Cycling the Canal du Midi makes for a wonderful and not too difficult tour from Toulouse to Sète in France. The 260km route can easily be cycled in a week although it is worth having a few extra days so you can spend some time being a tourist à pied. Here are 5 great days out along the Canal du Midi cycle route.
Toulouse - a cycling city at the start of the Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi begins in Toulouse at Les Ponts Jumeaux – three bridges in the Port de Bassin de L’Embouchure (mouth). The bridges cross three canals: du Midi, Latéral and Brienne. It’s well worth spending at least one day sightseeing whilst you're here. The city boasts beautiful houses dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries and the city’s narrow streets and squares make it a pleasant place to explore by bike or on foot.
Toulouse is called the ‘Rose City’ because of the red brick used in its main buildings. It’s a bustling, lively place: the streets and squares buzz with conversation, markets and buskers.
The towpath leaving Toulouse
Toulouse is a cycling city, and has a large network of cycle lanes, tracks, parking and bike hire. There are cycle tracks beside the Garonne river, canals and roads, cycle lanes shared with buses; and lanes that go against the flow of car traffic. The local authority produces a map of the cycle routes for Toulouse and you can download this at www.toulouse.fr.
Note that the street names are often in both French and Occitan but the French name is the one used on maps. The River Garonne is lined with walks, parks and public spaces, and south-facing cafés close to the river on the right bank enable you to sit outside even in winter. The river can be viewed from any of a number of bridges, but the Pont Neuf offers the traditional view (and one of the best).
Three of Toulouse’s many churches stand out as worth visiting. Basilique St Sernin was built on the site of an earlier basilica housing the remains of St Sernin. Sernin, bishop of Toulouse, was martyred in ad250 for refusing to take part in the sacrifice of a bull; he was tied to its legs and dragged down a flight of stone steps. The church, 115m long, was a major stopping point for large numbers of medieval pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Key points to note are its multi-tiered bell tower, its beautiful doors and extraordinary interior.
Toulouse offers many other attractions, including museums such as the Augustins (21 Rue de Metz) housing a collection that includes early Christian artefacts. The St Raymond museum (Place St Sernin) has displays of art and archaeology from early centuries to the Middle Ages. Specialist museums include the natural history museum (35 Allées Jules Guesde), the Museum of the History of Medicine (2 Rue Viguerie – Pont Neuf) and Space City Theme Park (Avenue Jean Gonord BP25855). Les Abattoirs houses the museum of modern and contemporary art (76 Allées Charles de Fitte).
Notre Dame-des-Miracles church, seen from the canal
This well-preserved historic town is worth visiting, and was the site of one of the key events in the war against the Cathars.
The church of Notre Dames-des-Miracles stands in Place d’Eglise in the town’s centre, and was built between the 14th and 16th centuries on the site of a more ancient church. Its polygonal bell tower is over 40m high and dominates the surrounding Lauragais Plain; the nave is also 40m long, with seven chapels. The church is named after a statue found on the site of the original church, and which has a plaque commemorating the murdered inquisitors.
The town has a number of other attractions. Mansions from the 16th century belonged to merchants who gained their wealth through the production of pastel made from the pastel (woad) plant. This gave an exceptionally deep blue, used for colouring paints and dyes, and the industry funded the development of Toulouse and the towns around the Lauragais Plain. There is an old market building on the main street, a stone tower and statue of a crusader (water tap beside it), together with a statue of Joan d’Arc.
It takes a day to explore Carcassonne properly. Those who haven’t visited it before should think about spending a night here – if only to see the Cité lit against the night sky. Its Bastille night (14 July) fireworks are famous and probably the best in all France. Those planning to stop here in high summer should book accommodation in advance.
There are two distinct parts to Carcassonne: the lower town, Bastide St Louis and the Cité, the ancient walled town. The lower town offers the best value for restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts and general provisions. The Cité is the main tourist attraction in the area (if not the region).
The old bridge at Carcassonne
The lower town is designed on a grid structure and easy to explore. It retains its original bastide (fortified town) layout with Place Carnot in the middle as the town’s main square. Follow Rue G. Clemenceau from the canal bridge to reach the square, which has a Neptune fountain as its main feature. The square is lined with cafés and restaurants and is the location for regular markets.
Boulevards have replaced the town’s original fortifications. Sights include the cathedral (St Michel) and St Vincent’s church, relics of the two original town parishes. It is possible to climb the bell tower of the latter (233 steps) and get a view over the lower town, the Cité and the surrounding countryside. The grand organ, the work of Theodore Puget, is considered one of the best in the south of France.
The Jacobins gate (Rue Courtejaire) is the only remaining gate of the four that protected the bastide; you can see some of the remaining walls beside it. The 18th-century closed market and the old houses on Rue Aime Ramond are worth seeing too. There are examples of architecture from the Belle Epoque all around the town.You can cycle to the fortified Cité from the lower town (about 2km); the best view of the walls is from the Pont Vieux (old bridge).
The Narbonne Gate, Carcassonne
The key sights inside the Cité include the Château Comptal, Basilique St Nazaire, the walls, battlements (and the views from these) and the small medieval streets and squares.
The château is a fort within the town’s fortifications. Follow the main street from Port Narbonnaise, Rue Cros Maryrevieille, to the Place du Château. There is a charge to visit the château but it is well worth the cost. Enter through the castle’s main gate and cross a bridge to the main courtyard. The tour of the castle follows a first-floor landing and leads around the outer battlements. There are especially good views to the north of the city towards the Montagne Noire. Some of the towers replace earlier Roman ones; the medieval rooms now house a collection of sculptures from the town and the Carcassonne region. Chief among these is a 14th-century statue of the smiling Madonna, probably the work of a Siennese artist.
The château is a venue for major concerts and operas during the summer festival; book early to be sure of getting a ticket for popular events. The château also provides a space for modern art exhibitions and installations.
The nine locks
The ‘nine’ Fonsérannes locks are the most dramatic works on the canal system, and enable the canal to drop 22m and join the Orb river. Boats crossed the river and then rejoined the canal. An aqueduct, built in 1855, obviated the need for the river crossing.
The locks form a water staircase for barges. It is well worth stopping and watching boats ascend and descend. The locks operate in the morning and afternoon with a break between 12pm and 2pm. There is a mechanical lifting system on the southern bank of the canal (no longer in use). The buildings on each side of the canal originally housed canal workers. There is a church too. Although still referred to as the ‘nine’ locks, there are only eight locks now. In addition, the seventh lock is a basin that leads to the aqueduct that crosses the Orb. The eighth lock is no longer used as it leads to a branch of the canal that served Béziers.
View of the locks at Fonsérannes
Castelnaudary is easy to explore on bike or on foot. The key tourist attractions are the Collégiale St-Michel, dating from the 13th century with a bell tower with 35 bells; the 18th-century Chapelle Notre Dame de Pitié; and Cugarel’s mill, which has now been restored. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, hotels and services such as pharmacies, doctors and a hospital. Castelnaudary’s port is also well worth exploring, with shops, old warehouses and wine emporia on its northern quay.
The regional dish, cassoulet, is one of the town’s main claims to fame. Legend has it that the townspeople devised this stew while under siege from the English army during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Along with haricot beans, the key ingredient, cassoulet typically includes confits de canard, pork, sausages and just about anything edible to hand. All restaurants offer their own cassoulet – each chef has his or her own version – and you can buy it canned or in jars.
And one for luck...
A real gem, Narbonne is a town with something to interest most tastes.
Charles Trenet (1913–2001) was one of Narbonne’s most famous sons. The singer/songwriter gained international fame for his songs such as ‘La Mer’ (‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’) and ‘Qui rest-t-il de nos amours’ (interpreted in English as ‘I wish you love’). Narbonne inspired many of Trenet’s songs and they refer to his native town and surrounding countryside. The house where he was born now houses a small museum (13 Avenue Charles Trenet) displaying early drafts of his songs, and artefacts from his early life. A large mural of Trenet can be seen close to the railway tracks to the west of the canal as you enter the city.
A monument beside the towpath after Narbonne commemorates a drowning tragedy in 1841
The cathedral of Sts Just and Saveur – never completely finished – dominates the skyline and dates from the 13th century. The cathedral’s exterior is its most striking feature, and is dominated by buttresses and gargoyles. The interior is bathed with coloured light coming from tall, narrow, stained glass windows. The square cloisters are on the southern side of the cathedral; the Jardin des Archevêques (Archbishops’ garden) is beside the cloisters and gives a good view of the cathedral’s exterior. The Palais des Archevêques (Archbishops’ palace) is also beside the cathedral and houses a museum with a collection of Roman artefacts. It has the second largest collection of religious objects in France.The donjon Gilles-Aycelin is a fortified keep dating from the 13th century.
Note how the canal passes under houses in the centre of the town. You can view this from Cours de la République and Pont de la Liberté.
Narbonne has a daily covered market, and a large open-air market around the covered building on Sunday and Thursday mornings. The Sunday morning market is reputed to be one of the best in the region. The covered market is about 100m from the western bank of the canal, close to the Liberté Bridge.
Section of the Via Domitia in Narbonne