Cruising France by canal boat reveals aspects of the French countryside that are unavailable to most tourists. Buy a fresh baguette in the morning so you can make delicious sandwiches for lunch, quietly motor through acres of rolling vineyards, stop in small towns without hordes of sightseers and relax at an outdoor café for an exquisite dinner accompanied by local wine. What’s not to like?
We did exactly that, along with another couple, during a one-week bareboat charter on the Canal du Midi in southern France. Our cruise began near the Mediterranean, just east of Béziers at Port Cassafières. Before leaving the charter base we had a short, helpful training session on basic maneuvering (it’s different!) and rules of the (canal) road. We learned, among other things, that boats heading downstream always have the right of way.
Our 44-foot Royal Mystique canal boat had fore and aft cabins, each with its own head and shower. The large, well-equipped galley and dining area were amidships, providing plenty of space and privacy for two couples. We added the optional Wi-Fi (charmingly pronounced “wee fee” by the French) hotspot for the boat. Bikes are available for rental, but stowing them seemed awkward and likely to restrict mobility on board, so we passed.
Steering from the flybridge helm let us enjoy the stunning scenery and facilitated communication among crew and helmsman as we passed through locks. A waterway guide printed in English, French and German showed locks, bridges and towns along the way.
Canal du Midi is unlike any canal we’ve seen in the United States. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the canal is small, a far cry from the industrial scale of the Panama Canal or even our own Erie Canal. Think blue highways, not interstates. In their day, the old canals were key commerce arteries. Canal du Midi is one of many that are maintained today, supporting tourism.
The construction technology available 350 years ago created a fairly narrow canal (usually less than 100 feet wide, sometimes much less.) Each lock provides a lift of only 10 to 15 feet. On Canal du Midi, all the locks were staffed, and with a tiny bit of effort on our part — a smile, a French phrase — the lockmasters were very helpful. The guidebook advises that there are self-operated, unstaffed locks in some areas, but we did not encounter any. The oval-shaped Canal du Midi locks use a horizontal arch design to withstand lateral collapsing forces from the banked earth on both sides. Most locks can accommodate only two boats at a time.
Canal du Midi from the Mediterranean to Toulouse was built between 1667 and 1682, during the reign of Louis XIV. (In 1856, the canal was extended to Bordeaux and the Atlantic.) A canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic had been dreamed of for centuries. The canal’s principal architect, Pierre-Paul Riquet, solved two vexing engineering problems: routing the canal to minimize excavation (it mostly follows a set grade, like the contour lines on a topographic map) and getting enough water to the canal’s high point to meet the locks’ never-ending need for gravity-fed water. Some 150 years earlier, Leonardo da Vinci had tried without success to solve the feedwater challenge. Riquet is regarded as a regional hero for his accomplishment, and he is saluted by name or statue in many of the small towns along the canal.
A century after the canal was built, during a trip to southern France to restore his health, Thomas Jefferson marveled at the engineering feats involved in the canal’s design and construction. Canal du Midi is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Malpas Tunnel is the most spectacular feature of the canal, passing through 540 feet of rock and wide enough for only one boat. Sound your horn as you enter! Almost as amazing is the canal bridge just past Béziers that goes over the river Orb.
This section of the Canal du Midi connects older, smaller towns that are gems. Not one of our stopover villages was mentioned in the Rick Steves guidebook to France, and they radiated authentic charm. Lacking 12th-century ruins, famous artist studios or the glitz of the French Riviera, most of the towns we chose for overnight stops had one or two restaurants, a boulangerie (for baguettes and croissants), a tiny grocery store and perhaps a gift shop. They typically boasted modest marina facilities with shore power, water and access to showers.
SIDEBAR Cast Off — In Europe If you’re feeling the urge for a low-stress adventure, try cruising inland European waterways on a bareboat charter. Here are some of the best-known companies and their highlights. Le Boat Freedom to choose when you stop and what you see is part of the appeal of chartering, and Le Boat aims to please. Explore the canals of the Veneto region in Italy, taste the cognac along an art and history cruise in France, or enjoy beautiful Bruges (and its fine chocolate) in Belgium. Whether you’re traveling for three days or 21, Le Boat has temptations to offer in France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. leboat.com Loca Boat Themed cruises are Loca Boat’s focus. Choose a charter in Alsace, France, to experience the region’s legendary food and wine; discover castles, churches and villages in Ireland; or moor up in the heart of Venice to get a taste of the City of Bridges. You can also design your own itinerary in France, Germany, Finland, Croatia, Scotland, United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Italy or Ireland. locaboat.com Nicols You could take a whole summer and visit all the regions of France with Nicols. Cruise in the Camarague and see the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes or travel to the Vallée du Lot and encounter the historic port Bouziès. Nicols also offers opportunities to cruise in the Brandenburg and Mecklenburg regions in Germany, as well as on the sunny Grande Lago in Portugal. This company offers four styles of boats, offering accommodations for 2-12 people. boat-renting-nicols.co.uk
Our first stop, Béziers, was by far the largest town we encountered, with extensive commercial and retail facilities. The boat basin, set off by locks at each end, can easily accommodate 50 boats, many with full hookups. Walking into the city, we found an impressive market with cheeses, meats, fish and local produce. And unlike previous trips to France when we could only drool over the market offerings, this time we had a galley, so we could buy and cook the local fare.
Upstream from Béziers is the Fonserannes Lock. This is a staircase, a series of six back-to-back locks that accomplish a substantial rise in gradient. Because the locks are sequential, the waterway guide includes a schedule showing the times when the locks operate going either upstream or downstream. Arriving at the staircase at the wrong time means hours of waiting. These locks handled four boats at a time; going up the staircase was a bit of a circus. The lockmaster hollered at the captains to quickly align their vessels so the locks could fill with water. The boat behind us struggled, ending up sideways in the lock. Listening to the tone of the lockmaster’s rantings, we hoped the wayward captain did not understand French. It sounded like a first-class dressing down.
Once through the staircase, we were pretty tired from all the line handling. We continued on for a mile or two and then simply pulled over, drove our iron stakes into the canal bank, tied up for the night, sautéed the fresh poisson from the Béziers market and opened a bottle of local rosé.
The next day was an easy cruise to Capestang. Much of the canal is lined with huge plane trees that cast shade and create an aura of calm. Sadly, in many areas disease has wiped out these trees; a major replanting program is underway. Passing through the many bridges that cross the canal is a quiet adventure in threading the needle. Clearance on either side is about 2 feet, and we often had to duck as we passed underneath.
Capestang has a much smaller boat basin than Béziers, but we arrived early and landed a slip with power and water. Dinner was at a charming outdoor café in the courtyard of an ancient stone building. We were seated about 15 feet from the hard-working chef. Oh, and the rosé? Bien sur, it was from a local winery, inexpensive and delicious.
The next day we stopped midday at Ventenac-en-Minervois and toured a winery museum stocked with vintner’s tools from centuries past. Entry fee: 3 euros. This minor attraction featuring agrarian history typified the modest recreational economy that the canal supports today.
That night we stopped at Le Somail, a hamlet whose claim to fame is a used bookstore. Housed in a stunning, multistory building that resembles a church, the shop stocks more than 50,000 titles arranged by subject and language. Dinner at a canal-side outdoor cafe was outstanding. The label on our wine bottle matched the logo of the small bed and breakfast in town. Le Somail does not have a traditional grocery store, but there is a “bread barge” moored in town that stocks a few food items. If you order your baguette the night before, they’ll have it for you the next morning.
Our last overnight was in Argens-Minervois, where we had an OK meal (though the mussels were a huge hit with some crewmembers). The semioutdoor restaurant evoked a Jimmy Buffett vibe reminiscent of Key West. Back on board, we managed just fine without shore power.
We dropped the boat off the following day at the charter base in Homps, the largest community we’d encountered since Béziers. Dinner was more lovely food at a busy and efficient restaurant across the canal, accessed via a charming pedestrian bridge. Checking in with the charter company the next morning was a breeze. And just like that, the trip was over.
Of course, it wouldn’t be boating unless there were challenges to overcome. Our boat generally performed well, but on Day Two the steering wheel was leaking hydraulic fluid. The charter company promptly sent a maintenance truck with a crew who refilled the fluid and stopped the leak. One of the stateroom reading lights was jury-rigged, hanging over the berth by its wires. The boat’s door lock was balky, easily lockable from the inside but not from the outside. We pointed this out when we accepted the boat, but the company’s fix did not last. One of our crew spent a couple of hours disassembling, reassembling and reinstalling the lock so we could leave the boat without taking passports and all our valuables with us.
The charter company’s marketing literature, predictably, shouts “no experience needed,” but we would beg to differ. Our crew included former Nordic Tug owners who had gone through hundreds of locks in the United States. Without that experience on board, our anxiety level would have been quite high. On the plus side, the one-dimensional navigation and permanently deployed fenders provided a comforting limit to how much could go wrong.
The most disturbing problem was the water quality. There are no pumpout facilities on the canal. All wastewater pumps directly overboard. With scores of charter boats on the canal, this was a real shock. Our crew is accustomed to cruising Long Island Sound, where pumpouts are a way of life and direct discharging is illegal, anti-social and, well, gross. We found ourselves making mental calculations of the volume of wastewater in comparison to the volume of water in the canal. It wasn’t a pleasant thought and was in sharp contrast to the high level of environmental consciousness that is otherwise typical of western Europe. Fears about water quality provided a strong incentive for our line handlers to keep the lines out of the water as we locked through or tied up for the evening.
That said, canal charters are popular among Europeans. We met boaters from Britain, France and Germany, and hardly encountered any Americans. There are three large charter companies offering a wide range of vessels in various sizes and shapes: Le Boat (which we used), Locaboat and Nicols. All have helpful websites and bases along the canal for boat maintenance, pickups and drop-offs (see ”Cast Off — In Europe”).
Some conversational French is helpful but not essential. The charter company employees speak English, more or less, but in the smaller towns many merchants do not. You can probably get by just fine if you learn the words for wine, beer, right, left, bathroom, please and thank you.
Canal du Midi is one of many canals in France and elsewhere in Europe where chartering thrives. If you enjoy cruising and are curious to see the hidden side of France, a canal charter melds those goals beautifully. Beyond France, there are dozens of canal charters available in England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Boaters who love Europe should definitely put this experience on their bucket lists.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.