Travel

Cycling along the Canal du Midi

From the Herald Saturday Magazine, May 11 2013

Just as ‘slow food’ generally tastes better than fast food, slow transport – at least on holiday – is a more enjoyable way to travel. Better still when the travelling is done in the sunny south of France, in the shade of plane trees and with frequent pit stops.
Whether by bike or by barge, the journey along one of France’s grandest feats of pre-revolutionary engineering, the Canal du Midi, is increasingly popular.

After a few hours of cycling fortified by breakfast of a coffee and a croissant, the traveller deserves a good lunch, perhaps at a lock-side restaurant under the shade of an awning, the tasty plat du jour washed down by a glass of earthy vin de pays.

In the afternoon there is time to take in the sights: to take refuge from the sun in the cool, dark interior of medieval churches or to saunter around the covered market places in so many village squares. The evening is for dining and perhaps sipping an Armagnac as the swallows swoop and call in the twilight. There are many small hotels in which to stay – prices are very reasonable – and most towns have basic but clean municipal campsites.

For 17th-century traders who wished to go from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic or vice versa, crossing France by road was a hazardous undertaking. It was better to go around by sea – but due to Spain inconveniently jutting out, the journey took a month and there was a risk of pirates.

In the days of Louis XIV the Sun King, a great enterprise of linking the two seas by internal waterways was undertaken. The Canal des Deux Mers goes all the way across the country.

The huge Garonne river – and its parallel canal – can take boats upstream from Bordeaux as far east as Toulouse. From there, the Canal du Midi was constructed, one of the grandest canals in Europe, supplied with water from a huge reservoir fed from the Black Mountains.

As has happened with other bubbles, from railroads to dot-coms, the bottom suddenly dropped out of the market. Canal transport was overtaken by the fuel-hungry monsters of an age in a hurry. Railways, motorways and planes came along and this once vital artery is now quiet. It is used for leisure only – and the cycle route has been enhanced so that it is possible to travel from Toulouse to Sete on the Mediterranean almost entirely off-road.

These are green ways in more ways than one – in the 19th century hundreds of plane trees were planted along the towpaths. Sadly, many of these have contracted a blight and will need to be replanted in the next 20 years.

For anyone with even a faint interest in the history of engineering, canals provide endless amusement, with ladders of locks moving the water up and down hills – the water rising 70 metres and falling 189 metres between Toulouse and the sea.

There is a particularly interesting stop at St Ferreol where there is a museum. Here is the huge reservoir which keeps the canal fed with mountain meltwater, complete with ancient taps in a damp cellar lit with candelabras, like something out of the Phantom Of The Opera, for use in case of flooding. They are still useable apparently. There is also a fake geyser, created later as a tourist attraction.

Holidaymakers can choose to travel along all or just part of the 240km length of the canal from Toulouse to the sea. Toulouse has an airport and a train route to Paris and the Eurostar. The wide Garonne flows with deceptive calm though the brick-built "pink city". There are some interesting sights here too – at the Basilique Notre Dame de Daurade, visitors can see a rare black Madonna. The statue, a reconstruction of an ancient fourth-century black Madonna, is supposed to protect Toulouse and bless the infertile with children. She is dressed – how very French – in a changing wardrobe of designer robes, donated by some of France's top designers.

There is also another large basilica, which is now on the Unesco World Heritage Site list, that of Saint Sernin, a staging post for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Pilgrims can still be seen making their way round it.

It is possible to hire bikes here but it may be worth heading back west to start the canal journey in the pretty town of Moissac, where the 10th-century cloisters of its abbey are well worth a visit. The village is charming and a delicious lunch can be had at Le Florentin restaurant, directly outside the doors of the abbey. From here, the canal crosses above the river on a bridge, so barges can be seen floating serenely above the water and the fields.

Notable stopping points towards the Mediterranean are the little town of Revel, a Huguenot stronghold in the days of religious war and home to the oldest surviving wooden marketplace in France, where vendors sell the produce of the green foothills of the Massif Central which rise above the town; the market town of Castelnaudary, once made prosperous by the canal and its early awareness of the potential of silk stockings; the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, whose fort is a World Heritage Site; and many more tranquil, sunlit places to enjoy as you wend your slow way through fields of sunflowers towards the sea.

Getting there

Jet2com (jet2.com) has return flights from Edinburgh to Toulouse from £134. EasyJet (easyjet.com) and other airlines go via Gatwick from £130 return. By train, take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord and then for Toulouse cross the city to Gare d'Austerlitz or Montparnasse. Return tickets from Glasgow start at £280.