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The Times' favorite summer vacation photos from readers in 2014
Travel

A river barge journey in South of France

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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."

And then the lazy float through unsullied countryside. It wasn't just the slowness of the boat that transported us. (The speed limit on the canal was 8 kilometers -- or about 5 miles -- an hour.) We were getting a backyard view of rural France, from which highways, factories, used-car lots, billboards -- all the depressing clutter of modern life -- had magically been deleted. The world was reduced to its ancient elements: village, vineyard, farmhouse, tow path. The straight lines of plane trees on either side painted our passage in a dappled light. It was like sailing through the 17th century, the one in which the canal had been built.

We stopped to fill our water tank at a charming cafe called Le Chat Qui Peche (its shingle a painting of a cat with a fishing pole). A short while later, we sailed across a stone aqueduct over a river. We docked for the night in the little town of Ventenac-en-Minervois, under plane trees just down from the chateau.

"It's strange to be on a boat and see trees overhead," said Dan.

"It usually means you did something wrong," said Graham.

We climbed the hill to the town hall. The streets all had two names -- French and Langue d'Oc (reminding us that we were in Languedoc) -- and no pedestrians. This seemed to be the place for those who say that France would be a wonderful country if it weren't for the French. For along with all the other things that had dropped out of our world were people.

Though the cafe down by the canal was packed. We ordered pastis, which arrived in signature Pastis 51 glasses. Graham asked me to ask the bartender if he could buy his. I did, and the man reached beneath the bar and pulled up a box containing six glasses.

"Souvenir de Ventenac," he said, handing me the box.

In the morning, Graham, Dan, Barb and I took a tour of the chateau followed by a tasting. White. Rose. Red. I watched as they swirled and sniffed and swished with great seriousness, and then followed suit, concluding that it was the only way to drink guiltlessly at 10 a.m. We bought three bottles.

While we were gone, Hania and Donnette had hung the wash.

"Now we look like a real Bahamian boat," said Graham.

A short while later, we came to our first lock. Navigating it was easier than understanding its keeper. The second lock was a double, which we shared with two boats, one a sailboat whosehorizontal mast threatened to ram our stern as the water surged in.

I found these first locks educational. It was interesting to watch the gates close slowly behind us, and then hold tightly to the lines as a waterfall was switched on. Your world expanded from scum-stuck stone and soft blue sky to include, gradually, a tan house with green shutters, a man, or sometimes woman, standing at the controls, a flower garden, and a dog (frequently a Brittany spaniel) as endlessly fascinated by everything as you were.

But the novelty soon wore off. The fourth lock was a nuisance, breaking the contemplative spell.

We docked for the night in the town of Homps. To get into town we had to walk through a small marina, past a group of young men in lawn chairs, and then over a modern bridge under which small children swam. On our way back from the market, one of the men eyed Hania carrying the eggs.

"Les omelettes pour diner," he said. "Nous sommes six." ("Omelets for dinner. There are six of us.")

We stored the food and recrossed the bridge for dinner at Les Tonneliers. Tables filled a courtyard next to a garden. A sign read: "S'il vous plaît, respecter le jardin."

"It sounds so much nicer," Graham said, "than `Keep off the grass.' "

Another three-hour repast, beginning with rose and moving on to a local red and ending with coffee. There was cassoulet and steak frites and some kind of fish -- the menus were getting as monotonous as the locks -- and snatches of English, German and Dutch from fellow bargers at neighboring tables.

The canal had a life, if the villages didn't. We'd frequently pass beautiful old barges docked on the side, their hulls painted a shiny black, their decks often carpeted in synthetic grass, and set with table and chairs and an umbrella, flower boxes decorating the sides, delicate lace curtains shading the windows. These frequently carried Dutch names.

We shared locks with the same boats for a day or more, and helped their crews tie their lines. I liked the easy camaraderie, the tacit teamwork, the blurring of nationalities in a world where everyone was a boater, or at least someone temporarily in command of a boat. For several days one of the barge-shaped Rive de France boats followed us, making us wait in every lock. It would arrive, three stout harpies on deck, each with a cigarette in hand, and a bearded, expressionless man at the wheel. We speculated wildly about their relationships.

Some days Dan or I would take a bike -- the boat came with six -- and go on ahead. I had to pull over into the grass one morning as a troop of young army recruits pedaled past, most saying "bonjour" or "merci" as they did. In their close formation and Lycra outfits, they looked like a mini Tour de France. I marveled at their steadiness while at the same time wondering in what war the military rides bikes.

In Pecherac we all rode into town after lunch on the boat. Graham and Barb climbed on the seesaw in the park next to the church, making the day of one female resident. "C'est pour les enfants," she sniffed as she walked with her daughter. "Ils vont le casser." ("It's for children. They're going to break it.") Then, indignant and satisfied, she climbed into her car.

Nothing broken, we sailed out of town, and docked for the night just past a lock. A row of RVs, a few with British license plates, lined the south bank. Their owners had set up chairs and folding tables between their vehicles and sat drinking wine or playing cards. Waterless barging.

A pretty restaurant with a yellow-and-blue awning, Le Moulin de Trebes, stretched along the north side of the lock. After the requisite three hours, we asked our waiter to divide the bill three ways (one for each hour). He brought the credit card machine to the table -- this seemed to be the accepted practice -- and then said to Graham: "You owe 59 point four six, six, six, six, six, six ..."

"Breakfast at sea," Graham announced the next morning, standing at the wheel. We made a sharp turn through downtown Trebes, passing an old man in suspenders standing in his backyard, and entered again the long green tunnel. Shortly, another delicious egg dish made its way up from the kitchen.

Three hours and six locks later, we arrived in Carcassonne. It was strange and a little disconcerting to see apartment houses and graffiti again, though the soothing plane trees had not abandoned us. We docked next to a stand, and took our turns heading into town, each couple carrying a small shopping list.

Hania and I climbed the hill, took a walk through the ancient citadel, admired the stained glass windows of Basilica St.-Nazaire. Heading back into town, I read the graffiti on the stone footpath: "When an old man dies, a library burns."

We found a health food store, though there were no fresh gluten-free breads. The woman at the cash register said quite a few people come in with children who become sick from eating baguettes. "We say in this store that flour is public enemy No. 1." It seemed a strange sentiment to hear in France.

Then we went to buy cheese and sausage. The man gave me a taste of saucisson Roquefort. A wedge of fat lodged between my teeth and stayed there till I got back to the boat. French food, the food that gets you back.

In the supermarche near the canal, we bought milk, ham and eggs. Yes, we were tourists, but we were also grocery shoppers. It gave us, I thought, a certain prestige. A fellow boater, an Australian, was trying to convey to a young employee that he was looking for peanuts.

"Cacahuetes," I said.

"Ah," the store clerk said, with the joy of the newly enlightened, "peanuts c'est cacahuètes!"

In the evening, we took a taxi to a hotel restaurant overlooking the floodlit citadel. "Bon appetite," said the driver, dropping us off. The dining room was crowded with a package tour. Barb, after tasting her rose, said: "It starts out with great promise but in the end disappoints."

"Sounds like my prom night," said Dan.

A day of locks. They had moved from an education to an annoyance to a kind of welcome interlude. They gave us something to do. I started talking to the keepers. One told me that there was more traffic this year than in any since 2001. We had assumed the real crowds come in July and August, but he said no, as the prices go up then. It was June, so we were probably at the height of the season.

A middle-age woman said not all lockkeepers live in the lockkeeper's house; sometimes it's a family that agrees to care for the grounds, or run a little store. (A number of the locks sold regional products such as honey, jam, wine.) She had lived in this house -- the standard tan two-story with pale green shutters -- for 21 years, though had worked on the locks for 30 altogether.

"Ask her if anyone's ever fallen into the canal," Dan said.

"In 30 years," she said, "I've seen maybe two people fall in."

Farther down, a lockkeeper stood talking to a friend, who noted the name on our boat.

"Lully," he said. "He was a composer, I think, during the time of Louis XIV."

We docked for the night next to a field. There were no other boats. The week's first rain started falling, so we ate inside: Barb's delicious veal stew. Then, with the rain tapping the windows, Dan brought out his harmonica. Donnette lit a candle. We sang around the campfire. Folk, rock, Beatles; even world music: Milord, Kalinka, Guantanamera, Molly Malone; Hania threw in a few Polish songs. I wondered if younger generations will have this reserve of (mostly) shared melodies, or if, in situations like this, they'll just sit around and listen to their iPods. We sang late into the night, as if we were the only people in the world.

In Castelnaudary we docked in front of the police station and went our separate ways for lunch. In the afternoon we climbed our last lock and drifted into Le Segala. A row of two-story houses faced the canal, anchored at the far end by a restaurant-cafe. Exploring, we found that this was pretty much the town, with the exception of the tile factory behind the facade. We cleaned the boat and headed to the restaurant for dinner.

The patronne was an unsmiling, heavy-set woman who spoke decent English. I had the worst meal of the trip -- tough frog's legs and even tougher steak -- but the setting was lovely, and the darker it became, the lovelier it got. The outdoor tables filled slowly. A small band, synthesizer and accordion, played softly. Our last night on the Canal du Midi.

The crew of the barge that had been following us -- the three floozies and their captain -- made an appropriately late appearance and we all smiled at each other like old but distant friends. Two little girls in summer dresses chased paper airplanes while their untroubled parents smoked and talked. A South African couple, the man in a straw hat, danced a tango. Then the patronne grabbed one of the floozies -- her face red from the sun -- and they danced between the tables and out into the street. It was like watching a Piaf song come to life.

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.

Boat rental:

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."

And then the lazy float through unsullied countryside. It wasn't just the slowness of the boat that transported us. (The speed limit on the canal was 8 kilometers -- or about 5 miles -- an hour.) We were getting a backyard view of rural France, from which highways, factories, used-car lots, billboards -- all the depressing clutter of modern life -- had magically been deleted. The world was reduced to its ancient elements: village, vineyard, farmhouse, tow path. The straight lines of plane trees on either side painted our passage in a dappled light. It was like sailing through the 17th century, the one in which the canal had been built.

We stopped to fill our water tank at a charming cafe called Le Chat Qui Peche (its shingle a painting of a cat with a fishing pole). A short while later, we sailed across a stone aqueduct over a river. We docked for the night in the little town of Ventenac-en-Minervois, under plane trees just down from the chateau.

"It's strange to be on a boat and see trees overhead," said Dan.

"It usually means you did something wrong," said Graham.

We climbed the hill to the town hall. The streets all had two names -- French and Langue d'Oc (reminding us that we were in Languedoc) -- and no pedestrians. This seemed to be the place for those who say that France would be a wonderful country if it weren't for the French. For along with all the other things that had dropped out of our world were people.

Though the cafe down by the canal was packed. We ordered pastis, which arrived in signature Pastis 51 glasses. Graham asked me to ask the bartender if he could buy his. I did, and the man reached beneath the bar and pulled up a box containing six glasses.

"Souvenir de Ventenac," he said, handing me the box.

In the morning, Graham, Dan, Barb and I took a tour of the chateau followed by a tasting. White. Rose. Red. I watched as they swirled and sniffed and swished with great seriousness, and then followed suit, concluding that it was the only way to drink guiltlessly at 10 a.m. We bought three bottles.

While we were gone, Hania and Donnette had hung the wash.

"Now we look like a real Bahamian boat," said Graham.

A short while later, we came to our first lock. Navigating it was easier than understanding its keeper. The second lock was a double, which we shared with two boats, one a sailboat whosehorizontal mast threatened to ram our stern as the water surged in.

I found these first locks educational. It was interesting to watch the gates close slowly behind us, and then hold tightly to the lines as a waterfall was switched on. Your world expanded from scum-stuck stone and soft blue sky to include, gradually, a tan house with green shutters, a man, or sometimes woman, standing at the controls, a flower garden, and a dog (frequently a Brittany spaniel) as endlessly fascinated by everything as you were.

But the novelty soon wore off. The fourth lock was a nuisance, breaking the contemplative spell.

We docked for the night in the town of Homps. To get into town we had to walk through a small marina, past a group of young men in lawn chairs, and then over a modern bridge under which small children swam. On our way back from the market, one of the men eyed Hania carrying the eggs.

"Les omelettes pour diner," he said. "Nous sommes six." ("Omelets for dinner. There are six of us.")

We stored the food and recrossed the bridge for dinner at Les Tonneliers. Tables filled a courtyard next to a garden. A sign read: "S'il vous plaît, respecter le jardin."

"It sounds so much nicer," Graham said, "than `Keep off the grass.' "

Another three-hour repast, beginning with rose and moving on to a local red and ending with coffee. There was cassoulet and steak frites and some kind of fish -- the menus were getting as monotonous as the locks -- and snatches of English, German and Dutch from fellow bargers at neighboring tables.

The canal had a life, if the villages didn't. We'd frequently pass beautiful old barges docked on the side, their hulls painted a shiny black, their decks often carpeted in synthetic grass, and set with table and chairs and an umbrella, flower boxes decorating the sides, delicate lace curtains shading the windows. These frequently carried Dutch names.

We shared locks with the same boats for a day or more, and helped their crews tie their lines. I liked the easy camaraderie, the tacit teamwork, the blurring of nationalities in a world where everyone was a boater, or at least someone temporarily in command of a boat. For several days one of the barge-shaped Rive de France boats followed us, making us wait in every lock. It would arrive, three stout harpies on deck, each with a cigarette in hand, and a bearded, expressionless man at the wheel. We speculated wildly about their relationships.

Some days Dan or I would take a bike -- the boat came with six -- and go on ahead. I had to pull over into the grass one morning as a troop of young army recruits pedaled past, most saying "bonjour" or "merci" as they did. In their close formation and Lycra outfits, they looked like a mini Tour de France. I marveled at their steadiness while at the same time wondering in what war the military rides bikes.

In Pecherac we all rode into town after lunch on the boat. Graham and Barb climbed on the seesaw in the park next to the church, making the day of one female resident. "C'est pour les enfants," she sniffed as she walked with her daughter. "Ils vont le casser." ("It's for children. They're going to break it.") Then, indignant and satisfied, she climbed into her car.

Nothing broken, we sailed out of town, and docked for the night just past a lock. A row of RVs, a few with British license plates, lined the south bank. Their owners had set up chairs and folding tables between their vehicles and sat drinking wine or playing cards. Waterless barging.

A pretty restaurant with a yellow-and-blue awning, Le Moulin de Trebes, stretched along the north side of the lock. After the requisite three hours, we asked our waiter to divide the bill three ways (one for each hour). He brought the credit card machine to the table -- this seemed to be the accepted practice -- and then said to Graham: "You owe 59 point four six, six, six, six, six, six ..."

"Breakfast at sea," Graham announced the next morning, standing at the wheel. We made a sharp turn through downtown Trebes, passing an old man in suspenders standing in his backyard, and entered again the long green tunnel. Shortly, another delicious egg dish made its way up from the kitchen.

Three hours and six locks later, we arrived in Carcassonne. It was strange and a little disconcerting to see apartment houses and graffiti again, though the soothing plane trees had not abandoned us. We docked next to a stand, and took our turns heading into town, each couple carrying a small shopping list.

Hania and I climbed the hill, took a walk through the ancient citadel, admired the stained glass windows of Basilica St.-Nazaire. Heading back into town, I read the graffiti on the stone footpath: "When an old man dies, a library burns."

We found a health food store, though there were no fresh gluten-free breads. The woman at the cash register said quite a few people come in with children who become sick from eating baguettes. "We say in this store that flour is public enemy No. 1." It seemed a strange sentiment to hear in France.

Then we went to buy cheese and sausage. The man gave me a taste of saucisson Roquefort. A wedge of fat lodged between my teeth and stayed there till I got back to the boat. French food, the food that gets you back.

In the supermarche near the canal, we bought milk, ham and eggs. Yes, we were tourists, but we were also grocery shoppers. It gave us, I thought, a certain prestige. A fellow boater, an Australian, was trying to convey to a young employee that he was looking for peanuts.

"Cacahuetes," I said.

"Ah," the store clerk said, with the joy of the newly enlightened, "peanuts c'est cacahuètes!"

In the evening, we took a taxi to a hotel restaurant overlooking the floodlit citadel. "Bon appetite," said the driver, dropping us off. The dining room was crowded with a package tour. Barb, after tasting her rose, said: "It starts out with great promise but in the end disappoints."

"Sounds like my prom night," said Dan.

A day of locks. They had moved from an education to an annoyance to a kind of welcome interlude. They gave us something to do. I started talking to the keepers. One told me that there was more traffic this year than in any since 2001. We had assumed the real crowds come in July and August, but he said no, as the prices go up then. It was June, so we were probably at the height of the season.

A middle-age woman said not all lockkeepers live in the lockkeeper's house; sometimes it's a family that agrees to care for the grounds, or run a little store. (A number of the locks sold regional products such as honey, jam, wine.) She had lived in this house -- the standard tan two-story with pale green shutters -- for 21 years, though had worked on the locks for 30 altogether.

"Ask her if anyone's ever fallen into the canal," Dan said.

"In 30 years," she said, "I've seen maybe two people fall in."

Farther down, a lockkeeper stood talking to a friend, who noted the name on our boat.

"Lully," he said. "He was a composer, I think, during the time of Louis XIV."

We docked for the night next to a field. There were no other boats. The week's first rain started falling, so we ate inside: Barb's delicious veal stew. Then, with the rain tapping the windows, Dan brought out his harmonica. Donnette lit a candle. We sang around the campfire. Folk, rock, Beatles; even world music: Milord, Kalinka, Guantanamera, Molly Malone; Hania threw in a few Polish songs. I wondered if younger generations will have this reserve of (mostly) shared melodies, or if, in situations like this, they'll just sit around and listen to their iPods. We sang late into the night, as if we were the only people in the world.

In Castelnaudary we docked in front of the police station and went our separate ways for lunch. In the afternoon we climbed our last lock and drifted into Le Segala. A row of two-story houses faced the canal, anchored at the far end by a restaurant-cafe. Exploring, we found that this was pretty much the town, with the exception of the tile factory behind the facade. We cleaned the boat and headed to the restaurant for dinner.

The patronne was an unsmiling, heavy-set woman who spoke decent English. I had the worst meal of the trip -- tough frog's legs and even tougher steak -- but the setting was lovely, and the darker it became, the lovelier it got. The outdoor tables filled slowly. A small band, synthesizer and accordion, played softly. Our last night on the Canal du Midi.

The crew of the barge that had been following us -- the three floozies and their captain -- made an appropriately late appearance and we all smiled at each other like old but distant friends. Two little girls in summer dresses chased paper airplanes while their untroubled parents smoked and talked. A South African couple, the man in a straw hat, danced a tango. Then the patronne grabbed one of the floozies -- her face red from the sun -- and they danced between the tables and out into the street. It was like watching a Piaf song come to life.

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.

Boat rental:

We used a company called Rive de France (011-33-810-80-80-80; 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.

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