Enjoy the Ride

Take it easy on a boating holiday in the south of France. Carolyn Boyd discovers that life in the slow lane has its advantages as she cruises down the Canal du Midi

Take it easy on a boating holiday in the south of France. Carolyn Boyd discovers that life in the slow lane has its advantages as she cruises down the Canal du MidiFor many people, a holiday is all about the destination and it starts by getting there in the quickest and most efficient way possible. For others, a trip is more about enjoying the journey and the company of those you meet along the way. On a boat travelling at just six kilometres per hour, you may not cover much distance, but the journey is certainly worth making. My five-person crew and I boarded our boat atCastelnaudary, halfway between Toulouse and Carcassonne on the world-famous Canal du Midi. Over the following seven days, we covered the relatively short distance to the village of Marseillette 50 kilometres downstream and back.Completed in 1681, the canal links the River Garonne with the �tang de Thau, near S�te on the south coast. It was originally intended to provide a shortcut between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, thus eliminating the month-long journey around Spain and the risk of meeting the Barbary corsairs who wrought havoc there in the 16th and 17th centuries. These days, however, it is mostly tourists making the journey – not to avoid pirates, but rather a week or two at work.

Luck of the locksThat said, the trip, while a relaxing one, isn’t without its own toils. With several locks to negotiate along the way, our journey got off to an exciting start as the exit from the base at Castelnaudary is a series of three locks (�cluses). As canal-boating novices, we were in at the deep end, but the process was relatively simple. With the lock-keeper spying down from his elevated booth, he opened and closed the gates around us as the crews from the three boats in the lock held their vessels in place with ropes tied to bollards on the towpath. After half an hour of manoeuvring the boat through the locks, we were through. An open stretch of jade green water lay ahead, each side shaded by the canal’s characteristic plane trees. It wasn’t long before the three boats spread out, and we were alone on the water but for a family of ducks, with the fluffy brown and yellow chicks darting around their fretting mother. We spied golden fields through the trees and the Montagne Noire in the distance. The next few kilometres were punctuated by more locks, their green-shuttered cottages standing idly by as the lock-keepers opened and closed the gates via electronic switches. Although the cottages were architecturally similar, each had a different personality – some with roses around the door, others with geranium-filled window boxes, or a neat little fence. At the �cluse de Guerre, a golden labrador slept on the sun-drenched wall, oblivious to the gushing lock, while at the �cluse de Peyruque, a tricolore fluttered above the main entrance and cyclists had paused on their journey along the towpath for an ice cream. While three of our crew stayed on the boat while it went through the lock, we ventured into the tiny boutique where local honey and pottery crafts were on sale. We made our obligatory lunch stop before the next lock and, having fetched a few days’ worth of provisions from the supermarket before departure, we tucked into salad, charcuterie and a fresh baguette. Later, as the early evening sun glimmered through the trees, we cruised around a corner to find a tiny wine bar (more like a beach bar in its style) on the bank of the canal. With no other customers around, we felt duty-bound to lend our patronage, so we moored up and jumped aground to receive a warm welcome from the owners. Though we already had enough food for dinner, we ordered a bottle of ros� and some tapas as an ap�ritif. As we sat on stools around huge barrels made into tables, the owners brought us large plates of king prawns, garlic bread, potatoes with garlic mayonnaise and – something I’d never tried before – cuttlefish drenched in lemon and garlic. It was a feast and it was hard to tear ourselves away to get on to where we’d planned to spend the night. Our first night aboard was spent moored against a bank near an old bridge close to the village of Villes�quelande. With the engine switched off, peace descended around us as we ate dinner and sipped our chilled ros� wine sitting up on deck as the water flowed placidly by. We were up early the next morning to start our journey towards Carcassonne. With the locks opening at 8.30am, but closing again for lunch around 12pm, we got into this habit in order to make the most of the four-hour window for our mornings’ journeys. Fetching fresh bread and croissants from the village, we ate breakfast before setting off – our aim was to reach Carcassonne for lunch. As we chugged along, rows of vineyards appeared through the trees. Though we were not yet in the Minervois Valley, it was a clear sign we were heading towards wine country. Before long, the turrets of Carcassonne’s medieval citadel appeared on the horizon. It made for a formidable sight, and I couldn’t help wondering how thousands of others who have cruised along the canal throughout the centuries must have felt as they set eyes on its various incarnations. The base at Carcassonne was busy, but we squeezed the boat into a small space near the shower block and, after a quick snack, headed off into the city to explore. It was a 25-minute walk through the town to the citadel. As we arrived at the Porte Narbonnaise, other tourists were milling around, either ready to join their coach parties or enter the citadel themselves. Through the gate, we followed the narrow cobbled Rue Crosmayrevieille up the hill; the restaurants and shops alongside it were packed with enthusiastic visitors about to have lunch. At the top we reached the entrance to the impressive Ch�teau de Comtal and went inside to explore. 

Architect’s dreamThe citadel has been sacked, pillaged and burned through the ages and owes its present form to 19th-century architect Eug�ne Viollet-le-Duc who, from 1853 onwards, transformed it following a campaign against its demolition. However, the city dates from the 6th century BC. It belonged to the Romans, the Visigoths and then the great Languedocian family the Trencavels in the Middle Ages, during which time the city became very prosperous. This was an era during which Catharism – a Christian sect – became widespread in the region, much to the disapproval of the Catholic Church who regarded the Cathars as heretics. Following a failure to convert them, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade in 1209 and Carcassonne, along with towns such as Albi and B�ziers, were besieged. Unlike in B�ziers, where the whole town’s population were slaughtered, the Cathars were forced to leave Carcassonne; their protector, Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel – who had given himself as a hostage in order to save his people – was imprisoned in the dungeon of his own castle, where he later died. On entering the modern-day castle, we were treated to a fantastic audio-visual display of the city’s history, which set the scene for the exhibits we saw. Out on the ramparts we enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding area. We could see for miles, but just as fascinating were the turrets, walls and towers that we could see up close. After our tour of the ch�teau and a quick look around the rest of the citadel’s attractions – including the amphitheatre and the basilica with its fascinating gargoyles – it was time to get back to the boat for dinner.

Friendly banterThe next day, our journey along the canal continued. We left the turreted citadel of Carcassonne behind us and we cruised towards Tr�bes, a small town 14 kilometres downstream. There were a few locks along the way but by this stage we had mastered the routine of manoeuvring into the tight spaces alongside the other boats. Being in such close proximity to other vessels for the 20 minutes it takes to go through the lock, allows for much friendly banter with the other crews and we got to know British, Americans, Italians, French and several South Africans who were, presumably, escaping their football-crazed nation for a few weeks. As the boat cruised along at six kilometres per hour, crew members could easily walk or cycle alongside the canal on the towpath, which was a great way to stretch one’s legs – something that isn’t always possible on a boat that measures just 12 metres in length. Pausing at Tr�bes for a short while to explore the sleepy little town, we came upon its 14th-century �glise de Saint-�tienne. The wooden-beamed church boasts 320 carved faces on the supports, depicting many different characters. We took some time to cycle through the narrow streets and out into the vineyards before heading to the supermarket and then back to the boat. Beyond Tr�bes, surrounded by vineyards, we cruised down to our final village, Marseillette. Mooring up next to the quiet canal, we jumped ashore to explore. The focal point of this tiny village is the Fort Tower, an 19th-century stone tower that was used as part of the world’s first telecommunications network and was invented by Claude Chappe, an ex-priest. The method attracted the attention of Napol�on I, who used it to communicate with his armies in southwest France. Messages were relayed between such towers throughout the region, and the Marseillette tower – built in 1834 – formed part of the line between Montpellier and Toulouse. Sadly, the method didn’t last as it could only be used in fine weather and in daylight, and it wasn’t long before the electric telegraph came into use in the Aude d�partement in 1853. The tower is now used to display the town clock. Our night in Marseillette marked the literal turning point in our trip; we were on a return to base’ cruise and so had three days to return to Castelnaudary. Many of those we’d met along the canal so far were continuing to Narbonne, so the next morning we waved goodbye to a Scottish family on an adjacent mooring and began our journey back up the canal. Negotiating the locks from the other direction was slightly more difficult; we had to lasso the bollards from below when tying up the boat in the lock. It took a few goes to master, but we rewarded ourselves with ice cream bought from the shops at the locks. It seemed fair enough. On arrival at Castelnaudary, late on the Friday afternoon, we booked into a local restaurant, Au Petit Gazouillis, to sample the local speciality cassoulet, for which the town is famous. We entered the restaurant thinking we had left the canal behind us, but we were met with several familiar faces – groups of six or eight canal boaters occupied each table. Proof that our journey may not have taken us very far geographically, but it had opened a door into the world of the boating community.FRANCOFILEGetting thereCarolyn Boyd and her crew travelled with Le Boat from Castelnaudary. A seven-night trip on a six-berth boat costs from �1,410, plus non-refundable collision damage waiver, �85. Tel: (UK) 0844 463 3577, www.leboat.co.ukTel: (US) 1 866 570 3202, www.leboat.com

Reader offerBook a boating holiday in France with Le Boat by the end of September and save ten per cent off boat hire prices (five per cent in school holida). Terms and conditions apply: call 0844 463 3577 for details.  Where to eat Au Petit Gazouillis5 Rue Arcade 11400 Castelnaudary Tel: (Fr) 4 68 23 08 18Family-run restaurant.

L’�tapeRoute de Bram11170 Sainte-EulalieTel: (Fr) 6 75 37 38 76Canal-side bar/restaurant.