Drift back in time on a French canal

By Leonard Doyle

France's Canal du Midi once carried grapes and wine, but fell into disrepair. Now, says Leonard Doyle, it is the perfect route for a gastronomic journey through France.

The curve of France's Canal du Midi is etched out by two rows of plane trees. There are said to be 45,000 between the Mediterranean port of Sete and the city of Toulouse. Photo / Thinkstock
The curve of France's Canal du Midi is etched out by two rows of plane trees. There are said to be 45,000 between the Mediterranean port of Sete and the city of Toulouse. Photo / Thinkstock

Slipping along the shaded waters of the Canal du Midi at the pace of a dray-horse, our skipper attempts what appears to me an impossible task - threading our 30m Dutch barge through a tiny, 17th-century, hump-backed bridge.

Of course, he accomplishes it flawlessly - with centimetres to spare on each side - as he has done countless times before.

But the achievement is no less remarkable to me, nor to the handful of spectators who have gathered along the canal bank to witness what could be a scene from 100 years ago when the Canal du Midi was at its brief commercial peak.

Aboard the Alouette, we are two adults, a 12-year-old boy, two teenage girls, and a crew of five.

This was to be a gastronomic experience par excellence.

Tom, our talented live-aboard chef, would produce exquisite regional cuisine from a kitchen the size of a small dishwasher.

For the youngest member of our group - better acquainted with pizza and fish fingers than cordon bleu cuisine - the exposure to the best of French cooking would bring about its own revolution.

And for the teens, to have an expert sommelier (also our guide and driver) expose them to quality French wines, and for them to consume alcohol for the taste, not the effect, would give cause for hope.

We begin our journey on the canal outside the town of Beziers, where the Alouette was docked.

Our 80-tonne vessel navigates a series of seven consecutive "steps", as the locks are called, and heads slowly across country, traversing several rivers by means of exquisite canal bridges.

As evening falls on our second day, our little ship stops for the night at Le Somail, a tiny 17th-century village that was once the pick-up point for provisions for barges taking wine and other produce to and from the country's Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

In summer they would also take on ice, brought from the Pyrenees in winter and stored in a tall tower which today is empty.

As if to underline that the canal is the spiritual, social and commercial heart of Le Somail, a tiny Catholic chapel juts up against the village's ancient single-arch bridge.

Everything is laid out for the convenience of bargemen long since disappeared.

Today it is animated once again, this time with a motley collection of barges, cruisers and yachts (de-masted so they fit under bridges), many of which opt to overnight here.

Locals say property prices are being driven up by British visitors.

But, in truth, the pace of change seems very slow.

At the next town along the canal, the delightfully named Homps, there is an all-English grocery - l'Epicerie Anglaise - which is closed when I visit.

A peek in the window reveals a bookcase full of dog-eared paperbacks and DVDs, some Lipton's tea bags and packets of popadoms.

This is Corbiere wine country, where every available parcel of land is given overto grape culture.

As far asthe eye can see there are immaculately-cared-for vines, and the vineyards push right up against its few little streets.

This town's epicerie is on the deck of a bright-green barge above its owner's living quarters.

From this floating emporium townspeople and visitors buy bread and other daily provisions.

Here too the timeless law of French opening hours (9am-12pm and 2pm-6pm) is observed.

Otherwise, c'est ferme.

The Canal du Midi, which connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, is some 240km long.

It was designed by Paul Riquet (1666-1681) as the Royal Canal of Languedoc, and is recognised as an engineering masterpiece with a sophisticated water system.

It was dug by 12,000 men, crossing rivers, tunnelling through hills, and is irrigated from the Montagnes Noires.

Engineers come from all over the world to understand its design and its unique water-supply system.

But for the most part, people just come to admire it.

Although we are within striking distance of two international airports and motorways galore, globalisation has yet to reach this part of France.

The tempo of life follows the rhythms of the wine-growing season.

If there is an exception to this rule, it is along the canal, where skippers, professional and amateur alike, are making steady progress towards the next lock - bearing in mind a 19km/h speed limit and the limitations of the 100-year-old engines driving some of the barges.

Of course, the locks close for lunch too, as they have done for the past 150 years, and it is a wise skipper who keeps his eye on the clock if he wants to make any progress.

It can take all of a skipper's efforts to cover 50km a day if there are numerous locks to negotiate.

The canal was built before the age of steam and before lock sizes were standardised across Europe.

When the rest of France's canals were upgraded more than 100 years ago, for some reason the Canal du Midi was not.

Thus the big 38m powered barges that plied Europe's waterways simply would not fit through the Canal du Midi's locks and it fell gradually into disuse.

Fortunately, it was rescued from decay and its recent listing by Unesco as one of the world's great cultural heritage sites has ensured its protection and survival.

A gentler, sepia-coloured France is seen from the Alouette.

The curve of the canal is etched out by two rows of plane trees.

There are said to be 45,000 between the Mediterranean port of Sete and Toulouse, where the canal joins the river Garonne for its long journey to the sea at Bordeaux.

The mature trees form a canopy, reducing evaporation and providing dappled shade for us.

Further along, from the barren limestone rocks of the Corbieres to the aromatic hills of the garrigues (arid brushland) the scenery changes to spectacular cliffs, caves and gorges.

There are large expenses of wild, unspoilt countryside north towards the Montagnes Noires.

The river Orb's rapid descent through deep canyons makes for an ideal diversion from the sedate progress of the canal.

A quick excursion by car to rent canoes and we were following the hair-raising descent through rapids turbocharged by the release of millions of litres of water from a hydroelectric station.

The starring role in this vacation though is our 30m floating hotel, the Alouette, built in 1908 in Holland.

Immaculately maintained, her beautiful lines hark back to a time of unhurried travel, even if she did begin life transporting sand between the Dutch polders (reclaimed land sites).

These days she is air conditioned, with a stateroom worthy of a five-star hotel.

There are three double bedrooms, all (remarkably) with an en suite, and small areas in the bow and stern where the crew live and work.

When we arrive in Carcassonne some 100km from our port of embarkation, it is difficult to work up enthusiasm for what is, after all, one of Europe's most impressive walled towns.

That is, until we check into our hotel.

Orient Express, the new owners of the Alouette and her sister barges, also owns the Hôtel de la Cité, situated inside Carcasonne's medieval citadel.

With stunning rooms overlooking the ramparts and views across the countryside to the Montagnes Noires, it is an oasis of peace.

Built in 1909, it was, in the 50s, the epitome of style, as testified by the signatures in the hotel guest book, from Grace Kelly to Christina Onassis.

Refurbished and restored, with each bedroom overlooking the 12th-century Sainte Nazaire basilica, it is considered one of the finest small hotels in the world.

The hotel also has a collection of more than 10,000 bottles of vintage wine from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast - that may well have arrived by barge along the 240km of the Canal du Midi that we have travelled in such style.

Further information: See le-guide.com.

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