After a good breakfast and some help setting up the hire bike, I left the Royal Wilson Hotel just after 10am. The streets of Toulouse were bustling with commuters, but within in minutes I was on the towpath of the Canal du Midi to begin the first leg of my adventure.
The scenery was incredible. Ancient trees lined the meandering route, reflected in the pea green canal. Wild meadow flowers added splashes of red, pink, blue and yellow to the lush green canal banks. There was abundant wildlife too. Mallards and chicks, a heron, even a solitary water rat to add interest to the scene of tranquillity. And of course barges, moored on the canal, or navigating one of the many locks along the 240 kilometre route from Toulouse to the where the canal opens up into the étang de Thau between Agde and Sète.
It was easy riding for much of the morning, save the odd little incline. But as lunch approached, the heavens opened and I had to take shelter under a thicker canopy to put on an extra waterproof layer. When I finally moved on, I met a couple at a bridge junction travelling in the opposite direction, keen to know how far it was to Toulouse. I said about three hours.; they replied it was the same to Castelnaudary, so we were both at our half way points. The lady was keen to know how the towpath was for the remaining journey to Toulouse. Perfect, I said. She was keen to point out that three kilometres out of Castlenaudary there was ‘bou’ (mud). Just how much mud I would find out later, to my dismay.
Forty minutes later it was still raining when I happened upon a restaurant by a lock. The racks of bikes outside suggested I wasn’t the only cyclist in need of some shelter and sustenance.
Inside it was packed, but I was shown a table outside in a covered area and treated myself to a delicious buffalo mozzarella salad and two cups of café au lait. It was more than I’d anticipated eating for lunch, but needs must. And actually, it probably helped me through what was to become a challenging afternoon.
First, I lost the route. Impossible, you might think, it’s a canal. But the towpath disappeared and it wasn’t clear from the GPS where I was. Two dog walkers pointed me to a bridge about half a mile from where I’d come. No joy. So I asked some French cyclists who were heading towards Toulouse. The translation wasn’t easy, so two of the men offered to escort me back to the right route. When we reached the point where I’d met the dog walkers, they explained I actually had to cycle for a couple of kilometres along the road until I came to a bridge. Go over the bridge, turn left and voila!
The towpath. About eight to ten inches inches deep in heavy, clay-like mud.
Within seconds my bike wheels were coated in the stuff. I was forced to get off and push. My shoes quickly turned into clay boots. No time for photos or selfies; every single step was a huge effort. It was like taking part in my own personal Iron Man challenge. Two kilometres later, still pushing the bike, I wondered why I was actually doing this. But the quagmire turned to mud, mud gave way to puddles. The sun came out, my waterproofs came off and I was back cycling in the French sunshine, wondering what on earth all the fuss had been about.
An hour after that I finally reached the Hotel du Canal at Castelnaudary. The room was rather basic, reminiscent of a Travelodge with décor from the 1970s. But it was impeccably clean (unlike me and my bike) and crucially, it had a bath. So as I lay there soaking off the worst of the day and contemplating who had thought to combine piglet pink tiles with yellow wallpaper and a blue door, I reflected on what an achievement the day had actually been.
I slipped on a casual dress and some blissfully clean shoes and exited the hotel straight onto the towpath Just over the other side of Pont Neuf (not the one in Toulouse, I wasn’t that lost) I looked at some promising eateries.
Castelnaudary is the “World Capital of Cassoulet”. Legend has it, this rustic dish was first served to the defenders of the town in 1355. The favoured variant in Castelnaudary is based on the local haricot bean and includes goose or duck confit, pork, and Toulouse sausage. And I fancied some. I checked out three restaurants on the Quai du Port, then returned to the first, Le Quai 21, which looked the most inviting. I asked the waitress for a table by the window and had only just taken a seat when voice from across the restaurant asked:
“Are you from England?”
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“I thought so,” he said. “Because we met you yesterday.”
It was the group of cyclists I had walked with through Toulouse Station!!!
They asked me to join them and I spend a very pleasant evening eating great food and enjoying some good conversation, although my French was not good enough to understand all of it. Still, their hospitality was very kind we parted company with jovial goodbyes and some cautionary advice that there might be more ‘bou’ tomorrow.
Follow my adventures on Day 3 here.
Hôtel du Canal
88-108, avenue Arnaut-Vidal
+33 (0)4 68 94 05 05
Go-Solo Star Rating
* * *
If only I’d had a pair of these!