The coaches are air conditioned, with generously spaced seats,
if you elect to pay the extra for "club class", and there are limited
facilities on board. There is a courier and hostess on the coach, and
get to watch videos and optionally partake in a quiz. The refreshments
are standard microwave fare, or toasties, but not bad value for money,
certainly more competitively priced than UK motorway service stations.
Supplemented with a supply of fruit, you can survive on coach catering
for the journey. The courier does a good job in keeping people informed
about what is happening, loading and offloading bikes, and organising
breaks at the service stations. I think that three drivers were used on
our coach, one in the UK and two on the continent - the resting driver
has a bed onboard. This is about as comfortable as coach travel can
and is certainly preferable to driving thousands of miles, but I found
it difficult to do little more than snooze on the reclining seat.
an excellent service, one that we will be using again.
It would be nice to think that you could ride along the river bank, followed by a pleasant trundle along the canal tow path, but this is not really an option. I guess a determined MTB user could follow the tow path for much of the way, but there are alternative attractive minor roads, which pass through interesting little settlements, which are much more appealing. For some of the way the main road, the river and the railway line are tightly packed into a narrow channel, and there is no alternative but the main road, but these stretches are few. Much of the way you can glide along on smooth tarmac, hardly troubled by motor vehicles. The tow paths tend to be strewn with hazards including patches of deep gravel, numerous fishermen, and troublesome tree roots - take it from me you won't want to use them. In some places the tow paths have been improved, generally where the canal passes through a town. There is one glorious 25 mile long stretch of smoothly surfaced towpath, starting in Toulouse and running out to the East. Even this suffers the odd tree root, but there is evidence of maintenance, with one section clearly recently re-surfaced.
Given that you will probably want to use the roads at least some of the way, it is necessary to use maps. If you are in the CTC I would recommend getting the report by the Boulton family, "Entre Deux Mers - A Cycle Ride Along the Garonne and Canal Du Midi" which is freely available to members. From that source we determined that the maps to use were the Green Series (Serie Verte) 1 cm to 1 km, numbers 55,56,57,64, and 72. These maps are excellent, easy to follow and show all you need to know (though road signs tend to be absent when most needed!). We bought our copies from an Internet based supplier in the UK, but found that they were significantly cheaper in France. We often found ourselves referring to the Boultons' description of their journey as they had obviously spent a great deal of time in picking out suitable minor roads which followed the route.
For those determined to follow the tow paths as much as possible, we suggest that you get a copy of Tony Robert's "Cycling Along the Waterways of France", ISBN 0933201907. We found this book interesting and useful when used in conjunction with the Boulton text. It contains a detailed map of the canal towpath between Agen and Narbonne.
This article does not attempt to replicate the route information, rather we endeavour to give you a flavour of the journey, illustrated by a few photographs.
Further background reading might include L.T.C. Rolt's book on the
of the canals, or "The Canal of the Midi and Pierre-Paul Riquet" by
Morand which contains some super colour photographs ISBN 2-85744-675-6.
French motorists are much more cycle friendly than those in the UK, it seems that it is normal practice for them to wait behind a cycle until there is room to pass on the opposite side of the road - a requirement of the UK highway code that is rarely adhered to. Some motorists would give a warning toot on the horn followed by a friendly wave. There were some exceptions to this, and the main roads should be avoided if possible, but we felt much safer than on equivalent roads in the UK.
On a few occasions we had to ride along the N113, a major road. This has a generous hard shoulder in most places, while, if you contrive to reserve your cycling on it for the weekends, there is very little commercial traffic then.
At times it was like riding in heaven, warm, flat, no traffic, good
road surface, interesting things to see, cycling cannot be better than
The young women in the tourist information offices were all very helpful, although my wife's good command of the French language proved a very useful asset. I don't know if my very poor schoolboy French would have got me through! Be warned, they have a very distinct accent in the deep south, it takes some getting used to.
If you enjoy camping, you should consider carrying a tent etc, we
bought one when faced with the difficulty of finding accommodation. We
were told that some of the municipal camp sites charge only a few
per person per night, while the facilities are generally more than
We were also told that the cost of camping equipment is less in France,
and that there is a chain of stores dealing in this gear.
It is an essential part of the French experience to sit outside a cafe sipping beer or coffee, but you have to pay for the privilege. Most items appear on the published list, so you know what it will cost before you buy, but if you order a none standard drink or meal prepare for the consequences! I would be inclined to ask how much it will cost before buying, e.g. over £4 for a banana split.
Vegetarians are not well catered for. Be prepared to cook your own food, or suffer a rather monotonous diet. I was disappointed to find a limited range of salads within even the larger supermarkets. No cole-slaw, no plain potato salad; if it does not contain meat or fish it does not exist!
We enjoyed tarmac melting temperatures on most of the days. In those
conditions you drink a lot, so the water bottles need to be kept
I fitted a third bottle cage to the tandem before the trip, and on one
day we were down to the dregs in the third bottle before we found
The traffic free minor roads, the climate, the beauty of the countryside and architecture, the friendly welcome, the wine etc. etc....
France is clean, compare Narbonne Plage to any UK seaside resort. There is not a speck of litter, they hoover the beach every morning! All of the small towns we passed through were commendably neat and tidy. Houses might look as though they would benefit from a lick of paint, but there is no rubbish lying around. They spend money on street cleaning while the culture appears to be to take your litter home.
What did we most dislike?
Those horrible little motor bikes that the kids zoom around on. I
that you can ride one of these smelly and very noisy contraptions from
the age of 16, without a licence. They get everywhere and are a
nuisance. There seems to be a desperate lack of public transport in
areas - I guess that the size of the country and the low density
of population both mitigate against a rural bus service. In common with
the remainder of the developed world, there are too many cars
the otherwise very attractive settlements, but the French seem to be
very little to control cars in cities. Oh, and people smoke in
Finally, we do have a dog in our family, but they take their dogs everywhere, and France falls behind the UK in its tolerance of dog dirt on pavements.
We boarded the coach at 5:30 a.m. at Teesside. It was cold that morning, the first and last time we suffered in that way during the trip! The photograph shows the courier fastening the tandem onto the trailer. There was a series of stops through England and by the time we reached the ferry port at Dover, the coach was full. On this particular trip most of the passengers were more mature citizens, although there was a much wider spread of ages on the return journey.
The coach trip lasted 24 hours, arriving in Bordeaux at 6:30 a.m. French time, where about half a dozen cyclists disembarked. After attaching the panniers we all wished each other a good holiday and proceeded on our separate ways. There are cycle paths in Bordeaux, and one starts at a roundabout adjacent to the drop off point. This takes you into the city, where there are more paths - but no signposts. We needed to use the map to navigate our way out, basically following the river Garonne. This involved following the D113 for some way, this is quite a heavily used highway, particularly close to Bordeaux, but the trafiic subsides after a turn off to the Autoroute. Just outside of the City there is a minor road running very close to the river which was very pleasant and took us away from the D113 for a few miles. The D113 later beomes the D10, which also follows the valley of the Garonne. We had coffee in Cadillac (of Detroit fame), bought some food, and pressed on as far as Castets, which is where the Canal Lateral begins. The photo shows the canal leaving the river via the locks on the right. Take a careful look at the building on the right, the lock keeper's house. The weather was overcast, but it was hot!
This photo shows the front of the lock keeper's house. I am standing beside a scale which indicates the floodwater level at various times in the past, and yes there is a mark right up at the top, just under the stairs. Look back at the previous photo to see where the building is in comparison with the normal river water level, the floods must be really something! You will note the poor state of the paintwork - the Canal Lateral remains navigable, with all systems in working order, but there does not appear to be much traffic. In all the time we cycled along it we saw only one vessel, a pleasure cruiser, on the move. This is in contrast to the Canal du Midi, which runs from Toulouse to the Med., and enjoys both a much higher standard of maintenance, and a great deal more (holiday) traffic. We did not see any working boats on either canal.
Eating lunch at Castets, we discovered that large French tomatoes do not taste as good as they look - give me Gardener's Delight any time!
We pressed on to Le Reole to end our day's ride, a distance of about 46 miles.
As you can see, the sun came out after Castets, and it was very, very, hot. This shot is taken from the opposite bank of the Garonne to La Reole. The suspension bridge is characteristic of several that we saw crossing the Garonne, built in 1934, it replaced an earlier structure designed by Gustave Eiffel.
La Reole as seen from the South side of the river Garonne. You can take a pleasure boat trip up the river, and the vessel in question is just visible in the picture. La Reole is an interesting town, if a little down at heel. It was at one time the second City of the region, whose development dates back to the year 977. I am reading these facts from an English language brochure published by the information office, which describes a guided walk around the town. We sat drinking a welcome cool beer outside a cafe facing the river and read this document. I have to say we had a good laugh - it is translated in the style of the policeman from" Allo, Allo", but it is very informative nevertheless, e.g. "... is decorated with a wooden painting of an ecstatic monk"
We stayed the night in an attractive Chambre d' Hote (bed and
within the town at 66 Rue Martouret. From the outside it looked
an ordinary terraced house, with faded paint and closed shutters.
Inside it was beautifully furnished, scrupulously clean, and huge with
a large back garden. Our hosts, a retired couple, Monsier and Madame
Latapye, were very friendly and recommended a good restaurant, La
for an evening meal. Bed and breakfast cost a very reasonable
It was strange to walk from the baking sunshine into the cool darkness of the church, and the haunting picture of the crucifixion by Rembrandt is not easy to forget.
Ploughing on we managed to get phone numbers of two Chambres d' Hote, both of which were described as chateaux and boasted a swimming pool. Neither of these locations were on the route, but the alternative was going to be an airport motel in Agen, so we opted for the more attractive sounding option. As the day wore on the temperature increased to the extent that the tarmac was melting in places. You should be aware that the passage between the two seas uses a gap between the high lands to the North and South, and that as long as you keep to the river valley, the gradients are gentle. Stray off the beaten track and you climb! For some illogical reason we chose not to phone either place until we were within a stone's throw of the first one, and, you guessed it, it was full! We took the precaution of phoning the second chateau at that point, and managed to secure a reservation. The problem was that it was located beyond Agen, a long way to go. Fortified by an ice cream we pressed on.
From the instructions received over the phone it sounded as though
place was in the town of Bon Encontre, which meant negotiating the
of Agen during the rush hour. This was not pleasant, and we made a few
wrong turns before escaping back into the countryside. Reaching Bon
there was nothing to be seen of the chateau, my wife asked at the local
cafe to be told that it was out of the town. Out of the town it
was, and the road pointed upwards. After some miles we had not reached
our destination, and we were well out in the countryside, with no-one
to ask. Coming across a farmhouse we knocked on the door, but there was
no-one at home. We decided to continue and were eventually rewarded
the sight of our chateau high up on the hillside to the left. Leaving
road, we then had to climb a steep track that wound round the contours
upwards to our eventual destination - and the swimming pool. The
was beautifully situated, with superb views over rolling countryside,
not another building to be seen.
The Chateau de Labatut
Our hosts were very welcoming, bringing iced orange juice, and offering to put together a scratch meal if necessary. They did also suggest the alternative of a nearby auberge for a good meal, which, after a shower, we decided to try. It turned out to be one of the best meals that we have ever eaten - simple food, but deliciously prepared, and very good value. One of the starters consisted of a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and red cabbage, all soaked in a light sauce - perfect! The main course was duckling, but not the normal greasy offering we get in the UK, rather rich dry flesh. The name and address of this wonderful restaurant is Auberge de Leydes, Route de Cassou, 47240 Bon-Encontre, phone 05 53 96 26 38.
Had we more confidence in our ability to cover the ground, we would
have spent a day at the chateau, exploring the area around, swimming in
the pool, and enjoying another fine meal at the auberge. We later
not doing so.
We got off to an early start and made good progress, until it became apparent that we were having difficulty in using the front changer. I should have recognised the symptoms, but it took a dislodged chain to make me have a good look at the crank assembly. One of the crankset bolts had come out and was lost, while the others were slack. I tightened the slack bolts and we pushed on, trying not to use the front changer. We did try to get a hold of a bolt from a car mechanic, but he did not have anything that would fit. He recommended the local bike shop in Valence.
What a wonderful shop, the guy in there was able to supply a replacement bolt for the Stronglight triple, and I also bought a spare. While we were there I remembered that the new chain was jumping on the smallest rear cog, and we asked if he could replace that cog only. It took a bit of doing to get the message accross, because neither of us knew the French technical terms for bike parts, but a combination of pointing and grunting eventually succeeded. Nothing was a bother to this man, we upturned the tandem and he quickly changed the cog. The only charge was for the parts, excellent service. It was well hot in Valence, the cool of the bike shop was very welcome.
Moissac is a very attractive town, but it is also a popular place, and, on the day of our arrival, there was a local festival. The girl in the information office spent a great deal of time on the phone on our behalf, but there was no room to be found at the local inns. She eventually found us a place at a nearby motel, although she warned us that it was rather peculiar!
There were some interesting sculptures in the square.
The Canal Lateral appears to pass right through the middle of the main street in Moissac
The motel turned out to have been modelled on the design of a wild west town, with rooms looking like a jail, a bank etc. There was even a wigwam room!
On the occasion of our visit there was a large group of local people at the motel. It transpired that they used to work at a factory that was once based near the site, and they return each year for a reunion.
The rooms were very comfortable, and we were able to do a little bit of clothes washing - before we discovered a notice on the door that specifically prohibited the practice! We had a good meal on the terrace of the restaurant, only slightly disturbed by the sounds of mating frogs in a nearby pond.
The inevitable canal passed just by the side of the motel, behind
Blacksmith's shop in the photo.
The machinery looked as though it was in good condition, and there was an electrical hum coming from one of the power units, so presumably it is still used.
Toulouse marks the end of the Canal Lateral and the beginning of the Canal du Midi. The two canals enter a basin in Toulouse at right angles to one another. We cycled along the tow path as the canal approached the city, and it gradually improved to the extent that it was a pleasure to use.
In the photo above, the Canal Lateral enters from the left, and the Canal du Midi leaves on the right. In the centre is a marble sculpture celebrating the joining of the two seas.
We stayed overnight in a cheap hotel not far from the railway station. It was very basic, but clean, and the proprietors were friendly and helpful, allowing us to store the tandem in the coffee bar!
Our first impression of Toulouse, gained from the area around the station, was a bit negative. It seemed a tad seedy, and I kept a close watch on my money bag! The customary pavement cafe beer allowed us to watch the locals in action - pure theatre.
Walking into the centre of the town things improved, the civic buildings are magnificent, reminding us a bit of Barcelona - but they have got to control the cars! An interesting city, well worth a look, but not on my list of favourites. I have to admit we copped out on the food front, and ate with the Americans at Pizza Hut.
That night there was a tremendous thunder storm, but we were safely
under cover by then.
Note the combination of waterproof and sunglasses, the waterproof was not needed for long.
The stretch of the Canal du Midi between Toulouse and Castelnaudry has the distinction of including along its length the highest point in the journey between the two seas. It is at that point, at a place called Naurouze, that the fresh water needed to supply the canals enters the system.
The lock (Ecluse) that controls the highest section of the canal and, below, the water entering the canal system. Nearby is an obelisk, erected to commemorate the person who was responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi, Pierre Paul Riquet. The photo below shows the feedwater entering the canal system at Naurouze.
When Riquet specified the canal system, he chose to use locks that were oval in plan, this may have been in order to accommodate two of the sea going vessels of the time, which were of a curvaceous shape, or to provide a stronger structure. The walls did fail on one of the earliest locks, so there was good reason for Riquet to be concerned about this. The photo below shows a typical lock.
Castelnaudry is an attractive small town, greatly enhanced by a large canal basin that was designed to provide a reservoir of water for the flight of locks immediately downstream. It gives the town the appearance of an inland port, which I guess is what it is! The photo below shows only a small part of the basin, which broadens out after the bridge.
The flight of locks at Castelnaudry. They are remotely controlled using a hydraulic system, you can see the buff coloured control cabin near to the centre of the picture.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Fourcade in Castelnaudry, and enjoyed a
good meal there. We drank a particularly nice bottle of Corbiere wine
the meal, and later looked for the same brand in the supermarkets -
We booked into a small, inexpensive, but friendly hotel called the Cathare. They put the tandem into the dining room, and later moved it out into the passage which served as an patio area for outside dining. We had a good meal there.
The first task was to find a launderette to wash some clothes. Now neither of us had used a laundrette since our student days, and modern laundrettes are a marvel of sophisticated automation. There is a central control panel in which you put your money and program your washer or dryer or soap dispenser. Thankfully the locals were pleased to help out and we had some clean clothes.
Narbonne is a very attractive City, with fine old buildings, Roman remains, and modern out of town shopping. The central square is superb. The canal goes through the centre of the city and there is a linear park along its length. Following the chateau, it rates as our second favourite place on the trip. We could happily live in Narbonne. We were having a beer in the main square when a group of musicians began to perform - playing traditional Jewish folk music from eastern Europe. We were sufficiently impressed to buy a CD, and now have that as a musical reminder of the trip.
The journey was now over, but we had two days in hand to fill. I am easily bored, and Narbonne Plage did not hold my attention. We therefore cycled back to Narbonne and booked into a different hotel, one with the dreaded Turkish toilet. Rather than pedal against the strong wind, we elected to take the train to Beziers and saw the spectacular nine lock staircase and aqueduct which are features of the canal there. As luck would have it, two of the largest vessels that we had seen on the canal passed through the locks while we were there - they were a tight fit and it made good spectator sport. Back in Narbonne we stumbled upon a free concert given by music students in the Archbishop's palace.
The people of Beziers wanted to acknowledge their debt to Paul Riquet for constructing the canal, so they erected a statue in his memory.
The following day we booked into a luxurious motel near to our pick up point, and deposited our heavy bags while we took a ride over to Capestang for our final look at the Canal du Midi. It was wonderful to bowl along without the luggage, particularly as we felt super fit at this stage, and we both regretted that this would be our last full day in France. I was looking forward to a good night's sleep in air conditioned comfort, but was kept awake by the sound of the AC unit!
The coach was due to depart at 5:30 p.m., so we were able to visit
Sunday market in Narbonne. Stalls fill the area on each side of the
while the indoor market has the usual fantastic range of gastronomic
Carol and Bryan Attewell
Negatives re-scanned 5-10-08
If you would like to ask any questions about this article, feel free to get in touch with Bryan Attewell
For details of more cycle tours that I have documented, please look here