Barge Trip 2

Castelnaudary Travel Blog

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Canal du Midi

The next day we hung out in Castelnaudary watching and trying to decipher a race.  It turned out to be a mini triathlon in two heats. We sat in a quay side restaurant for about two hours as the contestants came and went in a totally, to our eyes, disorganized fashion.  What was most impressive was that they swam in the canal.  A few too may canal boats with two many people on them and too many marine toilets for our taste.

The waiting worked out because it was a lock holiday, (Pentecost) and we would not have been able to go very far anyway.

Monday came windy and moving the péniche up to Castelnaudary was fairly difficult.  The bow is very flat bottomed  and it is easy for the wind to turn the whole thing around, especially if you are in reverse.  But we made it and found a water hose to fill our tanks and a spot to pull up and wait for Linda and Sage.  Because of the railroad strike we didn’t really know when or where they would be coming into town.  No one we asked gave us anything like correct information. The gentlemen at the train station didn’t seem to be able to understand that we were inquiring about trains from Toulouse rather than to it. Just as we were leaving to find the bus station, a big bus pulled in and Linda and Sage got off.

After getting them settled, we went for lunch and found out that today was the real holiday and very few places were open. Also, tomorrow was the town’s regular day off, so after finding some wine, bread and cheese, we launched ourselves down the Canal du Midi for real.


I was so happy to see Linda and Sage get off that bus after about ten French Legionnaires descended. I was definitely ready to share the responsibility of “crewing” the barge and equally ready to have some other “captains” take over for awhile. Those of you who have been involved in a theater production with Stephen as stage manager when we’re under great time/money pressure will understand how much “fun” it can sometimes be to have Stephen at the helm when he’s worried something isn’t going right! I know all you liberated women out there are wondering why I didn’t just take over; well, I did, but my mid-life shortness of temper combined with his fear that I’d crash the barge (which I would not have) made me give up the wheel in five minutes. It wasn’t until our ninth day out that I got behind the wheel for a good, long time and learned by my own trial and error how to steer that silly, flat-bottomed thing with the rudder in the stern and the wheel in the bow. Then I had a wonderful time steering it through one of the twistiest sections of he canal.

The countryside around the Canal du Midi is a wonderful combination of rural and civilized. The farmland, filled mostly with vines, is so carefully cultivated; every square inch of land is used. Big trees, mostly plane trees, have been planted evenly along the towpath next to the canal so one has the feeling of processing slowly through a canopied path of water. Since we were there in May, the canal wasn’t too crowded with boats. Those we encountered were piloted mostly by German, English, Dutch, or American groups. The French do this mostly in August, when there are nearly no French people in Paris.

Traveling with Sinda and Lage (as we called them one evening after too many Ricards) was a treat. They added another dimension to our experience. Being a professional chef herself, Linda’s knowledge of and fascination with food stimulated a more intense culinary experience than Stephen and I would have had alone. Linda’s first open air market of the trip was in Carcasonne. We ended up with a wonderful dinner that day of gorgeous sliced tomatoes, white asparagus, a nice green salad with a strong garlic dressing, local chèvre and other cheese, a country baguette, and of course a bottle of local red which cost $3 or $4!

The Art of the Lock

Luckily, we had only to go downhill on this trip, so we had the easier of the two possibilities.  In principal it is easy.  If the lock keeper is expecting you, as the lock comes into view the gate toward you will be open.  All you have to do is motor in slowly, dropping the bow line person off just after you go through the gate or missing that opportunity, head for the side of the lock after passing into it (making sure not to whack the gate with the stern), reverse just in time to stop the boat, and then they jump off and wrap the rope around the forward bollard. Meanwhile a second person has jumped off, been thrown the stern rope and throws that around the rear bollard.  Then, if we are in a manually operated lock, a third person goes to the gate that we have just come through and cranks it closed while the lock keeper closes the gate on his or her side.  Once the upstream gate is closed, the rope holders get back on the boat still holding the rope that has been passed around a bollard.  Now the lockkeeper on his or her side and the crewperson or our side walk to the downstream gate and crank up the sluices and the water begins to drain out of the lock.  The boat drops slowly and the crew let out their ropes to compensate and soon we are down and the two downstream gates are cranked open.  The ropes are pulled in from the bollards, we give a slight push away from the lock wall and slowly motor our way out of the lock and pull into the bank a little ways down the canal to pick up the crewperson who was manning the gates and sluices.  It took about ten to twenty minutes.


They were many.  An easy one would be that the locks were operated by electric motors, then we would not need to crank the lockgate nor stop to pick up the crewperson which could be difficult given wind or traffic.

Another one would be that the lock was the first of the day or first after lunch and the lock would not be ready for us.  We could sound the horn or pull over and send Dawn down to let them know we were there. This made it easier later in that there was someone already off the boat to catch the rope.

The most common variation was that we were sharing the lock with other boats.  Nothing really changed except that there was less margin for error and the error was greater.  Many times we were in the lock with two other boats.  Usually it would be a gathering of many languages. We could share the work if it was a manual lock and socialize a bit.

Multiple locks were in principle the same.  Except that we would keep the crew on shore and they would walk down with the boat as we motored out of the first lock directly into the second (or third or fourth), which brings us to the supreme variation.

The jigsaw puzzle�"One day while I was ashore and the lock keeper was filling our top lock with three boats, I walked over and noticed that there were two boats waiting in the bottom lock.  There was a moment when I thought that a mistake was being made, but then I saw the plan. Once we were down and the gates opened, we would have five boats that wanted to change places.  Two of our boats would go into their lock, then two of theirs into ours, then the final boat would change. The lock gate would be closed and water would be let into their lock to lift them up at the same time as the water would be let out of ours to drop us.  The two outside gates would be opened and the boats would be on their way.  It was fun and all directed by the lockkeeper with gestures to his multilingual charges.


I loved to meet and chat with the various “éclusiers” (lockkeepers). As imagined, some of them were old men who looked like they had been doing this job since the Revolution. However, other locks were managed by young families, including women and children. One of the most surprising éclusieres was a youngish, slender, attractive woman, wearing black lace leggings, a skimpy black top and a large brimmed black hat. Stephen and Sage had to battle it out as to who was going to jump off the boat and handle the stern line at this lock!

One day, near 7:00 PM, the cut-off time for going though the locks, we approached a lock that was closed. As usual, I was sent ahead as the linguist to see if we could get it opened. I approached a man watering his beautiful garden on the right bank and began the conversation by complimenting his garden. “Moi, je ne suis pas l’éclusier. Vous devez demander a la maison,” He told us that he was not the lockkeeper and that we had better ask at the house. So I asked a kid if he knew where the lockkeeper was, and he said that he was “out.” So I headed back to the boat to tell the gang that we better plan on mooring right there for the night when the man from the garden came up to me and explained, “”Well, actually I am an éclusier, but this is my day off. If I open the lock for you and there are any problems, I will get in trouble for working on my day off. But you can moor right here for the night and I will open the gate for you at 8:00 tomorrow morning.  Do you understand?” Well, of course we understood; it was fine with us. What I did not understand was why he chose to tell me the truth the second time around. Then at that moment, the lockkeeper who was supposed to be working that day appeared and opened the gate for us.

The canal and all the lockkeepers’ houses were designed by one man named Paul Riquet in the middle of the 17th century. Each house is similar, with the same pale green shutters, but each éclusier does his own thing with gardens, climbing roses, sculptures, concessions of local products like honey and wine. One day, Linda ran up to the “lady of the house” to buy some goodies, but she didn’t have enough cash and couldn’t understand the amount that the lady was asking for, so as the boat was descending in the lock, I got some more cash, found out the total she was asking, gave her the money, grabbed the products, and jumped on the boat as it was descending to the lowest level in the lock. Such excitement!
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Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi
photo by: jsbuck1