Barging in France: The Canal de Garonne
Towns & Villages
The Canal de la Garonne is a connection between the two historical cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse. It passes through a countryside filled with charm and culture, though shrouded by the shade of wars, persecutions and pestilence. The canal dates from the mid-19th century and wends its way through a pastoral landscape, linking medieval towns and villages.
This area is abundant in bastide towns. Bastide towns date from the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Essentially they are walled towns set around a central market square, often on a grid, mainly in Southwest France. It was common for homes to have the same or similar designs. Generally, the church was close to the square, yet it was often set back from it.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela was a major destination for numerous pilgrims from all over Europe. To reach Spain, the pilgrims had to travel through France. One of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela passes through the Aquitaine region of France with many historical sites in the towns and villages along the Canal de Garonne.
Map of the Canal de Garrone
There are many great towns around the Canal de Garonne and one of the best is Buzet-sur-Baïsse. It was a community of villas and farms built by the Romans high in the hills and terraces surrounding the village. In the Middle Ages, a small town began to develop around the 13th-century castle, which to this day sits atop a rocky spur overlooking the valleys of Bénac and Baïsse.
There were likely many noble families, each of whom had a building. Of these buildings, two remain: a tower in the estate of the current château and another château, which has been attributed to the 15th century. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, only one lord remained. He worked on modernizing the Château de Buzet by adding two new towers, two spiral staircases and, in the 18th century, two new wings which have since disappeared. Noble families continued to occupy the château until 1929. In 2018, it was acquired by the Cave des Vignerons de Buzet.
Towards the end of the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, a small hamlet of wine growers developed beside the stream at Bénac. The principal activity of the area has always been agriculture, viticulture in particular. There was also much flour milling activity in the various mills of the Bénac stream, and especially at the Mill in Baïsse. In the aftermath of the First World War, the mill was converted into a pencil factory, and this new industry made Buzet known throughout France. In the 1960s, production ceased, and the building abandoned.
Grape harvest, Buzet
Buzet is now known worldwide for the Cave des Vignerons, which started in the 1950s, thanks to the will of a handful of winemakers who wanted to free themselves from the support of traders. It was a success, both qualitative and commercial, beyond the expectations of its creators. The cooperage of the town is also a stage for the ballet-like art of barrel-making.
Agen is a good-sized town on the Garonne River. It is the attractive provincial capital, where the Agen Aqueduct (Pont-Canal d'Agen) spans the Garonne. As the prune production center of France, Agen is sometimes called the Capital of Prunes. It cultivates vast orchards of plum trees, brought to France in the 11th century by crusaders returning from the Middle East. The old center of town contains a number of medieval buildings, such as the 12th-century Agen Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Caprasius. It is one of the few large churches in France with a double nave. The town is also a mecca for rugby with the local team, SU Agen, playing in the top tier of professional French rugby.
Municipal Theater and Museum of Fine Arts, Agen
The Museum of Fine Arts of Agen (Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Agen), founded in 1876 and located in the historical heart of the city, is lodged in four magnificent Renaissance mansions. The museum contains remarkable collections of archaeology, paintings, sculptures and decorative arts, including an exceptional group of canvases by Goya and the famous Vénus du Mas d'Agenais sculpture. The museum is one of best in Aquitaine.
Lamagistère is on the River Garonne, overlooked by the hilltop village of Clermont Soubiran. During the WWII, Lamagistère was at the center of a joint Franco-American operation to sabotage vital railway lines between Toulouse and Bordeaux. A German garrison heavily defended the railway, and the operation is still one of the little-known episodes of the French Resistance.
Abbey of St-Pierre, Moissac
Many consider Moissac to be the most beautiful and interesting of the towns on the Canal de Garonne, with thanks to its staircase of locks decorated with flowers. The Abbey of St-Pierre, dating from 1115-30, is partly Romanesque and partly Gothic,and has one of the most impressive and elaborate Romanesque portals of the 12th century. This church is a site on the World Heritage Site Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France. Moissac is also known for its golden dessert grapes.
In a small town nearby, is the birthplace of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a French explorer and adventurer in New France. In 1701, he founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit which became the city of Detroit. He was the governor of Louisiana between 1710 and 1716. The city of Detroit became the world center of automobile production in the 20th century. The Cadillac auto company paid homage to him by using his name for their company and his self-created armorial bearings as its logo in 1902.
Valence d'Agen, built in 1283 by Edward I of England, is a large, thriving market town, which is also an ancient bastide. It has an impressive canal side public wash house.
St-Saviour's Church, Castelsarrasin
Castelsarrasin, set amidst scattered fields and orchards, played an important part during the Hundred Years' War. Of interest is part of its fortifications and St-Saviour's Church, with its superb Baroque furniture (17th and 18th century). Equally charming are the floral decorations that adorn the town, for which it has been awarded numerous accolades.
In the early twelfth century, Montech was a fortified village that belonged to the counts of Toulouse. Montech experienced economic prosperity in the eighteenth century, linked to the textile industry, and it is nowadays known for its charm and its variety of tourist attractions including the water slope (see above). There are many monuments to remind us of the glorious past of Montech. Surrounding the village is Montech Forest, a dense, old woodland covering 1,460 hectares (3,607 acres), that provides a wonderful place for horse riding, cycling, or hiking. The short Canal de Montech cuts through the forest and has nine charming lock-keeper's houses.
Toulouse is a major industrial and university city, the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées, and the fourth largest city in France. Known as La Ville Rose (Pink City) because of its weathered red brick buildings, it is only 60 miles from the border with Spain. Toulouse's site on the banks of the Garonne dates from the 4th century BC when founded by the Aquitani tribe. It was later part of Roman Gaul and became a separate country in 843 AD. The rich history of Toulouse is reflected in the city's architectural splendors.
The Basilica of Saint Sernin
The 12th-century basilica of St-Sernin in Toulouse is the largest Romanesque church in Western Europe. The church and the cloisters of the Jacobins form the most complete group of monastic structures in France. Also of interest is the St-Étienne cathedral and the many hotel particuliers (private mansions) of the Renaissance era. Toulouse has long been a cultural and commercial power, but it has an artistic side to it as well, no doubt fueled by its large student population. It is a city filled with gardens and squares, delighting those who enjoy strolling, and also have 20 historic pipe organs.
Approximately 5 miles northwest of the city, in the suburb of Blagnac, sits the European headquarters of aircraft manufacturer, Airbus. Within the international airport of Toulouse-Blagnac's perimeter is a fascinating museum, which documents the history of Airbus, Aeroscopia. Its most impressive features are two Concordes, both of which can be visited, a Super Guppy transporter, and a replica of the first airplane to have crossed the English channel in 1909.
Auvillar Grain Market
Auvillar, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Garonne River, is an old toll and merchant-barge port. Considered by some to be one of the most beautiful villages in France, it has far-reaching views across open countryside. Auvillar's historic monuments include the 14th-century chapel of Saint Catherine, who, along with Saint Nicholas, is the Patron Saint of mariners. A 17th-century clock tower houses the barge museum and nearby is the 19th-century covered circular grain market. Within the market, there are still two types of grain measures; a metal measure and a stone measure, dating from the construction of the original rectangular building.
Church of Saint-Peter, Auvillar
Auvillar's Church of Saint-Peter has ancient roots as a Benedictine priory from the 12th century, with the only part remaining from this period being the small chapel at the back of the church. Over the centuries, the rest of the church has gone through several reconstructions, repairs, and modifications due to damage inflicted during the Hundred Year’s War and the Wars of Religion.
According to some, Nérac, on the River Baïsse, once hosted Shakespeare. A further claim is that the banks of the River Baïsse inspired the setting for Love's Labour Lost. At one time, Nérac was the spiritual and cultural capital of the region. Château de Nérac was the childhood residence of King Henri IV. Wander around the quaint winding streets and discover a wonderful variety of half-timbered and stone houses, as well as the beautiful Parc Royal of Queen Margot.
Vianne, also on the River Baïsse, is another of the historic bastides. Started in 1284 and finished in 1287 Vianne is one of the most interesting bastides because of its formal plan and its well-preserved walls and gates. Most of the buildings in the village today, date from the 19th and 20th centuries, although the fortified town still has walls, two corner towers, and four tower gates from earlier times. Vianne's famous glassworks led to the growth of many associated crafts, such as glazed earthenware production, crystal carving, and glass blowing.
Ready to Explore the Canal de Garonne?
Guests cruising the Canal de Garonne aboard the luxury French Hotel Barge Rosa will visit many of the sites listed above.
French Hotel Barge Cruises - Canal de Garonne
Southwest France, Gascony-Bordeaux
Up to 8 guests
Charters and Cabin cruises
Golf (Gascony), Wine (Bordeaux)