We set out to investigate the one-way trip from near Agde on the Mediterranean Coast to inland Castelnaudary. This is suitable for two experienced boaters but is most suitable for a boat with at least 4 people. It does require a degree of fitness to cover the 60+ locks. Those requiring a leisurely week are advised to take an ‘out and back’ trip from either Port Cassafieres towards the Camarague or from Castelaudary to Trebes passing through Carcassonne.
We arrived by car at the Port Cassafieres base just after lunch, having stocked up at a large hypermarket at nearby Pezenas. After a leisurely lunch at the on-site ‘Au Rendezvous des Bateliers’ we loaded our luggage onto the boat and left our car in the secure parking area.
After being shown the essential facts of running the boat, we were taken for a short training cruise. After being approved, we left Port Cassafieres at about 4pm for the short trip to Villeneuve-le-Beziers for the night. We stayed on the boat, and after food and wine retired ready for the next exciting day.
We got up early, to be one of the first through the Villeneuve lock at 8am so we would not be delayed at the 7-lock staircase at Fonserannes. Very different from the single boat UK locks we were used to, the Canal du Midi locks were lemon shaped, taking 4 boats at a time. The gates and water were controlled by a lock-keeper, so the crew’s job was to hold the boat with ropes around bollards to stop it bumping the other boats.
With two people, one person went ashore to hold one end of the boat, the other person staying on the boat to navigate in and out of the locks and to hold the other end of the boat in the lock. With 4 people, two would go ashore, one to hold each end of the boat.
Passing the town of Beziers we headed for the 7-lock staircase, arriving just in time to see the first group of 4 go up through the locks. With a session each way in the morning and afternoon, latecomers would not go up the locks until 4.30pm. Going up the locks was fascinating, with crowds of onlookers watching the action, as successive locks emptied to fill the lock below.
After the locks we headed for Colombiers for a lunch stop, and a call at the nearby shops for fresh baguettes.
By late afternoon we had reached the former canal port of Capestang with its huge church dominating the view. The town centre is just down the hill from the canal so a walk around town soon uncovered an interesting eating place for the evening.
The restaurant Table du Vigneron was run by the family of Domaine Cros-Reboul, and in addition to offering excellent food its wine was produced by the sisters who also ran the restaurant.
Leaving Capestang we set off on the long lock-free section of canal. Each side of the canal was lined by plane trees, just like French country roads, with welcome shade on hot days. Passing canalside restaurants and wine tasting ‘caves’ we reached the picturesque village of Le Somail for lunch. Much photographed, the village contains a decorated circular tower once used for preserving ice, an interesting second-hand bookshop, and a hat museum.
The canal was now getting busy, with boats joining from the Narbonne arm of the canal. Passing Argens with its 14th century chateau we met a queue for the staircase at Pechlaurier. We reflected that the French habit of closing the locks for a 12.30 to 1.30 lunch hour sometimes created bottlenecks.
Proceeding again, we reached the old port of Homps for the night, dining at one of the canalside restaurants.
In the morning we took a taxi to the nearby town of Olonzac for the local market, an amazing number of stalls of all types and with interesting local food and produce.
Taking the opportunity to fill the tank with fresh water we then headed along the canal passing through various locks until we reached 6.30pm lock closing time.
We moored near several other boats, meeting many of the crews for discussions on how we were finding things. The cosmopolitan nature of the canal was very much in evidence as we met boaters from the USA, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. A meal on the boat completed the evening.
Setting off early, we progressed along the canal to Trebes, just failing to get through the staircase before the lock-keeper’s lunch break. An ideal time for setting off on the bikes to get fresh baguettes, cheese and fruit for lunch from the nearby town.
After Trebes the canal became much quieter, and we cruised serenely along to reach the medieval walled town of Carcassonne by 5pm. Paying the small fee to moor in the town centre canal basin we collected a town map, and discovered the free bus up the hill to the historic old town.
There were many interesting sights, and good places to eat. We chose an old hostelry with a charcoal grill and a changing selection of live musicians. The restaurant then arranged a taxi to take us back down to the port and a good night’s sleep.
After a leisurely morning in Carcassonne we set off towards Castelnaudary. Passing the village of Bram we reached a series of manually operated locks where the crews helped the lock-keeper to open the gates.
As planned, we stopped near the village of Villepinte for the night. It was a short walk along the lane to Les Deux Acacias, the village restaurant, where we had probably the best meal of the holiday. Arriving at 7.30pm to an empty restaurant, by 8pm people were being turned away. An excellent four course meal with a litre pichet of wine cost much less than the UK - an excellent evening, and an amazing number of boaters there!
We woke to the first rain of the week, but by 11am this had cleared. Cruising through more manually operated locks we had interesting discussions with lock-keepers, who spent much time growing flowers and installing sculptures and other objects in the areas around the locks.
After lunch sitting in the sun on the boat deck, we went through the final lock of the week, a four-lock staircase into the Grand Basin at Castelnaudary. Mooring the boat mid-afternoon we could reflect on an exciting, interesting, but energetic week’s boating.
At every stop along the canal we found restaurants offering Cassoulet, a bean stew with portions of duck and/or pork. Castelnaudary was famous for this regional dish. We bought tins of Cassoulet for souvenirs at a local shop recommended by our Carcassonne taxi driver.
Friday evening saw many boaters at the Castelnaudary restaurants – Le Tirou and Hotel Le Siecle being well enjoyed.
The boat was handed back to Crown Blue Line at 9am, who checked for problems and calculated how many hours the boat’s engines had run – the fuel charge being based on this.
We had chosen not to have the car moved from Port Cassafieres to Castelnaudary (about 100 Euro), preferring a rail trip back to Beziers. It was a short walk to the station, and after an hour on the train we reached Beziers to catch a taxi back to the car at Port Cassafieres .
The end of a very enjoyable week.