Navigating the Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi cover

Navigate the Canal du Midi in France, something I had never thought about. I learned about it shortly before starting our world travels and of course added it to our bucket list. It is a very different way of exploring parts of Europe. In our case the south of France. We had the freedom to be on our own on, navigating the canals.

ducks on the canal
Everyone travels in different ways

France of course was in our plans, but I must admit we had planned the traditional stops. The truth is that a part of us wasn’t that thrilled about it. However once we included this to our trip it took a whole new twist!

What company did we?

We looked up different companies but noticed that Leboat offered the most routes, not only in France but also in Italy, Ireland, England and the Netherlands. However the widest selection seemed to be in France. We had also heard great things about them from other friends, so why not?

kids directing us
Our assistants looking out for other boats

Our plan was to go at the end of October possibly for 1 week. However that is the end of the season in France for navigating on the canals, so we had to adjust our initial plan. We still managed to book the last 5 days of the season!

Where did we go?

Once we started looking up all the different options, it did get a bit overwhelming. However many routes closed sooner, so we had a limited amount to pick from. This made it easier to decide. We picked the Canal du Midi.

Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi

When we first looked up the various options on the websites we were drawn to a photo (which we have recaptured) of the Canal du Midi. You can imagine how thrilled we were to find out that this route was still available!

About the Canal du Midi

At the beginning of the 16th century, during the reign of Francoise 1, the first projects to create a canal that linked the mediterranean to the Atlantic were presented. However the high costs of such a project made it unrealizable for some time.

Finally in 1667, the construction was started thanks to Pierre Paul Riquet, who believed so much in this project to finance a part of it himself. The section between Toulouse and Trebes was completed in only 5 years despite several modifications.

Canal du Midi

More obstacles had to be overcome before the canal was finally completed in 1681. Since than it has operated without interruption for more than 3 centuries.  UNESCO has declared it part of the common heritage of mankind in 1998. 

Our route

For the route we were going to navigate through: Villeneuve-lès-Béziers, Béziers, Colombiers and Capestang. We had to cross 5 single locks and the famous Fonserannes Staircase. In fact before reaching Bezier the canal descends more than 20m into the Orb Valley. This lock has 8 basins, 9 pair of gates  and made up for a difference of 22m. We are proud to say that we have experienced these locks in both directions: upstream and downstream. It is pretty exciting and tiring! We also managed to put up a show for all the curious tourists, since we were probably the last boat going through for the season!

view from the front of boat
Any boats on the horizon?

As we approached our first lock, we were all a bit confused and excited. We were extremely grateful for the presence and assistance of the lock keeper to do everything right.

What we learned right away, was that once approaching the lock you should drop off one of the crew to handle the mooring lines from land, which we didn’t do! However by the 3rd lock we were on top of it!!!

kids in the locks
This was when we finally got the hang of it!

What are the locks?

In order to go through the Canal du Midi, you are moving downstream or upstream, depending on your direction. You will have to go through locks in order to navigate it. In fact The Canal du Midi is defined a summit-level canal.

Watching boats cross the locks is always fascinating.

lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. It is a fixed chamber in which the water level can be varied. The channel stretches on 240km with an average width of 20 meters at the surface and a depth between 1.5 and 2.5 meters. Its highest point is the Seuil de Naurouze about 40km south east of Toulouse. The difference in altitude between Naurouze and Toulouse is almost 70 meters and between Naurouze and Thau Lake 189 meters. The channel is fitted out with 64 locks.

Check out how you get through a lock

There are many types of locks: singles, doubles (locks of Fresquel), triples (like in Trèbes), and a flight of staircase locks like the 9 locks of Béziers-Fonserannes. 

They can be manual, in lock keeper’s presence, or automated. Since 2007 all the locks of the Canal have been electrified. At most of them a lock keeper is present but the gates and the sluices are driven by small electric motors.

The boat

It isn’t an inexpensive adventure. So we tried to keep the costs down as much as possible by picking the least fancy boat. It did come with everything we needed through: 3 bedrooms, each with bathroom, a kitchen and living area. The package included also a bike and we rented 3 extras so we could explore the villages by bike.

boat living room
Our living area, a mess as usual!

We did struggle a bit with the boat though. For the first 2 nights we were not able to start the heat. We then found out that you need to have the motor running for at least 3 hours or you need to be connected to the electricity in the Marina! The bikes had all flat tires but one, so we didn’t have a chance to use them as hoped. 

our boat
Our house for 5 days!

Challenges of this experience

We have visited many places during low season (sometimes beginning sometimes end) and it worked out really well, budget wise. In this case I think we should have gone at the beginning of the season to avoid some of the challenges we had.

Booking the boat, this time of the year wasn’t planned, but it simply coincided with when we were going to be in France. These are the reasons:

  • The last nights we did not find any marina’s open. They close sooner than the canal, so we could not hook up to the electricity and WIFI (which you can purchase from Leboat though).
  • The weather isn’t at it’s best, we had rainy nights and a couple of half days. However when the sun did come out it was beautiful!
  • They drain part of the canal every year when the season ends. So we had to make sure we were back to the Leboat on time. That limited our freedom to travel a longer route of the canal.
  • There was a holiday during out navigation days, so the locks were closed for a full day, which cut our trip a bit short as well.

Perks of this experience

Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t all bad, there was so much we loved and enjoyed about this trip as well.

lunch break on the canal
Lunch and dance on the Canal du Midi
  • We loved moving on water rather than on road, it was a great change of pace and scenery!
  • We loved being independent and stopping wherever we wanted. One day we stopped for lunch right next to some beautiful vines. Our kids also jumped off and improvised a little dance for us. A boat passed by and people started filming them!
  • We loved our team work through the whole lock crossing process. We were really tired but still managed to get through it!
  • We made our own halloween celebration in that small space and it was truly unique.
  • We bakes, cooked, laughed, cried and read a lot!

Also with some difficulties this was a very unique and special trip. We challenged ourselves and really learned to work together doing something none of us was an expert at. We had a few arguments, a bit of yelling but once we got our pace, we were awesome!

Sometimes it is healthy for a family to do something challenging together, it connects you even more and it is a great story to talk about in the years to come!

us on the boat

Check out our France Photo Gallery post to see some of the photos from the Canal du Midi!


2 thoughts on “Navigating the Canal du Midi”

  1. Do you think it makes a difference which direction you are going in? Towards Castlenaudry or away? Sorry, I gave the wrong email address when I first asked this questio.

    1. SECRET Admin Account

      I’m not sure. When we went on the Canal du Midi it was the end of the season and we didn’t have enough time to go too forward because we would not have enough time to go back through all the locks. It was our first time and we weren’t very expert 😂

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