I recently took an activity boating adventure down the Canal du Midi in France with Le Boat.
I’m sure you’re the same? That time is a luxury that most of us don’t have, except perhaps when we go on holiday and an indulge ourselves in a good book, sunbathe or spend time doing the activities we enjoy also simply having the opportunity to push the pause button on everyday life when we are normally consumed by rushing around and meeting deadlines?
That’s where cruising on the famous Canal du Midi comes in. What could be better than gently motor boating down the beautiful canals of the South of France and soaking up sun and serene countryside, cruising along enjoying life in the slow lane? Exploring the pretty villages and delighting in a typically French ‘long lunch?’
Completed in 1681 during the reign of Louis XIV, the 150 mile long Canal du Midi is one of the oldest canals of Europe still in operation. It was constructed to link the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean and rises to a height of 189 metres above sea level. In 1996 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts thousands of people each year to experience boating or visiting its 91 lock structures.
We boarded our ‘Royal Mystique A’ motor boat from Le Boat’s base outside Beziers. It was a full-on 43 foot vessel. Sleeping up to six people, it had two cabins and two bathrooms and a separate shower. Our forward cabin was really snug with a large double bed and an ensuite bathroom. At night it can be pretty chilly, unless you have the heating on of course, but I packed my ‘warm at night, cool in the summer’ Dagsmejan luxe pj’s which were invaluable and I slept so well! There were only two of us, so the boat felt luxurious and spacious.
It had all the mod cons you would expect including a large kitchen with an oven, grill, microwave and a BBQ hotplate up on deck. It was fitted out with a flat screen TV/DVD, radio/CD and a heater. There were two helm positions, one below in the lounge area and the other on the top deck from where you had a great panoramic view.
After a full tutorial by a technician and a boat practice run up and down the river to get the hang of the helpful bow thrusters including how to steer and reverse, we were sent on our watery adventure armed with the necessary instruction manuals.
Following ‘Rick Stein’s ‘French Odyssey’ adventure, albeit on a slightly different route, we had taken a tip from Le Boat’s pre-holiday guide that was to do a food shop at the local supermarket before collecting the boat. Around three miles out of Bezier there is a huge Carrefour supermarket where you can get your food, drink and kitchen supplies.
French supermarkets are impressive, the fruit and vegetables are fresh and strangely super-sized. The local Languedoc wines are incredible as are the comparatively cheaper prices. We didn’t skimp on stocking up with food or wine, just in case we had guests.
My aspiration to recreate some dishes from Rick’s French Odyssey cook book kicked in. Inspired by surroundings of beautiful countryside, acres of vineyards and of course the Canal du Midi, I prepared and served some wonderful cuisine on board boat Chez Morfoot including Chicken and Prawn Paella, Langoustines with Garlic Butter, Lemon Sole with Dauphinoise potatoes and local asparagus. My dishes were a sight to behold and my husband was undeniably impressed.
Motoring along, we were stopped by a red light at the first lock that we approached and we ‘hovered’ for some time at the bankside in from of the lock and then moored up. I approached a nearby pizzeria to find out what the lock procedure was and I was duly informed that I had to find the lock keeper.
With Anneka Rice enthusiasm I sprinted across a bridge to find the person who had the know-how to help us get us through, it was all very exciting. He was very grumpy however and he was not impressed by my nervous excitement. He probably felt sorry for me knowing that there were many more locks ahead of us.
He duly explained that helping to moor and handling ropes in the lock was not his job, only the opening and closing of the lock gates.
That was fair enough, however, this was alarming news. There was just me, with my husband at the helm on this 13 metre boat leaving me with the task of lassoing the mooring bollards.
I recalled when I was small wanting to live in Texas and be a cowgirl. These memories strangely came into play as with gusto I began lassoing the mooring posts that were twice my height from within the lock.
Unlike boating on The Broads in Norfolk where onlookers simply cannot wait to take the ropes and help you moor up, the local spectators took great delight in just watching you tackling the locks and taking pictures and videos for Instagram.
By the time we reached the famous eight- chambered Fonserannes Locks, which is a major tourist destination, we had it sussed. Here we were to ascend 21.5 metres with an audience captivated as much as we were by this 17th century water staircase designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet. This passage although difficult took us just 35 minutes to pass through. We looked forward to the next 54 kilometres of ‘lock free’ boating before preparing for the next one.
Cabin fever started to kick in, food supplies ran low and by day four we admitted that we were tired. Wonderful countryside glided past us, glimpses of cathedrals, towns and wine tasting vineyards were seen from the front deck as we motored and motored.
So far we had not left the boat to look beyond the infinite fields of vines and visit the pretty villages described in the brochure. Instead, we were coasting through at a Lewis Hamilton rate of nautical knots in order to meet our boating schedule.
We moored in Homps overnight and got up feeling rather elated that we could have a leisurely breakfast and go exploring on our hired bikes. It was a Bank Holiday therefore all the locks were closed. This meant that we were to take a day off! We cycled around the little town of Homps and visited the nearby Lac de Jouarres. We cycled cross country through pretty lanes and vineyards to a small town called Olonzac for lunch and tried their speciality seafood omelette.
We spent time wondering around the market where we bought some French lavender and soap before heading back for some glorious puddings and a carafe of wine at the riverside restaurant in Homps. We recharged our batteries for the next leg of our journey to Trèbes.
At some point on your trip you may well be as we were found to be jostling with similar sluggish vessels to reach the next lock in first place.
For the most part of our journey from Homps through to Trèbes we were behind a boat called ‘Buffalo Bill’, skippered by ‘Captain Pugwash’, helped by his lady deckhand all guarded by two large grey-haired dogs. Also in our fleet was ‘James Bond’ skippered by a Frenchman with a four man crew. The captain continuously barked orders to his crew who poked their mooring sticks that got too close to his boat
‘Buffalo Bill’ got into serious difficulty as ‘Captain Pugwashes’ deckhand double wrapped a rope around a lock mooring bollard. The water level in the lock decreased rapidly and the boat began to tip on its side, pushing it into the lock wall. This created havoc among the crews of James Bond and our Royal Mystique attempting to keep our boats out of the way and shouting for someone to help the distressed lady deckhand.
After a while the lock keeper strolled over to help Buffalo Bill’s fraught lady deckhand where a mooring rope had become wrapped so tightly around a bollard that she was unable to release it. Meanwhile the extra-excited onlookers were taking selfies of the chaos and some bent boat handrails.
We were pleased to leave both boats behind as we managed to gain first position. I think power dressing worked, wearing my Pelle Skort, Helly Hansen boat shoes and Gill sailing gloves they must have realised after our calm approach to a near capsizing in the lock that we knew what we were doing and they followed us as we led the way to Trèbes.
“Slow down, ralentissez,” the odd person would shout from a moored boat or the enviable position of land. What were they talking about? Don’t they know we’ve got a deadline to meet? From our start base of Port Cassafieres to Port Castelnaudary we had six days to complete the trip. We picked the boat up and set sail at 5pm on the Saturday, the boat needed to be returned the following Friday evening ready for another departure on Saturday by 9am.
We had discovered that the Bank Holiday Monday that fell into our schedule as an “all lock closed” day resulted in our six boating days being reduced to just five.
While my husband and I were sharing eight hour shifts at the helm with no breaks, I also doubled up as ‘galley slave’ ferrying food and drinks up to my skipper guiding us through scenic pretty villages and past never ending fields of Vin Rouge as well as very low bridges always in to a head wind and often stormy weather.
We were given five days to motorboat through 63 locks. I’m not a mathematician nor am I Doctor Who, but it didn’t take much to work out that there was no way, despite the name of the boat (Mystique), that this unrealistic timeline was ever going to be met.
Trèbes is a lovely place to moor with a quayside fresh fish shop and sister restaurant La Poissonnerie Moderne, also some bars offering tapas and lovely good value local wine.
We found a superb restaurant located next to a lock ‘Le Moulin de Trèbes’ run by Sophy and her husband chef Pascal. The food was excellent and well worth the above average cost.
We failed to make it through to the last leg of the journey to Port Castelnaudary, the home of the region’s cassoulet casserole.*
We pushed the pause button, recharged our batteries, read books, enjoyed some amazing French food and drunk some wonderful local wine. We recapped and laughed a lot about our experiences in the locks, the deadly head height low bridges and how well we had managed to survive.
For a good mixture of cruising and exploring two weeks on board would have been ideal for this active part of the Canal du Midi. We could have really pushed the boat out and spent some quality time with a good mixture of cruising and exploring the pretty villages, restaurants and vineyards.
For this trip from Port Cassafieres to Port Castelnaudary (one way), where I was a guest of Le Boat, I recommend a two-week instead of one week break to do a leisurely cruise on this particular route of the Canal du Midi. There is an abandonment fee of 1000 euros.* I recommend that you fly into Bezier and out of Carcassone CCF and do a one-way cruise.
Le Boat’s The Golden Midi Cruise on the Canal du Midi is priced from £1,610 for seven nights in October 2018 on Le Boat’s premier Horizon boat. Other dates, boats and prices are available. Please note that prices are displayed for guidance only. Bike hire is priced from £6 per day for adults and £4 per day for children.
For more information about Le Boat please visit www.leboat.co.uk or call 023 9280 9411.