A Consummate Cruise of Cuisine, Castles, Crusades, and Curiosities

A big thank you to France Cruises for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Every now and then we embark on a journey without a clear idea of exactly what to expect. This trip to the Occitanie region in southern France was one of those occasions.

It was not for a lack of research prior to setting out, just that no amount of reading could really prepare us for an experience so completely exceptional and unusual.

The crew of the Clair de Lune.
The crew of the Clair de Lune… Manora, Nathalie, and Yves.

We have been on plenty of boats before, but never one like the Clair de Lune; and cruises have taken us across oceans and seas, as well as down some of Europe’s most famous rivers, but never anything like the Canal du Midi.

No, this was a voyage of discovery, not only of new territory, but of engineering marvels, foods, wines, people, castles, churches, crusades, sieges, slaughters, and scenery.

Yes, it even has a hot tub!

Boats have long been the preferred method for hauling large amounts of heavy cargo over long distances. Large ships took to the seas at least five thousand years ago, when the ancient Egyptians began building sailing craft over one hundred feet long.

Several thousand years later rivers became highways, but there was one big drawback. The rivers didn’t go everywhere that the cargo needed to. Sometimes following the water meant adding hundreds, or even thousands of miles to a trip.

Human ingenuity being what it is, before long canals were dug and barges were built specifically to haul people and goods using horse power. A draft animal walking along the shore could pull up to fifty times as much on water as it could in a cart on land.

French wine
Wine was instrumental in the creation of the Canal du Midi.

With this in mind Pierre-Paul Riquet developed a plan to transport wine by connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean across southern France while bypassing the Straights of Gibraltar. Ambitious, to say the least, especially in 1665.

After nearly going broke in his endeavor, he managed to get the blessing of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances under King Louis the fourteenth.

This alliance made possible one of the world’s great engineering marvels for the time, the Canal du Midi, and allowed us to enjoy a most interesting cruise nearly four centuries later.

We climbed aboard a refurbished barge that began as a working vessel hauling heavy loads back in 1935, and was converted in 1998 to continue its life as a luxury vacation cruiser.

Lock on the Canal du Midi
Going through a lock. Easy as 1. Pull in 2. Fill up with water 3. Pull out.

This meant that we could not only see, but also ride through the locks that ancient engineers used to solve the problem of raising and lowering boats.

We also eased easily through the first tunnel ever built for a canal, along with several aqueduct bridges where our barge passed over rivers.

These waterway over water crossings were unique to say the least.

Another interesting aspect is that the towpath that the draft horses used to pull the barges makes a great bike trail, and of course several bikes were on board so we took advantage.

Each evening we tied off in stunning surroundings, either in the midst of towns that measure their age in centuries not years, or ageless secluded countryside all to ourselves.

Our captain / boat designer / wine connoisseur, Yves, navigated the tight spaces with all of the aplomb that years of experience brings, then gracefully transitioned into sommelier at meals and talented guitar entertainer afterwards.

Speaking of meals, our in-house chef Nathalie prepared flawless gourmet dishes at both lunch and dinner every day of the trip, without even the slightest deviation from perfection. All of these were impeccably served, with a complete explanation of ingredients and background, by our hostess and first-mate Manora.

If it sounds as though we are gushing, it is simply because we are. For us, after ten years of nearly nonstop traveling, this was a week like none other.

In addition to the time aboard the Clair de Lune, each day included a guided tour of some of the region’s most notable historic sights. We can only say that many of these were nothing short of epic. This corner of southern France has been a crossroads of civilizations since before Roman times.

We wandered the walls of hilltop fortifications built by the Gauls or Celts, both of which were here long before the time of Christ. These were then added on to by a succession of Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, Franks, and finally the modern French monarchy and republic.

The most impressive of these, among many most impressive sites, was the fortified city of Carcassonne.

Here we could easily see the distinct differences in the construction from most of those groups we just named.

Our personal guide, Antoine, pointed out the idiosyncrasies of each style while we meandered around, through, and between the walls. There was so much to take in at Carcassonne that we will have to do a separate story just on the city soon.

We visited another incredible fortified city a few days later when we toured Minerve. The entire town stands atop an outcrop high above two rivers, making for a nearly perfect natural stronghold.

We also learned that the perch proved to be imperfect early in the thirteenth century when the Albigensian Crusade, an alliance of troops faithful to the pope, came to lay siege, and ultimately wiped out the religious sect known as the Cathars that were living there.

We will certainly have more to say about these events soon as well.

While these two stops stand out, we walked through history going back over two thousand years every day, from Roman roads in Narbonne, to towering cathedrals in Bréziers, to an ancient Celtic dolmen standing alone in the forest still aligned with the solstice.

We encountered so much that this is one of those trips that will take some time for us to digest all of the mind boggling information that we consumed.

Maybe even longer than all of the food.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our previous adventures in France!

A big thank you to France Cruises for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

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3 thoughts on “A Consummate Cruise of Cuisine, Castles, Crusades, and Curiosities”

  1. I love cruising and I love Europe but have never prioritized going to France. After reading your article I am adding this cruise to my list of ‘musts’ for my next trip to Europe. Thank you!

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