The Other Canal of the South
Andre Denny spent a week in Aquitaine on an English Narrowboat, exploring the Canal du Garonne
Mention canal cruising in southern France and most people think of the Canal du Midi, from Toulouse eastward to the Étang dc Thau. With lovely scenery, the Midi is one of the most popular routes in Europe, and deservedly so. But less well known is the other end of the Canal des Deux Mers, the Canal Latéral de la Garonne, which runs from Toulouse westward towards Bordeaux, following the River Garonne.
The Canal du Garonne shares many of the characteristics of the Canal du Midi, but is more peaceful, quieter and more relaxing. And much overlooked.
I took an English - style canal boat along this little trafficked waterway and was charmed by what I saw. We were the guests of the Meilhan-sur-Garonne division of Minervois Cruisers, a small hire boat company owned by the Warwickshire-based Napton Narrowboats hire fleet. Minervois Cruisers started on the Canal Midi at Somail, with a fleet of British-built narrow and widebeam boats, but a couple of years ago the fleet split, basing four boats at Meilhan-sur-Garonne.
As an experienced narrowboater myself, I knew more or less what to expect from our boat, Marmande. But many people used to the white penichettes that are the more conventional French cruiser fare might ask: Why a narrowboat in France? One answer, says Minervois Cruisers manager Mike Ricketts, is that narrowboats remain extremely popular with British holidaymakers. I can vouch that even on the roomy French canals the narrowboat remains supremely practical - although you might chafe at the narrow single beds if you are used to double.
We decided to travel to Agen and back for the week, sticking to the canal. In theory you could spice up your week by dropping down to the River Baise halfway along the route at Buzet. I had heard that the towns on the Baise can be more interesting, but in practice the predictability of the canal and the certainty of reaching Agen - a city I wanted to see - made it more appealing to me.
For English boaters used to the byzantine and hard mechanical workings of English locks, operating the locks on the Garonne really couldn’t be simpler, even though they are automatic and there are no lock keepers. A hundred metres or so before you reach each lock, a yellow hose dangles from a suspended wire across the canal; you grasp the hose as you go past and give it a quick turn.
Just a twist of the hose alerts the mechanism and sets everything in train. The lock empties or fills, and opens. You then just cruise in, steady the boat on the ropes and whoever has lockside duty presses a button to complete the locking process. The simple traffic-light system - alerting you if the lock is already busy or if the automatic system has noted your presence - is also easy to follow.
My first two immediate impressions about this canal were overwhelmingly positive. Firstly, there is the simply glorious array of plane trees that border the canal for long stretches. In places they look simply ravishing. They rival - or even outshine - those on the Canal du Midi, and in many cases look better maintained. They are arranged in two rows on each side, and serve to both strengthen the canal banks and to provide shade in the hot southern sun - something that must have been more important when travelling this waterway was hard manual work.
The second immediate impression is the superb towpath, which is immaculately maintained along the entire length of the canal’s 178km. The result of an EU funding exercise a few years ago, the route now attracts cyclists like flies, and on a fine day it’s a rare moment when there’s not at least one cyclist visible.
On our first night we stopped at Villeton, a pleasant enough halte nautique. A few miles further on, the lovely old fortified town of Damazan looms over the canal. While in many respects a fairly typical mediaeval fortified town, it has a lovely market square surrounding the elevated mairie and I was particularly struck by the avenue of elegant espaliered plane trees that accompanied us as we walked up the hill from the canal. For British visitors Damazan has one extra claim to fame: a thriving cricket club, one of the very few in Southern France.
Nearby Buzet is a key junction on the canal. Here, a staircase lock links it with the rivers Baise and Garonne, which link further with the Lot. At Buzet you must decide: descend to the river, or continue in the security of the canal as we did, en route for Agen. Once past Buzet, the waterway enters a ‘lost’ section, which my companions dubbed 'the Amazon'.
Here, no longer lined by elegant plane trees, scrub and bushes hang over the water until the main channel is crowded into barely the width of two boats, and you half expect to see dugouts emerging from behind the bushes. A close pair of locks negotiated, the canal has now risen enough to spring you on an elegant aqueduct over the River Baise, which has turned south.
Emerging from 'the Amazon', the canal passes neat orchard fields until you soon emerge at Serignac. This unassuming and sleepy town has an unusual 'twisted' church spire that itches to be photographed.
After Serignac we once again entered the wild 'Amazon' territory, until a sharp turn left brought us to the bottom of the flight of four locks that - over a distance of barely a kilometre - lift the waterway to the canal’s showpiece, the magnificent Agen aqueduct.
This structure - nearly 600m long and borne on 23 arches - opened in 1843 and is still the second biggest in France. It is there to take the canal across the River Garonne, the first time boaters will have seen the river since Buzet. A glance down to the river tells you why the canal was built in the first place. By the time the Garonne has reached Agen, although still extremely wide, it has become shallow and treacherous.
As a tourist destination, Agen’s PR effort is two-pronged: the plentiful plum orchards in the area have made it the world capital of prunes and locals seem to have made rugby their secular religion. Everything in the souvenir shops seems plum-coloured and rugby ball shaped. Yet the city is far more than that and could easily repay a week’s stay with different activities every day.
Sadly, we had to make the return journey after barely 24 hours. While it’s possible to hire some boats on one way trips, a return voyage does allow you to revisit places that catch your eye. For us, a further stay in Damazan brought out some of its best features, while stops in Le Mas d’Agenais to see the original ‘Rembrandt’ crucifixion altarpiece in the local church and the chateau of the Comte Marcellus, said to be crucial to the rediscovery of the Venus de Milo in 1820, were memorable. Also haunting were the numerous war memorials, many bearing testimony to resistance fighters and civilians who were shot or deported.
I returned the boat with a sense of sadness that we hadn’t been able to examine so many other things that had caught my eye along the way. But there is nothing quite like things catching your eye fleetingly as you potter along at a modest speed. The fact that it’s complicated to stop, that you have to keep going; actually makes you look more longingly!