Could I possibly adjust to the slow paced nature of a canal barge cruise? That was the big question as we embarked on the Esperance, a hotel barge that sails through the Midi Canal in the south of France. After several months of fast-paced travel where other people and impersonal companies were always dictating my itinerary, arranging a six night stay on the Esperance was a breath of fresh air, if not just a little bit unnerving.
The itinerary of towns and villages that we would be visiting was intriguing, to say the least. Trying to Google information on the few villages that were named for our cruise resulted in little tourist information and very few mentions online. It suddenly became obvious that this is not a cruise to check off destinations and places to visit. This is a cruise to just experience a slice of life in southern France.
My husband and I arranged our cruise on the Esperance with France Cruises. Up to six passengers sail on the Esperance for each passage, for a six night sailing. Our journey started in Beziers and ended in Carcassonne. How you arrived and departed from these cities was entirely up to you, allowing a more personal travel itinerary so that you could explore whatever regions of France that you wanted to before and after the sailing.
A crew of two, Mathias and Oliver, were all that it took to create a memorable experience on the Esperance. Mathias, the owner and captain of the barge, was humorous and affable, speaking several languages so that communication was never a problem and expertly guiding the huge barge through the narrow canal. Our personal French chef, Oliver, was everything that you would hope for, creating fresh and personalized meals during the week.
The Esperance sails the Midi Canal, just one portion of the long waterway that cuts across southern France through the Languedoc region connecting the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. “I have found that the Midi Canal is the most beautiful part of the entire canal,” Mathias, our captain, said. “Other parts of the canal might have bigger cities or be more well known, but this section is the most beautiful.”
Indeed, much of the entertainment for the week was just spent slowly watching the scenery go by. There’s no rushing to get anywhere on the Midi Canal. Just slow, easy going sailing along a canal shaded by 300 year old sycamore trees and lined with vineyards from one of France’s largest appellations, Minervois.
Along the way, the Esperance tied up along the banks of the canal for several varied stops, all in small villages with a unique charm all their own. Capestang had an ancient cathedral overlooking the banks of the canal, a perfect backdrop to an alfresco dinner on the upper deck at night. Le Somail was full of picturesque charm, while villages like Homps and Angers offered convenient restaurants and stores, should you need them along the journey.
Excursions to bigger towns and cities are included with the sailing, and allow you to visit some of the larger destinations popular in this region. Narbonne, Minerve and Carcassonne are among the most well-known destinations, always about a 30 minute drive from our docking points. An English-speaking tour guide with a plush mini-van meets us each afternoon to take us to these destinations.
Perhaps the real stars of the cruise, though, are the meals expertly created for lunch and dinner every day. Using fresh, local ingredients bought each morning, Oliver created customized dishes based on our likes and dislikes, using his grandmother’s traditional recipes along with his innovative touches on modern cuisine. Among the standouts were duck with orange sauce, salmon with Provencal cream, prawns and zucchini casserole along with simple lunches of hearty lasagna spiced with exotic herbs and a curried potato salad that quickly disappeared.
Some of the wine produced in the region is stocked on the barge and ready for us at any time of the day. There is unlimited alcohol onboard. A wine rack is stocked to the gills with local wines, such as the vintages from Chateau Cabezac in the Minervois appellation that we sail through along the cruise.
Each day brings with it a new and unique aspect of barge sailing. Sailing through locks along the canal, it’s a spectacle to see water flowing into the lock while our chef stands along the banks and helps Mathias maneuver the tight spaces. Every day, there are plenty of opportunities to wave and smile at the families on houseboats passing by, checking out our large barge. Then there are the variety of low bridges that we sail under. As one of the largest barges on the canal, we barely fit underneath the ancient stone bridges. Each passage seems precarious, but Mathias has clearly mastered the art of tight sailing. As inches separate our barge from the edge of the rockwork, we bend at the waist and lower our heads while passing under the arches, a unique experience to say the least.
After our cruise, we took a TGV train from Beziers and stayed in Paris for a couple more days. It’s easy to piggyback excursions to the more talked about French destinations along with a still somewhat obscure sailing on a canal cruise. Knowing that our own personal French chef will not be accompanying us for the next few days, and getting ready to get back to the hustle and bustle of the bigger French cities, it is with a fond farewell that we remember our Midi Canal cruise, an oasis of peace and seclusion in the heart of France that you simply must experience yourself to fully understand how precious it is.