Matt Kelly's British barge makes a big impression on the tranquil waters (and banks) of France's Canal du Midi
Tres bon: The tree-lined Canal du Midi in France
There was an irresistible absurdity to it all from the very start.
A holiday in an English narrowboat on the most famous canal in France with two uncontrollable kids – neither of whom can swim – a wife with a dislike for confined spaces and me with the boat-handling skills of the Exxon Valdez captain. What could go wrong?
But then we've all had those on-paper-perfect holidays that turned into apocalyptically disastrous plate-throwing divorce-threatening infanticide-provoking nightmares, haven't we?
Maybe a holiday with the odds stacked against you would turn out to be a belter. Despite it all.
The reason they have to import English narrowboats on to the Canal du Midi is the French never made them. When digging this languid, elegant trunk of waterway through the bottom half of their country, they decided to make it twice as wide as our parsimonious, mean, twiggy canals.
It is wide and tree-lined and beautiful. Not some brick-lined ditch running from one cotton mill to another.
By day three the gentle ebb and flow of canal life begins to seem, well... relaxing
The Canal du Midi is plenty wide enough for those big spacious cruisers you see on the Norfolk Broads. Which is why 99% of holidaymakers on the Canal du Midi choose them. Not us. We went British. It was a decision that would pay dividends in the most unexpected way towards the end of the holiday.
Inside the barge, there’s a perfectly good kitchen – cooker, sink, fridge, shelves and cupboards and enough work surface for precisely one medium-sized chopping board, a packet of pasta, a jar of pasta sauce, five bottles of red wine and half a case of French lager.
The kitchen opens up on to a living space with a removable table for four.
There are two single beds up by the stern (technical term) plus a double bedroom wide enough for two adults to toss and turn in (not a technical term) but nowhere to put a bottle of wine (design flaw). In other words, there's enough space. Just.
Outside, at the front, there's space for sunbathing, drinking wine and holding on to children by their ankles.
The rear is the action end, with a big arm-thing for steering. The only thing you have to remember is that if you pull left, the boat goes right. And you'd think that'd be easy, right?
We pick up the barge from the ancient canalside village of Le Somail, near Narbonne. It’s in the Languedoc, and life is slooooow.
Picturesque: The ancient canalside village of Le Somail
Not just because we’re in a barge restricted to slow-jogging pace.
It's slow everywhere. Shops barely seem to bother opening and when they do, the time it takes to have a few bottles of wine rung up and paid for is about the same as your entire Sunday shop at Tesco.
But slowness slowly seeps in, and before you know it (or by Day Three anyway) the gentle ebb and flow of canal life begins to seem, well, relaxing.
The only points of stress emerge at the locks, and even these are a doddle compared to their DIY English counterparts. The union-mad French insist all locks are manned (or, occasionally, womanned) and once you've learned the common sense basics of looping a rope around a bollard, it’s rather hard to mess up.
Hold on: Matt and Theo in a lock
One way to mess it up is leaving one end of the rope dangling in the water, close to the propeller, and then deciding to flick the boat into gear to counter the rushing ingress of water from the lock.
The lock manager said he'd never seen anything so lucky as we both hauled at the rope from where it had wrapped around the propeller to discover there was no damage whatsoever. He shook his head, said "merde" a lot and I discovered the French for "miracle" is "miracle".
We wandered from village to village, not caring where we were, ate some terrific food, drank good wine, fished for catfish and slept well, the gentle cradling of the canal being enough to cure the worst insomnia.
Theo with his first catfish - the fish was returned unharmed
My children loved it. Loved the fishing, the ignoring dad's order not to clamber on the top of the boat while in motion, the fuss and mechanics of tying a boat to the canalside, the weirdness of barge life. My wife enjoyed it too. Especially the fact that I did all the driving while she relaxed and/or managed the kids.
I say all the driving. It’s not strictly true. There was a moment: Day Six. Beautiful sunshine. Shirt off. Glass of red at hand. Not another boat in sight. Straight stretch of canal. Desperate need for the toilet. For the first time, I hand over control. "Just hold it straight."
Emerging from said toilet, two minutes later, I glance to the front of the boat, just in time to see the barge veer sharply to the left, almost as though some mad fool was deliberately trying to ram the bank.
I leg it to the back of the boat, where my wife is simultaneously screaming and laughing, and, like the helmsman of the Titanic, put the boat sharp starboard to avert disaster.
Like the Titanic, I’m not quite quick enough and 16 tonnes of British steel narrowboat lurches upwards as it mounts the bank, before slumping back into the canal, water crashing over the bow. The kids couldn't believe it and loudly congratulated mum. I was staggered to discover that, unlike the Titanic, the boat was unscathed. The only casualty, a bottle of wine in the galley.
Theo and Skye recreate their favourite Titanic moment in Le Somail
British, see? Them flimsy fibre glass French cruisers would have been at the bottom, sans doubte. We didn't mention a word of it when we handed the boat back, though I'm sure the lovely and calm (and English) owners Emily and Tony wouldn’t have blinked.
It felt like an epic journey, yet when we looked on the map afterwards we'd travelled about 60 miles in the week. Who cares? There was no destination. We came, we enjoyed, we left no mark. Apart from a 12in dent in the canal side, just south of Capestang.
Car hire made easy
The first time I ever hired a car in France (longer ago than I care to admit), I remember the process took about half of one of my precious holiday days and required a deposit practically more than the clapped-out Citroen was worth. Times have changed. En route to Luton Airport, I downloaded the Avis app on to my iPhone and was able to order a car and pay the deposit as I stood in the check-in queue for our Ryanair flight. A very nice Renault Megane was waiting for us at Beziers, all sorted. A stress-free start to a holiday if ever there was one. Car hire from around £350 for the week.
Minervois Cruisers offers the Midi Explorer 4 (sleeps 6) at Le Somail, France, from £945pw, not inc fuel, call: 01926 811842. Ryanair flies from Luton to Beziers from £29.99 one way inc taxes.