Canal Boating In France II -> Lattes To Argens
Pre-post note/ This is a biggie and it took a while, my apologies! Life stuff and other stuff (I had to hand-draw a map, amongst other things…naturally) delayed the publication, but here is finally our Lattes -> Argens SW France canal boat trip in all it’s grand, full glory. Enjoy my friends!
“If you don’t make this bridge by 8:30am on Saturday you’ll be stuck for 3 days because of the wind” stated the lady, rather nonchalantly I thought for a mere 1-week rental
We were undergoing the long check-in process for the rental boat, getting a fast and furious data dump of the entire route that Hector and I were struggling to keep up with. There was key info on the locks (“some have buttons, others are manned, they all close for lunch, don’t worry it’s easy” errr, ok…), critical forks not to be messed up (“turn left here or you will be sucked into the sea” yikes, righto…) and finally a huge drawbridge that only opens twice a day or not at all if the winds kick up….which of course they were about to do for a whole 3 days starting on Sunday!!
“This bridge?” we asked pointing to a thin line near Frontignan “How far is that? And can we really make it by tomorrow morning??”
Nothing on the canal map made any sense to us land-dweebs at this point.
“You’ll have to leave right away” she replied “and try to get close tonight” then waved her hand dismissively “but don’t worry, it will all be fine”
This wasn’t exactly the chillaxed start we’d expected and it broke all the “never boat on a schedule” mantras we’d heard from our various boating friends over the years. Then again, apparently we’d been incredibly lucky so far not only with the weather, but also the taxi from our end point in Argens (where we’d left the cars) to Lattes.
“All the taxis are on strike today” she explained when we turned up, looking surprised we’d made it “you are very lucky it came for you”
Huh, well then….I guess ignorance is bliss?
So we loaded up the boat in record time, got a whirlwind tour of the amenities by the boat technician (generator here, pump toilet here, holding tanks over there etc…thank goodness we’re all former RVers, is all I can say!), got taken out for a literal 15-minute test drive and then were happily waved off.
No experience, no problem and a tight schedule to meet…what could possibly go wrong?
Our 185km Southern Route
The route we were taking wasn’t actually the one we had originally planned.
Our initial booking was for a 1-week out-and-back rental from the port of Argens in Southern France, a trip that would have taken us through ~40 locks and only as far as Beziers and back. But a few weeks before our departure the agency called and asked if we’d want to swap for a 1-way trip from Lattes to Argens for the same price with taxi thrown in, allowing for a longer exploration with only 17 locks to pass.
A no-brainer deal, we all immediately agreed!
This new trip would take us via two canals and across one very large lake all of which had very different feels (as we would soon discover), but also different rules.
The first few days we’d travel along Canal du Rhône à Sète parallel to the ocean, then across a large lake Étang de Thau, where the right weather conditions would be critical to cross. This part of the trip would be about nature and oysters, staying ahead of the wind and paying attention to where we could legally stop (only specific spots allow mooring on Canal du Rhône à Sète and Étang de Thau). Exciting, but a little stressy?
The rest of the week would take us along Canal du Midi, a UNESCO heritage site with several historic cities. Here we’d get to focus on sightseeing and a much-more relaxed cruising style, with the ability to stop just about anywhere we wanted (only a few places prohibit mooring on Canal du Midi). This part would be a breeze, so we thought….
Two Canals, one lake, 185km, 7 days and 17 locks with ~4-5 hours/day of actual cruising….sweet!
Oh, and I made an interactive map (of course): CLICKY
Days 1 Sunset Bliss And Lots Of Firsts
We officially launched from the port in Lattes around 4PM on Friday afternoon, belongings hastily stored in the various cubby holes, Polly already asleep on the floor and only the vaguest of ideas where we’d end up that night.
Hector took the helm while Brenda, Paul and I figured out the who/what/where for the locks. We decided Paul on land (the surest of foot), Brenda on the rope in front and me on the rope in the rear, an arrangement that would become our norm for the rest of the week.
Our first lock was only 10 mins into the cruise and although quite nerve-wracking at first, the procedure turned out to be super straightforward; wait for the lock to open (this one had a button to call the lock-keeper), motor into the lock, wrap the two ropes around the bollards to secure/hold the boat, wait for the rear lock doors* to close and the water to fill up (tighten slack in the ropes as the boat rises), wait for the front lock gates to open, ropes off and you’re free to go.
After a few of these, we pretty much had it down pat…
The rest of that afternoon we just motored as far as we could, stopping only for a quick shop at a canal-side Carrefour, and it….was….glorious.
Beautiful, placid lakes bounded by land on one side and a long barrier island on the other. We were the only boat around, silent and cruising as smooth as silk, pink flamingoes swooping down, the sun gently setting and a burning sky reflected in the mirror of the canal. It was serene and gorgeous and we all felt ourselves relaxing from the afternoon stress.
We’d made it and THIS was exactly what we’d hoped for!
We found our mooring just as the last light faded, a designated spot just a few clicks from the drawbridge we had to cross early the next AM. Boat secure, wine out and a celebratory dinner on board. A few hours later we figured out the Tetris-game of our two rooms and convertible beds, squeezed in and fell asleep to the quiet lap of water under the hull.
An unexpected, but great first day!!
*Cool fact 1: the door design of most modern canal locks is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s invention of the Miter lock from 1497!!
Day 2: Lake Cruising, Oysters And Vermouth
We woke up at 6:15AM to a gloriously wind-free day, a good sign for the drawbridge and Etang du Thau (Lake Thau) ahead.
We had just under an hour to reach the Frontignan lift-bridge and we wanted to be in good time as we were told it opens promptly at 8:30AM and closes right after the last boat waiting in line. Miss it and you’re stuck this side of the lake until the next opening at 4PM, and if the wind picks up above Beaufort 3 (7-10 knots) in-between you’ll be stuck for as long as mother Nature decides to blow. Not a window you want to miss!
We made it just fine and cruised through without a glitch, stopping right after in Frontignan for a breather. It was our first city-stop and it couldn’t be more beautifully French. A historic town just 5 mins walk from the Canal with a bustling Saturday morning market and several delicious local bakeries to replenish our baguette-and-croissant inventory.
Isn’t that just the essence of French canal boating??
From here our cruise took us onto the lake, an enormous mass of water that could easily be mistaken for the sea. It was sunny and glorious, and the feeling of open water was an experience we never expected to have on our canal boat trip.
Man, this is fun!
We crossed towards the famous oyster bed-farms** and stopped-in at our first lake-town Bouzigues, snagging the last spot at their teeny little harbor. Our goal here was simple; venture out to explore town and find the oyster-lunch extravaganza that the shellfish-eaters (that would be everyone except me) had been drooling and dreaming about since we started the day. Within 1/2 hour we were sitting at a table in L’Arseillere (dog-friendly of course), a teeny little place that got a fresh seafood delivery minutes before they opened and served platters so large even Hector gasped when it arrived.
The extravaganza was definitely had…
A few hours and several glasses of wine later we all sauntered back to the boat and decided to head directly to our destination for the evening, the cute little port of Marseillan. Along the way Brenda read about a Vermouth place on the port-front, none other than the famous Noilly Prat and once again the Gods of Fate favored us. We arrived at 4:50PM to an open spot on the dock, strolled over just in time for the 5:15PM tour at the Maison and ended up being the only ones there, guided by a Danish girl no less, with Polly invited to join. Perfect!
That night we dined on Vermouth and local produce from the market, sitting tight in port as the wind started to whip up the lake. What a slew of luck we’d had so far!
**Cool fact 2: over 20,000 tonnes of oysters and mussels are produced in Etang de Thau each year
Day 3: Canal du Midi And Beach
Once again we decided on a early start so we would cross the very last bit of the lake before the wind kicked up higher. It ended up being a choppy but easy cruise and before long we made it back to the calm of the Canal and the next stage of our trip, historic Canal du Midi.
Now we could slow down and just enjoy….
The whole essence of today became just that, slow-cruising, stopping where we felt like and just taking our time. We passed two locks in fairly quick succession, the second of which was a peculiar round lock (L’écluse ronde d’Agde) dating back to 1676. This is where the Canal du Midi joins the Hérault and you can exit to the Mediterranean Sea (as long as you’re not in a rental). The lock-operator told us 60-70 boats go through in summer and the whole thing is utter chaos. Luckily we only had to wait for one large péniche before we could pass.
Thank goodness for end of season….
Right after the lock we stopped off to visit at Agde, “La Perle Noir” (the black pearl) famous for it’s buildings made out of black volcanic rock aaaand (rather interestingly) its nude beaches too. We decided just to partake in the former, walking around town, getting a coffee and seeing the impressive 12th century St Etienne Cathedral. We found the town interesting, but rather dark and morose, as if it desperately needed a power-wash and an injection of joy. A nice place, but not one we felt inclined to stay at.
From here we did a leisurely multi-hour cruise and decided to boondock overnight in a spot near the town of Vias Plage. We arrived late afternoon to moor on the bank, decided to unload the rental bikes*** for the first time, and discovered the other side of “end of season” cruising.
Vias Plage is a beach and party town, the kind of place where bars advertise “ouvert nonstop” (open nonstop) and eighties boom-boom music blasts out of restaurants at volumes that test the limits of human endurance. Only a few places were open end of October however, so the vibe felt rather empty and “all you can eat pasta” was no longer for sale. The beach itself was gorgeous however, and as I stood on the waterfront I was happy to imagine the mayhem of full season rather than actually experience it.
I’m OK skipping the party zoo….
We ended the evening with another boat-dinner complete with wine, peaceful nature and good company. A nice, easy day.
***Cool Fact 3: You can bike or hike almost all of the canals in France and many folks do, especially along Canal du Midi. Click here to learn more: https://en.francevelotourisme.com/cycling-along-canals-in-france
Day 4: Historic Beziers
A grey today, but we had a super easy cruise ahead of us with only ~15km of water and 4 locks before we hit the incredible city of Beziers.
Everything went smoothly and the canal got prettier as the day passed, with spots of larger trees and even the first glimpses of fall color. Traffic was light too, with only a few other rental boats on the water. We stopped at the town of Villeneuve-des-Beziers for a spot of shopping then made it through our last (and tallest!!) lock of 3m into the port of Beziers, getting sloshed and tossed around by the water pressure before the lock filled and we could move on. We hit our very first docking fee here too, a mere EUR 17 to say overnight (with electrical hookups) just 20 mins walk from the historic downtown of Beziers.
And THIS my friends, is a place you absolutely have to stop and see!
Beziers is a gorgeous setting, a hilly city with a terrific Cathedral at its peak and roman bridges at its base. Dating back to 575 BC it’s one of the oldest cities in France, and for many years it was renowned as the capital of French wine trade. Foodies love it for the fare, shoppers for its grand central avenue (Allée Paul Riquet) and photographers for its unique setting that marries the canal and church with the many winding alleyways of the city.
Oh and guess what else? It just happens to be a Camino route too!****
We spent the entire afternoon here, taking turns to walk into town (it was a little far for Polly), tasting the local beer just down the way (La Gorge Fraiche) and even going out for an evening photo shoot (Hector and I). The latter was meant to be a “quick bike and click”, but we had so much darn fun that we returned to the boat over an hour and a half after we left. Honestly, this place was just fabulous.
We ended the day jazzed up and ready for perhaps the most exciting day to come…the famous Fonseranes Locks.
Oh, I could barely wait….
****Cool Fact #4: The Camino which goes through Beziers is part of a lesser-used route called La Voie du Piémont Pyrénéen (GR78). It’s just one of many gorgeous Camino paths that cross through France to Spain.
Day 5: Lockdown And Wait
“I’m sorry, but you can’t leave”
We were just about to cast off when the harbor master came running over. I laughed, thinking it was some cutesy comment about how we just couldn’t depart his beautiful city, but quickly realized it wasn’t quite so.
“The lock operators are all on strike” he continued very apologetically “I’m sorry, but there’s nowhere you can go”. Ah, I see…
It’s a funny thing French life. Striking for workers rights is as much a part of the local culture as drinking wine, so in essence there was really not a more French experience we could have had here. Then again, I’ve never quite been in a situation where strikes have stopped me dead in my tracks and this one really did. On the Canal all the locks must operate together like a finely-tuned machine, for if one shuts down the water simply stops flowing and all the boats with it too. This meant we were really, truly stuck, and once again a little stressed about making it to our end-port in time for the boat drop-off just two days away.
A little hiccup we could definitely not have predicted….
“They should be back to work tomorrow” the harbor master consoled “hopefully”
We killed the engine and switched gears for another day in port, always a weird pivot to make when you’re ready to move. So we just hung out and wandered around town, shopped and walked Polly, ate and slept. I wrote notes on our trip, and just for the balance of things jotted down two observations on the downsides of canal boating (outside of random strikes, that is):
- Everything is always moist: life on the water is…well…moist and every day everything just seems to gets a teeny little bit moister. Bedsheets always feel damp, towels are never quite dry, clothes are always a smidgen humid. It’s fine for a week, but I think I’d need AC or a dehumidifier to do this lifestyle longer-term.
- Canal water is filthy: sad little side-note here, but while the views can be lovely on Canal du Midi the water itself is most definitely not. It varies from green to murky brown with oil and various other unknowns that sometimes float around. The sections we’d seen had been dead to all sea life too, a direct result no doubt of the many boats that legally dump both grey and black tanks (yes, really!!!!) directly into the Canal on route. That and all the sunk/rusting boats that just seem abandoned along its banks. At some point surely these polluting practices must end?
All-in-all a day that served as a good reminder that no life is all roses, not even canal boating in beautiful southern France.
Day 6: Movement, Bridges and Locks
We woke early to a grey, misty day but with the good news that the lock operators were working again (yeahhh!!). It was going to be a long day too, to make up the km we missed yesterday with 42km of cruising, 8 locks, 1 tunnel and 2 water bridges to get through. Let’s go!!
We cast off as soon as the first lock opened at 9AM and crossed over the stunning Beziers Canal Bridge to the base of the iconic staircase Fonseranes Locks. This architectural wonder was constructed between 1662-1681 and remains one of the most unique features of the Canal du Midi, an essential part of its UNESCO heritage status and a bucket-list item for many long-term cruisers. We only waited a short while to enter and took the trip with one other boat, stepping up the 7 locks that raised us 22m in height in the space of a mere ~1/2 hour. It was an exciting passage with near-constant movement and incredible volumes of water that tossed us about at each step of the way.
Exhausting, but really, really cool!
At the top we stopped at the visitor center for a breather, taking in their 3D immersive video (dog-friendly) to fully appreciate the work that went into building the Canal and why it remains such a special place. Well worth it!
The rest of the day was more chillaxed with only one lock to break up the many hours of cruising. We passed through Tunnel de Malpas, built in 1676 (the first navigable canal-tunnel in Europe), stopped in the little town of Capestang for a quick walk around and a tour of their church, threaded our way through several insanely low bridges (thank you Hector for your expert handling and sang froid), cruised serenely down some of the wildest and prettiest parts of the canal we’d seen so far and arrived at our evening destination Le Somail***** just in time for dinner.
This last stop was a teeny village barely three steps wide, but there were several restaurants (we dined at L’escale de Somail) and a wonderful “must see” book store (Le Trouve Tout du Livre) with over 40,000 books that’s several buildings deep. That night we slept deep with bellies and minds full as the mist rolled in and the rain sprinkled on deck.
A long and grey, but absolutely fabulous day!
*****Cool Fact 5: In the 18th century passenger boats took 4 days to do the boat-trip from Adge to Toulouse and guests had to change boats, carrying their luggage each time they reached a lock (around 25 times!). Le Somail was one of the staging posts of this trip.
Day 7: Final Day Cruise & Rain
It was our final day from a week that was so packed with experiences it was hard to believe it was over. And as if to reinforce that message, mother nature sprinkled water from above almost the whole day through.
Still we got a lovely cruise in.
First a leisurely 5km to Ventenac-en-Minervois where a Chateau graced the side of the Canal and (apparently) a wonderful restaurant too. Both were closed this end-of-season though so we just walked around, bought some fresh bread from the local Canal-store and moved on.
Next up was another shuttered town, Paraza with just a single art gallery open and wine-tasting at a small Chateau further in. We walked around and once again were amazed at how eerily quiet everything was in October (it’s dead now, but must be crazy in summer?).
Finally we ended up in Argens where we would drop-off the boat early following morning. We moored right on the bank by town, walked around a bit and enjoyed a lovely sunset and dinner with our friends.
Our cruise was finally, tearfully over.
Now You Know All
This ended up being a longer blog post than I anticipated, but such are the best experiences sometimes.
I wanted to bring you along day-by-day, let you feel the feels and imagine yourself together with us on this cruise. Honestly it was just fabulous, despite the grey weather (the last days) and the few unexpected barriers that came our way. Life at 8km/hour (the maximum cruising speed of our Peniche) was relaxed and easy, and although I might have liked our boat to be a smidgen larger (it was a bit of a squeeze for 4), it really worked out very well.
Polly, our dear old girl was wonderful the whole way. Paul had to lift her in and out of the boat several times a day (a strain for him), but the rest of the time she was totally chillaxed. She’s such a great travel-dog.
As for moi personally (incredibly) I never felt sea-sick despite my drop-at-a-hat tendency for it, although the world did rock and roll for a few days after we were done. I’ll never be a sailing gal, but it’s nice to know that canal boating is still something I can do.
Plus of course we got to do this wonderful adventure with good friends, which made it even better especially when you slot together so comfortably as the four of us do. Thank you so much, Hector and Brenda for making this trip with us!
And finally if you made it thus far, my dear blog readers, thank you for chugging through this long post. Is there anything else you want to know? Something I didn’t cover? DO feel free to comment and ask away below!