Barging is a marvellous way to holiday and the Canal du Midi is just about as good as it gets. Meandering through orchards, under bridges and along aqueducts, this ancient canal traverses excellent wine country with 700 000 hectares under vine. The landscape is dotted with quaint, blue-shuttered villages, castles and chateaux.
The Midi is one of the world’s oldest commercial waterways and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Winding its way through southwestern France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, it’s a 17th-century superhighway. Today, its mostly pleasure boats that use the canal to explore this picturesque region on the border with Spain.
I flew from Cape Town to Paris to meet up with three friends. We boarded a TGV train and sped south to Trèbes, where we signed in at the town’s Le Boat harbour. Our comfortable craft had four cabins and a central saloon with kitchen and living area. Bicycles were loaded onto the stern for daily excursions.
First up, we were given a basic course on cruising, docking and how to negotiate the many locks we’d be passing through. I was, alas, nominated skipper. In truth, motoring slowly down a placid canal is as easy as falling off a bicycle. No previous sailing experience is necessary. The key to this kind of holiday is to travel with family or a great group of friends who are game for a bit of teamwork.
Setting off early the next day, we headed east towards the Mediterranean. In no time, we slipped into the rhythm of laid-back cruising through a rural landscape. Much of the time, we found ourselves sailing down endless avenues of plane trees. It’s estimated that, over the centuries, nearly 50 000 of these trees have been planted along the banks.
At the end of each day, we found a place to moor on an idyllic stretch of river. One of us would leap ashore to hammer stakes into the bank and our lines would be secured. Then we’d open a bottle of wine and toast the sunset. Some evenings, we’d cycle to a nearby town and treat ourselves to a restaurant meal, but for the most part we self-catered and ate on board. We prepared simple, hearty meals of pasta, salads and charcuterie.
Sitting on the upper deck after supper, listening to the hooting of an owl, I marvelled at this great canal. Each morning, we’d cycle to the nearest village to buy baguettes, pain au chocolat and cheese. Village markets along the canal sold everything from myriad sausages and huge cheese wheels, to local jams, honey and olive oils of every variety imaginable.
The Tuesday market at Olonzac was a particular delight. There was live accordion music, a lone violinist and a charming small-town buzz. We wandered among stalls heavy with produce, freshly plucked from the land. Our baskets soon brimmed with home-made pistachio nougat, pomegranates, cèpes mushrooms and any number of local delicacies.
The locks were daunting at first. One of our team would be put ashore to chat up the lock-keeper and see to the mooring lines. Then I’d gingerly motor into the lock. Each one is a finely crafted basin of cut stone in the shape of a whale. The hefty barn doors would swing closed behind us and, Jonah-like, the water gushed in, lifting us to the next level. It’s medieval rocket science, and good entertainment once you’ve got the hang of it.
Doing such a slow meander (we covered a mere 53 kilometres in seven days) allows for plenty of opportunities to go exploring. In some cases, this could be achieved on foot or by bicycle; at other times we took taxis and, on one occasion, hired a car.
Our first expedition was to medieval Carcassonne, the second-most-visited tourist attraction in France, after the Eiffel Tower. This magnificent citadel is dominated by 52 towers and ringed by Camelot-like battlements. We wandered the cobbled lanes, climbed the ramparts and visited its Gothic churches with their heavenly stained glass.
Another detour involved hiring a classic, convertible Citroën 2CV in Paraza for the 20-kilometre drive to Minerve. The car was bright red with Marie biscuit wheels and bug eyes. It looked like a cross between a sardine tin and a lawnmower.
Minerve is a handsome settlement, perched on the edge of a rocky promontory, and is imbued with medieval siege history (and even has its own Michelin-star restaurant). There are shops selling armour and swords, while a trebuchet on a nearby hill serves as a reminder of the battles that once raged through these now-peaceful valleys.
The harbour of Le Somail also deserved a longer pause. It had plenty to see (and taste), as well as the marvellous Le Trouve Tout du Livre bookshop, stocked with more than 50 000 books, including everything from paperbacks to rare, first editions.
Our last morning on the canal, cruising from Argeliers to Narbonne, was the most memorable. The Midi had shrouded itself in mist. Our boat coursed a pencil line through dark water. Ghostly barges loomed out of the gloom. As the sun rose, the mist burnt off in vaporous clouds of golden light. The trees, yellow in their autumn livery, bent their boughs overhead.
Next came nine arduous locks in quick succession, before we finally reached Le Boat’s moorings in Narbonne – the end of the line for us. We tied up expertly and stepped ashore with the swagger of old (freshwater) salts.
The cruise completed, our happy band explored Narbonne’s old quarter with its lofty cathedral, archbishop’s palace, Les Halles produce market and Ponte-Vecchio-style bridge over the canal. Then it was time for a farewell dinner: a chance to blow the kitty and go the whole hog, so to speak. Which we did. Needless to say, it was a very merry quartet of South Africans that zigzagged their way back to le boat.
Fly to Paris and take a train from Paris to Carcassonne with Rail Europe.
For train bookings, contact World Travel: Tel: 011-628-2319, www.worldtravel.co.za.
What it costs:
Le Boat offers travel options throughout Europe, including 37 suggested itineraries on the Midi Canal. There’s a handy Le Boat app for downloading which provides extra info on the regions and itinerary options.
Rates for the whole boat (four double cabins) for a seven-night, self-catered voyage such as ours range from R24 345 to R74 318. However, a three-night voyage can cost as little as R10 845.
Tel: 021-200-1838, www.leboat.co.za.