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A dream week exploring the Canal du midi by boat

Fabienne and Sylvain Colas embarked on a one week boating holiday on the Canal du Midi, accompanied by a couple of good friends. Here they tell us about their canal boat adventures on one of the most famous waterways in the world.

Steeped in history and intrigued by its structure and many canal bridges and picturesque locks…not to mention the tree-lined riverbanks boasting plane trees, cypresses and umbrella pines… the Canal du Midi had been on our wish list for a boating holiday for many years. As veterans of many boating holidays in other areas of France we embarked, with a couple of friends, for a week of boating holiday fun from Port-Lauragais to Le Somail on one of Nicols easy to navigate self-drive canal boats. The result, as you’ll see below, was an adventure along a legendary canal that lived up to our expectations!

We arrived at the Nicols base in Port-Lauragais where we picked up our canal boat in what’s the ideal starting point for a boating holiday on the Canal du Midi. Before boarding our canal boat we stocked up on local produce at the Maison de Haute-Garonne. We picked up Lauragais cassoulet, Cadours wine, local honey, violet sweets from Toulouse…all a complete change of scenery for our taste buds and great for making some gourmet lunches to enjoy throughout our boating holiday!


The first lock and first encounters on the canal du midi

In just a few hundred metres after leaving Port-Lauragais we come across our first lock. It’s typical of those found along the Canal du Midi with its oval shape: the Ocean lock. This is the first of many to be found in a long series of locks…if we’re to believe the Nicols boating holidays brochure we will cross no less than 60 locks during our week of navigation! In fact when we chose this particular boating holiday itinerary it was the number of locks that we’d be passing through that really stood out - but going through the locks is really one of the highlights of navigation on the Canal du Midi. Even after lock number 59 it doesn’t become tiresome or monotonous! The exchanges with other boaters and the friendliness of the lock keepers and boatmen make being on the waterways a very personable experience.

A view of the Canal du Midi © Gill Haynes


After the majestic passing of Castelnaudary and its breathtaking view from the Grand Bassin of the typical facades of the old town we reach the four locks of Saint-Roch. Shaded by two mills, a flour mill and the century-old plane trees of the canal, this “water staircase” marks the beginning of an area rich in locks. A few manoeuvres, forwards/backwards and moorings later, under the watchful eye of passers-by seated at the water's edge, and we overcome the 10 metre drop with our canal boat. It’s at this point that we’re feeling super confident…a few moments ago we were just simple sailors but look at us now, we have become real captains! That’s good though because in just a few more kilometres a remarkable new lock awaits us: that of the Vivier with its ladder of just three locks this time.


From Castelnaudary to Carcassonne by canal boat

This part of our boating holiday makes us ponder the basics of French geography. After the plains of Lauragais we meander on the Canal du Midi between the rocky hills covered with the vines of Carcassès, approaching Carcassonne. The medieval city is one of the key stops on our Canal du Midi boating holiday and we moor our boat at the port ready to set off on foot towards the historic ramparts.

Taking a boating holiday on the Canal du Midi also offers experiences that can only be had while on the water. We were particularly impressed by the navigation on the aqueducts and canal bridges that span the streams and other rivers. On the Fresquel canal bridge, the experience is particularly unusual: pedestrians, bicycles, motorists and canal boats meet there. The cars slowed down on the bridge to take advantage of our passage! Our boating holiday has other aqueduct crossings to look forward to: the Riquet canal bridge on the Répudre (the best known because it is the oldest in the world!), the Orbiel or the Cesse are still to come.


Beautiful encounters along the canal

What this boating holiday experience has taught us more than anything is that a week of navigation on the Canal du Midi is above all an art of living: the exchanges between boat crews and the friendships that are made during lock passages, the beautiful landscapes that you enjoy at the leisurely pace of just 12 km/h, the impromptu stops in the hamlets along the canal, the improvised aperitifs in idyllic settings lulled by the lapping of the water, the charm of the lock keepers' houses which each have their own identity...

But, if you pressed us to choose just one main highlight, it would have to be that of the Puichéric lock, found halfway between Carcassonne and Le Somail. Here, the lock keeper is also an artist. He presents himself as a “lock keeper-sculptor”! With its chainsaw-sculpted metal characters (both animals and people) the lock, which looks like an open-air contemporary art museum, is unlike any other. These are the kind of surprises that make this boating holiday on the Canal du Midi a unique getaway!

A creations from the artist at the Puichéric lock © Arnoldi Design


Unusual experiences found at every corner

Even with the most stringent of planning your boating holiday will throw up pleasant surprises that you will discover by chance…or with a little help. For instance… did you know that rice is grown on the banks of the Canal du Midi, in the rice fields of Marseillette. Neither did we until a friendly couple we met who were regular Canal du Midi boating holiday people informed us as we were neighbours during an overnight mooring at the port of Bram. Without their pointer we would never have discovered this unusual local specialty!

Other highlights include being able to cast off and cross the Languedoc – another legendary canal or to coast freely in the heart of the Minervois and to discover landscapes constantly changed by the reflection of the sun and the alignments of plane trees in the water.

You really can’t beat navigating at your own pace in the heart of peaceful nature far from the main roads of the South of France mixed with discovering hamlets, towns and villages, such as Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, Homps, Bram or Marseillette…all easily explored due to their close proximity to the water.


Le Somail – a typical port of the Canal du midi with a unique atmosphere

Even as we approach the end of a week of sailing on the Canal du Midi, our boating holiday still manages to amaze us… to the point that we would have liked to continue our escapade on the Canal du Midi for a few more days!

We were particularly seduced by the port of Le Somail, the end point of our boating holiday on the Canal Midi. This incredibly charming hamlet lives to the rhythm of the canal. Here, time seems to have stood still with its old bridge weathered by time surmounted by a chapel at the foot of the water, its grocery store barge, its impressive old bookstore still in its original state and its traditional boats which glide on the water.

This river getaway made us want to book a canal boat again next year to continue the journey to the East, towards the Mediterranean as far as the Pointe des Onglous, eastern end of the Canal du Midi at the gates of the Etang de Thau. We still have so many treasures to discover! The Malpas tunnel, the impressive scale of eight locks of Fonsérannes, the Orb canal bridge, the great reach between Argens and Béziers and its 54 km without locks, the Roman aqueduct bridge of Béziers, Agde and its lock round: as you can see, we have already begun preparing our itinerary for our next boating holiday in France. We can't wait for next year!

View of Le Somail © Heinz Storrer

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