Destination: Canal Du Midi, France
Canal Du Midi, France – Travel Report
The Unesco World Heritage-listed Canal Du Midi has held my fascination throughout decades of visiting this beautiful region in Southwest France, so it was wonderful to finally command my own vessel on it. One of the oldest working canals in Europe, it’s part of a 500km waterway connecting the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. It was constructed by a war-weary France in 1681, tired of constantly being blockaded by our pesky British Navy in the Straits of Gibraltar; so King Louis XIV forged a new route to his major seaports of Marseilles, Toulon, Nice and neighbouring ones including the powerful Republic of Genoa.
MUDDLING THROUGH THE MIDI
So, as the Americans say, the Midi was top of my bucket list. I spouted these and other arcane facts to my friends Nora and Meredith as we motored along the oak-shaded banks on our new Horizon canal boat, bound for the town of Béziers. We’d just departed the LeBoat charter company base in Port Cassafieres and been asked to ‘kindly please don't damage’ its new 36ft Horizon five-berth flybridge cruiser. Given the volume of Easter boating traffic, the lowness of the ancient bridges and my average boat handling skills, this was a pledge that inwardly I couldn’t make. But I’d reluctantly signed the disclaimer and had given a 500-euro deposit anyway. No boating qualifications are required but the company tutors you to the amount it deems necessary on an ad hoc basis. The Horizon’s fore and aft Nanni hydraulic thruster-joystick system gave the Le Boat representative the right impression about me when doing the stern-to mooring test, allowing us to motor off with our blunt bow pointing north towards the distant Pyrenees Mountains.
After victualling in a nearby Intermarche (delicious cheeses, organic fruit and veggies) we had left our car to be transferred to our arrival point a week later in Homps. Onboard, the ample lockers and fridge were filled and the gas cooker/oven was primed for our dinner as we came alongside the bank for the night. After bashing in some metal stakes and running our lines, we lounged on the flybridge with glasses of local rosé to watch the sun sink below the rolling hills. Eventually, the cooling air drove us inside. Surrounded by a cacophony of croaks and chirps, a light breeze hissed through the meadow reed beds to gently rock us to sleep.
Motoring into the major town of Béziers next day brought us to its friendly marina, where we handed over a fistful of euros for a snug stern-to berth and the convivial company of fellow bargers. Englishman John Greaves invited me aboard to see his beautifully built vessel, a replica of a traditional working French canal barge. Working barges long since ceased on the Midi but during its golden era — around 1856 — one million people transited annually. Boat-spotting was a very enjoyable part of the trip, so my camera clicked regularly as interesting leeboard sailing yachts with unstepped masts hove into view (or moored liveaboards) caught my eye.
JOUSTING IN THE BIG LOCKS
The following day, the largest lock loomed up for us: the eight-chamber Fonserannes Locks that lifted us 22m over the River Orb during the two hours that we toiled with ropes under the instructions of the lock-keepers. After I’d gingerly squeezed our boat in with the others, fresh water gushed in while my crewmates held bow and stern lines. After that bruising experience for our shiny new topsides I understood why the rental fleet are disparagingly known as ‘bumper boats’. I was glad it wasn’t my own wee yacht. At 1.3m draft, she would have nearly grounded in parts of the Midi, as its working depth is 1.4m. Un-stepping the mast in Bordeaux then motoring south is a popular way for shallower-draft yachts and the numerous English bilge keelers.
Water is rarely a problem on the Midi, as it’s gravity-fed from the Pyrenees Mountains. Their snow-covered peaks loomed ahead of us as we bashed our way north against a growing Mistral wind. Ahead, church spires were often the first indication of a village.
Calling at Argeliers, we wandered through its narrow, cobbled streets and under its medieval arches. On the walls were the Occitan crosses — the symbol of this region that also has its own particular dialects. Both my chums were fluent French-speakers, so were able to help with some of the intricacies of the Occitan dialect in this region — a language once spoken by the ancient Cathars. They and their religion pre-dated the Catholic Church, so they were massacred by the crusaders when they refused to ‘bend the knee’. Those who survived built remote strongholds high in the Pyrenees after their fortress of Carcassone was taken. Climbing to a Cathar stronghold, camouflaged high into Pyrenees cliffs, means you’ve had a good day’s hike. Carcassone requires much less effort, since the canal runs by it. It is the largest medieval castle in France and the second-most popular tourist attraction after the Eiffel Tower, which I’ve found out while barging through the hordes of fellow tourists hell-bent on scaling all of the castle’s 53 towers.
Wine is a major reason to visit this Languedoc region, so I studied Le Boat’s comprehensive pilot book. It noted mileages, lock opening times (they close for lunch) and details of villages. My search for a winery didn’t take long, so we continued on our way at the 8kts speed limit towards Argens. Squeezing our flybridge with only inches to spare on either side (while I ducked below the stone parapet) finally freed us to reach Argens, where we moored under the shadow of its derelict château. The chalky soil of southern France produces the very best rosé wines, so we tried these and other reds and whites in the dank cellar. Around us, large wooden barrels and tall stainless tanks held brews at various stages of completion. Back in Argeliers we’d seen its distillery that made Carthagene (a blend of brandy), Languedoc wines and grape syrup.
A foodie’s delight, the fresh produce from the Languedoc’s rich soil rewards the hungry traveller. One of my favourites, myself being a Scottish Highlander brought up on stews, is the Cassoulet. Named after the town of Castelnaudary on the canal, it’s the place to eat this hearty dish of white beans with pork, Toulouse sausages, duck confit, bacon, onions and carrots, all baked together for a long time until thick and tasty. Another favourite of mine at the Mediterranean end of the canal is found in the port city of Sète, which flourished after the completion of the Canal Du Midi. Sète is known as the Venice of the west because of its myriad canals and waterways, so if you stride around the old port as I enjoy doing you’ll see boulangerie windows filled with pies; the Tielle Sétoise (squid and tomato pie).
We motored the last stretch over fascinating viaducts and enjoyed sweeping vistas across the rolling plains to the foothills of the mighty Pyrenees, while reflecting on a fascinating cruise on the Canal de las Doas Mars; the canal of the two seas as they say in Occitan.
OUR HORIZON 1150 CRUISER FROM DELPHIA
Our Horizon came with two double cabins plus a drop-down saloon berth, so was ideal for the three of us. Onboard comforts included air conditioning, Webasto heating, zoned Fusion hifi, wifi, television and microwave plus a large hot water system. The 1150 S version has two bathrooms instead of one, which is an option that owners may choose. The ownership scheme is for seven years (the 1150 costs #298,000) and gives owners 12 weeks access to equivalent boats through Le Boat’s network.
HORIZON 1150 SPECIFICATIONS
Price: $298,000 approx
Length: 11.5 m
Engine: Nanni N450 50CV (plus twin thrusters)
Berths: 5 in two cabins + saloon
Builder: Delphia Yachts Poland
Charter scheme 7 years with 85,000 Euro guaranteed buy-back (which includes about 12 weeks usage annually across Le Boat’s 30 international bases)
Getting there – major French airports are at Nice and Paris with fast train connections to the west of France. Alternatively there are regional airports at Toulouse, Bordeaux and in the south west at Monpellier.
When to go – ideally late spring or early autumn as the summer is very busy
Car – Le Boat will drive your car to the end of your voyage for pickup.
This story was originally published in issue #508 of Trade-a-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boat news, reviews and travel inspiration.