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Locking through France

Neither Wind nor Chill Dilutes the Beauty of the Historic Canal du Midi
By Sandra Scott

Free air travel that would have expired in May made it possible for us to revisit France this spring to do something we have always wanted to do- tale a boat trip on the Midi Canal, one of the France's many waterways.

The first day we spent in Paris, where we walked along the Seine and visited Sainte-Chapelle. The Gothic church, just a short walk from Notre Dame, is noted for exquisite stained glass windows, which were used during medieval times to teach Bible stories.

Finished in 1248, two-thirds of the 15 stained glass panels are original. The sun-light shining though the glass gives a new perspective to the name "The City of Light."

The next day we boarded the TGV, the "bullet train," for our five-hour trip to Toulouse in the south of France.

Loose in Toulouse
Spring in Toulouse means the flowers are out. In the evening, sidewalk cafes fill with leisurely diners.

Near Toulouse, France's aerospace center, we toured the Airbus factory, where one of the many planes being assembled is for Jet Blue.

Soon we were off to Castlenaudry, a one-hour trip from Toulouse by train, to begin our trip on the Midi Canal.

Lots of Locks
We soon boarded our 29-foot cabin cruiser to traverse 94 miles of the 155-mile Canal du Midi.

The canal was competed in 1681, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, (The Canal du Midi runs from the Mediterranean to Toulouse; the Canal du Garonne connects Toulouse to the Atlantic.)

After being checked out in boat operations, we stocked up on groceries, including locally prepared Casserole, a regional specialty made of white beans cooked with two kinds of sausage and duck and baked in a traditional clay pot. It made a delicious dinner.

The first day, we could see the snow-covered Pyrenees in the distance. It was cold and the wind blew with a vengeance, so we pushed on for 61/2 hours traveling only 10 miles but through 17 locks.

By the end of the say, my husband, John, had mastered driving the boat and we felt confident about "locking through."

John maneuvered the boat into the unique oval locks and I hopped off with the mooring lines. John worked the stern rope from the topside steering deck and I took care of the bow rope. If the lock was automated, I got back in the boat and we eased up on the roped as the boat descended.

If the lock was hand-operated, I worked my rope from shore and helped the lockkeeper by turning the handle that opened the gate on my side, then walked down the stairs to the lower level where John picked me up. Thankfully, most of 64 locks in this section are automated. Unfortunately, the weather was cool and cloudy; the sun waited until our last day to show itself - but it did not dampen our spirits.

We preferred it to the summertime when the canal is jammed with boaters. The trees that line the canal are partially leafed, the flowers are in bloom and the grapevines are crowned with new growth.

This area produces more wine than any other in France, co vineyards offer free wine-tasting in hopes of making a sale. The Canal meanders through the countryside with a beautiful view at every turn.

The towpath is well used by bikers, joggers and people walking their dogs. We used our bikes (a weekly rental through the same boat company) for quick jaunts into picturesque villages, centered around a medieval church or chateau, to buy fresh baguettes.

Our major tourist stop was in Carcassonne, a charming place with one of Europe's largest fortifies cities that look like a scene from "Cinderella."

We would love to spend more time on the canal, but tomorrow we leave for Marseilles, where we will stay a couple of days before flying to Corsica.

For more information on travel within France visit us.franceguide.com or call (410) 286-8310.

For more information about boating on the Canal du Midi check with a travel agent or do a search for "Canal du Midi rentals." You will find a lot of references for self-skippered boats and barge rentals.

We rented our boat from Crown Blue Line. It can be contacted at www.crown-blueline.com or call (888) 355-9491. The off-season price for the boat, one of the smallest, was $725 for the week, including gas, tolls and waterway guide. Off-season spans the end of March into April and then returns in October. The high-season rates of $1,205 apply during July and August, Sliding-scale rates apply in between.

For rail information, check www.raileurope.com or call (800) 438-7245

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