By Sarah Franklin
I've had the privilege of spending time in the Languedoc Roussillon region of France for the past five summers and I've fallen in love. Whenever my family arrives in Toulouse, we rent a car and head out of the city and straight into the countryside. The first time I saw the fields of sunflowers alongside the road, driving towards Carcassonne, I was aghast, “gob smacked,” and overwhelmed with the visual beauty. So much so that my husband had to pull the car over; so I could be closer to these dancing heads who follow the sun like New Englanders in springtime. Then there were the vineyards. Perfectly straight corridors of chartreuse vines, lush with low hanging fruit, high cypress trees and an occasional old stone barn. The route between the Massif Central and the Pyrenees, following the Canal du Midi, had me from the start.
The canal, a marvel for its engineering, was completed in 1681 under the reign of King Louis XIV to free the wheat and wine trade from having to sail all around the Iberian Peninsula. It is now used mostly by tourists who rent canal boats for the leisurely ride to Toulouse or the Mediterranean. Lined with plane trees to provide shade for the donkeys and horses who used to walk the tow path pulling the barges, it provides a great place to walk or ride a bike, and takes one back to a slower pace. Dotted with lovely little towns to stop and have a glass of local wine and perhaps a bite to eat while watching the tourists navigate the locks on their rentals, is my ideal way to spend the day.
One little town on the canal, Homps, which lies just east of Carcassonne, has a small bicycle (velo) rental shop run by a rambunctious “Madame” and her husband, who basically sits there and reads the paper while she does all the work. After making your deal with her, you can ride towards the Mediterranean on the path to the right of the canal. You will pass a couple of locks, one with a very good open air restaurant. But if you are not ready to stop, you can continue to the town of Argens-Minervois, where you will see on the other side of the Canal, La Guinguettet restaurant “en plein air” with flags flying. With canal boats passing by, you can sit and watch the chef cook on his olive wood grill. Tenderly placing lamb chops, chicken, and pork on the grill to cook until they are finally laid on wooden planks, with large mounds of hand cut frites, and served to the many patrons sipping rosé and waiting in anticipation. Delectable food and useful nourishment for the ride back.
The abundance of wild flowers, birds and plant life along the canal is enough to satisfy any horticulturalist. The vineyards draw you in with their vertical lines reaching to the horizon, reminding you of all the beautiful wines to be tasted in this Minervois region, where wine making dates to pre-Roman cultures. There are many towns to explore and 91 locks on the canal, each one different. Some of the small locks are run by local habitats who live right there to oversee the traffic passing through. Often they will have a little vegetable stand from their garden or sell cold drinks and wine from the local terroir.
Canal boats come in all shapes and sizes. You will see some decked out with gorgeous planted gardens and outdoor dining areas, even some with small swimming pools! If you are interested in riding along the canal you can opt for the luxury cruise boat that comes with a private chef and captain or rent a more economical version, which is great for families or couples on vacation. There are many options depending on what you desire and how much time you have. You can ride the whole length of the canal over several weeks or just do one part. Whether you choose to be on the canal or next to it, there is plenty (150 miles to be exact) to explore.
The history, the beauty and the lore of the Canal du Midi continues to intrigue many people. It has been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site which is helping to maintain its originality and preserve it despite its many visitors. I would go further to say it is a sacred place where man and nature have met in harmony and that transports us through time, to a past when the pace of life was slower and more peaceful.