Canal boating is an awesome family adventure, especially if you do it in the the south of France in the middle of a heatwave with a whole flotilla of family. Thank god for that paddling pool!
This article was my first published in the Weekend Australian’s Travel + Indulgence section.
Go with the slow
Nice and easy on France’s canal du Midi, by Megan Holbeck.
As the last boat manoeuvred into position, the heavy wooden gates shut behind it. The four boats fit snugly in the oval basin, stone walls looming above. I gripped the rope tightly as water began pouring through sluices in the matching gates ahead, covering me in spray and turning the placid water to churn. We floated slowly higher, my husband steering from the back deck near where the kids splashed in the paddling pool. Eventually the waterfall stopped, the doors swung open and we glided forward into the next lock, emerging five metres higher. First two locks done: only 62 to go.
I like my holidays slow, with adjectives to match: exploring, absorbing and munching are some of my favourites. So when my husband suggested a week’s canal boat adventure on the Canal du Midi, travelling through some of France’s most beautiful countryside (and best food and wine regions), I was on board.
Fast forward six months and I literally was, floating in a flotilla of family. One boat contained our family of five and a hypermarché of provisions; another my brother-in-law and his wife, their four kids and two dogs. We were less than an hour from Negra, the Locaboat hub where we’d picked up the boat, and already a day behind schedule.
We’d flown into a nationwide hangover, touching down in Toulouse the day after France’s World Cup victory. The weather had joined in the celebrations, the heatwave breaking into lightning displays and a month’s worth of rain. Instead of setting off around the enticing bend the next morning, we were grounded by the resulting floods.
The boats were stationary, but we weren’t. A path runs alongside the canal for its entire 240 kilometres from Toulouse to the Mediterranean, originally for horses towing barges. It’s now busy with walkers, runners and cyclists, from those exercising yappy dogs to pannier-carrying tourers who look like they’re going all the way to the Atlantic. We pedalled along the shady green tunnel formed by plane trees on both banks. Fields of nodding sunflowers baked in the sun and green locks glowed, tranquil without traffic. Cottages were covered in the warm orange of terracotta and riots of frangipanis, bees and butterflies. It seemed a different country to the north’s cold stone buildings, neat fields and moody light.
This holiday heaven was initially all business. The Canal du Midi was the first stage of a grand plan to build a cargo channel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, opening way back in 1681. The last section of this 525 kilometre waterway wasn’t finished until 1856, just in time to compete unsuccessfully with the new railway. The commercial importance of the canal waned, but it found new cargo: tourists.
We weren’t just tourists though: for the next week we were river gypsies, aboard our floating caravans. We casually zigzagged down the canal as we adjusted to the steering lag and our new pace of life: six kilometres an hour at full throttle. This civilised 18thcentury speed gives you plenty of time to watch the world go by, get overtaken by speeding ducks and relax into life.
That first day of boating was the longest, pulling up to Castelnaudary’s port eight hours after we’d left. By the canal’s standards, we’d positively booted, merging two days of travel into one. Our only break had been a measly 90 minutes to consume a metre and a half of Toulouse sausage, coiled like an intestine on the barbecue, followed by smoked salmon, gooey cheese and a crisp rosé as we cooled off in the paddling pool.
All this rushing was for a reason: the whole area is famous for its cassoulet, but Castelnaudary is its spiritual home. The meaty casserole is taken so seriously that a brotherhood – La Grande Confrériedu Cassoulet – has been set up to honour the town’s version. We skipped through the streets to the renowned Chez David, a cosy, traditional restaurant with an incongruous punk soundtrack. There was no messing with the main dish, a sizzling stew of duck leg, pork hock and bacon fat covered in a layer of beans crisped and caramelised by six hours in the oven. The cassoulet and the canal share many similarities: both have evolved over centuries, are filled with hidden treasures, and reward those prepared to slow down and savour every detail.
Travelling along the waterway is like gliding across a masterpiece, or holidaying inside a movie set in a different time and pace. And just like in the movies, there’s regular serendipity. At lunchtime on our second day, a canal-side restaurant appeared, its vine-covered terraces stretching down to the water. We settled in for a feast of Mediterranean warmth and French tradition – plump mussels, grilled seafood and simple, fresh salads, followed by crêpes and crème brûlée, all washed down with local wine. Each morning fresh croissants were only a short ride away; vineyards had set up tasting tables on the canal banks. The summer season was in full swing, with festivals of plucky brass bands and outdoor movies playing in cobbled squares. Our pace and route were set, but within that we could choose our own adventure.
We chose fairy tale, spending two days at Carcassonne, famous for its medieval walled city. The canal takes you into the heart of the new town (800 years old, instead of 2500!), a lively place of narrow streets and window-shopping, where markets of freshly-polished produce appear overnight. Perched high on the hill behind is an outlandish outcrop of towers and turrets, said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. We slept to the sounds of thunder competing with a band playing nearby, part of a festival to welcome the upcoming Tour de France.
The next morning we wound our way up the hill on foot, drawing closer to those daunting walls. Patterns of yellow tape stretched across their rough stone in an artwork that tied into the city’s yellow jersey fever. We crossed the bridge high above the old moat, passing through the town’s two thick concentric walls into the stronghold of the knights.
The citadel is an extravagance of fortification, its walls studded with drawbridges, heavy barbicans and more than 50 towers. Contained within is an entire small town (complete with castle and church) and it blew my mind: for its scale, defences, impregnability and detail. Sure, there are lots of people – it’s France’s second most popular tourist attraction – and there are shops selling axes, a torture museum, and other tourist tat. Complaints about its 19thcentury restoration favouring the spectacular over the authentic may be true, but one thing is for sure, it isspectacular.
Our trip ended in the port at Argens-Minervois, where we traded our boat for a hire car and rejoined the 21stcentury. In our 14-hour drive from the south of the country to the north, we swapped locks for tollways and brasseries for petrol stations. The landscape became a blur past the windows, with evocative names calling from motorway signs. But we had a schedule to follow: the holiday was over and our gypsy days were done.
In the know
Toulouse is the most convenient airport for accessing Canal du Midi. Canal boating requires an adjustment period followed by chunks of manoeuvring, concentration and rope work with the occasional high-stress situation. Locaboat has been active in the European boating holiday industry since 1977 and runs a fleet of 380 canal vessels for hire from multiple locations.