Clients who are looking for luxury in the slow lane will love an intimate hotel barge holiday on the French waterways.
A chorus of nightingales welcomes visitors to the Canal du Midi, a symphony of rich notes that signal the start of a glorious holiday in the stillness of the French countryside.
The chirrups and whistles stay with hotel barge Clair de Lune as she meanders along the ribbon of green waterway, from Carcassone to Narbonne, in south-west France.
She moors at quiet spots on the canal, where passengers can take walks or bike rides along the towpaths and gentle tours to castles, villages and wineries.
The pace is slow – and rightly so, as the UNESCO-listed Canal du Midi, a major feat of engineering which opened in 1671, should be savoured.
Lazing on cushioned loungers and waving to passing boats is about as busy as it gets as Clair de Lune threads her way through miles of vineyards between the Corbières hills and the Black Mountains of the Languedoc.
Captain Julian Allsop, who gave up life in Twickenham, south-west London, many years ago to live the good life in France, navigates the 100ft barge along the canal’s contours and through two or three locks every day.
He is also captain of the wines which he pairs at lunch and dinner, accompanied by an entertaining commentary. By the end of the cruise passengers can themselves come up with a lively line or two on the wine regions of Corbières and Minervois: the colour, the grapes and even the characteristics.
French chef, Loeticia, spends every day creating a fiesta of flavoursome food. The daughter of a chef who had worked in Brazil and Egypt, Loeticia’s menus are traditionally French with a twist – nothing heavy, but she introduces passengers to a series of new flavours and combinations. Every dish is presented as if it is to be judged on a TV show and passengers are swept along by her expertise, enthusiasm and charm.
Loeticia has led humanitarian aid programmes across the world during her ‘before children’ career and is kindness itself – any leftovers always go to grateful lock keepers along the route. The mother of two lives and breathes her joy of food, and her sister, who works for Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse in Paris, would be proud of the exceptional menus which are created with such loving care in a not-so-large kitchen.
Loeticia buys fresh ingredients from the market and every mealtime she explains what is coming with an exuberance that becomes contagious – her presence on the barge almost outshines the nightingales.
Every night the six passengers arrive earlier and earlier for dinner to eat melt-in-the-mouth slow-cooked beef in red wine, langoustine bisque, confit of duck with leeks, and lamb with herbs and garlic cream, to name only a few.
Cheeses always come before, not instead of, dessert – such is the French way of doing things. Julian’s Dutch partner Nicole is the cheese master, introducing treats such as Mimolette, Morbier, Valencay and St Nectar to the dining delights.
Even after cheese, desserts are always a triumph and Loeticia’s Lindt chocolate and Bailey’s ganache, which also includes a serious amount of cream and coffee, topped by roasted hazelnuts, is the recipe that was taken home by guests to South Africa, North Carolina and the UK.
Travelling with two other couples who also appreciate the peaceful sailing, and learning about French history, culture and cuisine, makes for yet another unexpected highlight of this holiday. Clair de Lune is large enough for everyone to have their own space but with easy conversation and the discovery of shared interests, passengers often go off on walks together to explore or sit on deck sharing stories of home and away.
Clair de Lune is much admired along the route; her smart navy blue hull with white paintwork, mirror-finish woodwork and brass fittings makes her the belle of the canal.
The barge features three cabins, all around the same size, and each with a tiled shower and L’Occitane bathroom amenities, comfortable beds and white linen, plus more than adequate wardrobe space. The salon (a dining room-cum-lounge) is light with picture windows and made homely with fresh flowers and plenty of books featuring the canal, wildlife, history and arts.
Cabins are cleaned every day, with beds turned down every night, and the whole barge, from dining room to deck, is pristine. The dining table is decorated in a different style every night such is the attention to detail.
Entertainment comes in the shape of half-day tours, watching Julian negotiate double locks and dodge hire boats with L-plates, drinking wine on the deck, and lazing in the hot tub.
A tour to the magnificent medieval fortified city of Carcassonne reveals the importance of the region and Lagrasse, an unspoilt town well off the tourist track, is a rural idyll where kingfishers dart along the river, while blue, green and gold dragonflies vie for attention.
Wine tasting is not restricted to lunch and dinner; tours include visits to vineyards chosen for their quality produce and, occasionally, for the joy of French eccentricity.
Chateau Villemagne, on the outskirts of Lagrasse, produces 15,000 bottles of wine a year and has been in the same family for six generations. The present owner Roger Carbonneau, who speaks the regional dialect, Occitan, does everything from planting the vines to picking the grapes.
Clair de Lune sails on to La Somail and moors in the pretty village which is home to a bookshop that deserves at least a half-day visit.
The village of Minerve, surrounded by two deep gorges, was a Cathar bastion destroyed by Simon de Montfort and his 7,000 crusaders in 1210. These days it is quiet, with no more than 100 people living full-time in the dramatic setting, and a few interesting shops and cafes.
The village museum is a treasure trove with a rich collection of archeological finds from times when Minerve was under the sea – yes, that long ago – plus cabinets of dinosaur bones and eggs (thought to be objects from Roman and medieval times), all of which make it an absolute gem.
Nowhere are the region’s strong links to the Mediterranean and Atlantic more poignant than in the former Roman capital of Narbonne, where Caesar gave out parcels of land after the fall of Rome. The city was at the Roman crossroads connecting Italy and Spain. Part of the road is still visible opposite the cathedral, and open for visitors to walk on and see the wear and tear from cart wheels.
In the late 19th century Narbonne became wine-rich, and around the city are many examples of wonderful architecture from the period. At the same time the train station was established and there are excellent links to Barcelona, Paris and Bordeaux.
Les Halles de Narbonne, a grand covered market established in 1900, is the place to shop. With stalls passed from generation to generation, the quality of goods means nobody in the region ever needs to use a supermarket for fresh produce.
With Loeticia leading the way her guests try oysters, olives, cheese, macarons, cherries and apricots. The locals have everything down to a fine art, buying steak from a butcher, who pretty much flings the meat over to a chef working in the opposite cafe, who cooks it while the customers finish shopping.
When the steak is ready the chef ’s sidekick uses a loudspeaker to let them know lunch is served – with wine of course.
The Canal du Midi was built by Pierre-Paul Riquet who worked out how to collect water from the Black Mountains to supply the canal. Work started in October 1667 and the canal opened 14 years later in 1681, linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean.
Riquet died just before the 17th century’s biggest construction project was completed but his name lives on in almost every village along the canal’s route with roads and buildings named after him. The importance of his work is officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedoms, was the US Minister to France before he went on to become President. While in France he studied culture, sending home to books, seeds and plants, wines, statues and architectural drawings – including a study of how water was supplied to the Canal du Midi.
While in France he studied culture, sending home to books, seeds and plants, wines, statues and architectural drawings – including a study of how water was supplied to the Canal du Midi. He wrote of the canal: “Of all the methods of travelling I have ever tried this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade. When fatigued I take
He wrote of the canal: “Of all the methods of travelling I have ever tried this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade. When fatigued I take seat in my carriage where, as much at ease as if in my study, I read, write, or observe.”
The avenue of plane trees that line the Canal du Midi, as mentioned by Thomas Jefferson, are being destroyed by fungus. Action has been taken to fell all the affected trees and, so far, out of 42,000, around 12,000 trees have been cut down – but a major replanting programme is under way. To restore the tree line along the canal’s entire length from Toulouse to Narbonne, it will cost French authorities at least 200 million euros; 54m euros for new planting, 72m euros to restore the canal banks, 68m euros for felling and 6m euros for protective measures.
The new planting uses a limited selection of tree species to preserve the canal (roots interlock at the water’s edge, reinforcing the banks) and attract a more diverse insect life. In the village of Trebes the planting is predominantly white poplar; in Carcasonne, elm; in Narbonne, hackberry and turkey oak. Now, instead of a continual tree tunnel, light pours onto the canal and, looking from the water, across vineyards towards hills and mountains, this actually adds to the cruise experience.
Six nights from £3,350pp in a twin/double cabin on hotel barge Clair de Lune includes all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full barge charters are also available for families and groups. Call European Waterways on 01753 598555 or visit gobarging.com
A special culinary charter on hotel barge Enchanté starts in 2017. Food experiences for a group of eight include hunting for truffles in the Minervois hills, visiting a farm that breeds the Petit Gris variety of escargot, and touring L’Oulibo, a long-established olive oil press. Guests can also join a French cooking class and enjoy demonstrations from the onboard master chef. Price from £27,080 with a 10% discount for March 19, 26 and April 2, 2017 departures from Narbonne.
For a pre or post extension in Narbonne, Hotel La Residence (6 Rue du 1er Mai) is an elegant 19th-century property just a 10-minute walk from the station. It is a friendly establishment with free wifi, generous-sized en-suite rooms featuring a flatscreen TV and coffee-making equipment. A continental breakfast buffet is served in the elegant dining room.