What do you do on a canal boat vacation? Here are a few things that fill a typical day on the canal.
The mornings in mid September were cool but not cold and the days warmed wonderfully. Only on one day did we have wind, overcast skies and a bit of rain. Cool nights lead to great sleep – and I slept perfectly on the boat. There are no waves on the canal and since the locks close at 7:00 pm there aren’t any boats plying up and down creating a wake – and the best thing about sleeping on the canal, or possibly anywhere in France is that they don’t have any mosquitoes. When I say they don’t have any it’s by a Minnesotan standard that I hold them, but they don’t have screens on their windows and honestly we saw maybe one mosquito. Having just lived through a summer in Northern Minnesota, seeing only one bug was a laughable, insignificant trifle. We were prepared (loaded with repellant) but it was completely unnecessary.
And before I get to daily activity I want to mention another French environmental plus. In the mid-west we have ragweed. Giant ragweed, and the more insidious “common” ragweed. It is the main cause of seasonal allergies in the United States and I hate the stuff. It is determined, grows where nothing else will and sends out millions of grains of pollen that can travel tens of miles on the wind. We never used to have it in Duluth but global warming has allowed it to move its range north and by mid September it is in full bloom and won’t quit until the first frost. For me it produces severe hay fever. So as we were riding the train into Paris from the airport I was worriedly scanning the weeds along the track for ragweed. I saw none and within 24 hours my hay fever was gone. I was equally rewarded in the South – no ragweed anywhere. I can’t explain how this made me feel other than use the word miraculous. Just this alone, was worth the price of the trip for me.
Any of the boats you rent from Le Boat (and I’d imagine any other honest charter company) come with a fully kitted out kitchen – including a French press coffee pot. If I had know that I wouldn’t have brought my Italian stove top espresso maker. Either way, we started our day with a fine cup of coffee while overlooking the vineyards. If you are close to a town someone could walk in for fresh baguettes, croissant and pain-chocolat. These quintessential French breads made up part of our breakfasts along with juice, fresh fruit like melon from a local market, or possibly eggs and potatoes. Even though we were in France it was hard for us American mid-westerners to give up a big breakfast.
The locks don’t open until 9:00 am, they close again for lunch at 12:30 pm and then operate in the afternoon from 1:30 pm to 7:00 pm. Depending on which section of the canal you are in you’ll probably have to clear through some lock during the day. Since they only operate at certain times they give you a nice parameter for slowing down and getting into the rhythm of the canal. While some anxious boaters might want to be at the lock at 9:00 am so they can clear it first, this defeats the entire nature of vacationing on a canal boat. You are in the French countryside moving along a little faster than walking pace with your own motorized hotel room; ease up on yourself and relax. If anyone wanted to stop the boat for any reason, we did. One of the first stops we made was at the Domaine du Tresor‘schateau for a wine tasting.
Harvest time in the South of France is mid September and the air is sweet with the scent of ripe grapes. I’ll have more on the harvest in a later post. But for now just know that if you wish to do a tasting it’s as simple as approach the tasting room, say a few bonjour’s and ask to taste this and taste that. The staff are more than happy to let you taste their wines and if you ask somewhat intelligent questions you’ll have a very nice experience. Even if you don’t know what to ask, French society is a polite society so remember to smile and say your please’s and thank you’s and you’ll be fine. I don’t speak any French and this wasn’t a hindrance. It’s amazing how far a simple smile and shoulder shrug will get you.
All along the canal are little French villages and a few noteworthy towns such as Carcassonne, Beziers and Narbonne. Any of these, from villages to towns, are great places to stop for lunch. After all, the locks close for lunch at 12:30 pm, so should you. We found that eating out for lunch was not only a better deal (lunches are less expensive than dinner) but it fit into our routine better which was: cruise a bit, see something interesting, stop somewhere for lunch, take a walk around town or through the countryside then back to the boat of our afternoon cruise. Are you getting that this is a slow and lazy pace?
Afternoons were similar to mornings except that by mid afternoon we often broke out a bottle (possibly from our morning wine tasting), a few nuts, some olives and maybe a little cheese. We would slow the boat down to less than walking pace and as we glided past the trees we’d soak up the fresh honey smells of the vineyards being harvested.
The land in Southern France is incredibly rich in edible wild plants. Here, the grape is almost a nuisance plant. It growing in the hedgerows and in the fallow fields. It’s wonderful to encounter this indigenous plant growing wild here and there. But we soon noticed other foods growing in the wild spaces. Many times we’d step off the boat on the the bank only to be greeted by the the smell of crushed mint. We made a dinner seasoned with fresh dill we’d harvested from the ramparts of an old castle and we ate almonds that we opened by crushing them on a park bench. We’d walk past fig trees heavy with fruit and olives turning black on the branches begging for harvest and brine.
In the evenings we’d often motor past a small town and tie up on a secluded section of the canal. We’d make our dinner from our daily plunder of wine, cheese, fruits, olives, bread, tomatoes and salami which we’d eat with sweet french butter, local jam and fleur de sel. We’d often walk back into the village and explore the tiny medieval streets in a hunt for the bakery which we’d patronize in the morning.
At sunset we’d sit out on top of the boat watching the day slip into night, reflecting on our travels and watch owls take flight from the trees along the canal. As darkness descended, the stars would greet us through the dark canopy of the trees. Making our way to our bunks we’d sleep the contented sleep of the traveler who knows that tomorrow new adventures and opportunity waited for us on another typical day along the Canal du Midi.