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The Canal du Midi, one of France’s oldest canals that connects the mediterranean port city of Sète to Toulouse, is now home to an array of luxury hotel barges, offering travelers a unique vacation experience along this historic canal. Originally, engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet created the direct passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in the XVII century to help enable farmers and producers of wheat, wine, wools, silks and salt to export their goods for trade.
Since then the canal has evolved from being a trade route to a dream destination for boating vacationers from across the world that yearn to see stone buildings and medieval walled cities. As you casually float along the canal, you will see fields of towering bright yellow sunflowers scattered between rolling hills, covered with grape vines and sprawling stone manor homes with red terracotta shingle roofs displaying gothic, Roman, and Tuscan architectural influences.
There are several options available when cruising the Canal du Midi ranging from luxury hotel barges to self-drive boats for hire. Self-drive or self-captained boats allow you the freedom to create your itinerary and explore the uniqueness of the Canal du Midi at your own pace.
One company that offers self-captained boats is Le Boat. Le Boat started cruising the French waterways in 1968. Self-captaining a boat is a safe and informal way for vacationers new to boating to get their feet wet. There are no special licenses or permits required. Before leaving the port, there will be a brief introduction and lesson on how to drive the boat, the workings of the boat controls and how to navigate through the locks.
The locks (écluses in French), which allow passage both up and down the canal’s varying heights may seem daunting at first. Each lock has a Lock Master who controls the opening and closing of the locks, along with the filling and emptying of the water in the lock. Many of the lock masters will offer advice as boats enter or leave the lock. Following the directions of the lock master is essential. Sometimes there may only be one boat in the lock, but many times, the lock has up to four boats inside at one time. When that is the case, the boats will be within a few inches of each other. Several of the lock stations along the canal will have a small family run café or shop that is available for lunch, a glass of local wine or an ice cream cone.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, there are many highlights along the canal to stop and explore to create a magical and memorable vacation. Here are some popular and notable stops along the way –
Trèbes is a charming town with several quaint restaurants located directly on the canal for waterfront dining. Trèbes is an ideal spot for fresh Mediterranean seafood. A must do activity in Trèbes for food lovers is to take a cooking class at Cooking by the Canal du Midi. The classes, taught in English, show how to recreate the diverse and flavorful dishes of France easily.
Carcassonne, dating to the Neolithic period, is home to the famous Gallo-Roman UNESCO World Heritage Site La Cité – the world’s most extensive walled medieval fortress. The picturesque castle perched on top of a hill has two outer walls in a concentric design with 53 towers to help protect the castle during times of siege. The castle still maintains a drawbridge over a waterless moat leading to the central keep. Carcassonne is also a modern city with many shops, cafés and restaurants within walking distance of the port.
Castelnaudary, is the main port of Canal du Midi and is the birthplace of Cassoulet – a hearty stew of duck confit, sausage, and the haricot bean (a large white bean specific to the area). Legend states that cassoulet was served to the defenders of the town during the siege of 1355. The dish is so revered; it is celebrated each August with a Fête du Cassoulet of parades, live music, festivities and a Cassoulet bake-off.
Toulouse, nicknamed la Ville Rose, showcases extraordinary architecture built using rose-colored terracotta bricks. Toulouse is also home to the European aerospace industry, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica of St. Sernin – the largest Romanesque building remaining in Europe, and is France’s fourth largest city.
Suggestions for planning your trip
Buying a detailed guidebook before you go is a must. A good guide will help you plan which towns you want to stop to explore, what markets to go to, locations of wineries and other must-do activities. An important note to keep in mind is that Sunday is a family day, resulting in retail locations closing early. Also, France takes lunch very seriously; nearly the entire country closes for lunch from 1- 2 in the afternoon during the week – this also includes the locks. For self-captaining, a pilot guidebook is highly recommended to pick up and read before your trip. It will offer tips on how to navigate locks and what to expect while on the water.
It is a good idea to pack using collapsible luggage such as duffle bags that will fit into the small storage spaces within the boat. Another point to consider when packing is that most boats will have 12v plugins (car plugins) and not standard wall plugins for recharging electronics.
Most of the ports along the Canal du Midi are easily accessible from Paris via road, airplane or the extensive rail system.
Regardless if you choose to self-captain or hire a hotel barge, a vacation cruising the historic Canal du Midi will be a memorable and cherished experience for years to come. ■