France: Barging the Canal du Midi
Crossing Southwest France by Barge
By Jacqueline Harmon Butler
After a madcap adventure involving getting off the TGV from Paris at the wrong station, my friend Constance and I were horrified to find that we were in Agde instead of Beziers.
Fortunately, I had my cell phone programmed for use in France before I left home and called the European Waterways number.
It was late in the afternoon and the phone was answered by their answering system and I had to leave a message. Oh dear things weren’t looking very good.
A few minutes later a call came through from the Barge Anjodi advising us to stay put and their driver would pick us up. Sure enough, a little while later the European Waterways blue minibus arrived and Matthew, the very friendly driver, jumped out and greeted us with a warm, friendly smile.
We loaded up our belongings and set off to find the Anjodi, which was moored at the port of Le Somail.
The crew and other passengers welcomed us aboard, saying they were happy we finally made it. They had come up with all kinds of stories about who we were and why we were so late arriving. Champagne was served and we settled in for a magical weeklong voyage on the Anjodi.
A Former Trading Barge
The Anjodi was built in Groningen, the Netherlands in 1929. She was a luxe moto Dutch vessel built as a trading barge but refitted in 1982 as a hotel barge specifically to navigate the 300-year-old Canal du Midi.
She is constructed of iron with a high copper content, which has contributed to her longevity. She is named after the three daughters of the original owner – Anna, Joanna, and Diana.
She has been completely refurbished with beautiful African hardwoods, handcrafted paneling, and shining brass, creating a charming ambiance reminiscent of a classic yacht.
A hot tub was installed on the deck with a lounging area, large table with umbrellas and bicycles standing ready should be want to ride along the towpath. The salon is equipped with two sofas, a large dining table, and a bar with a refrigerator, a stereo system and lots of CD’s, books and games for entertainment.
Constance and I found our stateroom with the twin beds taking up most of the room. However, there were big drawers below the beds, with a little table along one wall and a closet on another. The bathroom was small but had everything we needed including a towel warming rack. We quickly unpacked and changed clothes for dinner.
The Anjodi has four staterooms and can accommodate eight guests. However, there were only two other guests, Lisa and Mark, a fun couple from England.
So, we had four guests and four crew members: Constance and me, Mark and Lisa and Toma the Captain from Switzerland, Hew the chef, Matthew the first mate/tour guide from England and Daphna the hostess from Mexico City.
Our dinner was served by Daphna inside the wood-paneled salon and consisted of an incredible assortment of delicious courses, along with wines specially chosen for our dinner. Constance and I exchanged life stories with Lisa and Mark and laughed a lot as we ate our way through Hew’s incredible creations.
After dinner drinks were available from the open bar, including Jameson’s Irish whiskey and Calvados from Normandy.
Much later, Constance and I lay in our beds and laughed at our incredible adventure getting to the Anjodi and fell asleep dreaming of the Canal du Midi.
Constance liked to arise early and take a fast walk along the towpath. I preferred to sleep a little longer but was usually up and dressed by the time she returned.
Breakfast on Board
Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, flaky croissants and cold cereal. Coffee and tea along with orange and grapefruit juice were available. The coffee was strong and smelled divine and I couldn’t resist dunking a croissant into my cup. I wound up with flakes all over the place! Chef Hew scrambled eggs for me on request.
Later on the first morning, Matthew took us on a trip to Carcassonne, which dates back to the Gallo-Roman era. Matthew told us that it is the most complete medieval fortified city in existence today. I marveled at the architecture with its variety of positions in which to stop aggressive soldiers from gaining entrance. I laughed at the number of youngsters waving wooden swords and bows and arrows wearing plastic headgear running around playing crusader.
We returned to the Anjodi for lunch and a leisurely three miles per hour cruise along the 330-year-old Canal du Midi to Pigasse, surrounded by vineyards and lined with beautiful tall Plane trees. In North America, we call them Sycamore trees.
Napoleon ordered the planting of the Plane trees along the canals in southern France to prevent the water from evaporating and the banks from collapsing, as the canals were important shipping routes at the time. The Canal du Midi was the all-important link between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.
Some of these beautiful trees are infected with a fungus, but there is an ongoing program of replanting with a variety of trees with strong root systems to maintain the canal banks and with thick leaves to create shade, where the plane trees now stand.
That evening we dined on rare roast beef with assorted greens and a Borie Domaine de Maurel La Feline wine. I felt like purring sipping the very soft and smooth red wine.
Later Constance and I sat under the stars in the hot tub relaxing and enjoying every minute of our incredible day.
The village of Minerve
The village of Minerve was the destination of our next morning’s excursion. It is the ancient capital of the Minervois dating to the 12th Century. Its hilltop location opens to incredible views.
My left leg was giving me a bit of trouble and I was limping a little bit and walking slowly down the hill into the little town. I spied a woman walking up the hill using two long sticks to help her along. I laughed and said the sticks made wonderful canes.
She smiled back at me and insisted I take them to help me walk down the hill. I couldn’t say no and so continued down the hill using the sticks. My companions laughed at the sight of me with the long sticks, but hey, they worked pretty well.
After visiting the small Cathar museum, Matthew planned to take us on a hike to see more of the village but I spied a small book shop/café and decided to wait for them there. I happily enjoyed a citron pressé while writing in my journal and wishing I knew more French so I could read some of the interesting looking books all around me.
Back on board the Anjodi we ate a lunch on the sun deck of crunchy crab cakes with a salad of haricot verts tossed with red onion, avocado and tomatoes in a mild vinaigrette. Sliced, juicy oranges drizzled with honey and topped with julienne mint was the refreshing dessert.
We passed under some very low bridges as we went along the Canal. When Captain Toma said “duck” he really meant it! The barge’s wheel barely cleared the roof of some of the bridges we passed under.
We had magnificent views of the Pyrenees and Spain didn’t seem very far away as we cruised on to Poilhes.
Daphna made very creative and tasty cocktails of her own design and served on the deck as we floated slowly through the twisting canal. This was an evening ritual for her and we eagerly looked forward to her next creation.
Our dinner was served in the salon and we feasted on roast lamb with an assortment of roasted vegetables and served with an elegant red wine. I was so busy enjoying the meal I forgot to write down the name of the wine. The cheese course had a big round of my favorite cheese: Epoisse! It was the perfect, soft and runny temperature. Oh my! I was in heaven.
Our fellow passengers were foodies too and we marveled at the talents of Chef Hew. He told us he had studied at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. I told him I had been there a few years back and used some of their recipes in my own kitchen.
Another morning we visited Narbonne, a Roman Mediterranean capital where the Visigoth monarchs once lived. However, what I really wanted to do was visit the huge and famous indoor food market. It is a foodie’s paradise! Everything edible is available in there. I wandered from stall to stall marveling at the assortment of deliciousness I was seeing.
I wound up wishing I had access to the Anjodi’s galley kitchen to work with Hew to create dishes with some of the items I was drooling over. Every kind of fish, fowl, meat, vegetables, fruits, cheese, baked goods, etc. etc. etc. Sigh. I LOVED being in there. We all split up but I spotted Matthew several times ordering cheese and then fish to take back to the Anjodi.
We cruised to Beziers that afternoon, passing through the world’s oldest canal tunnel at Malpas, mooring at the top of the seven locks at Fonserannes to wait our turn to descend.
Captain Toma slid the Anjodi into the first lock slow and easy. I loved watching him tossing the mooring ropes and lassoing the docking posts like a seasoned cowboy. There were many people watching, waving and photographing our progress.
Matthew ran alongside the locks making sure the ropes were in place as we continued down through the individual locks.
Toma gave us a thumbs up as we floated out of the seventh lock and we continued on our way, crossing the aqueduct over the River Ord and on to Beziers.
That evening we dined like royalty at the L’Ambassade Restaurant in Beziers. We enjoyed a spectacular meal with little amuse bouches between courses and special wines to accompany each dish.
My main dish was ende de trache d’Aubrac grillé, os å moelle farci d’abats et sylvestres – which was Aubrac beef roasted rare, with the marrow of the bones scooped out and tenderly placed on top of the beef.
I hadn’t heard of the Aubrac breed of cattle and found out that it was started during the 1600’s at the Benedictine Abbey of Aubrac in the south of France and bred to adapt to the mountainous and rough terrain of the Auvergne.
It was an absolutely incredible meal but we all agreed that our own Chef Hew could challenge the restaurant’s chef any time.
Another Glorious lunch
Our lunch the following day was of assorted fresh shellfish served on crushed ice and spaghetti al dente with steamed mussels.
That afternoon we visited the Chateau de Perdiguier to taste their excellent wines and tour the old building with its beautiful 15th-century frescoes with family member Samuel, who was absolutely charming.
Then on to the tasting room where I fell in love with their Cuvée En Auger Rosé. The lovely color was like liquid pink sapphires, the nose was delicate with soft spices and the taste was subtle and seemed to bloom in my mouth after swallowing.
The following morning, just after breakfast, we went up on deck to watch Toma navigate the famous Agde round lock, built in 1676 of volcanic stone, it allows a boat to turn around and continue on with a choice of three directions. We were headed towards the nature reserve of Bagnas then on to the inland saltwater lake of Thau with its huge oyster beds and dozens of windsurfers and their colorful sails.
Marseillan and Pezenas
We tied up at the picturesque fishing village of Marseillan just in time for lunch up on deck. Later Matthew took us on a tour of Pezenas. He told us the town was mostly known for its associations with the famous French playwright Moliere, who is said to have written many of his plays while staying there.
I really liked the little town and Constance and I enjoyed window-shopping as we walked along the cobblestone streets admiring the colorful displays of items to buy. Later we stopped at a sidewalk café for a citron pressé.
We returned to the Anjodi in time to dress for our Captain’s Farewell Dinner. Daphna served us Champagne and escargots on deck as we enjoyed the view of the beautiful blue Lake Thau in the late afternoon sun.
The Captain’s dinner was a lively affair with everyone talking at once remembering different experiences during that week. Daphna was back and forth to the galley presenting us with a bit of foie gras on toast accompanied with baby spinach and roasted tomatoes.
The main dish was a beautifully cooked steak with potatoes and broccoli and topped with an elegant wild mushroom sauce. We finished with a smooth, crème brulée.
Toma, Matthew and I sat up talking long after everyone else had gone to bed. I didn’t want the night to end, knowing that tomorrow morning our cruise would be over and I would have to say goodbye to the Anjodi and her wonderful crew.
Saturday morning, after breakfast and many hugs goodbye with the crew, the 4 of us guests loaded our gear into the minibus and then we were gone.
For more information:
If you want to experience the best of the French countryside, get a rental car from Enterprise in France.
For information on how you can book a barge cruise, contact European Waterways: Tel: 1 877 879 8808 www.gobarging.com.
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