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France Made Affordable: Barging Right In

We crossed a pont canal, an aqueduct over a valley, and drove into Le Somail. This was the prettiest of the villages we saw, with wild oleander and roses throughout. In Livres Anciens, just off the canal's bank, we perused two stories of antique books; there were more than 30,000 in stock. We bought an 1890 European atlas. Not far from the village we stopped at the Château Bassanel vineyard. Like most of the other wineries along the canal, Château Bassanel sells wines that taste like $65 bottles but cost as little as $5. Paul Jeanjean, who grew up on the vineyard and now runs it with his two daughters, gave us a tour of its dank brick and stone caves lined with red-stained oak barrels.

Up to this point we had not felt the need to consult the captain's manual, our theory being that mystery added to the trip's excitement. So we were very surprised when, rounding a bend of scrubby vegetation that reminded us we weren't far from the Mediterranean, we saw our first lock, the Argens Lock, its iron jaws open.

Enter the only other Americans we were to meet on our trip: 10 veteran Delta Air Lines flight attendants. They were on the largest available boat, chartered through the Crown Blue Line, a British company, and the sight of them seamlessly navigating into the lock chamber ahead, each one doing her job with clockwork precision, was moving. Even more moving was the sight of them coming to our aid when our boat thrashed untethered as the lock chamber filled with water— neither Terry nor I had gotten out to tie our barge to the iron pegs that were now several feet over our heads, on the lock's upper wall. We were peering panic-stricken from our windows when Lynn, an athletic woman with a no-nonsense attitude, instructed us to throw her our line. All the while the lock-keeper energetically ignored us, while his dog became suspiciously friendly, then suddenly lay down and sulked. We understood, too late, the need for dog biscuits.

There are 66 locks between Argens and Castelnaudary, nearly all designed by Riquet. The double-gated lock was invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400's; Riquet's improvement was to curve the lock chamber's granite walls so they could better withstand pressure. Each lock is operated by a keeper who either lives in or spends his days at a stone house beside the canal. As boats approach, he leaves his window or chair or fishing post to turn the cranks that open and shut the sluice gates. Some keepers take enormous pride in their locks, adorning the grounds with flower gardens and wooden sculptures, or providing travelers with farm stands. Others scowl as they leave the house, wiping baguette crumbs off their faces.

When we arrived at another lock after a long stretch without any villages, an enterprising boucher pulled up in a truck with a blaring siren, and we bought pâté. It was a good thing we did: the next lock was closed for lunch, so we had a picnic with a German couple on their boat. Our conversation was incomprehensible (all I understood is that the man is either a scientist or an advertising executive, with strong opinions on tourism), but we all agreed that the pâté was excellent.

As we traveled west, our barge floated past vast fields of blackened sunflowers whose season had ended in August. A small crowd of boats appeared as we neared Carcassonne; the canal rises steeply before the city, necessitating a series of locks called lock ladders. By now Terry and I were fiercely proud of our ability to glide from step to step, but Carcassonne presented navigational challenges; barges were parking and turning around everywhere. Once we managed to sweat our way through the crowd and disembark, we found ourselves in a real— albeit small— city, and we realized just how peaceful the previous three days had been.

Carcassonne is a bonanza of markets and shops, and a sense of anticipation and excitement reigns over the modern part of the city. Many of the people on the streets were on their way to La Cité, the amazingly well-preserved and extensively reconstructed medieval fortress on a hill. Our own pilgrimage began just before a cobblestone bridge leading to the base of the hill. Here was Notre Dame chapel, whose interior walls were almost entirely covered with marble tiles, each engraved MERCI. The tiny church was brightened by colored light streaming through stained glass, and by candles along the walls. A book on a podium was filled with hand-written entries, most in French, some in Italian or Greek, all similar: Mary, thank you for keeping my family safe. Mary, please keep my children from harm. I flipped through until I found an entry in English: Great church!

Between Carcassonne and Castelnaudary, vineyards gave way to rugged fields and finally to thick forest. By now we were more or less traveling in tandem with the Delta flight attendants, stopping from time to time for cocktails on their boat, which gave us a chance to compare the Crown Blue Line and Rive de France rental outfits. The difference was consistent with that between British and French culture— our boat was simpler but had a better coffee maker. We learned that the bigger the boat, the more plentiful the options. The larger boats have an outdoor steering station: no foot-on-the-wheel driving for the Delta crew.

In Castelnaudary we had a cocktail party to mark the end of the trip and celebrate the 50th birthday of Lynn, our savior at the Argens lock. Castelnaudary, a busy town full of restaurants and nightclubs, is the Crown Blue Line canal headquarters. Suddenly we were surrounded by bargers— mostly Brits— partying in the harbor. But as it grew dark, travelers retreated to their cabins. One by one the barges lit up, spilling light beyond curtains and open windows, across the surface of the canal.

With the flight attendants, Terry and I went to the touristy but lovely Hostellerie Etienne restaurant for Castelnaudary's legendary cassoulet— a rich, savory stew of meats, beans, and vegetables. There we sat on a sidewalk terrace comparing stories about the people we'd met on the canal. It turned out that while Terry and I had been attempting conversation with French matrons and grocers, the Delta crew was happily surrounded by boats full of flirtatious men.

All of us had built up an appetite for wine over the week, and the talk gradually became a little rowdy. We could already see the essence of our trip slipping away. But Terry and I gave each other the raised-eyebrow look that we'd learned from our French headmistress, and our resolve was clear: at all costs we would hold on to our newfound grace and simplicity.

Jessica Dineen is an associate editor at Travel & Leisure.

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