When I first knew we were coming to France, one of the things I wanted to add to the list of “maybe’s” was to experience a canal boat journey – something friends had done and raved about. This was something I knew I would definitely get past the “other half” because it involved driving, water, lots of relaxation, the ability to stock up on beers, wine and great French food regularly, and some pretty good scenery along with the thrill of doing something quite different!
Our travel agent dealt with Dave at Eurolynx in New Zealand (a wholesale travel company that specialises in the waterways of UK and Europe) and he made everything effortless because not only did he suggest a range of itineraries and options for the time of year we wanted to travel, but when the tickets arrived, so did a whole lot of supplementary information and maps which allowed us to forward plan . It also gave us a very good indication of what would be provided by Locaboat Holidays and what we needed to bring on board.
So we chose the Canal du Midi in the South of France as we were going to be spending some time in that region before and after. But before our tale, some history on this fascinating waterway…
A feat of engineering genius that was considered one of the greatest constructions of the 17th century, the Canal is 240km long and connects the Garonne river at Toulouse, to the Étang de Thau right down on the Med. Commenced during the reign of Louis 14th in 1666 by Pierre-Paul Riquet, this particular canal was to give life to the trade in wheat, wine, silk and salt and save huge amounts of time and the risk of pirate attack, in having to transport goods by sea around the Iberian Peninsula and the Strait of Gibralter which was then occupied by the Spanish.
The course and planning of the river and its source was amazing enough for those times but when you consider that the landscape rises 57.18m from Toulouse and then falls to the Mediterranean, you can be especially wowed by the idea and execution of the 86 original locks and like me, in particular, the group of 8 ‘Fonserannes’ staircase locks just before Béziers. There are an array of charming bridges, tunnels and spillways along the route as well as the historic larger towns like Carcassone, Narbonne and Béziers and the smaller quaint ones such as Le Somail and Homps.
We learnt of so many interesting and historical facts about the canal along the way and of real interest to me was the history of the planting of the canals. Now, mainly mature Plane trees line the banks (albeit with many missing due to a spreading canker disease) and give the canal a peaceful charming appearance, but during the 1700’s when the silk industry was at its height, the banks were commercially lined with Mulberry trees which are the main food source of silkworms. Iris was also planted to secure the canal sides and now cover most of the length that we travelled. We were lucky to see a few coming out in Spring but I am sure the Summer display would be stunning. The Canal du Midi was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 and is a special place.
Getting prepared & getting there!
We had to collect our boat at the beginning of April so after a few days in the striking fortress city of Carcassonne, we headed southwards by car down to a small but pretty canalside village named Argens-Minervois. But we weren’t there for the scenery – we were there to collect our brand spanking new Locaboat Holidays Evolution Penichette – our floating home for the next week on the stunning Canal du Midi! Locaboat name each of their boats for a French town and ours was to be the sparkling Gardouche.
Heaps of safe parking is available for customers at a relatively reasonable day rate and we had pre-booked bicycles for the boat and wifi to make sure every angle was covered on the journey. After a bit of paperwork and formality, we were given a guided tour of our brand new little Penichette. Being brand new, we were lucky to have such luxuries as a convection hob and gas oven, wifi, pump heating, a great bathroom and for the blokes – front and rear bow thrusters and 360degree joystick for use at low revs! Did I mention the stylish decor and lovely front and rear deck facilities (sadly we didn’t see too much good weather).
We had done a big shop at a supermarket on the way, but you can pick up smaller and fresh items at the little store/bakery at the depot. Don’t worry though, because unless it’s Sunday, you can pretty much pick groceries and essentials up along the way and when you arrive in the larger towns like Narbonne, there are always the fresh food markets to tempt you and they offer both fresh fruit & veges, meats, patisserie, wines and more but also beautiful, hand-prepared food that you can take back to the boat and heat up – and taste just like Grandma used to make!
See our next blog for heading off and our first few days of heading to Narbonne….