A few years ago, we watched my favourite British chef, Rick Stein filming his ‘French Odyssey’ BBC TV series, cooking and cruising the Canal du Midi in a beautiful boat built especially for canal travel.
Ever since Brian and I have talked about how great it would be to do something similar, except for the cooking hahah, so here we are doing it our way, (as usual) in Hermione. No Brian hasn’t been busy making her amphibian, there are roads that run right alongside most of the canal.
A little history about the Canal du Midi first;
Stretching for 241kms between Toulouse and the southern port of Sète, the Canal du Midi is the queen of French canals.
A waterway that connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean had been dreamed of since Roman times and was finally realized in the 17th century under the extraordinary visionary, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a salt tax collector who saw the economic and strategic advantages of a waterway that bypassed the pirates, storms and the long journey around Spain.
Riquet a mathematical genius painstakingly devised a system of aqueducts, tunnels and locks to overcome the areas difficult terrain, and solved the problem that stumped the Romans of a steady water supply to the canal, by harnessing the springs and streams of Black Mountain into a huge dam, then channelling it to keep the canals filled where at this highest point of the canal the water could run down both slopes, towards Toulouse at 130m and Sete at sea level.
The canal took 15 years and 25,000 workers to build, it has 65 locks to pass through the largest, the Fonserranes, consisting of a row of 9 oval-shaped locks that drop 33m over a 300m length.
The old wooden barges laden with barrels of wine, flour for the mills and livestock were pulled by horses at a distance of about 10 kms per day.
The canal today is used just for pleasure, and we have seen flags from many different countries displayed proudly, we even had a chance to chat with some Aussies as they passed through one of the locks we just happened to be parked up at.
Sadly, Riquet passed away before the completion of the Canal du Midi, but he did secure his family’s financial future with the taxes and excise charges paid to use to the canal.
The Canal du Midi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Some 20,000 Plane trees line the Canal as it meanders through ancient villages, under Roman bridges and fortifications, and as we are of course in the South of France, alongside vineyards.
Most nights we manage to find a nice quiet place to stay, overlooking the canal or the towpath, like tonight at Capestang where on one side we look at the boat lined canal, and the other side, the cemetery.
Our next night’s stop at Le Somail was so good we stayed two nights. There was an amazing very old book shop, where we managed to fill a couple of hours, that must have had a million books in it, but better yet on a barge that had been converted to a mini-market I found Vegemite! We had run out over the summer and I was so desperate for some Vegemite I asked Jess to mail some to me, as far as we can tell it’s still caught up at customs in Germany.
The speed limit is only 8 km along the canal, so the boats just seem to slip by with barely any wake or noise.
The city of Narbonne is not on the Canal du Midi, but there is an offshoot, the Canal de la Robine that leads us there for a look at this old Roman city, and that is off the tourist track, so just the type of place we like to seek out.
The impressive town square sits right over the top of the Via Domitia, the very important road that ran from Rome, right through the south of France to Spain. We sat drinking our coffees at a café on the square picturing the merchants using this very area to sell their wares, and Roman soldiers marching through here. It was only discovered in 1997 and is a stunning memento in the centre of this city of its Roman inhabitants from 2100 years ago.
We didn’t think much could top seeing the old Roman Road, but just behind the Archbishops Palace we discover the L’Horreum, subterranean galleries built in the 1st century B.C., and thought to be an underground warehouse. They were found in 1838 and only partially cleared out and explored. Capitals, columns, reliefs, and inscriptions can still be seen on the walls, as well as a collection of amphoras for storing wine and oil that were found in some of the tiny storerooms.
Brian was very impressed with the fact that the structure was still intact, and we could still walk around in these subterranean tunnels, once again just proving how impressive those Romans were.
We also love a good Market Hall and the beautiful Les Halles, built over 100 years ago didn’t disappoint. Butchers, bakers, fruit, and veg as well as several lunch counters that were bustling with lunchtime customers. The busiest was owned by a former French Rugby player, Gilles Belzon, I’m not sure if they had the best food, or that his fans just wanted to get up close to him.
In a city like Narbonne with so many beautiful buildings it’s hard to pick a favourite, but this one located right on the town square, ‘Aux Dames de France’ or the ‘Ladies of France’ was once an exclusive department store, now it’s a Monoprix where you can buy anything from makeup (I bought my new lippy here) and clothes to groceries.
We’re back on our ‘Canal route’ and staying at another of the fantastic France Passion sites. This one right beside the canal in Trèbes is a wine and olive oil producer, and if that isn’t enough, they have donkeys and the portliest pig we have ever seen. She could barely waddle over for some apple slices.
Jutting from a rocky spur of land the fortress of Carcassonne was one of the Cathars’ (a little story about the Cathars to follow) most important strongholds and is also now considered to be the best conserved medieval castle in Europe.
Founded in Antiquity it became a very prosperous trading city in the Middle Ages due to its location.
Bristling with 2 sets of zigzag battlements, stout walls and 52 spiky towers topped with their distinctive ‘witch’s hat’ looking roofs, the fortified city looks like something out of a storybook. Somewhere I read that the old town’s population is only 120. That’s just twice the number of its 52 towers.
The first view is captivating, two sets of zigzag battlements, parapets, turrets and 52 spiky towers with their distinctive conical slate tiled roofs that like polished grey pencil points, or witches’ hats. The two concentric rings of town walls total 3km of battlements, and that surprises me, somehow it looks larger, as from the valley below Carcassonne sitting high on the hill is visible from many kilometers away.
It’s not surprising that Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but we find the place relentlessly touristique, it seems to have lost whatever soul if may have once had.
We here in October and I dread to think what it must be like in August when the tourist coaches disgorge groups of fifty or more at a time. An estimated 6 million tourists descend on Carcassonne every year. All along the lovely cobbled streets where there were once homes are now shops selling postcards, soap and souvenirs marked as ‘produits régionals’, that sadly on a closer look at the label are not.
We have visited here twice over the years and both times it’s been relatively quiet, and we have been able to easily wander the old cobbled streets that previously the Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Franks have walked before us.
Still the history here never ceases to amaze me.