France Unlocked; A Canal Boating Holiday Is One of the Best Ways of Seeing Rural France. but Where Should You Go and How Do You Avoid Catastrophe? Anthony Peregrine Offers a Beginner's Guide

Article excerpt

Byline: ANTHONY PEREGRINE

FOR MOST of the time, canal boating in France is a tranquil affair. All the brochures say as much.

What they don't tell the newcomer is that the canals also provide moments of mouth-drying terror.

Just wait until you chug up to your first closed lock gates.

We'd been on the Canal-du-Midi in Southern France for about 20 minutes when it happened.

Waterborne composure evaporated. So did all memory of my half-hour's instruction back at base at Port Cassafieres.

I couldn't even remember how to stop the boat, managing only a slow spin, a manoeuvre which leaves other canal users profoundly unimpressed.

Eventually, I spun near enough to the bank to throw my son ashore before proving - as the gates opened - that you can't get a 30ft cruiser into a lock sideways. Having finally managed to crash in, I threw ropes towards my son so he could tie up the monster. I missed spectacularly.

The lockkeeper indicated that it might be better if I were nearer the side.

Excellent idea, except that all the boat seemed to want to do was blast out through the gates at the other end. I realised I was about to (a) write off [pounds sterling]60,000 worth of cruiser, and (b) become the laughing stock of the French inland navigation world.

Somehow, by a process I still cannot describe, we emerged from the hellhole miraculously unscathed. My son jumped back aboard - hoping fervently that he'd been adopted and had a real father somewhere else.

Things got a little better. And, on a second trip - from Castelnaudary - we were able to approach locks without fearing that lives and reputations were at stake.

In fact, these moments - once so horrifying - soon furnished the mild excitement essential to the appreciation of the otherwise reigning calm.

Apart from sleeping for a week (and locks aside), there's no more relaxing holiday known to man.

Cruising through countryside at 5mph, you enter a different dimension of time and space. After five hours, you arrive in a village which seems an awful long way from anywhere, except that you could have done it in 20 minutes by car. You develop our ancestors' appreciation of distance and of the countryside.

Hills, woods and vineyards drift past as you glide along at walking pace able to study the occasional heron or kingfisher.

It's a pace which demands adaptation on the part of fast, modern folk. But give it an hour or two (and a glass or two) and you'll never want to speed up again.

And France is the place to be, not least because, at 5,300 miles, its navigable waterways network is the Continent's most extensive. It criss-crosses a wide variety of lovely landscapes, from the vineyards of Burgundy to the soft greenery of Anjou and sun-flayed slopes of the Midi.

Oddly, though, the French themselves aren't enthusiastic canal-boaters. The vast majority of floating tourists - 70 per cent or more - are foreigners, mainly from English-speaking nations. …