Canal du Midi
How do you produce such a long stretch of canal without a single lock? Further, how do you do this before the technology to do a precise survey of the hilly terrain existed? Cruising the canal the challenge of building such a long lockless segment becomes apparent. For miles the canal route clings to the top of gentle ridges and moves precisely along the shoulders of hills. At one point, the waterway even crosses through the ridge in the Malpas Tunnel. Given the region’s topography, a nearly flat section of canal seems impossible to build.
Some believe that the skills needed to build such a long flat section of canal came from the people of the Pyrenees who were recruited in large numbers as laborers for the project. In the mountainous Pyrenees, the Roman traditions of hydrology had been maintained. It was the Pyrenean women who were largely responsible of the construction and upkeep their region’s waterworks. Perhaps the Pyrenean women applied their closely held hydrological techniques to the construction of critical areas of the Canal du Midi.
For us the absence of locks meant that we were doing some real cruising. Or at least it seemed that way. The notion of fast progress evaporates when we glance over to the towpath and see slowly pedaled bikes passing us by. Cruising at 5 mph, the south of France does not roll by fast.
Midday on our day’s journey we stopped to buy food. The map book told us that it was market day in the village of Argeliers. When we reached the town we tied up to the bank and walked to the centre-ville in search of fresh food. But we had no success; we couldn’t find the market. In fact we couldn’t find much open at all. Like all villages in this area of France, just past noon, the streets are empty. Everything closes for a civilized extended French lunch.
At least a restaurant along the canal was open. We learned later that the restaurant, Le Chat Qui Peche, is a canal boaters’ favorite. Sitting outside on the porch, we enjoyed a particularly pleasant French lunch while the mechanical grape harvesters hustled between the vineyards. During lunch the town may have been quiet but the vineyards in the throes of the harvest were still buzzing with activity.
Back in our péninchette and further along the canal we passed the intersection to the Canal de Jonction that leads to Narbonne. Later we’d return and head to Narbonne, but for now we’d continue on and stop in the classic canal town of Le Somail.
Le Somail is a pretty village with two attractive low arched bridges crossing over the channel. It is a former stopping point for the canal’s mail barge. Today the port is a popular layover for canal travelers.
In Le Somail we looked again for fresh food. And again we had no success. In such a renowned gastronomic region how could it be so difficult to find fresh food for sale? Even the restaurants in the area were fully committed for the evening.
At least we could taste and buy wine at a small local shop. As we walked to the wine shop we happened on a pizza truck tucked away pumping out Neapolitan specialties for the hungry visitors. If we didn’t mind an hour and a half-long wait, the pizza truck would make us a pizza too. That worked for us.
Finish: Le Somail
Travel time*: 5.2 hours
Cruising time**: 3.1 hours
Distance traveled: 23 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 0
Weather: Clear, warm, and humid with a 5 to 10 mph wind
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 13% complete based on cruising time and 16% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 14 of the 246 locks (6%) of the locks that we would cross.
* The time between the start of the day and the end of the day.
**As measured by the hour meter on our boat. When the motor is running we were either moving or standing by to move (like in a lock).