Liberté, qualité, tranquillité on France’s Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi in southern France
The Canal du Midi in southern France
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The serenity of the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc wine region of France is much more than a holiday opportunity...it’s a life experience MARK RAINEY reports.

Meandering between the lush and pristine vineyards of the Languedoc wine region under endless blue skies, breathing in the warm, pure air at the helm of a luxury canal cruiser, is an unforgettable holiday experience offering so much more than a traditional one-centre vacation.

Le Somail in the Languedoc wine region of France

Le Somail in the Languedoc wine region of France

The feeling of unbridled freedom provides the perfect antidote to the stresses of everyday life, and the sense of achievement that comes with perfecting your boat-handling and mooring skills each day was a reward unforeseen prior to setting off along France’s Canal du Midi for a week-long adventure.

And this delightful odyssey isn’t just for the boating fraternity. No prior experience is necessary and the low-speed cruisers pose no handling difficulties once the designated captain has been shown the basics at the check-in port.

Our journey began from the Le Boat base at Port Cassifieres, around 10 miles from the charming, medieval town of Beziers. On arrival, the helpful English-speaking Le Boat staff completed the necessary paperwork before we loaded our bags of provisions - purchased in Beziers en route - onto the luxurious, six-berth Caprice vessel complete with two en suite bathrooms and two showers.

Once aboard, a safety brief and a boat-handling lesson – including the chance to practise a few essential manoeuvres under the guidance of a highly skilled technician – taught us all we needed to know before we gently sailed off in search of a secluded mooring opportunity to cook dinner and to watch the sun go down. All Le Boat cruisers come complete with a fully equipped galley (kitchen) including oven, gas hob and the all-important fridge to chill the locally produced peach and apricot scented viognier wines.

The fully equipped galley on Le Boat canal cruisers

The fully equipped galley on Le Boat canal cruisers

Our chosen itinerary would take us through hundreds of acres of vineyards, several quaint villages and some stunning medieval towns before the sad farewell at Narbonne seven days later. Metal spikes that come with the boat allow for mooring just about anywhere along the canal so there is never any time pressure to make the next marina or centre of population before nightfall.

Completed in 1694, the Canal du Midi system includes 360km of navigatable waterways from the Mediterranean south of Montpellier all the way to Toulouse. The cruisers are hired with enough fuel for up to 10 days and enough for fresh water for around three days depending on usage. Over seven days we took on just one fill of water (300 litres) and did not require any additional fuel at all, having cruised for more than 20 hours in total.

They also come with detailed maps and instruction manuals but it’s always worth doing some internet research in advance as a little prior knowledge goes a long way in making the most this holiday with a difference. For instance, at least one person on board should be physically capable of safely jumping a couple of feet from the cruiser onto the canal bank – or to exit the boat for the purpose of pulling on a rope as you help guide the cruiser through each of the locks you will encounter.

Although the overall experience is one of great serenity, the hours of tranquil bliss are interspersed with more dramatic moments as up to three boats at a time are squeezed into some of the busier locks at peak times. The famous Fonserannes six-lock staircase at Beziers provides most of the drama with tonnes of water gushing over its many lock gates as it lifts and lowers boats more than 20 metres along a 300m stretch of canal.

With only two of us on board, and one preoccupied with driving, it required a bit more teamwork and concentration than the crews comprised of family groups or a number of couples, but great fun all the same.

Another attractive feature of a canal cruise is the hundreds of miles of flat towpaths that are perfect for cycling.

Local cuisine is always going to be a highlight of any French holiday and canal cruising is no exception. While delicious fresh fruit, cheeses, ham and bread kept the motley crew on an even keel throughout the day, most evenings we took a stroll into our chosen town or village to explore the restaurant options.

La Table du Vigneron in the charming village of Capestang was where we sampled the highly recommended ‘cassoulet’ of the Carcassonne region – a slow-cooked stew of white beans, mutton and venison – but the culinary highlight by far was the very reasonably priced, but gourmet quality, fare on offer in Colombiers at Le Bistrot. Having stumbled upon this quaint establishment by chance, we were delighted with both the quality and the presentation of the food – particularly my starter of supions (whole mini squid) with black pudding, caponata and croutons (€7) followed by cod in sesame sauce with asparagus, beetroot and gooseberries for a mere €15.

No licence or previous experience is required to hire a boat, but it is important to show consideration to other canal users, and to pay close attention to how more experienced boaters approach the locks and other potential safety hazards.

If your usual holiday choice is to spend all day on a lounger at an all-inclusive beach resort then perhaps the bucolic majesty of the French countryside isn’t for you, however if you’re up for an adventure guaranteed to leave you feeling rejuvenated then a canal cruise might be what you’ve been missing.

Fact file

Prices: A seven-night stay from Port Cassafières to Narbonne aboard Caprice (six-berth) in April 2019 costs from £1,380.

Le Boat offers a range of 44 boat types catering for between two and 12 guests.

Bike hire is priced from £42 per week/£6 per day for a standard adult bike and £28 per week/£4 per day for a standard child bike.

As guests of Le Boat, we flew from Dublin to Montpellier, taking the train to Beziers and a taxi from Beziers to collect the boat at Port Cassifieres. Returning home from Narbonne, we travelled by train to Perpignan for the flight to Dublin.

To find out more about Le Boat, and the cruises available, visit www.leboat.co.uk