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
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
"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
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