Go with the flow in France
On a family trip along the Canal du Midi, Douglas Schatz learns to take a leaf out of the lock keepers' book - and takes it easy
Saturday 07 June 2008
"It's just a floating caravan!" That was my wife's first unhappy reaction to the sight of Beauregard, the French canal boat that we were about to spend the next week living aboard. Our family has always strenuously avoided camping or caravanning - why do people voluntarily make do with less than the comforts of home? So I could tell as we were shown around the compact layout of Beauregard that my wife's sunny vision of the next seven days was rapidly clouding over. When we got to the lesson on pumping out the miniature toilet, I confess that even my enthusiasm wavered.
Our plan was a relaxing week's cruise up the Canal du Midi in south-west France, from Argens-Minervois near Narbonne to Negra just short of Toulouse. The canal is a marvel of engineering. It was built in the late 17th century to link the Mediterranean to the Garonne river at Toulouse, and via the Gironde to connect the Med to the Atlantic.
The route passes through the historic city of Carcassonne, as well as the wine regions of Minervois and Cabardes, and is renowned for its picturesque scenery.
Having completed the guided tour of our floating caravan, our technician, Eric, took us out for a crash course in boat handling. This included talking me through a 180-degree turn between the banks of the narrow canal, a trick I proudly accomplished but hoped never to have to repeat without Eric. And that was it - we were sent on our way.
In fact, keeping a boat on a mainly straight-line course through a canal is not too difficult. Navigating our first lock was another matter. The principle of the thing is simple enough, particularly on the Midi, where all 65 of the locks are manned by resident keepers who direct traffic and operate the gates and sluices.
We managed to steer Beauregard neatly enough through the narrow opening into the belly of our first lock - the Midi locks are shapely ellipses built for strength and to accommodate several craft - but our first attempt to hurl our line five metres up the lock wall to our daughter on top fell short. As the boat drifted helplessly out from the wall the failed tosses became even longer. Our confidence quickly turned to embarrassment as we floundered to secure ourselves. The more locks we notched up, however, the more slick our teamwork became. By the second, or maybe third, day, we even basked in our mastery, looking askance at others who failed to execute a perfectly elegant passage.
One of the first lessons we learned on the canal was that everything is best done slowly. The maximum cruising speed is 8km/h, barely more than walking pace - we only covered 120km in the whole week. The locks do not open until 9am and they close at 7pm, with an extra hour's rest in the middle of the day to allow the keeper to have his lunch.
The leisurely routine of life on the water is the whole point. A slow awakening and breakfast on board before the first lock opened; by mid-morning, we'd stop for refuelling, topping up our water supplies and cycling along the towpaths to the local villages in search of provisions. We lunched and read while the lock keepers did the same, and then cruised through the afternoon. My favourite time of day was the last hour's cruising in the early evening, when the sunlight softens the landscape and the waters of the canal are peacefully still.
From my detailed maps and guidebooks, I was aware that we were passing tantalisingly close to the vineyards of the Minervois and I was keen to search out the local chateaux on our bicycles. By a stroke of good fortune (and much to the relief of my crew, who were not so enthusiastic about a lengthy wine-tasting expedition), I stumbled upon a wonderful Maison du Vins right beside the canal at the little village of Homps. After chatting to the staff about the local grapes and growers, I staggered out laden with enough samples for the week onboard and for the rack at home.
We spent less time than we usually do on this holiday "seeing the sights". We were too busy going slowly up the Midi to have time for much else. One exception was a lunch stop in Carcassonne. We first glimpsed the famed turrets of the walled city from the boat, the view sliding past like a medieval mural. Having moored near the train station, we cycled through the lively streets of the lower town and ascended the steep hill to the Porte Narbonnaise, the impressive fortified entrance to the citadel. The hilltop city is a Unesco world heritage site: it was here in 1209 that the Albigensian crusade besieged the Cathar heretics, and when the city fell, the feared crusader leader, Simon de Montfort, made it the capital for his ruthless campaign.
Our next stop of note was another landmark in Cathar history, the busy pleasure port of Castelnaudary. Its expansive Grand Bassin reservoir once served as a turning point for large grain barges in the Midi's industrial past. Today, pleasure craft of all shapes and sizes moor up and their owners flood the town in search of the classic local speciality: cassoulet.
As for further sightseeing, we felt little urgency to adjust our leisurely daily routine. Chugging slowly through the landscape gives you time to enjoy the scenery: the canal is typically lined by rows of plane trees that protect its solitude and provide welcome shade. In several memorable places, they edge both sides of the channel, their tall straight columns and the arch of their branches creating a soaring nave over the water. The heads of sunflowers peak over the bank, and beyond, rows of green vines stretch across the wide plains to the slopes of the black hills to the north. To the south, on a clear day, the hazy peaks of the Pyrenees are faintly visible.
One of the key selling points of camping or caravanning is that you can stop where you like. And so it is on the canal. Once the locks closed for the day, we moored our travelling home in a peaceful place, usually with only a local fisherman or two for company. We assembled dinner in our compact kitchen, played endless games of cards around the table, and sat out on the deck sipping the local rose and watching the stars gradually multiply overhead. When we reached our journey's end and had to give Beauregard back, even my wife admitted that she would miss her.
Douglas Schatz and family booked their canal holiday in south-west France with French Country Cruises (Andrew Brock Travel) (01572 821330; www.frenchcountrycruises.com)
A week on Beauregard in August costs £1,190, plus a one-way supplement of £63, and excluding local fuel charges. Beauregard is a "Classic Penichette 1107" canal boat sleeping four to five people.
French Country Cruises offer a range of Penichettes sleeping up to 12 people, for hire on canals in France, as well as in Holland, Italy, Germany, Poland and Ireland. Bicycles can be hired at the local boat depots.
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