A slow and easy luxury barge cruise on the Canal du Midi in southern France is simply pure fun and the ultimate in relaxation. Delicious wines from local vineyards, gourmet cuisine prepared by the onboard chef and visits to quaint hamlets along the way take you back to a slower world, away from the pressures of modern living.
The Canal du Midi is an impressive and majestic waterway that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built by Pierre Paul Riquet during the reign of Louis XIV, it was completed in 1681. Some 12,000 workers worked on it for almost 15 years using only raw manpower. Its purpose was to enable the shipping of materials between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as a short cut to a lengthy voyage around Spain and Portugal through the Strait of Gibraltar. Today there is virtually no transportation of goods on the canal. Instead, it is used almost exclusively by pleasure boats and luxury barge-hotels.
The canal is an amazing piece of hydraulic engineering and, as it lazily winds its way through vast expanses of vineyards and olive groves, it is one of the loveliest and most peaceful waterways in France.
Various one-week cruises are possible along the canal, but one of the most common itineraries runs between Carcassonne and Marseillan on the Bassin de Thau.
Here are just a few highlights and first-hand impressions of this idyllic journey:
Carcassonne, the largest medieval fortified city in Europe, is an impressive sight with its 52 towers and its enormous ramparts defending the entire city. It completely dominates the horizon as you approach, and its massiveness does not disappoint when you enter the draw-bridge gate. It is huge, it is medieval and it also attracts lots of tourists. As a World Heritage Site, however, it is a “must-see” and well worth the trip.
Trèbes and Marseillette are two quaint little towns right outside Carcassonne. There, you will discover the “signature look” of the Canal du Midi: tall rows of enormous plane trees lining both banks, arching high above the water and shading its entire path all the way down to the deep blue sea. Imagine floating down the nave of a leafy Gothic cathedral for miles and miles! Also notable is the ubiquitous tow path where horses once pulled the freight barges and where you can now take leisurely walks, jogs or bicycle rides.
Le Somail (near Narbonne). This is another quaint little hamlet with a pretty little stone hump-back bridge over the canal, next to a centuries-old ivy-covered chapel. This tiny bridge called Pont Neuf (New Bridge)–although it was built in 1773–is another “signature” feature that punctuates the whole course of the canal. There are many more bridges like it on the way to the Mediterranean. They are all very small, making you wonder how the bulky barges manage to go under them–with centimeters to spare in some cases. Most of the bridges are made of stone and many have the same typical arched style.
Malpas Tunnel (near Béziers). This small tunnel, located in a rustic and picturesque setting, is the first in the world to have a man-made canal going through it. Pleasure boaters love to hear the dizzying echoes of their shouts and screams as they go through it.
Fonséranes Locks (near Béziers). The Ecluses de Fonséranes are a series of nine locks constructed end-to-end, changing the level of the canal by 82 feet in height over a distance of only 1,000 feet. (Only seven of the locks are in use today.) These locks, also known as the “stair-step locks,” encompass eight basins designed in an oval shape typical of the Canal du Midi. It is a popular destination for local visitors who enjoy watching boats floating up and down through the system.
Béziers Canal Bridge. Within walking distance of Fonséranes, the Canal du Midi crosses over the Orb River. This 800-foot-long aqueduct/bridge was built in 1857 to avoid the problems of connecting the canal to the wild and unpredictable river below. It is an amazing sight: a man-made canal flowing peacefully in a gigantic aqueduct above a natural river! Not to be missed in this spot is a leisurely walk along the tow path, looking down at the river below, watching the boats glide by and admiring Beziers’ imposing St Nazaire Cathedral way up on the hilltop overlooking the city.
Bassin de Thau (near Sète). There are many more interesting places along the canal du Midi, of course: the hilltop medieval village of Minerve, the Cistercian Abbaye de Fontfroide and the pre-Roman settlement of Oppidum d’Ensérune, just to name a few. But the journey must come to a close. The Canal du Midi ends in the Bassin de Thau, between Agde and Sète. There, the narrow waterway that meandered through the rolling Languedoc countryside exits into a salt water lake. All of a sudden, everything changes. There are no more plane trees, and the pretty little stone bridges are gone. In Agde you can smell the salt in the air and the breeze from the Mediterranean blows stronger. At this point, you leave the essence of the Canal du Midi behind. The Bassin de Thau is the start of a different world: the vast, wild delta of the Rhone River known as Camargue… Another fascinating exploration for a future trip!
From March to October, a small armada cruises up and down the Canal du Midi. These vessels can be as small as self-driven pleasure boats on which you can cook your own food and move along on your own schedule. But the finest way to experience the region and enjoy perfect peace and relaxation is a cruise on a larger barge-hotel. “Pampered” is the word that comes to mind. On these luxury cruises, all you have to do, starting with your welcome cocktail upon boarding on day one, is kick back, relax and just go with the flow.