The Douce France of old is alive and well - you just need to slow down your mode of transport
240km long and linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Canal du Midi was the brainchild of a particularly bright tax collector named Pierre-Paul Riquet.
329 years after it was finally finished, we went to explore a section of it by boat. Our starting point was Castelnaudary – a pretty town 60km south of Toulouse. We had slowed down the entire pace of the holiday and had taken the Brittany Ferries route to France, followed by an increasingly warm drive down almost the length of the country.
After a visit to the local Lidl (they really are everywhere), we loaded our luggage and our provisions for the week. The company rep took us through the workings, rules and regulations on the boat while the children (our three boys) got settled in, exploring the vessel with whoops of excitement.The boat was very comfortable and well laid-out and felt more spacious than most mobile homes I’ve been in. Our boat slept eight altogether, with three bedrooms and a further convertible double bed in the living room area. It had two bathrooms with plenty of hot water for the shower (once the engine is running for ten minutes or more), a decent-sized fridge-freezer and an oven with a hob. Everything you need for a permanent life on board, it would seem. We noticed that a lot of people had opted to do just that, in fact, and the canal is dotted with those who have chosen to live afloat all year round.
Having run through the basics of navigation and safety, the time came to set forth. We pointed the boat towards the Mediterranean and soon encountered our first lock. The initial attempt to manoeuvre through involved some shouting and a little confusion. The chain of command began to break down with the First Mate (Mrs Power) issuing counter-orders and the Captain (me) getting muddled. But the crew settled down and we soon got the hang of it; enjoying the experience and marvelling at the engineering required all those centuries ago to make sure that the ‘steps’ of the canal worked perfectly.As is the norm during the summer in the South of France, the weather was hot, but it’s amazing what a refreshing breeze you can muster up even travelling at the maximum allowed top speed of 8kph. The slow pace is relaxing and you quickly get the hang of steering the boat. We also took the option of renting bikes – something that most people seemed to have done. A lot of the time, my First Mate and I took turns at the wheel, while the three children cycled alongside on their bicycles on a 300-year-old tow path that still hardly sees any motorized vehicles.
You get the impression that the canal runs right through the heart of rural Fance and what you see from your boat as you potter along seems far-removed from the modern France – it’s the Douce France of Charles Trenet and Yves Montand. You can almost hear them croon from the banks.
We progressed further south; under one-eyed bridges and modern flyovers and over ancient viaducts. Although the canal isn’t the cleanest, there is quite a lot of life in it. Lots of people fish in it, ducks float in it and the beaver-like coypu (inadvertently imported from one of France’s South-American former colonies) pops his head up regularly. You even come across some hardy locals who swim in it.The lock-keepers themselves emerge from their idyllic-looking lock-keepers’ houses when your boat approaches a lock. Beforehand, I had visions of the locks being safely guarded by reticent portly old men – very possibly wearing a beret or a mariner’s cap of some sort and smoking a yellow Gitane – who slowly heaved levers to open and close the sluice gates in a serious and time-honoured manner. The real lock-keepers vary from eighteen-year-old students to middle-aged housewives to people who frankly looked like ex-convicts and everyone in between. All the lock gates have been electrified and each lock-keeper operates them using a remote-control pack that hangs around the neck like an oversized video game console.
Most of the day was filled with cruising along with smiles on our faces, punctuated by mooring on the bank for lunch – normally al fresco under the shade of the plane trees. We would also sometimes go for a cycle en famille on cycle lanes or quiet country roads that snaked over gentle hills through fields of vines, sunflowers and rooks of hay. The evenings featured dinner on board cooked to perfection by the First Mate followed by refreshments and plenty of rounds of cards.
We had timed our overnight stop to coincide with the truly unforgettable Bastille-day fireworks display in the mediaeval city of Carcassonne. Mooring in the heart of the city was nice for a change, although nothing beats over-nighting in tiny hamlets or in the wilds by the open fields.
Next day, we pottered on past Trebes, where we hit our only canal traffic jam at a triple lock in the afternoon. Unlike its counterpart on the M50, however, a Canal du Midi traffic jam involves standing on the bank in the warm Midi air and under the shade of the trees, swapping stories with Canadians, Irish, Norwegians, British and French, sending the children on their bikes to get ice-creams in the shop by the lock or nipping to the local artisan shop to get honey or wine miraculously infused with the scents of South of France.
We returned to the base at Castelnaudary the evening before handing the boat back. Going on recommendation, we had cassoulet at the Petit Gazoullis in the centre of the town where cassoulet was invented; it was traditional comfort food at its best in unpretentious surroundings.
The next day, we bade farewell to our floating home and, as we walked alongside the canal back to where our car was parked, we quietly eyed up those who had made the permanent move onto the canal and dreamed of the possibilities of a life of cruising.
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Through Emerald Star, The Marina, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, you can book cruises on the Canal du Midi. There are a number of different routes you can take depending on the time-scale and where you’d like to see. For information and booking, call 071- 962 7633 or visit www.emeraldstar.ie