Having Memorably holidayed on the Canal du Midi (courtesy of Minervois Cruisers) when our son, Louis, was very young; Jonathan Webster decided that the time had come to explore the other end of the Midi canal network (from toulouse going west) on a stretch of water known, by its full title, as the Canal Lateral de la Garonne.
Five years had sped by since our last visit to southern France, and we now also had a beautiful, lively, if mischievous five - year old girl (Olivia) to add to our family posse. Our base on this trip was to be the little picturesque port village of Meilhan sur Garonne. Being fans of narrowboat cruising, we decided to once again navigate the waterways on a Minervois Cruiser, as they are the specialists in high-spec narrowboats in this part of the world.
Acting on the advice of knowledgeable friends, and good local tourist websites we took a calculated risk, and went to Meilhan during October half-term week. Our gamble paid off! The weather was just as we had hoped. Days invariably started with beautiful, golden misty mornings, and then the sun would break through making everything feel nice and toasty; but never uncomfortably so.
When you have had a long journey laden down with kids and heavy baggage, the kind of welcome you get can really help set the tone of one’s holiday.
Mike (Ricketts), is the base manager at Meilhan, ably abetted by his efficient wife Cathy. Mike’s northern manner, leavened with a winning bluff charm, inspires confidence in all newcomers and seasoned visitors alike. Just as importantly, it was abundantly clear that this chap also knows his boating onions, having been previously the base manager at Minervois Cruisers’s Le Somail (Canal du Midi) base. Mike gave us a warm welcome, as we arrived late one evening, and sealed his greeting with a fine bottle of local red wine, artfully placed in the galley of our 4-berth narrowboat; the Damazan.
Meilhan sur Garonne houses a mixture of permanently moored boats and holiday craft; the latter dominated by Minervois Cruisers. There is a little enclave of friendly, English people who seem to live there on their boats all year round, and were happy to banter with us whilst going about their daily business.
Meilhan village, situated up on a hill, has wonderful panoramic views of the port, as well as of the countryside of the Garonne and the river Garonne, which runs alongside the canal in a sort of sensuous tango. In fact, so appealing was the scenery and the relaxed lifestyle in and around Meilhan, that we could have quite easily stayed put. But, with fate - in the shape of our children and a 4 ton boat - in our hands, we decided to both strike east to get a real first hand experience of this Iovely jewel of a canal. Our destination was the bridge and aqueduct at Agen. And our aim was to make it to that town and back in a week.
Agen is famous for its sweet-tasting prunes; which we thought would be a welcome palliative to all the wonderful local food with which we were indulging ourselves.
In these straitened times, eating out anywhere can hit your wallet hard! And France, alas, is not the inexpensive place for dining out that it once was. Restaurant meals are costly. Anything decent will set you back at least 45 Euros for a meal for four with one drink each.
However, we found that the French shops and markets offer splendid value. So if you want to treat yourself on a daily basis to somewhere al fresco, why not go to a café or patisserie and just have a coffee and cake. But buy your food at a Carrefour supermarket, or, better still, the local market, and have your main meal back at the boat, which is what we tended to do.
As we left Meilhan and set off for Agen, the plane trees that line the whole expanse of the canal gave lovely shading so that we never, ever, felt the full glare of the sun.
Mike jumped on board and set us on our way (up to the first lock) with a refresher session in how to safely pilot a narrow boat. He is such an experienced instructor that it was not long before we had full and steady control of the Damazan.
Within a day it soon became evident that holidaying on the Garonne has some distinct advantages over the more famous Canal du Midi. For the simple fact of the matter is that the Garonne is more modern than the Midi. lt was built some 200 years later and that makes quite a difference, especially for less experienced boaters.
Firstly, we noticed that the Garonne is less busy and quieter than the Midi, with the bonus that one is not interminably queuing at locks. Talking of locks, all the ones we encountered were single locks - not those time consuming double and triple locks that seem to dominate the Midi.
It also seemed that many of the Garonne villages are more geared up to receiving boats with defined port areas and easy—to—use moorings, as opposed to the Midi’s tendency to have adapted canal and river-bank sides, which can be a bit of a challenge.
Villages that won a firm thumbs up from us were Mas d'Agenais, blessed with a lovely church containing an original Rembrandt painting; Serignac, which was an easy stroll from the public mooring and has a fine brasserie, and the sleepy but nevertheless delightful hamlet of Damazan.
To my mind, the Midi - although very dramatic - is a bit too sun-kissed, verging at times on the arid. But the lovely south-west French Aquitaine country we were passing through, was both surprisingly green and undulating. Vineyards jostled with rolling fields containing creamy Charolais cattle gently grazing under warm autumnal skies.
Such variety of landscape is a great haven for wildlife. And as we gently wound our way to Agen, we spotted black kites, kingfishers, and wild deer. Louis swore that he saw a coypu. Or had I just had too much wine?
Talking of the grape, the roll-call of world famous vineyards in the Aquitaine is quite staggering. We had set off from Meilhan in what is locally termed the Cote de Marmandais part of Acquitaine, and soon hit Buzet (boosy?) country, characterized by grapes that produce a rich, velvety red. If eating out proved to be decidedly heavy on the pocket, then quality bottles of local wine are good value at - from what l could see - some 20% cheaper than you would pay back in the UK for something of similar quality. And a very decent bottle of Aquitaine wine can be had for under a fiver.
When you have young kids, keeping them amused, interested and confined to a canal boat (not to mention out of mischief) can be quite a challenge. Luckily, this part of the world has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historical and cultural places of interest. And we took every opportunity to hop off our boat to do the culture vulture thing.
We also made the smart move of hiring some bicycles, which we squeezed on board. Hitting the pedals every now and again was a great way to work off juvenile steam.
The other thing that was much in evidence along the canal was the proliferation of fishermen. As there is not the same volume of boats on the Garonne as on the Canal du Midi, fishing is a more leisurely pursuit here, with both wonderful opportunities for coarse and fly-fishing.
Fishing folk are also no doubt attracted by the fact that on the Garonne the authorities allow live bait. A lot of fun is to be had by fishing for smaller fish, which are then used as bait to tempt bigger prey.
Louis got into his coarse fishing stride without much prompting, and the little son of a gun was soon pulling out little wriggly delights for adult inspection.
14 locks and several days later, we reached the charming and bustling town of Agen, and feasted our eyes on both the mightily impressive aqueduct and the equally magnificent bridge.
We treated ourselves to a day and a night at this canal-side oasis, and, yes, amongst the souvenirs we bought were several packets of the delicious aforementioned local prunes and some equally tasty prune liqueur.
Just over 4 days later we were back at Meilhan. But our adventure was not over. Because, for the last 3 days of our holiday, we decided to use the Damazan as a floating gite, and strike out west in our car to explore, amongst, other things, the end of the canal at Castets; where it joins the navigable Garonne River - about 45 km from Bordeaux.
Castets is a lovely village that houses the epic lock 51 where all canal craft typically end their journey. The canal does actually stretch on for another couple of locks, but, these are big tidal locks allowing the canal waters to safely ebb out and join the waters of the Garonne river.
As if on cue, who should emerge from the very impressive lock-keeper's cottage but an affable man called Pierre Blanc (the lock-keeper himself). He showed me the tidal marker on the side of his cottage, and gamely posed for pictures.
And so, with our visit to Castets, we were done.
People who love canals and rivers will thoroughly enjoy visiting this part of France. For there are not actually that many places where you get such a lovely canal and river running in tandem for such a long way. Or have the opportunity to hop off your boat to take in the magisterial splendour of both!