CURRENT LOCATION: Camping L’Escale Occitane, Alzonne
I’ve seen the Pyrenees for the first time this evening. After so much relatively flat or tame topography over the past five weeks, it’s good to finally have a little drama added to the landscape. They are only in silhouette, shrouded in haze and only just perceptible from the sky but they are definitely there. (Or my glasses need cleaning.) I’m in a place called Alzonne by the way, about 90km along the canal from Toulouse. Carcassonne is a further 20km to the south east.
I did think leaving Toulouse on a Sunday morning at 8am would mean the place was deserted. It wasn’t. Quite a few late night revellers – some still drunk – were in the main square. I had wanted to get the drone in the sky over the square but with people like that around it would have only ended badly. I headed for the canal instead.
The Canal du Midi starts where the Canal de la Garonne finishes; it’s just a left turn but it then loops around Toulouse so by following the canal I was making life more difficult. After 30 minutes I was not too far from where I had stayed last night. But I did stumble upon a market where I stocked up on things to eat; this being Sunday, it was always going to be an issue (as it has been for much of this trip on both Sundays and Mondays). Bread, salami, cherry tomatoes, goats cheese and a peach kept me going not just all day but for the entire day. I’ve not eaten this evening aside from a few biscuits left over from a couple of days ago based upon my grazing throughout the day. The peach was a donation from the woman in charge of the fruit stall. I tried to pay but she refused. I must be channeling the vagrant look once again.
The canal leaving Toulouse with every aeronautical engineer in the city out for a Sunday morning jog, cycle, canoe, row, paddle board… The towpath was a busy one but as we edged towards the county line where Haute Garonne becomes Aude. Why might this be? Well, if you watch the video, it’s explained. The thin road tyres of the engineers’ Pinarellos are not a match for the sudden change in surface as you pass in the département of Aude. Cycling doesn’t seem to be a priority here; any semblance of ‘Canal Des Deux Mers’ has gone and the towpath has been left in its natural state. The good news for me is that I’m not cycling a Pinarello; I’m on a Koga WorldTraveller that is tailor-made for these surfaces and the fat Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tyres that Wanda is wearing were actually doing a better job on the Aude Canal du Midi tracks than they had been on the tarmac in Haute Garonne. Tarmac is so susceptible to root interference whereas a loose but compacted surface is more root friendly. Not always; the first few kilometres after Abignonet-Lauragais were uncomfortable even for me (and in his avocets e guide, Declan Lyons does say that this stretch is one of the worst on the entire canal) as was the tiresome stretch leading up to Alzonne. I’ll spend much of tomorrow cycling in Aude so I suspect I’ll be in for a similar ride.
I got chatting to a chap running a shop in one of the former lock keepers’ cottages. He was from Sète, his wife from Avignon but they had lived on the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion (just as much a part of France as is Paris) as teachers until retirement brought them home and they had been running the shop in summer for the past 18 years. He flogs the drinks and ice-creams, she makes and sells high-quality mobiles (the ones that hang from ceilings rather than iPhone 13s). He said there were two groups of cyclists; those that wanted a tarmac surface with (he was being sarcastic and admitted so himself) traffic lights, pharmacies and supermarkets along the route and those that preferred the natural, more authentic route that had been embraced by the authorities in Aude. After having experienced both surfaces today, I have to say that my preference would be 75% authenticity, 25% tarmac. With a bike that can cope and the resultant tranquility of not having too many cyclists on the path, on balance, the compacted surface wind out. But not always. The joys of a quality tarmac surface cannot be underestimated; cycling out of Bordeaux and, earlier in the trip, south from Dieppe was a joy…
Tonight’s campsite is a couple of kilometres away from the canal but has still pulled in a number of cyclists. I can count at least eleven bicycles around me. The accommodation over the next few days, however, will be a challenge. The campsites in this corner of France do not, increasingly, give priority to cyclists. They prefer families who stay for long periods and spend money. I may have WarmShowers accommodation for Monday and I need to be in or near Pézenas on Wednesday evening to meet Basil and Liz (friends who live in south-west France but not Pézenas). Tuesday? Goodness knows…
Other points to note:
- I left a t-shirt and a pair of shorts in the hotel in Toulouse on purpose; it’s that stage of the trip when I am shedding things I’m not using
- Castelnaudary was pretty; it’s the place the invented cassoulet
- Given a bunch of grapes when shown by the campsite owner where to pitch the tent (he pulled them from the vine and they were delicious)
- The campsite is airline themed; the owners used to work for Air France…
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