For almost 30 years I have explored the highways and byways of France, but never got around to travelling on its waterways until June 2007. I spent a week on a canal boat with my partner Dianne and our basset hound Baggins.
The Canal du Midi is a good choice for novices. It runs 150 miles from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau near the port of Sete, and is only open to pleasure boats.
The long drive south to Minervois Cruisers' base at Le Somail in Languedoc had given me plenty of time to fret. How do you work the locks, for starters? And I'd heard unsavoury things about pumping out boat toilets.
Doubts and questions were laid to rest by friendly staff who showed me around the Marseillan, 45-foot long and 15 tons of steel narrowboat. After a crash course (no pun intended) in narrowboat handling, covering mooring techniques, three-point turns and a run through of the daily checks, I was ready to cast off. I was also relieved to learn that locks on French canals are manned by lock- keepers who operate the gates and try to stop you doing anything too stupid. And the 'compact' bathroom was as smart and modern as you could ask for in what is essentially a water-borne caravan. Absolutely no pump-out toilets.
Half an hour later, we were let loose on the canal, chugging west towards Carcassonne. Afternoon pick-up times don't let you travel far on the first day as locks close at 7pm. But we were happy to plod along for a few hours soothingly shaded by tree-lined canal banks, making boating in the heat more bearable. They also reduce the Midi's winds which makes keel-less boats hard to handle.
At first, the Marseillan felt like an oil tanker compared to the rather faster, smaller boats I'm used to, but I soon felt at home. Dianne, on the other hand, had no previous boating experience and was initially uneasy. 'It doesn't go where I want it to,' she said. 'There are no brakes!'
A pause at Ventenac-en-Minervois allowed us to put our mooring teamwork into practice and visit the wine cellars of the canalside château, before pushing on to moor for the night at Paraza. As we plan the route ahead it becomes clear that you need to work out where your daily groceries will come from and where you'll find water points, cashpoints and cafes in the tiny backwater villages along the canal. Luckily, the brilliant multilingual Guide Fluvial (see 'tips' opposite) has most of this invaluable information.
Holiday Which? paid £1045 to hire the Marseillan, a 'Midi Explorer 2', through Minervois Cruisers (www.minervois cruisers.com). This was for a week in June 2007 Extras included a damage waiver fee of £52, a week's bicycle hire payable locally at €35 (£23), and an extra €50 (£34) per week for the dog. Diesel fuel is calculated at the end of the hire - count on around €120 (£80) for one week's use.
Next day and we're at our first lock wondering nervously what exactly we should do. So we moor up and watch a few boats pass through. Seems easy enough, and we make it through with minimal panic, but realise that there's a fair bit of hard work ahead.
We're heading uphill to Carcassonne and with a crew of two, one has to stay on board to drive into the locks and throw ropes up to the other person on land, who secures the boat. There's not much time for lazing around, although everything grinds to a halt from 12.30pm to 1.30pm as lock-keepers are sticklers for the French tradition of a proper lunch. What better excuse to spread out a blanket and picnic on fresh crispy bread and local goat's cheese by the tow path.
The rest of the day swings between glorious vineyard scenery, ruined chateaux and church spires, jewel-like dragonflies skimming by, and action stations as we encounter flights of double and triple locks. Today has been a steep learning curve. We finish tired, aching and sweaty at the pretty canal port, Homps. Then to cap it all, Baggins falls in the canal and is smellier than usual.
Day three is the hardest yet, but the 11 locks between Homps and our day's goal of Marseillette hold no fears - our lock handling technique is now polished. Some kind soul gave Dianne a pair of gardening gloves to take some of the pain out of rope-handling duties, but she still has a colourful collection of bruises, blisters and grazes. Locks are the key to whether your trip will be easy-going or more arduous, and after a chat with a friendly lock-keeper we've decided to make Trèbes our last port of call. From here, it's a 10- minute taxi or bus ride to Carcassonne, but by boat it'll take the best part of a day. An easy decision and we're soon tucking into moules et frites beneath the fairytale turrets of the fortress town.
The return trip to Le Somail seems much easier. Maybe we're seasoned old hands now, but going downhill through locks is definitely easier work, although we're still in for a couple of long hot days. Various delays at locks show us that things don't always work out how you'd like and it's always good to have a 'Plan B' backup strategy for eating stops, topping up the water tank, etc.
Would we do it again? I'd give it another try but it would be easier if a couple of friends joined us to share the load. I'd also choose a route with fewer locks, and consider doing a one-way trip downhill. Dianne says I should consult a lawyer before suggesting it again!