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Accross the Midi in a Canoe

National Geographic Magazine, August 1927

 

Melvine Chater and his companion set out on a canoe trip from Bordeaux to Sete following the Canal de la Garonne and the Canal Du Midi in the year 1926.  They navigate through the locks with "waters boiling around the frail canoe" instead of carrying their craft around them.  This is their third long distance canoe trip in Europe for the magazine, having traveled in both Belgium and France a few years earlier with the same canoe.  Their small 16 foot long boat leaves everybody scratching their heads in disbelief, as during this time the only traffic on the canals was commercial.  The canal was "sometimes so crowded with great wine barges that even so small a craft as a canoe can hardly squeeze past."  These barges were still being pulled by horses, some of whom had as shelter a "floating box stall" hitched behind its barge.

 

The problems start on day one, when the custom officials in Bordeaux try to figure out how much toll to charge this never before seen type of boat.  During their voyage, the "immediate countryside became denuded of its field hands, who squatted in tiers along the canal bank" to stare in disbelief at their odd craft!

 

canoe along canal du midi bank

 

After having taking possession of their canoe and let it into the water for the first time this trip, the little boat mysteriously disappears.  Fearing their canoe got stolen, they enlist the help of the "bicycling canal patrol" to go looking for it.  The canoe, however, was not stolen.  It had sunk!  The canal was patrolled by agents on bikes, and the explorers would encounter them all along their travels.

 

Even in the 1920's, the authors realize that this trip was "an escape from conventional touring" where "you discover simplicity, cheer, and the kind of host who personally welcomes the guest", much as it it to this day in this region of France.  They were less fond of Toulouse though, calling the city "commonplace and disconsolate-looking, as if depleted by centuries of sunstroke."  At Toulouse [they] left the Lateral Canal and entered the much older Canal Du Midi."  The banks of the canal were a gathering place for locals, as it offered shade and coolness.  Concerts, festivals lighted by Japanese lanterns, and water polo were all organized along the canals.

 

canoe entering tunnel de malpas canal du midi

 

"The Midi Canal is one of the loveliest of French waterways." Page 146.

 

Leaving Toulouse the explorers enter the Canal Du Midi with their canoe, still attracting the attention of each and every passerby.  A group of "bicyclist workmen, three in close single file, pedaling homeward along the towpath in the peaceful eventide" cannot keep their eyes of their odd craft and in doing such "they all went over into the canal, and the evening calm was rent by enraged outbursts in the langue d'oc."  The authors continue writing that "as for the langue d'oc, we could comprehend nothing of this rather harsh-sounding Romanic dialect.  Fortunately, the Midi's natives are bilingual and could advise us in French as to suitable stopping points in the 'wilderness,' as they called their countryside's less-inhabited stretches."  It is the grape harvest season, and therefore they are having a near impossible time finding any food during the day, as everybody is in the fields working while the villages are deserted.

 

woman on bike giving directions to canoe

 

The Canal Du Midi even at this time had only one towpath, which the authors noted would lead to "a curious unscrambling whenever two barge teams meet."  Being smart travelers, they would camp out on the opposite side of wherever the towpath was situated, thus avoiding any rude awakenings early in the morning as they noted that the working day began at 5 AM each day.  Work would stop around 8 AM for an hour of beer drinking in the canal side cafe.

 

They reach Castelnaudary on market day, with "peasants bicycling into town with geese sitting sedately a row in trays attached to the handlebars."  The market was busy, but would be over by noon, as is still the case to this day.  They used this opportunity to buy some mosquito nettings.  Carcassonne was loved by the authors which they called a "fairy tale city".  Here they found the walled city inhabited by around 1000 people.  They "dodged in and out of medieval towers, while beholding underfoot a squalid population at clothes washing or goat milking before the doors of their rampart-buttressed hovels."

 

9 locks in beziers

 

"Beyond Carcassonne lay the canal's loveliest stretch."  Page 161.

 

Indeed the best part of the Canal Du Midi lays between Carcassonne and the Mediterranean Sea.  The explorers were so enthralled by its beauty that at one point, at the St Jean Lock, they had been paddling for a while until they realized with embarrassment that the anchor had fallen overboard and was holding on to their canoe.  "From Carcassonne to Beziers the scene resembled one continuous vineyard 60 miles long," just as it is today.   In Beziers they visit the statue of Paul Riquet, and mistakenly claim in the article that he financed the entire canal by himself (in actual he financed one third of the work).  The next day they reach Sete, "whose hotel-fringed quays and busy ship basins lent a Venetian air to the scene."  Here they witnessed the city's still active fish market.  As such ends their wonderful canal trip through the Midi, "France's music-loving, bullfighting southland."

 

 

 

 

 

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