We had a lovely holiday with friends on the Canal du Midi, pootling along, messing around – from Cassafieres to Castelnaudary, with stops at Narbonne, Homps, and Carcassonne along the way. I highly recommend it, and with a group of you it's not expensive.
You can of course hire a beautiful old wooden boat and some crew and relax in five star luxury whilst they do all the work. We chatted with the driver of one such boat – cost for a week for four people 25000 Euros. But, even if you are lucky enough to afford that, doing so would completely miss the point. For boating down the canal is a participation sport. It's also a spectator sport and, the way I do it, a contact sport.
Yes, there are many pleasures from just being on the boat – the colours on the water, the mists of the morning, the sun stretching over the lines of plane trees, the views, the peace, kingfishers, ducks, otters and coypu – and yes there's the unforeseen advantages of being able to pull up alongside the dock for a night or two right in the heart of downtown Carcassone and Narbonne. But it's messing about on the boat that provides the real memories. Driving, (and crashing), planning the routes and navigating, and fighting your way through the locks – 84 of them in our case. Doing stuff.
In fact we soon fell into set roles as one does in real life. Mike was the captain and pilot – and main driver for tricky reverse parking and the like. I was the co-pilot. Jo was in charge of leaping off the boat, running up to the locks and sweet-talking the lock keepers then staying to catch our ropes (she was also in charge of breakfasts and suggesting when we should start drinking). Anne was in charge of the stern rope (and food, obviously). Tim was in charge of the bow rope and feeding the ducks. Originally, we modelled our team as the Famous Five go to Languedoc, with us all being renamed accordingly. Apparently, I was Dick. In reality we were more like a family group, with Mike the father, Anne the mother, Jo and I the naughty kids and Tim the stroppy teenager.
We were sailing “uphill” as it were, and so we were low down on every lock we entered and had to throw ropes upwards for another of us to catch and tie up. Some of the locks are very deep and the throw is harder than it looks to those spectating. I missed several times, but then I was generally useless on the ropes and mainly made to drive instead. This is somewhat ironic as in real life I can't even drive a car. Or, to be fair, a boat.
Late one evening we arrived at downtown Narbonne. We sailed right through and past a perfect place to stop. Which meant I had to turn round and head back, which in our boat, in that wind, and with my skills, was no mean feat. A few people stopped as they passed over a pedestrian bridge and watched. By the time I had executed my 54 point turn a small crowd had gathered. It's a cruel sport. So when, against all odds, I steered the boat calmly and slowly alongside the quayside, docking with a sweet and gentle kiss just underneath the bridge, I cut the engine, wiped the sweat from my brow, stood up, turned my face up to the cheering crowds, raised my baseball cap and gave an extravagant bow. Everyone smiled, two couples applauded and one man shouted out “champion”, which Anne assures me means “mushroom”. Whatever. I can barely remember feeling prouder my entire life.