Eat, Drink, be Merry, -Très Bien!
Tandem crews of sailors swap anchors for hammers and stakes and go off in search of food, wine, and romance on the canals of France.
And then I got to do my own sightseeing, too, stealing peeks at the gardens of the inns, restaurants, lockkeepers' homes, and the belowdecks accommodations of some of the fancier crewed or private liveaboard barges. Or at the fancy locking fashions of the female crewmembers-I spied everything from a woman in a purple housecoat to young, red-lipsticked ladies in trendy summer frocks and slipper shoes with jeweled bows. They earned style points in my book for simultaneously looking good and handling lines and boat hooks with aplomb.
Flush from our success at transiting the stairway, our fleet now entered the 54-kilometer lock-free segment called the Le Grand Bief, or the Long Pond, which spans the canal from Fonseranne to Argens Minervois.
We transited the dark, narrow, hand-hewn Tunnel de Malpas, then pulled out the spikes and mallet to tie up the boats at the bank and climb up a nearby hillside to take in a breathtaking sunburst shape of cropland called the Étang de Montady, a marsh that monks drained in the 13th century to grow food.
This was the type of outing that fueled appetites, and we dined on baguettes, cheeses, saucissons, pâtés, salads, and local wine while under way. Did our taste buds distract us? Probably. At one point, we ducked just in time while passing under a low bridge, nearly beheading our umbrella. We received a bemused look from an elderly gent in a beret, who winked at us as he stopped his morning stroll to point to his own head and call out "Gardez la tête! Gardez la tête!"
Days passed too quickly, and we made our way past more enchanting spots to tie up for the night, more charming villages and markets and people and wineries and cathedrals than we could squeeze into a weeklong visit.
As we vowed to return "in a heartbeat," we ticked off the stops, the sights, and adventures of the Long Pond and beyond: watching the elderly ladies walk to the market at Capestang and visiting with vendors there; romping through sunflower fields and "borrowing" a few for table centerpieces; taking frequent bicycling trips into village centers for provisions, along the towpath for exercise, and exploration; a stop for a taste and a lecture with Monsieur Tastavy at his family's 400-year-old winery, Domaine de Guery; and the magical tour of the medieval La Cité de Carcassonne, Europe's largest restored fortified city and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
True enough, canal yachting doesn't meander in the way of coastal cruising or destination bareboating. Rather than checking a chart for reefs, rocks, tides, and current, you scan the guidebook to gauge the number of locks ahead, betting arrival time against the lockkeeper's lunch hour. You trade in anchor for mallet and stake; what you give up in canvas, you make up for in the frequent tossing, catching, and walking of lines.
You're committed to a fairly narrow-some 60 feet or less across-linear channel and a route; no secluded anchorages call out. But no matter who you chat with or what you read or who you meet along the way, this is an experience that could never be repeated or become ordinary.
Well, almost never repeated, and certainly never ordinary. For when we arrived at our final destination, the Le Boat base at Castelnaudary, the sun beat down hard. The crews were hot and thirsty and threatened mutiny if consigned to spending the long evening hours alongside the rest of the exposed charter fleet.
Next thing I knew, our boat's captain and my longtime partner, Rick Martell, spied shade in the west end of the Grand Bassin, under the sweeping branches of mulberry trees that bordered both the municipal quays and a tiny islet. We powered over and tied up, tout de suite.
"Hey!" Rick said later. "Guess where we are? Île Cybelle, the place Tristan Jones tied up for the winter."
Need I write it? If it was good enough for Tristan, I know now and you know now that it surely was good enough for us, too.
Elaine Lembo, CW's deputy editor, also writes about chartering.