Britta Sorensen takes a springtime ride along the Canal des Deux Mers à Vélo and reviews the route between La Reole and Agen (April 2018).
Having been on my to-do list for too long, I decided to bite the bullet and explore the length of the Canal de Garonne between La Réole and Agen all in one mid-April weekend. After some initial research, and given I only live a few hours away, I decided it was best to drive with the bikes and park at a suitable canal entry point at Damazan.
Why do it?
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Canal Entre Deux Mers is a major canal system crossing the south of France between Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast and Thau/Cap d’Agde on the Mediterranean. It combines the Canal de Garonne from south of Bordeaux to Toulouse with the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sete.
In recent years, some enlightened souls have turned the whole route into a cycling path and it is now possible to ride all or part of the route in either direction, usually (though not always) without any road traffic interfering with your fun.
If you're looking for a peaceful atmosphere and some gentle summer cycling in France, this route - officially entitled the Canal des Deux Mers à Vélo – is perfect: pleasure boats slowly chug their way from lock to lock while cyclists and walkers are typically shaded by plane trees planted in neat rows at the side of the canal.
The cycling is easy given that the route is flat and generally straight, with probably 90% of it consisting of old towpaths. The 100km or so portion of the route that I saw was consistently well-signed with decent cycling surfaces and well-serviced by local towns and villages.
In short summary, I would say that the green and white signs were very clear and easy to follow to simply just follow the canal. I took photos of all the different types of signs that you’d find useful along the way. For example, those for which direction and time to your location, signs for navigating yourself off the canal and into the busier towns such as La Réole, Agen and Marmande, and even signposting for those of you fancying a detour to Cahors.
Some commune information boards also produced very helpful maps and some interesting historical facts or sight-seeing places to see. The world is your oyster in terms of sticking to the canal throughout or venturing off to widen your holiday experience!
Types of bikes and track surface
Any bike would do I think for the trail and surfaces. I used a hybrid bike, which was fast enough for flat riding and with tyres suitable for all of the surfaces. However, I passed people riding road and mountain bikes too, and a range of trailers and panniers to transport their belongings and mini-cyclists people.
People also cycled in both directions. One couple I spoke to were making their way to Toulouse in five days on road bikes, having started at Bordeaux.
The towpath surfaces were on the whole very good, with some parts newly resurfaced so some little stones flew up into your shoes and lower legs. When approaching a junction, there were warning signs to take care and give way – ‘ceder la passage’ – especially when the path merged onto a main road for traffic.
Some tree roots had started to appear under the towpath surface, which made for a slight bumpy ride as you traversed over them – may be a bit trickier if you're pulling a trailer, so you may need to check behind you occasionally.
Rest ‘relais’ points and eating options
There were some pretty places to stop along the way if you wanted a snack or picnic at the designated ‘relais points’. I would highly recommend the small hut at Port de Meihan for snacks and refreshments to replenish some energy levels – it was perfect as I’d not seen anywhere open for food at all so this was a welcome mirage.
It also has a new campsite behind it that’s just opened (2018) with a secure lock-up, so you can leave your things and explore or eat out for a meal (assuming you are camping there). It also has a big bonus: a mechanic's workshop site to assist cyclists with any bike problems. Depending on your budget and requirements, this would be an ideal little interlude set within a pretty part of the canal area and it is run by two friendly, English-speaking Frenchmen.
I think planning what and how you will eat is really important each day and especially if you’re planning an out of season trip like me. Even more important if you’re cycling with youngsters or you just generally get hungry from all the cycling (like me). As it was still off-season most cafes were closed in smaller village areas.
Also, remember that some boulangeries close between 12.30-15.30 (depending on the individual owner), so I think starting out with snacks and drinks at the start of the day will serve you well. Note that on Sundays and Mondays it can also be harder to find shops open in smaller villages.
There are some little stops, as mentioned earlier, but cafes and restaurants are sparse on the canal area itself and going into the larger towns will be best for this.
I was disappointed to find Mas d’Agenais was like a ghost town and could only imagine it being busy in the height of the season – especially as the internet guide had described it as the highlight of the ride segment!
I did stop in at the church to see the Rembrandt picture and the old washhouse at the bottom of the hill, though. If you’re a Strava-obsessed person, then someone has even made the short sharp hill from the washhouse to the square a segment – I’d have tried harder up the hill if I had known.
On the Sunday, in Agen, I tried out the Café Vélo place, which was also a hostel with bunk beds for 12 people in the same room. If you do stay you have access to the secure lockers in the dormitory room and outside ones for your bike; there was key code pad for the toilets and showers and here was even a washing machine in the shower room. Inside the building was restaurant/bar and downstairs was a lounge and bike rental place. This all depends on your budget and whether you mind potentially sharing a room with strangers. In Agen centre, there was very nice looking 3* château-looking hotel and again depended on your budget. (See our accommodaiton map for more options)
Places to visit or stay
Agen was the largest and busiest of the places to visit with plenty of people promenading along the canal path on the Sunday afternoon – a very pleasant way to spend the time. There are cycle paths off the canal signposted so you can follow a cycle path around the town and explore the architecture, churches, stay overnight or simply just look around like me before heading back. There was a mix of old and new buildings and lots of churches; plus an underpass was used by pedestrians and cyclists at a busy road intersection too.
From the canal you have a good view of the river and the outskirts of the town which can be accessed by heading off the towpath OR, if you’re not stopping in Agen, just keep on the towpath under the bridge to save crossing the very busy main road. You can see the impressive canal bridge from the city side and in the lead up to the famous canal bridge there are a series of locks steering towards it – if you’re patient and luck is on your side you’ll observe the lock gate process in action.
This is a busy port with a few locks and a caravan park. The centre has some nice looking restaurants and I ate in one that served a 6-course menu – delicious and most welcome after cycling all day for 102 km. It’s worth a little visit if you have time and fancy some good food.
This town is more of a transient place to visit and I think if I had the choice I’d use it for the restaurants, supermarket, boulangerie and toilet stop. The square is rather quaint and the canal port area is pretty in the sun, showing the best side of the bastide town architecture from the water. I stayed at a hotel in Damazan – you can read my review here.
As mentioned earlier, I was disappointed to find this was like a ghost town and I couldn’t buy any food from a boulangerie and all cafes and possible food selling places were closed too. I’m sure it’s good to visit in the peak season, and if you like the church and washhouse. Those attractions don’t take a long time and if you need food it’s best to move on. Incidentally, it’s also possible to hire boats from the port on the other side of the canal – and also bikes – however, this may appeal to different people.
To get to Marmande you need to come off the canal, following signs to the town, and travelling on a cycle path parallel to the main road. You eventually need to cross the river Garonne via a large bridge. I personally thought it was worth the detour to visit and even for a night stop there too as there seemed to be plenty of places to have a drink and eat. I loved the public space ‘camping aire’ that was down by the river – it was heaving with people enjoying the open green space, playing games, sunbathing and promenading. Marmande had a nice feel to it as I cycled around it.
Pont de Sables
As you go along the canal between Meihan and Pont de Sables you will no doubt see some rowing boats being rowed with great ease. It’s at this junction that you come off the towpath and follow the signs for Marmande if you want the detour.
En route from along the canal, you pass through La Fontet which is a ‘base loisirs’ with motorhomes camping and boats moored in the water area. If you’re travelling by on a really hot day, this would be a perfect place to stop for refreshments from the café and a swim in the small lake. Apparently there is match stick museum next door. However, it didn’t light my fire – pardon the pun – so I didn’t go.
You have to cross another impressive bridge that resembles Brooklyn Bridge to get to La Reole. To get there you will have off the towpath from La Fontet and followed some quiet roads towards the bridge – all signposted clearly. There were a few bars and restaurants open and a supermarket but it wasn’t necessarily inspiring me to hang around for too long.
Overall rating review
I cycled from Damazan to La Reole in one day (102km) taking in Marmande as my detour. You may not want to do this kind of distance and indeed the couple I spoke to were only doing 50km each day from Bordeaux to Toulouse. I think it is nice to take your time and enjoy the varied sights and scenery between the meandering river Garonne views and the canal towpath.
The second day was less intense with a 67km round trip of Damazan - Agen – Damazan. This was different and it highlighted that there were more places to stop and eat on the first day. You pass by lots of locks and boats again, as in the first day, but it gets more impressive as you get closer to Agen. The famous 600m canal is definitely worth the trip across and a quick visit around the town too.
If I was planning this trip without using a car to the starting point, I would make sure I did my homework for places to stay and nearby restaurants to eat after a long day’s cycling. There are lots of choices, depending on your budget and the time of year.
So, yes, go ahead and tick it off your to-do-list if you haven’t already – it’s worth it.
You can find the Canal de Garonne route (including a downloadable GPX file), accommodation and bike hire on the interactive map below.
About our writer
Originally from Lincolnshire in the UK, Britta Sorensen has lived in the Tarn-et-Garonne in south-west France since 2014. The UCI Grand Fondo Championships were held in Albi in 2017 – practically on her doorstep. She competed in the qualifier race and was there on the World Champs race day to help out on one of the ‘ravito’ stations near her house. When she’s not out on her road or mountain bike, you’ll find her arranging endurance training camps in Tarn-et-Garonne.