Locks, stock and battles on the Canal du Midi
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