Canal du Midi: Slow boat makes a fine way to travel French waterway
The lock door slowly opened, the water churned in a white rush and I quickly realized that we’d tied up too far forward.
The easy-going lock keeper noticed my mistake and slipped my bowline from around the heavy iron bollard. With a flick, he flipped the dockline around the next bollard, then watched the lock basin fill.
He controlled the whole operation from a control panel on his chest. We quickly retied the lines and slowly rose with two other barges in the lock. The boats rose another nine feet and then we were back in the strong, early spring wind that brushed down France’s Canal du Midi.
The lock gates opened, and we were once again on our way.
Two manmade canals join in Toulouse to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean: the 120-mile Canal de Garonne, which runs from the Atlantic to Toulouse, and the 150-mile Canal du Midi, which runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean.
The Canal du Midi is truly an engineering miracle. Built between 1666 and 1681, it served to move barrels of French wine. Previously, to get their wine across the Atlantic, French merchants transported it south to the Mediterranean coast and then risked piracy and paid high Spanish taxes on the long sea voyage through the Strait of Gibraltar. Because of its historical significance to the region, the Canal du Midi was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
Today, the canal is used primarily by pleasure boats.
If you Google “Charter a canal boat, Canal du Midi,” you’re faced with a variety of choices. I was looking for a boat that wouldn’t break my budget and chose a company that had reasonable rates.
A canal is not a river; the water does not flow, but instead rises and falls in a series of steps. The terrain along the Canal du Midi varies in elevation from zero to 620 feet above sea level. To compensate for the changes in elevation, a series of 91 locks raises or lowers boats from one section of the canal to the next. The locks are essentially narrow boat basins with heavy, barnlike doors, called gates, at either end. These gates are automated, but a lock keeper — who lives in a small, two-story house next to the lock — controls their opening and closing. There are two female lock keepers along the Canal du Midi.
It’s the responsibility of the boat’s captain to safely navigate into the lock, keep his boat secure and adjust the docklines for the changing water level.
The south of France is called Le Midi and is a wide, warm band of fertile land stretching from the southern Atlantic coast of France, along the border of the Pyrenees, and up along the blue Mediterranean. This is country blessed with good soil, sunshine and water — the perfect climate to grow grapes. This is wine-producing country.
“Midi” translates into English as “noon,” and the notion is that the slow-moving, happy people in this part of France enjoy a leisurely lunch, perhaps with a glass or two of wine, and then maybe a little lie-down. This is not a grab-your-lunch-at-your-desk kind of place. It’s more like, I’ll be back around one o’clock. Or so.
We first came across the Midi lifestyle when we arrived at the boat charter office at Homps. It was about 10 a.m. and the inexpensive, basic boat that I had arranged for the week was out of commission.
“Pas de problème,” reassured the man from the Canalous charter company, and with that, he took us to view other boats in the fleet.
He took us onboard a long barge with three cabins, a huge saloon and a fly bridge. This was too much boat for just the two of us. I was thinking about having to clean it at the end of our week.
Next, we went onboard Pet’t Paul, a 30-foot Triton barge. This was a boxy boat with a double bunk and single bunk up forward. It boasted a real-world-size shower compartment and a separate head (toilet) compartment. There was pressurized hot and cold water, forced hot air heating, a two-burner gas stove and a gas-powered mini-fridge. There were two steering stations: one in the main cabin and one on a fly bridge above. I climbed the narrow ladder to the fly bridge.
Back in the charter boat office, I went over the rental agreement. Everything looked in order until we got to the car storage fee.
When you book a canal boat, there is a basic weekly fee for the boat and basic insurance coverage. The boat includes everything you will need for the week: pillows, linens, pots and pans, dishes, glasses and silverware.
What is not covered are the add-ons: the fuel, a cleaning fee, car storage, propeller insurance and any bike, charcoal grill or fishing rod rentals. I had paid a 35-euro-per-week car storage fee for the rental car when I booked the trip online, but it did not show up on my rental agreement.
“Pas de problème,” reassured the man behind the desk. “We will look into it.” (A refund of the extra storage fee was promptly mailed to me when I returned to Frankfurt).
I moved the car to the secure storage and went back to the office, but now, the office door was covered by a corrugated steel door.
It was lunchtime in the Midi. The office would reopen at 2 p.m.
At first, the cruise had been about distance and how far we could get in a day. But soon, the Midi took its hold on us, and we realized that we were floating in a world far away from our day-to-day life.
Being there — not getting somewhere — became our focus.
Row after row of vineyards rolled off to distant hills on either side of the canal as we plowed through at a stately four knots. A few boats tied up along the banks signaled a small town coming up. We used the guidebook, kept a logbook and noted convenient places to tie up and fill our fresh-water tanks.
More importantly, we found canalside bakeries (“boulangeries”) and friendly local people who pretended to understand my high school French. We also met several British retirees who had left the cold of England for the sunnier, slower-paced lifestyle of the Midi.
Winemaking cooperatives were in every village. You could buy local table wine for 1.20 euros per liter — and you could even bring your own containers to be filled.
It was the offseason, and it was easy to find places to tie up in the small towns.
Out onto the deck after dinner revealed bright constellations of stars shining through the bare trees. I realized that, by living in Frankfurt, I’d forgotten to look up at the night sky.
We’d gone three days to the south and reached the large town of Capestang, just 26 miles from where we’d started. Now it was time to slowly return to Homps.
It was raining lightly when I turned a big circle in the Homps boat basin and backed into our slip. It was time for serious cleaning, unloading and the engine hour reading. Our friend from the Canalous office arrived, clipboard in hand, and inspected the boat for cleanliness. He then checked the engine meter. You are charged about 6.50 euros per hour for fuel. After a week’s cruise, we paid an additional 112 euros.
David Bond is a freelance journalist from Maine who lives and teaches in Frankfurt, Germany. His travel and nautical articles have appeared in Down East magazine, Wooden Boat, Motorboating & Sailing and the Boston Globe.
Know & GoGetting there From Frankfurt, Germany, it was a 10-hour drive to the south of France. The main highways south are good driving but are divided into toll roads (“les routes à péage”). We set aside 120 euros in an envelope for tolls down and back. We used it all and then some. Many toll booths are automatic, but the machine directions are usually in English. It is a good idea to have several 10-euro and 20-euro notes in your envelope. Also, gas and diesel were about 10 euro cents a liter more than in Germany.
Accommodations It’s very easy to find a motel along the expressways in France. After the long drive from Frankfurt, I didn’t want to search for a place to stay, and we could not stay on the boat that arrival night. I’d used Hotwire.com to arrange for a hotel near the charter boat base in Homps for the first night. But several large motel chains are situated at many freeway exits. Expect to pay between 35 euros and 42 euros per night for a room for two to three people. The rooms are generally very small but clean. Breakfast is not included.
Food A typical set-price 20-euro dinner at Le Coustelou, in the tiny village of Ventenac-en-Minervois, included ¼ liter of local wine, duck gizzard salad or salad with puff pastry and fresh seafood; large, grilled entrecôte steak or fresh grilled fish; and homemade desserts: tiramisu or crème brûlée.
Boat rental You don’t need a special license to rent the boats. If you feel a little nervous, a technician will give you a check ride in the boat basin at the charter office. The boats do not go fast (they have a speed governor on the throttle). The most important maneuver is getting in and out of the locks without hitting the other boats. I have a U.S. Coast Guard license and felt confident driving the boat.
Boat rental website: www.southfrance.com/boatrentalsfrance. The boat we chartered for a week (includes details, discounts and additional costs) can be found at www.southfrance.com/boatrentalsfrance/canaldumidi/triton860/index.html.
The definitive Canal du Midi guidebook, “Editions du Breil No. 7, Canal du Midi,” includes charts, distances and descriptions in English, French and German. I purchased one from the charter boat company (22 euros) when I made the reservation, but it turned out we could have borrowed one.
Tips Be preparedWe wanted some staples (cereal, fruit, water, juice, paper towels, disinfectant wipes, dish soap) to provision the boat as soon as we arrived. Since we had a car, we bought a big bag of food and several bottles of water before we left Frankfurt.
The chart and guidebooks for the Canal du Midi mark supermarkets along the canal. We found the French supermarket chain Intermarché to have a tremendous selection and a good bakery. Most markets were usually a short walk from the boat. Food prices were also higher in France. Be forewarned: Even the supermarkets close for an hour’s lunch. The lights are turned off and everyone must leave. We found this out the hard way, but the manager was very nice and didn’t lock us in.
We brought plates, mugs and pots just in case the ones on the boat were too used, but it turned out that all the kitchen items were almost new (wine glasses included).
Clean up after yourself Our charter boat company charged a flat rate of 66 euros to clean the boat after a cruise. You may clean the boat yourself, but 88 euros will be held against your credit card until after the boat is inspected. If the boat is returned as clean as when you picked it up, the 88 euros will not be charged to your card. The boat was immaculate when we picked it up, but we still decided to do the cleaning ourselves and use the 66-euro refund toward the toll roads on our drive home. The company’s cleaning staff was very helpful and supplied us with a mop and bucket. There was already a broom and whiskbroom onboard. (Hint: A cordless handheld vacuum would have been very helpful for keeping the boat shipshape during the cruise.) In the pouring rain, we scoured the boat inside and out, hosed down the decks and windows and returned the boat in sparkling condition. It took most of an hour and a half, and even though we walked away soaking wet, we felt it was worth it.