Pleasures of a barge tour: sun,scenery,fine food,wine

A LAZY LIFE ON FRANCE'S CANAL DU MIDI

May 19, 1991|By Kristy Montee

The afternoon sun plays through the leaves of the plane trees, casting patches of light on the tranquil green water. The air is filled with the hum of insects, a trailing note of lavender and the smell of something wonderful cooking.

It is "l'heure endormie" -- the sleepy hour -- on the Canal du Midi. As our barge creeps along at a snail's pace of 3 miles per hour, none of us on board feels like moving much faster.

After three days aboard the Bonjour, cruising down this canal in southern France, eating glorious meals and drinking the local wines, even cracking the spine of a paperback seems like work. We are satiated with indolence.

The smell of food is coming from the tiny galley, where Elizabeth, the young English chef, is concocting something grand for dinner. After a lunch, just three hours ago, of chicken terrine and lemon quiche, washed down by a refreshing local wine called Limoux, anticipating another meal seems sinful. But then, there is a special ring of hell reserved for those who vacation on barges, where sloth and gluttony are elevated to high art.

My husband, Dan, enters the salon, where I am lounging, half-finished postcards languishing on my lap. "I can't stand it. I have to move," he says. "Let's get on the bikes."

A few minutes later the skipper has tied up at the bank. We and two bikes are deposited on the towpath with the order not to wander too far away from the canal. That seems impossible to do, given that the canal is the main thoroughfare for the Languedoc.

For a while we keep to the towpath, but soon the urge to explore becomes potent and we steer our bikes onto a path that winds up through the vineyards. The May sun grows warmer and the air more aromatic the farther up and away from the canal we go, and soon we pause atop a hill. The landscape is an undulating carpet of pale green, broken only by the red tile roofs of a nearby village and by the green ribbon of the canal.

Everywhere we look are tender grape buds. (The Languedoc produces 70 percent of the vin ordinaire that fuels France). Finally, we pedal off toward the village of La Redorte. We pedal through the pleasant village and head back up into the vineyards. After a blissful hour, the sky turns gray and we realize we have not seen the canal in some time. A light rain begins and banter ceases as we finally conclude that we are lost. Finally, we spy a different village ahead and tell ourselves, with relief, that it must be Homps, the town where the barge is scheduled to tie up for the night. We pedal eagerly up the hill, but a sign announces we are entering a place called Azille.

This clearly is a village unaccustomed to foreign visitors. We approach a lady weeding in her garden for directions. "Ou est le canal?" we ask.

She looks at us like we're crazy; no Occitan (Languedoc native) loses his way from the local "highway." She cheerfully gives us directions in rapid-fire French and hand signals, and we set off on a new road out of town.

Two stone bridges, countless vineyards, one more kind gardener, an hour and 12 kilometers later, we pedal wearily into Homps. We plop down in a quaiside cafe and await the barge. When its familiar red-and-green hull trudges into view, we sigh in relief. Our home has come home.

Activists may run rapids or scale mountains on their vacations. But barge people are usually content to do nothing -- pointedly -- and the Languedoc is the perfect place in which to do it.

There are several companies that operate cruises throughout Europe, but only a few offer trips on the Canal du Midi, such as Floating Through Europe, the operator of our barge. The most popular routes in France are Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine. But there is something about the Canal du Midi, which meanders lazily through the less glamorous Languedoc region, that captures the languorous essence of barging.

Perhaps it is the province's southernness. Like the American South, the Languedoc is a diverse and colorful land, imbued with a tenacious sense of its unique identity. Languedoc literally means "language of oc," "oc" meaning "yes" in the southern dialect, which once was the tongue of the region's troubadours and was supplanted by the official French language of the north.

This is France's "Deep South," a province to the west of its most celebrated neighbor, Provence, with its glitzy Cote d'Azur. The Languedoc is an ancient land that in the ninth and 10th centuries was more culturally advanced than the barbaric north. It was occupied at various times by Romans and Visigoths, and alternately by France and Spain, until it came under French rule permanently in 1659.

Today, it is eclipsed by the north, but its rich history is visible in a wealth of ruins, cathedrals, temples and castles -- many ravaged, but a few remarkably restored.

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