As brief as our time was in Toulouse, the next leg of our little holiday began by saying au revoir to my sensational foie gras marbled with fig and bonjour to a short local train ride down to Castelnaudary, a little town that boasts no particular sights other than a few old mansions, a windmill and the canal port (Grand Bassin) where you get the best view of the rustic houses clinging to the hillside in the old town centre.
What are we here for? Canal boating, of course. This was the starting point of our week-long, 157 km journey down the Canal du Midi in the south of France, a region full of vineyards and medieval villages in beautiful rolling green countryside. Before picking up the boat (seen in the opening pic) we grab a quick bite at one of the shabby bistro’s on the main strip and find a supermarket to stock up on a few essentials for the kitchen on board.
There are numerous companies that rent out a variety of self-drive boats and the one we chose was Le Boat, one of the more popular companies on the canal. The checking in procedure seemed a bit of a shemozzle, or perhaps we just arrived at peak time when dozens of people were anxious to grab their boat and get going. You do have the option of hiring bicycles as well, one that we eagerly took up so we could ride into a village or local market to pick up our morning baguettes or simply explore the countryside. When it costs just €10 a day per bike, it’s money well spent. Just check your bike before you sail off into the sunset as we later discovered one of them had a faulty brake and a seat that wouldn’t stay locked into the desired height.
We get a brief rundown by one of the Le Boat boys on our Royal Classique vessel then take a quick lesson of driving, reversing and parking around the port. Mr K signs up to be captain yet somehow I’m the one that takes the lesson before dropping the guy off and driving us to our first set of locks.
The entire stretch of the canal that we were about to cover has 62 locks, all of which are operated by a lock keeper whose job it is to electronically open, close, fill and empty the locks so that boats can move up the canal or down it. Seeing we were heading in the direction of the Mediterranean we were on a gradual downhill journey. Each lock holds three or four boats, depending on the size, and it basically involves slowly driving into the lock, two of your crew jump out holding ropes and loosely tie onto the bollards to secure the boat while the gates close off on one side. The lock fills/empties to the next level, gate opens, you untie the ropes and continue along the canal. It’s a little scary at first especially when you’re bumping up against other boats within the lock chamber, but after the first few it’s a breeze. It can get a little dirty and slimy handling wet ropes and the suggestion of using gloves was ok for some, but a nuisance to me.
Some of the lock keepers houses sell a few basics such a bread, wine, fruit and veg and at “la Peyruque” (lock #39) we grab a couple of homemade chocolate and citroen tarts (€2.6). Loved the citroen especially!
The hire boat comes complete with the basics such as towels, bed linen, and kitchen items like crockery, cutlery, glassware and cookware. The toilets on our boat are of the pump variety and emit a not-so-nice aroma, thank god we have a toilet and shower for each of the three cabins, so disinfectant and a good supply of paper is a must. Also bringing your own kitchen essentials such as sponges, detergent and matches will help. Our gas stove and oven was a little temperamental in starting up so matches came in handy.
Our small supply of food that we picked up in Castelnaudary was diminishing and the canal-side villages with open markets, restaurants and cafe’s we expected to see every few kilometres were more hopeful than real. Thanks to the boats detailed map of our terrain we could see where nearby villages were with what amenities they had, such as fuel, markets, shops and restaurants.
On day two Miss K and I take the bikes and head a couple of kilometres into the countryside to a village called Pexiora, a village we could see on the map that has a post office, boulangerie and grocery store. The distraction of not having fully operating brakes and a seat that kept dropping to the level of someone that was 5 feet tall wasn’t enough to make me stop being in awe of the stunning landscape we were riding through. Brilliant blue skies, fig trees weighted down with ripe fruit, and a narrow road leading through recently harvested fields of something-or-other. Every village has a church so we headed for the centre of town where the main landmark was a tall church steeple.
The centre of town, we discover, is a virtual ghost town with no people. Just one person actually, that I saw near the church when I rode around the maze of medieval streets. The main street consists of a boulangerie with nothing more than a few baguettes and yesterdays pastries for sale and a grocery store that hasn’t many groceries at all. The chicken rotisserie outside the store did have a few glistening chooks spinning around when we got there but we later find out they’re snatched up by one of the locals. There’s a tray of merguez sausages in the chiller and some average looking vegetables so we go with these, a jar of pre-made pasta sauce and some bread from across the road. What I knocked up back onboard was actually quite delicious but none of us realised it would be this difficult to get ingredients.
A very similar situation arose when we moor up and decide to walk into the village of Bram, another medieval village about a kilometre’s walk from the canal. It’s Sunday, it’s stinking hot and the countryside is as gorgeous as ever. According to our onboard guide there are five restaurants, three cafe/bars and two supermarkets at our disposal but on arrival we’re met with another ghost town. This was a true ghost town. The five of us were the only humans around. What the hell? It appears nobody works on Sundays in the south of France, seriously. The only food I found was a few sprigs of rosemary from a bush on a roadside median strip.
What’s going on here? It’s lucky we had enough groceries to get us through. And of course there was enough French wine to keep our livers working.
Mooring up at the township of Villesèquelande, in the middle of wine country, is where we we end up spending the night. On board of course. There’s a lovely arched stone bridge over the canal, fields of spent sunflowers, rolling hills and numerous acres of grape vines. The centre of town consists a bubbling fountain, a post office, community centre and a closed grocery store. With nothing more than a baguette, vino, some stinky cheese and a few figs, we needed something for dinner. We had a couple of hours before dusk and discover this town also doesn’t operate on a Sunday and after first riding around every street in town I check out our map and decide on riding the bikes to a neighbouring village, Pezens, about half an hour into the countryside. Mr K and I are literally riding off into the sunset. Hungry and desperate.
The scenery is beyond gorgeous and one of the most beautiful I’ve encountered. The sun is low, the sky is a deep vivid blue and we’re trundling on bikes along a narrow country road through lush pockets of forest riding past rustic mansions and grape vineyards abundant with copper-coloured leaves and plump dark grapes. At this point I was already thinking of pillaging the grapes for our dinner if we didn’t succeed in finding something substantial and at the same time I was regretting not taking the camera for visual proof of the absolute beauty of this part of the world.
The township of Pezans was another virtual ghost town except for a blokes bar that had copious amounts of local beer, an empty snooker table and a tapas menu. The guys at the bar, in limited English, said there won’t be anywhere to get food. Mr K and I persist and trundle up the road and find a tiny pizza joint that was open. Hallalujah. My legs were burning, I was hungry, and after waiting 15 minutes in the last rays of sunshine while our pizza’s were cooked, we were happy. This pizza guy even had beer so we grabbed a few bottles as well. Boxes of pizza strapped to the back of my bike, cold beers in a bag over Mr K’s shoulder, and we’re riding back through the southern French countryside to the hungry mouths onboard our holiday vessel. Someone give me a drink!
Day three on the canal brings us to the beautiful town of Carcassonne, a bustling place with power plug-in points for the boat, fresh water and a good bunch of open supermarkets for supplies. Arriving in mid-morning, we park the boat and take the tacky tourist train up into le Cité, the fully restored and fortified UNESCO medieval town complete with ramparts, cobbled streets and fairy tale towers.
The hoards of tourists crawling around the narrow streets as well as the tacky souvenir shops give it a bit of a Disneyland vibe but once you get past that you discover cute little restaurants on terraces beneath arbors of grape vines and interesting regional food shops. Carcassonne is meant to be the place to have the well-known regional specialty of cassoulet, a rich slow-cooked bean stew containing local sausages, pork and duck/goose so for lunch we choose one of the many small restaurants in le Cité that have it on the menu.
I couldn’t go past the three course menu of the day that featured a soup, cassoulet and dessert for just €14.9. Bargain. Somehow I’m the only one in our group with an excessive appetite as the others choose a single dish and nibble on the complimentary basket of bread while I slurp my delicious onion soup.
The cassoulet langue docien that came with my set menu was ecplised by the richer and more tasty cassoulet royal that the others chose. Mine had less meat varieties in it and I couldn’t help but be envious of all the roasted crispy duck and fatty pork belly the others were tucking into. With all the beans, meat and bread it doesn’t take long to fill up.
For dessert I chose the crème brûlée and an espresso to wash it down and neither of them were all that special. Mr K tries the tarte tatin and sadly it wasn’t all that amazing either. The microwaved tatin had none of the light crispiness that it should have and the best part was the creamy vanilla ice cream.
Wandering around the old town after lunch revealed some beautiful little places selling local snacks such as oreillettes – thin fried pastries flavoured with orange blossom and of course the very French crêpes smothered in Nutella or Grand Marnier. Street food at its best, and just getting lost in the narrow alleys and passages can reveal some stunning outlooks from the high city walls over the urban landscape of the modern city below.
I think an entire day just isn’t enough to explore this city for what it has to offer and more time in le Cité as well as the rest of town would have been better than the several hours we gave it. Sadly we had to head back to the boat, via the supermarket of course for a well-needed stock up of food ingredients. As much as I loved pedalling through the countryside looking for food I didn’t like the prospect of not finding any.
To be continued…
Check my other Canal du Midi posts –