Our Canal Canal Du Midi Cruise Route
In late August, Jon, me and a couple of our closest friends self-charted a canal barge and went cruising the Canal du Midi for two weeks. We planned to travel from Capestang to Castelnaudary with a little side-trip to Béziers. Many people take just a week to go this distance, but we like to travel slow.
We booked through H2olidays online and travelled with France Afloat on one of their EuroClassic 139 barges, the Escargot Bleu. These boats are larger than most and designed for slow and comfortable cruising. The EuroClassic barges are unique to France Afloat and attracted lots of attention (in a good way!) as we cruised clumsily and lazily along the canal.
Jon has been toying with the idea of us living on a boat for a while. I inwardly grimace, I don’t feel comfortable on boats, I can’t swim despite 1000’s of lessons over the years, being close to water terrifies me. Jon’s dream is to spend a few years canal cruising in France. Jon is hoping that a two week trip along the Canal du Midi will change my mind. I’m hoping that two weeks cruising the Canal du Midi will change his.
Read on to find out how we all got on our self-skippered canal barge trip.
Map of the Canal Du Midi
Canal Cruising in France Diary
Day 1 – Campestang. PK188.5
So after three days driving from our home in Portugal and stopping en route in Ávila, Spain (lovely little town), Zaragoza, also Spain (great tapas!) and the tiny country of Andorra (smelt strongly of duty-free perfume and cigarettes but hey, it’s got incredible Pyrenees scenery), we met up with our friends Beryl and Jonathan in the charming French town of Béziers. After a lovely lunch in a street-side cafe, catching up on gossip, we headed off together to Campestang to pick up our boat!
We arrived on time to check in at 4 pm, not 100% sure where exactly we were picking up the boat – well, who reads arrival instructions but heading towards the Canal du Midi seemed like a good place to start. After asking a few people for directions in our terrible French, we finally found the right place. When in doubt, just head to the tourist office!
Our self-charted canal barge was booked with France Afloat, or France Fluviale as it’s known in France whose office was right there in the tourist office.
After sorting out the formalities with the friendly helpful staff, we were shown to what would be our home for the next two weeks, the Escargot Bleu. Much larger than we thought, with a decent size lounge, kitchen, three bedrooms and three bathrooms with electric flush toilets. We were hoping for two double cabins but alas some confusion in the booking, and we got one double and two singles! Or maybe my Jonathan was trying to tell me something!
But with a little bit of juggling and rearranging, we soon had two cabins and somewhere to store the luggage! The boat came complete with all the basics such as bed linen, towels, kitchen items such as pots and pans, crockery, glassware, and utensils.
The two Jonathans were then shown how to operate the boat while Beryl and I unpacked. Us girls were more interested in taking walks alongside the canal and relaxing on board than navigating. We planned to leave that side to the boys!
The boat had lots of cabin space, but I could see I’d be banging my head on the ceiling a lot over the next two weeks, oh to be a few inches shorter.
Once the boys had mastered the art of driving the boat, (so now we know why they have rubber bumpers all around the boat!!!), we headed to the nearest supermarket to stock up on the crucial things in life – wine, beer, cheese and pate. By now it was a little too late to set sail, so we decided to spend the night on the boat in Campestang.
We sat up on deck in the fresh night air enjoying wine, cheese, pate and good conversation. From the sun deck, we overlooked a restaurant, and wow, the ice cream desserts looked rather amazing, so we walked the six steps from our boat to the restaurant and managed a huge sickly dessert each – umm yummy!
We had survived our first day, and we haven’t even been anywhere yet!!
Day 2 – Colombiers Pk201
We woke early. My Jonathan was so excited about being on a boat, he was up and about by 5 am. By 7 am, realising it was impossible to sleep with him thrashing about the boat, I went up on deck to watch the sun rise over the Canal du Midi – beautiful!
We enjoyed a breakfast of croissants and coffee up on deck, before strolling into town to gather a few last minute supplies from the local store.
Unfortunately, due to let’s just say a few technical issues on board, we didn’t actually manage to actually begin cruising the Canal du Midi until around 3.30pm. The boys couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel, me a non-swimmer and not genuinely comfortable on moving boats glued myself to a chair and hung on for my life, yes even if it was only an 8km per hour maximum limit.
The boys did quite well at captaining at first and then maybe got a bit too confident. Our boat began to hit the riverbank with alarming regularity as if it had a mind of its own (it’s a good thing the hire boats all had bumpers around the boat!!), crashing into trees, bringing down branches, hurling mugs filled with tea into tiny pieces onto the floor. The sundeck looked like the aftermath of a major hurricane! We somehow ended up with enough blackberries on deck to make a crumble, where they came from, we don’t know!
Finally, after a few hours of crashing, I mean cruising, we decided to pull over and moor for the night – phew we could relax at last! Well, we could once we had removed all the debris from both the outside and inside of the boat. Yes, our bathroom window was open, so even our shower was full of twigs, leaves and the odd blackberry!
A little later we took a short stroll into the town of Colombiers, a charming old town with a not quite so charming modern marina where we found a place for dinner. Not exactly typical French cuisine, but a really lovely and not too expensive by French standards, pizzeria.
A little tipsy, we headed back down the dark canal path to our boat, relaxing for a while before retiring for the night.
Day 3 – Campestang PK188.5
It was a hot night. As we were moored in a beautiful location with no electricity, we were unable to turn on our fan or cool down the boat with a/c. I woke early and decided to take a walk in the cool air. Jon joined me as early mornings make for better photos. We strolled along the canal bank and explored the historic part of Colombiers. When you walked away from the modern marina, it really was a charming town. We picked up some pain au chocolate in the local boulangerie and fruit from the morning market.
After a relaxing breakfast on the sun deck, we set off towards Beziers, to see the nine Fonserannes Locks. Easy to find, just look for the long queue of boats lining up. It’s a staircase lock and fascinating to watch as the boats are lowered.
On our way to the locks, we passed through a two-kilometre stretch of a very narrow channel, but today the two Captain Jonathans manoeuvred their way through this section very smoothly, well except for one small stretch where somehow a branch ended up inside the bathroom!
From Béziers, we turned around and started off on our three-hour journey back to Campestang. We seemed to be having a few electrical problems, and at one point the boat started to overheat!! (It appears, the Escargot Bleu didn’t like to travel at 8km/h, preferring a more sedate 6km/h) Anyway, we finally made it back to Campestang, only hitting a couple of boats, trees and a bridge on the way!!!
Lovely dinner in town, but if you want to eat at Campestang’s number one restaurant La Galiniere, you really need to make a reservation in advance especially in the high season. We didn’t so we couldn’t, but instead enjoyed a lovely meal in a busy restaurant near the church, but alas, I cannot remember the name – some travel blogger I am!
That evening there was a sound and light show by the church. Very popular with the locals and French tourists but alas our French wasn’t as good as we thought’ and we could only follow a little of the story.
Day 4 – Le Somail PK165.5
We woke early and went for a walk around the town, picking up some freshly baked baguettes at the local boulangerie. Leaving Campestang, we had to pass through the lowest bridge on the Canal du Midi. It was tight, we held our breath as we went under, ducking our heads – yes, we made it!
As we celebrated our success, a gust of wind blew Beryl’s hat into the water. We tried to fish it out, but an impatient boat driver drove over the hat, forcing it down into the murky waters never to be seen again!
Our travel plan for today was to stop at the town of Argeliers, just a few hours downstream. After weaving and swerving our way down the canal, breaking branches and hitting riverbanks but at far less regular intervals now, we pulled in for lunch under the shade of a large tree.
Somehow we had passed Argeliers, there are not that many signs on the canal banks telling you where you are as we had expected. Eventually, after a long day of motoring, we pulled in at Le Somail. If we carry on at this pace, we will be at our final stop, a week ahead of schedule!!!!!
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Le Somail was a charming hamlet, lined with canal-side bars and restaurants. Parking the boat was a tad tricky as another boat company had reserved all the mooring spots, so we grovelled and pleaded with them and eventually they took pity on us.
It was sweltering today, so we were glad we had found a mooring with electricity. To moor at a spot with electricity and water was 20 euros for the night. Well worth it, especially in this heat!
We strolled into the hamlet and stocked up on supplies at the local grocery store or epicerie, as they are called in France.
After a cool refreshing shower, we wandered into the town in search of a frosty alcoholic beverage and something to eat. Strolling over the picturesque stone bridge, we found a place to settle for the evening at the charming Auberge du Somail.
Day 5 – Paraza PK158
If you find yourself in Le Somail, you have to visit the amazing Le Trouve Tout du Livre bookshop. It’s a gorgeous old shop located on the canal bank close to the old bridge and holds more than 50,000 books from all over the world – rare books, first editions, modern books. I could easily have spent the whole day in there.
After spending too much time being on the boat yesterday, Beryl and I opted to walk along the canal towpath and meet the boys for lunch in Ventenac-em-Minervois, just 4.5 kilometres away.
We arrived just as they were mooring the boat, but just as we started heading into the small town, the boat slipped its moorings as the stake had been planted into reeds. Fortunately, we realised this before strolling into the village. It would have been rather embarrassing to watch your boat float off without you or return from lunch to discover the boat had disappeared! How would we explain that one to France Afloat!!
It was in Ventenac-em-Minervois that we had our best meal of the whole trip. A fabulous 3-course lunch at €13.50 incl wine at La Grillade duChateau. Highly recommend – fantastic food, friendly staff and generous portion sizes. Can’t ask for more than that!
Feeling sated, we relaxed before setting off to the very sleepy town of Paraza, just a few kilometres further on. It was quite a pretty town to explore but very quiet. Too full to encounter another giant French meal, we opted for delicious French cheeses and crackers on board Escargot Bleu and playing daft board games.
Day 6 – Argens-Minervois PK152
It was much cooler this morning, somewhat cold in fact. After a leisurely breakfast, us girls decided to walk to Roubia, the next town on the Canal du Midi. Umm, walking was a little bit harder this time as there was no towpath on our side.
Determined to walk, we fought our way through the long reeds along the canal bank, but if there had been a path, it was long gone. Instead, we climbed upwards, passing a cute looking coffee shop Le Petit Jardin, before discovering a lovely hilltop trek through vineyards and farmland with incredible views over the countryside until we finally reached Roubia and met up with the boys for coffee at a local bar.
Then it was time to sail on another kilometre to our first lock, with 50 locks to do until our final destination, we were a little nervous. We had seen novice boat drivers shouting at their crew as they passed through the locks in Beziers, nobody really knowing what they were supposed to be doing – was it really going to be that hard?
We needn’t have worried, Beryl and I disembarked shortly before entering the lock. We were heading upstream, and I really didn’t want to be climbing the ladders in the lock to get out of the boat. The boys threw the ropes at us, we passed them around the bollards and threw them back. Once the barge had risen to our level, we stepped back on. It was rather easy, why had we worried?
Just as we pulled into our overnight stop in Argens-Minervois, it started to rain. What’s happened to the weather? We stopped for a late light lunch of quiche and salad at La Terrasse du Port. Oh, the French really make fantastic salad dressings. It was already 5 pm, but we were starving and couldn’t wait any longer.
That evening, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner at La Guingette, a sister restaurant to the Auberge du Somail where we had enjoyed dinner in Le Somail. We were lucky to get a table, it was very popular. It’s definitely a good idea to make reservations in advance!
Day 7 – La Redorte PK140
Passed through six locks today. Easy now, we have mastered the locks as a team, and the boys are navigating the barge as if they have been doing this all their lives. However, we arrived at the first lock at 12:01, note that nearly all locks close for lunch between 12 pm till 1 pm. Always keep a supply of cheese and pate in the fridge to enjoy while waiting for the locks to open. Although some locks have cafes, most don’t.
We stopped on the way in the small, pretty village of Homps for coffee. Looking back on our trip, we wish we had spent a little more time here. For those that like swimming, there’s a swimming lake close by.
We arrived into La Redorte early evening, and after a few attempts, we found a place to moor. It’s free mooring in La Redorte, but you have to pay for electricity and water. There’s a machine by the port where you can pay, similar to a car park’s pay and display machine.
That evening, we enjoyed a seafood dinner at La Table de Riquet, overlooking the Canal du Midi. Highly recommend the creme brulee! If we carry on eating the way we are, the pounds will pile on but oh, the French food!Image
After a week on our French barging holiday on the Escargot Bleu, our self-chartered Canal du Midi boat trip we were finally starting to get the hang of things. Taking a Canal du Midi cruise, while challenging, is very rewarding and you really get to see France in a way that can only be done at a leisurely pace.
Day 8 – Marseillette PK127
There were washing machines and a proper supermarket in La Redorte. It’s funny how when travelling, finding proper supermarkets and somewhere to do laundry can be quite exciting or is that just me?
On the way back to our barge, carrying our sweet smelling clean clothes and of course, more cheese, we discovered a great secondhand bookshop with a good selection of English books run by a French lady who had lived in New York for 12 years. If you find yourself in La Redorte, pop in, you’ll find the bookshop just by the post office.
It was almost midday by the time we had completed all our errands, so of course, by the time we reached the first set of locks, they had already closed for lunch. We moored close by and started to prepare a salad, suddenly we heard a voice shout through our door making us jump. ‘Bonjour madams, monsieurs!’ There at the door stood an elderly man with a basket full of fruit and vegetables. Five euros later, we had buckets full of tomatoes, figs and green beans.
We had three sets of locks to pass through today, two doubles and our first triple! The first lock opened promptly at 1 pm, we passed through with ease. The second set of double locks, the Aguille lock was far more interesting. There were lots of weird, wonderful, bit naughty and very bizarre sculptures and artworks.
Video of Strangely Fascinating Artwork and Kinetic Sculptures at the Aguille Lock on the Canal du Midi in France
Just one more set to get through, our first triple then we could moor for the night. We arrived just before 5 pm, the locks in the summer close at 7 pm, so plenty of time we thought, but no! There was a queue. We were the 7th boat in line, the lock only takes three boats at a time and roughly 25 minutes to get all the way through. When we arrived a very large hotel boat was coming down through the locks and took much longer than 25 minutes. How did it even fit inside the lock?
At 7 pm, the red light came on, we weren’t going to Marseillette tonight but we were first in line for tomorrow morning when the lock opens again at 9 am. Six other boats were waiting behind us and at least five on the other side. Marseillette was still four kilometres away, easily walkable but none of us fancied the walk back along an unlit canal path. But luckily we had visited the supermarket that morning, you can never have too much wine, cheese and pate!
Day 9 – Trebes PK118
At 9 am, everyone was up and waiting for the green light to enter the lock. But a posh hotel boat arrived with two passengers on board, and as inexcusably it tends to be the way for those with money, they were allowed to jump the queue, but by 09:30 we were on our way.
A short distance further on we passed through another lock before mooring up outside Marseillette. A bit soulless looking from the canal side but as we walked up into the village centre, it improved a bit, but still not one of the prettiest towns we had visited along the Canal du Midi. In fact, our spot last night by the lock was much more beautiful!
We stocked up on bread and stopped for a coffee in an Irish bar which seemed to be the only place open in town. We were going to have lunch there until we saw the prices on the menu, €12.50 for a croque monsieur – oh mon dieu!
We continued onto Trebes. The mooring bays with electricity were full, but we found a free spot to moor very close to the centre. There were some nice looking restaurants by the canal side for drinks, but they were a bit pushy about eating there, so we wandered across the town bridge and found Lou Tres Bes, a very friendly restaurant with reasonably priced menus. Just €18 for a three-course meal. Jon said it was the best duck he had ever eaten.
Day 10 – Carcassone PK108
Awoke early and headed out for a walk around the town and find a boulangerie. These were some of my favourite moments on the trip watching the sun rise over the canal, the promise of another hot day. Plus Trebes is quite a charming town, the Main Street is rather busy with traffic, but once you cross into the old town it’s lovely and peaceful.
Apparently, there was supposed to be a market in Trebes on Wednesday mornings but could we find it? We tried all the obvious spots such as the place du marché but alas, could not find.
Beryl and I walked to the first lock of the day. About four kilometres and as yet, it wasn’t too hot. Since many of the beautiful plane trees that line the Canal du Midi have had to be cut down due to a killer fungus, there isn’t always that much shade.
I really enjoyed the walking, just sitting on a canal boat and doing nothing, as lovely as it sounds can get a little monotonous especially if you’re not involved in the actual navigating, but walking or cycling alongside is great.
We must be getting experts at the locks now as we passed through each one today without too much hassle. We pulled into Carcassone at around 3:30 pm. Seeing as Carcassone is one of the main highlights along the canal, we decided to moor here for two nights.
In our boat manual there was an email for the harbour master ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) – umm, wonder if we can book a mooring spot in advance. Woohoo, yes we can, the promise of a night or two with electricity was rather exciting. Just as we arrived into Carcassone, we saw the sign, this spot is reserved for Escargot Bleu! Yay, it worked.
In the afternoon, we wandered the old streets of the Bastide Saint-Louis, Carcassone, admiring the old buildings and churches, stopping for coffee and delicious cakes along the way. Later as per the recommendations of the tourist office, we dined at Chez Fred, it was an excellent meal, but I guess we had been spoilt the night before in Trebes, so we left feeling a bit disappointed.
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Day 11 – Carcassone Pk 108
This morning, we decided to have breakfast at a patisserie in the heart of Bastide Saint-Louis, and a wander around the fresh food market that takes places three times a week.
From here, we walked to the medieval city of Carcassone. It’s well signposted so you won’t get lost. The medieval city of Carcassone is simply stunning. The last time we were in this part of the world was in March a year ago, and there were hardly any tourists at all. Today in August, there were quite a few more people but not overrun like many tourist spots.
We wandered the backstreets, climbed the castle walls, browsed in the trinket stores, then stopped for a wonderful three-course lunch at Le Plô. There are loads of restaurants in the medieval part so you won’t starve but this one looked good, had excellent reviews and was tucked away from the busy square.
Although we had walked from the canal to the medieval heart which takes about 30 minutes or so and it’s a lovely walk, we jumped on a bus back to the boat. The number 4 bus stop is located just in front of the main entrance to the Cité de Carcassone, and there was a bus waiting, and it stopped only two minutes walk from our boat. How convenient and just €1,00 per person. For up to date bus schedules, you can pick one up at any tourist office in Carcassonne.
Day 12 – Villesèquelande PK 91
After topping off the boat’s tanks with water, we headed further upstream to our next destination. We passed through two locks before arriving at the Hermínis Lock which had just closed for lunch.
According to our guidebook, there was supposed to be a nice creperie at the lock, but still stuffed from breakfast, we just wanted a light snack and coffee. The waiter at the La Rive Belle Ecluse d’Herminis said he would serve us crepes and coffee, only if we bought an expensive salad that we didn’t want, even though no other diners were in the restaurant. Shame, it looked nice, had good reviews, maybe he didn’t like travellers, perhaps he wasn’t in a good mood that day, but no matter. Instead, we returned to the boat and snacked on cheese, fruit, pate and fresh French Bread until the lock reopened.
We pulled into Villesèquelande around 4 pm. A cute little place to moor with picnic tables and benches but alas no electricity but it was free to stay for the night. We strolled into the village centre, stopping briefly to admire L’Orme de Sully, one of the oldest elm trees in France, planted during the time of Henry IV, although to be honest, it didn’t look like it would be around for much longer.
Finally, we reached the only restaurant in the village Le Relais Romain, excellent food but having ordered “saumon avec legumes,” I was hoping for more veggies than just fries but the grilled salmon was delicious.
Day 13 – Bram PK 80.5
A leisurely sail today, with only one lock to pass through. Beryl and I walked the first few kilometres to the first lock. A lovely walk alongside the canal on a shady path, passing fields filled with sunflowers, quaint old villages and churches and a large number of cyclists.
We arrived into the pretty port of Bram, mooring for the night right outside the L’ile aux Oiseaux Restaurant. As we struggled in our schoolgirl French to make a reservation for lunch, the waitress laughed and said, ‘It’s ok, I’m English!’ Were we really that bad? Mais Oui! A good lunch, a little bit expensive, no special lunchtime offers on weekends.
To walk off our lunch, we walked into the town of Bram, about 1.5 kilometres away from the canal along a bicycle path. Apparently, it’s the largest, concentric circular town in Europe, so we needed a drone shot. Maybe because it was a Saturday, but the town seemed rather soulless. Some lovely old houses, but definitely not one of those towns where you say ooh I could live here.
Day 14 – Castelnaudary PK 64.5
A total of 18 locks to pass through today to get to Castelnaudary today. We set off fairly early in case we couldn’t get through all the locks on time as we had to leave the boat by 9 am tomorrow or be charged for every hour we are late!
Beryl and I walked between some of the locks, as they were so close, it was easier to walk than keep getting on and off the barge. The scenery along this section was gorgeous; sunflowers, overhanging trees, clear reflections in the water.
Our final lock to pass through was a quadruple! And just like at the start of our journey where we watched the boats pass through the Fonserannes staircase lock in Béziers, many onlookers came to observe and take photos, and get in the way! ‘Excusez-moi monsieur, can’t you see I’m trying to tie up our boat, get out of the way!’
After the final locks, we passed under a bridge and entered into a large picturesque basin with a small island, lined with charming old houses. This was Castelnaudary, our final stop, we had made it!
Once we were settled, we went in search of a celebratory drink to celebrate surviving two weeks on our barge but not such an easy task before 7 pm on a Sunday evening. Finally, we struck luck, enjoying a drink or two before heading to La Belle Époque, one of the few restaurants open on a Sunday night that was recommended to try Castlenaudry’s famous dish the cassoulet, a rich slow-cooked casserole containing white beans, duck meat and pork skin.
Stuffed, vowing after our return to the real world, to go on a strict diet, we crawled back to the Escargot Bleu, collapsed on the bed and fell into a deep sleep.
Time to say goodbye to Escargot Bleu
At 9 am, it was time to say goodbye to Escargot Bleu, our home for the last two weeks. For all its quirks, we will miss our boat. The two boys looked particularly depressed at saying goodbye. Would we do it again? Yes, it would be fun to maybe try out the canals of Belgium, Holland and other parts of France. Could we live on a boat? Jon still wants too, but that’s a story for another day.
As we drove away from the port, a car behind us honked. ‘Slow down, Jon!’ Beryl and I shouted. In reality, Jon had just hit 20 km/h, the car behind us was honking impatiently behind us for going to slow, but after two weeks at a maximum of only 8 km/h, it felt more like 200 kph than 20!
Items lost overboard or broken due to overhanging tree branches on our cruise along the Canal du Midi.
- One mug of tea
- One large washing bowl
- One hat lost forever
- One hat blew off in the wind but rescued by a random man with a boat hook
- Jonathan M disappeared twice into the reed bed, I didn’t laugh, I looked concerned honestly I did!
- Another random man who wanted a light for his cigarette disappeared into the reeds, never saw him again!
- Lost a stake while trying to moor the boat
- Fell into the cabin after rain, I was bruised but the butter dish and jam jar I was holding remained intact!
Top Tips for Cruising the Canal du Midi
- Don’t arrive at locks between 12-1, it’s lunchtime. Only the busy locks at Trebes stay open during the summer months at lunch.
- 24-hour laundry facilities available at Intermarche in La Redorte.
- Stop at the second set of locks as you leave La Redorte to see some interesting artwork.
- Allow plenty of time to get through the triple lock just before Marseillette.
- When passing through a lock, try to avoid being the first one in, that way you don’t experience the rush of water as they fill the lock.
- Reserve a mooring spot in advance for Carcassone and stay an extra night or two!
- Spend a night in Homps, we didn’t but kind of wish we had.
- Use biodegradable shampoos etc.; water from the shower and sinks (grey water) goes straight into the canal.