AFLOAT IN FRANCE
Thinking about taking your boat to France? It’s worthwhile exploring its waterways and lifestyle first – and a trip makes a great break
The Canal du Midi beckons and Europe’s first navigable tunnel
The incentive for most people deciding to holiday on a boat in France is the promise of dependably hot summer days, of chilled white wine on the deck and lunches in little red-roofed villages tucked among vineyards. What determined it for me was something entirely different: it was my knee.
I’d woken up one morning with a fully-fledged cartilage problem that immobilised me so much I hadn’t been able to set foot on a boat in months. I was getting withdrawal symptoms. As I wrote in one of my Canal Boat columns, what I’d started to fantasise about was a waterway with no locks, yet one wide enough to accommodate large craft so I could requisition a crew who could carry me off the boat every now and again to a pub where I could be comforted by limitless supplies of analgesic. You know the sort: it generally comes in pint or half-pint glasses.
Then somebody suggested France. Okay, there are no pubs in France – but there are enough bars. And though there are locks, there are also lock-keepers to operate them for you. The idea of France touched a chord with Moira and me because, like Aileen and Mike Queenan who have just written about doing it in the last two issues of this magazine, we’ve been thinking about taking our boat to France for years. Now it looked as if my crocked knee might give us the opportunity for a scouting mission.
Of course, the first decision for hiring in France is where to do it from. The extensive French waterway system is, roughly speaking, split into two. Most navigable rivers and canals are in the centre and north; the rest, separated by more than 400 kilometres of the sometimes treacherous River Rhone, comprise the River Garonne and the Canal du Midi, which together link the Mediterranean to the Bay of Biscay.
On the basis that if we took our own boat to France we might not venture that far south, we plumped for the Canal du Midi which has been substantially developed in recent years for holiday travel. Our crew secured, we chose to rent from Minervois Cruisers, an offshoot of Napton Narrowboats whose fleet is well-known to anyone familiar with English canals.
Now, remember, we were paying for this trip; it wasn’t a journalistic freebee. So
when I mention that Emily who runs the Minervois operation was helpful beyond the call of duty, and that our steel-built boat Narbonne – while not the most elegant of craft – turned out to be spacious and well appointed, bear in mind I’m under no duress to say it. Le Somail, Minervois’s base, is a delightful village with restaurants, cafes, a unique bookshop and floating grocery clustered around a pretty hump-back bridge, and we immediately determined to spend a night here on our return.
For the moment though we headed east along a 54km lock-free pound – Le Grand Bief, as it’s known, one of the most impressive, yet unremarked features of this canal. To keep a canal at the same elevation on such a long pound involves a few challenging turns around hairpin bends, but the reward is terrific views which on clear days mean you can see as far as the Pyrenees.
On certain stretches the panorama before you is the more impressive because lines of traditional plane trees which characterise the canal have had to be felled as a result of canker stain. The disease was imported into France from the U.S. in wooden ammunition boxes during World War Two, and it’s been a problem since, though its effects on the landscape can be exaggerated. There still many thousands of trees left, and thousands more are being replaced annually so it doesn’t substantially affect the quality of a holiday on these waters.
We’d stocked up on supplies before leaving base, but at Capestang – one of a regular series of attractive small towns which punctuate this part of the canal – we happened across a delightful Sunday market which highlighted why France has such a deserved reputation for the quality of its foods. Gleaming piles of fruit, fresh fish, olives, bread and vegetables proved too much of a temptation, and though only a short walk (or in my case, hobble) from the canal, on our journey back we were weighed down with the bags we were carrying.
The cruising route we’d chosen kept us clear of the medieval town of Carcassonne which exerts an inexplicable allure to boaters, despite how horrendously busy it can be and what a Disney confection it is. We’d headed in the other direction, opting instead for the much more interesting canal town of Béziers where we arrived after passing through the 165-metre Malpas Tunnel. This was Europe’s very first navigable tunnel – which comes as something as a shock for anyone familiar only with English canals.
The tunnel – like the Canal du Midi itself – was built between 1666- 81 – 80 years before Francis Egerton employed the illiterate millwright James Brindley to dig out his Bridgewater Canal. But where the Bridgewater was a rudimentary, lockless ditch, punctuated by only one significant engineering structure, the older Canal du Midi is built to a totally different and much higher spec. The locks, for instance, have ovoid walls, like shallow arches on their side, made to provide greater strength than our straight-sided English locks. The canals themselves are wider too – and built to allow mooring on both banks. But it is the construction that is most impressive on the Canal du Midi. Whether it’s a simple weir or a basic bridge, the quality of the build is so much higher than we’re accustomed to at home.
Never is this more apparent than at Béziers, birthplace of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the man responsible for this engineering marvel. There, a set of seven staircase locks drops imperiously over an escarpment, falling a distance of 21.5 metres. That’s more than 70 feet in real money – 11 feet more than the drop on the Bingley Five Rise on the Leeds & Liverpool.
For many years Béziers was the centre of France’s table wine trade – basic vin ordinaires – and the town is still comfortably prosperous with a 13th century cathedral, elegant parks and gardens and a network of fascinating backstreets peppered with small and lovely squares.
You can get there from the Fonserannes Staircase on what’s called the Little Train
– Le Petit Train – which isn’t a train at all but a sort of theme-park truck dressed for the part. Nevertheless it runs to a regular timetable and it’s worth making the trip, if only in homage to Pierre-Paul Riquet whose statue dominates the town’s main square.
The canal survived as a commercial waterway much later than its English counterparts, and as recently as 1980 substantial investment was made into a water slope which – like Foxton on the Grand Union – constantly had problems, one of them apparently involving the mechanism running away with itself down the hill! It was officially closed in 2001, and today it stands looking very sorry for itself at the top of the locks, a monument to the failure of modern technology.
We turned at Béziers and cruised back to the Malpas Tunnel where a short walk took us to a viewing point where we could look down on the Étang (or Pond) de Montady. This extraordinary feature of the landscape is a lagoon drained by a series of radial channels that look like nothing so much as the spokes of an enormous cycle wheel. From this point it was back the way we had come, retracing our steps to le Somail where we’d picked up the boat and from there travelling further west, through the pretty town of Argens-Minervois, dominated by a castle once owned by Simon de Montfort, where we encountered our first lock of the trip.
Here we discovered that though French locks have resident lock-keepers, it would be a mistake to think they look after you in the same way as on the Thames. Basically, you’re left to secure your boat yourself while they swan around with mobile devices, like grown-up X-boxes, controlling the paddles and gates.
The locks are clichés of everything you imagine on French waterways: each has its own charming cottage, and each lockkeeper runs his or her own concession at the front, selling eggs, milk and local wines. It’s fascinating to watch the lock operation too – and, like it or lump it, you may have to spend time watching it because these waters are still used by substantial barges, often equipped as floating hotels, and these are always given priority over small pleasure craft.
The locks came thick and fast at this stage, often in staircase pairs so that we seemed to be on the go continuously. Well, at least the crew were. I sat haughtily at the outside steering position, pausing only to make myself look ridiculous when I realised I was steering with a wheel, not a tiller, and didn’t really know what I was doing. We turned at the tiny and unassuming village of Homps where time seemed to stand still as we sat sipping drinks at one of the waterside cafes.
As an introduction to the French waterways, the Canal du Midi might only disappoint in that in places it can be very like English canals. Squint your eyes and ignore the vineyards and the sunshine on your face, and there are places where it narrows and you could be in Shropshire or parts of Staffordshire. Well, sort of… Until the landscape opens up, or you pass through a sleepy village where you can smell the local restaurant, or you are confronted with a huge peniche bearing down on you. Then – unmistakeably – you know you’re in France.
We loved it. It set us thinking again, more seriously this time, about where to spend more time.
Lazy days at the water’s edge
The barges get priority
The lock cottage at Pechlaurier
Abandoned water slope at Béziers
Many barges are now holiday boats
Grown-up X boxes to control the locks
ABOVE & RIGHT: The Fonserannes locks on canal du Midi, unesco heritage landmark in France