Barge on the Canal du Midi

How to cycle the Canal du Midi

For 2012 and most of 2013, I lived in the south of France, along the route of the Canal du Midi. It’s a 400-year-old canal that runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. It was originally used for carrying goods and passengers, though these days it’s a UNESCO heritage site and popular pleasure boating route.

There are barges that still ply the 220-km waterway–my friends run one such floating luxury hotel. Before those barges had engines, they used horses, donkeys and humans to tow them along a path along the canal’s edge. This tow path is still there, and it makes for excellent cycling. The tree-lined path is, naturally, very flat, and winds its way through beautiful pastoral scenes.

Photo by Monique Sherrett

Julie and I rode the whole length of the canal in two sections–the first half with friends in May, 2012 and the second half in September, 2013. I also walked or rode a local section of the canal nearly every day for 18 months, so I’ve seen it in all seasons and conditions.

I wanted to capture some tips and recommendations about cycling the canal. Here they are:

  1. If you can choose, ride from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. This enables you to start in a city, and end at the beach, which is a satisfying way to finish a long ride. Though you’ll barely notice it, the canal runs mostly in a very gradual downward slope as it winds toward the coast. Also, the prevailing winds in the region are westerly and, especially in the winter, can be quite strong. Riding all day into a strong wind is torturous.
  2. The first 50 km of the tow path out of Toulouse are paved. Similarly, the final 30 or 40 km near the coast are also paved. The rest of the path is hard-packed clay and gravel. It’s mostly broad and level, though there are less-traveled sections with prominent tree roots and overgrowth. Weather is also a factor. We rode one section near Carcassonne in a downpour, and the clay of the tow path became a nearly-impassable trail of mud. We eventually had to circumvent a short section of the path and ride on a nearby road.
  3. There are 91 locks along the canal, and most of them are operated by a lock-keeper who lives in an inevitably charming and snug house beside the lock. A few of them operate stores or restaurants out of their homes. More importantly, if you have an emergency, they’re often the closest source of help.
  4. We averaged about 40 km a day, at about 12 km an hour. We’re not particularly experienced cyclists, and we weren’t in any rush. We’d stop for coffee and long, three-course lunches. That meant that we might get underway at 9:30am and easily be done for the day by 4:00pm. With more vigour and urgency, you could obviously do the whole trip in just three or four days, as some of our Germanic fellow riders did.
  5. Buy this book. It’s up-to-date, detailed and very readable. Don’t, under any circumstances, buy this book. It is so poorly translated that it’s basically incomprehensible.
  6. The canal is full of fascinating feats of engineering. There’s the Malpass Tunnel, the first canal tunnel in Europe. There’s also a series of aqueducts, bridges where the canal crosses a river. It’s a bit head-wrecking to consider being on a boat in a canal on a bridge crossing a river.
  7. The canal is lined with more than 40,000 plane trees that lend it so much of its shade and dappled atmosphere. Sadly, these trees have contracted a water-borne fungus, and must all be cut down and replaced with a disease-resistant strain. This process is already well underway, and the bare sections of the canal were hot and bumpy (from the extracted roots, I imagine). Once the local authority has pulled the trees out from the whole canal, the waterway will lose a lot of its charm. If you’re thinking of riding the canal, do it soon.

Trees being cut along the canal.

Here are some geographically-specific tips:

  1. The canal technically ends at Marseillan, but I recommend riding the extra 15 km or so along the beach to the charming seaside town of Sète. Sète is sometimes called “the Venice of France” because it’s built on a series of canals. That coastal ride is unshaded, so it can be a sweaty chore at the end of a long day, but there are cafes along the beach where you can stop for a drink.
  2. If you finish your day in Castelnaudary, be sure to have some cassoulet. You’re in the birthplace of the dish.
  3. In Beziers, we stayed at Chateau Raissac, an extraordinary, art-filled manor house on beautiful grounds. We had to ride an extra 5 km off the canal to get there, but it was worth it.
  4. There are a number of towns along the canal, so unless it’s the off-season, finding food and accommodation isn’t too difficult. Wine tastings are sparser, though. There is a charming winery at Ventenac that I’d recommend.
  5. We lived in Argeliers, a small village that abuts the canal. There’s a charming bar and restaurant called Le  Chat Qui Pêche beside a beautiful 18th century stone bridge where you should stop and have a drink.
  6. Just down the road from us is the absurdly-quaint village of Le Somail, which features great eating along the canal and a world-famous used bookstore.


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