One of the most relaxing and pleasant ways to explore southern France is by taking a holiday on the Canal du Midi, which was built in the 17th century to link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Canal itself, which starts in Toulouse and finishes in the Thau Lagoon near Sète, has 175 miles of navigable waterway.

At the Mediterranean end of the Canal, the seaside town and port of Sète makes a fine starting point for a journey. The town is colourful, lively and has a fine selection of seafood restaurants. If you visit during late August, you can see the nautical jousting tournaments for which the town is famous.

As it travels through the landscape of Languedoc Roussillon, the Canal is extremely picturesque, often serene, and shaded for much of its length by trees. There are some impressive engineering feats along its course which are now regarded as historic works of art. These include the series of locks at Fonseranes, near Béziers. Different sources quote from 7 to 9 locks, but there are certainly a lot of them, and they take the canal across a height difference of more than 20 metres. There's a Locks Festival at the site in June.

Béziers itself is worth a visit, even an extended stopover. The town was the birthplace of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a former tax inspector who masterminded the canal and sunk his fortune into it. There's a statue of Riquet in the town, where the main drag is named after him. Don't miss the canal bridge which takes boats across the river Orb.

Another impressive sight is the Malpas Tunnel, reported to be the first tunnel ever built for a navigable canal. It stretches for more than 170 metres. Nearby you can explore the historic site of Ensérune and the pretty town of Capestang.

Further west, the Canal passes through Carcassonne, one of the most photographed French towns, with its medieval citadel perched on a hill. Still travelling west, you will pass through Castelnaudary (home of cassoulet), before crossing the border into Midi Pyrenees, and on to Toulouse, where the Canal du Midi joins another canal which runs beside the river Garonne all the way to the Atlantic.

Barge holidays and motor boat holidays can be taken from many places along the Canal. Sometimes one-way journeys are possible, but that's not necessarily the most relaxing way to travel, since the start and finish may be a fair distance apart, meaning you have to clock up a lot of miles to reach your end point in time.

Far better to just sit back in the shade of the plane trees, enjoy the scenery, and let all your troubles float away.

Sources:

The Languedoc Roussillon tourism committee (www.sunfrance.net/UK) for information on the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc Roussillon region.

The Béziers Tourist Office (www.beziers-tourisme.fr) for more about the Locks Festival at Fonseranes