Barging on the Canal du Midi (First of two parts)

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 55 of the August 2015 issue.
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Enjoying wine and cheese aboard the Anjodi while cruising on the Canal du Midi in southwestern France. Photo by Gail Keck

In early June 2015 I had the opportunity to realize one of my long-held travel fantasies: traveling by barge on the timeless Canal du Midi in southwestern France. The journey was inspired by the experience of an adventurous British couple portrayed in the 2005 book “Narrow Dog to Carcassonne” by Terry Darlington.

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Enjoying wine and cheese aboard the Anjodi while cruising on the Canal du Midi in southwestern France. Photo by Gail Keck

In early June 2015 I had the opportunity to realize one of my long-held travel fantasies: traveling by barge on the timeless Canal du Midi in southwestern France. The journey was inspired by the experience of an adventurous British couple portrayed in the 2005 book “Narrow Dog to Carcassonne” by Terry Darlington.

On a partially hosted cruise aboard European Waterways’ oldest and best-known barge, the 8-passenger Anjodi, my wife, Gail, and I lived a life of luxury for seven days and six nights. We were joined by four other passengers from Britain and Australia. Our excellent crew of four — the captain, Laurent; our guide, Steve; the master chef, Todd, and the hostess, Eve — would look after our every need. 

We cruised from the small village of Le Somail, near Narbonne, to Marseillan, where the du Midi concludes by emptying into the Étang de Thau, a large saltwater basin that connects to the Canal du Rhône à Sète at the port of Sète on the Mediterranean. 

In this 2-part article, I will endeavor to convey a sense of the experience of leisurely cruising on the lower Canal du Midi aboard a luxury barge.

Amazing feat of engineering

A laudable engineering achievement at the time of its completion some 330 years ago, the Canal du Midi connected with the Canal de Garonne at Toulouse to complete an extensive inland waterway linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

The canal quickly burgeoned as a valuable commercial route, allowing goods to be transported by barge across France, thereby avoiding the lengthy and, at times, precarious sea journey around the Strait of Gibraltar. It also provided added mobility for the French navy at the time. 

Constructed from 1666 to 1680, the 150-mile canal was hand dug by a workforce of 12,000 laborers, who excavated in excess of seven million cubic meters of earth and built more than 300 structures, including locks, bridges, tunnels and aqueducts.

Perhaps the singularly most impressive features of the canal are its 63 locks, including double-, triple-, quadruple- and sextuple-staircase locks.

The primary reason I felt so drawn to the du Midi, however, is the manner in which it has stood the test of time. Cruising on the du Midi is a passage through nearly three-and-a-half centuries of European history on a waterway that, in many ways, has proven impervious to change. 

As a result of the high quality of construction that went into all aspects of the original project, the du Midi is not only one of the oldest functioning canals in Europe but the most traveled canal in France. 

Reportedly, the busiest lock today on the Canal du Midi is Argens Lock, which records about 11,000 boats passing through its single chamber each year. The canal was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1996.

A blue-green ribbon winding through the vines

Personally, I travel with the hope of being surprised, and, to that end, I consciously avoid overresearching trips in advance. Therefore, I had no idea that on virtually our entire cruise on the lower du Midi, we would be winding our way through a sea of seemingly endless vineyards. 

We learned that in this single region of France, there are more hectares of vineyards than in all of Australia’s wine-producing areas combined. As someone relatively familiar with the Australian wine-producing scene, I was duly impressed.

This unanticipated constant visual feast served as the perfect accompaniment to the bevy of pines, poplars, cypresses and plane trees lining the banks of the du Midi. 

The good life on the Anjodi

The Anjodi, with an interior featuring African hardwoods, is of classic Dutch design and was rebuilt specifically to fit the requirements of negotiating the Canal du Midi.

 Gail and I found the staterooms to be spacious (including the bathrooms) and quiet as well as user-friendly in all regards. We particularly appreciated the abundance of natural light, the individual stateroom temperature controls and the generous storage space. From the experiences of friends, we know many canal barges do not offer this degree of comfort. 

 Aboard the boat, the common areas for dining and lounging both below and, particularly, above deck were more than ample, and finding solitude was not a challenge. 

The dining experience aboard Anjodi can only be described as pure delight. Breakfast presented fresh fruits and juices plus cereals and selections from local bakeries to be enjoyed at one’s leisure.

Both lunch and dinner were more formal affairs, featuring different regional wine-and-cheese pairings at each meal. Gail and Jeff, an Australian, became known as the cheese­heads on board, with something of a competition going on between the two.

Over the week, Chef Todd delivered a dazzling array of traditional French culinary experiences that included veal, pork, duck, lamb and local seafood, complete with table-side descriptions of all the courses.

He also delivered superbly concerning my piscatorial dietary limitations, picking up fresh seafood while shopping at the markets in towns and villages along the way. A seafood buffet for lunch one afternoon dazzled us all.

Impressions of the du Midi

The charm of the Canal du Midi barge experience, for me, was simply being topside while cruising. Life along the narrow waterway took center stage, and having a magnificent scenic backdrop quickly became the norm.

European Waterways’ Anjodi sets a leisurely pace. Photo by Randy Keck

Each day we shared the canal with colorful barges and other craft, many of which were clearly serving as live-aboard accommodations. It was fun to compare them, speculating about the onboard lifestyles.

We passed picturesque canal-front villages like Le Somail and Capestang, and, throughout our journey, the many cyclists and people walking along the towpaths were most friendly, seemingly happy to share their special place with those drifting by. 

We were also educated about the different types of locks and the technology used to operate them. We marveled at the system’s simple efficiency, while friendly, self-assured lockkeepers seamlessly directed the steady stream of craft. 

While cruising, I found it extremely difficult to go below deck for fear of missing something. The experience was an intimate exposure to the many facets of life along the banks of the canal.

Next month, I will report on biking options along the Canal du Midi towpaths and the daily excursions to towns, wineries and other attractions.

Getting on board

Depending on the time of year, the cost of the 6-night Canal du Midi cruise aboard the Anjodi is $4,690-$5,390 per person, double occupancy, including all meals, all wine and other beverages, excursions, and transfers from Narbonne. 

For details of barge cruise experiences throughout Europe, contact European Waterways (based in the UK; call, toll-free in the US, 877/879-8808 or, in Canada, 877/574-3404, www.gobarging.com).    

Contact Randy c/o ITN.