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
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