Slow travel on the Canal du Midi
By Caroline Tapp-McDougall
The idea of a barging holiday in France has always been appealing, but the privacy and safety that life onboard afforded made it seem like a perfect choice when we looked at our options for a week away from our home offices this summer. A delightful combination of slow travel, (the barge travels at a sedate three mph) easy freewheel biking and gentle walking in the fresh country air was all we’d hoped for.
Being taken care of for a few days was just what we needed, and the affable Captain Laurent and his crew are more than ready for us upon arrival. This is their first trip out since COVID began and they’re happy to see us. Our barge, the Anjodi, accommodates just four guests and four crew members: the captain, a housekeeper, tour and activity guide and a chef; the opposite of larger river boat cruises that can have hundreds of guests. The crew has their own quarters and two guest cabins are empty on this trip for safety reasons.
The European Waterways crew are barging veterans with a meticulous yet graciously, relaxing approach to onboard rules and taking care of us. Like us, each of them is painstakingly pre-cruise COVID tested, and will be tested again along the way. There’s lots of laughter and stories to share, even before we set off, and plenty of fun along the way. We’ll follow a daily schedule of optional activities, onboard gourmet meals with local wine tastings and daytime cruising along the canal.
She’s a classic
A genuine hotel barge of Dutch design, the Anjodi has four cleverly designed cabins that can accommodate singles or doubles with convenient ensuite facilities. We’ve travelled light so there’s a space for all of our belongings to hideaway.
The Anjodi, the first in the fleet, has a comfortable saloon for common use and meals with French dining furniture, African hardwood walls and floors as well as shining brass portholes, banquette seating and a fully stocked bar. Up top there’s a spacious sundeck with an awning and sun loungers and a spa pool.
Towpaths and towns
Flat and well kept, the miles of towpaths that run alongside the waterways are ideal for cycling, which is very much a part of French culture. They have, in fact, formed the basis of very popular cycle tour routes known as “voies vertes.” Deviating into a local town or village is easy, as is a meandering visit to a local vineyard. Bikes are on the boat so it’s on and off as we please. And, after a few hours in the saddle, returning to the barge for a hot tub and a gourmet meal at the end of the day became a simple pleasure.
About the canal
The Canal du Midi, also called the Two Seas Canal, is a navigable waterway linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean at Sète. From there you can sail on to Aigues Mortes and Beaucaire via the Rhone-Sète Canal. Regarded as the second biggest construction site after Versailles during Louis XIV’s reign, the canal was created to promote trade in Languedoc—notably in salt, wheat and wine. The canal was dug from 1666 to 1681 through the will and courage of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the farms tax collector royal. Riquet financed the canal himself with official support from Colbert who saw an opportunity to add wealth to the kingdom.
Before digging the canal, Riquet had to solve two problems: collecting enough water to ensure constant supply, and bring water to a spot where it would flow both west to Toulouse and east to Beziers.
The great innovation of the Canal du Midi is its water catchment system. Streams flowing down from Montagne Noire (The Black Mountain) and from the Saint Ferréol reservoir feed into the canal at the Naurouze water divide, the highest point between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. In 1996 the Canal du Midi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.