The Canal de Garonne forms a vital part of the network of canals that allow visitors on a barge holiday in France to cruise unimpeded from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Totalling 193km in length, the canal runs from Castets-en-Dorthe to beyond Toulouse and is studded with dozens of locks and bridges. It is possible to cycle along the entire Canal and there are numerous opportunities for excursions to the region’s notable towns and cities en route.
Work began on the Canal in 1838, although it would be a further seventeen years before it was completed. With engineer Jean-Baptiste de Baudre masterminding construction, thousands of labourers worked to complete it. Immense effort meant the section connecting Toulouse and Agen was ready by 1850, and the stretch between Agen and the terminus at Castets-en-Dorthe by 1856. It was only as recently as the 1970s – with the decline in commercial freight along the canal – that the idea of a barge holiday in France became a reality.
The skill of both worker and engineer in realising this project is most evident at the Agen aqueduct and the Montech water slope. Upon its completion, the former was France’s longest navigable aqueduct, encompassing 539m in length. Supported by 23 arches, its simple cut stone composition belies the complexity of its execution.
The Montech water slope is an equally remarkable, if much more recent feat of engineering. Built in 1973 and entirely unique, it operates by trapping water between three walls. The triangle then slides up a 3° slope, bringing the boat and water up 43 feet. This enables certain barges to circumnavigate a five-lock flight of 1¾ miles in length. A triumph of efficiency and Archimedean imagination, the theory behind the slope is credited to the nineteenth-century German engineer Julius Greve. It is inventions such as these that help make a barge holiday in France a wonderfully smooth experience today.
There will never be a dull moment on your barge holiday; in France you are rarely far away from a historic town or city and the Canal de Garonne is no different. Agen is the provincial capital and its centre features several medieval religious buildings, such as the twelfth-century cathedral dedicated to Caprasius, a local saint martyred in the early fourth century during the rule of Diocletian. A trip to the charming town of Moissac gives the opportunity to visit the Abbey of St-Pierre, whose amalgam of Gothic and Romanesque façades date from the seventh century.
Toulouse needs little introduction, courtesy of its distinctive pink and red brick buildings – which have given it the name La Ville Rose – and wonderful array of churches, art galleries and civic buildings. The basilica of Saint-Sernin, Western Europe’s largest Romanesque church and a key stop for pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela, is particularly exquisite, inspiring awe from its sheer size and beauty as well as providing space for contemplation in the cloisters.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury itineraries for a barge holiday in France. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.