Bike Touring on the Canal du Midi

October 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm

People that I respected and were cool and likable and great, people that I met all over France, lots of them had mentioned riding down the Canal du Midi. And I'm aware that it's something that touring cyclists often do. It's said that you're likely to meet loads of them down there on the canal. Blissfully pedaling along, stopping only when their face hurts too much from smiling.

Man, I hate the Canal du Midi. It runs from Bordeaux all the way to the Mediterranean, and some people ride the whole thing. They do, and I haven't the foggiest clue why. I rode down the canal for two full days, about 200km. One day from Montauban to Toulouse, and another day from Toulouse to Carcassonne. I was supposed to spend a third day on it, ending up outside of Narbonne. I am extremely, extremely happy that I wizened up and took roads. Wide and friendly roads, with views and towns and people and differences.

The Canal du Midi strikes you at first for its Olmsteadian beauty but then slowly dissolves into a Levittian nightmare. Plane trees line the banks of the canal, which is typically set a man's height below the surrounding land. When you're pedaling down the canal, you see plane trees on your left, a path in front of you, and a narrow expanse of green water to your right. For an afternoon stroll it's delightful, much more than that and it is maddening. Riding through the various landscapes of France, I've fantasized about future projects, drinks with friends, burritos, music I want to make, and I've thought of stories to write and considered what times in my life really meant to me. On the Canal du Midi I thought about trees to my left, the path in front of me, and a narrow expanse of green water to my right.

Canal du Midi

I was on the Canal du Midi for two days, but I only needed to take one picture.


Here's the other thing about this godforsaken canal. When you're nearby a larger town, the path is paved nicely and runs consistently along one bank. But from time to time, and for long stretches, the canal path is not paved and instead in various states of mud. If you're lucky, it's hard-packed dirt. If you're not, thick mud is sucking your tires into the earth and getting stuck in your fenders, breaks, and drivetrain. And you never know when the canal path will get lousy, nor which side of the canal the better path will be on. So sometimes you'll be picking your bike up over a log while your feet sink into the mud, while on the other side of the canal, someone with a picnic basket on their handlebars is eating an apple and talking on their phone as they coast nonchalantly. And then you cross the canal at the next bridge but then the good side switches, and so on. The effect of the on-again off-again road maintenance is diabolical. You end up hoping that you're going to receive well-paved roads forever. Yes, you end up praying for more monotony.

You also never have any idea where you are. Bridges are rarely marked with a route, and even small villages are not clearly labeled from the canal. My only notion of how far I'd gone was my odometer. And that's something I try not to look at too frequently for obvious watching-water-boil type reasons. So I would end up after a few hours simply having no idea even relatively where I was. And then maddening thoughts would pop up like that maybe there was a Y in the canal and now I've been headed the wrong way for hours. The passage of time is important to me. Riding along roads allows you to watch meaningful progress tick off as you find the next route or village. Riding on the canal all day has the effect of being in some kind of hyper sleep chamber. It's so regular-looking and unlabelled that it might as well be a painting that someone slapped up in front of an exercise bike. And then said, “here's your ride through France, isn't it beautiful?”

The parts of France that I rode through just before taking the canal and just after mercifully quitting it were some of the prettiest places I've ever seen in my life. The parts of France that I rode through on the canal I cannot speak for, because I did not see them. The trees and banks of the canal are high enough that you can't appreciate what's around you. And since there are no signs that indicate you can take a certain side street to see a certain thing, you don't ever leave it. Doing so would be 100% guesswork without a GPS. So you end up not even channel surfing because you assume nothing else is on, and the reruns play forever. In fact, I had been so brainwashed by the green water and monotonous paths that when I finally escaped the canal, it was like watching a color TV for the first time. The world was suddenly lush.

The second day that I was on the canal was after several days of high wind. It was often covered in sticks and branches that I would ride around and occasionally over. For many kilometers, every time there was a bridge or lock, there would be an orange triangular sign on the ground that read “Route Barrée” and then a random distance between 100 and 500 meters. These are temporary signs that road crews can use when they are doing construction or, say, removing fallen trees from a canal pathway. I saw these signs every kilometer or so for hour after hour and always rode right past them without ever being stopped by either a fallen log or construction crew. Except ONCE when the route really was blocked off by a huge fallen tree and several workers. One of them took off his headphones and walked over to ask me how I could have missed the sign. Maybe they had just been extremely thorough in their signage and wanted me to know in the morning that by the mid-afternoon the route would be barred someplace.

Someone told me yesterday that the best way to take the canal is if you really know what you can find by taking different bridges and routes away from it. And I'm sure there are some medieval villages and wineries that can make for wonderful day trips from Toulouse or Bordeaux. But as a touring cyclist who doesn't know the region intimately, the canal is a bad and stupid thing that I wouldn't recommend.

Leaving the Atlantic and Knowing Nothing

October 11, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I awoke at 7am and walked out to the small bridge which hung over and just outside the campground. The early morning was still dark. These days it's not so much that I like to watch the sun rise. In fact, there is no sunrise. Behind the clouds, the sun brightens the day like a lamp behind a gray curtain. Just the same, I like watching the day begin.



I put on my rain pants and jacket and pulled the hood over my hair. The rain was constant but light. At a wet picnic table, I set out my pot and made my standard breakfast. Two eggs, half a baguette, cheese, coffee and a pastry. Then I dropped a dissolving vitamin tablet into my water bottle.

The night before I had looked disappointedly through my photographs of the circus vehicles. Clearly I hadn't been bold enough to take a single good picture. I resolved over breakfast to return there before catching the road out of town. It was too much a weird thing to leave undocumented.

I packed and left the campground. Again I found the wrong turn that led down the sullen road along a small green river. When I came upon the carnage, I propped my bike against one of the circus trucks and took out my camera. After several minutes, three German shepherds were barking at me from behind a fence. Finally a man's head popped out of the squat stone house across from me. It was an Indian man who spoke only a little French and no English. He was confused but not angry to see me there. I tried to apologize for making his dogs upset, but he didn't understand. We waved at each other as I left. Like most things, the whole situation was a lot less frightening than it seemed.

Though frightening it was.


My ride for the day was 87 kilometers to a meditation center located outside of Cubjac. I had only one small city to navigate. Most of the day required me just to keep hold of a single road through small towns. The ride was again like those earlier in my trip–farmland and rain. On an earlier day, I had seen a field of dead sunflowers and cursed myself for not stopping for a picture. This time I did not repeat the mistake.


I found an open bakery where I bought some fresh bread with figs. At a pizza truck on the corner I bought a can of Heinekin and asked about a place to sit for lunch. The man there gave me directions to probably the prettiest place I've stopped midday in my whole trip. A small stone patio hung over a mellow river. The patio was adorned with flowers and picnic tables.


After lunch, I slogged another 20 kilometers into Perigueux. I had anticipated a bit of a challenge in finding the right route out of town. Instead, I happened upon a cycle route that followed a river which skirted the town. The route was pretty, if a little difficult to follow. It ended abruptly at exactly the bridge I needed to cross to find the D5 and take it straight into Cubjac.

I found the town nestled into the same river about 12km upstream. Like many villages around France, it contains one of everything. Bar, bakery, city hall, pharmacy, and market. Just outside of town I found the retreat center. This is where I intended to really commit to slowing the pace of my journey. I had been in contact with the manager of the retreat center about staying and working until the 17th. In exchange, I would receive food and lodging.

I pulled down a long gravel driveway to the cluster of stone buildings. Numerous statues of the Buddha were hidden amongst thickets of bamboo. A small stream was fed near the entrance and led through the thickets to a larger river. A tall stone building stood above the river. And under it a couple of benches and a small waterfall. Throughout the area were pots of brilliantly colored flowers. Reverent, quiet patrons and attendees walked peacefully throughout the grounds. I was immediately greeted when I rode up. They had been expecting me and showed me to my room–a small building tucked behind three copses of bamboo.

My lodging.


Within minutes I was planning my escape. After a quick shower, I was already deliberating other options and routes away from Cubjac. I had realized immediately that I'd made a terrible mistake–everyone was speaking English. Pulling down that gravel path was like leaving France altogether. One of my first questions was to one of the other workers, about whether everyone spoke English there. “Oh yes,” she replied, “it's like a little bubble within France.” My face must have gone immediately neutral.

That night I ate an incredible vegetarian meal and spent some time planning other options. I fought off several of the largest spiders I'd ever seen before settling into my cabin for the night. My head was still spinning from the strange luck I'd happened upon. The opportunity to live and work and meditate at a beautiful place in the countryside and it was effectively worthless to me. I hadn't flown halfway around the world and then pedaled 2000km on my bike to practice my English.

In the morning I ate two full plates of breakfast and then met with the woman who ran the center. She asked me if I was comfortable and still willing to stay until the 17th. I explained my situation to her, and that I had really only paused my bike tour to speak more French. She admitted that this would not be a good location for such a thing. In fact, she had known of German-speaking volunteers who had improved their English while working there. “So, you want to leave?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. And it all happened a lot faster than I thought it might.

I told her that I'd feel better if I did a full day of work in exchange for their lodging. We walked out to her garden where I spent the day digging holes, cutting down four dead trees with a chainsaw, and then digging more holes. Somewhere in the middle, I ate another huge delicious two-plate vegetarian meal in the dining hall. The combination of gigantic plates of delicious food and a cycle-tourist's appetite left me feeling like I'd swallowed a basketball three times a day.

Over the course of my two-night stay I had some terrific conversations with people in residence at the center. The atmosphere, food, and the people were all wonderful. But I knew I was doing the right thing by leaving.

The next morning I washed my linens. I swept the room out well, removing the carcasses of spiders fallen in the great battles of the last two nights, and mopped the floors. After lunch, I said goodbye to my new friends and took the 200m gravel driveway back to France. In the town of Cubjac, I found a stone wall in the sun. I parked my bike and slept on the wall for an hour. When the sun slipped from behind a cloud and shone onto my face, I woke abruptly and pulled myself down.

I had much of the day to read and write. My next destination was a mere 10km from where I was sitting

An hour before dark, I packed up my things and headed towards Limeyrat. Most of the ride was a climb along quite country roads on a cooling night. The shadows lengthened. I told my host that I would arrive at 7pm. When I arrived and pulled my bike around the church to the terrace of her house, the church bells rang to indicate that exact time.

C. showed me to my room, a small gîte separate from the main house. My chamber is cozy and warm with stone walls and a private bathroom. I ate dinner with C. and her husband as we all fought off their noisy Labrador. They are not French, but they are willing to speak only French to me. I find them good humored and energetic. And quite nice.

I slept well and in the morning I awoke at 7. The house is located on the top of a large hill and looks down upon a wide valley. I took my guitar and a cup of tea to a bench in the yard and played until the day had arrived.

I worked in the yard today. Hauling brush, turning over earth, picking weeds. This is an arrangement that I will probably keep up for several days. In the meantime, I am deciding where to go next. Back to Bordeaux? South to the canal? Along the Dordogne? East to Switzerland? I stare at the map and wonder where I'll be one week from now…