This is a post explaining how to cycle le Canal du Midi in France. I provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.
Another Junk Bike!
Who actually follows through on statements made in the heat of the moment? Statements like, “This is my last cigarette, or tomorrow I give up drinking Pepsi, or I will never ride a junk bike again.” Well at least I have never made the first two statements, however I am guilty of that last statement a few times too often it seems. Let me explain how it happened that I could curse a humble piece of machinery when there are certainly other more deserving evils in the world that should be the objects of my scorn.
It started out on a sunny island in Croatia . I was contemplating a wasteful summer of beaches and leisure and decided that I should actually do something productive for a change. So I sent out an email newsletter requesting feedback on French lessons. The idea was to spend a month learning French. Cyprien answered the call (as did many other friends and acquaintances) with an offer to use his apartment located in the heart of picturesque Montpellier , Southern France . Before you could say Bonjour with an American accent I was on my way.
Montpellier is a town on a hill that dates back over a thousand years. It is a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean and basically a “college town” steeped in history. I signed up for a 3-week session with Alliance Française because they are an international organization with a fine reputation. Unfortunately that just lets many branches hide under the company banner. In this case the local office simply sucked. But what the hell, I stuck it out since I had paid in non-refundable cash. Plus the apartment came with Dorattie, who turned out to be doing her final university co-op session in Montpellier. She adopted me as a pupil and I adopted her as a step-daughter. Add to that a town with non-stop free summer musical, theater, film and wine festivals. Naturally I didn’t leave at the end of the class session. I basically partied away the summer under the guise of learning French.
Click to watch Video Part 1
Then it happened! In the last weeks of August I realized that the summer was almost over and I had not done a single adventure, even though the countryside abounded with outdoor options. Chastened I put the word out that I wanted to do an adventure and was looking for participants. Almost immediately I had two foolish volunteers (Gigi & Magi). We discussed options and I proposed that we ride bikes along the Canal du Midi (since it looked nice in a tourist brochure and the apartment had a dusty mountain bike on the balcony). The girls seemed excited and apprehensive at the same time. Magi explained that they had never ridden their bikes further than the nearest bar but were willing to give it a go if we rode slowly. I pointed out that slowly was all I was bound to get from the free circus bike that was in my apartment.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $
|3 Nights(2 camping, 1 hotel)
Trains (includes $10 bike fee on fast train)
Food & Snacks (purchased as we went)
Misc – gear for bike (padded shorts, etc)
August, 2010 prices
Table of Trip:
|Start – Agda||
|Day 1 – Capestang||
|Day 2 – Caracassonne-Est||
|Day 3 – Avignonet-Laurangais||
|Day 4 – Toulous||
Story Narrative follows, then map links and logistics.
The plan was to take the train from Montpellier , south to Agda on the following Saturday. We could then ride upstream for the next three days (averaging 80km a day) to reach Toulouse by Monday afternoon, and then return by train. That was the plan anyway.
I spent the remainder of the week preparing the bike. That consisted of swapping the hard plastic seat with a slightly softer seat on a dusty bike chained to the downstairs railing. Dorattie lent me her midget-size sleeping bag (she has not had her growth spurt yet) and I purchased a small handlebar bag and a pair of cycling tights (the kind with a padded crotch). I packed a change of underwear, socks and a T-shirt and was ready.
On Saturday morning (day 1) I met the girls on the train to Agda. Not surprisingly they were loaded up for an extended expedition. Gigi had a sleeping bag for a small family and two packs. Magi had a smaller sleeping bag and only one pack, and lots of accessories. With my undersized bike we looked like a circus family on the move.
At Agda we rode to a local café and settled down to breakfast while I strapped all the gear and packs to the bikes. Fortunately I had asked the girls to pickup lots of bungee cords for the trip. Within an hour we were fed, watered and secured. We crossed the bridge and then left the road to cycle along a dirt path adjacent to the canal.
We were back on the canal by 10 am and rode at a leisurely pace for the rest of the day. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, there was a constant breeze, and we were constantly in the shade of enormous Plane (or sycamore) trees. The canal wound its lazy way west in long flat expanses with locks spaced about 10 km apart in most cases. At the locks we would climb 10 or 20 m in short bursts and then the dirt track would once again be flat and woodsy. We were predominantly in farming countryside with small villages at intervals to provide food & drinks. I am not sure if the canal is used commercially any longer, but it certainly is used for tourist travel. There was a constant flow of boats (le Boat rentals mostly) with families enjoying the downstream journey and the fun of navigating the numerous locks. Most of the fellow bikers we met were also traveling downstream ( Toulouse to Agda). It seems we were the exception as is usually the case in my half-baked adventures.
Click to watch Video Part 2
By 5:30pm we had cycled a mere 50 km and were ready to call it a day. We entered the charming village of Capestang and quickly found that all the rooms in the village were full due to two weddings that took place that day. We agreed to spend the night at the little village campground since it had showers, even though we didn’t have a tent. The day had been warm (very warm when out from under the trees along the canal) and knew that the evening would also be warm. Plus the girls had spied lots of good places to eat and drink in the village and felt it would be un-French to pass up good wine and food. We claimed the last camp site, tossed out gear into one corner, took showers and then headed into the village center to do as the French do. We ate and drank until groggy. By 10pm we were back at our campsite and quickly fell asleep under the stars and the rising moon.
I rousted the girls early on day 2 but it made little difference. By 8am we left the campground and made our way back to the center of the village for a hearty breakfast and to pickup supplies from the Sunday Framer’s market. By 9am we left the village and started the planned long day of riding. We had only covered 50km the previous day (the plan was for 80km per day) and I was determined to gain some ground on that day. Magi had explained that she needed to be back home by Monday evening because she had to work on Tuesday, so we were on a tight schedule. Schedule or no schedule, the day was another beautiful day of riding. The canal was serene, the countryside out of a fairy tale, and the trail mixed and interesting.
Around 11:30 (just before Le Somail) we spied a clear fast moving stream. We found a dirt track leading down to its banks and settled down for a swim, chilled wine and lunch. An hour later we were recharged as we set out along the canal for a long hot leg. By 3:30 the girls were dehydrated so we stopped at Homps for a beer break. By 5pm they were exhausted so we stopped on a grassy knoll and took a 30 minute nap before pushing on.
By 8pm the girls were done and bitchy. We stopped at Trebes but once again all the rooms were taken. Then Magi recalled the name of a hotel on the edge of the next town ( Carcassonne ). She explained that she had stayed there for work once and that it had an outstanding restaurant and a large swimming pool. That won the issue. We phoned ahead and booked an expensive room and then cycled like the possessed for the next half hour. By 9pm we had showered, swam and were ensconced at the restaurant for a long Chef’s Special meal. By 11pm I could hardly keep my eyes open as I passed out for the count.
I awoke early on day 3 to discover that my bike had a flat tire. So much for early starts I thought. By 8:30 we set out for the center of Carcassonne to check the train schedules for Magi. It was clear that we were not going to reach Toulouse that day. We had given it a full court press the previous day and had covered 80km and were still 105km short of the objective. It was agreed that Magi would catch the 4:45 train at Castelnaudary (a 45km ride) for home. Gigi agreed to continue on but stated that she had only one more day available since she needed to be home by Tuesday evening in order to make her Wednesday massage appointment. I agreed to the terms and we set off by 10am after a large French style breakfast. I now understood why Napoleon stated that an army marches on its stomach. These girls rode in the same fashion, but with better provisions.
Naturally we stopped for a large lunch at Bram (where showers are available for 2 €), took a nap, and then continued along the now pine shaded canal. We reached Castelnaudary easily and then cooked at the train station while waiting for Magi’s train to depart. She was sad to give up before the objective of Toulouse but also tired and happy to head home. Gigi looked as though she might change her mind and leave with Magi so I quickly nudged her along.
The remainder of the afternoon was quiet and contemplative. Without Magi as the foil for Gigi’s jokes and sense of humor the ride felt lonelier. By 7:15 we had covered 65km and decided to checkout a small campground next to the lock on the outskirts of Avignonet. We were greeted by a crazy blood descendant of Croizierz de Lacvivier. With my camera rolling Jean donned his chainmail and helmet and commenced to beat himself senseless with a large sword. He offered us a prime camp spot, with a tent and cots for 10€ and then regaled us with his family history and good humor. When he found out that I carried a shell tattoo from my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage he decide that I was worthy of knighthood. I donned the chainmail and helmet and then he knighted me (which included a series of bashes). We were then released to visit the worst pizza restaurant in France and then spend a night out under the stars and a full moon (it was too hot to sleep in the tent).
We were up early to clouds on day 4 and actually set out by 8:50 since there was really nothing to pack and no place at hand to eat. The clouds turned to drizzle and we rode in cool silence for the next hour. The trail from Avignonet had changed. We were now riding on a paved bike trail which seemed much less interesting than the dirt track of the past 3 days. Gigi seemed mellow and contemplative (or perhaps just hungry). I mentioned that at least we were not at work like Magi, and wistfully she let it slip that Magi was not actually at work. She had returned home because she had a hair appointment and as any woman will attest, a scheduled hair appointment is not something to be trifled with. I was flabbergasted. She had abandoned the objective of the ride for a hair appointment. Even Gigi was on a tight schedule because of her massage appointment. Women, would I ever truly understand them?
We had reached the outskirts of Toulouse around noon as the clouds began to clear and the sun poked its face out intermittently. We cycled to the start of the Canal du Midi (the junction with Canal Garoone that reaches Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast), took our closing photos, and then sluggishly cycled back to the train station to catch the fast 2 hr train back to Montpellier.
Two hours by train or four days of the most lovely and casual scenery in the world was how it equated. I preferred the bicycle to the train. It was worth the sore butt on a junk bike in retrospect.
Canal du Midi Hisitory
Want some history on the canal? Click here
Canal du Midi Logistics
Main Train Station – Saint Roch. A 100 m walk to the center (Place de la Comedie) where the tourist office is located.
I paid 35euro + 10euro for the bike on the train return from Toulouse to Montpelier (a higher rated train that requires payment for bikes).
I paid 8euro for the train from Montpelier to Adga & no bike fee.
I recommend renting the bikes in Montpelier, taking the train to Toulouse, starting from there and cycling down stream to Agda. Then train the short distance back to Montpelier. Naturally I did the opposite on this trip, but that’s why I suggest the easier down stream route.
City Tram System. 1.50 euro per ride 1.25hrs per ticket or 2.50 return. www.tram-way.com
(lots of alternatives)
There is a HI hostel in Montpelier, on the edge of the old city, opposite side from the train station. Take a tram 1 in direction of Mosson (1.50 euro) and get off at Louis Blanc. Then head back following tram line about 100 meters. Part of the old city outter wall.
On the cycle trip there are many places to stay including simply camping in the many fields along the way. However, it was very hot in late August (34 c) so at least if you pick official camp site you can take a shower. These cost from 3euro per person to 10euro for 2 with a tent provided, but don’t count on provided tents or cabins unless you stop early in the day. Places do fill by the end of the day. Note that the L’Eau Berge restaurant at Port de Bram provides a 2euro shower, plus boat rentals, etc.
Camping le Radel – I like this place, the owner, and they provided a tent (10 euro for two people and a tent)
06 86 03 54 93
Jean Taburiau -owner
The book Le Canal du Midi provides a list of places to stay and phone numbers along the canal. It was very useful for calling ahead to book a place around mid-afternoon.
Bikes & Gear
Lunel – one train stop north of Montpelier. Also rent bikes & host bike trips
235 av de marechal de lattre de Tassigny – 34400 Lunel
+33 04 67 71 16 09
ADA – Car, motorcycle & bicycle rentals – 25eueo per day for a bike
Monpellier Gare SNCF (across from the main train station – Saint Roch)
04 67 92 78 77
04 67 20 02 12
Go Sport – outside the Polygon Mall located at the end of the Place de la Comedie.
Large sports store with bikes and professional gear.
City of Montpelier – rents bikes per day but 1 day limit (sucks). Office is located across from the main train station.
Link to detail Midi cycle maps from the Carte Touristique – Decouvez le canal du midi a velo.
Link to details from the book Le Canal du Midi by Philippe Calas
Link to SE Canal Tourist Guide.
Link to other Canals of Southern France.