France is an enormous country, and I have barely touched the sides.
My favourite area is the Massif Central, in south central France. The central area contains numerous age-worn dormant volcanoes, whilst further south the huge limestone plateaux of the Causses form a very different landscape cut by sparkling clear rivers into incredible valleys and gorges.
Good friends Mark and Louise live on the edges of this stunning region, very handy as a base from which to explore both locally and further afield.
Canoeing in the Massif Central
Those of us who enjoy canoeing on moderate whitewater will sooner or later be tempted by the warm waters of the Massif Central, where you can enjoy some of the bouncy stuff without suffering the low temperatures and short days of a British winter.
There are dozens of river systems to explore, from easy drifts in attractive valleys, to crystal clear waters in immense limestone gorges, via challenging whitewater to test out those paddling skills.
The Gorges du Tarn are utterly magnificent. 500m deep, cut by the meandering river Tarn over countless millennia, this is one of Europe's most incredible places.
It splits nicely into day trips, but in 2016, we decided to do a continuous 4 day descent of the main part of the Gorges, and this is the story of that trip.
I was fortunate to have an article on the Gorges du Tarn published in The Paddle magazine, describing the amazing feeling of paddling down this spectacular canyon, and offering information on how to do it yourself.
My latest trip was a little different, with high water bringing excitement, fun and a challenge to paddling in this superb canyon.
The Célé is a tributary of the Lot, one of the big rivers of France. It lies like a sinuous snake in a beautiful valley of its own making, where warm-coloured limestone bluff pole through the shady trees above countless meanders.
This is a very family-friendly river, with a gentle flow and "glissieres" down many of the weirs. Most of the villages have a campsite by the river, but it remains relatively quiet and unknown and out of the short peak season you may well have it to yourself.
Stunning limestone scenery and ancient medieval villages.
Arguably the most beautiful part of this delightful river valley.
Adventures on the Allier
To the east of the Massif Central, the landscape is a little different, created by volcanoes rather than sedimentary deposits.
The Allier offers both family friendly easy paddling downstream of Langeac, or more challenging paddling in steep gorges upstream. The town itself makes an obvious base and has an excellent municipal campsite.
Slightly gentler stuff, normally suitable for all paddlers. There are several great day paddles accessible from the lovely town of Langeac and its riverside campsite.
The nickname for one of the best open canoe whitewater days anywhere, 12 miles of continuous grade 2 with a bit of 3.
We had a bit of an epic...
Walks in the Massif Central
Of course, the appeal of the region is not just canoeing, and the walking is also fabulous. Wander across the limestone escarpments, through the many idyllic villages, and time seems to move at a different pace.
The flora and fauna are just as special, from sunbathing lizards to circling vultures.
I was gobsmacked to find this quiet trail high above the immense canyon of the Tarn, winding its way below the uppermost cliffs.
As I picked my way along the narrow trail, mighty wings soared above me, and even came to check me out. Its a slightly odd feeling, knowing that any slip might mean you becoming lunch for the vultures who have their beady eye on you as you walk.
Cajarc is a small, ancient, town in the Lot valley. Above the town, limestone escarpments ring the valley, and a host of small trails offer lovely walking and challenging mountain biking.
Sometimes its nice to escape the confines of even the loveliest of valleys, and this walk was a wonderful wander along the rim of the limestone escarpment, visiting the ancient bandit stronghold of Le Chateau des Anglais near Brengues.
How to get there
The most obvious way for British folk is to drive via Calais. I tend to use Eurotunnel, as they charge nothing extra for carrying a canoe on the car.
From Calais, it is a whole day's drive to the Massif Central, a good 8 hours. Once you get out of the north, I find the driving easier and more relaxing than in the UK. I often break the journey in one of the many cheap travel hotels. Various ferry routes offer alternatives.
I find the best route south from Calais is; Abbeville, Rouen, Dreux, Chartres, Orleans, Vierzon then either A20 or A71 depending on the final destination. This is mostly dual carriageway or Autoroute, with a short section of normal road before Chartres. The main advantage of this route is avoiding Paris. There are some sections of toll (Peage) on the route, I'd guess it was about 30 Euros in 2017.
French "Aires" are useful for breaking the journey. Very roughly, they seem to alternate between being a small service station with shops/cafe/fuel, or basically a picnic area with loos. The latter make a nice change if you've brought your own food. Some folk overnight on Aires in camper vans or the like, though it should be noted that in the north of the country there have been reports of crime or other issues, especially nearer to Calais.
French campsites tend to be relaxed and relatively cheap. Many have a basic shop, sometimes a bar, sometimes a pool, others don't. You will be given a pitch, often these are shaded by trees and shade is definitely worth having in the summer. The season is quite short, and even in a popular place like the Tarn, some sites aren't open until June, and close in September.
Some sites have cabins or caravans you can rent fairly cheaply.
Whilst wild camping is not impossible, I would say it is not generally practiced on the rivers I've talked about above.
Gites are readily available, and can be a cottage, or some are more of a bunkhouse affair. Chambres d'hote are similar to B&Bs.
Its France. They have food. Good food. The supermarkets are well stocked, there are only a few things that you won't always see, e.g. English tea. Enjoy trying different things. Note that there can still be lunch time closures, and not all will open on a Sunday, though it seems quite a few open on a Sunday morning for a couple of hours.
Many small towns will have a market day, do take advantage of this. Fresh food bought on the market, or from a local boucherie or boulangerie, plays a bigger part in the lifestyle than it does in the UK, and I think this adds to the enjoyment.
Obviously, there are plenty of restaurants and bars.
Best Canoe Trips in the South of France - completely revised and updated version of the classic Whitewater Massif Central, by Pete Knowles. This is THE guidebook for easy to moderate rivers for all paddlers heading for the region. Pleased to say a good number of my photos are used in this latest edition.
Equipment for canoeing.
If you have your own canoe, paddles and buoyancy aids, you won't need much else unless you are unlucky with the weather. A helmet would be worthwhile on a few of the low-mid grade whitewater rapids.
Hire canoes out there tend to be sit-on-top kayaks.
If you are specifically looking to paddle open canoes, and don't have, or don't want to transport, you own, my friends Mark and Louise have set up a small business in the Lot/Célé area, at Cajarc, and can also cater for the Tarn or Dordogne amongst other rivers. They have a small fleet of open canoes, paddling gear, and some camping gear. They provide a bespoke service depending on what level of support you need, all of which is explained on their website: https://www.canoemassifcentral.com/
eauxvives - French website for river information including levels and section guides. Some bits can be toggled to English, some can't.