The day was hot and sticky. The same as all the days that had proceeded it. I was distracted. We were several days into a week long self-crewed barge trip down the Canal-du-Midi. We had reached our umpteenth lock (or ecluse as the French say) of the morning, and several crew members had abandoned ship in favor of a bicycle ride. I was watching the people we had dropped on the banks of the canal and did not see the bridge until it was too late.
They warn you when you pick up your barge that there are low bridges all along the 17th century canal; the bridges are part of the canal’s allure. And of the thirty people across four different barges in our party, not one person had failed to duck when the captain called “bridge!” I put an end to that winning streak.
Operating your own barge down the Canal du Midi is not usually dangerous. Instead, most days are spent weaving leisurely through the picturesque French countryside dotted with vines and storybook charming towns. Even though the unseasonably hot summer had some of us longing for swimmer-friendly waters, the canal could not fail to charm us. Manning your own barge is the perfect holiday for adventurers like me who cannot stay in one place long and like to keep their hands busy.
The What: A week-long, self-operated barge trip down the Canal du Midi, beginning in Narbonne and ending in Trèbes (just outside of the medieval city of Carcassonne).
The Who: Thirty friends and family, all between the ages of 18-65.
The Who Part II, The Rental Company: Le Boat. Le Boat has barge rental operations throughout Europe. We booked 4 barges through a travel agent who recommend the Languedoc region for our time of year and a party of our size. (The region is beautiful. The weather was uncharacteristically sweltering this July.)
The When: July 2-9, 2016
The Why: My parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. (But do you really need a “why” to go to France?)
Is It Right for You?
Traveling up (or down) the Canal du Midi is undeniably a unique experience. There are over 90 locks in operation on the canal. The original 17th century locks were single-sluice wooden gates, and while the locks are now metal and mechanized, the essential design operates on the same mechanics as Da Vinci’s original concept.
The canal itself is a feat of engineering. It took sixteen years to build, and runs essentially from one coast of France to the other. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the canal boasts incredible views and architecture. Unfortunately, the plane trees that have historically lined the banks have been struck in recent years by a nasty blight, leaving many bare spots along the waterway. The government is in the midst of a big replanting effort though. They are taking important steps to preserve the canal’s ecosystem and traditional appearance.
The canal was used for commercial traffic as late as the 1970s and the water has the brown look of the Mississippi River. There is something impossibly frustrating about boating through water in which you cannot swim, luckily there are several lakes along the route in Homps and just outside of Trèbes. The weather was above ninety degrees each day, and without the plane trees along the canal it beat down on the boats unobstructed.
Of the four barges, three of them functioned almost perfectly. Unfortunately, the barge I was on suffered from several malfunctions. It was given to us without a bimini top (a collapsable canvas awning) because the previous renters had broken it. Le Boat offered us plastic umbrellas and gave us a partial refund, but the umbrellas were largely ineffective. Our boat also had problems with its air cooling system (not to be confused with air-conditioning, which none of the boats have), its throttle, and its electrical hook-up. All of which made for eight very grumpy sailors. Le Boat did refund us after we filed a claim, but having a broken boat made the canal journey unnecessarily challenging.
Most people are apprehensive about getting through the locks. This part of the process is actually very straightforward, and can even be fun. It is slow going though if you are moving up the locks instead of down, and it requires that you have at minimum three crew members (one to steer, one to toss ropes, and one on the banks to tie the ropes off) committed to spending the day on the boat actively working.
We rented bicycles through Le Boat as well and had grand plans to spend large portions of the day biking along the canal or to nearby towns. Naturally, even the best laid plans oft go awry and the heat and the locks meant that we spent less time on the bikes than we would have liked. The stretches from Le Somail to Ventenac and Trèbes to Carcassonne made for particularly nice rides. Top tip: Check the bikes before you leave your starting location. We had several chains fall off and a few people’s tires got caught in their breaks.
If you are looking for vacation in the south of France where you can drink wine, read books and generally lounge, this vacation could be for you, as long as you are happy to drink wine, read books, lounge, and throw ropes, swab decks, spend a lot of time in the sun, and shower inside a tiny box. But that is part of the adventure.
Places to Stop:
Narbonne: Roman and medieval ruins intersect in Narbonne’s very photogenic old town. There is also a decent grocery store and an excellent market so you can stock up on essentials like olive oil and soap and also get your artisan cheese and meat.
Le Somail: This is a small village on the canal. We spent our first night here. The docks with electrical hookups were very busy, but there are plenty of spots to pull up along the canal. There are a few restaurant options right on the water and there is a wonderful grocery barge, which you should get to early in the morning in order to grab fresh croissants. The barge also had some of the best cheese I ate on the whole trip, and this is france, so that’s saying something.
Ventenac de Minervois: While there are many vineyards throughout the Languedoc region, Chateau Ventenac is right on the canal side. Its a perfect lunch stop. Pay for the self-guided “tour” of the museum just to see the old vineyard equipment, and then go taste the wine. Their desert wine was fabulous, and they sell a fairly decent rosé by the jug.
Homps: This town is relatively busy stop along the canal. Here, the waterway is lined with luxury holiday barges that boast fine wooden decks and well-dressed staff. Grab your bikes (or walk) from the docks to Lac de Jouarres for a well deserved swim.
La Redorte: This city has a full grocery store so it’s a great place to restock. There is an interesting little chateau tucked behind the main street, and several quirky store fronts.
Trèbes: Although the town is mostly an access point for Carcassonne, it has its own charms. This was the last destination to which we actually boated. (It is much faster to cycle or take the bus to Carcassonne than to fight through all the locks). Trèbes has a little laundromat and a plethora of choices for canal side dining. We had a really fun final meal here at La Poissonnerie Moderne. They were very accommodating to our large party.
Lac de Cavayère: The heat was brutal the entire time we were on the Canal-du-Midi. As a result we accelerated our timeline and pushed on down the canal to arrive in Trèbes a day early. This freed us up for a day excursion to the lake. Biking to Lac de Cavayère would put you on some good sized highways, so we opted for taxis. The expense was well worth it. The Lake has two beaches, one rock and one sand, but we set up shore side under the shade of some trees. The water was bright blue and just the right amount of cool for a warm, humid day.
Carcassonne / La Bastide Saint-Louis: Carcassonne is as stunning as it is touristy, and it was the perfect place to end our trip. If you are coming up from the canal, you will actually dock at La Bastide Saint-Louis. La Bastide is the part of town in which people actually live. It has large squares filled with restaurants, a lovely farmers’ market, and plenty of shopping. It is a lovely little walk through La Bastide to reach La Cité, the colloquially name for Carcassonne.
La Cité is a walled medieval city that looks like a Disney fantasy come to life. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and holds over 2,500 years of French history. It has withstood attacks from Visigoths, Crusaders, and the French bureaucracy. It is truly spectacular to behold. It is worth paying for tickets to walk along the ramparts and explore the historical exhibits, but the best part of the city is that it is still operational. True to medieval form, when you enter the city gates you will find twisting walled street after twisting walled street filled with shops and restaurants, making La Cité the ideal place to pick up souvenirs for family and friends.