The Canal de la Garonne links the two historical cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse. It passes through countryside laden with charm and culture, all of it haunted by the shadow of wars, persecutions and pestilence, as described by Declan Lyons.
There are few places better than France to tour by bike. And the Canal de la Garonne offers one of the best routes on traffic-free asphalted cycle paths and small country roads. The canal dates from the mid-19th century and wends its way through pastoral countryside linking medieval towns and villages.
The canal is a product of the late industrial age. Where possible, it follows a straight line; its locks follow a standard design. It runs close to the River Garonne and also the railway linking Bordeaux and Toulouse – often between the former transport route: the river and the one that would replace it, the train. All would be eclipsed by road transport and you come close to the motorways that now carry freight that once would have chugged along on canal barges.
History and culture
Bordeaux is a magical place in summer. The sun glints on Le Miroir d’Eau – the world’s largest water mirror – as adults and children alike paddle in its cooling water, their joyful shrieks and screams echo as the intermittent water sprays create a momentary cooling mist. There are few better places to begin a cycle than Bordeaux on a warm June day. And it is at the water mirror that the cycle from Bordeaux to Toulouse along the Canal de la Garonne begins. It’s an excellent place to start a cycle tour, combining history and culture with the bustle of a cosmopolitan university city. At the other end of the canal, Toulouse echoes this sense of history seamlessly mixed with modern-day vitality.
Bordeaux used to be known as the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of French cities. It was seen as a sleepy backwater from the 1950s to the 1990s, and then suddenly it awoke. It cleaned up its buildings, developed its docks, opened up public spaces, developed and integrated its transport system and, most importantly from a cyclist’s perspective, put in place a network of cycle ways that allow for safe, enjoyable cycling across the region.
Approximately half of the city is now classified as a UNESCO heritage site and its classical and neo-classical buildings lend a sense of grace and opulence.
The city is easy to explore on bike or on foot, although I’d recommend walking as the centre is compact and it saves locking and unlocking your bike at each stop. Its mansions and public buildings reflect the wealth that the city built on trade – much of which depended on the Garonne river to carry goods from the docks inland and receive goods brought from the interior. Key sites worth visiting are the Place de la Bourse, whose buildings are reflected in the water mirror, the Place de la Comédie where you’ll find two of Bordeaux’s most impressive buildings: the Grand Théâtre and Intercontinental Grand Hotel, home to Gordon Ramsey’s two Michelin starred restaurant.
For me, though, Bordeaux’s most charming places are its small narrow streets and shaded parks. The Esplanade des Quinconces covers 12ha and is the largest city square in Europe, giving the city an open, less crowded feel. Other parks such as the Jardin Public offer a calm spot away from the daily bustle.
From city bustle to country calm
This stage is a marked contrast to the bustle of Bordeaux. The route follows a former railway line now converted to an asphalted cycle track. It takes you through woodland, farmland and vineyards as you cycle from one village to another. A striking feature at the start of this route is the carrelets on the river bank. These are traditional fishing huts with nets that winch into the river – this fishing method dates back to the 18th century and is still used. There are an estimated 400 carrelets on the estuary but you come across only a handful as you cycle.
The track through the woodlands may yield some pleasant surprises. On one cycle, I came across a roe deer on the track in front of me. A favourable wind meant that I was able to almost reach it before it scampered into the trees.
Bastide towns mark this stage. These were built to a strict grid, often with straight streets. Houses usually had the same or similar designs. They had a marketplace, sometimes covered, at their heart. This was surrounded by arcades. The church was generally close to the square but often set back from it. Sauveterre-de-Guyenne is an excellent example of this architectural style. It still has its town gates and arcades at its centre.
Cycling to France’s tomato capital
You reach the Canal de la Garonne for the first time during the stage from Sauveterre-de-Guyenne to Marmande at Fontet. Before this you pass a medieval mill and through the striking town of La Réole. Fontet is a small village with two interesting curiosities. The first you see is a dovecote close to the canal opposite you as you approach the bridge. Dovecotes that you see along the route can date from medieval times when they were a sign of wealth. The guano produced was used as fertiliser and was very valuable. The second curiosity is a museum dedicated to matchstick models.
Rural France used to revel in eccentric museums, but few remain. Gerard Gergerès has put these models together painstakingly over the past 30 years, including one of the Palace of Versailles.
You have a choice in Fontet: head to the start of the canal at Castets-en-Dorthe or continue towards Toulouse. Castets-en-Dorthe is a small town whose chateau sits on a hill above the Garonne valley and the canal junction. There’s a 13th century mill close to the canal between Castets and Fontet that is well worth a detour – one of many mills you’ll encounter on the cycle.
Your cycle takes you along a path between the canal and the Garonne, with the river close at several points, until you turn off for Marmande. The region is steeped in history and Marmande reflects this. It is perched over the Garonne river and its ramparts are impressive. The old town is attractive with small narrow streets with many half-timbered houses. The church, L’Église Notre-Dame, marks the town centre. It dates from the 13th century and despite being renovated over the years, it still maintains a sense of a single designer.
Marmande is renowned as the tomato producing capital of France. And the land around the town produces far more than just tomatoes. You’ll see fruits such as kiwis and plums growing beside the cycle route in season.
Through France’s tobacco heartland
The stage between Marmande and Buzet-sur-Baïse travels through lush farming countryside. It brings you from the French tomato capital to its former tobacco capital – Tonneins – a short detour from the canal and then on to Buzet a region that produces high-quality wines.
Mas-d’Agenais is a gem on this stage. The village has numerous attractions but one stands out – a painting of Christ crucified, by the Dutch painter Rembrant. This is housed in the church of Saint Vincent, which was built between the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th.
As you cycle towards Buzet you notice large, black wooden barns. These are séchoirs or drying houses – polytunnels are also used – where tobacco leaves are dried. The tobacco is exported as it no longer suits the French smoker’s palate. A factory in Tonneins used to process it until it closed in 2004.
Buzet sits on the Baïse river – a tributary of the Garonne. The town’s site has been occupied from prehistoric times and the present town grew up around the chateau of the same name, which dates from the 10th century. Buzet has been a wine-producing centre since Roman times. Its wine is highly regarded throughout France and further afield. The town’s wine co-operative has been working hard to make its business more environmentally friendly and sustainable since the beginning of this century. Four of its wines are now bee-friendly and hives are installed in the vineyards, helping to protect bio-diversity. They also produce vegan, low-alcohol and organic wines. Cyclists should remember that the beauty of the countryside that we cycle through depends on innovative businesses like this.
Towards the great prune capital
Agen has many claims to fame. The aqueduct carrying the canal across the Garonne is the most dramatic piece of engineering on its length. For cyclists this is one of the high points (literally and metaphorically) but Agen has other attractions, too. It is the centre of France’s plum production and its prunes (dried plums) are renowned as ‘Prunes Agenais’.
The path from Buzet is quiet with long rural stretches. One of its attractive features is the view of the hillside church in Clermont-Dessous. A relatively short excursion to it and a viewing point just above is well worth the effort for the views along the Garonne and its plain. The small towns of Bruch and Sérignan-sur-Garonne are a short detour. Bruch doesn’t feature in guidebooks but it more than deserves a visit. It dates from Roman times but work on the present village began in the 10th century. It was fortified with ramparts and a moat. The village has a grid layout. The streets were divided according to guilds or trades, with a shop on the ground floor and with the upper storeys overhanging the street. These half-timbered houses date from the 15th and 16th century.
You cross the Agen aqueduct over the Garonne just before you reach the town. It is 580m long and 12.5m wide, with 23 20m-wide arches spanning the river at a height of 10m. It gives wonderful views of the town and river. The best views and photographic opportunities are from the cycle path below the aqueduct.
Moissac’s ancient monastery
The route between Agen and Moissac offers plenty of variety. It comes close to ancient Roman remains at Castelculier. These include an exhibition of artefacts and a 3D film showing what life was like in the 4th century. Valence d’Agen is an excellent example of an English bastide and its old buildings, its three lavoirs, its dovecote and its marketplaces all add to its charm. A short excursion from here takes you to Auvillar – described as one of the most beautiful villages in France and it is certainly worth the short cycle to see it.
The gem of this stage is Moissac. You cycle beside the Tarn river as you enter the town with the striking red-bricked Napoleon bridge before you. Moissac’s main attraction is its seventh century Abbey, a UNESCO heritage site. Its cloisters, built in the 11th century, are the oldest example of an intact cloisters in Europe. The four galleries have a total of 76 marble columns.
There are two short but worthwhile stages between Moissac and Toulouse and these take you to and through the two wonderful towns of Montech and Montauban before reaching Toulouse city and the end of this cycle.
A curiosity just before Montech is the Pente d’Eau, or water slope, which lifts boats up or down the 13.3m slope avoiding five locks. It was built in 1974 when there was sufficient traffic to justify its operation.
Montauban is on its own branch of the canal. It straddles the Tarn and the canal rejoins the river here. Its exquisite pink-bricked buildings echo those that you find in Toulouse. The town is well worth visiting. Its narrow streets, cafés and squares buzz with life.
At its centre is the Place Nationale, a pink-bricked wonder that rises three storeys above a double arcade that surrounds the entire square.
It should give you an appetite for the similar but more grandiose architecture that you’ll find in Toulouse.
The final few kilometres of the towpath bring you, almost abruptly, from rural to urban landscapes. The motorway noise on the opposite bank of the canal from the towpath is the first indication that you have left the countryside behind you. The canal ends in the Port de Bassin de L’Embouchure where it links with the Canal du Midi, which continues to the Mediterranean. The trade on the waterways created Toulouse’s wealth and funded its splendour.
Toulouse is known as the ‘Rose City’ because of the red bricks used in its main buildings. It boasts beautiful buildings from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Its narrow streets and sunlit squares make it a wonderful place to explore by bike. Place du Capitole is the city’s main square and an impressive example of Toulousain architecture. It’s well worth devoting a few days to explore all that it has to offer.