Besides visiting Paris and most of the tourist sights in and around Paris in 1984 and 1985, we recently (2001) spent nearly 5 months on a canal boat on the Canal du Midi and Canal de la Robine, in Southern France.
We had intended spending 2 years travelling the French
canals but we found the south of France just a little too remote without easy access to the Internet and due to the legendary French
bureaucracy we were not able to sign a mobile phone contract, even with pre-payment of a year in advance, so we were then limited
to using Internet cafes, which are not easily available other than the larger towns such as Beziers, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary.
We collected our boat in Colombiers, which is 10 kms south east of Beziers, the main city in that area. Situated between Colombiers & Beziers on the Canal du Midi are the 9 locks of Fonserannes - 7 are now in use. Although these appear quite formidable at first, if approached carefully they represent no problem at all going up or down.
We made our way to the junction of the Canal du Midi & Canal Robine, which goes down to Port La Nouvelle on the Mediterranean coast through the picturesque town of Narbonne. The day we travelled from Narbonne to Port la Nouvelle we experienced a full blown Tramotane wind, in excess of 40 knots - but as the canal is well protected it was no problem at all.
Narbonne is an interesting city, the Archbishop's Palace in the city centre is impressive and there is even a stretch of the Roman Via Domitia road in this square, which was recently uncovered.
The Canal du Midi is a result of the foresight of a French salt tax collector named Pierre-Paul Riquet, who planned and built the canal in the 17th century. Begun in 1667, it took fourteen years to complete the 240km long canal between the Garonne river near Toulouse and the Etang du Thau. It was dug by hand using 12,000 people. It allowed boats from the Atlantic ocean to sail to the Mediterranean without going through the Gibraltar Straits. Unfortunately Riquet died penniless 6 months before the canal was opened. Today it is a World Heritage designated site.
Virtually the whole 240kms is plane tree lined and as a result is stunningly pretty, not to mention the shade these trees give in the very warm summer months. Without this shade we would have really suffered with the heat.
Spanning the Cesse river, is an Aqueduct - the Midi canal crosses some 30 metres over the Cesse. It is a most strange feeling sitting on a boat, going over a bridge, and seeing water below. The Cesse, unlike the canal has sparkling clear water, and in summer it is great to swim in the refreshing cool water.
One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to la Cite (the old city) at Carcassonne. Situated within easy walking distance of downtown Carcassonne, we visited it a number of times during our 2 visits there. At first, and from a distance it looks like something from a Disney set, but close-up it is really spectacular considering it's age. It was re-modelled slightly in the 18th century.
On Bastille Day (July 14) it is reported the largest fireworks display in France takes place from la Cite. Unfortunately we missed it by one week, although we got to watch a video of the display, and it was certainly stunning. It is the only complete, inhabited fortress left in Europe. Well worth a visit!
From Carcassonne we made our way up to Castelnaudary, a scenic old commercial port on the Canal. Today it is still a bustling little town, but the only activity in the port is centred around the Crown Blue Lines base - where one can hire canal boats.
Castelnaudary has one of the nicest markets we saw on this canal, where one can buy everything from food to clothing. The Paella and rotisserie chickens were the best we tasted. We found we just could not walk past the grilling chickens without being tempted to buy one.
Castelnaudary is also the home of Cassoulet, a casserole consisting of beans, duck, pork and sausage, very tasty but best eaten when the weather is cooler.
One of the less interesting sights here was a boat owned by a Dutch couple, with a hand-made sign advertising it as a Chat Musee (Cat Museum). On board this not too boat the owners kept nearly 30 cats in really tiny wire cages - with cat ornaments scattered all over any available space. The smell from the boat was no encouragement to visit this museum.
There is just so much to see, every village has it's own character, although they are often only a few kilometres apart. The French cemeteries are worth visiting, if you like that sort of thing. They are very different and a walk through one can often tell one a lot about the particular village you are visiting.