For the final leg of our trip to France, we putter gently down the murky brown waters of the Canal du Midi. Built to create a continuous water way between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it was completed in 1681 and has flowed ever since. We start our little sojourn at the port of Le Somail (having been raucously ripped off by the taxidrivers on the short trip from the train station at Narbonne) and after much too-ing and fro-ing, and a quick tutorial in barge driving we are off up thecanal. Mike is the designated captain (thank goodness, since I manage to crash the boat at least four times before we travel 100m!). Much of the canal is lined by ancient plane trees, which cast a dappled light across the waters and help stave off some of the steamy heat that we come across down in this part of the world.
Many of the original structures remain (albeit maintained and repaired), and we pass under small stone bridges that allow the traffic to travel over our heads, and over amazing constructions which allow the traffic to carry on beneath us. As we go, we float past small, sleepy villages and eat fresh produce grown by the lock keepers (they seem to grow so much in France, I am inspired to get into my garden and get ready for spring). It is a wine region and the surrounding landscape is awash with vines. In the distance, wind turbines spin lazily and I am reminded how backwards Australia is in grasping the natural resources we have at our disposal to become more environmentally powered.
We pass through about 20 locks over the 7 days, and while the first one was hair-raising and the second interestingly enjoyable, they soon become a chore. These locks are old though, and oval shaped (apparently unique) and fascinating from a science point of view. The kids are enamoured with how we enter below the wall and float up to the top in a rush of white water and a lot of bumps (which has their mother screaming at them to get inside or put their life jackets on). The locks are all manned by French lock keepers who keep to strict hours of lunch between 12.30 and 13.30 and closure at 19.30. Getting to the locks soon becomes a game of race the lunch clock and each day sees us having lunch docked up under some trees, waiting for the lock to open, along with several other boats. The moment the clock ticks over and the gates open with a creak, there is a mad rush to get ourselves sorted, ropes at the ready, one or other of us ready to leap crazily onto the small, wet, slippery ladder and haul ourselves to the top, to catch the ropes (which are often wet and on their third throw), to screech bonjour to the bemused lock keeper and to secure the boat. We did get better as time went on.
Our days largely consist of puttering along, eating, lock-running and chilling out. We did find a lake to go swimming in (you definitely don’t want to be swimming in the canal) and rode our bikes there, with the kids balanced precariously on the handle bars. I found the lake extremely weird though. With its stone beach and low blue sky and swimming platform, it had the colour palette of a 70’s Hitchcox movie and I felt unsettled by the dark water. Nonetheless, a quick look around assured me that I could probably swim faster than some of the other paddlers, so in we went and had a nice swim to wash away the grime of two days on the canal.
We had a delicious fish dinner in Trebes, a town I was largely unimpressed with having been ripped off several times, but one of my favourite memories will be eating on the banks of the canal, at a little picnic table, as night settled about us. The highlight of course was the wonderful city of Carcassonne, the whole reason for the trip in the first place. Apparently the Cite of Carcassonne (the old walled city) is the second most visited tourist attraction in greater France behind Euro Disney. I don’t know if that is true but certainly it was tourist central and crowded with both tourists and tourist paraphernalia. Nonetheless, it is an incredible sight and even though it is largely restored, rather than original, it is meticulously done, and the history drips from the walls. As Mike remarked, even the restorations are a couple of hundred years old! We stayed in the port of Carcassonne for two nights, using their showers and nabbing wi-fi from McDonalds late at night, sitting outside like cyber-squatters. Mike and I have the most delicious cassoulet, the regional dish (and I realise the problem with the ones I make is that they contain too many veggies and not enough beans! Of course this comes with its own issues.)
We spend the last night at the port of Bram, where the children construct a massive stone walled city and cathedral and castle out of stones they find. And then its off to London for us and we have to wave goodbye to beautiful France. We were lucky to see so much of it, but there is so much more to see and I will definitely be back one day. I love the pace of life in France and the seeming simplicity of it all. The food is exquisite and fresh and inspiring and delicious, as is the wine. I can see why people move to France in their droves. Our final view of this lovely
place is the view from the sky – we look down on the quilt-cover-like countryside with its neat, luscious fields of grapes, sunflowers and wheat laid out under a clear blue sky and we know we will be back.