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The base in Trebes, where Diane Selkirk's French Canal journey ended.Diane Selkirk/Handout

Almost every time we drove our 15 metre canal boat into one of the small oval locks on France’s Canal du Midi, we drew a crowd. It could be our audience was made up of engineering fans there to see the 350-year-old technology in action. But chances are, that along with watching our boat go up or down like a big bathtub toy, the crowd was hoping for some new-boater drama.

This is because despite a morning of training by Le Boat (a service that specializes in river and canal boat rentals) and their assurance that anyone can drive their canal boats, our group of seven friends and family didn’t immediately perfect entering the stonewalled chambers and riding the receding water four, or more, metres down the basin.

Instead, there was some minor yelling and at least one solid, though well-fendered, bump. So, with stress levels rising, we pulled over to the side of the tree-lined canal. Dishing up the olives, cheese, bread and a local rosé we’d bought earlier in the morning from market venders in Castelnaudary, we hashed out a plan. Then with a gentle push off the bank, we headed back into the waterway. As we approached the next lock, our new-found confidence showed. My husband drove us into the basin and our daughter and her girlfriend stepped onto the banks. Then our friends passed the bow and stern lines to the girls, and once we were secure, we started the lock cycle – much the way vessels have for hundreds of years.

For a pretty independent and intrepid group like us, canal boating seemed like the perfect way to reconnect with each other and with travelling. We liked the idea of doing everything on our own schedule (from breakfast, to exploring, to UNO matches) but still wanted the support, guidance and cleaning services of a charter company. Originally our far-flung group was headed to southern Africa to see my daughter graduate from high school, where she studied abroad (that graduation ceremony happened online). Then we thought we’d get a chance to do a cross-border celebration for a couple of significant birthdays (nope). Eventually I thought we’d gather before she started university in France – but again, COVID-19 had other plans.

Finally, we had a window. The world was open, and despite the chaos at the airports, we were determined to get away. What we needed was a safe way to gather and a destination that had something for everyone. When I suggested chartering a canal boat in southern France, which promised delicious food, intriguing history and limited indoor contact with anyone from outside our group, we knew we’d found our answer.

The first night's dinner on the canal boat’s upper deck.Diane Selkirk /Handout

Climbing aboard our boat in Castelnaudary, we scanned four identical state rooms. My daughter opted for the one closest to the door – so she wouldn’t have to cart her years’ worth of luggage down the narrow hallway. The rest of us filed in after her and claimed our own spaces, popping into the hallway a few minutes later when the groceries were delivered.

With a full kitchen, a BBQ and an upper deck with panoramic views, we decided to cook aboard to take advantage of the region’s excellent fresh meat and produce (including a full range of white and green asparagus that ranged from linguine- to sausage-sized). Cooking is something we always loved doing together but it seemed even more appealing after the past few years of isolation.

Then, it was time to untie our dock lines and join the leisurely procession of boats making their way along the canal. A few hours later (after that bumpy start) we were entering and exiting locks with ease. By the time we tied up for the night, and we had finished our first UNO match, the loneliness of the past few years began to fade away.

Diane Selkirk/Handout

With a week aboard, I asked the experts at Le Boat for an itinerary that would be relaxing – while giving us access to a mix of medieval villages, wineries and maybe a castle or two. They’ve been in business for 50 years – and with self-drive canal boats in eight European countries as well as Canada – I thought they’d have a better sense of what was reasonable. Their suggestion was to take the boat from Castelnaudary to Trèbes, a distance of just more than 50 kilometres. At first this seemed like an underambitious plan.

But when we only managed to travel 15 kilometres on our first day, we knew they were right. On our second day, a light breeze blew across farm fields that stretched from the waterway toward a distant village, where a stone steeple rose up through the trees. If it weren’t for power lines, the occasional car and the thrum of our own engine, the scene could have been from any moment in the canal’s rich history. And when we tied up the boat to follow an old foot path into the circular village of Bram, the sense of timelessness grew deeper.

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As some hunted for perfect olives (and the best wine to accompany them), the rest of us dove into the region’s history (and more than a few old buildings) and learned this section of the canal has archeological history that dates back to the second century BC, when it was the crossroads of two Roman roads.

While on the search for a corkscrew in the village of Villesèquelande (ours broke from what we assume was excessive use), we encountered a medieval enthusiast named Gilles Alessandri who charmed us into changing our next day’s plans so we could visit his private museum. Our guided tour of Musée de la Chevalerie immersed us in tales of battles, heroic knights and sacked castles, and reinforced the value of being on our own schedule – one we could shift on a whim.

Evan at the wheel while Mark, Val and Frank keep an eye out for the next lock.Diane Selkirk/Handout

By the time we reached the busy port of Carcassonne and spent the day exploring the walled city’s castle and keep, our unhurried pace had offered up opportunities for late night talks and early morning walks, as well as moments of solitude to watch the landscape go by.

Requiring fewer skills than a sailing charter and offering greater privacy and flexibility than a river cruise, we started to talk about future canal trips – ones with wine, olives and maybe a place for a swim. Almost too soon we reached our last lock on our route. Even though we no longer needed everyone’s help, we were all on deck as we drove into the basin. We passed the lines and then the heavy metal gates slowly closed and the sounds of turbulent water filled the air. When the gates opened, it was hard not to cheer.

The writer was a guest of Le Boat, which did not review or approve this article.

If you go

Le Boat Canal du Midi, France, from US$479 for three nights. Fly into Paris and take the TGV train to Carcassonne.

  • Le Boat offers vessels of various sizes for a three-night minimum suitable for groups from two to 12 people. All prices include a fully equipped kitchen, towels and linen for all passengers and training prior to departure.
  • Tip: You can save up to 35 per cent on Canal du Midi and Camargue departures in October and November, 2022

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