Trip #3 – Canal du Midi – A Bike Tour of Southern France

The Team

The Team

So, here is the third chapter of my holidays:

Roughly 250 kilometers by bicycle following the Canal du Midi from Toulouse until its arrival at Séte (with a detour to Narbonne to see the Tour de France and dip our toes into the sea).The Rotary organised trip started on the 11th of July early in the morning at a house in a distant corner of Toulouse. Here we met our riding team. Among us where the usual suspects, Josh and Abbey, and seven new faces. In total we were made up of

  • 3 Australians (Abbey, Josh and Myself)
  • 2 Turks
  • 1 Swede
  • 1 Liechtenstein-ian (is it +ian or +er?) 
  • 1 Belgium
  • 1 Dane
  • 1 Slovakian

We’d never met each other before but over coffee it became apparent that our language for the next two weeks would be English. The average level of our French would surely lead to issues. With us for the voyage where 4 Rotarians – 2 who ran a food supply and luggage service and 2 who rode with us. We also had occasional riders who would join us for certain legs of the journey. We’d ride every second day, and in each town we stopped in the local Rotary club would be in charge of keeping a roof over our head and a spare tyre in our backpack. Here’s how it went down:

11/07/08 – We set off by car for tour of Black Mountain and its dam, Saint-Ferréol, that supplies the canal, a tour of a town named Revel and a short history of the Canal Du Midi [Briefly - Opened in 1681, it connected the Toulouse to Sète, thus connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It was believed impossible but a man by the name of Riquet discovered the point where water ran east to Sète and west to Toulouse, the point is at Robine if I remember correctly. He then discovered how to damn water from Black Mountain and get it to this point. Tragically, Riquet died in 1680 after investing a huge amount of money into making his project come to life]. 

12/07/08 – Starting in the heart of Toulouse we set off, riding through the busy city for 30 minutes before the buildings ran out and suddenly we came across the canal that we would see from there on in – long, shaded banks that wind through farm land. The banks of the rivers are bordered by evenly placed trees for the entire length, preventing evaporation and allowing for a fantastic, shaded ride. We rode quickly and quickly ran out of energy. I’d skipped breakfast that morning and within 2 hours I was dead tired. I solved this problem by consuming extreme energy bars that gave me a sugar high for 10 minutes before an even lower crash. This worked twice, then the gimmick ran out. For our first leg we were technically riding ‘up stream’ and while the canal is flat we often had to ascend locks. It doesn’t seem like a big thing but compared to the rest of our journey riding down stream it made a huge difference.  Somehow though I made the first 40km to our lunch break. We stopped where the canal split and from then on it would be downstream all the way. We ate like there was no tomorrow and then it started to pour like you would not believe. Through thunder and lighting we rode the last 15km in inch deep mud, finally arriving at the town of Castelnaudary to the local Rotary club who took one look at us and realised that we were probably going to make their cars extremely muddy.

The three other boys and I where lodged in a fantastic Chateau just outside of town and that night we went to a local town’s festival where we witnessed Polynesian dancing and dined on Polynesian cuisine (Pigs cooked in a hot pit that was conveniently dug on the corner of a football field).

13/07/08 – We spent Sunday the 13th at our out-of-town Chateau having a huge Rotary lunch with all the other kids and their families, among one of the dishes was the infamous Cassoulet (will soon post on this dish as it deserves its own story). We played a bit of AFL before calling it quits and heading into town for a dinner that was in a waterfront house in the centre of Castelnaudary. The town had fireworks that night (an economical way to celebrate the Bastille Day – celebrate the day before!) which we watched from the river bank. 
Hands down amazing

Hands down amazing

14/07/08 – Back on our bikes early on Bastille Day we rode a tranquil 35km to Carcassone, stopping for lunch on the way. This time it was all downstream and the weather was fantastic, in comparison to our first leg it went by in a blink. We were accompanied on this leg by Lucile, a friend from Rotex (and a former exchange student who went to America) who kindly decided to fall into the canal just was we entered the town of Carcassone. We spent that night in Carcassone watching the fireworks, reputedly some of the best in France. Every Bastille Day the ancient city “burns” as an enormous number of fireworks go off followed by a strange red smoke that drifts over the walls, symbolising the fire. Photos can’t do it justice, but I’m willing to say that it was second to none in terms of anything I’ve seen before in Sydney or France. 

15/07/08 – We took a guided tour of the ancient city of Carcassone and enjoyed tourist shopping before having a dinner with members of the local Rotary club. We then spent the night exploring Carcasonne before going to bed so that we were ready to ride the following morning.
We were so buggered!

We were so buggered!

16/07/08 – On the 16th we rode from Carcassone to a Winemaking estate just out of Narbonne. (Personal funny memory –  Turkey running over an Irish tourist en route) For the end of this leg we had to leave the Canal and ride on main roads, sandwiched between our two escorting vehicles with flashing lights. It was amazingly hot and when we were out of the shade of the Canal it just got hotter. We spent some time at Wine estate before leaving our bikes and being driven down south of Narbonne to a small beach front town where we had a dinner and then rested on the beach, enjoyed the local carnival and then drove back to our accommodation which would soon become nicknamed The Haunted House (That’s another story).  

The sprint

The sprint

17/07/08 – A non riding day! We were driven to Narbonne to see the Tour de France go past and scramble among the crowds for the souvenirs they throw from the vehicles. After struggling to do 50km ourselves we were impressed to see the people who ride up to 250km per day for 3 consecutive weeks. That night was a dinner and a philosophical conversation about the universe before staying with host families in town. 

18/07/08 – We Rode to Beziers in what was at first very hard and then an extremely easy and quick ride. The first leg was into a headwind on a 10km stretch of the Tour De France – so we were struggling past as crowds of people looked confused or cheered us on. Once we hit the canal it was dreamy. Before we knew it we arrived at the famous 7 Steps that leads into Beziers. 7 consecutive locks that lower the Canal. There are only 5 that are used and that are actually consecutive, the other 2 are hidden on a side passage and no longer needed. Our host family here were a British couple who own a holiday home in the town :)

19/07/08 – Relaxing on the beach!

20/07/08 – Our last leg, we rode from Beziers to Sète, ducking around the long dead Volcano that is nowadays a town called Agde. We made it onto the seaside bike road, a straight 5km run into Sète, possibly the easiest part of the ride and a fantastic way to finish our journey. Unfortunately it was here, with Sète on the horizon, that we had our first and only major accident. Our Slovakian friend fell pretty badly as we sprinted down the road. We were traveling pretty fast which meant that that even though she was wearing a helmet and falling on a curb made of sand she concussed herself and was completely knocked out initially. She also had a pretty epic graze on her lower chest which made for cool battle-scar pictures later on. 
After we got her into a car we finished out last ride into Sète, a beautiful town which has been referred to as the “Venice of France”, full of winding rivers and famous for its rowing competitions in ancient heavy fishing boats (and even jousting competitions from these boats).
Posing for the cameras

Posing for the cameras

21/07/08 – For a change from bike riding we took up rowing for the day and were divided into two teams. We learnt how to row properly, turn quickly and soon developed a bit of rhythm. We raced each other which used to be a very important part of life. In the olden-golden days the fishermen would race back from the sea with their catch – the prize for first place? Being able to sell your fishfor the highest price. Not an easy feat seeing as the timber boats alone weigh several hundred kilograms before you add the rowers and the catch.  That afternoon we popped into the mayors office to meet the local council and be interviewed my the local media.

We spent the night, our last night out of Toulouse, in a bar on the beach that stretched from the top of the dune down to the water. We talked, learnt how to find the Northern Star and eventually called it quits to go home and sleep.

22/07/08 – We woke up early and caught the morning train back to Toulouse (cheating, I know). Surprisingly the return didn’t take us 10 days, but rather 3 hours. We had an afternoon BBQ,slept in the sun and relaxed after our relatively physical holiday experience – God knows we weren’t in a hurry to jump back onto bikes!

23/07/08 Our last day of the tour was a trip to the Space City in Toulouse, a guided tour of it (In English) and then a lunch from a local Rotarian. I know it has nothing to do with a Canal Du Midi tour but let me just add that the Space City is actually a really cool place. If you like Space. Anyway, we then did a tour of Toulouse for the other kids who don’t live there and ended up at the Abbatoirs – a Gallery of Modern Art. We made a last minute decision to stick around in Toulouse for the evening and ended up going out for Crepes. Afterwards we said our goodbyes and over the next few days everyone headed home to their respective countries.

The bike tour was like no other holiday I’ve done. It was with such a diverse group of kids that I still can’t believe how amazingly fun it was. It wasn’t too hard, but it wasn’t a relaxing break either. We earned our foie gras each day when we rode between 40 and 55km (and then lost any physical benefit by consuming it).

Being at Carcassone for Bastille Day is one of my fondest memories of France to date, nothing will change that. I dream of spending another July 14th there someday, hopefully with people who are just as amazing. Anyway, I said goodbye to the last of the team on the 24th and then had to quickly pack my bags before leaving on the 27th of July for my 4th adventure…

2 Responses to “Trip #3 – Canal du Midi – A Bike Tour of Southern France”

  1. sean says:

    looks like it was some pretty hardcore stuff :P
    funny though, you always seem to stand out in the pictures… and i’m not sure thats a compliment:)

  2. nick says:

    I’m going to take that as a compliment and assume you are calling me photogenic :P