Rollin' down the river

France is affordable again. But what about the holiday hordes?
In 1996, we very nearly missed France completely. Not to go for a whole year - unthinkable. It was August before we could manage it, and who wants to go then? (They've been known to declare St Tropez closed on several occasions during that month, with not a single car space left.)

Then there was the exchange rate. Last summer it struggled to cough up 7.40 francs to the pound - miserly, and entirely unsuited for any kind of mental arithmetic. Who could work out the price of anything? Which is why in 1996, one in five Francophiles turned their back on the country, and holidayed somewhere else.

But, lo and behold, this year France is back in business. The visitors are booking in again. Why? Well, to start with, it is as if the whole country, sorely distressed by the large drop in visitors, and feeling it where it really hurts, in the pocket, has taken a crash course in how to be nice to visiting foreigners. Particularly the British, for whom France has always been a favourite destination. Well, we're much the same as them: fiercely independent, proud of country, of language and of history. They don't like us much because we shout at them in English, and expect them to reply in English. But try a Bonjour, and you'll be astonished what a lovable, friendly chap the onion man can be. And then, of course, there's the exchange rate. I did a quick and well-timed bank raid a week or two back and came out with nine francs for every pound I'd left behind. Gives you a wonderful warm feeling. But here we have a problem. If the hordes are returning to France in 1997, how best can we avoid them?

My advice is to ignore the Riviera and the Mediterranean coast. Forget the Alps, swarming with walkers and mountaineers. Back away from the Atlantic coast. M Hulot, his family and other Parisians are there in force. Instead, slow down, think local, and think river and canal, as we did.

The wonderful thing about travelling on inland waterways is that they impose upon you their own tempo of life. When you're on a converted barge, as we were, you cannot do anything in a hurry. The boat travels, in stately fashion, at four miles an hour. Your mind adapts much the same speed, and within a day you are really relaxed.

La Chouette - the Owl, for so she is called - is the pride and joy of Englishman Bob Marsland and his wife Bobbie. They found her in Holland, working on a dredger, with a crane and bucket in her belly and conveyor belts everywhere. She was filthy, old and, at 32 metres, too long for the French canals on which they wanted her to make a living for them. With admirable enterprise, nay courage, they bought her, cut two metres out of her midriff, and stuck both halves together again.Then came the refit. Mahogany, brass, panelling, bar, galley, lounge and three staterooms.

You learn why people take before and after photos. The comparison is unbelievable. The once shabby La Chouette was now elegant and beautiful.

We spent a gorgeous week, starting on the Canal du Loing, south-east of Paris, and then switching to the Seine for a truly imperial entry into the capital. The surrounding countryside is so close to the heart of the city. There's a narrow collar of industrial suburbia and then suddenly there are the famous city-centre islands, and the buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral.

And throughout the entire journey there was so much pleasure: lovely houses on the riverbank, flowers everywhere, restaurants, churches and chateaux. The skipper will stop when you fancy, to enjoy what you will. We played boules, and were given tuition on our technique by the locals, all in the friendliest possible way. When we left to drive home, La Chouette continued on her way up the River Marne, towards Epernay and Champagne country.

We'd stayed true to something that splendid travel writer Arthur Eperon had taught us years ago. When asked where he'd been on his holiday, he always said "I've not been on holiday, I've been travelling in France". It still can be done, in France, at the very height of a European summer.

Prices for all-inclusive seven-day cruises on La Chouette vary from pounds 5,700 for six people hiring the entire boat to pounds 950 per person for a double room. Call 01273 504076 for details.

Frank Bough presents 'Travel Live' on the cable and satellite Travel Channel.

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