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Exploring the Canal du Midi aboard Enchanté

Enchante

“To those of you who have not yet been initiated into the delights
of ‘barging’ along the French canals please, please forget that B-word with all it connotations of Toad in The Wind in The Willows dressed as a fat, common barge-washerwoman aboard a gaudily painted boat steered along the canal by a brawny bargee
...”


THESE BARGING HOLIDAYS are for those who enjoy the good things in life
things like the comfort of well designed and air-conditioned cabin, gourmet food and fine wine, personal service, and the company of like-minded companions together with tailor-made excursions to local places of interest. What more could anyone possibly want?

We flew down to Montpellier and then took the train to Narbonne, a delightful Roman Mediterranean capital where Visigoth monarchs — those barbarian allies of the Romans — once lived. Don't you just love that name even if it does mistakenly conjure up images of vampires!

The seafood
is excellent and the
produce fresh and
Mediterranean.
But be warned —
the locals do not know
the meaning of
the phrase ‘portion
control’...”
Our first night was spent in the charming La Résidence right in the centre of the old town and we could not have been made more welcome. Actually, we found everyone locally to be not only friendly but extremely helpful.

Narbonne was founded by the Romans and was once an important port. However, now it is some twelve miles inland and accessible to the sea by the UNESCO protected Canal de la Robine.

Some of the canal quays currently being renovated will provide wonderful additional shady places to sit and pass the time of day in one of the many delightful restaurants. The seafood is excellent and the produce fresh and Mediterranean — but be warned, the locals do not know the meaning of the phrase 'portion control'.

The old quarter is small and boasts a Cathedral with perhaps the largest indoor height we have ever encountered, and a 19th century Market Hall housing a spectacular selection of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, paellas, couscous, chicken pastille and tapas reflecting the different cultures melding together in this eclectic melting pot. At lunchtime locals gather together at bars to feast on enormous platters of fruit de mere — oysters, langoustines and mussels — washed down with a glass of rose or beer.

In general, the Minervois and Corbiere wines, with their delicate and subtle flavours, are light and pleasant to drink. Rose is particularly popular locally, especially with the seafood. However, we found the rose not very flavoursome and in our opinion the white Corbiere is definitely the superior tipple.

The Canal du Midi runs along the valley between the Minervois and Corbiere vineyards which together form the largest wine region in the world. It was interesting to discover that there is an over-production of wine in the area (Shock! Horror! Many vineyards are irrigated) and much of the local wine is used for blending and reportedly shipped to Bordeaux where the harvests are smaller.

One of our excursions was to a very special winery, Château Saint-Jacques d'Albas; it had obviously had a fortune lavished on refurbishment and modernisation and the attention to detail was impressive — a trademark of the English in France. In 2001 Graham Nutter 'retired' and bought a run down 90 hectare estate which included 30 hectares of vineyard.

A wine aficionado since university days, Graham set about creating a winery that would fulfil everyone's dreams; beautifully presented ancient buildings; one filled with vast, gleaming stainless steel vats and another with row upon row of barrels filled with maturing wine. The latter has 'designer' lighting to set-off the picture postcard scene to perfection.

There was an excess of buildings and one has been converted into an events venue so that regular concerts can be staged. The pièce de résistance is a chapel, probably dating back to the tenth century, which has also been lovingly restored.

The handmade element
of the Chapelle St.
Jacques d
Albas is
punching down
the skins to the bottom
of the tank
— Graham and his
winemaker both lose
1½ kilos
in the process!”
That same care and attention to detail is applied to the production of the wine. You'll find no irrigation here — the vines work hard to extract the moisture; they are pruned to be low yielding in order to avoid stressing the vines; and, together with high technology, combine to create the terroir or character of the wines.

We tasted the range of reds; all were very evidently well made, from the very keenly priced everyday vin de pays to their trophy wine — the handmade Chapelle St. Jacques d'Albas. The 'handmade' element is punching down the skins to the bottom of the tank — Graham and his winemaker both lose 1½ kilos in the process! We were surprised at the quality/price relationship of the Chapelle wine so on our return home we bought a case and sampled a couple of bottles; the rest are saved for Christmas!

But back to boating… After a delicious breakfast at our hotel we were picked up by Louisa, not only our guide for the coming week but also the owner of our vessel. Louisa turned out to be a petite, fair skinned redhead with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area who spoke perfect English (perhaps not surprising as her mother is Welsh).

We were joined by two other couples, one from Canada and the other from New Zealand. Three continents destined to be companions for the following week — so how would it go? It went swimmingly and we enjoyed many a convivial lunch and dinner laughing our heads off.

Our first view of Enchanté, the ultra deluxe river boat to be our home for the next six days, was a revelation. As we looked down from the little bridge crossing the Canal du Midi, we could see in the dappled afternoon light an elegant streamlined blue-and-white vessel with a small swimming pool on the deck, together with a large shady umbrella.

And there awaiting our arrival were the crew: Elie the skipper, Peter our English chef and Kitty our Kiwi hostess. Bags taken and cabins shown, we were then served on deck with a welcome glass of champagne and canapés. A fitting start to the next six days of hedonistic meandering along the waterways under very low humpbacked bridges (keeping our fingers crossed that Elie would remember to duck in time), past vineyards and faded sunflowers.

Over the next few days we discovered for ourselves how true the dreadful rumours were concerning the plane trees planted some three hundred years ago to protect and shade the horses pulling the barges along the canal. The trees are definitely in a bad way — and the problem is very much more advanced than we thought.

There is much work being dome to come up with a disease-resistant alternative to the canal's ancient plane trees. However, there appears to have been a modest success by the Americans. So, fingers crossed — but they do need to act rather more quickly than is apparent at the moment.

One enterprising
local Mayor
is said to have
substituted a plastic
plane tree to see
if it was
perhaps a viable
alternative —
needless to say,
it was not!”
One enterprising local Mayor is said to have substituted a plastic plane tree to see if it was perhaps a viable alternative — needless to say it was not! If the heat was anything like we experienced in August, then it must surely have melted!

The Canal du Midi was constructed in the 17th century to enable the more efficient transport of goods, and brought considerable wealth to the area. Little has changed since it was built and there are many delightful waterside villages, each one appearing to have a little community with a local bar or two where you'll find locals, despite it being a major wine region, drinking pastis, coffee or beer.

So our days merged into a haze punctuated by lovely meals with different wines and cheeses served for our delectation each day, together with bike rides for the enthusiastic Tim, and fascinating excursions for us all.

Of course, it would be a grave omission not to have visited the fabled medieval fortified fort of Carcassonne (originally a Roman town dating from the sixth century) — we did, and none of us were disappointed. We were also fascinated by the historic village of Minerve, now very much for the tourists, perched on a cliff protected on three sides and commanding spectacular views.

The Cathars built a fortress at Minerve which in spite its commanding position was captured by the Catholic crusaders who destroyed the only source of water by catapulting stone onto the covered walkway to the well situated on the edge of the fort's ramparts. During the 13th century the local Cathar religious movement suffered violent repression from these crusaders throughout what became the Languedoc region.

All too soon our meandering along the peaceful canal came to an end. Hugs and addresses exchanged, we all went our separate ways but with the promise that there is always another year and another region to explore on a different canal.

The last words capturing the essence of holidays and barging rightfully belong to Kenneth Grahame: "After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working" and "There is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats". — Bonnie and Tim Stevens

The Details

European Waterways | Hotel La Résidence | Château Saint-Jacques d'Albas


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