Cycling the Canals du Midi et Garonne

Last year some pals of ours moved to rural France and we thought we’d show up our friends who thought it would be too difficult to go and see them by travelling down by train and bike. On that trip we included some of the Canal du Garonne and we enjoyed it so much we thought we’d do some more of the canals this year. So, we planned a trip from Montpellier.

Leaving work at lunchtime we were on the train to London (1st class naturally – there are some benefits to being over 60) with the bikes travelling 2nd class of course. Dropping the bikes off at Euro despatch and meeting an old friend by chance in the departure lounge, we were on to Paris. We stayed at the brand new Citizenm Paris Gare de Lyon, popped in to our favourite craft beer bar nearby and on the morning were set for our train from Paris Austerlitz to Toulouse (you can’t book bikes on the direct train to Montpellier so we changed at Toulouse – a long day’s travel on the inter-cité) Checked in with Marie Noelle at the airbnb and with the bikes stored in her son’s flat downstairs set of to explore the city. We found a cool area with a good bar and restaurant and returned home to sleep.

Saturday 2/9

Montpeliier – Sete 45k

The next day started with a ride down the river to the coast, where we tried out the track that runs along the canal that passes through the lagoon – water on all sides but the track was poor quality and soon ran out, so we headed inland and made our way towards Sete on a mixture of roads and tracks, guided by Google. Just outside Sete we had an encounter with a mad motorist who overtook someone in the middle of town, practically creaming me.  Calmed down from that, then on Sete which we did not like one bit. Often first impressions of a town can be telling and the way that we found ourselves dumped in an industrial area on the outskirts of town, favoured by youth doing wheelies in motorbikes in an intimidating fashion, should have told us all we needed to know,  We found a litter-strewn unsigned route under the motorway and the railway that brought us in via the old and somewhat derelict dock area. 

Our accommodation, another AirBnB, was poor. We had a crap experience in a tourist restaurant and the evening was only saved by the nice people in the Jaipur curry house. We’re not going back to Sete if we can avoid it! 

Sunday 3/9 Sete to Mirepeisset  95k

The next day was our longest. Following the cycle route out of Sete, (not sorry to leave) this takes the strand along which the road, railway and cycle route stretch with easy access to the beach. We’d left early enough to get a swim in and  see the traffic jam as we  left the beach area and headed alongside the road toward Agde, getting a bit lost en route but using the Garmin to guide us in.

“Mandatory” “bike route” into Agde

There are some very poor bike routes and terrible signage in this area. Crossing the river at Agde we had reached the start of the Canal du Midi. A short ride along the towpath confirmed our suspicions that the towpath was not going to be good for riding in this area, so we worked out a road route which mostly worked pretty well, taking us through some nightmare theme parks.  Further along we reached a good quality stretch of path and that took us for about 20k towards Béziers. The flight of locks at Béziers has become a real tourist attraction with cruise boats, a restaurant etc.  Beyond that the towpath is crap again so we took to the road, using Google to navigate as Garmin is a bit too fond of busy roads. Stopping for a late lunch at a country house where very attractive young women were being delivered in limousines, we rolled on but made the mistake of using Garmin to navigate in for the last section, thereby ending the ride on busy D roads instead of trundling romantically along the canal.

Typical surface on the Canal Du Midi east of Castelnaudry

We arrived at the nights accommodation, a Houseboat, actually a Norfolk Broads cruiser, moored at Porte La Minervoise close to Mirepeisset. We were in time for basic tapas & beer in the canal side and enjoyed our nights stay on Bella Mia, moored just up from the junction of canal du midi and canal du Robine (that heads towards Narbonne).

Monday 4/9

Mirepeisset to Paguignan  (about 10 k)  

Crossing the former tourist line from Narbonne to Bize

A short but very pleasant ride past Bize to Paguignan to stay in a friend’s grenier (converted grain store) good to see Ralph who lives and works nearby, for B&T seeds. A good evening at La Grange.

Tuesday 5/9 Paguignan  – Carcassone    

The hottest day, temps up to 33C. and with a strong headwind that did at least cool us a little. Did some of it on the towpath but the surface still too poor for distance cycling. Noticeable that many of the diseased limes have been cut down giving the Canalside a very different feel. Some good road riding today even with the headwind .  In Carcassonne we stayed in an apartment complex, made our way down to the town centre for bagel burgers, and Leffe.

Carcassone – Castelnaudary 40km

We visited Decathlon before leaving town which meant a great tour of the industrial sector. 

Leaving Carcassonne the route was barrée, and we had a spot of bother finding an alternative. A road that looked as though it would take us in a straight line out of the urban area turned out to be the gated entrance to a private chateau. Eventually we bumped our way along the footpath on the other side of the canal, until we were able to cross at some lock gates.

We also had a spot of rain, but otherwise another hot & windy days cycling and I slip-streamed a tractor for a while which was very satisfying.  Whatever. Castlenaudry is a very pretty town with a lake formed from the canal harbour. Saw coypus &  ate burger (not coypu burger – don’t think so anyway!) on the canalside.

Coypu in Castelnaudry harbour

Thursday 7/9 Castelnaudary – Toulouse 66 km

About ten klicks out of Castelnaudry the dirt track towpath turns into tarmac, at the boundary with Haut Garonne. The landscape starts to change too, with the motorway and the railway following the canal, lets be clear about what was here first, and vineyards replaced with sunflower and wheat fields. On a good surface our speeds started to increase, it had been noticeable that people heading east had not been in a good mood and you could see why when they were forsaking traffic free tarmac for a bumpy dirt track. But after a tree rooty start we were rolling well as we made our way into Toulouse past Matabiau and out the other side without having to contend with city traffic. Our apartment was in the cool Minimes area and we found a decent bar with craft beer, a great local restaurant and local boulangerie although the bio Coop couldn’t get its act together early enough for us to use it for lunch provisions, a pity as we were getting a bit tired of cheese.  

Friday 8/9

Toulouse – Moissac  85km

A handsome bridge on the Canal du Garonne

Our second longest day but with good surfaces, clear signing and a generally downhill direction, the Canal is of course flat except for the écluses , locks,  we sped along. As you leave Toulouse you see the seamy side of the town, a lot of homeless people have found places to pitch camp on the land between the motorway and the canal. They didn’t bother us however, and after leaving behind the largest railway yard I have ever cycled past  we were out into the countryside again. 

At Dieupentale, I suddenly got a hankering for sausages  – you know how it is, as we came under a bridge, suddenly, a miracle! – a restaurant with saucisses on the menu.  We parked our bikes and approached, slavering – well I was – only to be told – “Vous avez réservé? C’est complet! Désolé.” Oh well, bread and cheese for lunch again! 

The Sausage restaurant
Old Dieupental Station (took the photo so I’d know where it was for next time)

We did get a bit lost in Moissac, having visited the town the bike route weirdly takes you around the town and you get your first view of the Garonne, a very wide river at this point. As you leave Moissac the river and the canal stay close together with the railway and the road. We stayed at Chambres D’Hotes at Pugnal, a lovely place run by Brian and Jenny, a very nice couple from Hertfordshire like me. www.pugnal.com

Saturday 9/9 Moissac – Agen

Our final day and we enjoyed the spin along the canal, again with the Garonne beside us.  On arrival I was determined to see the aqueduct that takes the canal over the river, so leaving Patrice at the station I sped along to take a look.  It is indeed an impressive structure and when I got halfway along it the heavens opened so by the time I got the half km back to the Gare I was soaked! This lasted for the rest of our time being driven to our friends house.

Pie

Richard on his tractor

After a very pleasant sojourn we were deposited back at the Ibis Agen for a night before the early train back to Paris. A note to fellow travellers – if you;re looking for somewhere to eat in Agen you can do a lot worse than the Grande  Brasserie at the station. Dinner was fab and breakfast wasn’t bad either.

Agen – Sheffield

And another note to fellow travellers – if you’ve booked your bikes on the TGV be assertive about getting them on. By the time we’d finished being nice to our travelling companions they had stuffed all their bags in the rather paltry bike space. We did just about manage to squeeze them on-

Bike Space on the Agen – Paris TGV (Goes via Bordeaux)

There only remained to cycle across Paris (this train went to Montparnasse, not the easiest station to cycle to Gare Du Nord from, but once you get to Bastille you can follow a segregated route along the canal, although if it’s market day there will be a bouchon) book the bikes in to Euro Despatch, go for a slap-up lunch and get the Eurostar home. Arriving back in Sheffield in the rain took the edge off things!

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