Pisa to Bastia Corsica (ferry)
Toulon to Sanary sur Mer 18 km
Sanary sur Mer to Cassis 32 km
Cassis to Marseille 23 km
Marseille to Montpellier (train)
Montpellier to Sete 39 km
Sete to Villeneuve les Beziers 56 km
Villeneuve les Beziers to Capestang 30 km
Capestang to Le Somail 19 km
Le Somail to Carcassonne 63 km
Carcassonne to Castelnaudary 45 km
Castelnaudary to Avignoet-Lauragais 20 km
Avignoet-Lauragais to Toulouse 45 km
When Ian and I were cycling in Vietnam we spent a lot of time analyzing why we were struggling with it. Ian finally summed it up by saying there just wasn’t enough yin for the yang – like when you are cycling somewhere and the traffic is busy but the food is amazing –more yin than yang so it is ok. Or, the food sucks and the traffic is bad in places but the people are amazing. In Vietnam, the scenery was amazing – some of the time. That was all the yin there was.
So here we are on the canal du midi trail with a few hundred kilometres of cycling on our France trip odometers. The people are terrific (I don’t get that stereotype about snotty French people. I have been here four times now and very rarely experience anything but friendly no matter how badly I butcher their language). The food ranges from mediocre to astonishing and this is in the cheap places. The scenery is often breathtaking. The cycling is fabulous and people’s attitude towards cyclists is heart warming.
Yep. It’s love. I don’t think I could ever get tired of France.
So our recent travels: We took a ferry from Livorno Italy to Corsica and stayed for a couple of days without cycling as I caught yet another cold. Our first morning we enjoyed the Sunday market and despite being sick I was giddy at my first sight of all the old French favourites: astonishing cheese that is worlds apart from what we get at home generally (and this makes me want to declare war on the Canadian Dairy board because of the insane prices we pay and the ban on raw milk cheeses); fresh fruit that tastes just as it should: tree-ripened and lush; and baked goods that inspire exclamation (oh oh ohhh). And in Corsica, a kind of throw back to France in the fifties, we strolled the streets alongside old men in white shoes and old ladies in prim skirts on their way home from church, church bells chiming through the ancient, narrow streets.
We landed in Toulon after taking a ferry from Bastia (Corsica) and hit some traffic and a few hills when we started cycling but I didn’t care, especially when we arrived in Sanary sur Mer and found yet another market and a beautiful harbor filled with restored wooden boats on display for a summer festival.
The ride to Cassis was hilly but we found a bakery that made me want not only to learn to bake the French way but also to paint…the cherry galette looked that good. I didn’t taste it though as we were being a little careful (there are bakeries in every French town) and stuck to a ham and brie baguette and fresh peaches.
We descended to Cassis and then climbed again to a non-descript campground that was packed and a reminder that French campgrounds are not usually something to write home about (a little yang for our yin). However, this one did have a bar and we enjoyed a glass of rose while we watched the camp workers playing boules after shift. This was also where we had an impromptu French language lesson on the various uses of bon (versus bien which always confuses us). Our neighbors were only a metre away in their tent when they opted for some morning amour and we distinctly heard the woman exclaiming bon (not bien) a number of times…
The ride to Marseille was painful for me on a hot day and still sick but once again stunning and the French, bless them, have made this D road highway into a bike route, providing well-marked bike lanes on both sides of the highway despite it being narrow. The descent into Marseille was nothing short of magical and the highway section ended on a bike route right through town leaving us only a couple of blocks in real traffic which was, as it turned out, light around the old port.
Marseille, however, is rough. We appreciated the historic port and surrounding streets but noticed a lot of unsavoury looking people hanging about and the graffiti and smell of piss on some of the side streets not far from the port was not pretty. Studying our maps over morning coffee, we realized that the ride to Montpellier, where we planned to pick up the canal du midi bike route, was going to be busy and hot and so, on Bastille day, made what turned out to be a wise decision to take the train to Montpellier.
The historic center of Montpellier seemed a bit touristy although we admired the architecture. We were very impressed when the receptionist at our train station hotel told us to follow the tram lines to get to a river and bike route that would then take us along a canal bike route to Sete, the official start of the canal du midi bike route. Following the tram line eventually to the plaza de Europe we were able to appreciate more architecture and pedestrian only spaces before finding the river bike route as promised.
It was once again very hot (no shade and 25 km paralleling the ocean), but we appreciated riding a route with no traffic and ending up in Sete which is a very scenic French Mediterranean town. It was here we discovered beer Monaco (beer with grenadine and lemonade…crazy colour of pink but very refreshing on a hot day). We struggled to find the bike route through Sete and Agde but with the help of tourism offices in both places finally arrived at the canal.
The canal du midi was built in the 1600s for commercial transport. In the old days there were toe paths along either side for donkeys to pull boats along; these paths are now bike routes. The canal is very popular with tourists who rent canal boats for their holidays and home to a number of people who live on the long narrow barge boats tied up to the shore. Both sides are lined with huge, old plane trees which provide shade and in some cases a canopy over the canal. It is beautiful in its own right and a treat to ride without traffic. It is popular with families and we have met friendly people at all the campsites, brave souls cycling with their kids and tenting along the way.
The sad news is that the plane trees have some kind of disease which is forcing the French government to cut them down. A tragedy. We found small sections where this has been done already but this is a minority of the trail. There is a program in place to cut down the diseased trees and replace them – about 3000 euros a tree. Here’s hoping they can stop the spread without having to do further chopping as these trees, aside from providing necessary shade, are also so integral to the southern landscape it would be a shame to lose them all.
The path itself is a bit rough (riding over tree roots) and it gets narrow in places and lacks signage but we have a great map from the tourist office that has kept us on track. There are times where you have to cross a bridge and ride on the opposite shore because of some obstacle or other or to get around locks (which are great places to take a break and watch the lock keepers and boats work to get through the lock). We have seen people with one-wheel trailers which work ok but the two-wheeled versions can be a problem in narrow sections. We met a family whose bike and trailer toppled into the canal – luckily the trailer only held luggage. So travelling with a child in a trailer requires some research as to appropriate sections.
We have been surprised all the way by beautiful French towns and villages that are on the path, most notably Le Somail where upon our approach we were so charmed by the ancient canal bridge and old tower we stopped for lunch. We noticed a small auberge across the street and sure enough got the last room in a restored 17th century house and for 55 euros had petit dejeuner on the poolside terrace with other guests. Oh yeah and our room looked out on the pool and the vineyard.
Carcassonne is also on the trail – and I liked it the second time round (I saw it ten years ago). It is a huge fortified town and castle (with 54 towers). It was stronghold of the Cathars in the 1200s and also the scene of some very horrific Catholic inquisitions. It is now very touristed and full of shops and restaurants but it is so unique and so big it is well worth putting up with the hordes.
We’ve also done a lot of camping these last few weeks and I am surprised at how much I am appreciating it, despite some crowded conditions at times. It was in the Carcassonne campground that I finally got round to making a campside meal I was very proud of – filet mignon du porc marinated in red wine with garlic and capers (and the pan juices with butter and more wine became the sauce) a green salad with oil and vinegar dressing and local fresh chevre and boiled new potatoes with a bottle of local Corbieres wine. It is possible to live with some luxury in the campgrounds here…many have pools and bars but it is hit and miss as to how crowded they are and what kind of ground is available for the tent.
We’ve also had many happy lock side lunches, munching on rustic Camembert and baguettes while watching the boats go through the locks.
I am writing this from Toulouse, the end of our first canal route ride and the beginning of the Garonne canal route. It looks like we will be able to ride along the second canal route all the way to a town called Marmande, a mere 30 km from our resting destination of Lauzun (where we hang up our helmets for a month). The two canal routes will end up providing us a trail ride all the way from the south in Montpellier to the southwest 100 km from Bordeaux (and if fact we could ride all the way to Bordeaux along the canal). This is about 550 kms of cycling off road on relatively easy path.
I can’t think of a better way to see this beautiful country.
Vive le France — more yin than yang — it is wonderful, even the fourth time round.