Travel - seven great reasons to cycle France's Canal du Midi
PUBLISHED: 19:00 30 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:23 04 February 2020
After kayaking some of Norfolk's tiny Dilham canal we were ready for our next canal adventure - abroad, by bike and including chancing upon two Norfolk exiles running a fabulous B&B deep in the French countryside.
1 If cycling is your thing, then this is an idyllic journey, along paths, tracks and lanes through lovely scenery, with hardly any traffic to contend with and an almost infinite number of scenic detours up into the hills or over to pretty towns and villages. My husband had been a bit worried about the distances covered each day (he's used to doing 100-plus mile rides) but admitted that the tow path could be quite challenging when it got narrow, bumpy or muddy, and the areas we passed through were so fascinating that this was not something to race through anyway.
If cycling is not your thing then this is a delight too; heading towards the Med the prevailing wind and just 30 or 40 miles to cover each day make this very manageable for most reasonably fit people. It is also pretty much flat, or even downhill after the first day, thanks to the 17th century labourers who ironed out most of the hills. Pierre Paul Riquet is the man to thank for what is now considered one of the world's greatest cycle routes, although the engineer, who is commemorated all along his masterpiece, began construction in 1667 - long before the invention of the bicycle.
2 If canals are your thing then the Canal du Midi is a must - the 163 miles of waterway between Toulouse and the Mediterranean are an engineering wonder. It was originally built in the 17th century to link the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, with boats taking the river from Bordeaux and then the canal itself, constructed in just 13 years and including multiple locks, bridges and viaducts and the world's first canal tunnel.
3 If Unesco World Heritage Sites are your thing then the highlight would have to be fairytale-towered Carcassonne, rising above the tranquil Canal du Midi. That's a double dose of World Heritage phenomena.
4 If food is your thing then it would be difficult to know which meal would be the highlight. Every night a different hotel and restaurant, every morning a different and fabulous hotel breakfast (even more of a joy than usual as you know you will be gently pedaling off those calories). The route takes you through the home of the legendary cassoulet (packed with beany, meaty goodness, it's my new favourite) and past the just as legendary vineyards of the Languedoc region. Several lock-keepers' cottages have small cafes or stalls selling local produce, and villages just off the cycle path provide lunchtime essentials including baguettes, cheese, fruit, wine and shady squares with seats, boules pitches, and restful views of hills, water, fortified churches or grand chateaux. We ate evening meals in the ancient hill city of Carcassonne, in the just-as-ancient hill city of Beziers overlooking a truly awesome fountain and light show, in a tree-filled village restaurant courtyard garden and, grandest of all, at the end of the journey, in the fine restaurant of Le Grand Hotel on the canal-front in elegant Sete.
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5 If history is your thing then you are in the right place. This is Cathar country. If you hadn't come across the 1,000-year-old sect, with its roots in Christianity and destroyed by French Crusaders, you certainly will as you pedal through its heartlands. The towering castles, walled towns and villages and fortified churches are picturesque today but were battlegrounds in previous centuries. From arriving in Toulouse, with its stunning pink-tinged buildings, we were immersed in the culture of the Midi. This part of France once had its own language and its independence from the north is still celebrated and commemorated. There are ancient settlements going back thousands of years within a couple of miles of the entire length of the canal. Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Cathars, Crusaders - they have all been here.
6 If nature is your thing then, as well as the ever-changing scenery, there is an abundance of birds, trees, flowers, fish and more all around you. In a lagoon, just over from the Med we came across flocks of wild pink flamingos. But it's not all good news. The animals we thought might be beavers in the lovely lake at the top of the canal system turned out to be coypu and the avenues of plane trees which sheltered us from both sun and rain are being killed by a fungus. Every one of them will eventually have to be removed and replaced with a fungus-resistant tree.
7 All the stages were short enough to enjoy plenty of sight-seeing, plus swims in hotel pools, a lake and the sea. We slept, soundly, in elegant historic town centre hotels, in the shadow of the Roman walls at magical Carcassonne, and in an imposing wine merchant's home on a village square. It was here, in pretty Olonzac, near nowhere in particular in the middle of rolling, rural southern France, we met B&B owners Chris Leeds from Costessey and Paul Smith from Earlham. As we were wheeling our bicycles through its lush gardens to their overnight quarters I had almost exhausted my French when our hosts asked whether I might be English. As soon as he began speaking in English I recognised the Norwich accent and we learned how Chris and Paul had found this beautiful, remote, area and created wonderfully elegant rooms in their grand village house, Eloi Merle. They have transformed old outbuildings into garden holiday appartments too. eloimerle.com
We travelled with Purely Pyrenees which booked beautiful hotels all the way down the Canal, with bed and breakfast each night and dinner on three evenings.
Everything was taken care of from bicycles and route planning (they provide the excellent Cicerone book Cycling The Canal de Midi) to luggage lugging and a 24-hour number to call with any problems.
We travelled by train from Norwich to London, then Eurostar and a sleeper train from Paris to Toulouse (but flew back from Beziers rather tarnishing our eco-halos.)
Purely Pyrenees is the new arm of French walking and cycling company La Balaguere, which has 35 years of experience organising self-guided walking and cycling holidays. For us the Pyrenees themselves were simply spikey shapes on the horizon so we knew we would not need the electric bike option, but the bikes provided were in excellent condition and very comfortable, with locks, lights, a tool kit and paniers.