Cruising the canals of the South of France and sampling a holiday experience like no other; we enjoy the local food and wine together with the flexibility, freedom and fun that only a self catering holiday afloat can offer.
Even though I am a keen scuba diver I equally seem to upset fellow divers by likening a wreck dive to touring a ruined castle ashore, so readers will just have to understand my shortcomings when it comes to the use of similes. That said, I do not think I have enjoyed ten days afloat recently quite as much as I did, when motoring the canals of the Camargue aboard a 42 foot Magnifique chartered through Connoisseur Afloat. LeBoat
We boarded our craft at the company’s base in Beaucaire not so very far from Nimes. Well informed and happy to please shore based crews quickly and efficiently went through the ropes and asked if I had any yacht handling experience. Once I understood that there was only one propeller, grasped the fact that there was no need for a compass, or a speed log, I was well away, and after a concerted effort by my crew to empty the shelves of the nearby Carrefour hypermarket we set off on what was our very first canal experience. The boat is surprisingly well equipped with air conditioning two steering positions and a useful bow thruster and my only significant observation would be that it would have been nice to have a small generator or an inverter for charging the batteries of computers and cameras for those stupid enough to work rather than enjoy the cruising experience.
Our boat was clean tidy and both comfortable and well maintained. Quite how crowded she would be if she carried her full complement of ten, I dread to think, but several passing yachts clearly proved us wrong and I can only suggest that their crews ate ashore a good deal and showered in facilities provided at marinas. Our reduced complement found the yacht spacious enough and my feeling is that a crew of between four and eight on board is perhaps, the ideal number. Her spacious sun deck is great for eating al fresco and she comes with all the equipment you might need except perhaps a BBQ. The only other niggle was that there was no ensign staff from where I could fly my colours but then, I come from that old school!
Our first stop was Saint Gilles a town known as the gateway to the Camargue, famous for its bulls and white horses. The town took its name after a nobleman that became a hermit and took refuge here in the 8th century. His exemplary life has since inspired generations of Catholics who built an abbey here in the 12th century in his honour. The Lonely Planet Guide suggests, rather quaintly, that shortly after that, the towns candle went out, and perhaps they are right! Even so, there are snatches of culture dating back to roman times and a house where Pope Clement IV is said to have been born.
Moving on we passed through low wetlands the banks of our canals stacked high with cut phragmite reeds or sagno drying in the sunshine as they wait their turn to become thatched roofs of the future. Less than twenty local men, Sagneurs, now retain the hereditary right to harvest these reeds and do so traditionally; cutting and turning them all by hand. Swallows and egrets dive bomb the canal, as we motor on turtles cling to waterside tree roots basking in the sunshine and we were even lucky enough to spot small water rats called Coipu. Marshes have been turned into rice paddy fields in a traditional checkerboard pattern. Fields on slightly more solid ground are the grazing homes to the Camargue bulls whose narrow foreheads and dark grey horns sit above alert eyes which watch as canal boats cruise on by. Cowboy like horsemen, sitting on special saddles astride white stallions, charge about through shallow water as they round them up and move them to pastures new. Whist in the evenings, the sky can turn almost pink, as flocks of pretty flamingos seek out their roosts for their night time resting.
Next morning, Sunday, it was market day and we took full advantage of the edible goodies on sale walking back to the boat our newly purchased baskets bursting at the seams.
The scenery changes again and the canal passes through stone wall banks with water either side of the walls. It is here that the water way runs parallel with the sea and at one point, close to the Abbey de Maguelonne we stop for lunch mooring alongside the towpath and take our bicycles to the beach and abbey. That evening with what can only be described by the skipper as immaculate planning and by his crew as a sheer fluke, we arrived in Frontignan just as the bridge made the last of its three daily openings, and passed into the town made famous by producing 2 million bottles of Muscat, the sweet wine, every year.
Shortly after leaving town the next day we left the Canal du Rhône à Sète and entered the Etang. This shallow sea lake is heavily farmed by oystermen producing tons of the shelled aphrodisiac in numbers to equal the production of northern France. We visited the ports of Mèze and Marseillan choosing to spend the night in the later. It is here that Noilly Prat the vermouth is made and the factory offers a fascinating tour of inspection where guides explain the complex time consuming process behind the mixing and blending that goes on to produce the quintessential aperitif. We feasted on local oysters that night and I have an observation to make to would be oyster openers; potato peelers are poor substitutes for a proper oyster knife! We also enjoyed La Tielle, or squid pie, a local speciality made with bread dough filled with baby octopus in a spicy tomato sauce which was quite delicious.
1200 men were employed for fifteen years starting in 1666 on a project that cost then 15 million gold pounds. Riquets died the year before it opened but his vision cannot possibly be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to travel along it. Trees over 300 years old, line its banks and whilst trading craft use it less now than originally it is never still and pleasure craft such as ours have done much to improve its facilities. Within minutes of entering the canal the scenery has changed yet again. The sun shines through the branches of huge leafy plane trees line the towpaths creating everyone’s idea of the picture perfect rural canal scene. Within thirty minutes we have reached the first lock and only the second in our 6 day trip to date. Half an hour or so later there is another one, and so the pattern begins. The lock at Agde is indeed an unusual one, insomuch that it is both circular and has two levels at which a boat may exit. Like all locks on this section of the canal, it is manned by lock keepers and like all locks it closes for lunch. In fact it is fair to suggest the whole canal system shuts down for lunch because in typical French fashion everyone seems to select a suitable quiet spot along the tow path to stop and drive stakes into the soft earth onto which the mooring lines are made fast. Say what you like it is a very pleasant way of spending an hour or so sitting under the sun umbrella on the upper deck devouring a fresh, still warm, baguette with a rustic goats cheese or delicious pâté washed down with a chilled local rosé wine. Agde was originally a prosperous Greek trading port and is one of the oldest towns in France. Its ancient quarters and old houses built of dark volcanic stone are well worth seeing and there are guided tours of the 12th century cathedral of St Étienne. A lack of time prevented us from visiting the worthwhile museum which has fine exhibits of traditional costumes, local artefacts and model boats.
The river Libron crosses the canal shortly after leaving Agde and the method by which it does so, is intriguing and rather interesting. Anywhere else an aqua duct would have been used to carry the canal over the river, but the surrounding countryside here is too low and the two cross each other at the same level. To avoid damage to the canal when the river floods, a very unusual structure has been built. Originally a simple barge-like devise with raised ends was used and sunk in the canal during times of flood. The floodwaters passed over the barge and continued on their way down river. The structure in place nowadays, dates from 1857 when the engineer Urbain Maguès built large gates at each end of the canal crossing which are raised in time of flood to stop mud and debris being deposited into the canal by the flooding river.
One of its principle features is a 33 foot diameter rose window which is illuminated by the setting sun but timing was not on our side when it came to seeing it ourselves. Friday here sees a splendid flower market add a splash of colour to this bustling town. We however took more pleasure in the canal itself rather than the cities it passed through and the next couple of miles were amongst the waterways star attractions.
First out of the bag comes just yards after clearing the lock out of the city. The Aqueduc de l’Orb is a seven arched bridge topped by a series of smaller arches that carries the canal over the waters of the river Orb below it. This splendid and exciting piece of engineering was completed in 1854 and as you pass along its 633 foot length driving a boat it is impossible not to marvel at the fact that way below you flows a river on which boats are sailing. It is not very long after that until one reaches the locks of Fontseranés. The trick here is to stop, take the camera and watch other boats passing through first. If you do not, the wording of the waterway pilot guide will put you off boating for ever. Trust me, seven locks moving boats up 83 feet through what is called a staircase of locks, in which they open gates two locks up ahead of you and let water cascade deluging down to fill the basin is not quite as white water rafting as it sounds. The camera shots from the dock, as you watch others are essential, because going through can be a little damp, as well as hectic, there is little opportunity to behave like Lord Litchfield and it does pay to have all hands to handle ropes with the stronger members of the crew on the foredeck. Another trick, is to get the timing right to suit your cruise, because the staircase only flows in either direction for a two hour period twice each day.
We motored on and moored beside the towpath that evening in complete contrast to last evening and enjoyed the tranquillity that the quiet countryside can provide. A quick trip into the nearest village next morning for the baguette is all that is required to restore normality. We passed through Colombiers where a section of an old roman road has been uncovered in recent excavations and motored across an aqueduct of the same name just before we entered the Malpas tunnel, the most impressive of all engineering feats of the canal. Instead of skirting around the high ground, Riquet cut a 580 feet channel through the sandstone right under the hill of Ensérune on the crest of which there are the remains of a roman settlement dating from the 6th century. The tunnel presents no difficulty for navigation save that it is one way, and it is best to sound the whistle to let on coming traffic know you have begun a transit. We took the time to moor up and visited both the roman ruins with its adjacent museum and went on to view the visitors centre and local produce shop immediately above the tunnel. If you are short of time skip the latter.
Motoring through the vineyards with vines growing down to the waters edge it is hard not to think about how busy these fields will be come the harvests of September. There are ample opportunities to stop taste and buy and we succumbed to temptation close to the Guéry aqueduct where Monsieur Tastavy welcomes boaters with the offer of a tour of his vineyards and Domaine du Guéry winery that has been in his family for over 400 years. The name Tastavy means wine taster and we guessed he might know a thing or two about grape juice. We were not disappointed; in good English he took the time to explain the process, proudly starting machinery; setting leather belts to turn cogs which cause massive presses to crush the fruit and then posing for photographs besides huge barrels in which his produce matures. It’s a gloriously wonderful heath robinson factory which is truly a family business in which they use only grapes grown on family land. He makes all three colours of wine and tells us that he makes around 200,000 bottles of it each year. Passing canal trade customers account for 18% of sales, if you take into account those who reorder year after year having first carried away a bottle or two by canal cruiser. He senses we enjoy the odd glass of plonk and produces a bottle of sweet Muscat wine made by his aunt who lives not so very far away. What do you know? It is delicious and so it is that a rather well bottle-laden crew that clanks its way back to the boat anxious to see if the wine travels. That night we opened a well chilled bottle of Rosé and discovered it had travelled rather well.
We entered the canals most picturesque stretch snaking around the old hill top town of Capestang with its stunning medieval churches and small castle topped with a distinctive tower and motored on to Le Somail. Just before we arrived there we passed the junction of the canal de la Robine which if we had time and taken it would have led us to the city of Narbonne and even eventually to Port la Novelle on the shores of the Mediterranean. This exciting side trip there and back can easily be undertaken in two or three days. Le Somail was one of the original staging ports in the days when the canal was a major passenger thoroughfare. In those days the trip cost six pounds and took four days for the voyage from Agde to Toulouse and least that sounds wonderfully romantic perhaps I should point out that at each of the twenty five double or triple locks, passengers had to disembark, change boats and hand carry their own luggage up or down the steep steps to their next craft. The Inn at Le Somail dates from those days as does a quaint circular brick built tower used to house and preserve ice throughout the summer.
Our final stopping point was the pretty little wine producing town of Argens-Minervois so typical of the Minervoise region clustered around its 14th century château overlooking the canal and the Aude River. We pass many pretty houseboats permanently moored to the canal side, proof that the canal certainly does extend a grasp on those who travel her waters and we feel similar pangs of regret that Homps our destination port has crept up so quickly upon us. Will we be back? Most certainly, I can think of no better way of combining the love of boating with the sheer joy of walking in the countryside and eating and drinking its produce. It is the perfect family holiday and I would commend it and Connoisseur, the company that runs the boats so well, to everyone.
Type: Magnifique 8+2
Charts, Pilots & Guides
Highs & Lows
Written by: Michael Howorth.
Photographs by: Frances Howorth.
Copyright © Virgin Island Sailing Ltd.
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