Take the helm of a small craft and live aboard, plying the calm waters of a canal through the South of France. The Canal du Midi is the quintessential tree-lined canal. It is frequently pictured in guidebooks touting the charm to be discovered along its banks and in nearby villages on or near its course. It is the perfect setting to serve as le capitaine on a boat in France.
Cruising along a French canal is not exclusively for those renting a luxury barge that comes with a chef, hot tub, and a high price tag. You don’t need a license or prior experience sailing the Seven Seas to rent a craft and pilot it along one of the many French waterways.
My wife Patty and I have cruised the canals and rivers of France over the past 25 years. We have never owned a boat. We have now been on 10 self-piloted cruises on canals and rivers in France. A group even hired us to plan and escort them on a weeklong voyage on the Canal du Midi.
Pro Tip: Do not be intimidated if you are not a sailor. The boat rental company will provide a hands-on clinic to teach you how to drive the boat. The Canal du Midi is not wide or deep. If you follow the directions, your week as a riverboat captain will end on a high note.
Set Your Own Pace
What keeps us returning to vacation along France’s waterways is the pace of these journeys. The countryside takes on a fresh look from the deck of a boat. At a speed of not quite 4 miles per hour (6 km), landscapes slowly unfold. Around every bend, a pocket of the country you will never discover buzzing along a highway will be revealed.
Boaters choose where to dock. Mooring in remote areas provides shaded spots for a leisurely lunch followed by a siesta. If you choose, spend the night alone on a secluded bank and enjoy the sounds of the forest and a sky full of stars. If you dock in a town and like it, then stay another day.
Bicycles on board allow for ventures into the countryside to the chateaux, vineyards, and historic venues close to the canal. It is easy to arrange a taxi to meet you if a point of interest is further from your boat than you wish to pedal.
Pro Tip: Always have provisions for at least one meal aboard the craft. We once shoved off late in the day planning to stop along the way to shop. We arrived at our small port town destination after the shops had closed. It was also the lone restaurateur’s day off. We ate crackers left over from our flight for dinner due to our poor planning.
Enjoy One Of France’s Oldest Canals
Work on the Canal du Midi began during the reign of Louis XIV in 1667. It meanders for 150 miles through the south of France. The Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean were linked by this engineering marvel which served to transport goods and people along its path. The railroad rendered the canal obsolete in the 19th century. Today the canal is dedicated to pleasure cruisers.
The Canal du Midi is our first choice when recommending a self-piloted barge trip in France to friends. Though it is possible to traverse the entire length of the canal in 10 or 12 days, we’ve opted to navigate it in bits and pieces. This allows for a leisurely pace and time to enjoy the countryside and relax quayside in the small port towns.
There are 2,700 miles of navigable rivers and canals in France from which to choose. The Canal du Midi is the furthest south, offering a better chance — though not a guarantee — of pleasant weather.
See Amazing Sights
You will wind along vineyards, woods, and through villages of the south of France. Depending upon your starting point and how long you plan to be on the boat, you can visit the cities of Carcassonne, Toulouse, and Bezier.
Carcassonne is one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in all of Europe. High above the canal, the old city is a 20-minute walk from the port. The 53 towers have commanded a strategic position since the Romans ruled the region.
The canal passes through Toulouse, known as the “Pink City.” The city’s position at the junction of two canals assured its commercial success. Visit buildings dating to the Renaissance built by wealthy merchants and the Église des Jacobins, the site of the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas. Toulouse is also home to France’s aerospace industry.
In Bezier, you will find the nine locks of Fonseranes. This engineering feat allows boats to rise or fall nearly 70 feet via a series of locks and basins. Onlookers line the quays to watch boaters pass through the series of locks. We once invited a curious bystander to jump aboard and share the ride down the locks with us.
The host of colorful villages along the Étang de Thau provide welcoming ports where you can dock overnight. If you visit Sète during the Fête de la Saint-Louis, you will be treated to a nautical jousting competition in the city’s Royal Canal.
In Bouzigues, famous for the oysters bearing the same name, you can visit the Musée de l’Étang de Thau. There are hosts of quayside restaurants in Marseillan and Mèze where you can enjoy the breeze over a leisurely lunch. Each presents its own charm and picking where to tie up along the Étang de Thau for the night will present a challenge as you plan your voyage.
Make New Friends
Fellow boaters are a social lot. Over the years we’ve traded stories with a Brit who was a sailor in World War II, an American couple who moved to Brittany on a whim, and many a pleasant lockkeeper. During early evenings in port, Patty and I have been invited aboard neighboring craft for an apero and we’ve hosted fellow travelers on our boat. The best is the lifelong friends we became with a couple from Vienna after they helped us navigate our very first lock.
Robert and Hanna’s boat was already in the lock we would share as it emptied, lowering us into the next basin. I jumped off the boat and began to tie up to a bollard as instructed in the book the rental company provided. Our Austrian companions in the lock coached us through tying up and battling the thrashing water as the lock emptied. I put aside the instruction book.
The slow pace of our cruise and the many locks our boats entered in tandem allowed for plenty of time to chat with our new European friends as we held our boats by ropes as the locks drained. By day two, Patty and I were having lunch on Robert and Hanna’s boat. We’d tie up amid fields and vineyards where we shared charcuterie, cheeses, and a salad. Over a few beers or glasses of wine, we passed time every day sharing stories before setting off for our afternoon’s cruise.
We stayed connected with Robert and Hanna for over 25 years. They’ve hosted us in Vienna several times. Hanna visited our home and family in the U.S. Over the years we scheduled subsequent canal cruises together and met for vacations in Europe. It was the most rewarding of our French canal boating experiences.
Pro Tip: Language is not a barrier. You can navigate the canals of France without fluency in the language. The staff of the boat rental vendor will explain how to manage the craft in English. However, you will be rewarded if you invest some time in picking up at least the pleasantries in French. It is possible to get by in English, though there may be a few conversations where the pointing and hand-gesturing method of communication will come in handy.
The Excitement Of Going For It
Piloting your own boat is challenging but not difficult. It’s relaxing. A bit like a beach vacation with something to do every day. Invite along traveling companions to assist and introduce them to life on a penichette. You will get along fine without a cook or staff. The Canal du Midi is every bit as beautiful from the deck of a small craft as it is for those on a fancy barge.
Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a trip on the Canal du Midi in 1787 and observed “of all the methods of traveling I have ever tried this is the pleasantest.” I agree wholeheartedly. Try your hand as a canal boat captain and see if you do as well.
The boat rental company will provide suggestions about what to have on board. We never leave our first port without gloves, as wet ropes are unkind to the hands; a flashlight for each traveler; a knife, in the event you must cut a rope in an emergency; and a pantry, well-stocked with wine, water, and provisions for at least one meal.
When To Go
The Canal du Midi is a popular destination. We avoid July and August when the French vacation. Spring and fall provide lovely weather and smaller crowds, and the rental fees are reduced from their high season highs.
Pro Tip: There are frequent flights from Paris which makes Toulouse a good jumping-off spot for a vacation on the Canal du Midi. The ports along the canal where you will pick up your boat are easily reached by train or cab.
We have flown into Montpellier when starting our voyage closer to the Mediterranean. The port at Lattes is a short cab ride from the airport.