CYCLING THE CANAL DU MIDI: Across southern France from Toulouse to Sète
By Declan Lyons
Published by Cicerone Second Edition May 2017
First published 2009
Paperback Gloss Laminated
Reviewed by Steve Dyster
Eight years on from the publication of the original, an updated version of the definitive English language guide to this fascinating canal ride is very welcome. Conveniently beginning in Toulouse, the Canal du Midi passes through a region with a tumultuous history and, as ever in France, distinct identities and cuisines. Declan Lyons’ guide will not only allow you to plan and keep you on track, it will also inform and enthuse. Yet, take note of his advice; there’s more to following a canal than might be expected and things can get very hot.
The Canal du Midi is a wonder of early modern engineering, pre-dating most UK canals by a century. Work commenced in 1677 to connect the Haute Garonne, at Toulouse, with the Mediterranean Sea, at Sète. As the author says, the chief engineer, Pierre Paul Riquet, did not intend to create a fabulous 240km cycle track, but did a pretty good job. A route for the touring cyclist, not the racer; to be savoured rather than rushed.
On that note, there is very good guidance on the condition of the towpath for cycling. Some sections are barred to cyclist - though few and far between - and some others are rough and offer some challenging riding, despite being designated as cycle routes. Other sections have a very good surface. Sometimes sudden availability of funds may lead to major improvements. Updates, when reported, can be found on the relevant page on the Cicerone website. In the meantime, you’ll need to follow the author’s advice on what bike to take and when to follow road alternatives.
Rail connections along the way seem to be pretty good, so getting to and from Toulouse and Sète, or to a nearby airport, should not be a major problem. More significant will be the time of year to ride the route. Autumn or spring may be better than summer. However, all that useful advice can be found alongside details of accommodation, cycles on trains, mosquitoes, dealing with the heat and, of course, where to find that plat de jour and vin rouge at lunchtime. Appendices include distance charts and a contacts for all sorts of accommodation, cycle repair shops and tourist offices. Together with Cicerone’s mapping, your £14.95 would seem to bring you everything you need in one place; one that will fit into a jersey rear pocket or atop a bar bag with ease.
The final appendix covers further reading. Prominent here are books on the Cathars. The canal passes through towns and villages that predate it by many centuries. Some had their origin in the ancient past, but many became victims of a brutal crusade undertaken by the Papacy and the French monarchy against Cathar heretics during the middle-ages. Even after this, the region was torn apart during the hundred Years War between France and England. Together, the crusade and the war helped cement French authority in the south of France. Yet, even today, the Midi is different! You’ll get views of mountains, scrubby garrigue and marshy lagoons … as well as following a fine piece of industrial archaeology.
To aid exploration, the author does not stick to the towpath bee-line. Six excursions are included in the guide, taking in nearby sites, for example to Narbonne and Port-la-Nouvelle (82km). Narbonne was a Roman town, but the author spends a paragraph on Charles Trenet, a singer born there. For some, his songs embody happy sunny days in the south of France. A very appropriate point to recommend this guide and wish you a happy, relaxing, easy-going journey.