The week-long cruise includes a visit to Beziers, the capital of Languedoc wine country, where a third of the country’s output originates, and Capestang with river and canal craft of every shape, size and vintage, tied up and mostly going nowhere, thanks to the idyllic perfection their owners have discovered there.
The entire region is steeped in the tragic history of the Cathars, the sect which, when hounded to extinction, took refuge in the castles and fortified hill towns and were proscribed as heretics by Pope Innocent III in the 13th Century. Nowehere is their story told more powerfully than in the little museum in Minerve, sitting at the very heart of Minervois wine country.
Clinging precariously to a weather-worn outcrop of blonde standstone, between the gorges of the Cesse and Briant Rivers which in winter thunder past to merge as an eroding force at its base, this place may look peaceful now, but the air of stillness conceals a wicked past.
It was here that the notoriously cruel Simon de Montford decreed that the inhabitants would be given one final chance to join the Catholic Church or face death following a seven-week seige.
The Cathars declined and, abhorring the materialism and power of the established church, and proclaiming instead the simple Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount, said the option to stay in the physical world, inherently evil and the creation of the Devil, was not for them.
As a result, de Montford and his men continued their relentless campaign to hound them to death. And, on July 22, 1210, a massive bonfire was lit outside the little chapel and each of the 180 Cathars chose to seek salvation by stepping into its flames.
Another extraordinary site seven kilometres southwest of Beziers, is viewed from the 2600-year-old Neolithic settlement at L’Oppidum d’Enserune, later inhabited by the Romans, who devised an immense cartwheel-like water-gathering system at the foot of the hill as a giant storage basin.
Today the Etang de Montady is drained but local farmers have retained its form and still cultivate the tapering radial pattern of fields and the central circular hub to provide a unique landscape and one which is unsurprisingly photographed widely throughout its changing seasons – and frequently from the air.
As the barge completed the six-kilometre stretch to Capestang, to the raucous welcome of the local duck mafia who approached mob-handed and quacking furiously for titbits, we hopped off for a cycle along the towpath to give the place a quick once over.
Then, it was all aboard the mini bus for the first long-awaited tasting at Chateau de Raissac, where they have been producing some of the region’s outstanding wines for five generations.
There are cases of deliciously fruity Chardonnay on sale at these caves for around unbelievably cheap per bottle rates which can be found in some of the better wines shops of the UK for over five times the price.
Later, at dinner onboard, they let us sample the best the cellars had to offer. European Waterways have gained a fine and well-deserved reputation in the thirty six years they have been entertaining clients to the tastier side of life in France.
Friends from California who had been onboard Anjodi the previous season and rhapsodised about the food and wine served up at meal times, received a quick e-mail on my return.
It said: “Thankyou, Thankyou, Thankyou. That’s one we owe you.”
* Pic below shows another group of happy European Waterways customers with Brenda (left) and head skipper extraordinaire Leigh Wooten (right).
For reservations or more information, including full-colour brochure, contact the team on 01753 598555 or visit the https://www.europeanwaterways.com/ website