Barging into your French vacation

Meandering along the Canal du Midi is a journey through an ancient time capsule

When Pierre-Paul Riquet envisioned a canal to link the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, he may never have imagined this shaded inland channel would become one of the most popular leisure waterways in France.

Canal du Midi is now a 149-mile navigational channel that runs between the fishing port of Sete on the Mediterranean coast, and Toulouse, now an industrial city best known for making Airbus and Concorde aircraft.

Opened in 1681 with the consent of King Louis X1V - the Sun King who built the lavish palace at Versailles - the Royal Canal of Languedoc was designed to encourage trade, irrigate the vineyards, and avoid pirates around the Straits of Gibraltar.

Renamed the Canal du Midi after the French Revolution, the UNESCO World Heritage site is a marvel of engineering, a complex system of aqueducts, humpbacked bridges, and oval locks that zigzag through rolling vineyards, quiet villages, and bright yellow fields of sunflowers.

My water odyssey began at Port Cassafieres, a village midway between Sete and Riquet's hometown of Beziers. The tiny port is a base for Crown Blue Line boats, including our home for the better part of a week, a 42-foot Crusader.

A virtual motorhome on water, the glistening fiberglass boat had all the amenities for a convenient and comfortable cruise.

But this sleek craft, lying low in the water, was intimidating to me, a novice. Fortunately, there was help. Stephanie Oulibou of Beziers, a charming bilingual student intern, had experience navigating the canal. Rick Eyerdam of Miami was a seasoned mariner, though he was more familiar piloting high-performance James Bond-type boats through the Straits of Florida. ("The canal would make a superb setting for a 007 boat chase," he kept repeating.)

As I grew accustomed to the boat and the narrow channel, though, neither crewman was needed to navigate this tranquil waterway - until the first set of locks.

There are some 64 locks on Canal du Midi, including the seven Fonseranes Locks on the outskirts of Beziers. The largest structure on the canal, this ingenuous water ladder gently raised our modern-day barge as it inched along the enclosures.

As one enclosure filled with rushing water, the boat rose quickly to the level of the walkway. Some 30 minutes later, our boat cleared the last of the juxtaposed locks after rising the height of a seven-story building.

Near the locks are two other wonders of engineering. Piercing through the foot of Mount Enserune is the Malpas Tunnel. The first underground navigational tunnel in the world - it was here Riquet made the first commercial application of dynamite - it slices through the sandstone mountain the length of a football field.

There is no difficulty navigating the one-way tunnel, though sounding the foghorn was recommended to warn oncoming traffic around the bend.

On the other side of the locks is the Canal Bridge, a graceful stone aqueduct that passes over the River Orb. A stunning view of Beziers from the aqueduct awaits passengers, including the towering St. Nazaire's Cathedral. Designed to appear as an imposing fortification to an approaching enemy, it was here in 1209 that 20,000 citizens were massacred by the pope's troops in a crusade against the heretic Cathars, a 13th-century sect critical of corruption in the church.

Today the region is known for bullfights, boules, and rugby.

We moored overnight at the restaurant Au Chat Qui Peche near the village of Argeliers. Our table sagged at the former canal lengthman's house, laden with pistou soup, plump mussels, generous beef stew, and a sweet lemon pie.

As we were leaving some time later, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize a long-lost colleague, who had moved from Seattle to Narbonne.

"The south of France is an inspiring haven," he said. "Warm climate, fine cuisine.... I couldn't ask for anything more."

With inspiring images of noble living, we continued the cruise on a glorious sun-drenched morning along the stately tree-lined canal.

It was almost as though we had taken a step back into an undisturbed time capsule. We passed golden chateaux, finely tended vineyards, and endless fields of yellow, a scene van Gogh may have fancied for his classic "Sunflower" painting.

As the gargling diesel engine propelled us along at a full-throttle (3.5 mph), we met barges with engaging names such as Speedy Gonzales, Water Wanderer, and Tom Sawyer.

Emerging on the horizon - like a developing Polaroid photograph - was one of the most extraordinary sights in France. Overlooking the city of Carcassonne and the snow-capped Pyrennes is the Medieval town of La Cite.

Europe's largest fortified citadel, La Cite is another UNESCO World Heritage site, a fairy tale scene of ramparts, turrets, and sandstone towers. The setting for Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" is a double-walled fortification, a maze of narrow, sinuous streets lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, and private homes.

One of the many fine restaurants is Le Chateau, where the house favorite is cassoulet, a medley of sausage, white beans, shins of pork, and preserved goose. A specialty to the region that originated in the Hundred Years' War, cassoulet is served in large casseroles made from clay.

The unique taste comes from the water of Castelnaudary - water from streams in the Black Mountains - which caused many problems in building Canal du Midi, until Riquet devised a plan to store the excess water in reservoirs.

Consuming his fortune to build the superhighway, Riquet nevertheless would be proud that his magnificent dream is as popular as ever.

For more information, contact Crown Blue Line, (201) 242-4401 or Prices vary, depending on size of boat. They start at $385 a person per week.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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