Sunshine & Shadows in the South of France
Boats of all types & sizes ply the placid waters of the Canal du Midi.
Minervois Cruisers hire base at Le Somail, a village renowned for it's boating associations
The great thing about planning a boating trip on southern France's Canal du Midi (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is that it's relatively easy to get to from the UK, thanks to Ryanair, which flies to the fabled medieval canal-side city of Carcassonne.
Accompanying me on this canals and rivers 10-day adventure was my photographer and real life partner, Sarah, and our little boy: an adventurous 18-month toddler named Louis. Our plan was to leisurely traverse the eastern end of the Canal (which largely falls within an area of lush wine-growing countryside called the Minervois), courtesy of the suitably named Minervois Cruisers.
The only operator of English-style narrow boats on the Canal Minervois Cruisers are based at Le Somail, a village renowned for its boating associations.
Luckily, for families like ours who cannot risk being on a boat 100% of the time (due to the constraints of having to rein in an active and danger-prone toddler) Minervois Cruisers have a solution. Through a neat concept called the 'Midi Experience', they can offer people the best of all worlds: a gîte and a boat, where clients spend half their holiday on the water, but the other half on land. Therefore, we were able to do as much boating and exploring of the Canal as Louis would allow, but had the advantage of a base very much on terra firma to which we could happily retreat.
The back view (and pool) of Constantia - The gîte belonging to Minervois Cruisers.
The superb lounge at Constantia - plenty of space for the holidaying family.
And what a base! The gîte, called Constantia, is a lovely Mediterranean-style spacious 2 double bedroomed spread - with a large and eminently comfortable split-level reception room that leads out onto a big sunny terrace with spectacular poolside views over the neighbouring vineyards, which stretch invitingly as far as the eye can see! Minervois Cruisers have their own eminently helpful team on-site called Emily and Tony, a charming 30-something couple who were relaxed efficiency personified.
The very next morning after arriving, we got our first taste of idyllic southern French canal-side life, Le Somail style. In urgent need of some breakfast, we headed out of our gîte and over the famous and rather historic medieval bridge that joins both sides of Le Somail's canal spectrum. We had a very specific destination in mind: the floating épicerie (Grocers) called Tamata. The regional culinary goodies on board are a feast for the eyes, and we made off back to our gîte with an assortment of croissants, bread, tea/coffee and pot of rich local honey.
After breakfast we jumped in our hire car and headed off to Narbonne, a charmingly characterful, large old town on the banks of the River Aude; and only a short drive onwards to the Mediterranean Sea at Narbonne Plage.
The Narbonnians have celebrated their proximity to the Aude with a magnificent riverside promenade, and after working up an appetite marching Louis up-and-down the length and breadth of it, we headed for the town's purpose-built indoor market. Bursting with tantalising fresh produce from this part of the Languedoc, Narbonne market also surpasses itself with its range of fruits de mer. So fish found its way into our shopping basked along with vegetables, fruit and cheeses. And we celebrated our catch with lunch at the excellent restaurant next door to the market.
Then it was back for a siesta to Le Somail and our gîte, which was to become a home from home. The name Narbonne would play quite a part in our lives over the next 10 days, because the vessel that Minervois Cruisers put at our disposal was one of their new class of attractive, wide-beam steel cruisers, called, you've guessed it: the Narbonne.
Boasting a wealth of features, including beautifully fitted out accommodation (consisting of master cabin with en-suite bathroom, another 3 high-spec cabins, not to mention fresh water electric flush toilets, sprung mattresses on all double berths, and a roof area perfect for sunbathing), this was one spacious floating vessel. But there are a number of other features that merit mention, not least the clever relocation of the wheel steering position to the roof above the saloon, providing a boat with total outside seating for the whole crew.
Having got well-kitted out on the food and vitals front, we thought another day or two to get used to our canal-side environment would not go amiss. We succumbed to the lazy Sunday morning syndrome and, after a leisurely breakfast on the lovely sun-dappled veranda of our gîte, we explored part of the canal nearest to us.
The Canal du Midi is flanked by very handsome trees, some dating back 300 years. Everything was eminently peaceful and the people we did see on their boats waved out with that friendly touch of continental bonhomie. The further we got from Le Somail, the less the boats that were moored were of the typical tourist river cruisers type. In fact there was a fair sprinkling of old-style Dutch barges.
The canalside Château de Ventenac-en-Minervois
Béziers - One of the famous eight locks at Fonsérannes
Every so often cyclists would ride past on the gloriously flat canal-side track. We caught sight of a little motorboat with a man operating the motor whilst his dog stood on the stern merrily wagging his tail.
With lunchtime fast approaching, we promenaded slowly back to Le Somail, stopping for lots of photo opportunities.
Lunch is a serious affair in France (particularly Sunday lunch) and we headed for the wonderfully unpretentious, canal-side Le Comptoir Nature; a laid-back country style restaurant and cafe. Sarah had a lamb lunch whilst I had a plate of tasty white fish called Gunard that was served with sweet peppers; all washed down with a glass of lovely Rosé.
Feeling replete, we walked a few metres along the canal to show little Louis a pair of very bold and sociable Canada geese who were shamelessly scrounging from our fellow lunch-time patrons. That afternoon we whiled away the time drinking coffee and waving to passing boaters.
The Tamata - the floating Epicérie (Grocery Boat)
Jonathan gives Louis his first cycling lesson on a canalside tandem.
The next day, we decided, that the time had come to put ourselves onto the water. Luckily, for us, being early season, Emily and Tony said that they would be free to accompany us on our first sortie; which meant that there was plenty of people to baby-sit Louis, and attend to our vessel. So the joint decision was taken to test our canal-legs by venturing west to the canal-side village of Ventenac Minervois.
The weather was gloriously sunny if rather blustery, and we all sported our windcheaters. I took over the wheel of the Narbonne from Tony and within 15 minutes seemed to have got the knack. The only drama on the way out was provided by a duck and her ducklings, who frantically scampered out of the way to avoid our boat. For a moment we were quite concerned, but this family of fowls easily made it to safety.
Ventenac is charming, with a lovely pier, and a truly wonderful chateau by the boat jetty called, hardly surprisingly, the Chateau de Ventenac. The chateau and its vineyard have a great shop selling all sorts of viniculture goodies, and is clearly a favourite place for river tourists to stock up with fine wine.
It's a land steeped in history, and it's not for nothing that it falls within a much larger area called the Pay de Cathar (Cathar Country). About a thousand years ago, from this independent southern French soil sprang a benign, humanistic religious philosophy, which was a long way from the stifling dogma of Catholicism. It caught on and spread like wildfire. Needless to say, the Catholic hierarchy couldn't abide seeing their influence wane and the Pope of the day (Innocent III) launched a viciously cruel crusade against the Cathars, who he branded heretics.
Despite the fact that the southern nobles (many of whom had Cathar sympathies) put up a very brave resistance to the invading Crusader armies, little by little they slowly lost ground till Catharism was crushed. But the spirit of Catharism is somehow in the air here, not to mention in the very fabric of the old ancient towns and cities that still exist (and which are built along the canals and rivers); wonderful places like Toulouse, Carcassonne, Beziers, Narbonne and Minerve.
It was time to stop our historical musings and return to the present, and just as we turned the bend on the home straight we came up against a little mishap when another boat got in our way and the French family sailing it, couldn't seem to steer it properly. When we returned to Le Somail around 1:00 pm we bid farewell to Tony and Emily and agreed to meet up for dinner on the following Saturday night (our final night). The next day we decided to start following the Canal du Midi and the surrounding countryside eastwards towards its destination at the point at which it meets the sea.
The sun was shining beautifully, as we set off at a civilised hour, along the Canal towards Capestang, a charming small town blessed with lots of facilities for visitors including a well-manned tourist office and a fine canal-side restaurant called La Bateliere, where we stopped for a reviving café au lait.
The city of Minerve - an ancient Cathar stronghold
Motor cruisers working through one of the electrically operated locks at Le Somail
The next port of call was Colombiers. This is one of those places where boats are made very welcome. Simply put, this is a most generous stopping-off point, which declares that it offers: 24 hours free-of-charge berthing. It's well-equipped with bars/cafes/restaurants and all other amenities, most of which are located in a sweeping terrace arranged around a highly attractive semicircle boat basin. It also has everything a river/canal tourist could need, including drinking water and electric power points on the Quay; not to mention showers.
The sun by this time was pretty strong and we retreated to the charming shaded outdoor dining terrace of rather swanky (but surprisingly good-value-for-money) Le Chateau de Colombiers; which has thrown open its kitchens to sate the appetites of more discerning tourists.
After lunch it was time to go see Colombier's mightily impressive Malpas Tunnel. At 175 yards long, its construction was a dramatic engineering feat at the time that the Canal du Midi was built with teams of workmen hewing through tough rock to create the tunnel - some paying with their lives.
As for ourselves, we were having the time of our lives, and, as the afternoon progressed ever onwards, following the canal as closely as we could, we struck out for the old city of Béziers, the birthplace of the brilliant Restoration-era mastermind of the Canal du Midi: Pierre-Paul Riquet.
Béziers has a lot to offer tourists including some awesome churches of which the most spectacular has to be St Nazaire's Cathedral; whilst on the more secular front not to be missed are the Amphitheatre and the Poets' Garden, an English-style public gardens laid out by the famous landscape gardener, Buhler, with several outstanding statues including a monumental Titan by Injalbert. But, above all, when boating folk visit Béziers, they really should pay their respects to Riquet, whose brilliant vision and gritty determination made the whole Canal du Midi possible.
Having taken our leave of Riquet, we travelled just south out of the city to arguably the most scenic and challenging series of locks on the Canal at a place called Fonsérannes. Canal historians reckon, with much justification, that this is Riquet's most remarkable work on the Canal. It's a magnificent ladder of seven locks that raises boats nearly 70ft over a distance of 250 yards, based on a design derived from that Renaissance genius Da Vinci.
Fonsérannes really puts boaters through their paces, and the spectacle of canal craft and river cruisers trying to ascend the ladder with their dignity intact always draws a big and amused crowd of onlookers, particularly in spring/ summer. 4 boats gamely ran the gauntlet including a Crown Blue Line, two swanky looking German skippered boats, and a plucky little number called The Merry Clipper which was being sailed by a couple of Brits. Funnily enough, The Merry Clipper seemed to fare the best in terms of smoothly rising ladder of locks, which goes to show that size isn't everything!
But it wasn't all voyeurism, the crowd did help if they felt boaters were in any real danger of losing the plot, and onlookers willingly volunteered to handle ropes to help secure boats in between locks.
The penultimate day of our holiday was designated as a reach-the-eastern-end-of-the-canal, come hell-or-high water.
And so we visited Vias and the area of the Libron River. To avoid flooding in times of heavy rain the Libron River has been taken over the Canal. The construction engineer Vauban invented a highly original way of leading the river over the Canal and then back to the original river bed.
We moved onto Agde, another wonderful old town bordering the Hérault River. Agde is a peaceful and rather elegant place, with an air of faded old world charm.
But we suddenly were hungry to see the sea and to taste some of its culinary riches. And so we nipped down in literally ten minutes to Agde's maritime urban sister, called the Le Cap d'Agde - a fishing port that has been not untastefully developed as a holiday destination with a magnificent harbour resplendent with some swanky sea-going sailing boats.
There, overlooking this expansive vista, we ate a superb and inexpensive fish lunch at a restaurant called the Glacier Restaurant Le Floride; tucking into a large 3 course meal consisting of fruits de mer, plaice and lobster all washed down with a fine thirst-quenching rosé.
Feeling magnificently replete, we nipped back to Agde to pick up the Canal du Midi at the point at which it passed just north of the town to come up to an impressive large round lock. Beyond the lock is a very attractive large lake called Thau, which has been settled by large flocks of pink flamingos; and provides an unforgettable conduit to the town of Sete at its other end. Sete - a vibrant, large old port second only to Marseilles in maritime importance but far more attractive - borders the mighty Mediterranean Sea.
And, lo and behold, we were rather suddenly at our journey's end. In truth the Canal du Midi stretches for 241 Kilometres from the city of Toulouse and the Garonne River to the port of Sete, and we had only had a chance to thorough explore a mere 40% of it, but within those 100 or so kilometres were enough riches to satisfy the canals and rivers curiosity of anybody on a 10-day boating holiday.