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2000, Boating in France

Canal du midi  

There was a manic quality to the long drive through France,more hectic than the average motorway hop. This was it, the big one, le fortnight. No time to lose. The French have a habit of signalling an overtaking manoeuvre, then persisting with the signal as if in a permanent overtaking mode. It says "get out of my way".

This was no way to start a holiday but at least there would be time to relax at the end of the road. The race to Castelnaudary in Aude had one design - to make the canal basin in time to board our boat. Where better to find peace and tranquillity than puttering down the Canal du Midi in a cabin cruiser?

Well, the answer is just about anywhere. It seemed so after a few hours of aggressive boating. But what can you expect when you remove those overtaking Frenchmen from their Citroens, give them a captain's cap, put them on a boat and hand them the keys? Nothing changes. One hand takes the wheel, the other is jammed on the throttle.

Let them go, I should have said, but no. This was a race. Not just between the French and the British. There were Spanish and Germans, too, all competing in a series of jostling sprints between locks with occasional exchanges in what executives like to claim on their CVs is "conversational French".

"Il est tres difficile," said the Spaniard as he panicked at the wheel and his boat swung wide, broaching the canal as we entered the first lock. I nodded smugly. Eight hours and 19 locks later, at the end of a punishing run, the smile had hardened, drawn tightly around gritted teeth. This was war.

We offloaded bicycles and pedalled, uphill, in search of a restaurant. Instead, we found more Frenchmen, just as determined as their boating compatriots, at a different kind of war - the national petanque championships - in the medieval village of Bram.

They were a tough-looking lot, swarthy, tattooed, pot-bellied in the main. This was not the petanque I had played but a more violent version in which opponents' balls were blasted away from the jack in well-aimed throws that drew gasps and nasal grunts of approval from the crowd. We reached the restaurant before the rush. The petanque players looked hungry.

I made a decision. No more racing. It would be half throttle all the way from now on. It was time to start puttering. Next morning we cycled back into town for bread and maggots. The bread was for breakfast, the maggots for fishing.

In France, you are supposed to buy a fishing licence, and I could think of scores of reasons to justify not doing so.

When we fished, we caught bream, roach, dace and catfish - and the hire boats kept on chugging by, exposing the roots of the bankside plane trees with their wash. On the second day, we passed through three locks and felt much better. I found the nearest wine-lake - three large steel vats dominating the village - and filled up with the local four-star vin rouge, using something which looked very like a petrol pump.

The Canal du Midi, between Castelnaudary and Carcassonne, is about as featureless as it is possible to get in France.

There are none of the bankside pubs you find on English canals. The nearest we came to bankside entertainment was a canal-keeper's cottage that advertised a large botanical collection in its expansive grounds.

It turned out to be a back garden with a collection of uninspiring Mediterranean plants, three goats and a beehive. So we fished some more.

By the time we reached Carcassonne, all the racing boats had taken the town centre moorings. We moored on the approaches, then had a family row that bordered on mutiny in the confines of a small boat.

The children did not want to see Carcassonne or its famous castle. They wanted to fish. But they were going to see the castle and that was that. We walked there in single file, a parent at either end acting like warders accompanying new inmates to their cells.

At the castle, they brightened. It had potential. Carcassonne is like some Hollywood fortress, built for a Cecil B. de Mille epic.

Thanks to a not always faithful 19th century restoration programme, started by architect Viollet-le-Duc, Carcassonne has every stone in place. It also has shops with an assortment of plastic weaponry.

The inner keep tour would have been dull had the boys not used the ramparts for a re-enactment of the 100 years war condensed into one act with some anachronistic dialogue. Would the Black Prince, who laid siege to this place, have ever issued the phrase "Die, sucker"?
We did not stay long in Carcassonne. There were a lot of locks on the way back. We knew them so well. We fished and we pottered and we rocked in the wake of other boats.

We met a couple from Wakefield in their traditional English narrow boat, painted navy blue, not a good colour for the French waterways where holiday traffic predominates.

"We're not white so they don't see us. We've been hit by people coming around bends who can't stop in time," said Alan Kitson, a former policeman, who, with his wife Denise, has decided to spend his retirement living on the waterways.

Canal boating is so simple it is a wonder that people can be so stupid. Instruction by the rental company is brief and basic, so much so that the first few locks can be chaotic. We had our own self-induced mishaps.

At one lock one of the boys secured the bow rope without thinking as the water drained away. The cleats began to strain, the boat tipped and the rope became drum tight. I reached for my Leatherman and cut the rope in a moment of mighty satisfaction and triumph.

People buy you these gadgets for Christmas and the Boy Scout in you itches to use them. But so often the use is mundane, such as opening bottles or sharpening pencils. This was different. This was an emergency, people were watching.

OK, we were idiots in the first place. But no one could say we were not well-prepared idiots. I did not envy the Kitsons, not on this canal, not with people like me around. Boating can be so stressful.

© Financial Times

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