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One May morning ten years ago, Declan Lyons - author of our guide Cycling the Canal du Midi, was lying on his bed in a chalet looking out through the open window at the reddening morning sky. A flock of large, noisy birds flew across his line of sight, he dressed quickly and hopped onto his bike following a cycle track that ran alongside a canal. Declan arrived at a lake in the middle of a salt marsh in time to see the birds, flamingos, join hundreds of others in a giant pink and white display. The canal was the Canal du Midi and he made a deposit on a house nearby a few days later.
We asked Declan to give us his top tips for anyone planning to cycle the flat, car-free paths through the lush countryside of France's sunny Languedoc region.
The regional airports are: Toulouse, Carcassonne and Béziers. Carcassonne and Béziers are closer and you can reach the canal, by bike, in 20 minutes from either of them. Toulouse is about 30 minutes away but there is a cycle track for most of the route.
Two motorways run close to the canal: the A61 and A9. The canal is crisscrossed by local roads and tracks. It takes 12 hours to drive the canal from the northern ferry ports: Calais, Boulogne, le Harve, Cherbourg, St Malo, and Roscoff.
Trains serve stations along the length of the canal from Toulouse to Sète and there is a regular service. Train stations on the canal include Toulouse, Castelnaudary, Bram, Carcassonne, Narbonne, Porte la Nouvelle, Béziers, Agde and Sète. There are other stations close to the canal but in most cases it is easier to use one of the stations on the canal and then follow the towpath to where you want to get to.
You may take your bike on the Eurostar to France. You have two options: take it as luggage in a special holder with the wheels removed; pay a €25 fee and send it as registered luggage. It takes 24 hours from registration so you’d need to send your bike in advance. Once in France, you may bring your bike on local trains, other than TGVs (high speed trains), provided they have an area set aside for bikes. Some TGVs have carriages for bikes; others require you to remove the wheels and put them into carriers. It costs €10 to reserve a place for your bike on certain train.
French train timetables mark trains that carry bikes with a small bicycle symbol. You should make sure that all trains on your journey allow you to carry a bike, should you have to change trains. Remember too, that you have to load the bike onto the train yourself. This includes carrying it up and down flights of stairs when you change platforms.
I’ve brought my bike on French trains a number of times. In most cases this was straightforward by sticking to local trains called Corail or TER. Most of the trains carry bikes but you need to check when booking your ticket. On some occasions there may not be a goods carriage or a special place for bikes and you depend upon the train’s guard to find you a place for it.
My favourite hotel is the Auberge de L’Arbousier in Homps. The hotel is right beside the towpath and overlooks the canal. It has a wonderful restaurant that opens onto the canal towpath and in summer you can eat dinner under the evening stars while watching the goings and comings along the path.
Eateries along the route are one of the main attractions of the cycle. One of my favourites is a small café beside Castenet lock. This serves delicious savoury tarts. Another restaurant close to the canal and well worth visiting is the Raffinerie in Béziers. This is also on the canal’s edge and a great place for lunch. Mon Rêve d’enfant in Portiragnes village, opposite the sports and recreation centre, is a special favourite and great for an evening meal.
Food and wine are two of the region’s greatest attractions. Cassoulet is a renowned meat, bean and vegetable stew produced in the town of Castelnaudary – a major port on the canal.
The region is a major producer of fruit and vegetables and you can buy delicious, fresh produce along the canal’s length. Particular favourites of mine are fresh figs and melons.
The Mediterranean sea produces wonderful seafood. Fresh fish is readily available. The Thau Basin is one of France’s major oyster producers. These are excellent fresh with a glass of dry white wine. Sète restaurateurs specialise in seafood tarts. You find these restaurants lining the canals in that town.
The region produces fantastic wines and the number of producers, close to the canal, increases as you descend towards the Mediterranean. You pass close to wine producing regions such as St Chinian, Faugères, Fitou, Clape and Picpoul de Pinet
Yes: most people working in the tourist sector speak some English but they appreciate it if you make some effort to use French too.
Yes: Bike shops, campsites, and companies hiring out cruisers all offer bikes for hire. You can also hire bikes for a short while from stands in Toulouse and Narbonne but you need a French credit to do this.
It’s always advisable to take basic items such as tubes, puncture repair kits, Allen keys, spoke tightener etc. as you may run into trouble when shops are closed. There are plenty of bicycle repair shops along the route and the mechanics are skilled in dealing with most of the problems you are likely to encounter. The guide gives addresses of a number of these.
You can cycle the canal at any time of the year. In winter, for example, you have a better view of the surrounding countryside. It may be cold but you often get warm sunny days in early February and late into November.