Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi

We have traveled several of France’s canal tow paths and Canal du Midi is truly a marvel and deserving of it’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France and constructed in the 17th century as a dream by visionary Pierre-Paul Riquet to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and transport goods by avoiding a long sea voyage, not to mention potential attached by pirates and unfriendly neighboring countries at the time.
Our route focuses on the section between Toulouse and Sète, on the Mediterranean Sea. This region has a rich history that pre-dates the Romans. Expect hot temperatures in the summer, with some relief where the canal is shaded by old growth trees.
We had a very late arrival at the Toulouse airport, so we decided to stay near the airport and head into town the next morning.
France has made great strides in the last decade to become more cycle friendly and this is quite evident with the many cycle paths and lanes which give easy access into town. We arrived at the Toulouse rail station (Gare) and arranged to leave our bikes overnight for a side trip we had planned to scenic Albi. Next evening, we were back and retrieved our bikes from the station and headed to our hotel, in the area of the Gare.

Stage One:  Toulouse to Villefranche-de-Lauragais  37,8 km

Kilometer Zero on the Canal du Midi ride is in front of the Gare, so that is where we start.

DSCF0399The path is paved through Toulouse and is an easy entrance or exit to this busy city. We pass lots of canal boats and barges along the way. About 5km along we encounter the first aqueduct we’ll see on this tour. At first, it’s quite alarming to be riding along beside the canal, then all of a sudden to look down and see a highway going underneath you. Just another example of Paul Riquet’s genius. We’ll have a chance to get used to them though, as we’ll be seeing a few more aqueducts as we ride along the canal. Shortly after we will be crossing over the canal as the improved path continues on that side. One of the highlights of this ride is the many locks or ecluses you pass; each with it’s own name, and most all have a lockkeeper’s house. At some points along the canal’s length, we have an option of going under bridges on a narrowed path or going up to the roadway, crossing and then back down to join the path. This is up to the discretion of the rider. On our bikes, we breeze past, while the boatpeople must negotiate the mechanical task of getting through each ecluse; waiting for the water to fill and then they exit at a somewhat different level as the canal gradually makes it’s way to the sea. For us the route is pretty much straightforward. At ecluse Gardouch, we leave the canal and turn left to take the roadway into Villefranche. It’s a small town, dating back to the 13th Century, when the church was built.
It was a good time to stop on this hot summer day.

Stage Two:  Villefranche-de-Lauragais to Castelnaudary  25,2 km

We left town to return to the Canal a ecluse Narouze. The canal path changes from paving to dirt along the way today and becomes bumpy; but, very straightforward and we have the chicada sound to accompany us along the way as well as some sunflower fields in full bloom.
IMG_0184At ecluse Ocean, we will be crossing over the canal to ride the other side,, where there are signs pointing to the “obelisk”, the Paul Riquet monument. We follow the signs and find ourselves among another group of cycle tourists. This engineering genius responsible for the canal did not live to see the completion; but, died when is was just 1km from completion. So sad. Not far from the monument the canal summit at Narouze is the highest point on the canal and the point from which all the water for all the ecluses is distributed. Amid a park of huge overhanging trees, Riquet’s water basin is still in use, feeding the canal. From ecluse Ocean, the path narrows and the dirt path is pretty rocky and full of tree roots. This is not fast going. Although we have not had any significant climbs on this ride, from ecluse Roc, our downhill movement is becoming noticeable. It’s all downhill to the sea from here.
The path improves to multi use and widens as we see Castelnaundary ahead as we pass under this pedestrian overpass and start watching for our canalside hotel. Castelnaudary is the main port of the Canal du Midi. The Grand Bassin is the 7th largest open area of water in the canal, and is today its major pleasure port. On the hill overlooking the Centre Ville, there is a free Museum, telling the history of the Canal du Midi and Paul Riquet. It’s well worth visiting. While in town we could closely observe ecluse St. Roch, which consists of four separate locks. It makes cycling look easy, as we watched a boater struggle getting their vessel maneuvered into pafter osition with the assistance of the lock keeper. There are 103 ecluses between Toulouse and Agde and by the end of their journey they must become pretty proficient.

Stage Three: Castelnaundary to Carcassonne 41,1 km

Today we will cycle past 19 ecluses. We begin the day be crossing over the canal to cycle on the left bank. This takes you around the lake, or estuary. Most of today will be on a bumpy dirt track. At the time of our ride, there was a brief section that looked particularly dicey, so we opted to ride a small country road for a bit. After a short stint on the road to Villesque, we are back on the rough canal path and then about 30km from the start, we divert from the path, up the hill to a ridge over the canal. There’s vineyards all over to the left. It’s very lovely. Before long; however, we are back down beside the canal on a narrow section with reeds and underbrush. We are glad we have all terrain bikes. We pass by ecluse de Lelande; one of three within 1.5km. Lots of work for the boaters. Soon the path improves and after we cross under beneath an autoroute and we are not far from Carcassonne. We enter the town center and leave the canal to find our hotel. We booked our reservations in February for our July stay, as hotels fill months in advance of summer. This is a must see town with a great castle to visit.
IMG_0187Not only that, today happens to be a national holiday with Tour de France ending here today and fireworks above the castle, tonight. We want to experience it ALL.

Stage Four:  Carcassonne to a small Chateau outside Homps  39,5 km

Today we have some paving and some dirt and gravel. There are lots of ecluses and some very pretty old stone bridges. Also, there is another interesting aquaduct just before Trebes. We begin on the right bank and then at ecluse Marseillette, we switch over to the left bank and then 6km later at ecluse l’Aiguille. At ecluse Jouarres the Lockkeeper has decorated with flowers and has a table of local products to offer.
We are back on the right bank for our turn off to a small chateau and vineyard. This was quiet and offered a very nice dinner service, as well as a pool, which we enjoyed after another hot ride.

Stage Five:  Chateau outside Homps to Capestang  44,5 km

Todays ride will be on dirt and gravel towpath, with just a short stretch on a quiet D road, and all on the right bank. As we near the actual town of Homps, the canal widens into a basin for the many boaters. More locks. At ecluse Pechlaurier the lockkeeper has a nice display of local specialties at his flower adorned lockhouse. At Port Minervois, we cross over this AMAZING aquaduct. Beneath us is the River La Cesse. We just had to stop and look back and below. To think that this was engineered and built in the 1600’s. What a feat! This is one of the most beautiful sections of the canal. Up ahead is a rather confusing stretch. This is a turnoff to another path that goes to Narbonne. We are not going there. We are heading toward Béziers and we need to turn Left and cross a rocky old bridge. Slow going. Capestang looms ahead, as we pass groupings of canal boats, moored at the side of the canal.
Capestang knew great prosperity during the Middle Ages due to its location on the edge of a lagoon, which has now silted over. This is now a quiet agricultural town with a Sunday market. It happens to be Sunday, so we stop by to pick up some snacks and souvenirs.

Stage Six:  Capstang to Beziers  20,8 km

Todays ride passes the multiple Fonserannes ecluses and over the top of the Malpas tunnel. Both amazing sites. The canal is on our left and vineyards on our right as we leave Capstang. After about 9km, we know the tunnel is ahead. Facing budgetary problems and forbidden to proceed, a group of volunteers secretly dug the 165-foot tunnel by candle-light in an astounding eight days, allowing the canal to be completed. Over the canal and down a welcome paved trail section with the canal on our right. The next ecluse is a man-made wonder of France which is a major tourist attraction as you can see by the crowds. This is the Ecluse Fonserannes, another of Paul Riquet’s innovations, with no less than 8 locks, three hundred meters in length and a vertical drop of over 21 meters. In the middle of the locks, we must change sides. We walk our bikes over this footbridge; crossing over an ecluse.
We haven’t finished crossing yet. One more climb today; up this hillside on the right side of the canal to another bridge. Quite the view from here. You climb up and over…this bridge. It’s quite the engineering feat.
The reward for the climb is a nice freewheeling downhill to bring us back beside the canal. Then we’re on another raised aqueduct. This must be a very old bridge. And this goes up and over the water below the canal here. These are so amazing. It’s just got to be the strangest sight for those looking up to see boats passing overhead. When we reach Pont Neuf, we cross to enter Beziers. This is a fairly large town and we are following signs to the Gare as are hotel is near. Also across the street is the Parc Des Poets, a nature preserve, where we began our walking tour with a leisurely stroll. In 1209, Béziers was under siege by crusaders and much of it was burned to the ground during the religious struggle. it wasn’t until the 19th century that a boom in vineyard harvesting saw the city return to its original affluence and beauty.

Stage Seven:  Beziers to Agde  24,9 km

This short ride is about half by paved path and the balance on the familiar dirt and gravel with a short portion on quiet roadway. The first part of the ride is very popular with cyclists out for their regular workout. We are happy to be a paved section and roadway; but, this ends, as the paved road heads off to the beach and we are on the dirt path and diverted around an inlet with campgrounds. At ecluse Ouvrage du Libron, the crossing proved to be confusing and a bit tricky. The actual crossing required us to take off the panniers and walk single file over angled sections of walkway. At the time we crossed, we felt this section needed some maintenance and better signage. We want to end up riding on the right side, with the canal to our left; although there are cyclists on both sides. Then, just before the auto overpass, the trail disappears and we are on the roadway, through an underpass.
Then making a left and the canal comes back into view with a re-entry point. Again, the path ends again for a bit, taking us over this small bridge across the water. There is a big trust factor here that we are on the right track. We encountered a dirt and grass sort of road and some path planks that could have used repair. When in doubt, we just walked the bikes. This last section, before Agde, is very rough and rooted on a narrow track through the woods. It’s definitely slow going over the rough spots. It’s still surprising how much use the section gets; even in it’s present state. As we near Agde, there are again, many canal boats tied up and a real camping type atmosphere. Suddenly, we are there. We cross the bridge over the Herault River and then up the hill into to old town square. The Canal du Midi meets the Herault River at the town of Agde, where history goes back twenty-five hundred years. During summer, you’ll be able to witness rehearsals for the annual jousting competition, a tradition in Agde going back to ancient times, in which the “loser” gets to cool off in the Herault River.

Stage Eight:  Agde to Sète  26,8 km

This route will take us to the sea and the end of our ride. We leave Sète by crossing the Canal du Midi; but, we will not actually be riding beside it today. We are on roadways; passing some vineyards and even an olive grove; then beside the l’Etang du Thau, paralleling the plage (beach). As we near Sète, we find ourselves on a bike lane with the Mediterranean on our right. What a view. When we near the old town center, the bike lane disappears and we are on the busy roadway again, winding our way through traffic on the way to our hotel. This town reaches from the sea, up the mountain and around to the other side. The initial village started growing with the completion of the Canal du Midi in 1681 and it has become a major commercial port in southern France. Our old friend the Canal du Midi empties into the sea here at Sète.
From here we return to Toulouse via rail the following day.

Toulouse is well worth a stop over before returning home. This “Pink City” is bicycle friendly and has many historic sites. Many pilgrims, walking the St Jacque de Campostille trail will pass through town as part of the long journey.