Locks, stock and bat­tles on the Canal du Midi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - El­iz­a­beth Love

THIS is France. Where do you think it goes? This an­swer to our ques­tion about sewage dis­posal comes with a Gal­lic shrug, but the broad Aussie ac­cent causes us to do a dou­ble take.

We are at the Con­nois­seur boat-rental base at Nar­bonne in the Langue­doc re­gion of south­ern France, and Nick from Dun­gog in NSW is tak­ing us through the com­plex­i­ties of ma­nip­u­lat­ing a long, thin boat along the Canal du Midi as far as Car­cas­sonne, while ne­go­ti­at­ing the many locks along the way.

The 150km round-trip will take one week, the 10-berth tra­di­tional penichette (small barge) pro­vid­ing trans­port and a com­fort­able home for three cou­ples. We will stop wher­ever fancy leads but we will not han­dle the ropes with­out gloves and a bucket of dis­in­fec­tant.

By the time we’ve tied up at Sal­le­les d’Aude on the first night, we have ne­go­ti­ated four of the nine locks on the short stretch of the Canal de la Robine be­fore it joins the Canal du Midi. We’ve be­come quite pro­fi­cient but have dis­cov­ered there is a bit of friendly com­pe­ti­tion each evening for a moor­ing near the next lock, to be first in line for the 8am open­ing.

In the morn­ing we cy­cle to nearby vil­lages for crois­sants, fresh bread and sup­plies. A pleas­ant daily rhythm de­vel­ops, with the canal pro­vid­ing sur­prises at ev­ery turn: oc­ca­sion­ally, barges seem to glide sus­pended as they tra­verse aque­ducts built to pro­vide safe river cross­ings. Some­times the driver has to avoid bump­ing the sides of the barge (or his head) on the arched stone bridges.

Not all the locks are manned but some still have lock-keep­ers who grow fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles and sell jams and pre­serves to trav­ellers. The lock-keeper at Aigu­ille uses his spare time to turn odd pieces of wood into bawdy sculp­tures. He has in­stalled hid­den elec­tronic sen­sors in un­ex­pected places, so that as we approach we are star­tled when a naked wo­man on a bi­cy­cle starts ped­alling fu­ri­ously. A naked man stand­ing in front of a loo near the front door pees on cue; in the lock-keeper’s well-kept gar­den, a fish catches a man in the pond and the trees are full of cheeky mon­keys.

On an­other day, the sight of bas­kets bob­bing up and down among the vines is too tempt­ing to ig­nore.

The work­ers are only too pleased to pose for pho­tos and, when asked the grape variety, they sim­ply re­ply, ‘‘ Blanc.’’

The half­way point is cel­e­brated with din­ner at Le Co­queli­cot in the old city of Car­cas­sonne, where our rugby-ob­sessed waiter is thrilled to dis­cover we are Aus­tralian. Next morn­ing we cy­cle into Car­cas­sone early and are able to en­joy the soli­tude of nar­row streets and cob­bled pas­sages for a short time be­fore the ar­rival of the buses that in­vade this re­stored fortress ev­ery day.

Our jour­ney nearly over, there is just time to visit the ex­cel­lent re­con­struc­tion of the 2nd-cen­tury Ro­man pot­tery at Am­phoralis on the Canal de la Robine. The mod­ern in­ter­pre­tive cen­tre dis­plays the many arte­facts un­cov­ered in the vicin­ity and tells the story of this im­por­tant pot­tery, which in its hey­day sup­plied the Ro­man Em­pire with pots, am­phorae, pipes and tiles.

While a catered lux­ury cruise may be ap­peal­ing, give me the free­dom of a self­drive barge any day. The canal wa­ter may not be fit to drink but around the next bend there is sure to be a wine co­op­er­a­tive and a vil­lage mar­ket with fresh pro­duce to turn into de­li­cious meals.

Hol­i­days Afloat — Pages 4, 5 and 6

Free spir­its: No sched­ules but plenty to keep barg­ers busy along French wa­ter­ways

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