LE CANAL DU MIDI
29 September - 9 October 2012
Finally I've found the time to sit down and write about our trip down the Canal du Midi.
This was our second canal trip. Our first trip was on the Canal du Nivernais, which was just amazing, however as picturesque as it was there really weren't a lot of villages "open for business" and we found that the markets which had been written up in the Waterways Guide were no longer operating. We did however, cruise through Chablis and imbibed on all the wonderful produce the area had to offer.
This trip we had the same crew comprising of my husband, two children and my in-laws. We travel really well together and have found that boating is a great way of seeing a lot whilst only unpacking once!
The Canal du Midi has various boat operators, however both times we rented boats through Le Boat and found them to be extremely comfortable and clean with knowledgable and helpful staff both at the ports and along the canal.
The rain had been constant, however we were told that it was forecast to clear, so we didn't rush to catch the first lock (PK218) by the closing time of 6.00pm. We decided to pull up along side the canal and settle in for the night.
All boats are fitted with metal pegs and a hammer for anchoring to the shore. As often as you are told not to tie up to trees along the canal, the pegs just aren't strong enough to hold such a heavy boat and with the constant gentle currant its very easy to wake up find yourself drifting down the canal. Fortunately at midnight I woke up to a strange noise, only to find we were about to be set free off down the canal. Thank god, my husband is tall and could jump the distance between the boat and the shore to rescue us. What a surprise everyone got when they awoke to find the boat facing the wrong way!
The locks open at 9.00am (not a minute before) and there is usually a little argy-bargy to get in first. They take around 20 minutes to navigate and about three boats can fit comfortably in each. We have learned from experience it is a benefit to get up early, have breakfast and be organised to get the early lock. If you don't then you have to wait for it to empty and return which is another 20-30 minutes.
The "Neuf Ecluses" (The Fonserannes Staircase) is located just on the other side of Beziers. It is a staircase of nine locks and takes you up 22 metres. The staircase takes about 40 minutes to navigate and a lot of concentration. They really squash you in and you need all eyes on deck to make sure your boat doesn't get smashed and scraped. If you are like us and the first boat in the lock, when they open the sluice gates the power of the water is terrifying and you honestly can't understand how you are not going to sink! Double check the opening times for going up-stream. I think it is from 10.00am - 12.15pm and then again from 4.00pm - 6.00pm. This is not somewhere you really want to have to wait all afternoon, because you got there at 12.20pm!
Les Fonserannes Staircase
Once at the top of the staircase its an easy, picturesque ride of 50km before the next lock. Settle in and take advantage of the wonderful scenery.
Colombiers isn't a great place to stay, but does have facilities for refilling water tanks etc.
Poilhes is a really lovely town. It has a small grocery stores which sells fresh bread and pastries. At PK192 is Domaine de Guery. It's a 400 year old winery which offeres tastings and demonstrations. We didn't stop here as it was still early morning!
Capestang has quite a big marina and is a well established town. The Cathedral is a dominating sight as you cruise into the town. It's about a 10 minute walk into the centre square where you'll find restaurants, cafes, a laundry, grocery store and bakery. We had a very nice lunch at "Le Provence" just off the square.
Argeliers has its market day on Saturday! (In the book it said Tuesday.) It was here that we had a problem with our grey water not draining properly so we moored and waited for Le Boat to send someone to have a look at it. Argeliers is another pretty town. Again it's a good 10 minute walk to the centre where they have a great butcher (who will happily give you the rugby scores), baker and grocer. There is also a cave coop which has good local wine.
We had decided to keep our car with us, so each day my husband and I would cycle back along the roads/bike paths and collect the wagon! On average it would take us about an hour round trip and we could do it well before breakfast. It gave us a fantastic amount of freedom to visit far off places. From Argeliers we drove to a little town called Roquebrun. The village was a good 40 minute drive and it is set into the side of a mountain. Just magic with the river in front and church on the hill. It was the highlight of our trip so far!
Up near the church is a community garden which you can pay to visit. Otherwise do what we did and buy a couple of pizzas from the local Pizzeria, a bottle of wine and sit at the picnic table,under the oak tree, outside the church, on the top of the hill and enjoy the spectacular views of the local vineyards, river and mountains. Make sure you take your good walking shoes. It's a steep hill!
Le Somail was an early stop for postal barges, back in the day. It's a really pretty village and well appointed with galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. The grocery store is located on a barge and open until 7.00pm. Make sure you order your bread and pastries for the next morning.
We had a fantastic dinner at L'Or la Bouche and stumbled the two steps back to our boat and bed!
The hat museum is a must! It's just out of Le Somail (walking distance) and a treasure trove of history. An amazing collection of hats from all over the world.
Narbonne - you can detour down the Canal de Jonction to Narbonne, however it is a good day trip to do so. We chose to leave the boat in Paraza and drive to Narbonne for the day. It was hot, busy and although good to see, I think I would have prefered to stay and have a quiet day on the boat. I'm not much of a shopper (unlike my mother-in-law) so poking around looking at clothes was pretty boring. The Cathedral was impressive and when we entered the organist was playing and it was nice and cool.
After our day out we moved on down to the Pechlaurier Ecluse (PK150). Unfortunately, just as we arrived a boat was going up so the eclusier wouldn't bring it back down for us until the following morning. There is a great walk up a hill here that looks back over the canal. Even if you don't plan on stopping here, try and get up to the lookout and see where you are. It's pretty cool.
I am so pleased however that we did have access to a car. Supermarkets are always a long way off, so buying supplies is limited on the canal. The Midi is far better than the Nivernais, however noone really explains how isolated you can be and if you haven't provisioned well enough, you could be going to bed on a piece of bread and cup of tea.
Carcassonne is a sight and the Cite is a must to visit. We drove from Homps for the day and thoroughly enjoyed visiting the museum and walking the cobble streets of the magnificent castle. Unfortunately, it is very touristy and the crowds of people can be quite overwhelming especially when you want to sit down for lunch. However, do take the time to wander around and learn about the history of the castle.