We have always dreamed of taking a barge through the canals of the South of France. I remember reading a travel book when I was young about a couple who barged their way through Europe and I’ve had that on my bucket list ever since. When we had the opportunity to drive our own houseboat on the Rideau Canal last summer in Canada, we made a point to put Europe on our travel itinerary next. So when Le Boat asked if we wanted to self-drive a boat and cruise the Canal du Midi this summer, our answer was a resounding, yes!
Cruise the Canal du Midi Tips and Advice
Since we had already taken two Le Boat cruises in Canada, we felt like seasoned experts upon arrival at the Le Boat headquarters in Homps located 90 minutes south of Toulouse. We whizzed through our 40-minute boat introduction and set off for our 6-day cruise down the famous canal.
You don’t need any boating experience to drive a Le Boat houseboat. When you arrive at the marina, a representative will walk you through the boat’s controls and show you how to drive it. There are limiters on the speed so you can only cruise at a maximum of 10km per hour and there are plenty of bumpers on the boat to keep you from crashing into the canal walls.
Transfer from Toulouse to Homps
Le Boat’s Canal du Midi headquarters are located in Homps which is a 90-minute drive from the airport. Le Boat arranges transfers and airport pick-ups to take you from Toulouse to Homps, and they do so in style.
My brother and sister-in-law met us for this trip, so after spending 2 days in Toulouse, we went back to the airport to meet them and our drive to take the transfer to our embarkation point.
Homps is the jumping-off point for Le Boat Vacations along the canal and it is here that we recommend spending at least a day to get everything in order for your cruise. There are plenty of restaurants along the canal and there are several hotels and apartment rentals. Homps has been catering to Canal du Midi barges for years and is the perfect place for dining, shopping for supplies and relaxing.
Taking our private transfer from the Toulouse airport, we arrived at the beautiful Jardin d’Homps BnB in the village just a short walk from the Canal du Midi. This lovely property is set in a quiet tree-covered courtyard with a swimming pool, terrace, and delicious breakfast.
It was then off to our first night of dining on this historic waterway at En Bonne Compagnie. This lovely tavern had a fantastic atmosphere with excellent service and food. What a way to kick off our journey. We could have spent more than a day here relaxing in this quiet town, As one resident from England who purchased property here said, “It’s like Tuscany without the crowds.” They came on a canal tour years earlier and loved it so much, that they moved here! But alas, we only had one day before our boat journey began.
Preparing for a Canal du Midi Cruise
There is a grocery store in town where you can stock up on food and drinks. Our guesthouse owner warned us that there weren’t a lot of options for food in the coming days, so we should get everything we need now.
The BnB owner was kind enough to take our luggage and supplies to the Le Boat check-in office, so we found a nice place in the shade to wait to be checked in and finally get on our way.
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you for shopping is to purchase plenty of water. The south of France can see unbearable heat in the summer, and during our trip, the temperatures rose to 42 degrees Celcius. (107 F). We couldn’t drink enough water to stay hydrated. Luckily, our Vision 3 boat had a full-size refrigerator, so we had plenty of room to keep things cool.
We ordered a picnic package which gave us a few essentials to begin our trip. This helps with essential items like coffee, milk, sugar, butter, bread, salt & pepper, olive oil, a few bottles of water, juice, coke, and some local wine and beer. It also includes snacks like chips, peanuts, biscuits, and croissants. I recommend ordering this as it will get you through a day or two in case you forgot anything.
Below we have provided some packing essential tips for cruising the Canal du Midi.
Our Route on the Canal du Midi
Our route along the Canal du Midi took us from Homps to Castlenaudry.
Day one was a short day of cruising. After checking in, unpacking, and going through our boat walk-through and lesson, we cruised for just a couple of hours to reach Puicheric.
When we docked, we were grateful for having shopped in Homps as the town was a bit of a hike. We had two bikes, but there were four of us, and since we just got on the boat, we decided to relax and make dinner on the deck. Using the barbecue we made dinner and sipped wine from the South of France as we watched the sun go down.
We had a six-day itinerary to get from Homps to Castlenaudry and that was more than enough. Our stops included
We suggest spending two nights in Carcassone as this is the largest city with the most attractions. Castlenaudrey has a lot of amenities as well and you can catch the train back to Toulouse from here after Le Boat if you don’t want to spend money on the transfer.
Activities on the Canal du Midi
We had visions of stopping at vineyards and olive groves during our time on the Canal but unfortunately that didn’t happen. We thought we’d be going sightseeing and exploring a lot, but we soon realized that the smaller villages along the canal, really don’t have a lot of sightseeing or things to do. When planning your trip, take the stops into consideration.
Besides the towns of Carcassonne and Castlenaudrey, there wasn’t a lot to do. If you want to see attractions and have excursions, this is not the trip for you. The attraction is being on the boat.
For our route, if you want excursions, we suggest spending two days in Carcassonne and planning from there. We couldn’t book wine tours, sightseeing, or even taxis from our boat and wished that we spent two nights in Homps and two nights in Carcassonne.
About the Locks and the Canal du Midi
If you read our Le Boat experience on the Rideau Canal in Canada, you will see that cruising the canals in Canada it is very relaxing as Parks Canada works the locks. Cruising the Canal du Midi takes a lot more work. The Rideau Canal is much more efficient with lines inside the locks that move up and down with the water so you can simply loop your ropes around them from the boat.
The difference is when cruising the Canal du Midi locks, one person must get off the boat at each lock to be there to take the ropes and loop them around the cleats at the top of the lock. This means you must tie up above the lock and let that person off before you can go through. This makes it a lot more time-consuming compared to the Rideau Canal.
Do You Open and Close the Locks on the Canal du Midi?
Before going on the Canal du Midi, we had heard that we would need to hand crank the locks ourselves. This was not the case on our route between Homps and Castlenaudry. For most of the locks, a lockkeeper is there to operate the controls for you. The only thing you need to do is catch the ropes at the top while the captain drives in. And then one person must be at the front and the back of the boat to hold it steady with the ropes.
However, there was one portion of the canal on the way into Castlenaudry, where the passenger had to operate the opening and closing of the locks. The locks are automated, so all you have to do is press the button and follow the instructions.
An important thing to note is that on this stretch, the locks are about 1km apart, so it is a huge day of going through locks. We found that, instead of having the captain stop each time to drop one of us off before each lock, the person conrtolling the locks instead cycled ahead to be prepared for the boat to enter.
When I saw the boat approaching, I pushed the green button to open the doors. This made the whole experience very efficient.
When the doors opened, Dave drove the boat in and then Jim and Janice tossed me their ropes so I could loop them around the cleats. I then pushed the button to close the doors and fill the locks. They held onto the ropes to keep the boat steady, and once the lock was filled, the doors opened automatically. I then rode ahead to open the next lock.
So our biggest tip for this portion of the trip is to have a bicycle on board.
If you didn’t rent a bicycle from Le Boat, you will either need to walk ahead during that portion or have the captain drop you on and off before each lock. We highly recommended renting at least one bike. Besides, several of the mooring areas are located out of town or the grocery stores are far from your boat, so having a bike was a huge bonus.
At times, you’ll want a bicycle to buy some more food as stores were a bit of a hike from the boat. While restaurants and bars are located directly or within walking distance of the docks when in Homps, Trebs, Carcasonne, and Castlenaudry, there are times when you’ll be a few km from the town. Plus, there are cycling paths all along the Canal du Midi, so if you get into your dock early, you may want to get on the bikes to have a look around.
On Board Grocery Pack
As we mentioned above, we highly recommend ordering the grocery package to get you started on the boat. You will definitely need to do shopping, but this allows you for some extras such as coffee, milk, butter, jam, olive oil, sugar, and salt and pepper.
It also includes local wine, beer, lemonade, coke, water, and snacks such as croissants, bread, biscuits, and chips. We found that we ended up using everything including the aluminum foil which is great for cooking on the barbecue. Make sure to order your grocery pack 7 days in advance to have it on board when you arrive.
It is up to you how much you want to purchase. There are plenty of places where you’ll be able to dine out but at least for the first night, you will want your own food on board. And we highly recommend having breakfast, snacks, lunches, and enough food for a couple of dinners on board.
We bought food for all of our breakfasts, lunch, and for two dinners. The best advice we can give is to plan your meals ahead of time and decide how often you want to eat on the boat. You can’t take the food with you, so if you have a clear idea for each meal, you can buy meats and cheeses, pastries and dinners for the duration of your trip.
Packing Essentials for Le Boat on the Canal du Midi
Cruising the Canal du Midi occurs in the summer months in Southern France, so expect hot weather. Pack the usual summer-specific clothing like shorts and T-shirts, but one Le Boat-specific item we cannot stress enough is to pack work gloves to man the locks. The ropes can really tear up your hands, plus, they are often slimy. We used these gloves but I think waterproof work gloves would be better. See these on Amazon.
The Canal du Midi is not clean, boats are allowed (actually encouraged) to dump their toilets directly into the canal while driving. We can attest that many people even dumped their black water while docked as the smell wafted into our cabins. Since you are handling ropes that are regularly falling into the water, wear gloves when tieing up and doing the lines. And wash your hands often.
Another item we wish we had was a sun umbrella. We couldn’t put our boat canopy up because every few hundred meters we had to go under low bridges. Sun hats are a must. Bathing suits are not needed as you cannot swim in the Canal du Midi. This umbrella looks like it would have been perfect to have at the captain’s chair.
Sunglasses and binoculars are a good idea as well. Le Boat in both Ireland and Canada supplied binoculars but these waterways are on rivers with open lakes and you need to find buoys and markers. Binoculars are not needed on the Canal du Midi since it is just a straight narrow canal so you don’t need them to navigate, but it is nice to be able to take a closer look at the passing scenery.
Also, I highly recommend bringing a couple of board games or cards for evenings and it’s a good idea to pack portable speakers for your music.
Portable fan – I have a USB-operated fan that is handheld and that helped me a lot when I was overheating. I have always suffered from a Thyroid disorder and Graves disease, so my thermostat has never been great. With the still hot air on the Canal du Midi, I was suffering. My portable handheld fan helped me a lot when the heat was too intense.
Choose Your Boat Wisely
Le Boat has several different styles of boats. If your budget allows, we suggest booking the Horizon Lines or Premier boats. They are the newest and run the best. We have driven the Horizon fleet in Canada and Ireland and they really are the top of the line.
On the Canal du Midi, we had a comfort boat Vision 3. It didn’t handle quite as well as the Horizon and you can expect a few things to go wrong on the older boats. For example, our air conditioning stopped working so they had to give us a portable unit to use. And our battery died, so we had to switch out boats part way through our trip.
Le Boat has emergency numbers and sends out technicians quickly, so when something does happen they are on it fast so you don’t need to worry about being stranded. They will always be there to help.
For inexperienced boaters, The Horizon Line is amazing and these are the boats we recommend if your budget allows. Our Horizons 3 and 4 boats turned on a dime and the thrusters were so powerful you can stop quickly to avoid any collisions.
Our Vision 3 boat in France took an entire boat length to stop and the thrusters weren’t as powerful. This boat took more skill to maneuver.
This is especially true with the winds on the Canal du Midi. We had quite a bit of experience by this time, but we saw people going into locks sideways, hitting other boats, and being blown away while docking. With the newer models, this is less likely. So, if you don’t have a lot of boating experience, we suggest sticking with the new and higher-end models.
Extremely Low Bridges on the Canal
Also beware, that there are a lot of low and narrow bridges all along the Canal du Midi. We booked a large three-bedroom boat and it felt almost too big. If you aren’t comfortable driving through narrow passages, we suggest renting a smaller boat. Le Boat has boat sizes that fit any comfort level and they can go as small as just having two passengers.
Going through the low bridges can be a thrill, but it also became tiresome. We could never put our canopy up to get relief from the hot sun, we had to duck each time we went under a bridge so as not to hit our heads. (this can be really serious, so we were regularly reminded each other to duck when approaching), and it was always a bit stressful that we’d hit the sides.
About Barging the Canal du Midi
Cruising the Canal du Midi is on many people’s bucket lists. We enjoyed it but felt that Canada’s Rideau Canal was more our speed. In Canada (and Ireland – more on that cruise coming soon) we enjoyed the wide open waters and fewer locks compared to the constant narrow channels and abundance of locks on the Canal du Midi.
That said, my sister-in-law loved going through the locks and said that her favorite part was having the experience of going through the locks.
As the captain, Dave found that having to pull over regularly to let people was a bit stressful and I found that having to get off the boat several times a day was a bit of a chore. I would have preferred to stay on the boat to relax and enjoy the scenery. But, if you love to work and have a task during your travels, you will love the Canal du Midi.
Going on the Canal du Midi is a great way to explore the more off-the-beaten-path destinations of France. It takes you back in time to travel at a slower pace on your own time. As one person said to us “The Canal du Midi is the perfect place to think more and hurry less.” I like that.