We love France and visit whenever we are able to! During May 2016 we ventured to France for 3 weeks.
For 6 days, our friends, Marius and Zunene joined us for a barge trip down the spectacular Midi Canal. We decided that we would enjoy local French produce rather than eat out at restaurants. For a few days prior to our trip, Mark and I spent a few days with friends who live on the canal permanently. They gave us a few tips and took us to supermarkets and markets to buy our supplies. What fun planning menus and shopping!
For 4 people we were advised to book a 6 sleeper (3 cabin) Le Boat, enabling us to use the 3rd cabin as a luggage room. The 3rd bathroom also became the ‘shower room’. The bathrooms en-suite are tiny and do not have shower doors or curtains, resulting in a ‘wet room’, so it was wise to keep those dry!
We soon settled in and started making our way downstream from Trebes village.
The first lock was daunting! The lock keeper gave us a quick lesson on how to do it……… after about 5 days we eventually mastered the art of steering the boat into the lock, tying up, releasing ropes etc! It was stressful at times, but mostly fun! Some locks are automated, but others are still manually controlled by a lock-man/woman. In bygone times they lived in quaint houses at the locks. Many of these have roses climbing up the walls and some have been converted into small shops.
The main attraction on the Canal Du Midi is the scenery. The canals are lined with beautiful trees. The roots of the trees stabilize the walls of the canal, therefore are an essential element. A few years ago many trees were affected by a virus. There is a huge project underway in areas to replace the diseased trees with young virus free trees.
Beyond the trees one sees beautiful fields, quaint villages, farms, vines and wineries.
Small ancient bridges cross the canal, many are just wide and high enough to accommodate a barge. After all, the canals were built in the late 1600’s to navigate from the Garonne River in the West to the Mediterranean, for transporting goods for trade purposes. It is one of the oldest canals in Europe, but is now only used for tourism. It is closed over the winter months for maintenance. Our helmsmen dexterously took us through the arches of the bridges!
When hiring a boat, you follow the route chosen as you must deliver the boat to the selected port on the agreed date, so you need to be moving for a number of hours every day.
Morning cruising was my favourite time, watching the countryside as we passed through beautiful avenues alongside the canal. By mid-morning the we had a glass of rosé or a cold beer going! The French rosés are delicious. The colour is never bright pink, always a pale onion skin blush. The wine is dry and fruity, low in alcohol, seldom exceeding 10%, making it extremely quaffable!
Our lunches were delicious al fresco treats, usually on the top deck. The French supermarkets and markets have the most delicious array of patés and terrines, sliced Parma or Serrano ham from neighbouring Italy and Spain, smoked salmon, fully cooked prawns and a huge selection of cheese that will always remain in our memory. All we added was crisp frisee lettuce, pickles, the sweetest bright red tomatoes and a baguette, of course! A splash of olive oil and wine vinegar based dressing or a dollop of ‘real’ mayonnaise completed the meal. One day we found huge bunches of delicate green asparagus in a village and enjoyed an asparagus feast.
After our lunches I did not envy the men at the helm….. someone had to do it! The girls did our bit by jumping ashore at the locks!
In the late afternoon or early evening we found a mooring, usually in a small village. (Boats may not move at night). We quickly disembarked and went off to explore the quaint streets, beautiful buildings, the market and of course the winery! One can hire bicycles, but we declined and rather enjoyed walks in the villages. I just loved photographing the sandstone coloured houses and with window boxes and delicately coloured shutters.
The canal walls were often lined with beautiful wild flowers. The yellow irises were particularly stunning. We could not resist picking bunches when we moored for lunch, at locks or on our evening walks. I’m sure that we were the only boat that boasted a fresh flower arrangement!
In one area we passed fields of vibrant red poppies, we are not sure if they were natural or cultivated, someone’s heroin farm!
Occasionally we had to stock up our wine supply. We discovered the local wine shops, which were usually situated right alongside the canal. We tasted stunning wines and usually bought a few bottles to enjoy with our dinner.
After aborting our pork chop and sausage braai and finishing it on the stove in the galley, when Marius found a dangerous gas leak in our on-board gas braai, which we later had removed at a service port.
Our evening meals were delicious treats. Couples swapped partners (for cooking only!) and cooked in pairs, on alternate evenings. South Western France is duck country. We feasted on plump duck breasts and confit duck legs. I have included 2 recipes, one for Cassoulet, a traditional dish of the area, and another for Duck Breast and Strawberry sauce.
Recipe: My version of a Quick Cassoulet (to be added soon!)
We were near the Bouillabaise area, but did not make this traditional fish stew, but a similar version, which Mark has mastered over years.
Recipe: Mark’s Fish Stew (recipe to be added soon!)
On our final evening in the beautiful town, Narbonne, we treated ourselves to a meal at a restaurant, a fitting end to a visually beautiful boat trip that was studded with gourmet treats.
A recommended holiday!