Wednesday 30 September 2020

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.

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