A cruise on a French canal

The author and her fellow sailors on the Canal du Midi aboard their 39-foot boat. The bikes enabled them to leave the boat to see sights and purchase French cheeses, pastries, and wine along the way.
The author and her fellow sailors on the Canal du Midi aboard their 39-foot boat. The bikes enabled them to leave the boat to see sights and purchase French cheeses, pastries, and wine along the way. (LAWRENCE W. BROWN)
Posted: October 14, 2012

When our Philadelphia friends Hersh and Betsy Richman, who know their way around boats, suggested that we cruise a canal as part of a vacation in the little-known French province of Languedoc, I thought:

B-o-r-i-n-g!

What would we do for four days on a canal, motoring at a maximum of 5 m.p.h.? If we were lucky, and the weather was good, we could sit on the deck, read, drink wine, and watch corn grow, or whatever grows in southern France. (It turns out it's ducks - for foie gras mostly. And, of course, grapes.)

And if it rained?

I began researching. The canal passes through Carcassonne, a medieval village restored in the 19th century, with a castle, turrets, and shops so historic and fantastic that it is designated a World Heritage Site. That could work for a rainy day.

Then, we learned we could rent bikes and have them onboard. Things were sounding better. We'd be able to bolt the boat.

And so my husband, Larry, and I signed on: Four of us steering our own boat from the little village of Trebes, just east of Carcassonne, and ending four days later at the larger village of Castelnaudary.

Against all expectations - and fears - boring is not a word to describe our journey on the Canal du Midi last May.

Work, adventure, exercise, scenery, history, chatting with strangers, and, Mon Dieu!, the breads, the cheeses, the pat├ęs, the wines!

And to top it off, this seemingly placid canal even offered a frisson of danger, enough for an occasional whoosh of adrenaline.

Some background: The Canal du Midi connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, just north of the Spanish border. Amazingly, it was built in the mid-1600s, about 150 years after Leonardo da Vinci weighed in with a design. The idea was to carry grain to seaports in an era before trains. The engineering feat - considered the most renowned of the 17th century - required building 91 locks between the Mediterranean and Toulouse. We would be going through 32 of those locks, we counted on a map, but I had never traveled through locks and had little sense of how they would dominate our trip.

Our journey started in midafternoon at the dock of the largest boat-rental company on the canal - Le Boat. Fortunately, its headquarters are in Florida so we could make all our arrangements, including bike rentals, in English. Our white-and-blue, 39-foot "Caprice" had two berths - each with two narrow beds - and two heads, a luxury, I suppose. These were typical shipboard bathrooms: You must pump out anything you put in the toilet, and showers rain into the entire space, sink and all, draining through the floor. The galley kitchen was well-stocked - this was France, after all - and a large space aft, with a dining table and couches, all under cover, made up for the minuscule sleeping quarters. Up a short flight of stairs were a bench and steering wheel - a great perch for views.

We spent that first afternoon getting a lesson in maneuvering and safety, then walked to a nearby canal-side restaurant. Do not think New Hope. Imagine a dirt path amid fields, with stars above. No cars. No town. Nothing until the stone walls of the quaint Le Moulin suddenly appear. As silent as it was outside, inside fellow boaters were chatting about their journeys and devouring the night's specialty of fresh loup, or sea bream, and downing carafes of the vin du pays.

The next morning we set off, a bit nervous. While Hersh, a lawyer, has piloted many a speedboat and plied the Caribbean captaining sailboats, this was new to him. The canal was straight and slow, with a bridge here and there, and all went well until we reached our first lock.

Suddenly, any worries about boredom - or hopes for relaxation - were blown away. We had not realized in selecting our route that our boat had to rise about a dozen feet at each lock (a passage more difficult than dropping down). Nor had we imagined the details of this dance, which we would repeat dozens of times, finally choreographing a routine.

It went like this:

You motor toward a lock and look to see whether the gate is open and the lock keeper is signaling you to cruise on in. You're lucky if that happens. More often, the lock's big metal gate is closed because boats already are in it.

Either way, you have to first pull over to the grassy bank of the canal to drop off one - preferably two - of your crew. (That would be Larry and me.) They run along the shore, climb the steps of the lock, and wait for the initially anxious captain (Hersh) to carefully motor in without hitting the gate, the walls, or another boat. Someone on your boat (usually Betsy) has to throw lines up to your shore crew, about 10 feet above. How do you get the ropes up to them? You can heave them and hope they don't fall back in the water. Or, if you're clever like Betsy, a clinical psychologist, you simply loop the rope onto a long-handled boat hook that your shore crew - lying on their stomachs and hoping not to fall in - extends down toward the boat.

When all the boats are neatly tied up, everyone catches their breath and you get to meet the Australians who are spending the year cruising Europe's canals on a boat decorated with flowerpots, or catch up with the British guys on holiday with whom you shared the last lock. With the gate shut behind you and water roaring in, your boat begins to rise; as it does, the ropes slacken and you have to keep hauling them in, leaning back, thighs and arms straining, and listen to Hersh shouting instructions at you. You don't want your boat to swing wide and smash into something, despite the bumpers. For oh, the embarrassment!

Finally, the lock is filled, the upstream gate is opened, you untie your boat, jump aboard, and you're off.

On our first day we had to do this 12 times, stopping only for lunch when the lock keepers do the same, from 12:30 to 2 p.m.

By the second day, we were masters of the water, but by no means cocky. That morning we came upon a couple awaiting rescue, the husband's arm in a sling. A few hours earlier, he had tumbled from the top of the lock into the water, breaking his clavicle as he crashed into something on the way down. At lunch, we noticed that the boat next to us had laundry hanging outside. We joked with the women about doing a wash, even as we borrowed an opener for our wine.

"I fell in and had to wash my clothes!" one exclaimed.

The days passed quickly, with early morning bike rides into villages to buy fresh croissants, baguettes, and delectable cheeses. I didn't read a single page of my book. Even drizzle did not detract from the excitement of the locks and the serenity of the scenery.

In the evenings, we walked into villages for dinner, or feasted on board. One night it was giant omelets made with fresh eggs and Roquefort cheese, a crunchy country boule slathered with foie gras, and pastries with farm-fresh strawberries - all washed down with a crisp local white wine made from the picpoul grape.

Lying in our narrow beds, we did not even think of turning, our sleep was so sound.


Le Boat

The self-drive boat-rental company has boats for up to 12 people. They are as easy to drive as a car, the company says. Our "Caprice" cost about $450 a night per couple including bikes, insurance, taxes, and an extra one-way fee. Longer rentals are less expensive. Spring and fall are less crowded than summer months.

Online: www.leboat.com.


Dorothy Brown is a former Inquirer editor. She blogs at www.unretiring.blogspot.com.

To comment, e-mail TravelTalk@phillynews.com.

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