The real France? There are bits of it in the villages and towns beside the canals of Languedoc, the Department that borders the western shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Chartered river boats amble along the waterways at a little better than walking pace, engaging voyagers, briefly, in the oddities of French country life. The Canal Lateral á la Garonne is one of these watercourses.
Base camp for charter companies is at Le Mas d’Argenais; as we discovered, an ancient town with an impossible road system, midway between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The address is simply Écluse 44: Lock 44. Taxis transport prospective mariners from the railway station at Marmande, half an hour from Bordeaux and about 12 kilometres from Le Mas d’Argenais. To undertake this grand adventure, though, you must understand some things in advance. Specifically, you need to know about the Rules of Engagement…
French people spend half the afternoon having lunch and don’t even think about dinner ‘till late evening.
There is only one restaurant worth its salt at Le Mas d’Argenais and we timed our arrival for 7pm, aiming at an early meal. We exchanged a litany of bon soirs and abbreviated bows with Madame la proriétaire, a woman with the dimensions of a sparrow and the assurance of an eagle. She shrugged, grimaced, and left us in the bar, deserted save for a small billiards table and six bottles of Heineken beer – we had interrupted the family’s dinner time. An hour later, she returned and, twittering imperiously, pushed us into the restaurant, where we worked our way through a robust country meal of hearty soup, gizzards in a piquant sauce, and local wine. We were the restaurant’s only patrons.
When the meal was finished and the last digestif consumed, we returned to the bar to discover that a metamorphosis had occurred. The previously empty room was now filled with smoke, robust conversation and what seemed to be most of the town’s population. Rows of crusty, rustic figures were seated at long trestle tables playing and arguing over a board game. A queue for the restaurant had begun to form. It was a French bingo night.
In the darkest of nights, we strolled back along the winding cobbled streets, between closed patisseries, boucheries, and boulangeries to Écluse 44.
Good French citizens visit their mums and dads on Sundays. They all go out for lunch and, except for restaurants, small towns are generally deserted.
The following morning, Sunday, the port was humming. Boats were leaving the quay in droves and vanishing like ghosts into the mouth of the channel. There is no current in the canal – the water is as still as a lake after a calm night – and we motored languidly between avenues of chestnut and plane trees. Occasionally, an otter would poke its head out of the tangled roots at the waters edge. Canal towns, full of ancient charm, periodically hove into view. In each, church car parks were filled with the Renaults and the Citroens of the faithful. Restaurants were preparing for big luncheon crowds and cooking aromas drifted on the breeze.
We stopped at the town of Damazan, eight kilometres along the canal. Fortified by English invaders in 1259, it has since flown the flags of Cathars, Catholics, and the French. Many of the towers and ramparts still surround the square and a few locals were loitering, chatting, baguettes tucked under their arms. They still defend their town against the English – realtors this time, not warriors. And Damazan, quelle horreur, now has a cricket team… Gallic bats belting British balls.
The town of Sérignac-sur-Garonne is a further ten kilometres into the voyage. We tied up directly ahead of the 100-foot luxury barge, Rosa, which appeared to be battened down for the season. This vessel had transported English TV chef and writer, Rick Stein, with his television crew, for part of his French Odyssey. In his book, and the subsequent television series, he identifies our kind of vessel as a ‘Noddy Boat’. However, at least we were discovering the countryside, towns, and people of France for ourselves, without a media-funded entourage.
On a small boat with limited bathroom facilities, travellers need to be wary of young French women bearing gifts of large quantities of dried prunes.
The Canal du Midi, of which the Canal Lateral á la Garonne is part, was completed in 1681. It is a work of genius. In the reign of Louis XIV, at a time when people were travelling across Europe in stage coaches and sending goods from Atlantic sea ports to the Mediterranean by square-rigged commercial vessels that were plundered by Spanish and English pirates, and ferociously levied by Spanish tax collectors at the Straits of Gibraltar, the engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet conceived the system of canals that gave the journey a short-cut. However, 200 years later, French railways did to the canal what Pierre-Paul Riquet had done to shipping companies and Spanish levy collectors.
There are no pumps on the canal. The entire system relies on the inclination of water to run downhill. In 1996, UNESCO declared the Canal du Midi a World Heritage Site.
At Agen, the canal takes to the air and crosses the Garonne River by an elevated aqueduct, giving team members a short carnival ride. Agen, a modern city with an ancient heart, claims to be the prune centre of France and, naturellment, the Earth.
Dining is a French obsession and Agen is littered with so many enticing restaurants that making a choice was deep agony. We selected the Café de la Gare at the base of the railway station stairs. The tables and chairs stretched along the sunny pavement, sheltered by red hooded awnings. Each course – Côtes d’agneau grillées, Carpaccio de boeuf, Magret decarnard and cassoulet aux confits – came with a pichet of matching wine – it was a parade of French indulgences. The star turn was a desperately rich liver pâté accompanied by a glass of sweet wine from the nearby Côtes de Duras – and this was only lunch
“Isn’t this the restaurant in Rick Stein’s book?” asked one of our team. Diners at two other tables, having overheard the remark, turned towards us and held up copies of the famed tome. We hid our faces, not wanting to accidentally become part of a Rick Stein pilgrimage.
In the evening, we moved our boat a couple of kilometres along the canal to a wide recreational park at the suburb of Bóc and, at the mooring toll booth, met the first of the canal maidens. The Canal Lateral á la Garonne is maintained by a number of beautiful young French women, who appear better suited to the catwalk than the tow path.
“There is a mooring fee of two Euro, monsieur,” she said. “Would you like some prunes? Agen is the prune capital of the world.”
This seemed like a good deal: we paid €2 for the mooring and walked away with 10 Euro worth of prunes.
When every other restaurant in town is full, don’t eat at the one that is empty.
The following day, at Écluse 29 we met another of the canal maidens; an elegant young woman wearing jeans, a checked shirt and gardening gloves. As water tumbled into the lock and our boat slowly rose to the next level of the canal, she asked if we had had any problems on our voyage. “The canal, he is licking somewhere” – of course, she meant ‘leaking’. Then she admired our canal boat, a 42-foot Classique Royale… “big, but very comfortable.” In the summer, she explained, she had hired the same model with friends and spent a couple of weeks on the canal.
“Rick Stein thinks they’re Noddy Boats,” I said. “’oo ees zis Rick Stein?” she asked. “Why are ze boats naughty?”
“Not naughty boats… Noddy Boats. You know, like Noddy and Big Ears.”
Her blank expression told me that we had fallen into a cross-cultural pit from which we would never emerge.
Our boat slid quietly out of the lock and we motored between fields of tomatoes, corn, and fig trees. Almost hidden in a thickly forested slough on the starboard bank was a dilapidated farmhouse, the spine of its roof broken. The doors and windows were empty maws and the brick and limestone walls had collapsed inwards. However, a gleaming television disc remained on the roof; a testament to enduring civilisation.
At the town of Moissac, the character of the canal changed. The rustic fields that had surrounded the banks were replaced by tall brick walls and the waterway narrowed as it syphoned into a tranquil basin partly filled with moored barges and river boats. All streets in Moissac meander upwards towards the astounding church, once an abbey, Église St-Pierre. It made its debut in the 11th century, but received some deconstructive surgery a hundred years later, during the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars. However, the new rose on top of the old and during the 15th century the church was reinvented. Red brick of the southern French Gothic style rose on top of the Romanesque stone of the 11th century church. At night, the lights pick out the eerie shapes of immortal saints carved around the doorways.
Beside this serenest of churches was the worst restaurant in all of France – Restaurant de l’Abbaye. A Spanish waitress, swarthy, lithe, and raven-haired, who spent most of the evening strapped to her mobile telephone, spoke fractured French and no English whatsoever. She interpreted the menu with barnyard charades: running about flapping her elbows for poulet, mooing for boeuf, and bleating for agneau. The giblets challenged her inventiveness.
But this was retribution – we had failed to book ahead at the Rick Stein recommendation, le Pont Napoléon, and found it had no vacancy when we arrived – bloody Rick Stein.
Last Rule of Engagement:
In France, it’s never too early for a fortifying beverage.
Moissac is 85 kilometres from Le Mas d’Agenais and, on the following morning, we began our return voyage.
The entire cruise would take a week. Three days later, we again moored at the quay at Le Mas d’Argenais and took a taxi back to the railway station at Marmande. As day broke, we sat in the café adjacent to the ticket office drinking strong black coffee. Other early morning travellers preferred to prepare themselves for the journey with glasses of red wine and pastis. Maybe they knew something we didn’t…
Major airlines fly to London and Paris. Bordeaux is accessible by rail or plane. Marmande is half an hour by train from Bordeaux.
Avis, Hertz, and Europcar each have offices in Marmande and cars rented in other parts of the country can be returned here. The offices, like almost everything in France, close for a long lunch.
Taxis are available at Marmande. The journey to Le Mas d’Argenais is about 12 kilometres.
CANAL BOAT HIRE
Crown Blue Line offers river boats for hire. No experience in boat handling is necessary. The Australian agent for the company is Outdoor Travel. Charter rates are dependent upon the size of the vessel and time of year. Rental through Outdoor Travel is usually cheaper than dealing directly with Crown Blue Line. Contact Outdoor Travel on (03) 5755 1743.
WHEN TO GO
The high season is from June ‘till August. The Paris vacations occur in August and that month is generally very crowded in holiday areas. In late May and early September, the weather tends to be warm to moderate, with the occasional sprinkling of rain.