Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ten days on the Canal du Midi in France

Ten days on the Canal du Midi in France

From June 12th to the 22nd, Bonnie, I, and a group of friends traveled from Castelnaudary to Cassafieres Harbor, a distance of about 142 km, or an hour and a half drive by car. In a boat on the canal du Midi it took 10 days.

Our location in France
The blue circle shows our location in France and the direction (east, southeast) that we traveled for the 10 days.

High level route view
We rented a 50 foot canal boat from LeBoat, along with friends who had rented three other smaller boats, and we had a wonderful time exploring rural and historic portions of southern France.

Much of the canal we traversed was built in late 1600s and early 1700s.  Its famous in the U.S as Thomas Jefferson visited the canal to adopt it's design fro the C&O canal and others in the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson was here.
Here is a quick history of the Canal du Midi and good link to a longer article

The system was a masterpiece of both hydraulic and structural engineering, and took 12,000 laborers to build.  The first stone was laid in 1667 and it was opened officially as the Canal Royal de Languedoc on May 15, 1681 – just months after the design, Riquet died.

Its main aim was to transport wheat, wine and textiles, primarily heavy cloth from Nîmes and silk.
Riquet's dream of reaching the Atlantic only came two centuries later, when his canal was linked to the Canal du Garonne.

The Canal Royal was renamed the Canal du Midi during the Revolution, and by 1856 it carried 111,000 metric tonnes of cargo and a million passengers a year.

But commerce dried up almost overnight the following year after the Bordeaux to Sète railway line was opened.

The canal had a renaissance in the early 1990s, thanks in no small part to British barge tourists who fell in love with its combination of beauty, nature and engineering prowess – and the thousands of planes, cypresses plus the odd umbrella pine and chestnut lining its banks.
It has 91 écluses (locks) which serve to ascend and descend a total of 620ft. It has 328 structures, including bridges, dams and a tunnel.

We'll attempt to give you a day-by-day account of the trip, and some summaries and other information as well.

The video below is most of the 142 km compressed into 10 minutes.  You may need some Dramamine for the experience.  You'll notice a lot of locks and low bridges.

                                                         10 days in 10 Minutes. 

June 12 - Arriving in Castelnaudary and beginning the Boat Trip

We got off the train and to our delight, Mark and Joelle were waiting on the platform for us.  Their hotel was a short walk away and Mark and Joelle let us use their shower.

The Hotel du Canal, Castelnaudary
The stress of getting there was over - at least for us.  Mark and Joelle's friends, along with their children were stuck in Vienna also due to the Frnech Air Traffic Controller strike.  They had a rough time getting here. It caused quite a bit of stress and logistics effort, but they finally arrived that afternoon.  They were exhausted.

Our late comers finally arrive - and were exhausted
We had a nice breakfast at the hotel with everyone and then walked to the Le Boat base.  We checked in early and loaded the boat.  When we made the charter they said there was no early check-in available.  which meant we would not be able to leave and begin the journey until about 4pm.  When we got there, we found they really didn't care, and we were aboard by 11:30am.  But as it looked like Mark and Joelle's friends' flight got off, we waited until they arrived and got them settled.  Then we all got going about 3:30pm.

Pondering Pizza for lunch
While waiting, we walked around the area, had pizza, and watched the operation of the first locks we would encounter.   We did a practice run with the boat and were not thrilled by the 'fly by wire' aspect of the boat. It had a pod in the stern and large bow thruster.  There were two sets of controls, one was a wheel and throttle and bow thruster, and the other a joy stick.  Below deck there was a second helm station.  The switching between wheel and joy stick had a delay of about 15 seconds or more.  And in some cases in switching, if failed and neither option worked.  This presented a problem or two for us on the trip.

Learning the boat's control systems
The pod system on the boat, meant that there is no rudder.  This is very foreign to sail boat people and the loos of steerage when slowing, and the inability to maneuver at slow speeds took a lot to get used to.

The Yanmar 75, with an electronic governor so we could not exceed 6.5 mph.
As we were prepping the boat, we realized that the water pump was not shutting off.  The maintenance guy came on board, then another.  They figured out it was the pressure regulator and adjusted it.  We were good to go.

Water pump and pressure tank under Galley floor.
We headed out at 3:30pm and experienced our first lock transit.  It was a large four lock operation.  We were all a bit nervous about it, but it went very smoothly. At each lock, we all came on deck to handle lines, and took 20 or more photos each.  By day three, we had a couple people on deck, took only a few photos, and even had a lock keeper yell at us as we were too lazy to throw lines onto the ballards.

On the first day, we had the four lock set, then a half mile to a two lock set, then another half mile to a three lock set.  The three lock set had a jammed door on the bottom lock.  We sat idling for forty minutes while the lock keeper fought with it.  I got an inadvertent crash course in the joy stick and by the end of the forty minutes had it mastered.  The lock keeper gestured to us to see of we could push the lock door open with the bow of the boat.  We tried, but had not luck moving it.  It was partially open and we were able to squeeze through it.  We radioed Mark and Joelle, who were on their friends' boat, trying to get them acclimated as they had little boating experience.

The first lock set was comprised of four locks. Nothing like intimidating us in the first hour.
We did not want to get too far ahead of them, as they were sleeping on our boat, and all their gear was with us.  We got through another lock, and pulled to the side for the night.  Mark and Joelle were stuck on the other side of the triple lock as the door would not be fixed until the morning.  They borrowed bikes from their friends and rode the mile or so to us.

Tied up on the side of the canal the first night, waiting for Mark and Joelle, and preparing dinner.
We had a nice pasta dinner on board and talked about all the excitement of the day. We all crashed about 10pm.

June 13 - Our first full day

We were up about 7:30am.  Bonnie made her perfect cappachinno - she had carried the espresso maker from our boat in her baggage.  Mark brought a manual frother with him, and the espresso and frothed milk were perfect.  Mark took the bike back to the Le Boat base to get the proper code for the MiFi on their friends' boat.  Then he joined them and waited for the lock to be repaired.

We were off about 9am and the first lock was under a half mile ahead.  The day was full of locks, beautiful scenery, with trees on both sides of the canal.  This wine region is called Languedoc named from the language the local people had.  There are multiple sub-regions.

Mike at the helm

A glimpse of the Pyrenees Mountains.

The girls checking out the wine and craft store that the lock keeper has.

Farmland everywhere

In many low spots, the canal crosses above streams and creeks on an Aquaduct.  It is an odd feeling boating over a bridge, rather than under it. 

One of the many, many locks we entered.

A nice panoramic photo of a French country road

We stopped for lunch, as the canal locks stop operation from 12:30 to 1:30 each day.  By the way, the locks don't open until 9am and close at 7pm.  Some lock keepers grow and sell vegetables, or locally made items, or wine to boats that are passing through.  Some even have restaurants.

Bonnie biking along the canal bank.
Bonnie and Joelle after shopping at the Lock keeper's store. It may have been 5:00
somewhere, but it was 10 am in France.
By the late afternoon, the clouds were moving in and it was looking like rain.  We did not want Mark left behind to travel far in the rain to us, so we stopped just after a canal lock (Fr. Ecluse) named d'Herminis that had a restaurant as well.  We made reservations for the two boats, 16 people, and had a very nice dinner.  The wine and food was less like Paris and more of the southern French style.  I suppose it could be summed up as less of the Nouvelle style, and more of the heartier stew type cooking.
Tied up at the Herminis Lock before going to the Restaurant the Lock Keeper had.

The vineyard behind the Lock

Herminis Lock, closed for the night

Panoramic of Herminis Lock

A common sign posted on many of the Locks (Ecluse).

Dinner took the traditional 3 hours and we were back at the boat and heading to bed about 10pm. The restaurant name was Restaurant la Rive-Belle (Ecluse d'Herminis 04-68-26-46-57).

June 14 - Short trip to Carcassonne

We were up at 7 and had a nice French style breakfast of Croissants, cereal, yogurt, and Cappuccino.  We headed out at 9am, traversed two low bridges and arrived in Carcassonne a little after 10am.

Travelling into Carcasone
There were a few small marinas, and we selected to stay at the one on the town side, just before the bridge.  We backed in, doing a modified Med-moor with only stern lines.

Tied up in the marina
Carcassonne Castle and walled city

Another view of Carcassonne's old City

Pondering lunch options in the center of town.

We walked up to the castle, in the old city to get a view of it.  We then came back and had lunch, rested and went back up the tour the City.  The idea was to stay through the evening and watch the nighttime light show they put on about the history of Carcossonne.

Here is a link to its history -

Here is a video of the trip so far.  Its fairly good and not too long.  I had some free French MP3s so you will hear the same music often in the videos.

<<Days 1 and 2 video coming soon>>

Here's some of the many, many photos we took in Carcassonne.







Carcassonne Town Center

Carcassonne Tourism office

A few historical markers had an English translation.  But there were also many brochures and tour books that had all the history in English.  When in doubt, there was Wikipedia and Google.

The town also had some modern artwork along the river, and in the town square.

Carcassonne entrance to Old City
Carcassonne Entrance to Old City over Moot

Carcassonne flood gauge on side of a building - 28 meter flood in the late 1800s

Carcassonne Museum entrance





Carcassonne rebuilt wood portions of fortifications







Carcassonne museum

Carcassonne museum


Carcassonne cathedral

Carcassonne nighttime light show on its history

Carcassonne at night

Carcassonne at night

Carcassonne at night

June 15 - Carcassonne, Trebes, Marseillette and on to Puicherie

Up at 7:30am and hung out for a while as gals went shopping for some supplies and I searched for a working cash machine. It seems Europe relies on Windows XP for many cash machines.  And it must have been a bad day for patch loading as three had Windows XP errors showing.

We got out of the marina at 11am and the first lock was right there.  The bridge there was one of the tightest of the entire trip.

One of the tightest bridges on the trip.

We crammed three boats in the lock, and repeated this for a few locks.

Carcassonne in the distance as we headed onward.

This double lock was upgraded with Hydraulic door controls.

Notice how power cables just hang over the canal

A few locks had problems, but most were well maintained.  Upgrades apparently were done at different times and the controls and motors varied.

Much of the stone work looked original, but showed some concrete or newer stone patches in places.

A church in a town along the canal.

Typical buildings along the canal.

A pretty bridge, approaching Trebes.  Many bridges had flower pots and decorations.

We passed through Trebes which was a very pretty town. If you do this trip, I recommend you stop there.

Low bridge. 

A charter boat basin is located in Trebes.

Olive oil factory

The triple lock in Trebes

I'm sure it was the exercise, not the wine that caused this...

An aqua-duct over a creek

Stopped for lunch and to explore.  Almost hit the boat in front of us when the  'fly by wire' system failed to switch. The couple on the boat were from Switzerland, and later befriended us after being stuck in seven locks with us a few days later.

All the towns were very scenic. 

Each Lock had a sign with the distance to the next Lock in each direction.

This region in France produces more wine than the entire USA.

This lock featured artwork made by the lock keeper or local artists.

Lots of locals entertain themselves by hanging around the locks and watching the boats traverse them.  

More vineyards

We stopped for the night at Puicherie.  There was no real town by the canal.  We took bikes into the older part of the town and found a great B&B in an old church.  The owner directed us to the town conter, which was not much, and the only open restaurant. We made reservations for all of us.

Tied up on the bank of the canal for the night.

B&B in an Old Church

Town center of the old part

Postcard from the B&B.  Looked like a great place to stay while travelling through France.

June 16 - Not liking the 'Fly by wire'.

We were up at 7:30am as usual, and out about 8:15 after a quick, light breakfast. It was Father's Day.  Which brings to mind that there is cell phone coverage throughout the trip, except rare locations, and you can rent a MiFi for the boat that gives WiFi for access to Facebook, email, etc. Thus you do not need international data plans on your smartphones.  However, as we were 6 hours ahead, phone calls and messages that come in the afternoon and evening from the U.S. (think college aged children who stay up late) will wake you up in the middle of the night in France.  We learned to put the phones on "do not disturb" or airplane mode before bed.

In the morning before departing.  As you can see, much of the  mooring areas are just grass.  They even supply stakes and a sledge hammer t make your own mooring.  There is never a need for an anchor on the canal.

We set out after breakfast and almost immediately realized that we had no steerage or throttle.  We stopped and drifted while we started troubleshooting our "Fly by wire" system.  It did not take too long to figure out that the batteries that control it were low.  Apparently the engine alternator does not charge the Pod electronics as they are 36 VDC.  As it was cool out, and we are sailors, we had not had a need to run the generator for the last couple days.  And as we avoid marinas, we did not have AC shore power either. Thus the Pod Control Batteries never got a charge.

We resolved to suffer with generator and air conditioning for the remainder of the trip.  Woe is us.

We came across a Lock with souvenirs, wine and wine jelly.  We purchased some wine, jelly, and some incredible cookies. The next morning I discovered that wine jelly in plain yogurt was my new favorite breakfast food.

Lock selling souvenirs. 
We reached Le Redorte before lunch, having traveled a grueling mile of the canal. Actually, even with the two locks it was only about an hour and a half, I guess grueling is not a proper descriptor.   We tied up at the Le Boat basin and traded in sheets and towels for clean ones.  We walked around the yard and looked at the damaged boats that were undergoing repairs.  Le Boat advertises that 'No experience is necessary' and some boats show that to be true of the people who chartered them.

We walked across the bridge to the town water front to look for a restaurant.  We decided on La Peniche.  The food was incredible, which is saying a lot, as the food even from dumpy little restaurants was typically very good cuisine.

Great restaurant.  Which is saying a lot as all the food on this trip was incredible.
French wine regions are spread thoughout the county.  We spent our trip in the Languedoc region. ( and thus were mostly exposed to their wines.  This region has sub-regions or vineyard groups (  Supposedly it is the single largest wine producing region in the world and produces more wine than the entire USA.

The wine sub-regions of the Languedoc wine region
We purchased wine for as little as 3 Euros a liter.  And it was some of the best wine I've ever had. We left the Le Boat basin shortly after lunch, motored a few kilometers and stopped at Port Du Homps.  I am sure we covered at least 2 miles on this leg.

I think that if you pre-planned hotels, you could kayak the entire trip with ease.

We tied up along the bank by a restaurant and made reservations for dinner for all of us.  The other boats trickled in behind us and we were all able to eat at the same place.

Another diner at a local restaurant.

A Crepe for dessert. 

Men's room at the restaurant.

The food was cooked in open wood ovens that looked like large pizza ovens with gratings on the bottom.  We were back on the boat after 11pm as the dinner was quite long.

June 17 - Wine tasting

We were up a little late and moving slowly from the night before.  We wanted to get moving as there was a winery along the canal we wanted to stop at.  

Tied up at the winery at 10am

View from the winery

The winery front door

The tasting room at the from of the winery's wine storage building

Its 5pm somewhere, right?

Winery name

Wine storage tanks.  The old stone inset tanks are on the right, and newer fiberglass ones are on the left.

A chalk board marker on the front of the tank.

The winery's production building. It was build and enlarged over 400 years. Its almost a football field long and family owned and operated.

The town water tower

Off again, with wine in hand.

Tied up in front of a fruit company in the town of Somail.

Bonnie feeding the Canard (duck).  The green boat in the background is a market boat that also makes bread each morning.

June 18 - Capestang,

I can't remember when we got up and stopped jotting down our adventures in my note book.  So much of what you will read from here on is from memory or from the map we brought back with us.

We did follow about the same routine of waking, eating something together, local breads, or just yogurt and jam if we were not near a market.  We also had cereal, milk, coffee and of course Bonnie's incredible Cappuccino for those who wanted it.

Mark or Joelle or both still tended to Molly and her family, as needed.  We moved on until the next town or location that the guide books said was a must see.  As the trip wore on, we were less worried about making the entire voyage in the 10 days allotted and spent even more time sightseeing and eating local foods.

A restored canal barge now used as a home.

Bonnie, Mike, Tina and myself posing as we motor along.  There were 7 of us on the boat.

Joelle taking photos as we pass under yet another bridge.

A very nice canal boat.

We arrived in Capastang and tied up so that we could do some exploring.

A map of Capestang
Capestang was a very pretty town, but not as scenic as Carcassonne.  It was easy to walk to the town center where the cathedral was, in about 20 minutes.

A church in the center of Capestang

An old aquifer the town used to get water.
We explored the cemetery that was located by the canal.  Tombs dated back for hundreds of years.  Some were in special sets, such as French 'resistance fighters' killed by the Nazis. Some tombs were fairly recent, and some had "for Sale" signs on them, that appeared to indicate they were for sale, for non-payment of maintenance fees.

The local cemetery 

View of the vineyards around the cemetery

The cathedral in the center of Capestang

Eating dinner on the boat
We ate most breakfasts and many lunches on the boat.  We only ate a few dinners on-board, and when I think we ate the dinner on-board did more out of worry of having too much food left at the end of the trip.

June 19 - Oops I lost my notes.  I'll look at the map and update later.

Three boats in the Lock.  We were bumped by the Swiss couple that we almost crashed into a few days before when the steering system would switch over.  On the last night they were drinking with us and we all had a good laugh.

Sign for the tunnel

(Tunnel history will get pasted here...  When I get time)

Painting of the tunnel being constructed in the late 1600s

Painting of Malpas tunnel in the Bezier Museum.

Entering the Malpas tunnel

In the tunnel

Just after the tunnel, we stopped at a site of ancient Roman ruins.  The area was covered with beautiful vineyards.
I think I look like I belong in France.

Young grapes on the vine

Ancient Roman grain storage

Roman era ruins

Ancient Roman road

Stairs to a Roman lookout point

View from the ruins of a lake, drained by the Romans in 600 BC to take advantage of the fertile soil of its bottom.  The fields are all pie wedge shaped.

We continued on
The sign for the Fonseranes Locks

The top of the Fonseranes Locks.  We'll be traversing this in the morning.

Fonseranes Locks, built in 1679 have seven locks with nine doors.  To the right is the Water slope, built in 1984 to bypass the locks.  It failed to function and was closed.

Fonseranes Locks, built in 1679, photo in late 1800s.
A nice Mediterranean vessel built for  the Med and canals. 

A larger than normal lock.

A common theme for the trip.

June 20 - The Fonseranes Locks and Bezier

Lock and a low bridge at the bottom of the Fonseranes Locks

Waiting for another lock so we can enter Beziers' waterfront district.

Some of the boats needed a little work.  The waterfront in Beziers was not impressive.

A view of one of the water management systems for the Canal.

Little Jerusalem in Beziers, France.

Lunch in Beziers.  The meat was cooked behind Mike and Tina, in the fireplace.

Cathedral in Beziers.  I think this could be a postcard shot.

Ancient fossils found in France

The museum in Bezieers

An original plan for a segment of the canal.

A chart of the canal system that was incredibly well laid out in the late 1600s.
We couldn't get that much detail in 10 Microsoft Excel pages today.

A barge moving wine in the early 1900s.

Three local grapes

An ancient, pre-Roman dwelling from the area.

Another of many great meas.  Seafood tonight.

One of many great bottles of wine.  When they even came in a labeled bottle...

June 21 - Last day Cruising, Bezier to the LeBoat Basin.

I may add some text here, but I kept few notes at this points and only have the way-points in the Navionics App on my iPhone and a few notes in a great Map we purchased along the way.

A local wine store.  This was a little more upscale than the usual ones.

An old wine press.

The French statue of Freedom in the town square.

A very large canal barge.  It obviously can't go too far inland on the canal.

One of the more modern bridges we saw.

Bonnie uploading to Facebook.

Another classic canal barge converted to a home.

We pass a 'reverse' Aquaduct that I will hopefully add text about later.

Waiting at the Circular Lock

How did a McGreager 26 get to France? Aren't they made in California?

An old amusement park on the side of the canal.  It'll be hoping in a few weeks when the tourist season gets going.

Le boat basin, Cassafieres, France

Our last meal on the boat before departing in the the morning for the beach.

June 22 Taxi to the beach.

We were up at about 6:30am and packed and off the boat by 9am.  We checked out at the LeBoat office and they did not seem to care if the boat was clean or not.  Of course we left it quite clean.  The taxi had multiple trips to make, so we had to wait until after 12 for a ride to the Hotel Le Brazil.

The time on the boat was fantastic!  Rural France is beautiful and the people were wonderful!  We can highly recommend a boat on the Canal du Midi. Next time we might try going the NW canal route.

June 22-24 On the beach at Palavas les Flores.

Rather than do another Blog post, I decided to just add on to this one.  We spent three days on the coast, enjoying the local town, beach, food and sightseeing.

I compiled a video of it. I may add more text later to the Blog, but the video sums up the last days quite well.

We had an uneventful flight home and fantastic vacation.  There were no low points and we came home with a strong desire to see France again soon.


  1. Great post and wonderful trip - sounds like you guys had a great time.

  2. I enjoyed reading about your journey as we are headed there next week (with friends on Calypso who gave me your link!)