TRAVEL / A l'eau, a l'eau, a l'eau: The leafy, sun-baked canals of southern France are a world away from breezy and bracing British waters. Jill Crawshaw unlocks some of their pleasures

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IT SEEMED absurd to fly a thousand miles to spend a week pottering along a hundred miles of the southern French canals. But most holidays defy reason, and we were by no means the only travel-weary Britons gathered at the boatyard at Moissac.

This was the first of our three canal-boat odysseys in France, starting 40 miles north of Toulouse and meandering north-west along the Canal Lateral a la Garonne. Along with the Canal du Midi and the Canal du Rhone a Sete, which we explored in subsequent years, this is one of the most popular of the leafy, sun-baked waterways of the south. It bears no comparison to the breezy, bracing waters with which most British canal folk are familiar.

At Moissac, a flotilla of trim, white craft awaited their motley crews, some already rumbling and snorting like horses anxious to get out of their stables. Alongside our 40ft cruiser, a trim-looking skipper leapt aboard his, stowing his gear - including a large bag of golf clubs - before manoeuvring away with practised ease. By contrast, a choleric little family nearby were at loggerheads over the fitting of bulky lifejackets. Their barely suppressed hisses and barked commands echoed across to us, an ugly drama that continued whenever we met intermittently en route.

Some set off to plunder the local supermarche, returning laden with baguettes, peaches, pan scrubbers, pates and giant plastic boxes of wine, even though there was a 'starting hamper' of food on board. Gradually, the little crews chugged away towards the deepening shadows of the river and into the shimmering landscape of a Renoir painting.

Our family boating pedigree was modest but respectable - we'd begun, as probably everyone should, on the Norfolk Broads. From there we'd progressed to the South Stratford Canal, which has as many locks as anywhere in Britain. We'd coped with the fickle Thames, and navigated some of the hauntingly beautiful Irish canals with their unruly waters, where the breezes sigh through the reeds like sirens.

What challenges, then, would French boating present? There are 5,000 miles of inland waterways in France, although until recently many remained neglected and overgrown, unsuitable for leisure boating. It was largely due to British companies that holiday boats were made available for hire in the Sixties. Now there is a wide choice, from the rivers and harbours of Brittany to the canals of Burgundy and the gentle Charente.

If the waterways were new to us, the boats were old friends; two of the largest hire companies, Crown Blue Line and Connoisseur Cruisers, are still British-owned, and most of their craft - like the one we hired - are Norfolk- built. The insouciance with which boatyards hand over their craft always surprises us; there we were, after 15 minutes of instruction in going forwards, backwards and mooring, in charge of a pounds 65,000 miracle of marine science.

From Moissac, with its spectacular 11th-century abbey of St-Pierre, we headed downriver towards Agen. The days assumed a placid routine; in the glorious misty dawns before the heat sapped our energy, we ate breakfast on deck before charting our route from the manual and sightseeing notes. We averaged 15 miles or 10 locks a day, planning ahead so we didn't arrive just before the sacred hours of midday to 2pm, the lock-keepers' lunchtime.

There are several types of lock on the Canal Lateral; many are still operated by the eclusiers, who also sell rabbits, eggs and home-grown vegetables from their tiny gardens. It was one of the myths about French boating that the lock-keeper appreciates a Gauloise and a cheery wave; what he (or just as often she) does appreciate is a couple of helping hands, English cigarettes and a tip of around FFr5 - a particularly good idea if you're returning the same way.

Some of the locks are now mechanised, and are operated by a tirette, a traffic light system with a pole suspended over the water which you have to twist. Away from the towns, we met very little traffic on the canal. Occasionally a huge barge, carrying grain or oil from Bordeaux, bullied its way past, or the odd canoe crept stealthily through the tunnels of overhanging foliage. The waterways are less well- groomed than in Britain, and reaching civilisation sometimes means plunging knee-high through meadows of poppies alongside tall

tobacco plants. If there was a towpath we unfolded our bikes (strapped to the boat's railings and charged as extras) to go sightseeing.

At Agen, where we refuelled and paused to mend a broken loo, we used the afternoon to take a bus to the town of Nerac, claimed in the tourist literature to be the setting for Love's Labour's Lost. Its chateaux, hillside fountains and the octagonal pavilion, on the site of former Royal baths, hinted at its former glory as one of the centres of the Court of Navarre.

After Agen, highlights included a breathtaking aqueduct where we seemed to be cruising through the sky; Damazan, where the plateau de fruits de mer of oysters, shrimps, crayfish, clams and mussels we ordered could have covered most of our deck space; and the crumbling and quaint village of Le Mas d'Agenais, with its honey-coloured church containing a Rembrandt painting of the Crucifixion. About 12 miles further on, the Garonne, which had often kept us company en route, practically joins the canal at Meilhan. This was where we ended our first French odyssey.

The following year we exchanged the culture and tranquillity of the Garonne for the heat and drama of the south. At each bend in the Canal du Midi, stretching 150 miles from Toulouse to the salt lake of Etang de Thau, the scenery became more Mediterranean: aubergines grew in lock-keepers' gardens, their walls now draped with bougainvillaea; the scent of pine drifted across the water.

Beyond the walled city of Carcassonne, we discovered the idle boater's dream - the 35- mile stretch known as the Grand Bief, which has no locks at all. We spent sunbaked afternoons on the deck as lazy as lizards, until the cicadas gave the signal for the first aperitif of the evening. The canal meandered drunkenly from village to village, and for a day we drifted through nothing but vineyards - those of Corbieres to the south, Minervois to the north.

The lushness of the Midi vineyards couldn't have been in starker contrast to the eerie lagoons and reed deltas of the Camargue, the setting for much of our next trip. The Canal du Rhone passes through this strange, 800- square-mile delta on its way from Beaucaire to Sete; in this bleak wilderness it is difficult to know where water ends and land begins.

The salt marshes and low scrub can appear inhospitable, but they are vibrant with wildlife. As the pre-dawn scrabbling and pattering on the fibreglass roof reminded us, the marshes are home to herons, egrets, storks, bee eaters, avocets, plovers and more than 300 other species. By 5am they are about their business.

There are few signs of man . . . simple shapes silhouetted against the sky: the triangular nets of the eel fishermen and the simple cabanes (huts) of the Camargue cowboys who work the bulls and horses. There are more wild horses in the Camargue than people, and more flamingos than either. From that first dawn, with the mist rolling away over the marshes and the sun steaming the dew from our deck, we were hooked.

We had seen the great walls and gates of Aigues-Mortes shivering in the distance like a mirage. Now we were moored alongside the old Constance Tower (at a cost of FFr120), built by Louis IX in 1250 as part of the massive defences to protect the harbour while he was crusading in Jerusalem. They were hardly needed; the fickle Mediterranean turned its back, the channel silted up and marooned the town four miles inland.

We walked around its sunbaked walls, eavesdropping on a medieval town that has lost none of its charm in converting to a busy little holiday resort. A dozen restaurants spilled out on to its main square; musicians played in the shadow of the church; buskers, diners and tourists jostled amiably for their own patch.

From Aigues-Mortes the canal ran almost parallel with the Mediterranean, and we cycled to huge flat beaches backed by dunes where picnicking families alternate with nudists. Beyond the fashionable resort of La Grande Motte, the canal switches between lonely reaches (often booby-trapped with fishing nets) and shanty-town stretches.

We halted briefly at Frontignan, where the bridge only opens twice a day, then motored on to the huge salt-water lagoon of Etang de Thau. Skirting the oyster beds, we were glad the mistral wasn't whipping up the waves after another seafood blow-out at the Cote Bleue, the famous shellfish restaurant at Bouzigues.

We meandered on to Sete, an old-fashioned fishing port and resort with nets and fishing smacks on one side of the quay, and restaurants cheek-to-cheek on the other. While a bouillabaisse on the Cote d'Azur will set you back pounds 30- pounds 40, a bourride de Sete will cost less than half that. Then, it was time to turn back.

Even after three holidays, tantalising stretches remain blank on our southern waterways chart - around Beaucaire, for example, from Marseillan to Beziers, and the northern reaches of the Lateral. In total, we'd probably flown or driven 6,000 miles to cover perhaps 400 miles on our three cruisers - but it no longer seemed absurd.


CRUISE COMPANIES: Several companies offer cruisers of 2-10 berths, or penichettes (converted traditional narrowboats). They are usually bookable for one or two weeks, with some 10-day hires also available. There are fly / cruise packages, particularly useful for the southern waterways, where hirers can fly to Montpellier or Toulouse. For those travelling by car, ferry fares and overnight stops can be booked as part of the package.

One-way cruises are available from some boatyards, so that hirers can cover longer distances and not have to cruise back along an already familiar waterway. There is a supplementary charge of about pounds 50 per boat for this. Bicycles cost about pounds 15 each to hire, and there may be a car parking fee of pounds 10 per week.

Blakes Holidays, Wroxham, Norwich, Norfolk NR12 8DH (0603 782911) is one of the largest boat hire firms. It is also agent for Crown Blue Line, offering extensive boating in Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, as well as on the French waterways. A typical Norfolk-built cruiser on the Canal du Midi costs from pounds 800- pounds 950 per boat per week.

Hoseasons Holidays Abroad, Sunway House, Lowestoft, Suffolk NR32 3LT (0502 500555) is another leading agent. In addition to its main brochure, it has one for boating holidays in France and the Netherlands. Hoseasons represents six fleets of holiday craft, sleeping 2-12 persons, including Connoisseur Cruisers. Its waterways include Anjou and Alsace-Lorraine, Burgundy and Brittany, the Camargue, Charente, Loire, Marne, Saone and the South of France. A typical Connoisseur Cruiser on the southern waterways sleeping 3-5 persons costs pounds 550- pounds 950 per boat, according to season.

French Country Cruises, 54 High Street East, Uppingham, Rutland LE15 9PZ (0572 821330). Penichettes only on 12 French waterways (also the Netherlands and Germany). One week in a penichette in August sleeping up to five people would cost from pounds 966 per week.

La France des Villages, Model Farm, Rattlesden, Nr Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP30 0SY (0449 737664). Represents nine small family boatyards from 16 bases in eight regions, including the Marais Poitevin, where a boat would cost from pounds 555 per week for a couple, from pounds 618 sleeping 3-5.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL has full lists of French boat- hire companies, and can provide literature on the various regions.

The French boater's bible is: Cruising French Waterways by Hugh McKnight (second edition) published by Adlard Coles Nautical at pounds 25.

(Photographs and map omitted)