Meander on the Midi, a Cruise in the South of France

Meander on the Midi, a Cruise in the South of France

The Canal du Midi was an integral part of growing up for Sophie Gardner-Roberts. Here, she returns to her roots on a self-drive cruise of one of France’s best loved waterways.

I was practically born on the Canal du Midi. In the early 1990s, my parents were living on a narrow boat near Capestang, in Hérault, having upended their London life to seek a softer, slower and “overall better life” (their own words) in the south of France. From then on, they lived on, around and thanks to boats on the French waterways. After a stint working on a hotel barge that cruised the Rhône, they moved to Burgundy to operate a small boat hire company on the Canal du Nivernais and quickly opened a second base on their beloved Canal du Midi.

I grew up aboard river boats and around ports with their coiled ropes and iron bollards. I was even a lock-keeper for a few summers to earn a bit of cash as a student. So, when I was invited on a self-driving cruise on the Canal du Midi, in the old stomping ground of my family, I couldn’t resist the call of the waterway that witnessed my first steps.

The oval lock © Sophie Gardner-Roberts

Leaving Homps, in Aude, we were to cruise slowly up toward Le Somail and back again. Just 40 minutes away from Carcassonne, Homps is a cute little village whose port is lined with olive trees and a couple of restaurants. Here is also one of Le Boat’s many departure bases on the Canal du Midi. With over 50 years of experience, Le Boat provides self-drive cruisers of all shapes and sizes, allowing entire families to stay on board one boat for their holiday. Indeed, our party of ten ladies was split across two Horizon 5s, but these huge beasts can easily sleep ten people who are happy to share the five spacious en-suite cabins.

After a safety briefing and a half-hour lesson on how to drive, stop and moor the boat, we began our navigation. These boats don’t go over five knots per hour (roughly the equivalent of 6mph) so the pace was wonderfully relaxing, allowing us to enjoy the scenery along this historic canal. Built in the 17th century, it fulfils the remarkable feat of linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, via the Canal Latéral à la Garonne. Construction was ordered by Louis XIV in 1666 and supervised by Pierre-Paul Riquet, whose name made the history books thanks to the construction. The Canal du Midi, which is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, is considered to be one of the oldest functioning canals in Europe. Used for ferrying merchandise at its inception, it is now mostly enjoyed by tourists.

We were not the only hire boats out that day. Though it was quite early in the season (the Canal du Midi usually operates between April and October), we had to queue at our first lock approaching Argens-Minervois. The Canal du Midi is quite well known for its interesting locks (check out Fonseranes’ nine consecutive locks) and on our first day alone, we were treated to a double lock and a very pretty, oval-shaped one into which our two boats squeezed alongside a third.

Le Somail’s picturesque bridge online © Sophie Gardner-Roberts

Of wine and books

Cruising the canal is the epitome of chill. We waved as cyclists and joggers overtook us on the towpath, spotted herons and white egrets, enjoyed the swathes of vineyards and sunflowers expanding beyond the bank and even bought some honey from a lock-keeper with a side hustle. We took turns steering the boat and some of us made great skippers while others preferred (wo)manning the ropes at the locks. Most importantly, there was plenty of time to sunbathe, read a book and take photos. The best part of the day? Mooring up at a lonely pontoon only to discover steps leading to a wine estate in a stunning 17th-century château overlooking the waterway. We had in fact just stumbled upon one of the homes of Monsieur Ricquet, who built the canal – Château Paraza was built in 1615 and housed the architect for the duration of the works. It has been a family-run domaine for the last 16 years, with 71 ha of vineyards. “We are big among the little domaines and small among the larger ones,” said Lucille, who runs the estate with her brothers and mother.

We were shown around the grounds and the castle, which operates as a B&B and has five gorgeous rooms, before reaching the tasting room. Though they sit on old knowledge, the family is excited to be introducing new methods to winemaking, inspired by their experiences abroad. “It’s very exciting to be here now because new winemakers are coming with new ideas in a region which is full of old families and their traditions,” Lucille explained while pouring the glasses. We tasted no fewer than nine wines from the estate, going from white, to rosé, to red.

Somewhat giggly, we headed back to our vessels and continued our navigation, reaching Le Somail in the pretty evening light. Once famous for its plane trees lining the canal, the port looks quite different now as all the trees had to be culled due to the disease plaguing the area’s platanes for the past few years. Still, it is a beautiful little village and we sat down for dinner at Le Comptoir Nature where, as well as a great meal, we were entertained by the resident goose and duck family waddling around the shaded terrace. Le Somail is also home to the world’s greatest book shop. Set along the canal, Le Trouve Tout du Livre is run by Nelly and her sister. The store was bought by their parents 40 years ago and over the decades, more than 70,000 books have been collected. Inside, volumes (mostly French but some in English and other languages) covered every inch of wall. But the real treasure was at the top of the stairs behind an unassuming door which I was allowed to crack open for a sneak peek at la réserve in which towering books formed endless corridors.

Ladies of the river

As an all-women crew on our trip, we were particularly touched to learn the story of Ms Craddock, an English lady who travelled alone to the Canal du Midi to alleviate her nerves and relieve her anxiety. In 1785, she found herself in Le Somail… and she’s still there, in a way, as her diary is now part of the archives of VNF (Voies Navigables de France). Her story and those of others from the canal’s past can be heard at la Maison Bonnal visitors’ centre which brought to life Ms Craddock’s voice through a clever projection. We channelled Ms Craddock’s carefree spirit by taking electric bikes and scooters for a trip up to an olive oil producer. Wind blowing through our hair, we were brought back to childhood as we pedalled or scooted along the canal, enjoying the little burst of speed compared with the lazy pace of the boat. We reached L’Oulibo, in Bize-Minervois, where we enjoyed a fascinating tour of the olive groves and a tasting.

It was soon time to move on and we whizzed back to our boats to begin the return journey to Homps. We still had one overnight stay to enjoy and we moored up at the village of Paraza. After a visit to the Château de Ventenac-en-Minervois winery, a curious example of a ‘folie viticole’ (a folly is built purely for decorative purposes and used to show one’s wealth), we sat down for an exceptional dinner at OKN9, set in an old barn and whose little terrace overlooks the canal. As dusk fell and the pink light bathed the waterway and our gleaming boats, I made a silent toast to Monsieur Riquet, Ms Craddock and my own parents whose lives were changed by the good life on the Canal du Midi.

The crew! © MelB


Boat hire


  • La Péniche, Homps-typical southern French bistro with two great terraces. Tel: +33 (0)4 68 91 24 34
  • Le Comptoir Nature, Le Somail – seasonal cooking highlighting local produce with a large terrace under the trees. Tel +33 (0)4 68 46 01 61
  • OKN9, Paraza – modern, Mediterranean fusion in a small but cosy location by the water. Tel +33 (0)7 49 48 48 55

Wine and olive estates

Lead photo credit : Le Somail © Sophie Gardner-Roberts

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Sophie is Digital Editor for France Today. Raised in Burgundy to British parents, she grew up bilingual in a small village where summers were about forest walks and lazy swims in the river. A Franco-British citizen, she studied literature, then journalism in Paris and Cardiff before quickly dipping her toes (and quill) into travel writing. She’s been specialised and writing about France since 2016 and now works from her home office in north-east France.

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  •  Roger Bloom
    2024-01-03 09:36:35
    Roger Bloom
    Do you ever cruise in Provence or do you know of someone who does. We have a home just west of Nice and would like to do a river cruise that starts and returns somewhere near Marseille or Nice. Coming in September so early September would be great. Thanks, Roger Bloom