Slow boat to Carcassonne

France's Canal du Midi once carried grapes and wine, but fell into disrepair. Now, says Leonard Doyle, it provides the perfect route for a gastronomic journey through France
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The Independent Travel

We are slipping along the shaded waters of the Canal du Midi, at the pace of a dray-horse, when our skipper attempts what appears to me an impossible task - threading our 30-metre Dutch barge through a tiny, 17th-century, hump-backed bridge.

Of course, he accomplishes it flawlessly - with inches to spare on each side - as he has done countless times before. But the achievement is no less remarkable in my eyes, nor to the handful of spectators who have gathered along the canal bank, to witness what could be a scene from 100 years ago when the Canal du Midi was at its brief commercial peak.

Aboard the Alouette, we are two adults, a 12-year-old boy, two teenager girls, and a crew of five. When I first broached the idea of a canal trip, some months ago back in London, let us say it was not met with enthusiasm by my companions, some of whom equated a good time with a week on the beach at Marbella. But, as they learned more about what it meant to holiday aboard a luxury barge - waited on hand and foot with culinary, cultural and sporting side-trips each day, resistance dissolved.

This was to be a gastronomic experience par excellence. Tom, our talented live-aboard chef, would produce exquisite regional cuisine from a kitchen the size of a small dishwasher. For the youngest member of our group - better acquainted with pizza and fish fingers than cordon cleu cuisine - the exposure to the best of French cooking would bring about its own revolution. Last month virtually all his food had to be presented in a crispy batter, so witnessing Garrett wolfing down escargots would be something to celebrate. And for the teenagers, growing up in the shadow, if not quite under the influence of, "booze Britain" to have an expert sommelier (who doubled as our guide and driver) expose them to quality French wines, and for them then to consume alcohol - for the taste rather than the effect - would give cause for hope.

Teenagers are not famous for giving compliments to adults, but, of course, always let them know when they are bored. On this trip Katherine and her friend Lotte spend their time in a state of suspended disbelief as, between gourmet meals, they race through their brand new Harry Potter adventures as the boat chugs along.

We begin our journey on the Canal du Midi outside the town of Beziers, where the Alouette was docked. There follows an extraordinary journey as our 80-tonne vessel navigates a series of seven consecutive "steps", as the locks are called, and then heads slowly across country, traversing several rivers along the way by means of exquisite canal bridges.

We are a relaxed crew and accept little of the formality that some might expect on such a cruise. Garrett, I later learn, is the youngest-ever member of a cruise and, at one stage, Cedric the skipper offers him the wheel. For half an hour or so under his watchful eye the Alouette, which is the length of two London buses, is piloted by a boy who can barely see over the driving wheel of my car.

As evening falls on our second day our little ship - in effect a floating luxury apartment - stops for the night at Le Somail.

This tiny 17th-century village was once the pick-up point for provisions for barges taking wine and other produce to and from the country's Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. In the heat of summer they would also take on ice, brought from the Pyrenees in winter and stored in a tall tower which today stands empty. As if to underline that the canal is the spiritual, social and commercial heart of Le Somail, a tiny Catholic chapel juts up against the village's ancient single-arch bridge. Everything is laid out for the convenience of bargemen who have long since disappeared.

Today it is animated once again, this time with a motley collection of barges, cruisers and yachts (de-masted so they can squeeze under bridges) many of which opt to overnight here. With a couple of ivy-covered restaurants nestled up against its cobbled bridge, Le Somail exudes the antique romance which has tempted countless northern Europeans, led by the British, to sell their homes and move to the south of France.

Thankfully that invasion is not yet in full spate here, although there are signs all around that it may soon happen. Locals say that property prices are being driven up by British visitors. But, in truth, the pace of change seems very slow. At the next town along the canal, the delightfully named Homps, there is an all English grocery, l'Epicerie Anglaise: which, sadly, is closed when I pay a visit. A peek in the window reveals a bookcase full of dog-eared paperbacks and DVDs, some Lipton's tea bags and packets of popadoms. If there is a large expatriate community, then it does not seem to be hankering for home.

In Le Somail little seems to move during daylight hours. As we pull alongside the quay and the bowman expertly lassos a bollard, a grey cat jumps out of the way. It slinks off to hide in some tall grass growing up around the wheels of a pint-sized Massey Ferguson tractor. This is Corbière wine country, where every available parcel of land is given over to grape culture. As far as the eye can see there are immaculately-cared-for vines, and the vineyards push right up against its few little streets.

The ancient-looking tractor in which the cat had chosen to hide is just wide enough to drive through the rows of Syrah and Grenache vines, with two shoulder-height spinning blades on each side to trim the fast-growing shoots.

This town's épicerie is located on the deck of a charming, bright-green barge above its owner's living quarters. It is from this floating emporium that the townspeople and visitors alike buy their bread and other daily provisions. Here too the timeless law of French opening hours (9am to 12 and 2pm to 6pm) is observed. Otherwise, c'est fermé.

The Canal du Midi, which connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, is some 240km in length. It was designed by Paul Riquet (1666-1681) as the Royal Canal of Languedoc, and is recognised as an engineering masterpiece with a sophisticated water system. It was dug by 12,000 men, crossing rivers, tunnelling through hills, and is irrigated from the Montagnes Noires. These days engineers come from all over the world to understand its design and its unique water-supply system. For the most part though people just come to admire it.

Although we are within striking distance of two international airports and motorways galore, globalisation has yet to reach this part of France. Thus the tempo of life follows the rhythms of the wine-growing season. In the middle of one of the driest summers on record it is in the cool of the morning that the roads are busy as trucks and trailers rattle around. Then, as the sun reaches its zenith, everything starts to slow down.

If there is an exception to this rule, it is along the canal, where skippers, professional and amateur alike, are making steady progress towards the next lock - bearing in mind the 12mph speed limit and the limitations of the 100-year-old engines driving some of the barges. Of course, the locks close for lunch too, as they have done for the past 150 years, and it is a wise skipper who keeps his eye on the clock if he wants to make any progress. It can take all of a skipper's efforts to cover 50km a day if there are numerous locks to negotiate.

The canal was built before the age of steam and before lock sizes were standardised across Europe. When the rest of France's canals were upgraded more than 100 years ago, for some reason the Canal du Midi was not. Thus the big 38-metre powered barges that plied Europe's waterways simply would not fit through the Canal du Midi's locks and it fell gradually into disuse. Fortunately it was rescued from decay and its recent listing by Unesco as one of the world's great cultural heritage sites has ensured its protection and survival.

It is a gentler, sepia-coloured France that is viewed from the deck of the Alouette. The curve of the canal as it threads its way across country is etched out by two rows of plane trees. There are said to be 45,000 between the Mediterranean port of Sete and Toulouse, where the canal joins the river Garonne for its long journey to the sea at Bordeaux. The mature plane trees form a canopy, reducing evaporation and providing a delightfully dappled shade for those afloat.

Locals walk their dogs along the canal path in early morning. Framed by the trunks of 100-year old trees, they stroll along in unhurried contemplation, giving a wave or a smile as the waterborne traffic chugs by. And, less frequently than might be expected given the idyllic conditions, coarse fishermen fanatically bait the waters and watch their * * twitching lines for a sign of a carp or chub. Then there are the sportifs on their mountain bikes, animated no doubt by the stage of the Tour de France that came hurtling through the town of Béziers as we settled in for our cruise. They buzz along the side of the canal in serious cycling attire, carrying little insulated camel packs of fluid on their backs to keep the thirst at bay. On they go, their fat tyres crunching along the gravel path easily outpacing our stately progress afloat. In the time it took the Alouette to travel the 100km or so from Béziers to Carcasonne, the Tour had headed north from the Pyrenees, criss-crossed the mountains of the Massif Central, and was heading for the final leg to Paris.

As you drift slowly along the water you have plenty of time to observe the natural world. The trees overhead are alive with swallows, swifts and sparrows. Occasionally a harrier swoops down to snatch a mouse or make a pass at some ducklings, only to be driven off by the hysterical flapping of the mother duck.

Further along the canal, from the barren limestone rocks of the Corbières to the aromatic hills of the garrigues (arid brushland) the scenery changes to spectacular cliffs, caves and gorges. Here there are large expenses of wild unspoilt countryside north towards the Montagnes Noires. It is a superb area for birds, where woodlarks sing mournfully from scattered trees and nightingales sing from deep within impenetrable scrub. Here green lizards abound, in addition to the Montpellier snake.

The river Orb's rapid descent through deep canyons makes for an ideal diversion from the sedate progress of the canal. A quick excursion by car to rent canoes and we were following the hair-raising descent through rapids turbocharged by the release that day of millions of litres of water from an upstream hydroelectric station.

The starring role in this vacation though is our 30-metre floating hotel, the Alouette, built in 1908 in Holland. Immaculately maintained, her beautiful lines hark back to a period of unhurried travel, even if she did begin life transporting sand between the Dutch polders (reclaimed land sites). These days she is air-conditioned throughout and boasts a stateroom worthy of a five-star hotel. There are three double bedrooms, all (remarkably) ensuite and small areas in the bow and stern where the crew of five live and work.

When we finally arrive in Carcassonne some 100km from our port of embarkation, it is difficult to work up enthusiasm for what is, after all, one of Europe's most impressive walled towns. That is, until we check into our hotel. Orient Express, the new owners of the Alouette and her sister barges also owns the Hôtel de la Cité, which is situated inside Carcasonne's medieval citadel. With stunning rooms overlooking the ramparts and with views across the countryside to the Montagnes Noires it is an oasis of peace amid the crush of tourists.

Built in 1909, it was, in its Fifties heyday, the epitome of style, as testified by star-studded signatures in the hotel guest book, from Grace Kelly to Christina Onassis. Refurbished and restored, with each bedroom overlooking the 12th-century Sainte Nazaire basilica, it is today considered to be one of the finest small hotels in the world.

But what charms me most, in our all-too-brief stay, is to discover that the hotel features one of the most impressive collections of vintage wine - more than 10,000 bottles - from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast. This is wine that may well have started life at a vineyard before coming by barge, from somewhere along the 240km of the Canal du Midi that we have just travelled along in such style.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled from London Waterloo to Montpellier via Lille and Paris with Eurostar and TGV, booked through Rail Europe (08708 371371; www.raileurope.co.uk). Returns start at £109.

Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies to Montpellier from Stansted and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick.

STAYING THERE

Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; www.orient-express.com) operates five luxury péniche-hotels on the inland waterways of France. Each can accommodate six to 12 guests (Alouette sleeps up to six). All are available for private hire; a number can be reserved on a per cabin basis.

Alouette travels along the Canal du Midi between Toulouse, Carcassonne and Bezier and can be privately hired for a week-long cruise from £10,190 based on four people travelling. This includes six nights' all-inclusive accommodation, sightseeing tours and travel from the UK. A two-night extension package at Hôtel de la Cité costs from £615 per person, bed and breakfast with a full day excursion and transfers from Alouette. In 2006 Alouette can also be booked as a five-night short break combining three nights' all-inclusive accommodation on Alouette, two night's B&B at the Hôtel de la Cité, sightseeing tours and transfers. The total package price starts from £5,900 based on a family of four.

Hôtel de la Cité, Carcassonne, Place de l'Eglise, Carcassonne (00 33 4 68 71 98 71; www.orient-express.com). Doubles start at €325 (£232), room only.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Canal du Midi (www.canalmidi.com).

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