This has to be one of the most relaxing trips we have ever done. As regular boaters on the French canals, we were wondering how we would feel about not being in charge: no leaping ashore with ropes at every lock, or setting forth to investigate the local shops, mouths watering as we make our lunch and dinner plans. Well in short - it was amazing.
We travelled from London St Pancras to Beziers by rail, with an easy transfer in Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, and a very comfortable and speedy journey southwards: no early start, no seething airport, no cramped aircraft seats or kicking kids behind us, so we thoroughly recommend this mode of transport to start your journey.
We kicked off the birthday celebrations with an amazing tasting dinner at La Maison de Petit Pierre which was very special and great value too, so if you are passing through Beziers any time soon, call me to learn more!
Sunday afternoon, and the captain (PY) and cruise manager (Mathieu) of Athos arrived in two sleek minibuses to whisk us off to Marseillan where our magnificent barge awaited our arrival. This little port, protected by a shallow lagoon on the Mediterranean coast, got us off to a good start with fresh seafood aplenty, and a surprisingly fascinating visit to the Noilly Prat headquarters to learn more about the history and production of this classic vermouth.
We sailed at lunchtime, enjoying delicious salads as we entered the Canal du Midi, watching the flamingos and more in the Bagnas Reserve. We soon relaxed into the leisurely cruising pace as we sat out on deck, reading, playing games and watching the world go by.
We tied up by the bank in the late afternoon, and set forth by bike (or minibus, for those less active) to a beach bar recommended by Matthieu - 'the owner is a good friend of mine'. We would soon learn this Matthieu refrain, a tribute to his 20 year history of managing cruises along this stretch of the Canal du Midi, enabling him create a totally seamless and apparently effortless organisation.
To the old market town of Pezenas, with its elegant walled centre featuring "Hotels Particuliers" or mansions. Today it is filled with artisans' shops, including painters, hat makers, silk weavers and costume designers. Mathieu brought the history alive as we walked the pretty cobbled streets, with plenty of time for browsing, or simply watching the world go by over a coffee or a beer. This afternoon, the cruise is the thing, with an exciting journey by aqueduct over the River Orb, followed by the negotiation of the Fonserannes Staircase locks, a flight of nine locks which is an extraordinary 17th century feat of engineering.
Our charming chef Franck prepares delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day, and quickly begins to understand our individual tastes and preferences. He appears from his cramped kitchen with wondrous and varied dishes, using locally grown produce purchased that very day, profferring a beaming smile as we congratulate him on his latest gourmandises.
The charming hostesses (one from Hungary, one from Brazil) take turns at housekeeping, ensuring our tiny cabins are fresh and spotless, and at waiting table, as well as introducing the wines and cheeses each day.
Next day, and we are off to Narbonne to see the Roman remains, discover the (never completed) cathedral, visit the Halles de Narbonne (food market) and enjoy lunch chez Bebelle (a good friend of Mathieu): as you order your lunch (steak, chicken or even horse) the requirement is texted to local stalls, who prepare the meat and throw it in wrapped packages over the crowded aisles to the chef, who catches it and flings it straight onto the grill!
Returning to Athos, we make the gentle journey to the Malpas tunnel, climb a hill to see some ancient remains and some extraordinary evidence of mediaeval drainage engineering, then challenge team Athos to a closely fought game of pétanque.
A new day, and after a blissful morning's sailing, with birdsong ringing in our ears, we set forth from Capestang to visit the hilltop village of Minerve, beautifully set in the breathtaking gorge of the River Cesse, and hear the harrowing tale of the Cathar siege in the 13th century.
We see the trebuchet used to destroy the well, and imagine the Cathars being burnt to death at the stake. We journey back to our boat through lush vineyards, stopping off for a wine-tasting like no other at a family run vineyard typical of the region (a good friend of Mathieu).
Without appearing to do so, Mathieu educates us about the Canal du Midi, the geography of the region, the Romans, the Cathars, the wine industry, the French way of life and more, managing the pace of each day and the various idiosyncrasies of each group member.
On our final day, the storm clouds threaten but the rain holds off, so we set off to visit Lagrasse. Nestling at the heart of the Corbières, this picturesque village is classed amongst the most beautiful in France, with its old humpback bridge, its medieval houses, covered market, the remains of ancient ramparts and the 8th century abbey overlooked by an imposing bell tower. As the heavens opened, we raced for the Vinaigrerie of Cyril Codina, to learn from his passionate team the art of vinegar, followed by a tasting of extraordinary vinegars and balsamics.
Athos awaited in the pouring rain, and for the first time on our trip we dined indoors for our final farewell as we toasted our congenial company and thanked our charming hosts for the very personal experience they had given us.