Although the French Canals were high on my fantasy list for years, two things prevented me from organizing a trip — my pathetic high-school French and a fear of locks. Thus, when I was invited to join a group of American, Canadian and French journalists on a cruise through the Canal du Midi in Southwest France last May, I leaped at the chance. I knew I would have translators and, surely, someone else would handle the boat in the locks. I expected an experience I could cross off my “do-someday” list.
Now, I can’t wait to go back. The locks made the boat handling interesting and fun (I was doing it handily within hours) and my primitive French was no problem at all. With just a handful of words and some animated gesturing I found I could communicate just fine. One day I biked ahead of the boat and, no translators in sight, learned how to help the locktender winch open the manual lock gates.
The three-century-old Canal du Midi links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, traveling through medieval villages, colorful market towns, farms and vineyard in France’s Languedoc region. You can tie up virtually anywhere along the shore and go off and explore by foot or by bike. We visited wineries, 9th and 10th Century churches and the walled city of Carcassonne. We drank the region’s rich wine and ate wonderful food.
And the canal itself is beautiful. Stately centuries’-old plane trees — 20,000 of them in all–stand along the sides, creating an archway of green. The canal’s original rounded stone bridges and unusual elliptical locks are still in use. Once a major commercial transportation route, the Midi, like many of the French canals, is now a recreational waterway with more than 400 boats for rent.
Next summer, SEA SENSE will sponsor a hands-on one-week canal trip in France. I’ll be there. Will you?
By Betsy Haggerty
Betsy Haggerty is a freelance boating and travel writer and, when time permits, a SEA SENSE assistant instructor.