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

"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.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport