Cycling the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Carcassonne

Last Friday, myself, Julie and two friends set off for a 106 km bike trip along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Carcassonne. Although the weather has been mostly agreeable this spring in the south of France, the forecast foreboded a lot of wind and rain. Nonetheless, we rented bikes from Mellow Velos and set off.

The first 50 km of the canal path is paved, so the first day was reasonably straightforward. We wove between strollers and joggers, and passed Europe’s first electron microscope. City gave way to suburbs and then countryside as we rode east against a strong head wind. It didn’t rain on us, though, and we actually caught some sun as we paused by a lock along the route.

The canal is an engineering marvel. It stretches about 240 km, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Designed, constructed and mostly funded by Pierre-Paul Riquet, it’s been an important transportation route since it was completed in 1681. These days, the only commerce on the canal is from tourists in rented boats and hotel barges (my friend operate a particularly classy one).

The canal has 91 locks along its length, and the maximum speed on the canal is 8 km/h, so nobody goes anywhere very fast on the waterway. The locks are quite remarkable to watch in operation, as they shift a boat 15 or 20 feet up or down. There are also a number of spots where the canal crosses another river. It’s a bit headwrecking to think that you’re riding a bike beside a canal which is on a bridge that’s over a river.

After resting our weary bones at a chambre d’hote in Gardouch, we braved colder and wetter conditions the next day. Happily, the wind had shifted and was now a welcome helping hand at our backs. The paved path ended, and recent rains had made several sections of the canal rather muddy. It was more BMX track than solid cycling path. If you’re considering this route, I’d recommend waiting until a little later in the year. It will be busier–we saw few cyclists outside of the cities–but the clayey soil will be drier and much harder.

We soldiered on, though, and arrived at Castelnaudary on the second night. Castelnaudary is a charming town where the canal widens into a basin. It’s also the heart of cassoulet country, so we replaced our expended calories with a hearty bean, rabbit and sausage casserole.

The third day of riding was the longest–42 km into Carcassonne. We eventually abandoned the canal’s towpath for the smooth tarmac of a nearby road. After picking our way among roots and mud puddles on the canal, it was a curious pleasure to fly down the road at 30 km/h. I appreciate that, to the experienced cyclist, these numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but they’re long and fast enough for me and my aging quads.

We did have lunch at a rather unusual pirate-themed creperie in the little town of Bram. Their crepes were excellent, as were their sea shanties and Breton cola.

I have mixed feelings about Carcassonne. The fortified old city is very striking, and the basilica inside is gorgeous. However, the interior has been entirely transformed into a desperate more-French-than-France cluster of tourist businesses. You can eat lousy meals, buy all kinds of Carcassonne-themed crap and take tacky tours within those stout walls. For stony fortifications and history, I prefer the working walled city of Valetta in Malta, or the tiny village of Minerve here in France.

I’m very fond of the pace of a cycle trip. You’re neither trudging along without much sense of progress, nor flying through the countryside in a car, disconnected from the sounds and smells around you. If I were doing the ride again, I might have actually started the ride at Gardouch or Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and carried on passed Carcassonne for another day or two. The paved surface out of Toulouse was welcome, but its suburbs were not.

I’m already planning another bike trip in the fall that will cover the westerly half of the canal, which would have us finishing near the Med at Sète.

The second and third photos on this page are by Monique.

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