Biking Through Southern France, and History

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Biking Through Southern France, and History


The Canal du Midi, entirely hand-dug and hailed as an engineering marvel on completion in 1681, offers a refreshing alternate take on French travel: a bikeable path through the towns and landscapes of the country’s south. Traversing Occitanie, the canal gives cyclists of all skill levels access to parts of France that are rich in history, yet sometimes passed over by visitors with (only) Paris on their mind.

When I discovered that the canal was manageable for nonserious cyclists like me, I was hooked. Stretching from the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean port town of Sète, the 150-mile waterway offers mostly flat cruising for the thousands of riders who take to its towpaths every year.

For nearly a week in July, I cycled upstream from Sète as far as Toulouse. I rented an electric bike and other gear from Paulette, a rental company that focuses on canal tourists. The rental totaled about $400. I also took advantage of the group’s super-convenient send-ahead luggage service. That lightened my load to take on the canal, its large and small towns, and its historical undercurrents. I wanted to see its famous écluses, or oval-shaped locks, and the idyllic country scenes on the way. I didn’t really plan ahead — as a novice, I didn’t know how far my legs could take me. Given my fluid schedule, I opted to find accommodation via the canal’s abundant tourist offices after arriving wherever I chose to stay the night.

The road from Sète starts at the sea. The former fishing town, where I picked up my bike as well as side bags for the essentials I wasn’t sending onward, ranks as a low-key favorite among French and foreign visitors. I pedaled southwest out of town on a Saturday morning, the shimmering Mediterranean to my left.

Starting at one end of the original canal helped me appreciate the ambition of the waterway’s visionary builder. Pierre-Paul Riquet, born in nearby Béziers in the early 1600s, conceived of the Canal du Midi as just one section of a Canal des Deux Mers — a “two-sea canal” — connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, and stretching from Sète as far as Bordeaux.

Joining the two coasts would open up a lucrative alternate trade route to sailing around Spain and Portugal, and would develop French inland commerce in the process — mostly for the region’s salt, wheat and wine. But how to build a body of water from scratch? Riquet’s “canal of communication,” as he called the full project, would draw waters flowing south from the Montagne Noire, on France’s central uplands, and north from the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains that border Spain.

After years of planning, and an early, self-funded demonstration project, Riquet persuaded King Louis XIV to back the Canal des Deux Mers, with the Canal du Midi ending in Toulouse and the Canal de Garonne running from there to the northwest. It would become the largest construction zone in 17th-century France, after Versailles.

My first day on the canal, after clocking 28 miles and an embarrassing handful of wrong turns, I stopped for the night in Villeneuve-lès-Béziers, amid the start of Europe’s “Cerberus” heat wave. The town, heavy on Spanish influence, was holding a bull festival, with an event running the animals down the main thoroughfare. The stop showed me cultural elements from across France’s nearby border — an exchange the Canal du Midi has accelerated over three and a half centuries.

Picking up the canal the next morning, I rode through 24 miles of vineyards, sunshine and more heat. If I was freewheeling in a literal sense, I was also mindful not to push too far, too hard, without firm plans for accommodation, given the sacrosanct weekend hours of a French summer Sunday.

At lunchtime I stopped in Le Somail, a hamlet that once served as a stop for canal travelers. Over a stone bridge made bright with flower boxes, I noticed a plaque in honor of Thomas Jefferson. The founding father traveled the canal as part of a three-month trip through France and Italy, stopping in Le Somail in May of 1787. In his notes from the journey, the 44-year-old Jefferson expressed a preference for solo travel. “One travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more,” he wrote. I was hoping for my own modest dose of Jefferson’s reflections.

The tourist office at Le Somail, with a surprisingly well-done adjacent exhibit on the canal, recommended the bed-and-breakfast Le Neptune, a few hundred yards away. Run by Dirk and Inge Demeulenaere — a retired Belgian couple who spoke Flemish to each other between conversations with guests — Le Neptune provided tasteful, 19th-century digs with funky modern accents, like Beatles posters and a bead screen with a likeness of Salvador Dalí. The couple served me breakfast on their verdant outdoor patio, then saw me off personally. I was glad to have stopped in Le Somail, as much for Jeffersonian surprises as for the unexpectedly sweet hospitality I received.

The 34-mile ride from Le Somail to the next large city, Carcassonne, brought the trip’s most challenging terrain: hills, rough gravel and long stretches made narrow by weeds and overgrowth. In places the canal doubled back on itself, winding hairpins through fields and throwing off stop-and-gawk views from the waterway’s raised embankments. Despite the hard slog, the arrival in Carcassonne, and the medieval castle from which the town has enjoyed centuries of fame, made the difficulty worthwhile. The castle’s towers proved as dizzying as the day’s 99-degree high.

A settlement predating France’s Roman era, Carcassonne expanded during the 12th and 13th centuries via massive fortification projects, a response to wars between the kingdom of France and outsiders like the Albigensians and the Aragonese. The walled medieval city, whose old town is still inhabited, benefited from major conservation efforts in the 19th century. The result obliges every castle cliché, with teeth-like crenelated ramparts and towers with roofs shaped like witches’ hats. Costumed tour guides enhance the effect.

The development of Carcassonne’s castle also stems from the city’s role as a flashpoint in the religious history of southern France, notably through the Cathar religious movement, considered outside the bounds of traditional Catholicism. The 13th century brought to a head tensions between Cathars and local Catholic populations, resulting in sieges and executions across the region. Carcassonne and its castle counted among Cathar strongholds before French kings gradually absorbed the region into their sphere of control. I left Carcassonne with a fresh understanding of French history and places well outside the country’s more-touristed zones.

The next day required a shorter, 25-mile ride to the town of Castelnaudary. I had motivation to get there quickly: “Castel,” as locals call it, is home to cassoulet, France’s peerless pot of pork, duck, sausage and steaming white kidney beans. Between a lock keeper outside town, and the attendants at Castel’s tourist office, a restaurant called Chez David came recommended twice in an hour. I knew where I was headed for lunch.

The restaurant’s head chef, David Campigotto, could be dubbed the Guy Fieri of cassoulet: with a rock ’n’ roll aesthetic of piercings, tattoos and a goatee, his style is as bold as his gastronomy. I arrived at the restaurant as raucous blues music was playing from speakers overhead. Photos of guitars hung on the walls. Each table’s water jug was a repurposed bottle from Kentucky’s Bulleit bourbon distillery.

When my cassoulet came, the waiter ran down a well-polished summary of the dish’s process and ingredients. Even before the cooking begins, he said, the kidney beans soak in bouillon overnight. The pot then matures in the oven for six hours — “at least,” Mr. Campigotto told me, in a conversation after my meal. The meats and beans stew in their own juices and bring the dish to a coherent, and transporting, unity of flavors. The chef and some of his staff travel to Chicago most years for events with the prominent local chef and restaurateur Paul Kahan. Mr. Campigotto said he loves the city, where he plays the part of gastro-diplomat to scores of Chicagoans. He travels with his own kidney beans.

Leaving Castelnaudary, the bike felt heavier. (Or was it just the cassoulet?) I rolled through sunflower fields and cooler weather on my final day, combined with a quick train ride — regional lines accommodate bikes and weary cyclists — for the final 39 miles to Toulouse. Along the way lay a geographic wonder: the Threshold of Naurouze, the dividing point between the Atlantic and Mediterranean watersheds. There, about 600 feet above sea level, the Canal du Midi’s water flow changes directions. A feeder stream from the Montagne Noire keeps the water even on either side. The last lock before Naurouze is the écluse de la Méditerranée; the first after it, the écluse de l’Océan, meaning the Atlantic. In this way the Canal du Midi captures a sense of France’s geography, and its breadth, between two seas.

Called the “Pink City” for its red stone and brick buildings, Toulouse, France’s fourth-largest city, often goes overlooked, perhaps given its distance from Paris. For cyclists from the canal or elsewhere, Toulouse is an eminently bikeable town: dedicated lanes for vélos run everywhere, with myriad signs and arrows to help. Paulette’s Toulouse office accepted my bike earlier than scheduled, with no fee or questions asked.

Now bike-free, I took in Toulouse for its sunny — and indeed, pink — splendor. The narrow rue Saint-Rome greeted pedestrians with brick facades and pastel-painted shutters. The Place du Capitole hosted restaurants and grand cafes, and had a street market on the day I visited. The Capitole building itself, with its red stone and white columns, houses the mayor’s office as well as the Toulouse opera.

Walking the city that evening, I saw in a state of happy fatigue the brilliant Capitole and other buildings. Toulouse, and the points of interest since my start in Sète, made cycling the Canal du Midi worth every pedaled mile.


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