Even if it weren’t for the grapevines of Minervois, Corbières and Limoux descending in rows down from the snow-topped Pyrenees and severe Massif Central mountains into the Aude Valley; even if it weren’t for the thousand-year-old stained glass, great Gothic arches, and layers of local marble and sandstone recalling the Paleolithic, Roman and medieval people who walked the hills and built the walls around us; even if it weren’t for the mild Mediterranean climate, encounters with the easygoing people of the Languedoc region, and the world-class delicacies they serve from their own backyard — even if it weren’t for all these things, I would come to the Midi just for the canal bridges.
The 17th-century Canal du Midi, linking France’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, is a marvel. But the stone canal bridges that appear occasionally along its route are truly incomprehensible. While a white-water river tumbles underneath, canal boats pass placidly overhead. To stand beside a canal bridge is to step into a real-life, three-dimensional M.C. Escher painting.
Yet the mind that created the Canal du Midi and invented the canal bridges was not of Escher’s Modernist age but of a far earlier time, when “horsepower” referred to horses. He was Pierre-Paul Riquet (1609–1680), and it was the Sun King, Louis XIV, who enabled Riquet to sculpt his seemingly deluded aspirations into the French landscape. Riquet’s canal was one of the greatest public-works projects of its time, and its successful completion in 1681 boosted France’s economy for the next 200 years, until railroads finally superseded it.
The Canal du Midi — bypassing Gibraltar and all the complications of Spain, England and the Barbary pirates — stands today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a travel destination, it deserves a top spot on the bucket list of anyone who loves to wander by water.
A Time and a Place to Celebrate
My mom loves to wander by water, and in recent years she’d occasionally suggested a canal trip in Europe as a good way for our family to gather. As much as I agreed, other priorities in our lives always seemed to nudge that notion aside.
Still, her idea had a powerful hold on us. Beginning when my sister and I were young teenagers, our family lived for several years aboard a 41-foot ketch on the Gulf Coast and in the Bahamas, and for all of us, that period remains a happy high point. In our own way, we’ve each been seeking to bring elements from our liveaboard days back into our present lives. So when we saw my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary approaching, my mom’s idea moved to top priority.
In the end, real life being what it is, we weren’t able to gather our whole family for a springtime excursion. But we did assemble a crew of seven, with a quorum from each of the generations. Representing my sister’s family was Isabel Jennings, age 11. For my daughter Kate, 16, the April anniversary coincided with her sophomore-year spring break. My mom’s sister, Rose Meagher, joined us, as did our friend Jim Bricker. And of course, there was the anniversary couple: Tom and Sue Murphy.
Our introduction to Languedoc began in Narbonne, where we spent our first night before boarding the canal boat. Narbonne is a beach town, situated less than 10 miles from the Med. It’s also a medieval town, home to the original troubadours and to the third-tallest Gothic cathedral in France, and it’s a Roman town, with the stones of the Via Domitia, the ancient road from Rome to Spain (circa 118 B.C.), running right through its central square.
“What’s the oldest thing you can touch?” became our ongoing challenge to Isabel. She’d recently touched the 800-year-old Mayan stone at Tulum, in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. But here, on her first day in Languedoc, she’d already beaten her previous record by more than a thousand years.