Part one of luxury travel writer Rowena Marella-Daw's voyage of discovery on the French waterways
A slow, languorous canal cruise in the South West of France may not be your typical honeymoon, yet barging along the Canal du Midi is one of the most delightful and relaxing ways to explore the French countryside from a different perspective. Serenity reigns over this 339-year old UNESCO World Heritage canal, meandering some 214km (150 miles) between Toulouse and Marseillan.
Plane trees stand along the banks in single file, their canopy bowing like an entourage greeting its guests - a welcoming sight, ushering visitors towards historic cities and charming villages; encouraging leisurely strolls, cycling and visits to vineyards. These pleasures are typical of the barging lifestyle, with great food and the finest regional wines and cheeses to indulge in along the way.
On board the Anjodi, a classic Dutch-style barge hotel, the living is easy. The well-presented main deck and dining area are fitted with traditional African hardwood, handcrafted panelling and brass features, exuding an elegant but unpretentious feel. Looking at this charming vessel from the outside, it's hard to believe it has four air-conditioned cabins with en suite facilities. Cosy proportions, comfy beds and the sensation of floating on calm waters – what could be more romantic?
Perusing the banks of Le Somail kept us occupied while the chef prepared our welcome dinner. The old bridge of this 17th century hamlet has witnessed the comings and goings, when the canal was used predominantly for transporting goods and ferrying passengers. Today, it serves mainly as a pit stop for leisure boating and barging enthusiasts who may fancy a meal at the brasserie, to stock up on provisions from a floating mini store, browse in the old bookshop or hunt for antiques. Back at Anjodi, our much-anticipated dinner was a gourmet's delight, served with excellent red and white wines – and this was just the start of our six-day gastronomic indulgence.
Bright and early, we gathered next morning at the sundeck, where a heated sunken spa pool looked enticing, despite May's chilly breezes. Flowerbeds of spring blooms graced the railings, and bikes were at the ready too. Anjodi cruised gently, passing vineyards stretching for miles and miles. Disembarking at Pigasse, we took to the road to Carcasonne, a Medieval hilltop citadel fortified by imposing double walls and 53 watchtowers. The citadel's fairytale setting belies its tumultuous past, and the nearby Basilica of Saint Nazaire must have witnessed very frightened worshippers. We spent some time at the 12th century Chateau Comtal, clambering up its ramparts and picturing what it must have felt seeing the enemies charging down below. These days, the only threat comes from tourists charging up its cobbled streets.
Next day our excursion took us to a spellbinding panorama of deep limestone gorges in the Minervois region, where the River Cesse winds its way around. Perched on top of a gorge is the tiny village of Minerve, its history as dramatic as its location. Cathars escaping the massacre at Béziers by Albigensian Crusaders sought refuge here in 1210, but not long after the village was besieged by Simon de Montfort's army, and those who refused to renounce Catharism were burnt at the stake. Walking up and down the lanes took us back in time, while a stroll along the river and nearby caves and crevices offered a totally different outlook. This is a place not to be rushed, where idyllic spots for photography present themselves at every turn.
Read more about our Andjodi barging adventure next week, as we explore charming medieval towns, visit a vineyard and navigate a staircase of seven locks.
For further information visit www.gobarging.com
Posted: Friday, 10 June 2016
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