The Whistletrip: Itinerary
- Day 1: Marseillan
- Day 2: Agde to Béziers
- Day 3: Béziers to Capestang via Poilhes
Historical towns, tranquil beaches, scenic countryside – with the gastronomical excellence and sunny elegance of Southern France. Understated Languedoc lacks the razzle dazzle found further along the Mediterranean coast – leaving you free to enjoy pleasant wineries and stunning architecture without the crowds.
This 3-day itinerary marked the first half of my adventure along the Canal du Midi, which links Agde, Béziers and Capestang. While each day brought a new town to explore, each evening unveiled an unexpectedly wonderful guesthouse. These boutique properties offer outstanding value for money, unique ambiance, and attentive service – as much hidden gems as the towns they stand in.
To Travel Agent or Not To Travel Agent
Definitely not. Kayak and Booking.com are all you need.
I walked along the Canal du Midi for the whole of days 2 and 3, hiring Bagafrance to collect my luggage each morning and drop it off at my next hotel before I arrived there. The total of 30 miles and 10 hours on foot included some very pretty stretches along the canal – mainly in the 2 hours before arriving in Béziers on day 2 and for much of the way between Béziers and Capestang on day 3.
Most of the path along the Canal du Midi has little shade and there are almost no canal side cafes or shops in this stretch at which to reload on water – you must buy a full day’s fluids from towns before you set off in the morning and carry it all with you.
Pack solid walking shoes and socks. Running shoes seemed to work fine until the August heat and repeated motion on the flat path created mighty blisters. Carry Compeed just in case – it is super light, fits in your pocket, and is far more effective than band aids.
If you decide not to walk, the best place to rent a car is in Béziers. Automatic cars are rare so if you cannot drive manual / stick shift, book your car at least 4 weeks in advance and be prepared to pay a hefty premium. Taxis are limited outside Béziers and there is no Uber.
Closest large airports are at Toulouse and Montpelier, and Béziers is served by flights on Ryanair. which are served in Europe by discount airlines. Train connections to Agde are user friendly and fast.
Day 1: Marseillan
Sitting on the Étang de Thau lagoon, Marseillan has been aptly described by The Guardian newspaper as “like St Tropez before Bardot”. Reaching town in the late afternoon and with only one night planned there, I soon regretted not spending more time in this attractive port. Marseillan is home to oyster farming and vegetable growing, guaranteeing fresh meals filled with local ingredients, as I discovered at a delicious seafood supper. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is its Noilly-Prat Factory, which has been making its dry vermouth to the same secret recipe since 1813 and is open to visitors.
The old town center is charming, with an arched covered market that hosts weekly produce sales and, in July and August, artisans selling handmade soaps, crafts, books, and home baked cookies until as late as midnight – scheduled for each Friday, though I was lucky to catch them on a Wednesday evening. Stock up at the markets or at the good boulangerie for a picnic to enjoy at the pretty beach of Marseillan Plage.
Don’t miss walking the promenade in the evening for a beautiful sunset over the lagoon.
- Stay: Le Chambres d’Andréa, walking distance from the port. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, the relatively small facade of this vigneron house belies 5 well sized, classically decorated guest rooms, a welcoming kitchen, cozy library, and a spacious garden with a chic pool area and sandy boules court. Fresh continental breakfast is included in the room rate and is served outside among fig and cypress trees.
- Eat: Sit outside at La Maison de Camille, waterside at 12 Quai Antonin Gros, for fresh seafood and raw platters while gazing out at little boats peppering the port.
Day 2: Agde to Béziers
A quick taxi ride brought me from Marseillan to Agde, which was founded in 525 B.C. and is one of the oldest towns in France. Now a bustling port town, it was even busier on this particular day as its sprawling Thursday clothes market was well underway along the Rue du 4 Septembre. Filled mainly with t-shirts, knock-off branded shoes, and the occasional home products stands, it was a useful spot to pick up a much-needed hat before starting the long day’s walk.
Armed with a map from the Office de Tourisme and their directions towards the right starting point, I crossed the town’s bridge over the River Hérault to meet the Canal du Midi at the circular Agde Round Lock. From here, I headed towards Béziers.
The first hour heading out of Agde was quiet and pleasant. The Canal du Midi is not, however, particularly attractive for several hours beyond that: in parts, it runs parallel to roads and sometimes feels industrial. In the approach to Béziers, it transforms into the often-photographed tree lined waterway that makes a visit so appealing.
At a fork in the path, I took a fortuitous wrong turn which had me walking to the heart of Béziers along the River Orb. This brought a close up view of Le Pont Vieux, the lovely medieval stone bridge at the base of the town’s bluff.
One of the oldest cities in France, dating from 575 BC, Béziers is famous for its August bullfighting Feria, when over a million people descend on it. I missed this (or stayed away!) but it is worth checking whether a visit might coincide. For such a low-key town, there is in fact a lot to see in Béziers, including the Musée des Beaux-Arts with its Holbeins and Van Goghs, and several beautiful churches.
- Stay: La Villa Guy. This family-owned guesthouse hides behind high gates and walls in a residential part of town – and it is spectacular. The lovingly renovated 19th century Flemish style villa houses spacious shabby chic guest suites, a gym, a billiards and card room, stained glass solariums, and an elegant dark-painted bar. I was met with a refreshing aperitif and extremely friendly staff, who offered SUV drop offs into the town center for supper.
A phenomenal breakfast is served on the bar’s huge balcony, which overlooks the wonderful pool and the property’s extensive – and flawlessly maintained – gardens.
Perhaps most impressive is the way La Villa Guy cleverly blends a sophisticated contemporary art collection -that feels like the family’s own – into the grand, historic rooms. Pieces include huge prints by photographer Romina Ressia, and her appropriate playful focus on depicting anachronisms.
Rates are much lower than they should be for a boutique experience like this one – staying here was a highlight of a week exploring the Canal du Midi. La Villa Guy’s website is in French but email the team and they speak fluent English. You can also make reservations through booking.com.
Shop: Meander through the back streets off Place de Trois Six to enjoy contemporary art galleries, boutique stores and bookshops in attractive 19th century buildings. This is also the spot for al fresco cafe lunches or an evening exploring attractive bar-restaurants.
- Drink: If you have a car, be sure to visit the winery at Château St Pierre de Serjac. Just a 25 minute drive from Béziers, the magnificent 200 acre estate hosts tours and tastings.
Day 3: Béziers to Capestang via Poilhes
The natural starting point for the walk out of Béziers is the site of Fonserannes Locks that allow boats on the Canal du Midi to cross the River Orb. Closed off until summer 2017, these are a famous feat of engineering and worth checking out.
The over 4 hour walk to Capestang is picturesque, with the path often rising up above the water level to afford views across the vineyards to farms or villages. Beyond the village of Colombiers’ leafy canal side marina, where I picked up a welcome cold soda and an ice cream, much of the path sits directly under the scorching sun. One exception is the 173 meter stretch through the Malpas Tunnel, which was excavated in 1679 under the hill d’Ensérune. It is so dark inside that the entry of a barge, though noisy, is welcome for the light.
The path eventually yields trees again to the approach to the tiny hamlet of Poilhes, with its population of under 700. The Canal du Midi runs through the heart of the village, where my blistered feet gave way, and I capitulated to a taxi ride to my hotel in Capestang.
- Stay: Château Les Carrasses. The striking 19th century resort has a wonderful infinity pool looking out to vines, a tennis court, a boulodrome, an orchard and an olive grove. Rooms in the château itself are either elegant large suites or apartments with modern kitchen facilities and access to a laundry area in one of the stairwells, while one to three bedroom cottages each with a private garden or pool (or both) radiate out from the main building. A greenhouse converted into a year-round glass library is a charming touch.
- Eat: Vinauberge in Poilhes for delicious pizzettes and charcuterie boards accompanied by Languedoc wines. The umbrella-ed patio made for a perfect resting spot after a day of walking under the sun.
© Ann Berry