Australian author Steven Herrick has sent us his top 10 tips for cycling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Med along the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi.
In mid-2013, my wife and I spent two weeks cycling from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean Sea on the pathways and back roads beside the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi. We indulged in the food and wine of the region guilt-free, knowing we would burn off some of the calories the next day on the bike. We averaged 60 leisurely kilometres per day, content to wander away from the canal whenever we wished.
In planning the trip, I symbolically wanted to cycle from the ocean to the sea. So instead of beginning in the traffic chaos of Bordeaux, I decided to start at the Bassin d’Arcachon before linking with the fabulous Mios to Bazas bike path, which lead me to the Garonne River and onward to the canals.
In 2012, I’d cycled across France from the Atlantic Ocean to the German border, which became the basis for my book, ‘baguettes and bicycles.’ I’d enjoyed it so much, I convinced my wife, a novice cyclist to join me on this next adventure. She’s a bellydance teacher which means balance and core strength are easy for her. She readily swapped swirling skirts, bare midriffs, veils and bundles of costume jewellery for Lycra, fingerless gloves and flat-soled shoes.
We cycled 770km to our destination in Sete on the Mediterranean. We drank too much and ate in excess. We christened our bikes Jenny and Craig in honour of a certain weight-loss guru. Who needs a diet when you have a bicycle?
My top 10 tips for cycling the canals
1. Bikes, bumps and other ‘b’ words
We both rode hybrid bikes, each with 21 gears. Cathie’s bike had front suspension. The roads and paths from the Atlantic Ocean to Toulouse are suitable for any type of bicycle, from road bike to mountain bike. However, the legendary Canal du Midi path is, in places, very bumpy and akin to an obstacle-course rather than a bike lane. (See here for more recent feedback on cycling the Canal du Midi.) A well-maintained bike with suspension and wide tyres is suggested.
2. Ride and rehearse
Before undertaking this trip, Cathie and I cycled a few rail trails in our native Australia. This rehearsal is important in two ways: to ready each rider to the kilometres ahead and, more importantly, to see how each person reacts under pressure in the wind and rain and heat and the flies and the midges and the...
Don’t worry. We loved cycling together. Our daily conversation tended to drift from the gorgeous scenery to what we’d eaten for breakfast and what we planned to eat for lunch.
3. Which way is south?
We didn’t take a map. How difficult is it to follow a canal? We got lost regularly and spent many amusing hours finding our way. The French were endlessly helpful and accommodating and I enjoyed these forced interactions much more than having to stop every 10 minutes to consult a map. It’s France, not the Amazon. If you get lost, eat a cake and ask a local.
4. You call that a pannier!
I hate carrying too much weight. Cathie and I both rode with two small panniers on the rear of our bikes. We packed two pair of Lycra shorts and jerseys, a Gore-tex jacket, Polartec leggings, casual shoes, two sets of day clothes and a pair of swimmers. Anything extra just becomes dirty clothes in the bottom of the pannier. Trust me, if you’re cycling in spring or summer, you don’t need many clothes. On this trip, I never even used the leggings.
5. The... ahem... budget
My reasoning is that if you’re riding a bicycle - which means no car hire, no petrol costs, no environmental damage - then it’s OK to indulge in a few treats, like three-course dinners and pleasant yet inexpensive bed and breakfast accommodation. After numerous trips to France, I’m always impressed with the quality of farmhouse lodgings at a price that wouldn’t buy you a flea-bitten one-star motel in Australia. Toss in a French breakfast of croissants and seven flavours of home-made confiture and I say ‘hang the budget!’
6. Plane trees and photographs
I lost count of the times I stopped on the path to take photos of the cathedral of trees framing the waterway. It’s mind-boggling beautiful and a photographer’s dream. So, indulge. A baguette, a knob of cheese, a half-bottle of Bordeaux and you’ll find a thousand picnic spots under the ceiling of green. Wave as a canal boat goes past, usually piloted by a shirtless white-skinned overweight Australian drinking a can of Fosters. Just be grateful you’re on a bike not in a boat.
Map or no map, don’t keep to the canals. We spent two days riding in the Tarn-et-Garonne, using the village of Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave as our base and another two days in the Minervois hills. Both detours were highlights of our trip. This region of France is laced with quiet back roads perfect for cycle touring. If time permits, detour to Auvillar in the Tarn-et-Garonne and Minerve in Languedoc-Roussillon.
Although I don’t carry maps, I do have an iPad mini which I use to book accommodation for the following day, scout a possible route and to keep up with the football scores back home. I spent a very pleasant morning watching a stream of Australia’s final group game where they qualifyed for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Nearly all accommodation options now offer wifi and I like the flexibility of leaving every booking to the last moment, in case of inclement weather, unforeseen disruptions or... football games. (You can always check Freewheeling France for bike-friendly accommodation en route.)
9. Beheadings, eye-gouging and ritual slaughter
Yes, it’s possible my beautiful wife considered these options a few times on our journey, but what I’m really suggesting is careful Wikipedia background readings every evening. It’s immensely satisfying cycling into a town knowing that the citizens were butchered by religious zealots in the 17th century in the town square... just over there! And did you know that church on the hill has a plaque of a beheading that represents the martyrdom of St Nazaire?
Now, what’s for dinner?
10. Talk to the French
We’re Australian, we can barely master the English language, much less French. But, we happily mangle this delicate language, knowing the French, bless them, will either speak in English or adopt a suitable impersonation of Marcel Marceaux miming that yes, they do have confit de canard.
We readily seek out chambre d’hotes that offer evening meals, usually shared with the hosts and other guests. On every occasion, this meal has turned into a four-hour banquet of delicious local food, excellent wine, bad mime, tales of scary animals that can kill you in Australia and delicious animals that you can eat in France, and exaggerated jokes on the stereotypes of each country. Pissed Australians? Non!
Steven Herrick is an Australian author and poet. His book Bordeaux and Bicycles (UK, US, FR) is based on his trip along the Canal de Garonne and the Midi. His previous book about cycling in France was Baguettes and Bicycles (UK, US, FR). Steven's bike blog is an excellent insight into cycling in Australia (though it covers lots of other stuff too).
Accommodation on the Canals
Search our Where to stay section, or zoom in below, where we've highlighted the regions the canals pass through.
Bike rental in Bordeaux and Toulouse
See our bike hire listings for options in Bordeaux and Toulouse, or try a bike delivery service if you are planning on only cycling one way. If you are linking up with the Canal du Midi in Toulouse to do the whole Bordeaux-Sète route and, again, only want to cycle one way, it may be worth investigating Bordeaux-Toulouse bike hire, and then hiring another bike for the Toulouse-Sète. Bike delivery services may be more affordable for the shorter stretches rather than the whole route. This reader Q&A might be of interest.
Organised cycling holidays along the canals
A number of tour companies operate tours along both canals. Mostly these are self-guided tours with luggage support and pre-booked accommodation. You can use our Organised tours section to get started. There are also options for biking and barging holidays.