Cycling the Canal du Midi

Previous post: Cycling the Midi Pyrenees

Cycling along the Canal du Midi was pleasant and relaxing –  perhaps a little boring even.

The canal, a UNESCO heritage site, was constructed in the 1600’s and is still regarded as an engineering feat. Its 240km channel links the cities of Toulouse and Sete, and was built to allow ocean-going ships to travel between the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean sea.  By travelling this waterway, the merchant ships could avoid the pirate-strewn waters of Spain as well as the heavy taxes imposed by Spain to travel through the Straits.  Due to its narrow width, today, only pleasure boats pass through its waters.

As our bicycles hummed along the smooth path we passed an unending stream of boats – some moored, some gently chugging down the waterway – stopping to navigate the incessant canal locks, slower than us for a change.  The seemingly infinite avenue of trees cast their dappled reflections on the glassy waters of the canal.  In the morning light they flickered and sparkled, broken only by the wake of tourist boats.  In the evening the light softened and warmed, casting the shadows of the heavy tree trunks into the water; like men, arm in arm in solidarity.

We continued along the canal until the path became too small, the tree roots too big and the mud puddles too deep… then we changed direction needing some variation, some excitement again.

Leaving the ancient waterway, where the haulers had worn the same path we now rode nearly half a century later – we headed south in search of the Cathar castles and the coast.

Day One | Toulouse (Ramonville) to Saint-Martin-Lalande – 72km

view the whole album

After a leisurely breakfast on the barge in Toulouse, we were escorted out along the Canal du Midi by our host, Fabien, on his roller-blades.  He was fetching a bicycle in the next village and kindly took the time to show us the various sights along the way.  The cycle-path along the canal in this section was probably our favourite; the grassy banks were neat and well maintained, the path was excellent and the countless barges moored on the glassy water made it hard to keep our eyes on the path.

We stopped a few times to watch the boats passing through the locks.  It is quite a tedious and slow process and seemed somewhat stressful.  We were quite pleased to be on bicycles as it seemed much quicker!

Along the path we met a German couple, Willi and Ulrike.  We got chatting and decided to cycle together until we found a spot to have coffee.  Being a Sunday the towns we passed through were deserted… Eventually we spotted an open cafe and sat down to enjoy baguettes and coffee and the good company.  We got along so well that we decided to keep cycling together for the day until we found somewhere to camp.

On arriving at Castlenaudary, our planned destination for the night, we found that the campsite was only opening for the season the following day.  It was getting late, so we felt a little disheartened but we headed out once again to the town of Saint-Martin-Lalande. The path was not as good as previously and we had a few mud puddles and tree roots to negotiate.  We cycled for a further 7km, leaving the Canal du Midi and heading up into the hills and found a delightful campsite in a farmer’s field that was probably one of the the nicest campsites we had stayed in.

Willi and Ulrike insisted on ‘inviting us to dinner’.  Ulrike, an excellent cook, made a delicious tabbouleh and Willi bought some local wine from the farmer. We settled in for a wonderful evening just as the sun began to set over the rolling French hills.

CAMPSITE: Camping La Capelle
  • Small, well-maintained campsite in a farmers field
  • Good clean facilities
  • Washing machines

Day Two  | Saint-Martin-Lalande to Trebes – 55km

view the whole album

As we were heading back to the canal the next morning we passed a platoon of french soldiers marching down the road, complete with machine guns and a rocket launcher.  It made us reminisce on Napoleon’s order to plant trees along many roads in France for his troops to march in the shade.  Although the canal was built 100 years before Napoleon’s time, it too has the poplar and plain trees along its banks, planted to shade haulers on the towpath as well as slow the evaporation of the water in the canal.

As we cycled on, the path began to deteriorate – at times it was so narrow, it just fit our bicycle tires, which made for some nerve-wracking riding.  With all the tree roots, stones and mud we soon threw in the towel and hit the road that ran almost parallel with the canal.  The scenery was not as beautiful, but with the wind on our back, we could ride at 30km/hr instead of five!  We joined the canal again when the road became too busy, choosing the lesser of two evils…

Many people had told us to visit the famous historic site of Carcassone.  We sought out a campsite when arriving in the city, but they wanted to charge us an insane price – so instead we chose to push on to the neighbouring city of Trebes.  We decided to ride on the main road to get there as it was a quarter of the distance that it would take along the canal – it was extremely busy with large trucks and buses, but there was a shoulder and the wind virtually blew us along – quite an adrenalin rush but we were glad when it was over.

We were met with a row of campsites filled with other cycle-tourists and knew that we had found the right place!

CAMPSITE: Camping A l’Ombre des Micocouliers
  • Small, well-maintained campsite on the river
  • Good clean facilities
  • Restaurant

Day Three | Day trip to Carcassone

view the whole album

We took it easy the next morning, sleeping in followed by a leisurely breakfast in the sunshine.  Our pitch had river views and it was blissful watching the water rush by, while updating the diary and catching up on a few overdue admin tasks.

As we hadn’t visited the historic cité of Carcassone the previous day, we chose to cycle back along the canal (without our luggage) to visit it.  It is a very impressive destination, dating back at least 2,000 years.

It is yet another UNESCO world heritage site and allegedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  Indeed, it does conjure up images of a fairytale world, with turrets, ramparts and cobbled stone alleyways.  The cité is grandiose and imposing, but for some reason we walked around feeling a little empty…perhaps it was the tourist crowds, perhaps the too-perfect restoration work that has clearly been done.

Nonetheless, one cannot take away from the history or extraordinary structure of the place.  Standing on the ramparts watching the black crows circle the turrets above me, I couldn’t help but imagine the clatter of horses hooves of the cobbles below, the whistling of arrows from stretched bows, the rustle of silken gowns, the prayers of bowed heads – the chatter from the market square…

Day Four | Trebes to Lagrasse – 37km

view the whole album

After a very broken night’s sleep due to the howling wind, we awoke to a perfect day. The route from Trebes to Lagrasse was fantastic, although a little short.  We climbed for the first 7kms and thereafter we spent the entire time freewheeling down the mountainside.  The scenery was spectacular;  we were escorted by a mountain stream, protected by the mountains and flanked by abundant vineyards.  The sky was picture-book blue, the wind was at our back and the birds serenaded us as we flew down the mountainside.

Our campsite was perched high on the hill overlooking the town of Lagrasse – an enchanting town, on France’s ‘most beautiful village list’ and home to a Benedictine Abbey.  We spent the afternoon in the valley, lingering over lunch and then wandering through the historic laneways of the ‘antique’ village.

At last, it felt like we had found ‘the France that was advertised’.

CAMPSITE: Camping Boucocers Bachandres
  • Small campsite situated on the hill above Lagrasse with a beautiful view over the town
  • Free internet
  • Good facilities including laundry

Day Five | Lagrasse to Villeneuve-les-Beziers – 94km

view the whole album

We had a fairly easy cycle out of Lagrasse to Narbonne on a slight downhill towards the coast.

Often we saw ancient ruins perched on the hilltops; the crumbling remains of castles, of crusades, of homes and history.  We rode through scrubby bush-land and vineyards, then woodland, past quarries and over rivers.  The enormous sky above us stretched wide from horizon to horizon, summer-time blue.

When we broke from the protection of the trees, the mistral wind, that had been toying with us on the Canal du Midi had grown into a serious crosswind and the riding was very tough at times.  A number of trucks passed us along the route and one passed so close that its slipstream combined with the crosswind, hit us as a physical slap – almost causing both of us to crash off the road.

We detoured to visit the Abbey de Fontfroid, but it was undergoing renovations and we decided not to enter, choosing to avoid paying an entry fee to visit a building site!  The setting was tranquil, secluded amongst the hills and no doubt would be beautiful if visited when the works were complete.

We continued on to the city of Beziers felt big and busy, much like Narbonne.  We took a quick peek at the famous ‘nine locks’ in Beziers, then headed on to the neighbouring town of Villeneuve-les-Beziers.  The campsite was expensive and average, but we were tired and decided to stay anyway.

We had dinner at a restaurant overlooking the canal and went for a walk along the canal afterwards, watching the glowing gold sun settle on the smooth waters.

CAMPSITE: CAMPING Les Berges du Canal
  • Located on the Canal du Midi
  • Restaurant and bar on-site
  • Grocery store
  • Pool
  • Average bathroom facilities
  • Laundry facilities

Day Six | Villeneuve-les-Beziers to Sete – 61km

view the whole album

Riding today was fairly uneventful other than the strong Mistral wind again.  We took a slight detour to through the towns of Agde and Cap D’Agde and were very excited when we saw the Mediterranean sea for the first time.  It was just a little glimpse as we rode down a hill – but there it was shimmering and turquoise – inviting us closer!

A lot of the journey was on a marked cycle path, part of the EuroVelo 8 and we had to do very little thinking as we rode to Sete, other than keep our bikes upright against the cross-wind.

The town of Sete is known as Venice of the Mediterranean due to its many canals. It was quite picturesque, but extremely busy and at times it was quite hard to even push our bicycles through the crowds.  We looked around for a while and feasted on various french pastries, during which time I managed to strategically place myself under a seagull’s business end… (even the helmet didn’t protect me…!)

We had seen a nice hotel along the beachfront as we were cycling in and headed back there for the night.  The wind was still so strong and we were glad we were indoors.  We had a delicious dinner of cheese, ham, bread, olives, fruit and wine, then settled in for the night in a real bed – luxury!

Day Seven | Sete to Balaruc-les-Bains – 20km

view the whole album

We only cycled a short distance today, not feeling like doing too much due to the strong wind.  We left our hotel late and headed around the coast to the neighbouring town of Balaruc-les-Bains.  We found a campsite after a few tries (a number of them were full, “complet” as the French love to tell us, never offering an alternative!).

Carl cut his leg badly on the new pedals he had just purchased and we had to stop and open our first aid kit for the first time.

Our tent nearly blew away a few times while we were trying to set it up, but we managed in the end and settled in a for a wild and windy night – what an adventure!

Following post: Cycling a piece of the French Mediterranean