Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Canal Entre Dux Mers Stage 8 - Port Lauragais to Carcassonne

I had decided that although the route continues all the way to the Mediterranean at Sète, I was going no further than Carcassonne, for a number of reasons - I didn't have time to go all the way; the towpath is reportedly unpaved after Port Lauragais and the popular guidebook by Declan Lyons rather sucks its teeth about the quality of the path; the canal becomes very sinuous so you ride a long way to make far less forward movement; there's an airport at Carcassonne with flights back to Stansted.

I had a contingency plan so that if the towpath proved to be too slow or difficult, I could divert on to a minor road, the D33, which while it looks pretty boring to ride on would at least be quicker and more direct.

As it happened, I didn't need to use it, although that is at least partly because the weather had been good and the path was accordingly largely dry and mud-free.

To regain the towpath from the service area requires going back a little to the road bridge to cross to the other side of the canal, then turning right towards the east. For about a kilometre you retain the tarmac surface, but this comes to an abrupt end just after passing under the railway line, and gives way to a hard-packed dirt surface (when it's dry). Even on a Brompton though it proved rideable, albeit at a slower pace.

You quickly come to the Seuil de Naurouze - the feeder system which supplies water to the canal from a lake up in the hills to the north, down "La Rigole du Canal Midi". (There is a bike path which follows this stream all the way up to Bassin de St Ferreol, the ultimate source of the canal's water. I didn't have time for it.) This marks the high point of the Canal du Midi, with the water descending in one direction to Toulouse and the other to the sea.

The path is now all dirt or gravel, and varies considerably in quality. The very worst I experienced though was quite early on, about 2km immediately after the small hamlet of le Segala, where the path divided into two, either side of the line of plane trees, each 30-40cm wide dirt track etched into the grass. This was actually rideable, even on a Brompton, but to keep inside the narrow dirt path (where you could see any puncture hazards) and avoid frequent tree roots or stones required some deft steering and a leisurely pace. It soon gave way to a slightly broader path covered with chippings, perhaps 1 metre wide, and that in turn gave way to a wider still, perhaps 1.5m, of gravel, chippings or dirt.

In fact, it seemed reasonably clear to me that most of the route needed to be passable in a motor vehicle, because most of the locks could only be accessed by the towpath and as the locks are electrically driven, the engineers from Voies Navigables de France (VNF) need access for their vans so they can attend to do repair work. Also of course they have to be accessible to heavier machinery which comes along to cut back vegetation and make repairs to the banks. So overall the route is fairly firm dirt or gravel and about 1.5-2m wide.

In the dry: it is also pretty clear that the track could get muddy after rain, and it was not at all well drained, unlike the tarmac sections. Once or twice I had to skirt round the very edge of a path to avoid riding through puddles. However, I found that I could ride it comfortably at perhaps 20-25% slower than the tarmac sections so with a generous time allowance it was doable.

There was one point, by the Écluse de Laurens which is a pretty spectacular three-chamber lock (see short video in link below) where the notorious French "Route Barrée" signs and a high fence blocked access to the path. The reason was that some diseased plane trees were being felled up ahead - to contain the fungus which is killing the trees they burn the trees where they fall. They did however provide a reasonably clear deviation, which added perhaps 2km to the ride, and when I rejoined the towpath I was rewarded with a wide tarmac section (shared with canal management vehicles) for the res of the way into Castelnaudary.

Castelnaudary is a nice small town with a large marina basin on the canal. It is famed for its cassoulet, a casserole of beans and tomatoes with Toulouse sausage, duck confit and belly pork, which contrives to make a substantial and flavoursome meal while using only a small amount of meat. We could learn something there.

Continuing to the next small town, Bram, the path continued in the same vein - generally gravel or occasionally dirt, an occasional puddle to dodge, 1.5-2m wide, and a reasonably paced ride. Here there was a nice restaurant by the canal, L’Île des Oiseaux, whose patronne was an English lady.

Onwards to Carcassonne in much the same vein, though the canal suddenly goes from being relatively straight to really rather sinuous, so you have to ride further to get each km close to the destination. Carcassonne itself is a charming town, though smaller than I had imagined, and it looks like its economy has suffered recently with a lot of the shops in the town centre being boarded up. Also I had pictured it as a turreted and walled medieval city - yes, but the "Cité" is entirely separate from the modern town, which is neither next to it nor around it, but a good 20 minute walk away across the river. You can't even see the Cité from inside the modern town because the modern buildings are in the way.

It is quite a spectacular sight though, albeit a bit too much of a tourist trap for my taste. A kind of Mont St Michel with knobs on. At least there is no admission charge.

Some geotagged snaps here.

Canal Entre Deux Mers Stage 7 - Toulouse to Port Lauragais

The first part of the path along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sète, on the Mediterranean coast. Also the only section of the Midi route so far to be tarmac surfaced.

The Canal du Midi starts were it connects to the Garonne canal at the Ponts Jumeaux in central Toulouse. The roads which run either side of the canal here are busy city streets with heavy motor traffic, but by crossing the road at a signalled crossing you can access the cycle path which runs directly beside the canal on the northern side, becoming the eastern side as the canal makes a right angle turn after a km or so.

There aren't at this stage any signs for the Canal du Midi cycle path (and in fact there are none at all, anywhere on this route, advertising it as the Véloroute Entre 2 Mers) so you have to keep your eyes peeled for where you need to turn or change banks. I found that you stuck to the northern/eastern bank until you had passed just behind the main railway station and came to the Pont Riquet, where the road ahead appeared not to have a cycle path, so you cross the bridge to the south/west bank and can see a cycle path continuing ahead.

You stay with the south/west bank for 3-4 km and shortly after passing under the flyover for the autoroute you cross again to the north/east bank, where you stay for the rest of the run down to Port Lauragais.

It takes a while to get clear of the urban environment of Toulouse and while you're in it the cycle paths are very busy, with cyclists, walkers and joggers - and dogs. Most of the cyclists here are just commuting or going about their daily business, and they ride quite aggressively - I had a few occasions where I tested out my knowledge of French insults when cyclists close-passed me just as another cyclist or a walker was coming towards me from the other direction. As you get away from the city centre it gets more rural and the traffic on the path subsides. The path was however fairly well used by a mixture of day cyclists and tourers, all the way down to Port Lauragais and beyond.

The path is not strictly speaking the canal towpath (where the heavy horses would have towed the barges from, before they were motorised) as it is for most of the length of the Garonne canal. You can see the towpath is still there but it is a rough, narrow footpath. The tarmac path sits slightly away from the bank, usually the wrong side of the trees to be a towpath, and in many places is also a minor access road for a handful of homes spaced out along the canal side. It is of almost universally good quality tarmac and typically 3-4 metres wide.

The Autouroute des 2 Mers between Bordeaux and Narbonne is never very far away, running parallel to the canal to its north. You can almost always see it and sometimes it is literally just across the fence, but it doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of the route. There is also a railway line running from Toulouse to the coast via Carcassonne which runs just behind the autoroute and has small stations spaced out every handful of km along it. Trains seem quite frequent - I wouldn't be surprised if each halt is served at least once an hour.

Signage or any form of branding for the cycle route is now non-existent but it doesn't matter because it is pretty obvious where you need to go. As on the Garonne canal, there are no water fountains, but there are more frequent bench seats for a bit of a relax on your ride.

I had hoped to stop for a drink at a canalside bar at the lock in MontGiscard - it features on Google Maps but there is no trace of it on the ground. There was however a bar and restaurant a bit further on, in the old lock keeper's cottage at the Écluse de Gardouche. This is where I had my first encounter with two middle aged French couples I got chatting to.

I met them again at a lock a little further on, chatting to some vacationers taking a boat through the lock. One of them raised an eyebrow at my ride, and broadly indicated she thought I must be "fou" to ride a city bike such a long way. I replied that it was quite feasible where the path was flat and tarmac surfaced, and she asked if I was English and where was I from. It turned out that she had in her youth worked as an au pair in Haslemere, for a family which is known to me. Small world.

Then they went on again on their e-bikes. Not that I am jealous of course.

Finally, to get to Port Lauragais where I was staying the night, I had to come off the path, cross a bridge and ride 500m or so to the Aire de repos. This was like no motorway service station I have ever seen before. It was formed around a canal port/marina which long predated it, and it was remarkably green and tranquil considering a motorway passed just a couple of hundred metres beside it. The hotel (Fasthôtel Avignonet-Lauragais) was basically a Travelodge, but it was the cheapest place I stayed at, one of the most comfortable, among the most peaceful - and it had a proper bath instead of just a shower, which was a real blessing for my achy legs! There was no restaurant but there was one on a separate site right next to the canal and marina, and for motorway service station catering, it was pretty damn good.

Geotagged snaps here.

Canal Entre Deux Mers Stage 6 - Grisolles to Toulouse

From Grisolles, you can follow the canal towpath (27km, about 25m climb) all the way to the centre of Toulouse where the Canal de Garonne has its source, a short feeder canal from the Garonne river, and meets the Canal du Midi which heads out east from the city towards the Mediterranean. From there it is a short ride to points of interest in the centre.
With a total distance to the heart of the old city of around 32km on substantially flat paths, I expect to have most of the day to explore the city.
The towpath continues, as before, flat, about 2 metres wide, reasonable well maintained tarmac, and traffic-free. The landscape is now becoming noticeably more urban as you come into the greater Toulouse area. There are factories and industrial parks, and the railway line, on the eastern side of the canal, but the sense of tranquillity remains on the western side where the towpath runs. The route is substantially a straight line now all the way into Toulouse.

Shortly before reaching the centre you pass underneath an autoroute, and some 300 metres later the towpath appears to come to an end at Écluse No 1, de Lalande. Normally you just ride straight past the locks but here there are clear signs "No unauthorised entry" and it looks fenced off at the other end. You appear to have two choices - turn right and follow a small road to rejoin the path on the west side of the canal about a kilometre further down, or turn left, cross the bridge and then turn right down a small side street which brings you after 100 metres or so back on to the towpath on the eastern side of the canal. I took the right, and it was a mistake - while the road/path were fine and rideable, they ran right along the edge of a very busy autoroute so were noisy and polluted. I could see the towpath across the canal, and most people using that. After a further 500 metres I was able to cross a bridge to rejoin the main path on the other side, and with the canal between me and the autoroute it was a more pleasant ride.

This ends in a small residential street alongside the canal which emerges soon after at the Ponts Jumeaux, which is where the Garonne canal ends, and joins the beginning of the Canal du Midi. Here you are about a kilometre away, via the Canal de Brienne, from The Capitole city centre and Université de Toulouse 1 Capitole, the first of Toulouse's three universities, founded after the crusade against the Cathars in around 1229. Alongside the Canal de Brienne, whose primary purpose is to feed water from the Garonne river into the Garonne canal, are quite the most impressive trees I have ever seen - planes which I would guess are 80-100ft tall. We have a mature, 400 year old oak in our garden, which is barely half the height of these. I'm not sure my attached snap (which features a small van for scale) really does them justice.

Toulouse is known as the "Pink City" (La Ville Rose) because its architecture is predominantly of terra cotta brick, with some stone detailing. It is well served for cycle paths of variable quality, mainly alongside city streets. Getting into the centre doesn't appear to be too tricky. 

Geotagged snaps here.

Canal Entre Deux Mers Stage 5 - Moissac to Grisolles via Montauban

From Moissac you stay on the canal towpath all the way to Montech (about 24km, virtually flat with about 13m gentle climb at the end), where the Canal de Garonne meets the Canal de Montech, which takes traffic down to the Tarn River. Then follow the Montech towpath to the edge of Montauban (12km, about 20m descent) and a short stretch on urban road to finish. About 35-36km morning ride, leaving time to have lunch in Montauban and do some sightseeing. 
 After lunch, retrace your steps up the Canal de Montech (12km, climb that 20m again) to rejoin the Canal de Garonne towpath to Grisolles (17km, about 10m climb).
About a kilometre along the towpath out of Moissac you come to another aqueduct, the Pont-Canal du Cacor, which carries the canal over the Tarn river. It is about 300 metres long and like the Agen aqueduct it does not lend itself to cycling across, due to the narrowness of the path, lack of protection against falling in the canal, pedestrians and other cyclists to navigate - and a bumpy pebbled surface.

Once across, the tarmac surface resumes and continues to Montech,, a small town and marina for the canal, where a branch canal, the Canal de Montech, takes water traffic down to Montauban and to a lock which reconnects with the Tarn river.

En route, you pass a curiosity, the Pente d'Eau de Montech mechanical boat lift. This was designed to bypass a succession of three locks and presumably it was hoped it would increase the speed and capacity of the canal system at that point. In essence, a barge enters a form of bathtub of water at the bottom of the slope, and powerful engines on tracks then haul the tub of water, with boat, to the top of the slope where the tub opens and the boat can sail out. Or vice versa. It doesn't look like the Pente d'Eau has been used any time recently, but there is clearly a project in train to make a museum of it.

At Montech itself, to access the Canal de Montech cycle path to Montauban you need to continue a couple of hundred metres past the junction to go up to the road bridge to cross the canal (it is quite busy but there is a cycle path on the sidewalk) and then double back on the other side of the canal. It is then 12 km of gently descending canal to a port/marina just before the final lock which descends back into the Tarn River. Here, you cross the canal and head out of the port area, keeping an eye out for a sign for the Véloroute pointing right at an underpass below the railway tracks, with extremely limited headroom. At 182cm tall myself, I had to bow my head slightly to get through. From there you take separated cycle tracks along the road which bring you first to a modern road bridge, and then to the old bridge, Pont Vieux, where you cross into the town centre.

Montauban is an imposing, slightly gothic, town built, like Toulouse, mainly in red brick.

You can then return up the Canal de Montech to rejoin the Garonne canal at Montech towards Toulouse. I stopped over about 30km short of Toulouse, in Grisolles right by the canal, so I would have a short sector into the city the following morning and the rest of the day to explore.

Geotagged snaps here.

Canal Entre Deux Mers Stage 4 - Agen to Moissac

Stage 4 is an easy 44km from Agen to Moissac, entirely on the canal towpath and almost entirely flat - it rises perhaps 30m in the entire route, as ever as a series of level steps with a slight climb with each passing lock. The canal passes through or close to the centres of both towns so the amount of on-road required to position to or from an hotel is negligible

The tarmac towpath continues around the north of the town centre of Agen, just north of the railway station, and then along the north bank of the canal through mixed commercial and residential areas for perhaps 5-6km before returning to a more rural setting.  The run to Moissac however has a more built-up feel than the route all the way from the western end as far as Agen does. There is evidence of a busy road, small industrial estates, and most notably the railway line (Bordeaux to Toulouse) which runs directly alongside the canal much of the way now to Moissac. At times the cycle path is on the other side of the canal, at others it runs between canal and railway as it crosses and re-crosses the canal from time to time on small bridges.

A note on the railway line: the Bordeaux-Toulouse line is never very far away from the Garonne Canal for the entire length of the canal to Toulouse. It passes through La Réole and Marmande for example, and might be 5km or so away at times. It provides some comfort that, in the event of an emergency or a total breakdown in your bike, you would not have very far to go to find a station at which either express or local stopping rail services can be connected to get directly to a city or even return home if necessary. For much of the way from Agen to Toulouse you could access the next station simply by sticking to the canal towpath/cycle route until you see it right beside the canal. If there is no-one in the ticket office, and no automatic ticket dispenser, no worries - the ticket inspectors will almost certainly find you on the train and willingly accept that you couldn't get a ticket before boarding. They just sell you one on the spot without fuss. Fares are competitive compared to the UK.

As you approach Moissac, route signs for the Véloroute des 2 Mers direct you south of the town centre towards the embankment of the Tarn river, which is fine if you are passing straight through as it brings you back to the south bank of the canal where the towpath/cycle path continues, but you can also continue straight though a short section with "Quais", or canal-side streets, either side. The main town centre is just to the north of this section of canal.

Moissac is considerably smaller than Agen, but it has bars, restaurants and shops to belie its size. It has a very posh hotel on the banks of the Tarn (Moulin de Moissac) but other more modest establishments in the town centre. The main historic attraction is L'Abbaye St-Pierre, in the north-centre of the town close to the main square.

Geotagged snaps can be found here.

Canal Entre Deux Mers Stage 1 - Bordeaux to Sauveterre de Guyenne

From the city centre, you cross the Pont de Pierre (stone bridge) and then ride along cycle paths on  the east bank of the Garonne for a few kilometres until turning sharp left to join the Roger Lapebie cycle path, which is laid on an old railway line. In places the route climbs to about 100m amsl, but quite gently, before descending a little to about 70m at Sauveterre de Guyenne.

Bordeaux has quite an extensive network of cycle paths but their quality is never very high, and is often quite poor, in fact some of those I rode on I would say would be safer if they were torn up and cyclists just used the road. The situation however improves as you get further away from the city along the river bank.

The Piste Cyclable Roger Lapebie betrays its origins as the bed of an old single-track railway, with the old stations still present, some converted into cafes and bars. The path is asphalt from start to finish, generally about 2 metres wide, and shared with walkers, but the volume of traffic in September was manageable without any serious conflict. The path was clearly popular - I saw lots of walkers and cyclists, some just out for a day ride but quite a few clearly touring.

The condition was almost universally good, and much of the route is shaded by trees planted along both sides. What it conspicuously lacks however is either benches or picnic seating at regular intervals to relax on for a moment, and in particular there are almost no water fountains en route. 

Being an old railway track, there are gradients - it ascends from sea level to almost 100 metres over the 15km or so from its start to Creon - but these are very shallow, so that they are imperceptible to the eye.  Which is not to say you can't feel them - you seem to make relatively slow progress  for quite a lot of effort, for quite a long time. In some ways a more undulating path with steeper gradients is easier, at least psychologically!

Creon is the only settlement of any substance which is directly on the path of the route until you reach Sauveterre de Guyenne at the other end. It has an information office about the cycle path, a bike shop with repair and bike hire facilities, and some shops, bars and a restaurant in the town centre which is only 2-300 metres away. On my day riding this path the afternoon temperature reached 35C - some 11C higher than the seasonal average - and I found I was rapidly dehydrating, so the almost complete absence of water fountains along the way was irritating. Creon is the last real opportunity before the end to top up water bottles, so take it.

The path ends just outside Sauveterre de Guyenne, a small bastide town with its own wine Appellation. There is a hotel, and a chambre d'hotes which was very pleasant - no evening meal but they point you to a restaurant close by which offers a free aperitif if you mention their name.

If you prefer to camp, there don't appear to be any official campsites near the path, but you can wild-camp quite legally in France, on public land or - with the owner's permission - on private land, as long as you stay one night, using a backpackable tent, and leave no trace of your presence. There was certainly space alongside the path where you could pitch a tent in reasonable comfort.

Alternatively, you can continue another 15km to La Réole where there is a municipal campsite on the banks of the Garonne river.

Some photos, with geotags in the information tab, here.

Canal Entre Deux Mers Stage 2 - Sauveterre de Guyenne to Marmande

Stage 2 is 41km from Sauveterre de Guyenne to Marmande, the first 14km undulating and descending on country lanes to La Réole on the banks of the Garonne river, then a flat run  to reach the canal towpath at Fontet, followed by about 15km along the canal, and finally across the Garonne flood plain for about 5km to Marmande town itself.

After perhaps a kilometre of busy road leaving Sauveterre de Guyenne you turn left on to a much quieter country lane, designated a "voie partagée" with bike signs towards La Réole. The road is quiet, though not traffic-free – watch out in particular for agricultural vehicles which seem to be able to move quite fast – and the terrain is moderately undulating. My assessment though is that the maximum gradient is probably no more than 5-7% and within the capabilities of the gearing on my Brompton. About half-way through the 15km to La Réole you pass a splendid old watermill, the Moulin de Loubens.

As you approach La Réole you can join a busy road or you can cross this and follow a quiet back road which brings you into the northern side of the town instead of taking you direct to the bridge over the Garonne river. The town has a few bars and cafés, notably one overlooking the river close to the bridge, from which it is a short gentle climb up a street which connects directly to take you across the bridge.

On crossing the bridge, you follow a moderately busy local road for about a kilometre before reaching a junction with a much busier bypass road, which you cross to access the quieter road which leads down to Fontet, where you meet the canal. For the next 20km or so you are on the canal towpath, which alternates from one side of the canal to the other from time to time – you can’t miss the changes because you see that the path in front of you is no longer asphalt, and usually there is a sign to indicate that you need to cross the bridge 

To access Marmande town you need to leave the towpath and follow local country lanes for about 5km across a flat alluvial plain. You will see evidence of sand/gravel extraction by Lafarge all around you. There is about a km of slightly busier road before you come to a junction where you can join a separated cycle lane for most of the way into town, apart from over the bridge across the Garonne river just before entering the town.

Marmande is a modest town with hotels, bars and restaurants and small grocery shops. I didn’t see any evidence of a camp site but again you can wild camp discreetly beside the canal if you wish. It styles itself "La Ville des Tomates" but I didn't see any tomatoes on my route. It has its own wine appellation, Côtes du Marmandais

The towpath is a prepared tarmac surface, in fact for its entire length to Toulouse which is well over 150km. It is in pretty good condition overall, although in a few places the top dressing is crumbling and the surface becomes a little rougher. I saw no signs of potholes, though, and drainage seems pretty good with no puddles of any size on the path. It is about 2 metres wide, which for the traffic seemed adequate, and it is of course substantially flat, as it follows the water. The level rises in steps with each lock but in this area the locks are well spaced and rise perhaps 1.5-2 metres a time. The path does however vary in height above the water surface, between about 50cm and perhaps 2-3 metres, so there is a very slight undulation.

The path is also heavily shaded along its entire length in this area by tall mature plane trees on either side – planted originally by the constructors of the canal, to provide protection from the summer sun for the commercial barges plying it. This does mean some tree root disturbance creating mini speed bumps which were slightly uncomfortable on a Brompton, but generally they were easy to spot, often easy to steer around, and I wasn’t in any hurry.

Like the Roger Lapébie cycle path, there are very few benches or picnic tables to stop for a rest en route, and no water fountains to refill your bottle, although down in the shade of the trees that becomes a less pressing imperative.

The path is exclusively for walkers and cyclists - there are clear signs prohibiting cars and motorcycles, with an added panel saying horse-riders are prohibited too. The only vehicles you typically see are the engineers' vans from Voies Navigables de France (VNF) and some heavy machinery maintaining the banks, eg brush cutting or doing embankment reinforcement. It seems that VNF sees no need to instal gates or barriers to discourage motor vehicles so by and large there is nothing to obstruct non-standard bikes, and indeed I saw families towing child trailers and baggage trailers, and even one tandem and one tadpole trike.

There are however occasional spots where staggered barriers have been installed, apparently to force more sporty cyclists to moderate their speed as they approach small boat marinas, picnic areas and the handful of designated waterside campsites. These might require a certain amount of manhandling to get a bike/trailer combo through.

Geotagged photos along the route can be found here.