The scenic Canal du Midi in southern France is a must for boaters! Cruising this 300-year-old waterway, you will savor the slow easy French pace, passing medieval villages, country farms and vineyards in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. Le Boat, the largest charter boat operation in Europe, offers surprisingly affordable, entry- level charters to this canal (and hundreds of other waterways). This historic passage is easy to navigate, scenic, fun and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Boating at a mellow 5 kilometers an hour aboard your vessel of 30-45 feet, the big excitement is passing through the lock system every few kilometers and arriving in ancient villages as your daily destination on your personal private cruise ship.
Don’t expect a luxury yacht holiday, however, because you are the crew and captain, you will be driving the boat or donning gloves to handle the dock lines in each “écluse” (lock). But it’s entertaining and affords a sense of freedom by chartering your own boat and navigating these centuries-old canals. Le Boat provides itineraries of how far you should voyage each day, but it’s truly up to you.
Our weeklong voyage started in Castelnaudary, a small, pretty village. Le Boat’s base in Castelnaudary is in the Grand Basin with a lovely view of the cathedral and village across the waterway, just a short walk over an old stone bridge to town. We could also see the majestic Pyrenees Mountains to our southwest along the French-Spanish border.
Our first night, after our swift check in and orientation aboard our 40’ Horizon, we strolled to town, enjoyed local Languedoc wine and dinner at the Maison du Cassoulet sampling the specialty dish of slow-cooked white beans, tender pork and duck. Traditional “cassoulet” was a staple historically, especially in meager winters. Wow is it yummy and filling!
While returning over the old stone bridge back to our boat within the fleet, twinkling lights of the village reflected in the canal. We were excited to embark the next morning after a quiet comfy night’s sleep in the berth of our Horizon — Le Boat’s most modern vessel, equipped with a head, shower and full galley kitchen.
Before bed, I read about the fascinating history of the Canal du Midi. It was initially commissioned in 1516 by King Francis who hired Leonardo DaVinci to survey and create the route. Canal construction didn’t commence until 1667 and was completed in 1694, connecting 240 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with aqueducts, bridges and 91 locks to overcome the 620 feet height change in water level.
Designed as a trade route to shorten the otherwise long passage around the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also called the “Canal des Deux Mers” or canal of two seas. This vital trade route for two centuries is now a meandering waterway for pleasure boaters as well as bicyclists riding the tow paths paralleling the canal.
On the first morning, our first lock was the most dramatic, departing Castelnaudary via a series of four locks that descend 9.5 meters in consecutive rushes of water. Captain Greg (my husband) and I established our duties: he’d drive into the narrow stone chamber (thankful for bow thrusters) while I secured lines to the lock shore, ready to adjust as the water floods out.
We traveled in tandem with two other boats, a Swiss family and a German couple. All were experienced boaters, so we developed an efficient rhythm of entering the locks sequentially, tying up, descending and exiting in order.
We cruised 15 locks by noon, then tied to a canal bank for the daily lunchtime lock closure of 12-1:00 p.m. We’d provisioned in Castelnaudary for the perfect picnic of flaky croissants, local ham and cheese, and a glass of Languedoc rosé on our boat’s top sun deck.
When the “Eclusier” (lock operator) returned to open the lock for us, we cruised the canal again with the occasional excitement of encountering oncoming boats in the narrow canal. Some boat captains were better at steering than others.
Our first day, we clocked 19 locks, 26 kilometers from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We chose to stay overnight in Villesèque, a lovely anchorage with a few other boats tied to the shores. There was no marina, but we could walk to the tiny village over a charming stone bridge to see the church and the Sully elm tree planted in the square, among the last elms still alive in France.
We toasted to our first boat day with wine and cheese on our top deck, and invited over our boat neighbors, a delightful South African couple who proved Le Boat’s international appeal. He’d never boated before, but Le Boat states that you need no prior boating experience.
On Day 2 we cruised under sunny early October skies, loving the canopy of iconic Plane trees that drape some of the river. Unfortunately, much of the 40,000 Plane trees along the 240- kilometer stretch are diseased. Over 25% have the blight and are systematically being cut and burned, a huge undertaking. In parts of the river, trees are being removed, and replanting different species is underway, but it will take time to reestablish the majestic trees.
We arrived midday at the marina of Carcassonne and docked our boat well-positioned for exploring the city, with views of the waterfront park and tour boats coming and going across the Aude River.
Carcassonne exceeded my expectations, and I know now why it’s the second most visited tourist attraction in France (#1 is the Eiffel Tower). La Cité is a massive, fortified castle with 52 spiraling turrets and imposing double walls of rampart circling 3 kilometers perched above a medieval village.
We immediately rode our bikes, provided by our Le Boat charter, up to the fairytale citadel. You can also ride le Petite Train for 7 Euro. Crossing the castle drawbridge, we stepped in to La Cité and the 13th century. Be sure to pay to enter and appreciate the scale of the ramparts and the view of Carcassonne’s lower city and the Pyrenees to the west. Then stroll the maze of medieval cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafés. Lunch at Comte Roger was a chic culinary treat. A real luxury would be to stay at the five-star Hôtel de la Cité for an elegant evening in the illuminated castle.
Back in Carcassonne’s village, we found the grand pedestrian plazas marked by statues and fountains, boutiques, bakeries and casual bistros. It’s a fun city to explore on foot, with provisions aplenty for boaters.
The next morning, after fresh pain au chocolat, we hopped on our bikes to cycle to wineries. Greg guided us with his iPhone’s Komoot app, which maps out recommended hiking and biking routes. Château Auzais (est. 1872) was a wonderful tour and tasting. Our guide described the Occitanie wine’s bouquet as the convergence of Atlantic winds melding with the Mediterranean, as we sipped our favorite wine aptly named “La Cité des Ventes.”
Château de Pennautier was another fantastic estate. The gorgeous 1620 castle was home to the financier of the Canal du Midi construction — the same architect who designed Versailles. The château’s authentic furniture is gorgeous. Reserve an interior castle tour or just stroll the beautiful gardens. From here, we visited the sister winery and restaurant for a lovely lunch and wine tasting of Pennautier’s whites, rosés and reds.
We planned to boat the next day to Trèbes from Carcassonne but biked instead. The tow paths along the canal are ideal, in fact you can cycle faster than you can boat. We waved to fellow charter boats as we breezed by vineyards, farms, locks and bridges. Our return into Carcassonne provided stunning views of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once — La Cité Castle and Canal du Midi.
Our return trip from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary only took a day through 24 locks and 30 kilometers with our now well-orchestrated rhythm of navigating locks. Our timing was good for the opening of most locks, and we traveled solo, as mid-October is end of the season the lock keeper told me. Summer is very busy on the canal, with boats in a queue for their turn in locks, and busier marinas.
As for the voyage, I recommend you plan one-way (for an upcharge) for the adventure of all new places along your voyage. The round trip had us retracing our passage, viewing previous scenery. We prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next river bend and discovering new villages.
Also ascending the locks, going upriver, is more difficult. Captain Greg would let me off on a dock before the lock, I’d walk ahead and retrieve his tossed lines to secure the boat, we’d adjust during the rush of cascading water, then I’d board our boat when it came to the top of the full lock.
We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, having completed our week with success (i.e. no one fell in, no damage to boat). Our final day was leisurely aboard the boat, walking Castelnaudary’s village to a delightful bakery, to the cathedral and up the hill to the windmill, a wonderful 17th century Moulin with splendid views of Black Mountain and the French countryside. We biked along the canal, then relaxed on our boat’s sun deck viewing the Spanish peaks where we planned to ski in winter.
Our check out was quick but thorough. Le Boat’s fleet varies in age, so I was happy we’d opted for the newer spacious Horizon model. Funny, other couples posed for selfies by our boat preferring our more sophisticated-looking vessel for their posts. Some of the older boats are a bit banged up from lock passages, a testament to the “no license or experience required” policy of Le Boat.
We’re already browsing Le Boat’s itineraries: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, the Netherlands or Canada for our next charter adventure.
PHOTOS BY GREG BURKE