Cruising the Canal du Midi in south west France – Scotland on Sunday Travel
Sail to wineries, olive oil refineries, traditional villages then dine under the stars
The good ship Francesca Cradock pulled out into the Canal du Midi from her base in Homps. Like the enterprising 18th century English aristocrat who inspired the nickname, our vessel is an operator. Unlike her, she is broad in the beam and well padded, more a Fanny than a Francesca. As she needs to be because in real life she’s Le Boat 22, one of a fleet of self drive electric craft who ply the celebrated waters with crews that haven’t a clue what they’re doing.
We’d arrived the night before, excited at the prospect of cruising a stretch of Paul Riquet’s magnificent 17th century canal. Ahead, wineries and olive oil refineries, traditional villages and dining under the stars. Our fearless leader was first overboard on the way back from the welcome dinner: a false step and down she plunged, head first, legs flailing, luckily no contact with 400-year-old walls saw her unscathed. Over a glass or so of chilled rose on the upper deck under a million stars, we pondered what might happen next.
With influencers on board, we would never be short of know how. ‘France is the gift that keeps on giving’, one pronounced and we didn't have long to wait for the first offering: a serene waterway with tall trees along the bank shadowing a rippling surface. Here it was. the classic image that tempts mariners to hire a Le Boat for a week of exploration.
Paul Riquet was also an operator, in his case of the highest quality. Born in Beziers in 1609, he turned a scientific education into a large entrepreneurial fortune, not a problem when you can levy your own taxes. His dream was to build a 240 km (155mile) waterway linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, a project favoured by King Louis X1V because it would provide trade routes unendangered by Spanish
pirates.The project was shovel ready in 1665 and completed in 1681 a few month's after Riquet's death.
We made our stately if slightly weavy way eastwards on the 5-lock section to Paraza, our first winery. The locks are manned – gender intended – by Midi folk, bronzed from the sun, vocal chords tuned by shouting instructions all day. As they have every need and right to do. Keeping Madame Cradock on a chosen path is a tricky business; her finger tip controls and leaden response times need constant correction. Factor in a lock and novice steering skills are tested beyond reasonable limits but rubber cushioning meant collisions were bone shaking, but did no harm. Failure to duck
under picturesque low bridges could be more of a hazard but so far, so good. At 12.25 silence reigned: France's giving does not cover the lunch hour.
When he was building this section of the Canal, Riquet lodged comfortably in Chateau de Paraza: its seven terraces gave him a bird's eye view of progress as the infrastructure grew and the waters flowed. In 2005, the picture perfect chateau was bought by the Danglas family, Parisian doctors looking for a career change. Son Matthieu studied wine making in Carcassonne and Australia, then returned to mastermind more sophisticated vintages than Minervois, the heart of the French wine lake, normally offers.
For a relaxed summer break, check into one of five handsome double suites in the chateau. You can stroll to the donkey compound through peaceful gardens, swim in the secluded pool or play billiards in the handsome salon, with the highlight of the visit an impressive tasting house and the vintages that emerge from the cellars. If you want to take wine home, buy it here.
By nightfall, we were in Le Somail, a village of character, its waterfront restaurants and creeper-clad houses framed by a fine humpbacked bridge. We dined at Le Comptoir Nature while geese stalked by and beavers peeked out from leafy clumps. Nature indeed and hours to enjoy it....over the wrong dishes.
The good life was back on the menu by breakfast the next morning, with croissants, baguettes and pain au chocolat bought fresh from the La Peniche bakery boat moored nearby. Much needed rocket fuel for the off road e-bike blast to an olive oil processing cooperative 20km away. It was here we met Francesca, a young aristocrat with a much older husband who recorded her French travels in Le Voyage de Madame Cradock en France (17-83-1786.). With Trip Adviser 300 years in the future, Francesca concentrated on the sleeping conditions and hygiene she was exposed to during lengthy travels that included the Canal du Midi. Parasites, damp sheets, bad water, husband expelled to share quarters with boatmen, she endured them all with equanimity; on one occasion she shared with her maid, made her own bed and swept the room. What better role model for girl boatistas. The oil from the celebrated Lucques olives was rewarding too.
That night we moored in Paraza to dine at OKN9, an ex warehouse on the canal front with tables on the slipway. Thank you Natalie from Brighton. After a quarter of a century in France, she opened the restaurant last year with Olivier and their small global menu and old fashioned French values delivers dishes ranging from Japanese chicken dumplings to dahl and gaspacho. Simply delicious.
Lest we became complacent lazing on the water, we tackled serious sightseeing in Carcassonne, king of the Cathar castles that dominate the local landscape. As a fortifiable hilltop on a plain, Carcassonne has been popular among fighting folk since the Neolithic age, reaching its peak in the 14th century when King Lous IX completed the outer ramparts and today is a bustling tourist honeypot.
Leaving the hurly burly for our last night with Fanny flagged up the true values of a boating holiday. By day and night, the Canal du Midi is beautiful and serene . Unexpected treasures pop up along the way – a family owned bookshop in Le Somail with 70,000 volumes, a pocket dynamo of a girl flashing a traditional flail to whip olives from branches into baskets, a stately glide along the tow path on an e-scooter. Solitude, fun and
wifi: what more could anyone ask?
Le Boat (leboat.co.uk; 02392 801125) operates on the Canal Du Midi from the last week in March to October 31. seven-night self catered stay: £158-789 pp. The boats sleep 10 in five cabins with en suite shower rooms, but full occupancy would be a tight fit. The company also operates self drive boat trips in Scotland, Ireland and England in a global portfolio of 30 countries.