A perfect village on the Canal du Midi
Winding through the countryside and vineyards of southwest France, the Canal du Midi is one of Europe’s oldest canals. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the brainchild of a 17th century tax collector obsessed with the idea of linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Pierre-Paul Riquet ruined himself financially but built a great architectural monument, with 63 locks, oval basins, aqueducts and 126 bridges. The Canal du Midi was completed at the end of 1682 and was used for commercial transport for centuries until it was displaced by rail and road transport.
Today the canal is filled for most of the year with holiday cruisers and accounts for a fifth of all French river tourism. In the blazing heat of July and August, the locks and ports are crammed with boats and boaters, resulting in long waiting times. But the scenery is lovely, all the locks are manned and the lock keepers’ cottages are beautifully kept. There are always opportunities to disembark, especially if you have brought bicycles on board – the boat providers hire them. You'll also find opportunities to visit restaurants and wine cellars along the canal.
The waterway passes through lovely sleepy villages such as Homps, Argelliers, Capestang and Le Somail, each offering glimpses into daily life in the French countryside.
We arrived in a little corner of paradise after a morning cruising gently through vineyards, with sights of yellow ibis and wild gladioli. Le Somail has only 500 inhabitants, so small it is classified on local maps as a hamlet (hammeau) rather than a village. It was built in 1682, the same time as the Canal Du Midi, as a staging post and overnight stop for the mail boat and its passengers, and retains many of the original buildings including the lock-keeper’s house and the chapel.
There were about 20 boats moored along the canal and the canal path was filled with walkers, cyclists, fishermen and people sketching.
It was the time of the Rugby World Cup and we were following matches in cafes and restaurants along the canal. We were flying a South African flag at the back of our boat and had hardly moored up when we heard shouting from the deck of a cruiser moored on the opposite bank. It took us a while to realise that the wild man dancing and waving his arms was wearing a New Zealand rugby jersey and trying to perform a Hakka – rather badly we thought. We waved our beer cans in his direction and he disappeared back into his boat.
Later that afternoon we took a walk into “town”. In the centre of Le Somail an ancient and striking bridge, Le Pont Saint-Marcel, crosses the canal. Nearby is a picturesque and ivy-covered lock keepers’ cottage – today a restaurant - an inspiration for artists and photographers.
We were quick to discover a floating shop, the Tamata, a beautiful barge located on the north bank of the Canal. The two restaurants were already fully booked and we decided to enjoy our evening meal on the upper deck of our boat supported by a few samples of the great wines of Minervois. We returned to our boat laden with fresh bread, ripe tomatoes, ham and local cheeses.
Our Kiwi appeared at our mooring later that evening. He’d walked all the way to the bridge and then back to us, in search of rugby company.
Exploring around the town the next morning we discovered two highlights - a unique hat museum containing over 6500 hats, and an incredible book shop tucked away in an old wine cellar. Named “trouve-tout-du-livre” (‘find all the books’) the shop stocks over 50,000 rare and second-hand books. Tired of city life, its owners relocated from Paris to Le Somail in 1980.
We left Le Somail at noon – a tiny hamlet not even mentioned on road maps and yet with its old arched bridge and chapel, magnificent antiquarian bookshop, grocer’s barge and restaurants on the quays, an unmissable and remarkable stop on a trip along the Canal du Midi.