WHO: Mary, 68, and Bart Heller, 65, of Canton, and Madeline and Michael Trotta, both 61, of Sharon.
WHERE: Southern France by barge.
WHEN: One week in September.
WHY: Mary Heller learned about the weeklong barge trip along the Canal du Midi when she saw a photo exhibit by someone who had done the ride. "I planned the same trip," Mary said.
THE CREW: The Hellers, Trottas, and three others, from Chicago and Oregon, shared the barge. "We're all motor-homers, so we're used to living in 600 or 800 square feet," Mary said. "Several of us had had boating experience, and Michael had owned a boat." He served as captain, and everyone had assigned roles. "That made it very easy. There was not one moment of discontent."
STRAIGHT AHEAD: "The canal was fairly narrow and the sides were sandy banks," Bart said. "The boat could go only 8 or 9 miles an hour. All you had to do was go forward, though parking takes a little learning. There were no turns, so you couldn't get lost. We embarked from Castelnaudary, near Toulouse, and ended at Port Cassafières. Most of where we went through was very rural, quaint French villages and lots of vineyards. Sometimes we went through the towns and other times you could see them in the distance." They took bicycles to use in town and on the gravel path that runs alongside the canal. Along with French tourists there were many international visitors in the country for the Rugby World Cup.
WATER WORKS: The barge, rented through Crown Blue Line, had two bedrooms in the front and two in the back, with three bathrooms and a small kitchen. "It was a bit disconcerting to realize there's no sanitation system," Mary said. "What you put into toilets and sinks goes into the canal. I put on rubber gloves when I was handling ropes."
MEDIEVAL MAGIC: "Our main stop was Carcassonne," Bart said. "We tied into the little port area for two nights. We walked up to the medieval walled city high on the hill, their major attraction. They have a castle that's been magnificently restored. "
LOCKED IN: "We had to go through about 60 locks all week," Mary said. "Each lock has a lockkeeper. They usually hold two to four boats. You tie up, they lower the water, take the ropes off, open the gates and you go through. You learn to do that quickly, but still it could be half an hour." At first they were fascinating, Bart said, "then it got to be work. If you got to go an hour without tying or untying, locking or unlocking, you were lucky."
WORLD HAPPY HOUR: In Bèziers, they struck up a conversation with a couple from Cape Cod. "We said, 'Come have a glass of wine,' and we all sat down," Mary said. "Then along comes a couple from South Africa, then another group, mostly from Australia, with several from England. There we were on the side of the canal, watching the sun going down. For me, that was the highlight of the trip, meeting people from all over."
SEE WHERE THEY WENT