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Canal trip in the South of France
Keith Simmonds French canal trip: Boaties are warned to sound their horn before going round the bend.

My partner fell in love at least five times in 10 days on a boat trip down the tree-lined Canal du Midi in southern France.

The focus of his admiration was the admittedly gorgeous lock-keepers - youthful French demoiselles who in many cases have replaced the wiry old guys who man the 62 locks which we negotiated on our barge.

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With another couple, we were travelling from Port Cassafieres, near the Mediterranean, upstream to Castelnaudary, the capital of Cassoulet near Toulouse, on a spacious, two-cabin boat called the Royal Mystique. I don't know about royal but it certainly seemed mysterious that the boat company, Le Boat, would deliver a relatively new boat into the hands of four complete novices.

Other boat companies, including Locaboat and Rive de France, do the same.

It was a sensational and entertaining holiday and some of the sights we saw confirmed we were not the only navigational novices.

One male "captain" was so busy swilling down beers and puffing out his chest for his all-female "crew" as he veered from one side of the canal to the other that he failed to notice a giant overhanging branch, which decked him instantly. We gave a cheery wave as his boat careered into the bank.

He had broken every law of the canal, including pushing in at locks, but he was the exception and the other boaties were friendly and lively and seemed to enjoy giving us the "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" cheer when they spotted our boxing kangaroo flag.

Every town, village and lock has a story, some more embellished than others. The origin of the curious name of L'ecluse de la criminelle (lock of the criminal) has been lost to time but the charming proprietor of the tiny bar at the next lock related a couple of theories.

One was that in the days of yore, when the barges were drawn by horses, the lock was so steep that many horses fell into the lock and had to be put down.

However, it was unclear as to who exactly was the crim. The second version (it was his own and he was French) was that a female lock-keeper had shot her husband, or her lover, or her husband's lover.

STAIRCASE OF FONSERANNES


Newcomers such as ourselves embarking at Port Cassafieres were thrown into the deep end on the second day when we hit the famous Staircase of Fonserannes, a series of seven locks which are an engineering marvel. Over 300m, the locks take the boat up (or down) 21m.

The upside is that after tackling so many boat manoeuvres and rope throws in quick succession, anything else seems a cinch.

The villages en route kept turning up the unexpected. After mooring canalside at Colombiers and going in search of an aperitif in the quaint village, we stumbled on a square where the locals were setting up stalls for a festival.

FOOD FESTIVAL


It turned out it was "la fete de la neige ou de la mousse" (festival of snow or foam), when all the sporting clubs vie in a different arena, cooking up fabulous three-course meals for the equivalent of about $15 to raise funds.

This festival of food, wine and music was capped off with a flurry of white when snow-making machines bombarded delighted young children and teenagers in a "mosh pit" set up in the square.

The following day brought a different spectacle. We offloaded the bikes from the boat and cycled along the towpath to the top of a hill to see L'etang de Montady, a lake that was drained in the 13th century because its foul water spread death and disease. What makes it impressive are the dozens of drainage ditches which radiate from it, covering more than 404ha and forming a perfect geometrical pattern that resembles a multi-spoked wheel.

Another gem was turned up on the day we moored at the little village of Le Somail and came upon an amazing antiquarian bookshop which has more than 50,000 old, second-hand and rare books stacked in floor-to-ceiling shelves.

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CARCASSONNE


Carcassonne is also worth a visit for its fortified old city atop a steep hill and encircled by a double row of ramparts. Built on the ruins of a Roman fortress, it has been the stage for several feature films and is a world heritage site.

Most of the villages and towns along the canal have a weekly market with produce including fruit, vegetables, fresh breads, spicy sausages and impossible-to-resist cheeses, all crying out to be taken on board for a picnic.

The fortified old city of Carcassonne is a major tourist drawcard. Picture: Keith Simmonds

The concept of the canal was dreamed up 300 years ago by a salt tax collector, Pierre Paul Riquet, who also had the vision to change the shape of locks from the customary rectangle to oval for better strength.

Unfortunately, he did not live to see the realisation of his lifelong work, dying months before the canal was completed.

His masterpiece is beautiful, lined along the way with 300-year-old plane trees, quaint villages, vineyards, sunflower and lavender fields - and alluring lock-keepers.