Two Americans take a holiday afloat on the Canal du Midi

Our goal was to travel in southwestern France frugally without sacrificing style. My husband and I knew that if we could achieve this, we'd be philosophically aligned with the French. Terry and I had attended the same bilingual high school, where we'd learned the basics of French living: Buy two fashionable outfits to wear all season, write on both sides in your cahier, and hold the fork in your left hand. The headmistress had rewarded good deeds with the command "Allez, prenez-vous un bol d'air frais," which she translated as "Go get yourself a bowl of fresh air." Our translation was: Go outside immediately, even if it's raining, because you need to be like the French, who know how to appreciate a bowl of nothing when they're lucky enough to get one. The lesson we learned?That the French are capable of rendering thin air priceless.

For optimum air frais and great value, we chose to charter a barge on the Canal du Midi, a 150-mile waterway that runs from the Mediterranean to Toulouse. We would go in September, after the summer crowds dispersed and fares dropped. The boat would be "self-drive," meaning that we would steer it ourselves. A seven-day, 90-mile itinerary would take us from a port near Béziers, close to the eastern end of the canal, through vineyards and villages to Carcassonne, known for its medieval fortress, and finally to Castelnaudary.

After flying into Montpellier Airport, Terry and I took an hour train ride to Béziers. We climbed the narrow, cobblestone streets of Vieux Béziers, a medieval village, past small shops and limestone houses. From the top of the hill the view was panoramic: the narrow canal, mist rising off it, wound through subtle patches of green forest and greener farmland. We had barely enough time inside the Cathedral of St.-Nazaire to look at the stunning stained-glass windows; the church and indeed the whole village was about to close for lunch. As we walked down the hill, heavy shutters were pulled shut all around us, and Vieux Béziers became a medieval ghost town, the only sound a faint knocking of silverware and dishes against one another.

After spending the night at a small hotel, we stocked up on groceries at the Saturday-morning market in the town center. Our charter agent had provided a list of items necessary for the trip. Some of them— "dog biscuits, an absolute must," for example— were mystifying. Our best purchases were local wines and goat cheeses from the Languedoc, and a sampling of honey made in the Minervois region, northeast of the canal.

Picking up our barge— more like a floating RV— at the Rive de France charter station was easy. We left a $650 deposit with the station manager, Mr. Lesieur, who was an adult version of Tintin, and were ready to board. Our boat had front, back, and top decks. The cabin's living room— with a wooden table, four canvas chairs, a couch, and a Murphy bed for visitors— doubled as the steering station, and the bathroom converted into a shower. The kitchen was equipped with more cooking implements than we will ever have at home. In the back of the boat was the bedroom, which had a double bed made up with crisp cotton sheets and a quilt. The charter company rented us Kermit-green bikes, akin to children's Huffys. These we tied to the stern. After receiving a 15-minute lesson on starting, turning, and stopping the barge, we were on our way.

And a very slow way it was. At full throttle the boat zoomed ahead at five miles per hour, though we had been warned that maintaining that speed would be considered reckless. One of us steered while the other paced the boat. Then we exchanged roles. A typical conversation starter was "Hey, did you realize the table rotates?"

Gradually, we understood that this vacation was going to be deeply French: it was all about good food, good wine, and good conversation. We got going on all three. Then the sun came out— the temperature was about 80 degrees— and there was some resentment on the part of whichever one got stuck driving while the other lay on the deck feigning deafness. Things improved when we learned that the person steering could do it while sitting outside with his or her leg extending through the window, foot on the wheel. Driving the boat was that easy.

The first several miles of the canal were lined with tall chestnut trees, their shadows stretching peacefully across the deep-green water. Beyond the banks were vineyards and occasionally a dirt road leading to a secluded house or château whose tiled roofs we could make out over vine-covered walls. The level of relaxation we reached was luxurious. For long stretches we passed no boats; whenever we did pass one, there was time to chat with the other crew. The Germans we met were the most competitive about getting a good position on the canal's bends. The Italians stumbled all over one another in their excitement— but, to be fair, the three Italian crews we spoke with were on vacation because they had split a winning lottery ticket. The British were the most, well, British: they tended to exude a sense of ownership of the canal. The French had the most équilibre, displaying in their manner and dress a perfect balance of simplicity and dignity. The only Dutch we encountered were joyfully swimming in the canal, which is not recommended by anyone. After we lost sight of their boat, our challenge was to catch up and see if the crew had survived. We never succeeded. Barging is not for the goal-oriented.

Only twice did a "real" working barge pass, and both times it was at night, when pleasure boats are not allowed to operate. The barges were at least 70 feet long and piled with grain, their engines humming loudly as they sliced through the dark water at what seemed to us, as we peered out our curtained windows, an alarming pace. More often, we came across "real" barges that had been converted into beautiful houseboats. Most had special touches such as flower boxes in the windows and ornately painted names, always French or British. We knew these could be chartered, too— for a higher price— and we'd start to sweep our fiberglass deck in a jealous and futile attempt to measure up.

Our first chance to practice pulling over was early in the trip, at the Château de Colombiers restaurant, which had been recommended to us by our charter agent. We steered the boat gently along the bank— a maneuver something like pulling a bumper car up to a bumper curb— then drove stakes into the ground, which we used to secure it. (Bargers tie up this way anywhere they want to have a walk or bicycle ride, or to rest for the night.) The 11th-century château serves lunch and dinner in four antiques-decorated rooms and on a grassy terrace overlooking the canal. We feasted on salmon, foie gras, and a plate of mussels.

Another hour down the canal, we pulled over and rode our bikes up rocky hills, past wheat fields and vineyards to L'Oppidum d'Ensérone. Resting precariously on a narrow cliff, these are the ruins of a settlement dating from 600 b.c., with bunkers sheltering huge red clay pots. Far below to the east was Étang de Montady, the remains of a medieval irrigation system that looks like a 500-acre pie, each piece a field planted with grain or hay, with a dry pond in the center. Looking west of the fort we could see traces of a Roman highway extending to the horizon.

As night fell we pulled over at Capestang, a village whose lively center is a microcosm of a French community, with one each of the essentials: tabac, pâtisserie, boulangerie, boucherie, café-bar, and church. We stumbled upon a courtyard concert given by a local club, and tried to blend into a crowd that seemed to include the town's entire population— about 400 people. We had arrived just in time to hear a full orchestra play Frank Sinatra's "My Way," a song that takes on new meaning when performed among French people who are all tapping their feet politely but firmly.

There is a fabulous restaurant in Capestang, Domaine Cros Reboul— we'd been hearing about it from barges heading in the opposite direction— but when we got there it was closed, for the entire afternoon. One of the realities of our itinerary was that we needed to cover 13 miles per day— four hours of travel— to return the boat on time. Alas, the Domaine remained a fantasy of perfect wine, cheese and pâté in an extravagant garden, and we returned to our boat for a picnic of less perfect wine, cheese, and pâté, garnished with wildflowers from the canal banks.

The next morning we drifted past unchanging forest, sunlight streaking through the trees and flowers. We took advantage of this particularly quiet time to read up on Pierre-Paul Riquet, a salt-tax collector born in 1604 who became obsessed with building the canal to improve the salt trade. We discovered that he personally funded a large part of the project, which took 15 years and more than 12,000 spade- and ax-wielding workers to finish. But he died a poor man in 1680, six months before the canal was completed. We'd picked up a postcard of Monsieur Riquet at Béziers— he had long, curly locks over an ornate collar, a thin mustache, and sheepish, sad-looking eyes— and we now hung it up on the wall of our barge, with a promise to avenge his financial ruin by getting good value on the Canal du Midi.

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.

Jody Lexow Yacht Charters (800/662-2628) can set you up with a self-drive barge company. Rive de France (33-1/41-86-01-01, fax 33-1/41-86-01-02), which we chose, seems to be preferred by the French, whereas Crown Blue Line (44-160/363-0513, fax 44-160/366-4298) is the favorite among English speakers. A seven-day round-trip from Béziers to Carcassonne allows the least hurried visit to all the sites and villages.

Out-of-pocket expenses:

best restaurants along the canal

  • Château de Colombiers 1 Rue du Château, Colombiers; 33-4/67-37-06-93; dinner for two $58. Five miles from Béziers. Try the magret de canard.
  • Domaine Cros Reboul 3 Rue Paul Bert, Capestang; 33-4/67-93-48-90; dinner for two $20. A restaurant and winery— tastings and tours are available— known for regional dishes, especially coq au vin.
  • Auberge de la Croisade Port Seriège, Hammeau de la Croisade, Cruzy; 33-4/67-89-36-36; dinner for two $40. About three miles east of Le Somail. Go for the elegant atmosphere and the codfish with saffron mussels.
  • La Cascade Halfway between Le Somail and Argeliers; 33-4/68-46-30-07; dinner for two $66. The two English owners serve Far East cuisine with a British flair. Eat on the terrace by the waterfall.
  • Auberge de l'Arbousier 50 Ave. de Carcassonne, Homps; 33-4/68-91-11-24; dinner for two $45. A dining room that resembles a Scandinavian ski lodge. Suberb pan-fried lamb with thyme gravy.
  • Hostellerie Etienne Rte. Nationale 113, Labastide d'Anjou; 33-4/68-60-10-08; dinner for two $40. Has the definitive cassoulet, with an outdoor patio that's great for people-watching.

where to splurge

Hôtel de la Cité Place de l'Église, Carcassonne; 800/237-1236 or 33-4/68-71-98-71; doubles from $257. This is the place to indulge: Book yourself a night at one of the most spectacular hotels in France. It lies along the walls of the inner fortress of La Cité; the pool, visible from the dusty medieval enclosure, looks like a welcome mirage. The rooms are elegant, with beamed ceilings and floral tapestries, and the restaurant serves the very best of French cuisine in a dining room fit for royalty, complete with fireplaces and cathedral chairs.