How to spend four days on the Canal du Midi in France
Fresh produce, award-winning wine and moments of tranquillity abound in this pocket of southern France.
Day one: Toulouse to Homps
Hop onto your boat at Homps — a small, quiet village in the vineyard-dotted region of Minervois — located roughly an hour and a half from Toulouse Airport. Le Boat offers a range of self-drive boats for exploring the area; if you’re in a large group (up to 12) or simply appreciate space and luxury, opt for the Horizon 5 — kitted out with five en suite cabins, a spacious kitchen with a leather saloon, and a sundeck perfect for absorbing the lushness of the area while you sail.
Once you’re familiar with the ins and outs of the boat and have stocked up the fridge for the journey ahead (there’s a Utile supermarket a short walk away), walk over to the canal-side Le Péniche for dinner and grab a seat in the leafy garden out the back. The extensive menu here is a Francophile’s dream — expect to see steak tartare, Burgundy snails and cassoulet with confit (a dish local to the Toulouse region).
If you’re not in the mood for French fare, there’s also a long list of oak wood-oven pizzas to choose from. Wash it all down with a bottle of the round and citrussy white from Domaine Monastrel, a vineyard just 10 minutes down the road.
Top tip: Stock up on plenty of food and drink before leaving Homps, as there aren’t too many grocery stores further ahead.
Day two: Homps to Le Somail, via Paraza
Charge up for the day ahead with breakfast on the sundeck before the all-important safety instructions from your Le Boat instructor. It’s then time to leave Homps and start your journey southeast towards the peaceful commune of Argens-Minervois, which will take roughly two hours and pass five locks. The area is known for its ruins of a 14th-century chateau and the Church of St Vincent. Tuck into lunch onboard overlooking this postcard-worthy village, before continuing the journey eastbound to pretty Paraza.
Dock just outside the 17th-century Chateau de Paraza — run by the Danglas family, originally from Paris — and take a tour of the house and winery, laden with roses, oaks and Aleppo pine. Enjoy a spot of wine in the bright and spacious tasting room, and, of course, buy a bottle or two to bring back home. For balmy summer evenings, try the Été indien orange wine made using gewurztraminer grapes — it’s fruity, floral and gives off hints of Turkish delight. It’s then time to glide further ahead and dock at the charming hamlet of Le Somail. Here, spend an hour or two meandering its cobbled streets and ducking into boutique shops and ice cream parlours. For dinner, sit outside at Le Comptoir Nature, where dishes range from homemade foie gras and cod brandade to organic chickpea curry and seasonal soups. All the fruits and vegetables on the menu here are grown on site. Keep an eye out for the geese blissfully wondering around and the beaver who pops his head up from the canal from time to time.
Don’t miss: Le Trouve Tout du Livre library in Le Somail, a multi-level labyrinth of more than 50,000 books, both old and new, and mostly in French.
Day three: Le Somail to Paraza
After breakfast, hire an e-scooter and whizz over to The Odyssey of the Olive Tree, a vast olive grove-mill-museum hybrid in the hamlet of Cabezac. For everything worth knowing about the production of olive oil in France, book a guided tour (adults 6) with one of the friendly experts, which ends in a tasting session of three different oils and two types of olives. If you like the taste, pick up a bottle at the gift shop, where you’ll also find locally made soaps, jams and honeys.
Back at the base, duck into Le Somail’s tourist information centre to learn more about the area’s history. As you head back to the boat, you’ll spot the Répudre canal bridge, built by Pierre-Paul Riquet — the engineer who constructed the Canal du Midi — and one of the oldest functioning canals in Europe. After lunch on board, sail west to Ventenac for some more wine tasting at the Château de Ventenac-en-Minervois, a cathedral-esque winery with free tastings.
Don’t leave without grabbing a bottle of their house rosé, perfect for a night of tapas back on the boat. Finish off the day with dinner at the retro-inspired OKN9, just a few yards from the canal. It’s run by the friendly French/English husband and wife duo Natalie and Olivier, who change up the menu as and when ingredients are available. The risotto with scallops, a firm favourite with locals, is definitely worth the hype.
Don’t miss: At sunset, climb to the top of the tower at Château de Ventenac-en-Minervois, for beautiful views of Paraza.
Day four: Paraza to Homps, via Carcassonne
On your last full day, it’s time to make your way back to Homps. From here, make the 40-minute drive (either hire a car or arrange transport with Cars Teissier) to Carcassonne— the UNESCO-listed fortified city that looks as if it’s been lifted straight out of a fairytale. The turret-laden castle itself, sitting on a rocky hilltop and overlooking the River Aude, is an unmissable experience. The settlement has been here since pre-Roman times, but today, is home to the historic Narbonne Gate, two miles of city walls and educational exhibitions. Be sure to book a guided tour to make the most of this magical place — there’s even the option for a costumed tour guide for those with kids in tow.
Over in the city, meander the cobbled streets and stop by one of the cafes for an espresso, or grab a souvenir or two from one of the boutique jewellery or vintage clothes stores. For your final dinner before heading back to the UK, book a table outside at La Brasserie a 4 Temps, headed up by the two-star Michelin chef Franck Putelat. The menu here is seasonal and serves up gourmet local dishes; the pan-fried Black Angus beef with tricolour carrots is divine, and so are the scallops with porcini mushrooms, onions and soy sauce. Toast to your final evening in France with a bottle from the extensive drinks menu — a sparkling wine, like the Joséphine Crémant de Limoux — is an excellent choice.
Top tip: To avoid crowds, steer clear of high season (July-August) when the streets of Carcasonne become incredibly busy.
How to do it
A four-night self-catered cruise on the Canal du Midi on board a Horizon 5, during the 2023 boating season, starting and finishing at Le Boat’s base at Homps, is priced from £2,499 per boat. Le Boat will operate on the Canal du Midi 22 March – 31 October 2023. Transport to and from the base is not included. Return flights from London Heathrow to Toulouse with British Airways are priced from £82 pp.
Published in the Cruise 2023 guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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