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Image © Le Boat

DIY French cruising

The Canal du Midi is the perfect place for rooky captains, writes Carolyn Beasley.

The bow thrusters on our boat cut out as we approach our first lock at warp speed. Mayhem breaks out on deck as we realise we cannot slow down, especially with the wind adding a sideways trajectory. The jolt of the boat hitting the ancient lock wall of the World Heritage-listed Canal du Midi is only worsened by the sound of splintering fibreglass as cracks open up on both sides of its bow bumper. Luckily, we have premium insurance, which allows for catastrophic destruction.

It was my dad’s idea to hire a self-drive live-aboard boat and chug along the Canal du Midi in southern France.

“What in the world is the Canal du Midi?” I had asked nonplussed.

The canal is a navigable link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, completed in 1681. My vision of a peaceful sojourn through France appealed, and so here we are; one grandfather, two parents and three kids – all clueless – about to navigate a famous, picturesque waterway.

Learning the ropes

The boat is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom péniche, a classic riverboat. After some basic driving training – and despite our obvious ineptitude – we are granted custody of the boat in Argens-Minervois and cast off. Theoretically, we’re to return this boat a week later in the town of Négra, having navigated 118 kilometres and negotiated 65 locks. After the first lock, this seems unlikely.

Thankfully, blundering morphs into boat mastery and soon we were gliding into the locks with just a severe bump or two. Inside the locks, ropes whiz through the air with improving accuracy and the kids assist when they can. We are becoming – at the very least – as useful as our fellow travellers, which includes a diverse mix of Germans, Brits, Americans and the ubiquitous Kiwis. And so, with the driving almost under control, we turn our attention to the journey.

Port of call

A lady named Florence runs the port office in tiny Port de Bram. She asks our kids if they would like fresh croissants delivered for breakfast: “That’s right, direct to your boat!” The only other building at the port, restaurant L’Ile aux Oiseaux, is booked out, even on a Tuesday. The atmosphere is jolly as diners feast on seafood platters and slurp rosé.

On a different scale entirely, the hilltop city of Carcassonne has been trading since the sixth century BC. The fortified town is littered with photographic and gelato-eating opportunities. Cobbled streets wind their way through ancient walls, host to thousands of tourists all summer long. My family visit when the busloads have departed, to explore laneways and leafy beer gardens in the evening cool.

Eating like a local

Castelnaudary is all about the local dish, cassoulet, and we feel compelled to try it. Right on the port and with a canal boat for a kitchen is Brasserie la Cybele, serving the famous slow-cooked stodge. Comprising white beans, confit duck, pork sausage and thick gravy, to call this dish “hearty” would be an understatement. Our junior deckhands rave loudly about the duck and camembert burger.

Quaint historical towns aside, the view from the deck of the péniche is mostly made up of agricultural countryside and the produce sold at most of the local markets. Bright-red tomatoes, juicy peaches and stinky cheeses make their way back to the canal boat in gluttonous quantities.

Luckily, there are opportunities to burn off excess calories. When the canal was first built, small sailing vessels were towed by groups of men who walked the adjacent towpath. These days, visitors can ride bikes leisurely along these paths, and the towering plane trees provide welcome shade.

“One grandfather, two parents and three kids – all clueless – about to navigate a famous, picturesque waterway”

Locking up

Lock keepers still operate along the canal and quirky businesses occupy the historic houses. At the Peyruque Lock, look out for La Boutique de l’Ecluse. Frédérique, a typically elegant French lady, makes ceramic trinkets while her husband tends to the charming café.

The most unusual business is at Aiguille Lock. Bizarre sculptures of human and animal figures made of scrap metal and wood come to life as the visitor approaches. Some powered by wind, others connected to motion sensors, they pedal, run and wind the lock’s sluice gate open. Sculptor and lock keeper, Joël Barthes, is clearly enjoying his spare time.

At the final port, I decide that a trip on the Canal du Midi reminds me of a slow-cooked cassoulet: both require time and a slow pace, both are steeped in history and cultural traditions, and both are best enjoyed with family or friends – and a local red wine.

This article appeared in volume 50 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

Image © Le Boat

Getting there

Locaboats

Le Boat

Eat

Brasserie la Cybele, Castelnaudary

La Boutique de l’Ecluse de la Peyruque

Hot tip

‘Locking down’ (travelling down river) is slightly easier than ‘locking up’. Consider this if booking a one-way cruise.

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