Monday, 22 February 2010

Canal du Midi

After last writing I went and telephoned my Toulouse hostess for the evening, Audrey. I took her instruction to go to the station and sent her a text when I got there. I heard a phone beep and she was right next to me waiting. I'm sure I'm not hard to miss.
We crossed the street and went to her flat. I put the bike in the courtyard and we sat down for tea and chatted away. She cooked some chick peas, lentils, cumin and marmite concoction which was very tasty, then we chatted away drinking tea until about 11 when I became very sleepy. I passed out on the sofa and slept like a log until the next morning. Audrey was great to talk to, she had a very easy friendly manner and seemed very wise. I was tempted to hang out the following day but I was on a mission and had some catching up to do, so after going to an internet cafe to 'book' the next couple of day's couchsurfers and buy us some breakfast I said my thanks and goodbyes and got back on the saddle. The Canal du Midi was going to be my path for the next couple of days and was right on her doorstep. It was completed in 1680 by a rich farmer, Pierre Riquet, though he died with huge debts months before his completion. The Midi and the Lateral link the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, a huge strategic advantage to the French as navigating goods by boat around hostile Spain was very long and dangerous.
This older stretch was noticably less straight than the Lateral (as the name may suggest), and it didn't take long before I realised how much of a headwind I had to negotiate. I got away from the shelter of built up Toulouse and out onto the open plains and the wind only got worse. I was normally able to cruise at 15 mph but today it was very hard going at 8 or 9mph. It didn't take long for me to realise my goal of getting to Carcasonne, 65 miles away was going to prove to be an almighty challenge. I stopped at Villefranche for lunch (I was so glad to have brought stuff with me as everything was closed on Sunday), and it was quite demoralising to see how much further I had. I had asked the potential host to text me if it was ok to stay, but I had not had a reply so it was looking more likely I would camp this evening. After lunch the wind seemed to die down a bit, but I was exhausted and my lunch wasn't quite enough. By Castelnaudary I was so hungry, and realising Sunday meant the only thing open was a Mc Donald's, I stuck my two fingers up at my principles and devoured two Big Mac meals. The ride past Castelnaudry was much better, both being full of dirty food and no wind at all to slow me down. Furthermore the grey weather had been replaced with a beautiful evening sun, and the canal and landscape had become more interesting. I rode about half an hour into the pitch black, then scoped a camping spot in the wild as I was actually quite near Carcasonne and had ditched the hope of a response from the Couch surf host. I found a spot in a huge flat field, far away from roads and paths. There I passed out in the comfort of the tent and fell into a deep sleep. I was exhausted.
I woke up at 8.15, promptly upped sticks and left. It really wasn't far to Carcasonne and there I stopped for coffee and croissants. It didn't seem too appealing and so I continued on down the canal. The landscape was stunning but the weather was not. I pressed on but was still hungry so kept my eye out for more food, monday morning however was not good for business in rural France. I did however find a boulangerie and picked up a job lot of yesterday's pain au chocolat.
As the day progressed the terrain of the track deteriorated, and I had to negotiate muddy singletrack lined with tree roots. Some bits were incredibly slow going, especially as the headwind had picked up too. On and on I pressed, I realised that I didn't have such a massive distance to do today so I stopped in a charming village called Ventenac en Minervois. The first cafe I found was open, and once inside it was apparent that a stranger had come to town as all eyes looked my way. It didn't take long for the curiosity to turn to warm hospitality when the barman asked where I had come from en vèlo. The place was full of old and young bon vivants of many nationalities, including an old London chap called Peter who took insulting banter from his Belgian friend. Peter gave me his son's address and number in Spain in case I needed a familiar helping hand. Yet more humanity to keep me going. I pressed on with only 25km to go, and at the last 10km the canal split into many parts. A sign and the GPS helped me distinguish which arm to choose, but what was unclear was how to cross either the canal or a massive wier cutting the way. I asked two sets of old ladies who gave opposing directions, neither of which made sense to the GPS and sign, so when they intersected each other I let them realise this and they showed me a tiny singletrack. This led up to a big old steel railway bridge. A load of old ramblers had come off the bridge and ensured my confidence it was the way, and although not exactly mainline, the silver surface of the tracks suggested it was still used. I chuckled to myself about the nature of the navigation on this final stretch, descending a ramped wall to to the correct final stretch of canal and finally getting back onto some smooth gravel track. The old bike had taken a beating today, and as I cleaned out the dirt from the mudguards I noticed this great iron sculpture, the claws of destruction. The last straight bit of canal quickly descended into Narbonne, and I reflected on the last five days of almost completely off road travel, Atlantic to Mediterranean, it had been extremely tough and solitary at times but beautiful and satisfying as well.
I'm now sitting in an internet cafe waiting for my host to finish work. The city feels daunting and unfriendly, there are lots of people talking to themselves and this cafe is full of photos of guns and knives, but I've got a warm feeling of the adventure I've had so far.


  1. go henry you mad basterd

    we love you

    rex @ maria

  2. My girlfriend and i will be cycling The Canal Du Midi, in July!(over about 5 days, with some sightseeing) Very excited! Your trip looks awesome!