Newcomer Frances Marcellin takes the plunge with a French canal boating holiday with her family on the Canal du Midi.
There was a sweet fusion of nerves, exhilaration and freedom as we left the marina in Homps. For the first time in our lives we were motorboaters experiencing the joys of French canal boating.
Wispy clouds floated in the summer skies above us and the Canal du Midi rippled gently under the hull of our boat, a five-cabin Horizon 5 we had chartered from Le Boat that would be home for the next four nights.
I was on holiday with my parents, who are in their eighties, my husband and three children: Hugo, 7, Clotilde, 5, and Sidonie, who would be celebrating her fourth birthday during the trip.
We were all on the sundeck keeping a lookout ahead with slight apprehension, as you might expect from people who had not even spent time in a motorboat before, let alone helmed one.
The famous blue bridge of Homps harbour was the first obstacle we had to tackle on our journey east towards Argens-Minervois. “I can’t wait to go under the bridge,” said Hugo excitedly. “If it’s too low don’t forget to duck.”
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The 49ft Horizon 5 is a vast and spacious vessel for newcomers and the top deck feels unusually high for something designed for inland waterways.
From where we were sitting the bridge looked alarmingly low but with the sun canopy folded down, we sneaked underneath it, relieved not to encounter any problems, and headed towards our first lock.
Our French canal boating experience
If we had spent less time organising our kit on board before setting off and been more experienced boat handlers, we would have been able to do more cruising that first day.
The briefing from the Le Boat guide had taken about an hour and, as we’d never driven a motorboat before, we didn’t want to rush.
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In our latest series Howard Walker sets off from the Netherlands, heading to the Mediterranean via the French canals, but
Once we were on our own, after roughly 30 minutes of driving instruction, it felt pretty daunting to have sole responsibility of such a large vessel with the safety of our entire family in our hands.
I have to say, however, that we picked it up quite quickly and after a day of getting through many firsts, including first coming alongside, first rope handling, first bridge crossing (where the canal narrows dramatically) and first bankside mooring – to name a few – we were already feeling more confident about life afloat and falling in love with the fun, challenges and accomplishments of motorboating life.
It was just past 7pm as we reached the Écluse (lock) d’Homps, too late to pass through it, as we discovered from a signpost stating that it was open from 9am to 12pm and 1pm to 7pm between 17 March and 31 October.
There was nothing for it but to moor up just in front of the lock. We happened to be right next to row upon row of vines so we nudged up to the bank, pushed out the passerelle and I took the kids ashore to explore the vineyard.
It was a good example of how precious family memories are built during a motorboating holiday. We hadn’t known where we’d be that night or that we’d have that experience and the kids loved the spontaneity of it all.
There was another moment when we passed a playground by the water’s edge and the kids asked if we could stop to play. We did and after months of lockdown that kind of freedom felt particularly joyous.
That night, as the sun set, the sky was strewn with peach and amber hues that reflected off the still water. With only the excited chatter of our kids and the cicadas to break the silence, it was a wonderfully peaceful place to be.
Our plan for the next day was to pass through the lock as soon as we were ready. We were all looking forward to spending a day cruising along such a historic canal and admiring this incredible feat of engineering.
The Canal du Midi was designed and largely bankrolled by Pierre-Paul Riquet in the 17th century (he had amassed a small fortune by collecting taxes on salt).
Over the course of 15 years and with the help of 12,000 labourers, who dug the 10m-wide and 2m-deep waterway and built the 328 locks along its route, Riquet found a way to turn his vision into a reality. Today it is one of the oldest functioning canals in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We were only travelling a small part of it but the full-length of the canal runs 240km through the heart of France, connecting the Atlantic Ocean, by the Canal de Garonne in Toulouse, down to the Mediterranean at the attractive fishing port of Sète.
I was five months pregnant with baby number four during this trip and, as a keen trail runner, was planning to keep up my favourite activity throughout. I decided to run ahead along the towpath and see what lay in store for us that morning.
It wasn’t long before I caught sight of a pair of painted jeans standing up by themselves with a potted plant inserted where a person’s waist would be. Nearby was a similar gold-coloured statue of a pregnant woman with a clock fashioned into a face.
These curious pieces of art were everywhere and I soon discovered they were made by the artist Richard Misac, who lives in the green-shuttered lock-keeper’s house next to the écluse d’Ognon in Olonzac.
Stuck in a jam
We’d have to contend with this lock almost immediately after the first one and I must admit to feeling like we’d been thrown in at the deep end. So on the way back I had a chat with the lock keeper, explaining that it was our first day driving a motorboat and hopefully he could assist us with the lock.
He seemed willing and not overly surprised – doubtless he sees hundreds of first-time boaters freaking out as they approach the lock for the first time.
Our first lock may have been a little one but it taught us our biggest lesson. By the time I got back from my run and was ready to leave our bankside berth it was around 10am and a long queue had started to form.
We learned there and then that if you want to have a full day of cruising, you must be in the queue ready to take the first lock of the day at 9am and make sure any other boats are aware that you are ready to go. Camaraderie and good manners are important too, as is being respectful of who was there first.
By the time we made it through, it was already 11.15am. We were cruising up to the next lock five minutes later and could see it was not a pretty situation.
There were several other boats milling around, clamouring to find a bankside berth while they waited. After holding back and watching the amount of time it took the boats to go through the double lock, we quickly realised that it was game over for us that morning as the lock closed at 12pm for lunch.
Adjusting to French canal boating life
It was disappointing as we were aching to get moving but we had to go with the flow. We parked up and lunched on the top deck in the sunshine with the canopy up. Being forced to slow down and stop actually felt rather good.
Spending a couple of hours there opened our eyes to how others were handling their boats and we noticed (probably because we weren’t far from Homps) that there were several other inexperienced boaters around like us, several of whom were having real difficulty manoeuvring their boats.
We wondered what the difference was between us and them. Some couldn’t get parallel to the bank or turn around, causing them to bump into other boats berthed along the canal edges waiting to enter the lock.
It was clear that the wind and flow of the water rushing in and out of the lock was causing havoc with their ability to control the boat. At one point, I watched in shock as the entire crew of one boat abandoned ship to pull their ropes around trees (their mooring pegs hadn’t held), breaking one of the cardinal rules of the canal as it prevented people and bikes from using the towpath.
We were lucky that my husband seemed to have the knack of driving a boat but we were still thankful for the bow and stern thruster, which clearly made a world of difference.
When we needed to manoeuvre our big Horizon 5 in small spaces or keep it parallel, we could do so fairly easily by using quick burst of the thrusters in conjunction with the wheel.
By 2.45pm we were cruising again, motoring past Roubia and the canalside town of Paraza as well as the luxurious Chateau de Paraza wine estate – which is open for visits and overnight stays – that was home to Riquet for six years while he was building the canal.
That evening we stopped at a random mooring by some houses around 30 minutes from Le Somail, just outside Ventenac-en-Minervois.
Eager to make use of the barbeque on the sundeck, we chopped up some peppers and courgettes so my husband and Hugo could cook the sausages and veg together while I whipped up a salad and some rice.
We wanted to eat outside and even though darkness fell quickly, we put the boat lights on and dined al fresco under the stars.
The next morning we set off in good time and by 12.30pm we were cruising into Le Somail, a village I had always wanted to visit.
The canal is at its vibrant heart, with an ancient stone bridge adorned with colourful blooms and an épicerie flottante (floating grocery store), which remarkably had everything you could ever need, including fresh bread and delicious local produce. We even bought candles for our daughter’s birthday cake, which we were due to celebrate the following day.
We weren’t expecting to be able to eat at L’Auberge du Somail, as it’s one of the more popular spots in the village, with a terrace that runs right up to the edge of the canal, but they managed to find us a table for seven.
Tapas, pizzas, salad, traditional French dishes, there was something for everyone – I ordered a salade végétarienne, which came topped with slices of refreshing watermelon.
It is worth wandering around Le Somail, soaking up the almost tropical atmosphere in the sunshine with its enormous palm tree and flurry of eateries and cocktail hangouts. By 5pm we were on our way again and cruising up one of the most beautiful stretches of the canal we’d come across.
We were the only boat around and it felt like we’d stumbled across a secret stretch of water where the only sounds were the regular beat of the boat’s engine and the singing cicadas on the riverbank.
Towering green umbrella pines contrasted with the dense blue of the sky and the white fluffy clouds – all reflected in the still water. No camera could do justice to how perfect it felt to be cruising along there together.
We knew that wherever we stopped that night would be close to our eventual turning point. We had to check out of our boat by midday on 19 August, two days from now, and Sidonie’s birthday celebrations would eat up a certain amount of cruising time.
Once we’d moored for the night, my husband and dad (who is 83 and hadn’t ridden a bike for years) took a couple of bikes that we’d hired from Le Boat into the nearest village for a recce. We needed to buy wrapping paper and find a boulangerie where we could pick up a cake in the morning.
While they were on their mission, I took the children to see some horses in a nearby field – Clotilde is horse mad and as we’d taken a few carrots with us, feeding them was one of her favourite moments of the trip.
The trip to the boulangerie that morning also meant waking up to fresh croissants for breakfast, another unforgettable moment for the memory banks, especially for my parents who adored spending so much quality time with their grandchildren.
We hadn’t seen them for months due to lockdown and this proved to be the perfect way for us all to spend time together.
My father is not one for just sitting and chatting, he likes to be active, so being on rope duty and having to solve problems together as a team worked well for all of us.
Sidonie tore into her presents that morning in a wave of excitement and even though she was still in pyjamas and we’d painted her face to look like a cheetah (facepaints being one of her gifts), she delighted in shouting “C’est mon anniversaire, c’est mon anniversaire” to everyone we motored past. Almost without exception they waved back and wished her bonne anniversaire.
A resounding success
On the way back we realised that the routine we’d got into for locks had to change. With the water now rising we needed one person on land helping to keep the ropes taut around the lock’s mooring posts. This French canal boating lark really kept us on our toes.
By 7pm that night we were back at the écluse d’Ognon. We’d hoped to eat in the restaurant nearby but it was closed on Tuesdays. However, we did discover more fun sculptures, including a kangaroo made out of pots and pans and a large metal farmer sleeping under a tree.
We moored by the lock so we’d be ready to pass through as soon as it opened and Sidonie blew out the candles on her cake as we sat on deck chatting and eating under a canopy of trees. It felt like the perfect spot – at least until clouds of mosquitoes started to join in the fun!
By 9.05am the following morning we were already in the lock. I was standing at the front of the boat holding on to my rope with the deafening water gushing through the lock gates almost on to the bow and splashing centimetres away from my face.
It was the tallest, most intimidating lock we had gone through, but nevertheless I’d started to feel like a bit of a pro. Going up is definitely a very different experience to coming down – and it was up all the way to Homps in terms of water levels and our holiday spirit.
French canal boating is different to the experience you would have exploring the country on dry land. I thought I could imagine what it must be like, but the reality of daily life is almost a whole new world. Arriving by boat into a village gives you an entirely different perspective than when you travel by car.
From the tranquility of life on the water, to the physical and mental challenges of driving and navigating locks, to the camaraderie with folk on the waterways, day-to-day life as a first-time boater is unusual, exhilarating and fascinating all at the same time.
Each member of the family loved our French canal boating holiday and we talk about it fondly and often. Perhaps it feels particularly special as its isolated nature gave us a wonderful family summer break that we managed to squeeze between two Covid-19 lockdowns.
We would definitely do another French canal boating holiday and are already planning our next one on the Lot river this summer.
A seven-night self-catered stay on the Canal du Midi in France, starting and finishing at the Le Boat Homps base, on board the five-person Horizon 1, is priced from £1,239 for the boat.
French canal boating ownership options
Le Boat also runs an ownership programme for those who plan to cruise more regularly while also receiving charter income when they’re not using it. Owners are paid 8% of the boat’s purchase price each year and get a guaranteed buy-back price of 50% of the initial cost after an eight-year period.
Owners get an average of eight weeks cruising each year on their boat or a sister vessel in one of Le Boat’s other locations in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Canada. You can also give away weeks to friends and family.
The smallest Horizon 1 costs £183,404 and sleeps up to five people; while the Horizon 4 sleeps up to nine people and costs £256,135.
For more information visit leboat.co.uk or call +44 (0)33 0332 1933
This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.
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