Cruising the Historic Canal du Midi
By Richard Varr
I gaze beyond the tree-lined, gentle-flowing Canal du Midi and all I can see are vineyards ascending along the hill-speckled countryside. We’re cruising on Tango, an elongated, early 20th century barge that once hauled produce and goods from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea. Today, however, Tango is a barge hotel and the cargo is human – pleasure seekers basking in the steady but calm breezes and the brilliant “light” that makes the South of France like nowhere else.
It’s the start of a cruise that will take us on the historic 17th century canal – a snaking corridor whose walls are mighty tree trunks and whose ceilings are leafy branches casting shade along the gentle waters. At a walker’s pace, we quietly chug alongside vineyards, poppy fields and under petite stone bridges at small villages, including Le Somail, that once served as resting spots for the horses and crews that hauled barges 30 or 40 miles a day.
Less than two meters deep, the canal is one of the oldest dug by hand. Completed in 1681, it took 12,000 workers armed with picks and shovels 14 years to complete the job. They planted Sycamore trees along the banks to hold back the dirt and to provide shade for the horses. “The builder of the canal, Pierre-Paul Riquet, also wanted to make it beautiful with bridges and locks made of the best stones and decorations,” my tour guide tells me. “He wanted to be a pleasure for the eyes.” The canal was built to provide a water commerce route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Even Thomas Jefferson, who visited in 1787, wrote, “Of all the methods of traveling, this is the pleasantest.”
The canal carves a path through the vineyards that has earned this region of France the reputation of being the “world’s largest vineyard.” What makes the Languedoc wines so different and unique? As any wine maker or vineyard owner here will tell you, the secret is blending.
To start with, you have the climate of the region. It’s sunny, hot, warm and dry – the perfect climate for the wines,” explains Daniel Sak, captain of Tango and a local chef and expert of Languedoc wines. “And what’s also fantastic here, is that it’s not only limited to a variety of a grape. The winemakers blend different grapes together more or less as they feel, like a chef would stir up ingredients and be creative.”
Since the region is very windy, there are not as many problems with vine illnesses and insects getting into the grapes. “They don’t have to use as much pesticides,” says Sak. “It’s very dry up in the hills – like up on the moon – and I sometimes wonder how the grapes can grow there. The roots go 100 feet down into earth to get the water and it brings out all the flavors in the grapes.”
At the Domaine de Guery Vineyards in Capestang, the fermenting process is a bit different. “We put the whole grape in the vat and the wine ferments inside the grape, inside the skin,” explains winemaker Jean-Charles Tastavy. “After three weeks, every grape is full of wine – like a little bottle of wine.
“In most parts of France they can add sugar with a limit,” adds Tastavy. “The limit is tighter in Bordeau with two percent, Cote d’Azur only one percent,” he adds. But along the Mediterranean coast in Languedoc and Provence, no sugar can be added. “Nothing – zero,” he exclaims. “So we have to wait until the grapes are completely ripe when we pick them.”
Carcassone, where the Canal du Midi passes by, is all about the walls. The sounds of my shoes crunching on rugged gravel echo off the medieval town’s double walls. I’m walking within the two outer defenses of this fortress at night – when the stone walls are bathed in floodlights, illuminating the walled city as well as my imagination. I can only imagine what it was like when proud knights jousted here, and when soldiers stood guard over the mighty fortress against Charlemagne and others who once ventured to penetrate the walled city.
It’s well after midnight and, except for a few stray cats, I am alone and deep in thought, wondering what these walls have seen over the last two millennia. “The stones have witnessed what happened here,” I recall my tour guide telling me earlier that day. “I imagine the merchants coming in, the monks, soldiers, knights and troubadours all speaking the Occitan language in their medieval way. All the richness and wealth – Carcassonne was the climax of humanity of that time.”
Highlights of the medieval town center, used as a backdrop in the filming of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, include the 11th-13th century Viscount’s Castle, once the seat of power of the Senelschalsy. The walled castle is in fact the city’s third line of defense and includes an archaeological museum with massive stones once used as projectiles. “With more than 50 years of war here, you cannot imagine the vestiges we have that were once dropped on the enemy,” says the guide. Other highlights include the old town hall that’s now a luxury hotel, the 13th century St. Nazaire Basilica with its Romanesque nave and vaulting, and the medieval city’s 22 water wells that remain today.
The greatest highlight, however, could be the legend of how Carcassonne got its name. In the 9th century, Charlemagne came from the north to besiege the city. He was outdone, however, by one Lady Carcas. With no food left, Lady Carcas fed the last bit of wheat to a small pig and threw it off the wall. “The pig falls at the feet of Charlemagne and the wheat burst through the stomach,” my guide explains. “Charlemagne thinks there’s still food in the city because they’re still feeding wheat to the pigs. So he decides to leave.” Town folk are jubilant and subsequently name the town after Lady Carcas, as one version tells the legend.
Despite all the tourist shops, pubs, restaurants and boutiques, it’s still the walls that command the attention and imagination. “I wish the stones could speak,” my guide tells me, “because they would have so much to say with so many things that happened here.”