Canal du Midi: French Barging for Beginners
French Barging for Beginners – along the Canal du Midi words and pictures by Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Gliding down the Canal du Midi at a barge’s pace narrows your world but heightens your senses. From the cathedral of greenery overhead to the Camargue ponies gazing back from the banks, this is a serene barging adventure. The biggest decision faced is whether to go for a bike ride or wine-tasting before the next gourmet dinner onboard. Welcome to barging for beginners in la France profonde.
The Canal du Midi is the oldest canal in France, with the greatest concentration of heritage sites en route. As such, it deserves respect. You could choose to bob up and down in a plastic boat and become a public menace on the waterways. Or you could do the canal in style, on a barging voyage of discovery. After you’ve stepped onboard Anjodi, a hand-crafted traditional Dutch barge, there is no turning back. Savour the nautical brass and panelling, the nightly wine-tastings, the seafood feasts on the sundeck, the insider trails to moody chateaux. The European Waterways barge is fully-crewed but feels like a family affair – bar the fact that the family includes a gourmet chef, a sommelier-captain and a guide to the canal’s secrets.
On the Canal du Midi, spring signals a return to the water: bobbing boats; steadfast barges; breakfast by crooked stone bridges; communing with dumb ducks; battling with stroppy geese; rope-swinging by cascading staircases; gawping by locks. With a speed limit of eight kilometres per hour, this is life in the Slow Lane. But the canopies of greenery overhanging the Canal make the voyage akin to sailing through an Impressionist painting.
Follow the swallows south and catch some spring sun in the Midi, the poster region for the French `good life’. The Canal du Midi, connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, was pioneered by salt-tax collector Pierre-Paul Riquet in the 1660s. Designed to bring glory to Louis XIV, the Sun King, the canal remains glorious, and deservedly the most popular waterway in France. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, these 150 miles of navigable waterways have barely changed over the centuries. Freight transport only ended here twenty odd years ago and the canal has been devoted to pleasure cruising ever since. The Anjodi herself spans both eras, having started life as a grain-carrying barge between Paris and Amsterdam. Polished though she now is, a grain of grit remains, and her authenticity reflects the Canal itself.
The barging adventure begins with an overnight in Montpellier, the gateway to the Canal du Midi. To get into the spirit, we kayak along the River Lez past an old mill and tree-lined banks. It is hard to believe we are in the heart of metropolitan Montpellier. Equally surprising is the way that the city’s Mediterranean spirit and devotion to the good life is trumped by its contemporary verve. Montpellier makes modern urban planning sexy. Inspired by Greek Classicism, the central neoclassical neighbourhood is monumental, monolithic and Mussolini-esque in its ambitions. But, with its sweeping esplanades, stirring fountains and nude sculptures, this district also becomes an inviting, meditative space.
Montpellier’s modernism plays into the French love for `grands projets’ and statement architecture. Bordered by landscaped gardens and the River Lez, the new, Jean Nouvel-designed City Hall makes its mark. The bold, blue-tinted façade, mixing stainless steel and solar panels, creates stunning plays of light. Traditionalists may find it soulless, and prefer the pedestrianised Old Town, with its pavement cafes, cosy wine bars and arty atmosphere. Musée Fabre, the Museum of Fine Arts, is classic Montpellier, a contemporary take on the past, including Impressionist masters such as Frederic Bazille, more than a match for his friendly rival, Renoir. Before leaving, we jump on one of the new trams designed by Christian Lacroix, who studied in Montpellier. The theatrical trams are a playful tribute to the Mediterranean sun and sea, and a reminder that the beaches are only 11 kilometres away, with a new cycle path linking the city to the shore. Unsurprisingly, this thought-provoking, forward-looking metropolis is one of the fastest-growing cities in France.
We arrive in Le Somail, framed by a charming stone-arched bridge, to see Anjodi moored in one of the prettiest spots on the Canal du Midi. A quaint floating `epicerie’ grocery barge is a fixture alongside us but the feasting onboard Anjodi means that we never stray. Our arrival coincides with sundowners presented by Captain Julian, who doubles as the resident wine expert. Pastis is rejected in favour of local Coteaux de Languedoc wines and southern nibbles such as pissaladiere, onion tart with anchovies, juicy Lucques olives, paté de champagne, piquant roast goat’s cheese, and tapenade, olive paste on croutons. Julian informs us that the Languedoc is the oldest wine-producing region in France, flourishing even in Phoenician times. A guided wine-tasting segues into a gourmet dinner prepared by Lauren, the talented chef. The cabins, designed for only eight guests, are snug and nautically shipshape. As befits the intimacy of the voyage, the English-speaking crew, complete with an occasional four-footed deck-hand, are entertaining yet discreet.
The next day, we make a foray to Carcassonne, often billed as the most perfectly preserved medieval fortified town in existence. Clambering around the citadel, with its chunky ramparts and 52 watchtowers, is a wonderful prelude to lunch back on the barge. Under Captain Julian’s command, our expertise on wine and water swells. The wry captain confesses to having been torn between the competing careers of captain and sommelier: the water won but the wine still flows during the voyage. Passionate about canal cruising, Julian delights in pointing out passing wonders, from wine estates to wildlife. Once, idly dreaming on deck, we realise that the faint ripples by the banks are coypu, the canal’s beaver-like residents.
The bucolic sailing to Argeliers passes vineyards and pine groves. The scenery is so soporific that all thoughts of the onboard tandem bike, boules and Jacuzzi are forgotten. For a week, our world shrinks to this barge and a parade of towpaths lined by poplars, plane trees, pines and cypresses. The towpaths, once plied by hefty horses pulling heavy barges, are now the preserve of cyclists, canal-gawpers, joggers, picnickers and grumpy geese. The day’s drama is generally confined to the succession of locks, low bridges, aqueducts, tunnels, towpaths and mesmerising trees that make up the magic of the Canal du Midi.
From our perspective, any challenges en route tend to be comical rather than critical. At Capestang, we scarper when chased by territorial geese, guardians of these towpaths. But Captain Julian complains that novice sailors are the greatest challenge: `novices set sail in a piece of Tupperware and then panic when they see a proper barge bearing down on them’. Despite the Captain’s best efforts, we experience a knock when barged into by panic-stricken boaters. The first-timers freeze, not realising that it’s hard for such a big barge to take swift evasive action. For a moment the air goes bluer than the Med, but then all is resolved with bonhomie. Anjodi glides on, leaving the chastened Tupperware Two trembling in her wake.
The friendly crew periodically point out the Canal du Midi’s technical quirks, from a clever round lock near Agde, constructed in 1679, to an ingenious aqueduct that runs over the River Orb -`civil engineering at its best’, declares our Captain. Equally impressive is the Malpas tunnel, the world’s first ever canal tunnel, which runs between the hamlets of Colombiers and Capestang. Apparently, a Roman road surmounts it, while a TGV train line tunnels underneath. Just before Beziers comes one of the Canal’s greatest feats of engineering: the Fonsérannes flight of locks, a staircase etched up the watery hillside. Topped by a panoramic view over Beziers, this succession of cascading locks is the star attraction on the Canal du Midi. Built in 1697, the original nine locks were designed to deal with a steep incline of about 22 metres over a distance of 300 metres. The last (and lowest) lock, which once crossed the River Orb, has given way to an eye-catching aqueduct.
We join the gawping crowds of canal-watchers by the lock-keeper’s cottage and cascading locks. Julian introduces us to barging terminology, offering “a count on the nose,” indicating how far the barge’s `nose’ is into the lock-gate at any one time; a two-fingers’ gesture means there’s a two-metre gap. We now know our upstream (`montant’) from our downstream (`avalant’), and that overtaking should only be done `with the permission of the boat being overtaken’. As our confidence grows, in direct proportion to our quaffing of Corbieres, we offer to steer the barge or to `hold the lines’, dealing with the mooring lines at locks.
When persuaded to leave our barge, we are rewarded with Cathar architecture, and only occasionally bribed with wine-tastings. A stirring excursion visits the Cathar stronghold of Minerve, surrounded by limestone gorges. The cobbled alleyways and stone staircases are a prelude to Pezenas, just off the Canal. Here, gracious period mansions with wrought-iron balconies, secret courtyards and sculpted doorways appeal to potters, artists and sculptors. A jaunt to the Oppidum d’Enserune reveals a striking pre-Roman hilltop settlement and a route once marched by the legionnaires. The Romans also planted the local vineyards, a snippet which whets our appetite for another degustation.
Celebrity chef Rick Stein loved his meanderings on Anjodi but we doubt that his camera crew ate or drank better than we do with our chef Lauren. A typical lunch features magret de canard, heretically eaten while communing with contented canal ducks. Closer to the sea, seafood platters make an entrance, with the freshest oysters slurped in full view of the oyster beds, washed down with a mean rosé from Faugeres. From spicy red Corbieres to quaffable Cotes du Roussillon, Captain Julian is an enthusiastic expert on Languedoc’s vine-clad hills. Near Beziers, we enjoy a private tasting at Chateau Perdiguier, an historic wine estate belonging to the Captain’s friends. We learn how the `disk’ of a wine reveals its age – and look for notes of spice, cassis and burnt tobacco – before definitely showing our age under the lamplight.
Near Portiragnes, we leave the vineyards and edge into the Camargue, more properly the `Petite Camargue’ wetlands. This wilderness is home to hawks and harriers, owls and buzzards, herons and pink flamingos. We don’t see the trident-wielding Camargue cowboys herding bulls as the sun sets, but we are far from disappointed. The remoteness brings out our Captain’s cowboy spirit: “You are allowed a `wild mooring’ if you get here first, but interlopers can be persuaded to leave with a bottle of wine or two.” Luckily, there are no interlopers and our wine stash remains intact. We are left to roam alone, occasionally espying nesting storks, white horses and wild-eyed black bulls. Bosco, the barge’s guest dog, stays close to base. Not too far away are salt pans, where the salt is dried by the Mistral wind. We overnight in our barge in the reeds and are lulled to sleep by unidentifiable sighs.
Next comes the excitement of the sea, or at least the Etang De Tau, which borders the Mediterranean. Only sandbars separate this brackish lagoon from the sea. After so long spent under verdant canal canopies, we feel exhilarated by the salty tang of the sea. Tellingly, this saltwater lake is also sandwiched between the Canal du Midi and the Canal du Rhone. The barge glides past the oyster fisheries and mussel beds and we come nose to nose with the molluscs. The oysters are speared on ropes and suspended just above the lagoon.
In the quaint lagoon fishing ports our crew buys fresh fish and shellfish straight off the boat. Our voyage ends at Marseillan, a pretty port founded by the Phoenicians but now synonymous with shellfish and Noilly Prat, a dry Vermouth infused with herbs. On the bistrot menus are shrimps, sea urchins and eels, but above all oysters and mussels. Moored in the inner harbour, we are entranced by the yachts, which now feel like alien craft to us bargees.
At best, the mood on board has been like a floating house party with like-minded people who also love barges and canal-cruising. By the end of the voyage we have all become raging barge snobs. “More Tupperware heading our way” shrieks one of our party upon spotting a non-wooden boat bearing down upon us. But if you have any doubts about the selectness of the company, simply charter the barge and bring your own crowd. Let Anjodi serve up the atmosphere and intimacy. Just choose your friends wisely and go with the flow.
Barging on the Canal du Midi: European Waterways offers a choice of spring/summer itineraries on their hotel barges in the lovely Canal du Midi area. Select the 8-passenger Anjodi cruises from Le Somail to Marseillan or vice versa, as described. Alternatively, try the 8-passenger Enchanté from Salleles d’Aude to Puicheric or the Clair de Lune, a 6-passenger barge (new to the fleet), which cruises from Le Somail to Carcassonne.
All-inclusive cruising: prices for Canal du Midi, 6-night, all-inclusive cruises aboard Anjodi start from £2,385pp, including a 10% discount on spring sailings. What’s included: luxury barge accommodation in air-conditioned, en-suite cabins; all gourmet meals on board, including fine wines and an open bar. Also included are daily escorted shore excursions, local transfers and the use of all barge facilities, such as bicycles and spa pools.
Flights to Montpellier: EasyJet operates flights to Montpellier from Luton and Gatwick Airports. See: www.easyjet.com
Carcassonne tourist board: www.carcassonne-tourisme.com
Montpellier tourist board: www.ot-montpellier.fr, tel. (+33) 0467999674
Kayaking in Montpellier: www.montpellier-canoe-kayak.com
Barging further afield: European Waterways is Europe’s largest all-inclusive luxury hotel barging company, offering vacations in nine countries. The well-established company designs, builds, owns and operates a private fleet of luxury hotel barges with cruises in France, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. This is also the only company offering barge cruises on the Venetian lagoon and the River Po.