Our hotel barge, Saint Louis, provides a week’s luxury cruise between Montauban (nearest city Toulouse) and Agen; or between Agen and Castets-en-Dorthe (nearest city Bordeaux); either in an east-west or west-east direction, on the Canal de Garonne.
Our canal, the Canal de Garonne (together with its side branch, the Canal de Montech-Montauban) is the nineteenth century part of the waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. This route is often mis-named the Canal du Midi, but it is more accurately the Canal des Deux Mers (canal of the two seas) because the ‘Midi’ runs from Sete (on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier) to Toulouse and the ‘Garonne’ from there, alongside its namesake river, to Castets (where the canal joins the navigable River Garonne about 45km from Bordeaux).
This east-west cross-country link removes the need to voyage 3,000km around Spain and consequently had been studied from ancient Roman times, including by Leonardo da Vinci. All schemes foundered on the method to supply a canal with water; that is until the genius of Pierre-Paul Riquet who planned and constructed the Midi route to Toulouse, completed in 1681. From that point onwards boats had to negotiate the often shallow and unpredictable River Garonne to Bordeaux until the Canal de Garonne itself was constructed and opened in 1856, thus achieving Riquet’s ultimate vision of a navigable link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
The justly celebrated and historic Canal du Midi twists and turns its way through Languedoc, following the landscape’s contours, but sometimes overwhelmed with tourists, hire boats and holiday-makers. Its much less well known sister, the Canal de Garonne of South-West France follows the river’s natural course towards the sea. It is considerably less crowded, passes through exquisite countryside, historic towns and pretty villages, and (in our partisan but humble opinion) is much more special.
Where once the canal conveyed a great deal of wine, contained in large wooden barrels, and other commercial traffic (which included cereals, gravel, timber and chinaware), today the canal is exclusively used by pleasure craft. Yachts with their masts removed, carried horizontally on deck (so as to pass under the bridges!) transit between the Sea and the Ocean. River boats explore the pastoral nooks and crannies. And guests aboard the luxury hotel barge Saint Louis cruise in tranquillity, style and comfort.
Our hotel barge, the Saint Louis, has her home base near the small French village of Lacourt Saint-Pierre on the short and delightful ‘embranchment’ that connects the canal to the town of Montauban (founded in 1144, on the River Tarn).
The embranchment junction with the canal is at Montech, immediately next to the world-famous water slope (the Montech Pent d’Eau) unique in the world when inaugurated in 1974. Two 1,000hp locomotives push a ‘wedge’ of water in a channel up an inclined plane; the wedge supports those large craft that cannot traverse the adjacent flight of five conventional locks. The Saint Louis uses this memorable route whenever possible – it is not always so – a wonderful and exclusive experience for our guests. But don’t take our word for this – read what they themselves say.
A little further west, at the historic town of Moissac, we have the option of leaving the canal to explore a section of the River Tarn and a short section of the River Garonne itself. Once again, this is a unique and exclusive option. The rivers are wide, languid, verdant and quiet and almost guaranteed to be completely free of any other craft. If you choose (everything we do is directed according to the wishes of our guests) to join the Garonne at its junction with the Tarn there are special opportunities to anchor serenely at the unspoiled nature reserve and to observe the many wading and songbirds that live there. We have binoculars on-board, as well as those essential ‘bird book’ references.
Whichever section of the canal your cruise itinerary takes you on, you will pass high across the river via a canal aqueduct. The one near Moissac (356m long, over the River Tarn) was constructed in brick and stone in 1867 and the one near Agen (539m, the longest masonry aqueduct in France, over the River Garonne) in stone in 1849.
These are some of the waterway highlights, but what remains constant, is cruising gently at a moderate walking pace, along the peaceful canal, alongside the towpath, through the verdant countryside, under avenues of plane trees and – usually – beneath blue skies full of sunshine.