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French canal break will float your boat; margaret carragher TAKES A TRIP ALONG THE STUNNING CANAL DU MIDI IN SOUTHERN FRANCE.

Byline: margaret carragher

ACK in our frantic, bucketand-spade holidays of yesteryear, river boating was for other people.

BZipping en famille along routes nationales to the beaches of southern France, a back-seat chorus of 'are we there yet' on a loop, we'd spot the occasional punter chugging idly along a sleepy waterway and think: some day.

Fast forward through half a lifetime and - happy days - that some day is now, and as we make our leisurely way south though France, the Canal du Midi awaits.

The brainchild of one Pierre-Paul Riquet, a wealthy salt tax collector from the Languedoc town of Beziers, this amazing feat of 17thcentury engineering - which took 12,000 men and women almost fifteen years to complete and which is now a Unesco World Heritage Site - stretches from the Haute-Garonne capital city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean port of Sete, and is the oldest artificial waterway in Europe.

Originally intended as a commercial link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the canal was used mostly to transport the grapes and grain of the Midi until the 1970s. Since then it has been given over almost exclusively to river tourism; and, stopping off at a deserted stretch of its sun-dappled bank en route to our pick-up port, one can quite understand why.

Because not even the most captivating image or finely wrought description can begin to convey the timeless charm and appeal of this centuries-old waterway.

Even with its double lining of 42,000 ancient plane trees now sadly depleted by a fungus carried in the munition boxes of American soldiers deployed here during World War II, the Midi landscape packs a huge visual punch with lush pasture and vineyards broken only by clusters of poplars and old, honeycoloured stone barns stretching off into the distance.

A section of iconic plane have been a fungus the wooden boxes of soldiers Onwards then to the Occitanie port town of Homps to pick up our hire boat; and having dithered endlessly over size and layout options (too big or too small for purpose? How many loos does one really need?) we are delighted with our Le Boat Caprice, an exceedingly smart and comfortable cruiser with two ensuite cabins, a fully equipped kitchen/living/dining area and a spacious sundeck for al fresco dining.

Then, following a hands-on demonstration in how to navigate the vessel (a cinch; even a child could do it) we set forth into the parallel universe of the Canal du Midi.

Having arranged with Le Boat to have our car driven from Homps 45 miles east to the port town of Cassafieres, the plan is to wend our way there over seven lazy days, stopping off for sleepovers pretty much where we please; because while punters mostly opt for the convenience of overnighting in the towns and villages en route, there is something wonderfully liberating about just tying up for the night in the back of beyond and nodding off to the sound of birdsong and crickets, and the gentle quack of the ever-circling ducks.

The choice of route owes much to our deep and abiding passion for the region's premier product. Acre for acre the Languedoc-Roussillon yields more grapes - and hence more wine - than anywhere else in France. And with caves a vin (wine cellars) offering free tastings at almost every port of call, and no breathalyser testing - yet - indulging one's passion has never been so rewarding.

the canal's trees. Many destroyed by transported in munition American WWII But with several locks to negotiate (there are 91 operational along the canal's 150 mile stretch) there is at least the semblance of honest toil aboard as the good man skippers while yours truly works the ropes.

It is here in the clubby confines of the canal's distinctive oval-shaped locks that one is most likely to strike up holiday friendships and pick up tips on pubs, restaurants and must-see sights en route.

With every town, village and hamlet on the canal at least as old - and sometimes centuries older - than the waterway itself, there is history in spades all around.

This is the quintessential essence of rural France, its people going about their business in a way that has defined them for generations. You'll find no vandalism here, no pollution, no monstrous architecture; just picture postcard prettiness at every turn.

In the charming hamlet of Le Someil - whose ancient hump-backed bridge is the focal point of a million paintings - we stock up on wine and cheese from the permanently moored epicerie barge, and look in on its legendary antiquitarian bookshop.

With more than 50,000 titles in stock, this delightfully quirky establishment attracts not just bookworms and collectors but anyone with a sense of the absurd. Where else would you find a veritable treasure trove of books and magazines, posters and pamphlets, many of them rare, stacked high on dusty shelves in a sleepy little backwater in the middle of nowhere? Next up is the former canal port of Capestang where, acting on a lockside tip-off, we roll up at La Table Du Vigneron, an outdoor restaurant attached to a wine house in the town centre. With gingham-clad tables shaded by ancient plane trees in a quaint, cobbled courtyard this place captivates from the off. Add a traditional cassoulet, crusty bread and a carafe of excellent vin rouge de la maison and you've struck gastronomic gold.

Back on board then and, with our hire bicycles languishing untouched we decide, in a singular moment of vim and vigour, to check out some of the region's more far-flung attractions.

And so to Minerve. Located some eighteen miles from Capestang along winding little roads, this ancient village, perched on limestone cliffs surrounding a cavernous gorge in the heart of the Languedoc, was in medieval times a pivotal Cathar city built by the Viscounts of Minerve.

Besieged by Simon de Montfort, military leader of the crusade against Cathar heretics in 1210, the citizens refused to renounce their faith and were duly burnt at the stake.

These days Minerve, historically the capital of the Minervois wine region and listed among 'The Most Beautiful Villages in France' is an altogether more tranquil place. A cut stone temple to arts, crafts and the good life encircled by vineyards stretching back to Roman times, it attracts visitors in their droves; and surveying the surroundings from its magnificent, multi-arched bridge one can absolutely see why.

Back then to the boat where, pooped by our exertions, we shackle our bikes to the back deck and resolve to wind right down. No plans, no targets, no agenda; just go with the flow.

There follows several days (don't ask how many, I've stopped taking notes) doing little more than chugging along, soaking up the minutiae of our surroundings - the otters and squirrels, moorhens and mallards, the occasional heron swooping in for a drink.

And pottering - who'd have thought there'd be so much pleasure to be had from sweeping leaves off a deck, or polishing wine glasses, or winding up tow ropes just so? Occasionally, in the distance we spot cars full of kids southwards bound, their roof racks straining under the weight of bucket-and-spade-related paraphernalia; one can almost hear the 'are we there yet' chorus coming on a loop from the back seats.

That used to be us I think, before topping up our glasses and drinking a toast to yet another perfect day.

NEED TO KNOW | Le Boat Classic Midi Cruise in Camargue starts from PS1,247 for seven nights in October on the Caprice boat. Two private cabins and a double bed converted from the settee in the generous saloon give Caprice boat rentals a maximum capacity of six. The two rear cabins are luxuriously appointed and have en-suite bathrooms. The saloon features an entertainment centre, and the boat sports a giant sundeck. The boat has a fully-equipped kitchen and towels and linen are provided.

| No boating license or previous experience required. Price includes renting the boat and its equipment, a galley (kitchen) with all the necessary utensils and appliances, towels and linen for all passengers, a boat handling demo, technical support, on-board cruising information and locks fee. Other dates, durations, boats and prices are available. Please note that prices are displayed for guidance only.

| For more information and to book a holiday with Le Boat visit: leboat.co.uk or call: +44 (0)23 9222 2177.

| Brittany Ferries has a wide choice of cross Channel ferries from the UK ferry ports of Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth to Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg, Le Havre and Roscoff. All ferries offer superior onboard comfort and carry both cars and passengers. See brittanyferries.co.uk or call 0330 159 7000.

CAPTION(S):

A section of the canal's iconic plane trees. Many have been destroyed by a fungus transported in the wooden munition boxes of American soldiers during WWII

The ancient hump-backed bridge in the village of Le Someil on the Canal du Midi

Rush hour on the canal in Le Someil with the village's famous grocery barge front right

The ancient village of Minerve in the hinterland of the Canal du Midi, listed among 'The Most Beautiful Villages in France'
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 9, 2018
Words:1528
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