Drift­ing through FRANCE

Barg­ing in FRANCE is an AF­FORD­ABLE way for SOUTH AFRICANS to ex­pe­ri­ence one of the most beau­ti­ful cor­ners of EUROPE. Justin Fox joins three friends for a LE BOAT HOL­I­DAY on the CANAL DU MIDI

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - @PLAY -

Wend­ing its way through south­west­ern France from the At­lantic to the Mediter­ranean, the Canal du Midi is a 17th­cen­tury wa­ter su­per­high­way. To­day, plea­sure boats use it to ex­plore this pic­turesque re­gion bor­der­ing Spain. You put­ter along at a leisurely speed, un­der bridges, over aque­ducts and through tun­nels be­side end­less vine­yards and or­chards. It’s a de­light­ful, slow-paced hol­i­day in your very own car­a­van on wa­ter.

I ew from Cape Town to aris to meet up with three friends – for­mer bal­leri­nas Al­li­son Foat and Janet Lindup, and ra­dio-talk­show host John Maytham. We boarded a train and sped south to Trèbes, where we signed in at the town’s Le Boat har­bour. Our boat had four cab­ins and a cen­tral sa­loon with a kitchen and liv­ing area. Bi­cy­cles were loaded onto our stern for daily ex­cur­sions.

First up, we were given a crash course on cruis­ing, dock­ing and how to ne­go­ti­ate the many locks we’d be pass­ing through. Bilges, bow thrusters, wa­ter tanks, fend­ers: got it? Um, yes, sort of. I was, alas, nom­i­nated skip­per. In truth, mo­tor­ing slowly down a placid canal is as easy as fall­ing o a bi­cy­cle. o pre­vi­ous sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is nec­es­sary. That evening, we sat at an al fresco restau­rant on the quay­side eat­ing do­rado, drink­ing ne lo­cal wine and plot­ting our course over a map of the canal.

We set sail early the next day, head­ing east to­wards the Mediter­ranean. The morn­ing was a thing of mir­rors, feath­ered pinks and tree spires cast­ing crooked re ec­tions. In no time, we slipped into the rhythm of laid-back cruis­ing through a ru­ral land­scape. Around each bend there’d be an­other cas­tle, chateaux or quaint, blue-shut­tered vil­lage to di­vert us. Much of the time, we found our­selves sail­ing down end­less av­enues of plane trees. It’s es­ti­mated that, over the cen­turies, nearly 50 000 have been planted along the banks. Although many

are now suc­cumb­ing to dis­ease, they make for a pic­turesque tableau.

At the end of each day, we’d nd a place to moor on an idyl­lic stretch of river. One of us would leap ashore to ham­mer stakes into the bank and our lines would be se­cured. Then we’d open a bot­tle of wine and toast the sun­set. The two bal­leri­nas would do the req­ui­site leg hoists in cel­e­bra­tion.

‘Back home right now I’d be read­ing rush-hour tra c re­ports on my show,’ said John, a dreamy look in his eyes as he sipped his Sancerre. The sun had turned the canal all peachy.

Some­times, we’d cy­cle into town to dine at a lo­cal restau­rant, but for the most part we self-catered and ate on board. We pre­pared sim­ple, hearty meals of pasta, salad and char­cu­terie. Sit­ting on deck a er sup­per, watch­ing a river of stars, lis­ten­ing to the hoot of an owl and the gen­tle lap of the canal wasn’t half bad.

The locks were some­what daunt­ing at rst. John would chat to the lock-keeper ashore and see to our moor­ing lines. Al­li­son and Janet were on fore­deck and stern duty re­spec­tively, armed with ropes and fend­ers. I’d gin­gerly motor into the lock, each one a nely-cra ed basin of cut stone in the shape of a whale. The he y barn doors swung closed be­hind us and the wa­ter gushed in, li ing us to the next level. It’s me­dieval rocket science, and good fun once you’ve got the hang of it.

Some lock-keep­ers were beau­ti­ful women, oth­ers were artists, and some had set up cafés sell­ing re­gional wine and snacks. At Puichéric, lock-keeper Joël Barthes dis­played his quirky, scrap-iron sculp­tures along the banks. Although they slow your progress, the locks are part of the charm of boat­ing the Midi Canal.

Each morn­ing, we’d cy­cle to the near­est vil­lage to buy baguettes, pain au cho­co­lat and cheese. If there was a lo­cal mar­ket on the go, we’d stock up on pro­vi­sions for the boat. The Tues­day mar­ket at Olon­zac was a par­tic­u­lar de­light. There was live ac­cor­dion mu­sic, a lone vi­o­lin­ist and a charm­ing small-town buzz. We wan­dered al­leys of stalls heavy with pro­duce, fresh­plucked from the land. Our bas­kets soon brimmed with home-made pis­ta­chio nougat, pomegranates, saucis­son, olives, cèpe mush­rooms, crois­sants and any num­ber of lo­cal del­i­ca­cies.

Such a slow me­an­der (we cov­ered a mere 53km in seven days) al­lowed for plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to go ex­plor­ing. In some cases, this could be achieved on foot

or by bi­cy­cle; at other times we took a taxi and, on one oc­ca­sion, hired a car.

Our rst ex­pe­di­tion was to me­dieval Car­cas­sonne, the sec­ond-most-vis­ited tourist at­trac­tion in France a er the Ei el Tower. This magni cent forti ed ci­tadel is dom­i­nated by 52 tow­ers and ringed by Camelot-like bat­tle­ments. We wan­dered the cob­bled lanes, climbed the ram­parts and vis­ited its othic churches with their heav­enly stained glass.

An­other happy detour in­volved hir­ing a clas­sic, con­vert­ible Citroën 2C in Paraza for the 20km drive we had to make to Min­erve. The car was bright red with Marie bis­cuit wheels and bug eyes. It looked like a cross be­tween a sar­dine tin and a lawn­mower. With John Quixote at the helm, spurring on our scar­let nag, I was afraid for the wind­mills.

We reached Min­erve, thank­fully in one piece, and ex­plored the hand­some set­tle­ment perched on the edge of a rocky promon­tory. The ham­let is im­bued with me­dieval siege his­tory; there are shops sell­ing ar­mour and swords, while a tre­buchet on a nearby hill serves as a re­minder of the bat­tles that once raged through these now-peace­ful val­leys. To­day, it even has its own Miche­lin-star restau­rant.

Our last morn­ing on the canal, cruis­ing from Arge­liers to ar­bonne, was the most mem­o­rable. The Midi had shrouded it­self in mist. Our boat coursed a thin pen­cil line through dark wa­ter. There was not a breath of wind. hostly barges loomed out of the gloom.

As the sun rose, the mist burnt o in va­porous clouds of golden light. The trees, yel­low in their au­tumn liv­ery, bent their boughs over­head. us­set, um­ber, burnt si­enna: all the colours of the fall, wrapped in gos­samer.

ext came nine ar­du­ous locks in quick suc­ces­sion, be­fore we nally reached Le Boat’s moor­ings in ar­bonne – the end of the line for us. We tied up ex­pertly and stepped ashore with the swag­ger of old (fresh­wa­ter) salts. I may even have called the crew ‘me hearties’.

The cruise com­pleted, our happy band ex­plored ar­bonne’s old quar­ter with its lo y othic cathe­dral, arch­bishop’s palace, Les alles pro­duce mar­ket and Ponte ec­chio-style bridge over the canal. Then it was time for a farewell din­ner: a chance to blow the kitty and go the whole hog, so to speak. Which we did. The Chablis wasn’t too shabby, so we or­dered an­other bot­tle – or two.

Le So­mail is a quaint ham­let on the canal with a fa­mous se­cond­hand book­shop BE­LOW Min­erve, a me­dieval set­tle­ment perched on the edge of a rocky promon­tory MID­DLE Wak­ing up to sun­rise re­flec­tions on an au­tum­nal Midi Canal BOT­TOM Stock up with fresh pro­duce at Olon­zac mar­ket

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