EXPLORING ALONG CANALS, RIVERS AND LOCKS
Construction of the Canal du Midi
To understand the origins of the Canal du Midi, anyone planning a bike ride along the canal should first visit the Musée du Canal du Midi near the lake of Saint-Ferréol in the immediate vicinity of the town of Revel. Opened in 2008, the museum clearly explains, through models, drawings, tools and audio-visual presentations, how Pierre-Paul Riquet (1609-1680), the designer and executor/constructor of the colossal project, realized the connection between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In 1667, work began on digging the canal from Sète to Toulouse and the construction of a 67-hectare Saint Ferréol reservoir near Revel, about halfway between these two places, which was to be fed by water from the Montagne Noir. This reservoir now has primarily a recreational function. Named Canal Royal du Languedoc, the canal was renamed Canal du Midi after the French Revolution (1789-1799).
Over 12,000 workers, both men and women completed the gigantic job in 14 years. By then there was a 20-meter-wide and 2-meter-deep canal with a length of 241 kilometers and no fewer than 64 locks. Riquet did not live to see the completion of his life’s work. He died on Oct. 1, 1680, seven months before the first ship passed through “his” canal. The canal is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Start in Revel
We start our exploration at the museum and then descend to Revel. The town is a so-called bastide and has the corresponding characteristic rectangular street pattern. Not to be missed is the 14th century symmetrical market hall measuring 39×39 meters, whose trusses rest on 79 oak pillars. Atop the whole is a belfry of a later date. The local bike store provides us with bikes for our first trip of about 50 kilometers, which will eventually take us to Gardouche lock along the Canal du Midi. The bike route, attractively named “Parcours Cyclable de la Rigole de la Plaine,” runs along the canal that “waters” the Canal du Midi. Anyway, it is beautiful sunny autumn weather and a strong tail wind. Along the way, there is (for those with an eye for it) plenty to see. In a mowed field, some sunflowers have survived the harvest and are standing proudly in the sun. We put our bikes on the shoulder of the road and go (we already know this in advance) to take a nice picture. Via Lac de Lanclus we reach our main destination at La Bastide d’Anjou: the Canal du Midi.
Canal du Midi
What you do here is basically drive from lock to lock. On the former lock-keepers’ houses there are signs for boaters with the name of the lock and the distance to the next lock. Lock keepers no longer exist; recreational boaters must operate the locks themselves! Of course, it is worth taking a good look at such a lock and reflecting on the great job done here centuries ago. It is advisable to request the two free route maps (see information box) in advance. On these maps the cyclist will find all the necessary information about the route on the one hand, but also about places where hotels, bed and breakfasts and campsites await cyclists. Also indicated are stores, restaurants and the like. An indispensable tool for en route and advance planning. For example, we settled down for lunch at l’Ecluse de Castenet. By then we were already close to the university city of Toulouse (about 450,000 inhabitants). An inevitable stop on the route between the two seas.
As you drive in, you bump into the white statue of Pierre-Paul Riquet, as it were. He stands with his back to “his” canal and looks proudly into the city as if to say, “I did a fine job on that job after all.” From the tranquility that reigns along the canal, you enter a bustling city with much to see. The Garonne River divides the city into two parts. The Pont Neuf and the Pont St. Pierre connect the two old parts of the city center. Sun worshippers have found a spot along the banks of the river to enjoy the autumn sunshine. Others stroll along the boulevards and populate the terraces. We let ourselves be driven around town in a “vélo-taxi” for a ride. In many cities you still have a coachman for a ride through town, but here a young man pedals and his guests sit covered behind him. You then pass the city’s highlights: such as the Basilica Saint-Sernin, the largest Romanesque monument in Europe, and Place du Capitole with the City Hall. An imposing building. A picture both inside and out. The city is called the red city because most of the houses are built in red brick. But there is more. The city was the cradle of the supersonic Concorde, the Arian rocket and the Airbus A 380. Toulouse has a name to uphold in the field of aerospace.
Canal de Garonne
We continue on our way. From Toulouse, the Canal du Midi becomes the Canal de Garonne (also called Canal des Deux Mers). The situation remains the same: canal, plane trees standing like white pillars along the oervers, locks and so on. But on the way to Bordeaux, one does encounter two remarkable feats of engineering. At Montech, one passes a 443-meter-long ship elevator, where an ingenious system for shipping has been bridging six meters of difference in height in the canal since 1974. It resembles a kind of slide. In Montech, it is possible to cycle along a side canal to Montauban, the town along the Tarn River. That same Tarn we pass just before Moissac. Here we see another beautiful piece of engineering. A 356-meter-long aqueduct carries the canal across the Tarn. When you want to photograph, you naturally hope for shipping on both the canal and the river, but unfortunately this was not the case at our passage. And then the beauty approached Moissac!
Let’s start that Moissac is located along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. In fact, it is all small here and therefore easy to overlook. Around the town are the vineyards with the chasselas grapes from which a fresh white wine is produced. In the town, the Abbey of Saint Pierre, which has been qualified by Unesco as a world heritage site. Most impressive is the cloister from 1100, considered unique in the world. Seventy-six carved capitals with various representations make it possible to look around here for a while. The pigeons flying around have a lot of fun!
An expert opinion
Twice while exploring parts of the route we met a couple from Diegem who were cycling the entire route from Narbonne to Bordeaux. They had come with their bikes by train from Brussels, via Paris to Narbonne and would travel back by train from Bordeaux. Afterwards we asked this sporty couple about their experiences. On the outward journey, the most exciting part was to cycle in the dark through Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz. And then in the morning you are at the Narbonne train station at six o’clock and the bike ride can begin! Not for nothing had this route been chosen.
After all, during the tour one passes interesting cities such as Carcassonne, Toulouse, Moissac and finally arrives in Bordeaux. Overnight stays were made in hotels and chambres d’hôtes as indicated in Oteman’s guide (see box). Given the special nature of the cities, one stayed two nights in both Carcassonne and Toulouse. The route was covered in eleven cycling days, representing a daily average of 55 kilometers.
About the quality of the bike paths, they say the following: “The first part from the Canal du Midi to Toulouse, the bike paths, which were well passable, were of fine gravel. However, there were regular problems with protruding tree roots from the plane trees. The bike paths were pleasant because there were practically no straight stretches longer than 100 meters. On the stretch from Toulouse to La Reole, the bike paths were like a billiard table, but the straights were much longer. It was certainly not monotonous for us.
In La Reole we left the canal and went into the vineyards with beautiful scenery. This stretch up to Sauveterre-la-Guyenne was on small roads where we saw practically no cars. From Sauveterre to Bordeaux we followed the bike path of Roger Lapébie (Tour de France winner in 1937) which is also magnificent. It is an old railroad track that runs through vineyards at the beginning and through forests for the last fifteen kilometers until we reached the suburbs of Bordeaux.”
The general opinion that cycling along a canal is boring certainly does not apply to the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne. On the one hand, there is plenty of variety and, on the other, the quietness is a relief. In any case, it is not at all comparable to cycling along the Albert Canal, although that can be charming in a different way!
Text and photos: Teus Korporaal