Dawn broke with a low fog clinging along the Canal du Midi’s water. The evening before we eased into a pretty spot canal side just past Bram’s port. Tied to the bank we spent a quiet night. In the morning we woke to find that fog had transformed the canal. With the low light filtering across the reflective still canal waters, our private mooring spot had become magical. Times like this underpin our love of canal travel.
As we loosened our ropes and headed up the canal, the fog gradually dissolved. Even in the sharpening light this section of canal seems a beautiful garden. Willows and low planes line the grassy banks. Every kilometer or so, a lock appears. Near each lock, or écluse in French, is a stone lockkeeper’s house. On this stretch of canal, the keepers’ houses are particularly well maintained, each with its own uniquely styled and well-tended plot. Here the Canal du Midi presents not as a vein of an industrial transportation network but as a pond in a large English garden.
We traveled west on the canal with the locks coming frequently. Twelve écluses with a total of 17 chambers lifted the Herault 133 feet over just 9 miles. This was the highest number of chambers we would pass in a single day on our entire voyage on the Canal des Deux Mers. The waterway rises here to cross France’s water divide. In another day of cruising we’d reach the low ridge that separates the Atlantic and Mediterranean drainages.
This day the pattern of the passing through the locks became repetitive. Enter the lock, loop ropes to the well-worn bollards topside, and keep tension on the nylon cords as the lockkeeper fills the chamber with a gush of water. When the upstream gate opens, the ropes are collected back onto the boat, and we motor out into the pound in search of the next lock.
Multiple chambered locks or lock staircases break the pattern of travel through the écluses. Some times the staircase écluses operate as separate linked individual locks. Other times we entered a multiple chambered lock to see the internal gate doors open wide. Once all of the locking boats are inside the first basin the lock’s rear gate is closed and the keeper releases a flood of water from the far upstream sluice. The deluge fills all of the chambers until water flows over the top of the rear gate. When the flow eases the barges creep forward to the next chamber and secure again to the topside bollards. Behind the boats the large metal gate closes with a Get Smart-style thud. The torrent is released again this time filling the lock to the level of the last closed gate. The cycle repeats until the final basin is filled, the upstream gate is opened, and the boats motor out onto the pound.
Just before Castelnaudary is the quadruple écluse St. Roch. St. Roch would be our final lock of the day but first we had to pause tied to the bank for the daily lockkeepers’ lunch. Our pooch Gigi quickly torpedoed any thoughts of a quiet rest. Gigi had a different perspective on a lunch stop. Here was an opportunity run wild and create maximal havoc. After all nearby there were people to bark at and stinky pools of water to wade in. What more could a young dog ask for? When the locks reopened at 1:30 pm we had to wait a little longer as the boats leaving Castelnaudary were moving down through the chambers. The delay was a good thing. It took us all of the extra time to corral our rambunctious canine.
At this point in our journey we’d spent enough time on the canals to develop a sense of when we are approaching a rental boat base. The clues are typically simple; new boaters usually pilot their craft in a state nearing panic. Outside of Castelnaudary we figured we were nearing another base as we saw a Le Boat barge struggling down through St. Roch’s four chambers. The boat seemed newly rented; this was likely the first lock of any sort that the crew had attempted. As we loitered in the channel waiting for the rental boat to clear the last step of the lock our assumption about the boat’s crew was bolstered. Forward on the deck of the exiting boat was a middle-aged woman wielding her boat’s utility pole towards the Herault as if in a medieval joust. We were yards away and well clear; we couldn’t have collided with the oncoming boat if we tried. Further, our canine terrorist was secured below deck. Nevertheless the unspoken message was clear. We were not to come near the new renter’s boat. Undoubtedly this boat’s crew would soon relax into the rhythm of the canal. The new crew phenotype typically lasts for a short time. After a few kilometers and a couple of locks all canal cruisers ease into the boater’s carefree lifestyle.
Past the St. Roch écluse staircase and the Grand Bassin, a large hand excavated lake, is Castelnaudary’s high-tech canal port. After tying up on the shady side, we reported to the Capitainerie office. For 9 euros we received an electronic card that activated the electricity at our spot, allowed us to add up to 1,000 liters of water to the boats tank (in 100 liter portions), and to use the newly remodeled showers in the port office. Castelnaudry’s port management system is an amazingly cool way to cater to canal boat visitors.
Castelnaudary’s port also has a shiny new sewage pump for removing waste from the passing boat’s black water holding tanks. I doubt it is used much. Most boats sewage heads directly into the canal. It is an unsavory little secret that many of the canals in France function as sewers for the passing boats.
The port in Castelnaudary is quiet and the town is comfortable. Here relaxation seems to be the primary visitor attraction. There is one thing in the village that we could not miss. Castelnaudary is famous for its cassoulet. Indeed, Castelnaudary claims to be the world capitol of cassoulet, whatever that entails.
A classic peasant’s dish, cassoulet is a baked dish of beans, sausage, typically Toulouse sausage, and duck. (As we’ve traveled about we’ve seen variations on the meat used.) The perfect cassoulet develops a crust on the top during baking. It is a hearty filling dish meant to satisfy workers.
I had my required Castelanudary cassoulet at La Maison du Cassoulet. Indeed it was the best cassoulet of our journey. And this would not be the last time that I had this dish on our voyage through the Languedoc. As we neared the high point of the canal we were firmly ensconced in cassoulet territory. Soon the canal water would start moving downhill. By then our boat would be carrying a passenger with a few extra hearty cassoulet pounds around the middle.
Travel time*: 5.7 hours
Cruising time**: 4.7 hours
Distance traveled: 15 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 17
Weather: Clear, moderate temps with calm wind
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 35% complete based on cruising time and 33% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 85 of the 246 locks (35%) 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).