Capestang to Castelnaudray – Approx 28 Hours Navigation, 124kilometres, 50 locks.
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 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.
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!
We had survived our first week cruising the Canal du Midi!! Click here to read about week two.