Barging the Canal du Midi – Sailing in the South of France

by Nancy Bestor

To start, I don’t think of myself as a “boat” person. I’m not a sailor. I don’t know which side of a boat is “aft” or which side is “port”. I had never been on a sailboat until I was almost 40. I don’t even own a cute striped sailor top, or Sperry Topsider shoes. Thus it may come as a great surprise to you, as it was to me, that I absolutely loved our family’s summer vacation cruising the Canal du Midi on a self-guided barge in the South of France.

We rented a 50-foot long penichette from Locaboat (www.locaboat.com) for one week with another family of four. While not cheap (about $4400 total before gas and bike rentals for the week), we justified it as such: the boat was our lodging, there were four bedrooms on board that very comfortably slept all eight of us; it was also our restaurant as we cooked most meals in the small yet nicely appointed kitchen; and of course it was our transportation, as we traveled 118 kilometers in seven days, navigating 65 locks.

My list of worries before the trip was short but significant:
1. How nasty would the pump toilets be on board?
2. How hard would it be for us novices to navigate our 50 foot long boat through narrow locks?
3. Eight people on a boat for a week. Would we still be friends when it was all over?
4, 5 & 6. Repeat worry number three.

Turns out I had no reason to fear. The pump toilets are fairly similar to flush toilets, you just have to pump water in when you are finished to flush the waste out. And after a small mishap at the first lock (my apologies, beautiful pink sun umbrella, for forgetting to take you down when we slipped narrowly under the bridge), we became piloting pros, even when it came sharing the tight spaces of the locks with as many as three other large boats. Finally, although the interior spaces of the boat were a bit cramped, there were plenty of different lounging spots on the exterior decks to escape to and read a book, lounge in the sun, play cards or just sip a glass of wine. And yes, we all still liked each other when we split up after our week together.

The Canal du Midi is postcard beautiful, and as we slowly glided (never faster than five miles an hour) through sunflower fields and vineyards, drinking red wine on the sun deck, I couldn’t help but think that all vacations should be this relaxing. If anyone wanted a break from being on the boat, we’d simply pull over to the bank and let them out to walk or ride a bike along the path that runs the length of the Canal. One morning Bob and I rode into a small village boulangerie for fresh croissants and baguettes. And other than using my arm muscles to work the ropes when we were in the locks, that was the extent of our strenuous exercise for the week.

We certainly ate and drank our share (perhaps more than our share?) of bread, cheese and wine during the week. It was fun walking or biking to the local groceries and markets to choose the day’s pairing of regional wines and cheeses. Our average daily baguette consumption was four. You know life is good when your biggest concern is when and where you can get more fresh bread.

I’m certain we would all agree that the highlight of our week on the Canal was Bastille Day, July 14. Unbeknownst to us when we booked our trip, our itinerary put us in Carcassonne on Bastille Day, France’s answer to the United States’ 4th of July. The fortified city of Carcassonne, complete with castle, towers, drawbridge and more, celebrates Bastille Day with a 30-minute fireworks show better than any I have every seen or could imagine. Now our hometown of Ashland, Oregon celebrates Independence Day in grand style, with a small town parade, a concert in the park and a fun fireworks show, but the Carcassonne fireworks show is something entirely different. Part of the show simulated the walled city under siege, as it “caught fire”, then the “fire” was slowly put out by “water”. In the finale alone, Carcassonne lights off more explosives than the whole of our small town fireworks extravaganza. It was hugely impressive, and all the more fun because we watched it from the deck of our own boat, sipping wine on the Canal du Midi.

    Barge Rental Details
  • We rented bikes for every member of our group. About $50 per bike for the week, and worth every penny.
  • Barges can tie up anywhere along the canal for the night. See a lovely tree shaded spot? Tired of driving? Pull over to the side, hammer in your stakes, and enjoy a lovely and quiet evening with a splendid view.
  • Locks are open from 9 am to 7 pm, and closed for a one-hour mid-day lunch break. Each had an operator working the lock system, but you are expected to navigate your own boat, and tie it to the cleats on the sides of the lock on your own. (In many cases, as my teenage daughters can attest to, the operator was a handsome young shirtless French man. I did not notice. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
  • Many lock stations sold provisions, including wine, fresh eggs, produce, ice cream, water and more. It was never a problem to acquire groceries. We were always within a short walk or bike ride from a market.
  • A barge cruise is not for anyone who likes to get anywhere in a hurry. As mentioned before, boats travel no faster than five miles an hour. At times there can be a significant wait to take your turn through a lock. But this gives you more time to explore the surrounding area, as well as visit with other boaters.
  • I recommend having at least four adults willing and able to navigate the barge. This way if two people want to ride bikes or walk along the canal there are at least two others available to drive the locks.
  • There is little skill required to drive a barge. When we first arrived, Locaboat gave us a brief tutorial, from a gentleman who spoke little English, and that was really all the direction we needed.

—Nancy Bestor co-owns Travel Essentials with her husband, Bob. Both agree they would happily take a barge vacation again, Nancy will just be better accessorized.