Sunday, September 18, 2016

Midi mesdame: Three days on a bike

A pair of Canadians, two Brits and an American walk into a bar. Oh, no ... I mean: A pair of Canadians, two Brits and an American (that's me) recently spend three amazing days biking a portion of the Midi Canal.


The ladies' bike trip is the brainchild of Susan, my friend and neighbor here in our small village in south-west France. She, along with her friend Veronica from Vancouver are seasoned cyclists. The two Brits, Ursula and Carole, who also live in our village, are less experienced riders. And I am somewhere in the middle. 

I discovered my love of bike riding since moving to France four years ago, but before this trip I had never cycled more than 30 km in one day and had never carried along luggage.

Along the Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Susan and her husband have cycled the entire 434-km (270-mile) Deux-Mers Canal, which includes both the Canal du Midi, which runs from Sète to Toulouse, and the section from Toulouse to Bordeaux, known as Canal Latéral de la Garonne. 

Along the Canal du Midi

Romans dreamed of building a waterway between seas, and so did Leonardo da Vinci. Eventually, in the 17th century, 12,000 men and women took on the task of constructing what was then considered to be one of the greatest projects of that time. The Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is very popular with cyclists, pedestrians, fishermen and boaters who slowly cruise up and down the waterway via a system of locks. 

Fishing along the Canal du Midi

Two kind husbands drive the five of us and our bikes and stuffed paniers to our starting point in Gardouch, about three hours from home. After our picnic lunch, we take off toward Castelnaudary. 

The Canal is a beautiful place to ride. Some parts of the path are unpaved, and we dodge tree roots and squeeze to the edge when meeting other riders. The biggest advantage to riding along the Canal? No hills! 

Riding the Canal can be a leisurely trip. There are locks to look at and canal-side cafés that offer cold beer, potable water and, most importantly, toilets. 

Tow path along the Canal du Midi

I had volunteered to book our accommodations and I am somewhat nervous that I won't be possibly able to please everyone. Night 1, and no complaints. So far, so good.

Castelnaudary is known as the birthplace of the the hearty French casserole cassoulet, and appropriately enough we stay at and eat at Maison du Cassoulet, right in the middle of town. We arrive early enough for some sightseeing, which I'll write about in a future blog post.

The city of Castelnaudary claims that cassoulet was created here.

Day 2 is our longest stretch. By the time we find our apartment in Carcassone we've ridden 50 km, most of it on narrow unpaved paths and nearly all of it directly into the wind. I visited here with Ken five years ago, and I am eager to accompany Veronica-from-Vancouver on her first visit to le Cité médiévale, a picture-perfect fortress, about a 20 minute walk from the "new" part of town.

Cité médiévale in Carcassone

We are in no hurry to get started on Day 3. The owner of this evening's accommodations has asked us to arrive after 4 p.m. and since we only have 20-ish kilometers left, we check out our Carcassone neighborhood and eat sandwiches on the canal before we take off. We also enjoy an extended rest stop at a canal-side café in the pretty village of Trèbes.

Pont de la Rode in Trèbes

Maritime-type sign on a restaurant in Trèbes

Our Night 3 accommodations at Château de Blomac are amazing —  I am a rock star! After a glass of wine on the terrace, I shower off the dust and head for the infinity swimming pool. A dinner at the table of our host, Jacqueline, her assistant, and a sweet Dutch couple who had gotten married here the week before, caps off an amazing trip.

The refreshing infinity pool at Château de Blomac

Here's what made this premiere ride of the Midi Mesdame so amazing: Great autumn weather, lack of breakdowns and no accidents to speak of (well, one minor fall due to tiny rider, heavy bike) makes us all feel very lucky. Luckier still is the rapport of our little group, some of whom I hadn't known too well beforehand. There is a fair amount of political talk — Brexit and Trump being the most heated topics. We share stories of our various travels and careers, of husbands (past and present), our parents and our kids. We congratulate each other for a ride well-done. And we eagerly start to plan next year's ride. Count me in. 

Rain threatens but doesn't appear on Day 3 of our bike ride along the Canal du Midi.