There are few activities more serene than gracefully cruising aboard a luxury boat upon the Canals du Midi and de Garonne in southwestern France; except, perhaps, stopping along the way to enjoy the wonderful food and exquisite wines served up in some of the best restaurants that this beautiful area, famous for its Epicurean delights, has to offer.
You may have heard the phrase ‘slow living’, referring to the idea of pulling everything right back to a pace where life’s little pleasures can be savoured in full. Well, I joined what could justly be called a ‘slow holiday’ on board one of Le Boat’s latest and most luxurious vessels for a leisurely cruise through the regions of Tarn et Garonne, Lot et Garonne, Midi-Pyrenees and Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
Arriving at Castelsarrasin harbour near the ancient, pink-bricked town of Montauban, twenty-five minutes’ drive from Toulouse airport, I was expecting the kind of cramped, slim-hulled narrowboat you might see chugging up the Grand Union canal with a deck barely wide enough to open out the Sunday papers on. What greeted me, however, was something more like the latest plaything of a junior oligarch. The five-star Vision 4 has four cabins, each with its own ensuite bathroom, plus a spacious saloon and fully equipped kitchen and galley with seating that converts to an additional bed, meaning that up to nine people can sleep in comfort and privacy. There’s plenty of room up on deck too, with enough tables and chairs to invite on board any friends you might meet along the way for dinner or cocktails.
Before motoring out of harbour, we are given a briefing on handling the vessel and all of its controls. Le Boat also have a range of training videos on their website allowing would-be skippers to learn some of the basics before they even leave home. Our craft has every modern convenience to help you navigate the waterways, including joystick controls and side-thrusters (which enable the boat to be manoeuvred deftly, even at dead slow speeds). The steering takes a bit of getting used to though: slight turns of the wheel yield no immediately discernible response, so the wheel is spun faster causing oversteer which is then compensated for by yet more vigorous oversteering in the opposite direction, and so on, making the course of the boat down the canal resemble the passage of a drunken man as he zig-zags his way home after one too many at the local pub. The knack is soon acquired though and it’s not long before we’re confidently zipping along (although not too zippily; the speed limit is 8 knots in these parts, 4 when passing stationary vessels), remembering to duck as we go under the bridges, some of which are so low we are forced to literally hit the deck and hold on to our hats as the brickwork above passes within inches of our heads.
Our first stop, after two and a half hours’ relaxed and enjoyable cruising under a canopy of hundred-year-old plane trees whose branches stretch out across the canal from either side, is Moissac — known as the centre of Romanesque art and sculpture in France. At the centre of this beautiful town are the abbey, monastery and cloisters of Saint Pierre whose sun-kissed stone buildings we are shown around by our tour guide George. His passionate pride in his job is clearly evident from the way he tilts his head back and close his eyes in divine rapture as he relates to us the history of this Benedictine and Cluniac monastery that traces its origins back to the 7th century. After an excellent lunch of foie gras and veal at Le Florentin restaurant, we make our way back to the boat for the onward journey to Auvillar, voted one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’.
It is well to arrive at the harbours of the most picturesque towns like this one before 4pm in order to secure a berth, as by then most of the other boats have moored up and disgorged their hungry passengers in search of an early dinner. Remember, also, that all of the locks on the canal close at 6pm, meaning that you should get to where you want to be for the night by then. It’s not a major problem if you do mistime things, though; simply pull down one of the bicycles stored on the rear deck (an optional extra at £6/day) and leisurely cycle along the tow-path that lines the entire length of this canal system from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (500 km in total). On the subject of locks, you’ll need a crew of at least three people: one to pilot the boat and two others to moor the bow and stern to the side with ropes, to prevent it being knocked about as the water level rises or falls. All of Le Boat’s cruisers are fitted with bumpers around their hulls, anyway, so even if your navigational style is more like Captain Kidd’s than Sir Francis Drake’s, you won’t risk any serious damage, and an insurance policy covers you financially in the unlikely case that something unfortunate does happen.
Both Auvillar and Moissac are stops along the Camino de Santiago (or St. James’s’ Way) — an epic pilgrimage across Europe to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, whose cathedral is said to house the remains of one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Nowadays, many of the walkers and cyclists who attempt this demanding trek are driven as much by the promise of physical challenge and life-enriching experiences, as out of religious devotion. The seashell logo, adopted symbol of pilgrims on this route, adorns the rucksacks and clothing of many that we see on our journey, helping to identify them to each other as they stop to share the stories they have picked up along their respective ways. Camaraderie also forms part of the appeal of a Le Boat holiday: other canal-users wave at you as you pass them by, as long as you’re not going so fast that the waves created in your wake rock them from their peaceful repose! Gently motoring towards the harbour of Valence d’Agen, the English captain of the ‘Sirius’ bids us a hearty “good afternoon” as he passes in the opposite direction then, as an afterthought, helpfully informs us that there are two Indian restaurants of excellent repute in the next town, one of which does a mean Lamb Madras.
It’s not curry that we feast on, though, but a superb selection of French cheeses at the Auberge de la Poule a Velo, a former lock-house that has been converted into a rustic guest house and restaurant. The views up and down the canal, taking in the scenic splendour of Lot-et-Garonne, are almost as delicious as the food and we are tempted to linger a while to drink them in, along with a rather fine and full bodied red (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) from the local Buzet vineyard.
Back at the Vision 4, there is a slight problem with the onboard power caused by some of us having left too many mobile-phone chargers switched on, sapping power from the boat whilst the engine is idle and therefore unable to recharge the battery. Jaimie, one of Le Boat’s team of stand-by engineers is reassuringly quick to the scene and we’re on our way again in a little under 45 minutes, after a phone call to the helpline which is staffed by fluent English speakers, all of whom are familiar with the typical problems encountered by newbie sailors such as ourselves.
Evening sees us visiting Agen, the main town of this region, and the prune capital of France. There are over 1,400 farms locally producing over 40,000 tonnes of Agen prunes each year. If the prospect of eating dried plums does not usually get your tastebuds tingling, you may want to try some of the varieties on sale in the boutiques here: prunes stuffed with chocolate creme, truffles, armagnac and a multitude of other delectable treats that will forever change your opinion of the humble cultivar. Later, after an excellent dinner of sea-bream at Restaurant La Part des Anges close to the harbour, we are reminded of an essential item to pack when coming on a boating holiday such as this as we make our way back to Vision 4 along the pitch-black tow path: a torch (or a mobile phone with a flashlight and plenty of battery power)!
The departments of Acquitaine and Lot-et-Garonne have inspired many painters with their understated natural beauty and simple elegance. There is a lack of the kind of pretension which unfortunately taints other more chichi parts of France. An excellent example of this understatement is to be discovered in the Roman village of Mas d’Agenais overlooking the canal, whose church holds a surprise in the form of an original painting by the Dutch master Rembrandt from 1631 of ‘Christ on the Cross’, completely unexpected in such an unassuming, provincial setting. A sumptuous, final feast is enjoyed in the charming surroundings of restaurant La Cocotte du Mas, just steps away from the marina where our vessel is moored, accompanied by a sampling menu of yet more formidable wines from the Buzet vineyard.
At the end of the voyage, I have caught the Le Boat bug which has seen repeat customers fall in love with this peaceful and refined way of enjoying life on the water, surrounded by the scenic splendour of one of the most attractive parts of an ever-beautiful country. Many of their former charter clients have become so enamoured with this relaxing style of holiday that they have purchased boats of their own and can now be seen waving happily from their craft moored along the side of the canal as we cruise past them, bidding southwestern France a reluctant but fond farewell from the deck of Vision 4.
For more information on this particular route, visit: The Delicacies of Aquitaine Cruise
A seven-night self-catered stay on board Vision 4 is priced from £2,589 per boat.
Fuel adds around €200 to the bill for seven days’ cruising and insurance around €10/day.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Le Boat
Le Boat: 0844 417 2028 / leboat.co.uk