Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Kayak across France


The Dream

Exploring tree-lined canals, past wineries and chateaux, in the south of France, was a dream I had put on hold for too long. Now was the time for action. And what could be simpler than going by kayak? Well, we might have rented a boat, hiked along the towpaths, or cycled instead, but kayaking has always been fun for me. I enjoy camping too, so we would carry a small tent in our tandem kayak, and sleep beside the canal. Food? In France? No problem!

 Plane trees line the Canal du Midi.

 Our plan was to paddle from sea to sea, from Mediterranean to Atlantic. At the start we would pass the famous oyster farms of the saltwater lagoon, the Étang de Thau. Beside the lagoon is one of the oldest towns in France, the port of Marseillan, where Noilly Prat produces vermouth. Something to pair with the oysters.

The Phoenicians established a village here long, but it is said it was the Romans who brought winemaking some two thousand years ago. They then built the Via Domitia. This road from Italy stopped off at Marseillan on its way to the Pyrenees, and over into Iberia.

Once introduced to wine, Languedoc Roussillon region ran with it. It is now the single biggest wine producing region in the world. Of course, we planned to sample some on our way: enough to acquire the flavor of the region, but not enough to hinder progress. With three weeks available, we needed to reach Bordeaux in time to investigate that wine region too.


The Round Lock on Canal du Midi near Agde.

Starting at the Mediterranean port of Sète, we would leave via the Étang de Thau for the ancient, seventeenth century, Canal du Midi. Winding uphill past canal engineering wonders such as the Works of Libron, and the Malpas tunnel, we would pass Béziers, once destroyed during the slaughter of all its inhabitants during the Albigensian crusade. Twenty thousand people died. Nobody was spared. The news had reached the town of Carcassonne before the crusaders arrived there a few days later. The walled town of Carcassonne, however, remained intact. All the inhabitants agreed to exit the city, leaving everything they owned behind, in return for their lives.


The town walls and towers of Carcassonne, with Bastide Saint Louis below.

 So, life was harsh for many in Medieval times. Languedoc, the wealthiest region in Europe, was ravaged, becoming the poorest part of France. The canal helped bring prosperity back.

 The canal du Midi runs from the Mediterranean to Toulouse, the Rose City, which stands on the navigable River Garonne. Since river conditions were often unsuitable for navigation there, a second canal, the lateral canal of the Garonne, was built to carry traffic to Castets-en-Dorthe on the tidal Garonne. Now, everything made within reach of the canal system could be more easily transported to either coast. Barges carried pastel, the precious dye known as blue gold, produced from woad grown in the region between Carcassonne, Albi and Toulouse. They transported prunes and Armagnac from Agen, and of course a lot of wine.

The tidal Garonne runs through the Pearl of Aquitaine, the city of Bordeaux. It passes beneath Napoleon’s elegant seventeen-arched pont de pierre, bridge of stone, and the slender gothic spire of the basilica Saint-Michel. The new vertical lift bridge, the Jacques Chaban-Delmas Bridge stands tall by the Bordeaux docks, where a lock leads to the Second World War Nazi U-boat pens.


The Garonne at Bordeaux, pont de pierre (stone bridge)

 The Garonne and the River Dordogne join at the Gironde Estuary in roiling turbulence. The famous Bordeaux chateaux and wineries are located on the banks of the Gironde, and also of the two rivers.

Our plan was to paddle to Royan, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, some sixty miles from Bordeaux. There, once again breathing the salty scented sea air, we would be back in the realm of the oyster. 

My Upcoming Book, Kayak across France, will be available in September on Amazon!

I will post different aspects of the trip. My book Kayak across France will be published September. (Available with my other books on Amazon).