The south of France doesn’t need much in the way of introduction. It’s a world-famous combination of destination and direction, forever synonymous with dreamy Provencal lavender fields, chateaux-dotted hillsides and seaside towns straight from an F Scott Fitzgerald novel.
But there is a way of exploring this impossibly romantic region that doesn’t occur to most travellers: a week-long cruise down the Canal du Midi.For those that haven’t heard of it. The Canal is a waterway constructed by Louis XIV to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean, something both the Romans and Leonardo da Vinci considered but wrote off as too hard. Technically it runs from Toulouse all the way to Etang de Thau on the coast, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in France.
So here’s why you should consider the Canal du Midi in your future French daydreams. Bon appetite.
1. Flexibility and freedom
One of the major advantages in slowly cruising your way down the Canal is that each day can pretty much be as you like it. Fancy mooring by a daffodil-covered bank and going for a stroll? Go ahead. Want to sit out on deck with a good book and a glass of Sav Blanc? No problem. Craving the freshest boulangerie fare? The boat will be waiting when you get back.
2. Messing around in boats
Sailors know that there’s nothing better than messing around in boats, particular when the weather’s good (as it so often is in southern France). Cruising slowly past the thousands of old plane trees that line the Canal is a pretty idyllic way to spend a week, and your boat comes complete with wi-fi and a rooftop BBQ – perfect for those lazy French evenings on the water. You can even bring your dog on board (for a small surcharge).
3. Fresh market town produce
One of the real perks of the Canal is that it slowly winds you through tiny market towns you’d never see on a traditional tourist route. Places like Castelnaudary. It’s a quaint, provincial French town, home to the cassoulet (a stew made from duck, Toulouse sausage and haricot beans). Your leader can come with you to help you pick up the best supplies for the journey: maybe a fresh baguette, some homegrown figs and some citroen tarts.
4. Countryside that looks like this
The Canal passes through some of the best renowned landscapes in France: the idyllic stretch between Languedoc-Roussillon and the Midi-Pyrénées. The green waters follow the twists and turns in the countryside, passing through little valleys and fields full of golden sunflowers. Little villages and old church steeples. Fig groves and apple orchards. It’s quintessential south of France.
5. Idyllic cycling routes
Your boat will come complete with bicycles on board, so if you ever pass a small village or grassy meadow you’d like to explore better, it’s as simple as pulling up the boat on the side of the canal, hopping in the saddle and going for a ride. You’ll cover way more ground than walking alone, allowing you to reach the out-of-the-way villages like Pexiora and Villesèquelande, plus there’s no more clichéd and wonderful feeling than cycling down a shade-dappled laneway in the south of France. Trust us.
6. Reasons to wine
The Canal also passes through one of the country’s finest wine regions, Languedoc. This includes, smaller, boutique regions like Herault, the Aude, Minervois and Corbieres. A lot of vineyards border the canal itself, so it’s easy to pull up and buy ‘drink now’ varieties straight on the water (free tastings are not only welcome, they’re encouraged). Whatever you lack on the Canal du Midi, it won’t be good wine.
7. Ruins and castles galore
Southern France, specifically the Languedoc region, was one of the centres of the Cathar movement in the 12th century. As such there are old castles, churches and ruins dotted throughout the countryside. You’ll spot them from the boat, and it’s easy to hop on a bike and go exploring whenever you like. Don’t forget to explore the medieval castle, La Cité, at Carcassonne. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe.
Fancy yourself cruising through the south of France? Of course you do. Check out our Canal du Midi trip for more info.