France is crossed by a network of canals essentially built in the 19th century but with some as old as the 17th.
These link up to the main rivers which have also been made navigable (in some cases since the Roman invasion nearly 2000 years ago).
The purpose of these canals was of course the transport of merchandise by barge, although this is nearly extinct. The greater part of the canal construction was supervised by the politician and engineer Charles de Freycinet. He set the standard size of the canals throughout France. He determined the dimensions of the locks at 38 meters long and 5.1 meters wide, the bridge height at 3.4 meters, and the canal depth allowing passage of boats of 1.8 meters deep.
The locks were of course built to enable the canals to cross the hills which separate the various river basins, and their frequency depends on the gradient to be climbed.
These days they have retained their original aspect, usually with a lock-keepers cottage alongside, and they represent a chance to stop and chat with the lockkeeper, admire their gardens, or buy some of their wine, cheese, vegetables, fruit or other produce that they sell to passing barge traffic.
The canal barges were also originally horse drawn and to protect the horses from the heat of the sun the canals were lined with poplar trees.
You still find these trees along the canals.
The tow paths are generally in good condition throughout the canal network and make excellent tracks for cycling, walking, or the morning jog.
Speed is limited to 3 m.p.h. on the canals and 10 m.p.h. on the rivers, not counting the 10 minutes or so necessary to pass through a lock. It is definitely not possible to be in a hurry.
The speed and sensations are comparable to walking and one has time to admire the flowers, or exchange a greeting with passers by on the canal bank. You can also usually HEAR the cows and the birds as the boat's engine is not working hard and is rumbling away aft.
Belgium is very much like France with a network of 'Freycinet' size canals throughout. Holland is different with a great variety of canals, rivers and lakes. There are very few locks but most bridges are the lifting type and this slows down the traffic as one must wait for the bridge keeper to open. Access is possible into the center of most of the major towns and overnight moorings are well organised and available.
Germany is dominated by the Rhine with it's heavy commercial traffic and strong current.
There are canals in the North East and also the new Rhine-Danube canal which are busy with big 2000 ton barges. It is a cruising ground for the more experienced barge owner.