En Provence in a Barge

“If you have a problem with [fill in the blank], call us.” That’s about all you can do if you have a problem on a LeBoat barge charter on the Canal du Midi in France, because the only tool you’ve been provided with is a mallet — useful principally to hammer in a stake at the side of the canal, to which you’ll tie your docklines when you identify a likely spot to stop.

When they say in their advertising material that just about anyone can take a trip like this, regardless of experience, they mean it. Sailors like us, who own sailboats and have chartered them, whose initial instinct is to fix it ourselves, are overqualified.

But once we got past that initial shock, and realized how few tasks were required of us on a self-driven charter, we soon reveled in it. And it was easy to revel in extreme comfort, for the canal boat we chartered was large and fairly luxurious, especially compared to the tight and unstable quarters of a sailboat.

There are hundreds of miles (or, I should say, kilometres) of canals and rivers in Europe. The Canal du Midi, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea in southwestern France was built in the 17th century for commercial use and is the longest of all of the canals. But now its use is strictly recreational. With our nearly 50-foot barge’s engine limited to take us no faster than five knots, our pace was decidedly leisurely.

The distance we covered in a week was less than 40 miles. After two days spent at the foot of the spectacular fortress of Carcassonne — which can be part of a Canal du Midi charter, depending on which route you choose to take — we began our canal trip in the village of Homps. The lack of responsibility for boat chores, the slow pace, the short distance, and the ease of navigation (there are virtually no hazards or obstructions) made for a decidedly languid and un-ambitious pace.

Instead of provisioning for an entire week, we elected to purchase food on a day-to-day basis. Nearly every village in which we stopped had one or more shops where we could purchase baguettes or croissants, meats (locally produced ham, sausage, patés), perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables, cheeses, and other delicacies.

Of most interest to our group of four was what lay beyond the colonnades of plane trees lining the canal: ranks of grapevines. And grapes lead to the scores of local wineries, many of which offered tastings and direct sales at wildly varying (and unpredictable) hours and conditions. At least once a day, we stumbled upon a vineyard from which we could buy the day’s wine. While the Languedoc region doesn’t produce any wines which are necessarily household names in the Mid Atlantic, they are nevertheless startlingly good and modestly priced. In particular, the rosés are sophisticated and delicious, and seldom set us back more than six euros (6€) in a store, and 20€ in a restaurant.

The languor of our pace was further enforced by a stereotypically French occurrence: a lock-keeper’s strike. At the beginning and end of our route, we had a number locks to negotiate, including the Fonserannes six-lock staircase in Beziers. Once mastered (which usually happens on your first lock), going through the locks is largely a non-event. Unless the lock-tenders refuse, as they did for one day, to flip the switches and pull the levers that allow boats to transit. We took it in stride, as it enforced a longer stay near the charming village of Argens-Minervois.

As idyllic as our trip was, it wasn’t without a few bumps; these are boats after all. For starters, the weather was not good: cold, rainy and windy. While May is an optimal month to visit the south of France in terms of the absence of crowds, the weather can be unpredictable. And the wind contributed to a mishap in which the pressure of the wind helped the barge’s bulk to pull the stakes holding her to the bank to pull from the sodden ground while we were lunching. Luckily, a local resident spotted it, and by happenstance came into the café to report a barge lying athwart the canal; the chef helped us reel her back in.

As remote as we felt on the Canal at times, the fact is that we were sometimes in urbanized areas. In Beziers, in the middle of the night I heard intruders on the deck. They’d made off with one of our locked bicycles, which forced us to spend some of our time hiking to the police station to file a report so as to ultimately avoid being held responsible for the bike’s loss.

Nothing will ever replace for me the pleasure of sailing in the islands. But every now and then, a change of pace and scenery is welcome.

by Eva Hill

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