Tours to Montpellier via Eurovelo6 and Canal du Midi
posted by Michael, March 26th, 2017
In early June, 2016, I set out from the French city of Tours on the Loire River to cycle a semi-circuit which would include Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse and finally Montpellier. With the exception of Bordeaux, where I would be joined by my brother, I would linger in none of those cities; having a preference for France’s solitary trails; through vineyards and villages and along canal towpaths (commonly termed “greenways”).
The timing of my departure was not auspicious; coinciding as it did with sweeping industrial action across France, the fear of terrorist attacks during the coming European Cup Football encounters and the unleashing of one of those thunderous, extended deluges that France experiences once or twice a century. These were heaviest in Paris and the Loiret where they submerged most of the early greenways I planned to ride. In penning this account of what transpired along the way, I have not attempted to duplicate the excellent guides books already in print (for the Loire, Atlantic and canal sections, although not all are available in English). Rather I have set out a complementary narrative: outlining the route I took and things that I sincerely wish I had known at the outset (but didn’t); paying attention to the navigational pitfalls I encountered and how they might be avoided. I will also provide some guidance to lodgings we appreciated and attractions worth a dismount. All distances are those actually ridden and include the side-tracking and back-tracking. Long before arriving in Tours I had blocked out the journey ahead into rides of around 55 km a day. In the event, little of what I had envisaged would transpire, although much that I could not have imagined most certainly did. But, of those matters, I knew nothing as I pedalled out of Tours that first morning under lowering skies.
Guidance: I started my journey in Tours for two reasons: (1) It is located on the Loire which (in my experience) boasts the best cycling greenways to be found anywhere; although, in the course of my journey, I would learn that those between Bordeaux and Toulouse are at least their equal. And (2) because, having arrived in France, Tours is relatively easy to access (this is important to me because, being a New Zealander, I come further than most). I fly to Charles de Gaulle Airport, then take the TGV directly south, avoiding Paris, and reaching the city in around two hours. I even have a favourite hotel there, about five minutes walk from the railway station. [Hôtel du Manoir: 2 Rue Traversière, 37000 Tours. Phone: +33 2 47 05 37 37]
1. Tours to Chinon (54 km):
Two years previous I had ridden the EuroVelo 6 route from Tours east out to Vienna, starting at the Pont Wilson bridge which crosses the Loire. I now had the notion that I would set off from the same spot, but follow the river downstream this time (this section also being known locally as the Loire à Vélo). In fact, the recommended route involves peddling the EuroVelo south from the city centre, before crossing the River Cher then swinging east and paralleling the river along rural trails out to the famed gardens of the Château de Villandry. In the event I was able to slosh no further than the river-side village of Savonnières before being forced to abandon the sodden off-road paths in favour of roads shared with motorised traffic.
The town of Rigny-Ussé had been my modest target for the first day, but near Rivarennes, with the rain still bucketing down, I decided that, since I was fated to ride on-road anyway, I would make a virtue of misfortune. Thus I headed south-west to the historic town of Chinon; this for no better reason than that its name had always appealed. The detour involved climbing onto a elevated plateau and peddling through the Forêt Dom, before dropping down to the now swiftly flowing River Vienne. Chinon, with its historic fortress and fine wines, would not disappoint. [Distance from Tours: 54 km]
Guidance: Chinon, for all its virtues, is not the easiest place to find an agreeable, bike-friendly hostelry. It was therefore with some difficulty that I located the river-side Hotel Agnès Sorel. I suggest you do likewise, if you are able as there are just 10 rooms. And do not be alarmed if the proprietor elects to put you in the annex (often a bad sign). My room there was superb. [Hotel Agnès Sorel (2 stars), 4 Quai Pasteur, 37500 Chinon, France. Phone: +33 2 47 93 04 37]
2. Chinon to Saumar via Fontevraud (38 km):
Leaving Chinon it was not necessary to back track to Rigny-Ussé. Rather I crossed the bridge in the centre of town and headed west, hugging the river until reaching the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire rivers at Candes-St-Martin (considered one of the better preserved villages in France). At this point I elected to detour north to Fontevraud-‘l-Abbaye; in its day the largest abbey in western Christendom. From there you can normally ride back to the river and follow the greenway to Saumar; an option that was not open to me as it was pretty well submerged at the time. Instead I took a network of narrow roads winding north-west through open wine country, whose beauty was still evident despite the drabness of the day, before passing through a narrow defile whose natural caves had been commandeered by wine producers to store and display their wares.
In this manner I reached the sentinel-like Saumar Chateau, from which I dropped down France’s equestrian capital for the night. [Distance from Tours: 92 km]
Guidance: If you like your abbeys spiritual, you may not find Fontevraud-‘l-Abbaye to be the answer to a maiden’s prayers, despite it having once being home to three thousand nuns. But, then again, you may consider that its spectacular architecture more than compensates. Lost to the Church at the time of the French Revolution, the Abbey was converted to a prison from 1804 to 1963 and considered as harsh as any in France. Since 1975 Fontevraud has been a cultural centre. The Prison Exhibition, dedicated to its years as a gaol, is not to be missed.
3. Saumur to Savennières via Angers (58 km):
Having a choice of alternative trails can be confusing and never more so than between Saumar and Angers. The traditional route hugs the south side of the Loire, as far St-Rémy-la-Varenne, then crosses to the north. But since my hotel was on in an island in the centre of the river, I decided upon a more recently constructed trail along the north bank. All of which may have been well and good had not its entire length (around 25 km) been left submerged by the recent rains. Again I was forced on to the public roads. At La Daguenière I had the option of striking northwest directly to Angers, via Trélazé’s one-time open slate mines. But missing the turn, I followed the Loire until shortly before the confluence with the Maine River at Bouchemaine, before riding up through the suburbs of Angers to the city centre. Truth be told, I didn’t like Angers and, having wasted an hour looking for a hotel and being drenched several times, I headed out of town the way I had come, finding my way to Bouchemaine, before pitching up for the night in a gîte a few kilometres further on in the debonair village of Savennières; famed for the subtlety-flavoured white wines that bear its name.
[Distance from Tours: 150 km]
Guidance: One thing I have discovered when riding in countries other than one’s own is that the most import preparation for any day’s ride is to be able to correctly pronounce your intended destination. Getting it wrong can be disastrous. In this respect the ugly looking name “Angers”, capital of the beautifully named province of “Anjou” provides a special challenge, since (to my Antipodean ear at least) the two are pronounced precisely the same (an-j-ew).
4. Savennières to Champtoceaux (55 km):
From Savennières the common advice is to cling to the Loire, but yet again this proved impossible because of the floods and thus I reached Chalonnes-sur-Loire by a circuitous inland route that carried less traffic than the river-side road. Having crossed to the island in the centre of the river and then across another bridge to the “mainland”, I pushed on to Mont Jean-sur-Loire and Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. There I was forced to shelter from another downpour; this time beneath a stone arch in the grounds of the abbey on the hill.
I eventually reached Champtoceaux late in the afternoon, only to discover that the only hotel in town was fully booked. Thankfully the kindly proprietor and his daughter went to great lengths to find me an available gîte which turned out be in the village of Drain, through which I had ridden earlier. This meant backtracking ten kilometres. The following morning, having waited for dense fog to clear, I retraced my route to Champtoceaux, located the tourism office and was assured that the off-road trail ahead was unaffected by the recent storms. When I expressed my disbelief, given my previous experiences, I was promised hand-on-heart that the greenway to Nantes and beyond was in perfect condition; as indeed it proved to be. [Distance from Tours: 205 km]
Guidance: I generally prefer 2 and 3 star hotels when riding, but on this journey I was often forced to seek out alternative accommodation in the form of gîtes and chambre d’hotes. Precisely what the difference between the two might be I do not know. Both correspond to what I might describe as a superior Bed and Breakfast (B&B) in my country and both proved more than adequate for my needs. Indeed, I often found them preferable to the hotels, although, oddly, most French tourism offices seem disinclined to direct you to them.
5. Champtoceaux to Le Pellerin (60 km):
The early section to Mauves-sur-Loire and onwards along sheltered towpaths to Nantes were a joy. However, I had no desire to stay in such a large city (the most populous on the entire Loire) and rode on by. But leaving town, where I had to pass through the surprisingly large port area, proved far more difficult than arriving. The trick, I discovered, is to stay as close as possible to the northern bank of the river, without getting swallowed in the port complex itself. Then, with the city behind me, the riding became a joy again. At Coueron, a city official whom I encountered, informed me that there was no hotel or gîte of any kind in the town. A cyclist himself, he rode me down to the wharf and pointed across the water to a pink, three-storied building on the far shore with a large sign reading “Hotel”.
He also indicated a large car ferry that plies across the Loire every ten minutes or so. It swiftly transported me and my bike to the pretty marshlands town of Le Pellerin at no cost. [Distance from Tours: 265 km]
Guidance: L'Esplanade, the hotel I stayed at in Le Pellerin, dates back to the 19th century. It days of grandeur are now far behind it, however, and the accommodation is fairly basic. That said, it remains popular with cyclists, and there is a decent pizza restaurant a few hundred metres down-river. [L'Esplanad Hotel: 11 Quai du Dr André Provost, 44640 Le Pellerin, Phone: +33 2 40 04 68 14]
6. Le Pellerin to Pornic (70 km)
In leaving Pellerrin I also more-or-less left the Loire, travelling the greater part of the 26 km ride to Paimboeuf on the Atlantic coast, along a canal the runs through a vast marshland, although broadly parallel to the river.
In theory I should have encountered the ocean at that point, but I lost the signs and was forced onto the roads once again and found myself skirting not just Paimboeuf, but also St-Brevin-les-Pins, 18 km south, which is generally considered to be the last stage on the Loire à Vélo cycle route. My disorientation was a direct result of the fact that I had now ridden beyond the territory covered by the excellent guide book I had purchased in Tours and (having failed to pause at Nantes to buy a replacement) was now more-or-less riding blind. I missed the towns of Pays de Retz and St-Michel-Chef-Chef for the same reason. As a result, I first encountered the Atlantic at the seaside resort of Pornic; whose most prominent attraction is Blue Beard’s Castle which you can neither miss nor enter; it being most prominent, but privately owned. [Distance from Tours: 335 km]
Guidance: Having left EuroVelo 6 route, I had now joined the EuroVelo 1 which runs 1,200 kilometres from Roscoff, Brittany down the Atlantic coast to Hendaye and the border with Spain and is known as “France’s longest way-marked cycle trail”. The section I would ride is more commonly referred to as the La Vélodyssée. This business of having several names for the same cycleway can be confusing; especially when those responsible for the signage disagree on the precise route to be taken!
7. Pornic to St-Jean-de-Monts (72 km)
From here the route south would at last be almost entirely on off-road greenways. Leaving Pornic, I headed out along the south side of the boat harbour and then stayed with the signs that led me through a residential area, but broadly parallel to the shoreline.
For the first 16 km, to Les Moutiers-en-Retz, the route was relatively simple, but after that it becomes more difficult as I rounded the Bay of Bourgneuf-en-Retz with its vast tidal flats. These are excellent for the cultivation of oysters (the local delicacy) but highly confusing for cycle navigation. I make for the Port-du-Bec in Epoids, hoping to cross the famed Gois causeway to the island of Noirmoutier. To have succeeded in doing so I would have needed (a) the right tide, and (b) a better map than the one I had. Believing I was lost, I turned back at a point that I now know to be just a few km before the crossing point (and, yes, the tide had been right!). Noirmoutier can also be reached by a road route, but a sign I encountered informed me, as best as I could translate, that more cyclists were killed here recently than on any similar stretch in all France. There are back roads to St-Jean-de-Monts. I suggest you take one of them (as I did). Having done so you will learn that there are in fact two St-Jean-de-Monts: the modern resort on the sea, complete with a giant carousel (where you will find an excellent Tourism Office) and the old town a couple of kilometres inland. I favoured the latter. [Distance from Tours: 407 km]
Guidance: The only regret I have about this stage is that I never did taste the oysters! But then again, they are not really what you want on your stomach when you are riding hard.
8. St-Jean-de-Monts to Les Sables d'Olonne (55 km)
As a day’s riding goes, this one was more pleasant than most. Staying with the sea was far simpler now that the tidal flats were seemingly behind me. Indeed, the only difficulty I encountered was a biting wind whipping in off the Atlantic, as I rode the well-formed paths that track the shoreline, forcing me to don two jackets. Looking rather like a cyclist in a fat-suit, I ticked off St-Hilaire-de-Riez, St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, Brétignolles-sur-Mer and Brem-sur-Mer, before winding along lovely trails through the Olonne forest and salt marshes and reaching Les Sables-d’Olonne; the first of a series of captivating historic towns with nautical histories that I would encounter in the days ahead. This one is built along a broad beach, terminating with a canal mouth that provides access to a fine mooring area tucked behind the town.
Defying the wind and rain, I ate under an awning on the handsome Promenade Georges Clemenceau, watching the waves surging in and wet-suited swimmers out among them, seemingly oblivious to both the wild weather and the fast gathering dusk. [Distance from Tours: 462 km]
Guidance: If you like small family run hotels (as I do) they don’t come much finer than the Hotel Antoine in the narrow streets on the rise between the seafront and quayside moorings in Sables-d'Olonne. Madame Robin, who has excellent English, was one of the most helpful hostesses encountered on the journey; while the rooms, though not luxurious, have a most wonderful “at-home” feel to them. [Hotel Antoine: 60 Rue Napoléon, 85100 Les Sables-d'Olonne. Phone: +33 2 51 95 08 36]
9. Les Sables d'Olonne to La Tranch-sur-Mer (52 km)
Departing Les Sables-d’Olonne was a straight forward matter of riding along the Parade and heading south beside the water, soon leaving the sea-side high-rises in my wake. Again the riding was a delight, the first 26 km being beside the sea, before edging inland where the trail winds through forest of Longeville, then cutting out to several fine swimming beaches along the way. Or so I am told. To me this section of the greenway had the look of one of those that take the more difficult route for no better reason than it can; which is great if you are going for a Sunday morning peddle, but annoying if you have a specific destination and are weighed down by heavy panniers. This was the sole occasion on the journey when I elected the road rather than the greenway by choice.
The only difficulty I thereafter experienced in reaching La Tranch-sur-Mer, was figuring out when I had actually arrived. The centre is to be found in the resort area, somewhat to the south of the part of town which I first encountered. The Tourism Office is to be found across the road from the Church on the Avenue de la Plage, around 300 metres from the water. [Distance from Tours: 514 km]
10. La Tranch-sur-Mer to La Rochelle (72 km)
Leaving La Tranch-sur-Mer was also a relatively simple exercise, but then (as I skirted the La Belle-Henriette Lagoon which is separated from the sea by a thin stretch of sand) I realised that it was going to be necessary to navigate with some care. Beyond La Faute-sur-Mer my view of the sea was blocked by a rugged-stone sea-wall on my right, while on the left endless acres of dried marchland that stretched away inland. After several kilometres, I turned left (thankfully the signage could not be missed) and I rode to the village of St-Michel-en-l'Herm through flat fertile cropping land. But now, as I pushed eastwards, the lonely trail on which I was peddling (on some guides it is labelled as requiring “Expert” level skills), got both narrower and rougher. And the journey was made more difficult as the day grew unseasonably hot and the headwind unusually strong.
By the the time I reached Marans, I was also low on water and life became more complicated still when I discovered that nearly all the shops were now shut and the single bar that was open declined to sell me any! I was unable to obtain water until the next decent town; by which time I was suffering from dehydration. From there the ride to my destination along the Canal de Marans à la Rochelle proved pleasant enough; although I was in no great shape when I reach La Rochelle. [Distance from Tours: 586 km]
Guidance: At this point in my journey I figured I was behind schedule and pressed on the next day. But if you were to break your ride for a day along the way, you could do worse than doing so at La Rochelle. With a fine natural port guarded by two formidable towers at the harbour entrance, the city is a mecca for water sports, especially yachting, as a result of which it has a bewildering number of seaside restaurants, with seafood taking pride of place on the plate.
11. La Rochelle to Rochefort (39 km)
Having finished the previous day exhausted, I chose a more modest target for this day. I also anticipated that the 14 km to Châtelaillon, which includes passing the Port of Minimes with its fine marina, would be straight forward riding, especially as I now had a better than serviceable map. It turned out to be anything but, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that a rangy, super-fit cyclist in his seventies, took pity on me – and led me ten kilometres around the bay of Châtelaillon until the way ahead became clear – I would quite possibly be riding in circles around the utterly confusing Minimes area to this day. My best advice would be to do as I did and ask a good Samaritan to assist. Again I encountered both head winds and high humidity, although the temperature had thankfully dropped. Further around the sweep of the Bay I cut inland to the so-called ‘royal city’ of Rochefort.
As it turned out, this proved to be another place that would be well worth a stop-over. Constructed as a naval town in the 18th century, the locals have done a remarkable job of retaining its military and seafaring traditions. [Distance from Tours: 645 km]
Guidance: The Tourism Office at Rochefort recommended that I stay at the Hotel Roca Fortis. In doing so they did me a favour, even if their instructions as to how I might find it were somewhat wide of the mark. Built around a cool inner courtyard, it has a wonderful old-world charm; while my room was nothing if not generous for a lone traveller. [Hotel Roca Fortis: 14 Rue de la République, 17300 Rochefort, Phone 0033 5 46 99 323]
12. Rochefort to Marennes (38 km)
Looking back, the ride from Rochefort to Marennes melds in my mind with that around the Bay of Bourgneuf-en-Retz and the La Seudre estuary with its vast tidal flats, for this too is oyster country. According to my notes, the trail follows a former rail line, but in truth I do not recall it.
Nor do I recall exactly why I stopped in Marenness at all – or at least in the industrial area in which I did. It wasn’t for the oysters, because I again failed to eat any, even though the town styles itself the “oyster capital of Europe”. [Distance from Tours: 683 km]
Guidance: Next day I would realise that, had I pushed on just a few more kilometres I would have crossed a high bridge above the La Seudre River and reached the attractive seaside settlement La Tremblade, which would have been a more agreeable place to spend the night.
13. Marennes to Royan (71 km)
The following morning, I crossed the La Seudre bridge, which is high and exposed, passed through La Tremblade, and then down tree lined paths, beside placid waterways, through the forest of Coubre before reaching the town of La Palmyre and reconnecting with the sea. Here you need to ride with some care because, while the sign posting is generally good, there is at least one arrow that will take you inland into dense woodlands when you should in fact be staying with the coastline (a mistake that I did not realise for around five km after which I had to back track to my point of departure).
After passing a tall red and white lighthouse, I continued beside the white sands that stretch to the water, and passed an instructive sign informing bathers that the “Plage Textiles” is to the left, while those favouring the “Plage Naturistes” should take their dip at least 50 metres to the right. I did neither. Not far beyond I reached the outskirts of Royan where the bike paths are as good as I have seen in any city anywhere. The final stretch to the centre of town took me around a series of superb beaches, among them the delightful St-Palais-sur-Mer and Pontaillac, before arriving at the boat harbour.
There I was informed by the Tourism Office that there was not a single bed available in the town, even though it was still early afternoon. They were helpful though, finding me a pleasant hotel in a village 12 km ride inland which I gratefully accepted. (Note that distance for the day above includes the additional distance.) [Distance from Tours: 754 km]
Guidance: If you prefer not to pre-book accommodation (as I do) beware that you may have trouble finding something to your taste when arriving on a Saturday in France. Unfortunately, it was Saturday when I arrived in Royan. That said, I should add that I have never (on this trip or others in Europe) failed to find a room in which to sleep, although it has been a close run thing on some occasions.
14. Royan to Montalivet-les-Bains (40 km)
Cyclists heading for Bordeaux have a choice to make at Royan: either ride directly south, crossing the Gironde Estuary 100 km south (officially the first stage of the Canal des 2 Mers à Vélo cycle route); or alternatively staying, for the moment, with the LaVelodyssee which continues down the Atlantic coastline. The local consensus is that (at this stage of development) the latter trail is preferable. It involved crossing the mouth of the Gironde on a vehicle ferry that departs the boat harbour at regular intervals; passing the oldest lighthouse in France, as it does so.
From the landing point at Verdon-sur-Mer the ride to up-market Soulac-sur-Mer was about ten kilometres, while it was another twenty kilometres along well-formed trails passing though forest land to the slightly down-at-heal seaside town of Montalivet-les-Bains where I chose to spend the night, in part because I was now definitely ahead of schedule for reaching the rendezvous with my brother in Bordeaux. (Again, the distance for the day stated above includes the ride back to Royan before taking the ferry.) [Distance from Tours: 794 km].
Guidance: Another reason I chose Montalivet-les-Bains is that I like towns, especially sea-side ones, that look as if they have seen better days. They have surprises to offer. Montalivet-les-Bains, for instance, has a long-abandoned and well-vandalised bank branch, with a thoroughly serviceable cash machine that still does a brisk trade. It also has, down an alley-way off the main street (the Avenue de l’Ocean), a tapas bar serving unquestionably the best food I tasted between Tours and Bordeaux.
15. Montalivet-les-Bains to Bordeaux (123 km)
It was never my intention to do this hop in a day, but all did not go to plan – as is often the way when cycling. The early riding through a pine forest, a perfectly formed trail that runs more-or-less parallel to the sea, but some distance inland, was simplicity itself. Beyond Naujac-sur-Mer I passed up the opportunity to turn right towards the sea and Hourtin-Plage some five km distant, pushing northwards through the Flamand Forest, on what appeared to be a former military road, aware that Lac d’Hourtin – said to be the largest lake in France – was somewhere out on my left. Seeing a sign for a trail that promised to take me to Maubuisson at the southern end of the lake, I took it. Both the town and the lake itself were delightful, with broad sandy beaches on which slim boats had been drawn up in preparation for the day’s sailing.
I could no doubt have stayed there for the night, but instead, having circled the lower end of the lake, I found an off-road trail that appeared on no map, that took me south to my intended destination for the day – the town of Lacanau on another lake some twenty kilometres south. Having reached it, I was informed that there was no accommodation to be had. I doubted the accuracy of this information, but spying a sign indicating the trail that follows the course of the former railway line to Bordeaux I decided to take it, trusting that I would find a bed at St-Hélène which lay up ahead. But reaching it and still feeling surprisingly fresh, I elected to keep peddling along the 70 km forest path from Lacanau to Bordeaux, which is dedicated solely to cycling and running, is simplicity itself to ride. Providing you just stay on it to the end, you cannot go wrong. Well not until you get close to the seething heart of Bordeaux, and then you had best do what I did and ask a kind-hearted passer-by for directions to the Centre de Ville. The wife of the the man who provided them expressed the view (not unkindly) that a cyclist would be unlikely to be able to afford lodgings there and when I reached it I was inclined to agree.
Never-the-less I had arrived in the dead centre of Bordeaux and several days ahead of schedule. Large cities are not generally to my liking, but Bordeaux (of which I previously knew nothing) was to prove the exception. My sojourn there was to be both diverting and revitalising. [Distance from Tours: 917 km]
Guidance: On arrival a waiter in a road-side café directed me to the three-star Hôtel des 4 Soeurs which, while at the upper limit of my budget, recommended itself because: (1) It is located in the very heart of that lovely city; (2) because it has the safest bike storage I have ever seen; and (3) I discovered (when seeking a booking for my brother) that it has a two-star sister hotel around the corner, Hotel de l’Opera, whose rooms cost around 25 percent less. Having checked it out, I took one for myself also. [Hôtel des 4 Soeurs: 6 Cours du 30 Juillet, 33000 Bordeaux, France. Phone: +33 5 57 81 19 20. Hotel de l’Opera: 35 Rue Esprit des Lois, Phone: +33 5 56 81 41 27]
16. Bordeaux to La Réole (72 km)
The only slightly tricky part of this ride was getting out of Bordeaux. Assuming you are on the Centre de Ville side of the Garonne River, you must first cross to the opposite side. I took the Pont de Pierre, then swung right, but then became confused by the plethora of roads sprouting off the next bridge (the Pond de St Jean). Eventually I realised that the trick is simply to stay close to the river in the opening stages and then follow signs to the town of Créon, 24 km distant.
There I joined the Roger Lapébie cycle track. Roger won the Tour de France in 1937 and the section is a fitting tribute to the great rider’s cycling prowess. Indeed, with its immaculate surface, fine sign posting, manicured vineyards, densely forested sections and former railways stations converted to cafes and the like (the greenway runs along a former railway track, as the best often do) the 32 km Roger Lapébie greenway to Sauveterre-de-Guyenne may be the most pleasant piece of peddling on the planet. At Sauveterre-de-Guyenne I am pretty sure that I should have crossed the road that one climbs to the centre of town and taken a narrow lane opposite. But I did not and, possibly as a result, I never did find the off-road trail between there and La Réole. Rather, I rode there by the all-too-busy and rather hilly public road, arriving above town and dropping down to the public square. [Distance from Tours: 971 km]
Guidance: La Réole is one of the oldest villages in France and also one of the most intriguing along the whole route. If you elect to over-night there, I suggest you lodge at the enchanting La Parenthèse, a cycle friendly chambre d hôte run by a Mme Anne Roche, who proved to be one of the most warm-hearted and engaging hostesses my brother and I would encounter along the entire way. [La Parenthèse: 22 Rue Lagrave, 33190 La Réole, Phone: +33 6 07 25 67 29]
17. La Réole to Damazan (52 km)
We exited La Réole by the big bridge that crosses the Garonne river, then turned left and hugged the river embankment for several kilometres, before joining the greenway beside the Canal de Garonne (which forms the western section of the Canal des 2 Mers; the eastern, from Toulouse onwards being known as the Canal du Midi). From this point onwards, the canal locks (the French word is “ecluse”) would be a recurring presence in our ride.
While very different in nature, the trail here proved every bit as atmospheric as the Roger Lapébie, while its natural beauty is the equal of the finest sections of the Loire. If you have heard that the trees, that once lined the canals in the south of France, have all been removed to stop the spread of a tree disease, rest assured that this is not the case here. All is shaded by overhanging greenery. But beware. You are embarking on a stretch of waterway whose sheer tranquillity can induce a reverie that may result in a headlong pitch into the canal’s cool waters.
Guide books recommend a stop at Marmande, which is reportedly an enchanting village, but we pushed on beside canal to the village of Damazan which didn’t strike us as being quite so captivating. And all the more so perhaps because we arrived there on that dullest of days – a French Sunday. [Distance from Tours: 1023 km]
Guidance: But all was not lost. Far from it. On the outskirts of town (near the lake) we discovered a once grand chateau ruled over by the ageless Mme Francoise Savy-Taquet, a lady with enough charm to make up for a dozen dull villages. The bedroom we were allocated featured two large double beds and a bathroom larger than many rooms we would stay in along the way. Our night there set us back 30 euro each; glorious breakfasts served by Madame herself included. [Domaine de Balous, lieu-dit Balous, 47160 Damazan. Phone: +33 5 53 79 42 96]
18. Damazan to Lafox (40 km)
Leaving Damazan we rode back down to the Canal de Garonne, turned right and again proceeded along the tow-paths of yesteryear, through the same bucolic scenery as the previous day; the rhythm of our ride being broken only at the busy little port of Buzet-sur-Baïse and later – shortly before our arrival in Agen – by our crossing of the second longest canal bridge in all of France; it being no less than 600 metres in length. This structure was considered to the engineering marvel of the age when it was completed in 1847 and still looks damned impressive to this day. Agen, with a population of around 35,000 is no metropolis, but since my brother had already adopted my general aversion to towns of even this size, we decided to push on until we found a hamlet more to our liking. We found it at Lafox, some five or six kilometres further down the canal. [Distance from Tours: 1063 km]
Guidance: Two memories stay with me from Lafox – both culinary. One is the meal we ate at a canal-side restaurant, appropriately known (in translation) as “The Cycling Chicken”.
The other is that the Agen region styles itself “The Prune Capital of France”; a title that initially caused us considerable mirth since, in my country, prunes are a sad looking fruit that are known for their laxative qualities. That was until we tasted the melt-in-the-mouth Agen version at breakfast. I can now report that the Agen prunes are justly famous.
19. Lafox to Moissac via Auvillar (52 km)
The riding one encounters peddling along the greenway beside the Canal de Garonne is so uniformly perfect that, by the third day, we began to hanker for a little variety. So, having ridden around twenty kilometres further down the canal to Valence d’Agen, we peeled off and headed south, before climbing a sharpish hill to reach the medieval village of Auvillar, with its magnificent cathedral and sweeping views down over the Tarn-et-Garonne. A remarkable collection of large black sculptures – unified by the fact that each figure has a disproportionately large bottom – bore witness to the town’s modern reputation as a venue for international artists.
Returning to the canal to complete our journey to Moissac, we could not help but observe that we were now sharing the greenway with a number of solitary walkers (mostly male but not exclusively so) with canvas back-packs, sturdy foot-ware and carrying biblical-looking staves. The self-sufficient walkers were of course pilgrims heading for Auvillar, an obligatory way-point on their long camino trek to Santiago de Compostela (nearly a thousand kilometres away in Northern Spain). [Distance from Tours: 1115 km]
Guidance: We had met our first pilgrim back at La Parenthèsein La Réole – a retired German aviator – while another saintly figure would provide us with much needed guidance (navigational, not spiritual) on the final section of our journey. Not that we were previously unfamiliar with these gentle travellers. We have a third brother who actually joined their ranks several years previous, after having been graced by that most life-transforming of modern miracles – the total knee replacement.
20. Moissac to Montech (23 km]
If the above distance appears modest, there was a reason. We were off to Montech because, on the following day, the Tour de France was scheduled to finish at Montauban, some seventeen kilometres to the town’s north, where all accommodation for the next two nights had long since been booked out. Our plan was to stay at a gîte in Montech; and then ride up to watch the stage finish of the great race. Leaving Moissac was a simple matter of riding east along the Canal des Deux Mers, which then swings south and crosses another remarkable canal bridge, the Pont-Canal Du Caror. From here it is a straight run south along the waterway to the town of Castelsarrasin and onwards.
A cyclist knows when he or she is approaching Montech when the canal (a) suddenly runs dry! and (b) runs uphill! You have reached the Pente d'eau (or water slope); an ugly, if ingenious, piece of engineering of which the town is inordinately proud. [Distance from Tours: 1138 km]
Guidance: Having mentioned the Pente d'eau I feel obliged to explain how the monster works. The vessel enters the lock, the gate closes behind and then two massive railway locomotives shove the water to the next lock at the top of the slope, and the vessel with it. The device was completed in 1974, replacing a complex of five former locks. I have no doubt that it was far more picturesque formerly – but such is progress.
21. Montech to Montauban and return (34 km)
As plans go, the detour to Montauban was a mighty success and perching on a sharp curve 300 metres from the finish line, watching the riders screaming towards us at high speed, packed together sardine-style, was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our entire ride. It should be noted however, that maps such as the one we had, which show a cycle friendly greenway running parallel with the road that runs between the Montech to Montauban, are pure fiction. Having crossed the canal, we discovered that the rest of the journey is a road ride, pure and simple, and a pretty dangerous one at that. Don’t get me wrong, Montauban is a lovely place and well worth a visit (even when Le Tour is not in town). But, if I were going there again from Montech, I would take the bus.
Guidance: The region in the vicinity of the Canal des 2 Mers is a great place for watching Le Tour de France; as it annually ducks south to the grand climbs of the Pyrenees and then returns. We saw it twice and with a minor adjustment to our schedule could have made it three times. At Montauban we positioned ourselves on a sharp bend and the experience of the riders flashing passed, albeit brief, was mind-blowing. By contrast, our latter encounter in open country, was certainly an entertaining outing, but lacked the drama of the first. If I were to follow the Tour de France I would eschew the fleet of motorhomes and follow by bike, even if this meant some judicious train travel. And why not? Competitors in the early races allegedly did the same!
22. Montech to Villenouvelle via Toulouse (77 km)
Having re-joined the Canal de Garonne and continuing south-east, the early stages were every bit as as splendid a ride as we had come to expect of this idyllic waterway.
But then, as we approached the outskirts of Toulouse, the terrain became steadily more industrialised until we found ourselves sharing the tow-path with shunting trains. Indeed, so inhospitable did the route become that we wondered if we should leave the waterway; especially when we found a barrier barring the way ahead. Summoning our courage, we pushed under the heavy arm and on through the industrial wasteland until we reached the fabled point at which three great canals (the de Garonne, the de Brienne and the du Midi) meet. Here we turned left onto the cycle track beside the Canal du Midi which took us into the city centre of Toulouse. There we paused only at the railway station (a stone’s-throw from the waterway) to purchase a better guide-book. Then, pushing on eastwards, we passed a seemingly endless fleet of laid-up canal boats and barges. Only gradually, beyond Montgiscard, did the du Midi assume a similar aspect to that experienced along the Garonne; although it never did quite capture the same sense of serenity.
In compensation, the du Midi is more interesting, in as much as one can never be sure quite what is (or is not) going to lie around the next corner. Which is more-or-less how we pitched up for the night in the little hamlet of Villenouvelle. [Distance from Tours: 1249 km]
Guidance: Our first discovery upon leaving Toulouse behind was that places to stay were suddenly few and far between. With darkness gathering we were forced to abandon the canal at de Negra and detour north to the hamlet of Villenouvelle. I would not recommend the place we lodged, but the nearby Maison Joséphine (where we were treated with great curtesy, even though they were fully booked) looked cycle-friendly. [Chambres d'hôtes Maison Joséphine: 1 Rue des Écoles, 31290 Villenouvelle. Phone +33 5 34 66 20 13]
23. Villenouvelle to Castelnaudary (39 km)
First thing next morning, we headed back to the canal at de Negra, turned left and pedalled canal-side to Castelnaudry. The distance was not great and the greenways were once again excellent in the early stages, although after Seuil de Naurouze the surface deteriorated sharply. We had reached the section of the ride beyond which the greenways are noticeably inferior to what has been experienced earlier; something we had long been warned would happen. But, as if in compensation, something interesting happens at Seuil de Naurouze. From this point, instead of the canal boats being lifted higher and higher at succeeding locks, they were now lowered. From here it is downhill all the way to the Mediterranean! A gentle slope to be sure, but never-the-less immediately noticeable.
Castelnaudary, when we reach it, could not be missed as there we were confronted by the largest port on the Canal du Midi. With its wide basin surrounded by a plethora of cafes, and an abundance of live music floating across the water in the evening, the town was as lively as any encountered on the ride. [Distance from Tours: 1288 km]
Guidance: I note above the deterioration in the surface of the greenway, and will do so again in the sections that follow. I am not complaining. In New Zealand the very worst I encountered anywhere between Tours and Montpellier would be considered all in the day’s pedal. I mention the variations for no other reason than to inform you of what to expect. Any grumbles would be churlish. Taken as a whole, the journey was champagne riding, par excellence.
24. Castelnaudary to Carcassonne (42 km)
Once we had left the basin area and its St-Roch lock – famed for it its complex inter-locking engineering – the ride was almost identical to the previous day’s; with Bram being the only significant population centre along the way. We saw it out to our right upon reaching the colourful canal-side "L'Ile aux Oiseaux" restaurant with its celebrated seafood dishes. Getting lost on this section would have been impossible; at least until reaching the outskirts of Carcassonne, where we were forced to abandon the waterway and approach the centre of the city; dicing with the traffic in the final stages. Ours was not a sight-seeing expedition, but it would have been a crime to leave Carcassonne without visiting La Cité in the hills above; a UNESCO World Heritage Site and possibly the world’s finest surviving example of a medieval citadel.
Whether or not Carcassonne is a naturally lively town by night, I know not, but it certainly was during our stay which coincided with the final of the European Cup football, in which France was a finalist. A huge victory party was planned which we imagine would be cancelled when France was downed by Portugal in extra time. But not a bit of it. No sooner had the final whistle blown, than the deafening celebrations erupted, jamming the streets of the town below our balcony. [Distance from Tours: 1330 km]
Guidance: At the Tourism Office kiosk across the canal from the railway station, we were offered a number of hotel recommendations, none of which were especially close. When we pointed across the road to the imposing Terminus Hotel, we were assured that we would not like it there and that our bikes would be unsafe. This advice seemed so odd that we took a look for ourselves. True, the Terminus is a grand old lady that has seen better days, but we loved our stay there; and, as for our bikes, they were securely stored in a glorious – albeit long-abandoned – ballroom! [Hôtel Terminus: 2 Avenue du Maréchal Joffre, 11000 Carcassonne. Phone: +33 4 68 25 25 00]
25. Carcassonne to Le Somail - Olonzac (67 km)
While we left Carcassonne on a well-formed greenway, the riding surface soon deteriorated again; so much so that, upon reaching La Redorte, beyond Marseillette, we crossed the bridge to the northern side of the canal; attracted by the animated little collection of shops and cafes, clustered on that side of the the water.
Our plan was to continue along the greenway on that side of the canal, but no sooner had we set off than we encountered a fit-looking troupe of college students who told us that the way ahead was impassable. We were forced to backtrack and resume our original route. In this manner we reached the Minervois vine growing region and the hamlet of Le Somail which – with its wine tasting cellars, boutique hotels, water-side cafes and celebrated antiquarian bookshop (Le Trouve Tout du Livre) – has the reputation of being the cutest little settlement along the entire Canal du Midi. We would have happily stayed the night in this agreeable town if we had not (against our normal practise) already made a booking in the wine processing town Olonzac, a little to the north. [Distance from Tours: 1384 km]
Guidance: At Olonzac we stayed at the Maison Eloi Merle.
Arriving in the mid-afternoon we found the elegant old country home utterly deserted; and looking pretty much the way it must have looked around the time of the first war; with the exception of the “internet room” whose decor pays homage to Paris in the jazz age. Initially we felt like voyeurs exploring its dimly lit staircases and passageways, but eventually other humans materialised until, by the next morning, we found ourselves among a jolly coterie of guests with cyclists to the fore. [Maison Eloi Merle: 1 Avenue d Homps, 34210 Olonzac. Telephone: +33 4 68 27 62 02]
26. Olonzac to Capestang [55 km]
I said at the outset that I would quote the actual distance we rode of a day. But note that a rider could return to the canal, cross to the southern bank, and reach Capestang, in around half the above distance. The reason we covered the distance we did was that, having retuned to Le Somail, re-joined the greenway and reached the vicinity of Argeliers, we abandoned the designated route and climbed north-west to watch the Tour de France riders pass an isolated cross-road.
Afterwards, we returned to join the Canal-du-Midi at the point we had left it some hours earlier, along one of the less smooth and not-so-scenic sections of the ride. One of the most satisfying aspects of canal riding in France is that, unlike road-riding where the small vehicle (your bike) is always overtaken by the big vehicle (a car or truck), here the big vehicle (a canal boat) is invariably outpaced by the small. And never more decisively so than when we rode into Capestang where a slightly-too-large canal boat had become wedged beneath the 17th century Saisse Bridge. We would later learn that this happens regularly, the bridge being the narrowest on the canal, and that the stranded vessels are eventually freed by lowering the water level; as on this occasion no doubt. [Distance from Tours: 1439 km]
Guidance: A little below the central square in Capestang, dominated by the church of Saint-Etienne and its 43-metre-high thirteenth-century bell tower, is a 14th century castle which once served as the palace of the archbishops of Narbonne. And within the castle is a noteworthy exhibition of religious art from the 15th century. My brother and I were happily shown it after returning to our lodgings (at back-packers in the adjoining building) at close to midnight. The hostel was not the flashiest place we stayed, but accommodation in an historic castle for 18 euros each 3 for a towel, is not to be sneezed at. [For bookings contact the local Tourism Office: Quai Élie Amouroux, 34310 Capestang, France. Phone: +33 4 67 37 85 29]
27. Capestang to Villenerve les Béziers [35 km]
In leaving Capestang on the morning of Bastille Day we made a mistake for which I must take full blame. Finding ourselves to the south of the town, I argued that, rather than return to the Saisse Bridge, we could angle our way through the countryside and encounter the canal a little to the east. Unfortunately, I got the angle wrong and we didn’t find the waterway until the town of Poilhes-la-Romaine where the canal doubles back on itself briefly. There I argued that we should turn left along the canal; the correct direction according to my GPS. Unconvinced, my brother insisted that we go right and was proved to be correct when the water-way did a U-turn several hundred metres later and headed east. Following it later we encountered the first navigable tunnel built in Europe – the 165 metre Tunnel de Malpas which was completed in 1679.
Later again we reached the city of Beziers where we planned to join the evening’s Bastille Day celebrations; only to be told that, for some reason, they had been held the previous night. Unimpressed, we pushed on another 7 km to the little canal-side hamlet of Villenerve les Béziers. That night we played our part in the celebration of the French national day.
Dressed in traditional red caps and waving the Tricolore, we cheerfully accompanied the local children in a candle-lit procession through the narrow streets to the village square, where we joined in a rousing rendition of the Marseilles. We learnt nothing of the horrific terrorist attack taking place in Nice until the following morning. [Distance from Tours: 1499 km]
28. Villenerve les Béziers to Sète [60 km]
We began the day with an agreeable 20 km pedal along the Canal du Midi, sharing the trail with pony clubs and the like. Our navigational problems only began when we found ourselves across the water from the city of Agde and were advised by a fisherman to cross a nearby bridge, and then turn right and ride beside what turned out to be the Herault River. Bad advice as this took us south when we should have been heading north-east. Having crossed the Herault, we should have ridden north, skirting the centre of Adge, before re-joining the Canal du Midi at Pont Saint-Bauzille and following it north east to the Les Onglous Lighthouse at Marseillan-Plage, close to the southern tip of a body of water known as the Etang de Thau (literally the Pond of Thau).
Exactly how we got back on track is still a mystery to me, but we must have circled around Agde to the south-east. Thus we eventually found ourselves heading north – off-road but cheek-by-jowl with the N112 highway – along a finger of land dividing lake (on our left) and sea (on our right); although we saw neither for much of the distance. I now know that we had made a mistake. We should have found Marseillan-Plage and followed the Lido Greenway, reputedly a dream section, all the way to the Plage de la Corniche at Sète. We actually joined the Lido trail a few kilometres south of the city and there found ourselves riding triumphantly beside a sparkling Mediterranean; something I had been dreaming of ever since leaving the Atlantic at Montalivet-les-Bains; better than seven hundred kilometres back. [Distance from Tours: 1499 km]
Guidance: Looking back, Sète which is described as the “Venice of Languedoc” is one of the places of which I knew nothing when I set out from Tours, but which I am determined to return to. While there we happened to see (for I doubt that it happens every day) the ancient local sport of water jousting. And that night, beside the same stretch of water, we found the most authentic sea food restaurants in which either of us has ever been privileged to tie on a bib.
29. Sète to Montpellier [65km]
This final section is not especially difficult physically, but the descriptions of how to do it are so notoriously confusing that many cyclists decline to attempt the ride. We started by crossing the Ponte de la Savonnie in the old city of Sète and riding straight ahead for two blocks, whereupon we again reached the water which, having turned left, we stayed with until reaching the Canal de la Peyrade which we crossed and then, immediately turning right again, followed out-of-town. It eventually debouched into the larger Rhone-Sète-Canal which we rode beside until it was crossed by a bridge in the town of Frontignan, whereupon we followed the signs to Frontignan Plage.
Here we found ourselves riding a narrow finger of dry land around a sweeping inland bay (known as the Étang d’Ingril), which eventually swung left crossed a high bridge. We now followed the greenway which ran north-west, paralleling the D114 highway, until crossing the railway line north of Vic-la-Gardiole. Shortly beyond we reached the dedicated greenway running north-east. Theoretically this should have taken us to the town of Lattes and the Les Lez River. I say theoretically because we lost the greenway along the way and were forced to forge on by road; reaching the river some distance south of the town. Once we found the Lez, however, all our worries were behind us. We simply rode north beside the river until reaching the architecturally-striking Antigone district close to the centre of Montpellier. [Distance from Tours: 1564 km]
Guidance: I am loath to add to the confusion, but I feel honour-bound to mention there may possibly have been a better route from Sète to Montpellier than the one we took. It is suggested that, having reached Rhone-Sète-Canal, we could simply have pedalled beside it straight past Frontignan and onwards and eastwards across the Étang d’Ingril, the Étang de Vic, and several other “ponds” until it intersected the Lez River near the seaside resort of Palavas, whereupon we could have turned north and ridden alongside the river to Montpellier. Whether or not this would have been the better route, I know not. But it is certainly a lot simpler to describe.
POSTSCRIPT: The journey from Tours to Montpellier took 29 riding days and involved an average daily distance of 55 km, identical to what I had estimated at the outset. But that, and the general route taken, were the journey’s only resemblances to my original plan. The shortest riding day was just 23 km, while the longest was 123 km. Of the towns where I rested my head, at least a third were unknown to me at the outset. To many I will return. Among them: Chinon and Savennières on the Loire; Les Sables d'Olonne, La Rochelle and Rochefort down the Atlantic coast; La Reole on the Canal de Garonne; Le Somail and Capestang on the Canal du Midi; and of course the old quarter of Sète. This is not the kind of narrative to which dedications are normally attached, but I never-the-less nominate three grande dames who welcomed, sheltered and informed us along the way: Mme Isabelle Robin of Hotel Antoine in Les Sables d'Olonne, Mme Anne Roche of La Parenthèse at La Reole, and the gracious Mme Francoise Savy-Taquet who gently rules the Domaine de Balous outside Damazan. Finally, I thank Philippe Sauvage of Wandeo [Bike Rental France] for inviting me to pen these words.
Te Ore Ore