Our barge vacation in southern France with family and friends was one of our favorite holidays to date in Europe. Our vessel, the lovely Athos du Midi, is a moving home base that enables seeing a variety of destinations without unpacking and repacking — it’s like a floating villa with a personal staff (including a kid-friendly guide!) ready to meet every need. What could be better?
The other factor that made our trip exceptional is that we found that the UNESCO-protected Canal du Midi is a wonderful venue to experience a European barge vacation. It’s one of the oldest canals in all of Europe with the ambiance and history that accompanies such an honor.
One of the benefits of the Canal du Midi is that you don’t have to travel far to enjoy a change of scenery. Barges don’t go fast and it’s a nice perk, particularly with kids, to have variety without distance. We passed through villages, cities, vineyards, farms and forests on our one-week trip. Our barge sailed on the canal, a river and a lagoon. The banks of the canal aren’t tourist areas and as a consequence, the deck of the barge is a wonderful perch from which to observe “real life” in southern France. Despite the local ambiance in and around this waterway, many amazing tourist attractions are within a short drive of the Canal du Midi.
Here are a few of the activity and attraction highlights from our week on the Athos du Midi:
Carcassonne is one of France’s most beloved tourist attractions, as it is one of the most incredible medieval towns in Europe for its state of amazing preservation as well as its astounding architecture. Surrounded by 56 watchtowers from the 12th century, with castle walls that are walkable, Carcassonne makes history come alive for families. Although we’ve visited Carcassonne a few other times, this is the first occasion when we explored it with a guide and that made an impact in providing historical and engaging context. What a difference real-time information from a qualified kid-friendly guide makes!
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On the opposite side of the spectrum is Minerve, a small town with dramatic Cathar history in a stunning setting perched over a gorge. The historic center is small, but it is a scenic place for a stroll and hike down the river at the bottom of the gorge.
One of the many things that is great about the itinerary that the Athos du Midi crew puts together is the opportunity to explore regional producers. There are countless delicious goods to enjoy in France, and olive oil is certainly one of them; we stopped at an olive oil producer not far from the Canal du Midi for a tasting and a well-done movie about the way olive oil is made in the region. Because of its hands-on setup, which includes tasting a variety of oils, the kids all had fun and enjoyed the experience.
Touring the city of Narbonne was a surprising crowd pleaser and a highlight of our entire trip. We started our day touring the famous Les Halles food market with our talented chef, Andy. We were wowed by the fresh French produce and products from both land and the sea piled high around us. It’s a foodie dream come true. The kids had an opportunity to try fresh mussels, cheese, fruit and ham right from the stalls. We were all able to visualize the art of deciding on a menu right then and there based on what looks best that day. The pleasures of France …
We then spent some time exploring Narbonne’s historic gems, including a spectacular 13th-century cathedral with a massive vaulted choir and a well-preserved portion of the ancient Via Dolmita Roman Road. We ended our tour with a surprise lunch at Chez Babelle, where the butcher literally cuts and throws the meat into the restaurant for lunch, giving new meaning to fresh and local fare in France!
No visit to France is complete without a stop at a picturesque French village with amazing architecture and shopping galore. This is where Penzanas fits in … this village is touristy but very well-preserved. It offers an array of desirable southern French goods in one lovely place, from ceramics to silk to knives — all handcrafted and unique.
There are 91 locks on the Canal du Midi and we went through 11 of them. Given that these locks were built in the 1600s and still work, passing through them is quite an interesting and entertaining experience, particularly since the Athos is the maximum size that fits through. It requires serious maneuvering to get in and out of each one, but this is definitely part of the fun.
All the locks are a different shape and size and crowds gather around the bridges and sides of the canal to watch the boats go through. We felt like royalty as we sipped rosé with crowds waving to us and taking photos.
Our itinerary in the Canal du Midi ended in the beautiful Mediterranean village of Marseillan, situated on a large lagoon. It’s one of the few places on the itinerary where you can swim right off the barge. The town is small but lovely for a quick stroll and a family game of petanque. There is also a state-of-the-art vermouth tasting experience at the Noilly Prat facility in town … a perfect last stop on the itinerary, as it is relaxing and everyone can indulge in a favorite southern France pastime, i.e. shopping, drinking, eating and loitering.
Editor’s Note: Amie received a media rate on the Athos du Midi. As always, our opinions on Ciao Bambino are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.
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