If you go:
There are numerous canals in France; we chose the Canal du Midi as it seemed to promise the best weather in June. And it came through, with warm days and cool nights (so we didn't miss air conditioning). Though we were lucky, as the South of France can get very hot, even in spring.
We used a company called Rive de France (011-33-810-80-80-80; www.houseboat-france.com/rive-de-france.html), which also operates in other regions of France. We rented the boat for one week, picking it up in Colombiers (a little west of Montpellier) and dropping it off in Le Segala (a little east of Toulouse). You can rent for longer, just as you can go both ways, but it seemed redundant to retrace our route.
Prices vary according to the size of the boat and the time of the year. If we were doing it this year at the same time (second week of June) with the same boat, the one-week rental would cost about $3,615. The price goes up after June 20, and then goes up some more after July 5. (The season runs from March 21 to the first week of November.)
Because of the kitchen facilities, you can save some money by cooking your own meals. Towels, linens, plates, glasses, silverware, even bikes, are all included.">Try this once in your life: Stand on a boat as it moves slowly down the narrow waterway of a foreign country. The world passes by, close and observable, and you watch it with a sense of elevated station. The clarity, the buoyancy, the cushiness make you feel privileged in a way even the sportiest rental car can't. You have moved from tourist to grand marshal.
I know, because I did this last June with my wife, Hania, and our friends, Donnette and Graham from Chicago, and their friends, Dan and Barb from Melbourne, Fla. We picked up our boat from Rive de France in the little town of Colombiers on the Canal du Midi in the South of France. The port was full of what looked like pleasure boats: gleaming white 42-footers with pointed bows. I had envisioned dark, boxy, old-fashioned barges. There was one model that approximated the shape, but Graham hadn't chosen it because the steering wheel was inside. Our model had two wheels: one inside and one outside, which is where you want to be if the weather is good. It also had three cabins and three heads.
We took a quick trial run. Since both Graham and Dan were longtime boaters, their wives excellent cooks, we had no need of a crew. (Hania and I would serve as interpreters.) Then we were on our way, gliding slowly down an alley of plane trees. A village floated by, a bridge crept up and made us all duck. The movement was as lovely as that of a ship -- contemplative and unhurried -- but with the added advantage that everything was at eye level. Those first few kilometers were a revelation, and I wondered why everyone didn't see France in this fashion.
We reached the first town, Capestang, a little before 7, and pulled in front of a long row of boats, including a couple of old-fashioned barges. It was an idyllic spot: shaded, just beyond an old stone bridge and a waterfront cafe. This is the other nice thing about a boat: You see a fine location and you install your hotel.
The table on the open deck filled with sausages, cheeses, bottles of rose. What a change from your usual arrival in a new town: the search for lodgings, the stares from locals. Dan sat back with his glass of wine (literally, as Barb had packed two wine glasses in her suitcase) and announced, "It's nice to be king."
We crossed the bridge and headed into town. It was the first in a series of quaintly drab settlements drained of life. It was hard to tell if this was the result of depopulation or simply French disinclination toward public life. We wandered the streets like an invading army, coming to the fortress church. We stopped by a restaurant cave and bought two bottles of rose from a smiling waitress.
In the morning, a community yard sale --vide grenier ("empty the attic") -- stretched along the canal. The table in front of our boat had boxed LPs of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf. In town, a market filled the square in front of the church. This being France, it included a bookstall. The owner spoke to us in American English; she had spent part of her childhood in Iowa, where her father had worked for John Deere. I asked where her bookstore was; she said she didn't have one; she traveled from town to town, catching them all on market day. Hania purchased a novel by Georges Simenon.
We bought a roasted chicken (plucked from its spit) and roasted potatoes with a little sack of gravy; olives and tapenade; local cheeses from a man whose white sideburns dramatically and luxuriantly connected to his mustache. Then we carried our booty back to the boat.
I assumed that would be our lunch, but we stopped a little before noon at a pretty restaurant along the canal, L'Auberge de la Croisade. We were led to a table for six by the front window. Hania explained to the waiter, who spoke good English, that both she and Donnette were celiacs and couldn't eat anything that contained wheat, barley or rye.
The amuse bouche was a delicate pea soup with a hint of mint. The delicious seafood appetizer hid bits of barley, so I had to force down two. For dessert, Hania ordered the creme brulee.
"No," the waiter told her. "It has flour."
"The creme brulee has flour?" she asked, astonished.
"Madame," he said, with an almost mock-Gallic flourish, "we do what we WANT!"
A cake was presented to a woman who had just turned 90. We all sang "Happy Birthday." Three hours and several bottles of wine after we were seated, we returned to our boat.
"Ninety percent of boating accidents," Dan said helpfully, "happen on the dock."
A river barge journey in South of France
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