of metal flotsam, “to keep me company,” he says.
By the end of day one, we have traveled 16 kilometers and navigated 17 locks. As a soft dusk falls and cicadas begin their evening serenade, we head into the pretty little port of Bram, with its canal-side café. As we dine on the deck an orange sun throws crimson rays through leafy filaments.
Next morning we cycle to the market, stocking up on peaches and tomatoes, basil and melons, olives, cheese, cassoulet, and of course, pain au chocolat and baguettes. Daughter number two sneaks into a field to pluck a bunch of sunflowers for our table.
It’s a hot summer’s day but the plane trees rimming the canal offer shade and endless fascination with their repetitive forms and mottled trunks. The paths are dotted with family groups meandering on foot or bike and the occasional Lycra-clad blur. Three hundred years ago, horses trudged these same paths pulling working barges filled with wine.
The story of the Canal du Midi
Way back in the 1600s Pierre-Paul Riquet conceived the idea of a “communications canal to join the two seas”…the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. With the support of the Sun King, Louis XIV, Riquet paid 12,000 workers top wages over 14 years to hand dig 240 kilometers, build 63 locks, 126 bridges, 105 aqueducts, and the world’s first canal tunnel, not to mention planting 45,000 trees to prevent water evaporation, stabilize the banks and provide shade. The canal would be faster and cheaper than the route around Spain where boats were at the mercy of pirates. Until the development of railways, this canal was highway 1. Today it is a UNESCO World-Heritage site.
C’est la vie
Day three we are in the zone. The rope handlers know when to wrap, hold on and pull…when to let go and push. We cruise into the medieval walled city of Carcassonne with its hilltop fortress, tie up and avoid the tourist hordes by exploring the old town on bicycle.
As we meander towards the Mediterranean, the canal weaves through the vineyards of the Languedoc, which supplies much of France’s inexpensive vin du pays.
We stock up at canal-side cellars in the centuries-old wine ports of Trebes and Homps.
Saving the best for last, we survey the landscape from the top of Riquet’s most remarkable engineering feat: the nine-lock Fonserannes staircase by his hometown of Beziers.
But it is the hamlet of Le Somail that best evokes the spirit of the journey with its cafes under the plane trees, picturesque bridge, floating grocery shop, and antiquarian bookstore in an old wine cellar.
Cars and trucks whiz along busy highways just over the horizon, yet life in the slow lane has never looked so good.
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