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Biking 150-mile path along French canal takes cyclists down road of rich history

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Cyclists travel in the bustling harbor in Sete, France.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Cyclists travel in the bustling harbor in Sete, France.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Cyclists in Toulouse, France.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Cyclists in Toulouse, France.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                The canal tow path is shaded by plane trees near Toulouse, France. The Canal du Midi traverses the Occitanie region and gives cyclists of all skill levels access to parts of France that are rich in lore, yet sometimes passed over by visitors.
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NEW YORK TIMES

The canal tow path is shaded by plane trees near Toulouse, France. The Canal du Midi traverses the Occitanie region and gives cyclists of all skill levels access to parts of France that are rich in lore, yet sometimes passed over by visitors.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Cyclists travel in the bustling harbor in Sete, France.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                Cyclists in Toulouse, France.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                The canal tow path is shaded by plane trees near Toulouse, France. The Canal du Midi traverses the Occitanie region and gives cyclists of all skill levels access to parts of France that are rich in lore, yet sometimes passed over by visitors.

The Canal du Midi, entirely hand-dug and hailed as an engineering marvel on completion in 1681, offers a refreshing alternate take on French travel: a bikeable path through the towns and landscapes of the country’s south. Traversing Occitanie, the canal gives cyclists of all skill levels access to parts of France that are rich in history, yet sometimes passed over by visitors with (only) Paris on their mind.

When I discovered that the canal was manageable for nonserious cyclists like me, I was hooked. Stretching from the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean port town of Sete, the 150-mile waterway offers mostly flat cruising for the thousands of riders who take to its towpaths every year.

For nearly a week in July, I cycled upstream from Sete as far as Toulouse. I rented an electric bike and other gear from Paulette, a rental company that focuses on canal tourists. The rental totaled about $400. I also took advantage of the group’s super-convenient send-ahead luggage service. That lightened my load to take on the canal, its large and small towns, and its historical undercurrents. I wanted to see its famous ecluses, or oval-shaped locks, and the idyllic country scenes on the way. I didn’t really plan ahead — as a novice, I didn’t know how far my legs could take me. Given my fluid schedule, I opted to find accommodations via the canal’s abundant tourist offices after arriving wherever I chose to stay the night.

Up a canal

The road from Sete starts at the sea. The former fishing town, where I picked up my bike, ranks as a low-key favorite among French and foreign visitors. I pedaled southwest out of town on a Saturday morning, the shimmering Mediterranean to my left.

Starting at one end of the original canal helped me appreciate the ambition of the waterway’s visionary builder. Pierre-Paul Riquet, born in nearby Beziers in the early 1600s, conceived of the Canal du Midi as just one section of a Canal des Deux Mers — a “two-sea canal” — connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, and stretching from Sete as far as Bordeaux.

My first day on the canal, after clocking 28 miles and a handful of wrong turns, I stopped for the night in Villeneuve-les-Beziers, amid the start of Europe’s “Cerberus” heat wave. The town, heavy on Spanish influence, was holding a bull festival, with an event running the animals down the main thoroughfare. The stop showed me cultural elements from across France’s nearby border — an exchange the Canal du Midi has accelerated over 3-1/2 centuries.

On Thomas Jefferson’s trail

Picking up the canal the next morning, I rode through 24 miles of vineyards, sunshine and more heat. If I was freewheeling in a literal sense, I was also mindful not to push too far, too hard, without firm plans for accommodation, given the sacrosanct weekend hours of a French summer Sunday.

At lunchtime I stopped in Le Somail. Over a stone bridge made bright with flower boxes, I noticed a plaque in honor of Thomas Jefferson. The founding father traveled the canal as part of a three-month trip through France and Italy, stopping in Le Somail in May of 1787. In his notes from the journey, the 44-year-old Jefferson wrote: “One travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more.” I was hoping for my own modest dose of Jefferson’s reflections.

The tourist office at Le Somail recommended the bed-and-breakfast Le Neptune. Run by Dirk and Inge Demeulenaere, a retired Belgian couple, Le Neptune provided tasteful, 19th-century digs with funky modern accents. The couple served me breakfast on their verdant patio, then saw me off personally. I was glad to have stopped in Le Somail, as much for Jeffersonian surprises as for the unexpectedly sweet hospitality.

History lessons

The 34-mile ride from Le Somail to the next large city, Carcassonne, brought the trip’s most challenging terrain: hills, rough gravel and long stretches made narrow by weeds and overgrowth. In places the canal doubled back on itself, winding hairpins through fields and throwing off stop-and-gawk views from the waterway’s raised embankments. Despite the hard slog, the arrival in Carcassonne, and the medieval castle from which the town has enjoyed centuries of fame, made the difficulty worthwhile.

A settlement predating France’s Roman era, Carcassonne expanded during the 12th and 13th centuries via massive fortification projects, a response to wars between the kingdom of France and the Albigensians and the Aragonese. The walled medieval city, whose old town is still inhabited, benefited from major conservation efforts in the 19th century. The result obliges every castle cliche, with teeth-like crenelated ramparts and costumed tour guides that enhance the effect.

Quest for cassoulet

The next day required a shorter, 25-mile ride to the town of Castelnaudary. I had motivation to get there quickly: “Castel,” as locals call it, is home to cassoulet, France’s peerless pot of pork, duck, sausage and steaming white kidney beans. Between a lock keeper and the attendants at Castel’s tourist office, a restaurant called Chez David came recommended twice. I knew where I was headed for lunch.

The restaurant’s head chef, David Campigotto, bore a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic of piercings, tattoos and a goatee, his style as bold as his gastronomy.

When my cassoulet came, the waiter ran down a well-polished summary of the dish’s process and ingredients. Even before the cooking begins, he said, the kidney beans soak in bouillon overnight. The pot then matures in the oven for six hours — “at least,” Campigotto told me. The meats and beans stew in their own juices and bring the dish to a coherent, and transporting, unity of flavors.

Toward the “Pink City”

Leaving Castelnaudary, the bike felt heavier. (Or was it just the cassoulet?) I rolled through sunflower fields and cooler weather on my final day, combined with a quick train ride — regional lines accommodate bikes and weary cyclists — for the final 39 miles to Toulouse. Along the way lay a geographic wonder: the Threshold of Naurouze, the dividing point between the Atlantic and Mediterranean watersheds.

There, about 600 feet above sea level, the Canal du Midi’s water flow changes directions. A feeder stream from the Montagne Noire keeps the water even on either side. The last lock before Naurouze is the ecluse de la Mediterranee; the first after it, the ecluse de l’Ocean, meaning the Atlantic. In this way the Canal du Midi captures a sense of France’s geography, and its breadth, between two seas.

Called the “Pink City” for its red stone and brick buildings, Toulouse, France’s fourth-largest city, often goes overlooked, perhaps given its distance from Paris. For cyclists, Toulouse is an eminently bikeable town: dedicated lanes for velos run everywhere, with myriad signs and arrows to help. Paulette’s Toulouse office accepted my bike earlier than scheduled, with no fee or questions asked.

Now bike-free, I took in Toulouse for its sunny — and indeed, pink — splendor: The rue Saint-Rome with its brick facades and pastel shutters. The Place du Capitole’s restaurants and grand cafes. The Capitole building itself, which houses the mayor’s office as well as the Toulouse opera.

Walking the city that evening, I saw in a state of happy fatigue the brilliant Capitole and other buildings. Toulouse, and the points of interest since my start in Sete, made cycling the Canal du Midi worth every pedaled mile.

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