The Canal du Midi is considered one of greatest construction works of the 17th century. It spans 150 miles from the city of Toulouse to Lake Thau, near the Mediterranean, and links with the Canal de Garonne to join the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea in a grand feat of imperial engineering. Curiously the canal never quite lived up to its intended purpose, which was to transport goods on barges pulled along by horses. The arrival of the railroad put paid to that. Now used primarily for recreation and river tourism, the towpaths make for particularly good bike lanes. Today, I boarded a private barge in Carcassonne – not the one pictured above, thank you very much – and spent a few languorous hours cruising through the double leaf locks at a snail’s pace. The wine flowed freely, a memorable lunch was served (more on that later), and plane trees framed every idyllic view. Though the manual opening of the sluices and lock gates has long ago been replaced by electrification, the collection of tolls remains refreshingly antediluvian: each lock has its own local keeper, who won’t let you pass until you pay up.