Stuck in the Midi – The Herald

TAKING five children canoeing in France was always going to be an adventure. The polyglot Dutchman who is supplying our gear seems a good man to ask for advice on the route but he gives a shrug that is almost more Gallic than the real thing. "I wouldn't go that way, " he says. "It is just flat water. It is very boring - go down there. There is white water. Don't worry, it is very safe."

And so we find ourselves rapidly floating through the Aveyron Gorge in central France , known to the Romans as the Noble Valley , negotiating small rapids, weirs and bridges. The river isn’t deep but the sensation of tipping over rushing water is certainly thrilling.

All around us, dozens of other families are enjoying the sunny day in canoes and kayaks with no sign of an instructor, or anything so Anglo-Saxon as a safety briefing. At one point the water churns through a narrow channel where children and adults are jumping in and letting it carry them through at some speed. The nearest we get to an accident is when my husband bashes his posterior on a rock, leaving an impressive bruise which he will insist on revealing to all and sundry for the next month.

The children are clearly having a wonderful time and are hopefully acquiring a sense of the power of wild water. Theirmother, on the other hand, is exhausted by the end, and would make a promising subject forTen Years Younger. In general, though, it is refreshing to be encouraged to enjoy such an experience as a family, and to see parents being left to supervise their own children in a way that would not be allowed in risk-averse Britain.

A few days laterwe are to try the “parcours”, another popular pastime for families in France . This involves crossing a patch of woodland and a lake on a series of huge wires, a bit like a grownup version of the flying foxes you find in children’s playgrounds.

My six-year-old is less than pleased that he has to make do with a low-level version at waist height, but the other children aged nine and over are given climbing harnesses and instructed to clip themselves on to safety ropes.

Again, I am the first to give up, asking for a way out after traversing only a small portion of the route. Viewing the children’s progress from the ground provides more than enough excitement.

Although the wire ropes are extremely strong, what is again noticeable is that the children and their parents are being given real responsibility for their own safety. The children have to take great care to get into the habit of clipping first one caribina and then the other on to the ropes, or they could conceivably put themselves in real danger.

The last flying fox is the most spectacular, a full 150m stretch across the lake and back. This is something the children will no doubt remember for the rest of their lives. It’s a really fabulous outdoor experience.

We then have a delicious dinner in the small campsite restaurant, which has a fixed-price menu that changes every day. The freshcooked fare puts the often shocking food at British campsites to shame.

The Midi region that we are staying in – a vast area of central France – is largely undiscovered by British tourists. It is popular with sporty types, boasting mountain biking and climbing. But the area around Najac, where we are, is largely rural, quiet countryside which keeps country hours. Dinner is hard to come by after 8.45pm and most of our neighbours’ lights are out by 10pm. But for those in search of a peaceful, authentically French experience, it is a find.

Shopping in the sizeable market town of Villefranche, we find all of the store, even the supermarkets, close for lunch until 2.30pm. So there is nothing for it but to find a table in the shade of the medieval cathedral and order a delicious salade Roquefort and a citron presse. It is a good decision – eating opportunities between meals are limited in the real France (and a good thing too, as the meals are generally worth waiting for).

The sightseeing includes some beautiful ancient hilltop towns – the most spectacular being Cordes sur Ciel, where we dine in L’Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes, on a terrace atop the fortified city’s huge 300ft wall, with a spectacular view across the Midi plains.

Walks in the countryside reveal a landscape as one might imagine Sussex or Kent used to look, before the era of agribusiness. Descending a hill, we come across a scene from a nineteenth-century painting. A very old lady is talking to her livestock, behind the open door of a small shed where some veal calves are munching peaceably in the quiet evening, and a flock of ducks grub about in the muddy yard.

We have one of two gites and some friends have the one next door, so while the children leap across a series of hay bales in the field behind the house, we sit on the patio, drink good wine, chat and eat. It’s a holiday worthy of the name.

Need to know

Jackie and family travelled on the Blue Star ferry from Rosyth to Zeebrugge and drove to the Aveyron area. It is about 10 hours of driving. A two-bed cabin with Blue Star starts at GBP110. Visit

They stayed in a four-bedroom gite, sharing a pool with one other gite. Each could accommodate two small families. Cost between GBP300 and GBP750 per week. Call 00 33 565 451318.

Les Pieds Dans L’Eau is one of several firms hiring canoes on the Aveyron. The proprietor speaks fluent English. Call 00 33 563 682480.

The parcours route they tried is at the campsite at the Moulin de Bannac near Villefranche de Rouergue. Tel 00 33 565 294452. Book at least a day ahead.

The Herald
31st March 2008