The South of France

Volume 3, Issue 5; 2000-09

A canal vacation in the south of France.

In September, Deb and I had the great pleasure to take a two week vacation in the south of France. Four of us rented a Penichette, a small pleasure boat, and travelled from Argens-Minervois to Agen on the Canal du Midi and the Canal Latéral à la Garonne.

Day 0: A Baggage Story

Our story begins with an attempt to get from Hartford to Toulouse. It's a story only SharonIf you don't know who Sharon is, suffice it to say, she has the worst travel and baggage stories you can imagine. I don't know of anyone who has changed flights just to keep their baggage away from hers, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened :-). could relate to.

But, finally, we made it to the boat, the Vianne. Our boat was an essentially new Penichette:

Sandwiches and wine never tasted so good.

Day 1: Paperwork and a Driving Lesson

This morning, we completed the paperwork with Isabella, who spoke perfect English, and received our tour of the equipment and our driving/navigating lesson from Arnaud, who spoke not a word. With Deb's French, a touch of Eric's German, and a lot of gestures, we managed to wrap up just in time for the locks to close for lunch.

Time for us to eat too, though we're all anxious to give this a try. After lunch (Camembert, brie, rosemary-, lavender-, and pepper-crusted hard sausage and bread), there's time for a short bike ride before we shove off.

I'm sure it will seem routine in a few days, but today, driving the barge seems quite tricky and requires considerable concentration. Cars, bicycles, and other conveyances that I've driven, respond very quickly. The boat takes forever to respond to a turn of the wheel, which encourages the novice driver to turn the wheel a long way. This causes the boat to turn, when it finally does, much farther than was intended. So the driver overcorrects in the other direction. The boat winds down the narrow canal in a wild, zig-zag pattern until it's wrestled back under control. The first time I had to maneuver to the bank to tie up while waiting for a lock, I ended up doing a complete 360 before I got things under control.

The canal is beautiful:

And passes through the beautiful french countryside:

Don't fall in, though. The boat has an 800 liter fresh-water tank that has to be refilled every couple of days, but there's no waste collection tank. Yes, that means just what you think it does.

Today we made it to Homps, 5.5 kilometers and 6 locks.

Locks, if you aren't familiar with them, are how you make a river that travels up and down hills navigable by large boats and barges. It's basically a large resevoir with two doors, one on each end:

To travel upstream, the lock keeper closes the upstream door and lets the water flow out of the lock. You enter through the downstream doors, tie up your boat, and wait while the lock keeper closes the downstream doors and opens sleuces in the upstream doors to refill the lock:

Travelling upstream is quite demanding, physically. In fact, this whole vacation was considerably more physically demanding than any of us imagined it would be. Helluva lot of fun, though.

As the water rushes into the lock, you have to hold the lines tight to keep the boat from drifing around in the lock (and possibly crashing into other boats; as many as four at a time are placed in the oval locks of the Canal du Midi). As the water rises, you have to shorten the lines to keep the boat in place.

Locking down is basically the reverse process, you enter the lock full and the water is let out, lowering you to the downstream level. And it's much, much easier.

For relatively steep inclines, several locks may be arranged in immediate succession, making for a sort of navigable staircase.

Day 2: Trébes

On the second day, we reached Trébes (14 locks and 18 km), downstream of Carcasonne. We'd been advised that it was best to tie up here and take a taxi into the old city in Carcasonne, rather than trying to tie up in the busier, more industrial harbor in Carcasonne.

Day 3: Carcasonne

Today, I walked around (and throughout) the walled city of Carcasonne.

Human settlement on this hill extends back more than 2000 years. I may very well have set foot this afternoon on stones set by Roman masons.

The French have a wonderfully accessible attitude towards monuments. I've lost track of the number of times when I was a simple misstep from certain, easily fatal, injury. Rather than bury La Cité in fences and barricades, your left to your own common sense not to get killed.

At night, the old city is illuminated by great spotlights.

And now for something completely different.

Day 4: Bram

Today I biked along the tow path past gorgeous vineyards.

At the end of the day, we reached Bram, 12 locks and 36.5 km. Bram, built on a hill, is organized in a circular pattern, unlike the more traditional rectangular grid.

Day 5: Lock Day

Today we made our most agressive uphill journey, 18 locks in 16 km, including a massive 4-lock series to enter the basin at Castelnaudary.

Many of the locks on the canal are electric, but some are manual.

And, of course, after a hard days work, you have to have a little snack before dinner.

How I love french Camembert.

Day 6: It's All Downhill From Here

By lunchtime, we've reached the last upstream lock, la Méditerranée. The locks close at lunchtime, so it'll be this afternoon before we take the last step up.

Nearby is an old pottery workshop. It's closed, too, but they let us look around.

After lunch, we pass the stream that feeds the Canal du Midi. Nearby, the Obélisque de Riquet commemorates Pierre Paul Riquet.

Riquet conceived and began construction of the canal in the mid 1600's. The Canal du Midi connects the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Riquet died in 1680, just seven months before it was completed.

By evening, we had made it as far as Renneville, 13 locks and 22 km.

Day 7: Is That Light Supposed to be On?

Our morning begins with the "glowplug" light staying on after we start the engine. A few minutes later, all the lights are on and alarms are ringing. Pull over!

Locaboat sends a repair van. A morning lost for a broken fan belt; the locks are closed. Time for lunch.

After lunch, the first lock keeper asks us to wait 20 minutes. (They try to minimize the number of times each lock is opened; they lose a lock full of water to the ocean with every cycle.) Pounding in the stakes to tie up the boat, the hammer slips from Eric's hand. Plop. We just aren't destined to go far today.

At about 5:00pm the engine begins to lose power. Eventually it's not turning the propellor at all. We drift slowly until we settle on a bank. The repair man comes back. The engine works fine when he turns it on. Look, I don't care if it works now, I didn't imagine things. When it was warm, it didn't work. Ok, it's a little low on coolant, it probably overheated. He adds water.

Oh, and if you have another problem, please call Agen, not the base at Negra. (In other words, it's not his problem next time.)

Donneville, 8 locks and 20 km.

Day 8: Toulouse

Lunch time finds us in Toulouse, and once again losing power. Time to get another repair guy out here. After a thorough examination, he concludes that the problem is that the hydrolic oil in the gearbox has been destroyed by overheating. It probably happened when we blew the fan belt. When the engine gets warm, the destroyed oil loses viscosity and the gearbox stops working. Yes, he's confident that it's really fixed this time. A frustrating day.

By 4:00pm things are running again, but we're anxious to actually make some progress. We'd planned to spend a half-day sight seeing in Toulouse, but we're going to press on instead.

In Toulouse, we pass from the Canal du Midi to the Canal Latéral à la Garonne.

Aucamville, 10 locks and 29 km.

Day 9: The Boat Works!

The boat ran all day today without breaking down! Whew!

Escatalens, 13 locks and 40 km. Going down is a lot easier than going up!

Day 10: Moissac

Today we reached Moissac, 9 locks and 18 km.

Entering Moissac, you go over a spectacular canal bridge: a bridge for the canal that goes over a river:

We spend the afternoon sight seeing. Among the landmarks to visit are the 11th century Abbey Church of Saint Peter:

In retrospect, the canal from Toulouse to Moissac was the least intersting. Industrial, straight, and not very interesting.

Day 11: One Lock to Go

It was very hard to know how fast or slow we needed to go to complete the entire canal trip in two weeks. As it turns out, we've gone just a little faster than we needed to. We'll reach Agen easily tomorrow, a full day early. We could reach it today, but instead we'll moor early and enjoy our last evening in the quiet countryside.

Biking to the nearby town of Golfech reveals a striking comparison.

At the bridge near our mooring place, I finally caught one of the little lizards I've been seeing every day.

Day 12: Agen

After our last lock, we finish our trek to Agen.

It has been a thouroughly enjoyable trip. Not exactly relaxing, but absolutely beautiful. Especially between Argens-Minervois and Toulouse.

Oh, and for the kicker, our bags didn't make it home, either. Apparently about 1 in 6 bags misses its connection in Charles de Gaulle airport.


Wondered if you had seen The Languedoc in the South of France and especially The Canal du Midi; and if I could link from there to this page.

regards, James

—Posted by James McDonald on 18 Oct 2006 @ 08:44 UTC #

I hadn't, thanks for the pointers. You don't need my permission to link, but thanks for asking. Link away!

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 18 Oct 2006 @ 01:52 UTC #

Hello we are planning a canal trip in 2007 from Bram to Le Somail. Do you know of a restaurant close to Bram that we could celebrate a 60th birthday (for 20 people). Any other tips?

—Posted by Patsy Brosnan on 27 Oct 2006 @ 05:32 UTC #