An enchanted boating adventure on the Canal du Midi ~ Part 1
Imagine finding yourself in an enchanted place far, far away; a place visited once upon a time in a fairy tale. In a kingdom with quaint villages, a magical royal fortress castle, sweet country meadows and shimmering waterways!
Our story begins in the picturesque countryside of the South of France where there is a delightful and historic waterway once upon a time called the “Royal Canal in Languedoc” known today as the “Canal du Midi”. It is one of the oldest man-made waterways of Europe. Built between 1667 and 1694, it is considered to be the greatest civil engineering achievement of the modern era.
Unsplashed image by Alain Bonnardeaux
The Canal du Midi is a fantastic place to hire a houseboat to take a beautiful, leisurely paced cruise through the heart of the Languedoc wine region. It is the perfect way to enjoy sightseeing, wine tasting, local cuisine, exploring the medieval villages and picturesque countryside – from the bustling gateway city of Toulouse to the golden sands of the Mediterranean Sea. Carcassonne is the jewel in the crown of the Royal Canal in Languedoc.
In 1516, it was King Francis who had the monumental idea to build the Canal du Midi. History says the King of France summonsed Leonardo da Vinci to survey a route as he was impressed by Leonardo da Vinci’s success of building the canals in Milan and his invention of the canal and the canal lock. The King wanted to open a waterway trading route rom the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
King Francis 1 and Leonardo da Vinci formed a genuine friendship. The king was perhaps his greatest patron, and he gave him a manor in the countryside very near his own residence. The king loved to discuss many matters with Leonardo da Vinci. Surveying the Canal du Midi was to be one of Leonardo da Vincis last projects. Sadly, he passed away on the 2 nd May, 1519. Legend says that king Francis 1 was by his side when he died. It was not until 1667, when Pierre-Paul Riquet was commissioned to the project, that they encountered an obstacle. This was how to lift boats over the 190 metre (620 feet) heights at Naurouze. To solve part of the solution to this conundrum, reservoirs and dams were built. It is incredible to see so many fine examples of neoclassical elements in many structures as you cruise the Canal du Midi! In 1996, the canal became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Seven Enchanted Treasures of the Canal du Midi.
Flying into Toulouse, where our journey begins. This is the fourth largest city in France.
The city of Toulouse is situated on the Garonne River. Walking along the river front at sunset, it feels like you are in an impressionist painting. The city is famous as a centre of aviation, spaceflight, home of French rugby and a university town. Toulouse is known as the “Pink City” because of the dusky pink bricks used in many of its buildings. There is lots to do, with many museums and cultural attractions to visit.
It is a fantastic city to submerge yourself in the true French café culture. Place du Capitole is a magnificent main square at the heart of the city. It is delightful on a summer afternoon to have a refreshing French artisan ice cream, sip a coffee or an early cocktail at one of the cafés in the square. My favourite cafe was "Grand Café Le Florida", a historic brasserie since 1874!
Typical street in Toulouse, a bridge over the Garonne River, me enjoying coffee at Grand Cafe Le Florida, Capitole square, images by Linda Gaden (c)
There is a local train to Castelnaudary. We travelled by train to pick up our houseboat – it was exciting to see our beautiful boat ready, spic and span to pick up from the good folk at Le Boat. They truly are my favourite boat charter company.
Now as I have found with all great boating adventures, it all starts with a bit, mundane shop of dry supplies and a small amount of fresh produce. Being away from home, there seems to be that strange familiarity of being in a supermarket – that odd feeling of everything being the “same, same but different” too! As an Australian visiting the European Union, I love that supermarkets and specialty stores have the best of continental products, delicious delicatessen treats, superb European cheese, and wonderful wine! Walking around town, we discovered Castelnaudary is home to the famous Cassoulet regional dish made of haricot beans, diced meats, garlic and herbs, with many places claiming to “serve the best in town”. We were recommended to have dinner at Maison Du Cassoultet, a popular restaurant for both locals & tourists alike, serving delicious traditional food. Many in our party had the traditional cassoulet, they indeed confirmed this place does “serve the best in town”!
In the morning, we went in search of coffee and pastry from one of the local boulangeries (breakfast cafes). It was easy to choose a place, we just followed a delicious aroma to find our coffee and croissant! We discovered Castelnaudary is an ancient city that was established in 1118, it was a strategic stronghold during the time of the crusades. The city flourished during the 12th to 14th centuries before being burned down in the “Hundred Year War”. It is also famous for its historic market.
The Le Boat base at Castelnaudary, regional treat, typical Medieval street images by Linda Gaden (c)
Pexiora is a charming, quiet little village which has a bakery and a smallgoods store about a 2km walk or cycle through the countryside from where we moored the boat. Along the way we visited a beautiful antique Church. Originally Pexiora was a lowland village on an ancient Roman road. In the 12 th century, this was a Hospitaller Commandry of the St. John of Jerusalem, it was a hospital and inn for the Crusaders returning from the Holy Land.
Villepinte is where we discovered the ancient Mezeran Aqueduct. It is also where you will find the Villepinte Spillway, designed to divert excess water into the Fresquel River below. It is an incredible feat of 17 th century genius engineering. It is absolutely awe inspiring to thins that they had the ingenuity to control the water flow. The town is a great place to replenish supplies – with just a few essential shops, they had all we needed to re-stock our wine, cheese, fresh bread, and local produce. In the evening, we stumbled upon a wonderful place called Les Deus Acacias Restaurant, housed in a fully restored, elegant 18 th century chateau – now transformed into a charming hotel in the centre of the village which served
fabulous home cooked meals.
Bram is a quiet, pretty village built on the crossroads of two Roman roads. The town was built as a circular plan around the 11 th century with the 13 th century church at its heart. It is a beautiful walk or cycle along a pretty tree-lined avenue from where we moored our boat to get to the village. There are several restaurants, a grocery store, butcher, and patisserie in town! We had lunch at Le Petit Bramais where we enjoyed a delicious, modern menu with a traditional French twist.
The museum of archaeology, the “Eburomagus Archaeological Museum”, houses more than 4000 artefacts that have been discovered through excavations in and around the area over the last 30 years. We delved further into the history of Bram and realised an ominous time in the past, being the tragic consequences of how the crusaders captured and monstrously brutalised around 100 residents in 1210 AD. Only one resident was spared an eye, who was to lead an ill-omened procession to the Chateau de Lastours to announce the arrival of the Crusaders. It strikes me that these ancient villages have many foreboding stories to tell. If only we could talk to the ancient residents from long ago, what incredible truths they would have to tell: Museums can be an amazing way we can hear the stories from the soul of the past, it makes you feel history from a very human perspective.
Canal du Midi, typical lock & historic street in Bram, images by Linda Gaden (c)
Villesequelande is a picturesque village where we moored by a charming antique stone bridge. This gave us easy access to the village, which was a short 500 metre walk away. The town has a pretty church, town clock and square, originally full of Dutch Elm trees. The elms were planted by the Duke of Sully in the 17 th century. As there is only one Sully Elm left in the square, it is one of the last Dutch Elms still alive in France; all the others were killed by Dutch Elm Disease. We had a very enjoyable lunch in La Halte Romaine, it is a local gem specialising in freshly caught, local seafood dishes.
Arriving to “Carcassonne Citadel” by boat is a truly magical experience. This medieval city, is known as “la Cite de Carcassone” seems like a castle you once knew from your favourite fairy tale! I almost expected Shrek, a Princess, and a fire breathing dragon to appear!
It is awe inspiring to see the turrets on the castle (53 conical roofed, story book towers) commanding walls and double wall ramparts (stone walkways), running nearly 3km around the perimeter of the fortified city. Walking along the walls, you realise the enormous scale of the ancient complex.
Unsplashed image by Ian Kirkland
Carcassonne has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997. As a fortified, medieval walled city unique in Europe for its size and its state of well-preserved conservation. This truly is the jewel in the crow of the Canal du Midi!
It is amazing to explore the historic city; we visited many places, including the Cathedral St. Nazaire – a beautiful building with splendid stained-glass windows. We wandered through the cobbled streets to Chateau Comtal, the 12 th century residence built by the Trencavel family, Viscounts of Carcassonne, located at the heart of the citadel.
Unsplashed image by Hector J. Rivas
As we continued to wander the enchanted city, we followed a winding medieval street and found ourselves in a lovely ancient square, where we enjoyed a delicious goats cheese salad and Aperol Spritzer, dining al fresco in the lovely inner terrace.
Now we have come to the end of our magical trip down part of the Canal du Midi; this picturesque waterway leaves an indelible memory of the Royal Canal in Languedoc. An enchanted place to visit in your dreams, like a magical land you once heard about in a fairy tale lullaby.
The medieval era was in the Days of Chivalry, when the kings were powerful, the knights were brave and the maidens fair. It was also a time when the feudal lords could save the common man from the tyranny of all powerful kings.
Then, in the early Renaissance, there were new discoveries with travel and shifts in the way people thought! Trade greatly affected the wealth of cities, which operated more like states, as different classes of merchants and bankers emerged to power. This allowed art to flourish as artists began to explore new materials and techniques, creating an evolution from gothic to renaissance art.
I find it so fascinating that the man who caught the vision King Francis 1 and surveyed the Canal du Midi was the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci! What a fabulous legacy both men have left us. It was designed to open trade and now is a wonderful place to holiday. I am sure Leonardo da Vinci and the King would have discussed the “Royal Canal in Languedoc” with a sound vision to create this link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. I feel sure Leonardo da Vinci, being the visionary genius he was, knew as a canal it would only be used for a limited time for trade. I feel certain he knew it would evolve to become a favourite waterway for evermore and knew of all the escapades it had in store for the kings, queens, traders and adventurers like you and me! I am sure that is why he made it so functional and picturesque too.