Adventure

EXCLUSIVE BOOK EXTRACT: Le Grand Tour – Cycling The Canal De La Garonne

I continue to spend much of my time writing book four, my account of cycling around Europe in the summer of 2022. I have passed the half-way point in terms of time although not distance and am currently working on day 34 of the cycle. Below, for paid subscribers to CyclingEurope.org, is what I have written for day 33. It was a day not without its self-inflicted challenges, mainly to do with my inability (on that day at least) to read my map… The completed book should be available in some way, shape or form towards the end of 2023 or early 2024. Look our for ‘Le Grand Tour’.

Day Thirty-Three: La Réole To Agen (89 km)

Thursday 4th August

As a single teacher in good health and without children, I was in the fortunate position of being able to embark upon long cycling journeys when many others had been forced to restrict their travels to fit in with the constraints of time, members of their family or physical ability. I was acutely aware of this, sometimes to the point of embarrassment, when I met other people of a similar age who also happened to be travelling by bicycle. On this first day of cycling along the Canal de la Garonne, I was destined to have three encounters that put my own situation into sharp focus. 

The first of these was not so much a first encounter as a first exchange of meaningful conversation. Since leaving Royan I had spotted two French cyclists in their 50s on several occasions. We had swapped cheery ‘bonjours’ as I overtook them or as they overtook me and they had also stayed at the campsite on the northern bank of the Gironde between Royan and Bordeaux a few days previously. In La Réole it was no surprise to find them at the camping municipal but it wasn’t until the morning when we were packing away out tents that we got chatting.

“We started in Royan and today is our final day before we catch the train home from Agen,” explained the taller of the two men in French. “Perhaps next year we’ll come back and continue along the cycle route from there, but we need to get back to work.”

They had only had a week to complete their trip. The first week of my own cycle had seen me travel along the coast from Rotterdam to Dieppe but looking back, I didn’t really get into the swing of being a cycle tourist again until well after Dieppe. I don’t think I’d figured out which pannier for which bit of kit by that stage. I’d completed relatively short cycling trips myself but had never been in a position of stopping before the end of a route with the intention of returning one day to complete it. It must, I reflected, be somewhat frustrating. 

That said, the two chaps in front of me were in good spirits, enthusiastically looking forward to their final day of cycling before heading home. Perhaps it was the mindset that was more important; they had set themselves an objective and had achieved it. My objective may have been somewhat grander in scale – perhaps ten times grander – than their own but I was kidding myself if I was expecting the sense of satisfaction to be ten times greater if and when I reached the finishing point back at the Hook of Holland What would be significantly greater would be the sense of disappointing if I didn’t get to the end of journey and compared to the two French cyclists, the risks of doing so were much higher. It was a thought not to dwell upon, although it was something that I would return to reflect upon again later in the day.

What I should have been dwelling upon was my route. It was destined to be a frustrating start to the day. I headed back over the impressive metal bridge in the direction of La Réole as the sun was creeping higher in the sky to my right, in the east… Which meant I was actually cycling north and in the wrong direction. No harm done. Indeed cycling over such a beautiful structure on such a beautiful morning was a price worth paying. I turned around and started heading south, the sun now where it should be, on my left. But that wasn’t the frustrating bit.

Writing in the ‘summer’ of September 2023

When I was cycling along the Nantes-Brest Canal in Brittany, it had become increasingly evident that when the canal was constructed, the engineers had made use of many pre-existing rivers to make their lives (or at least those who were doing the work) ‘easy’. Looking at my map of Le Canal des 2 Mers à Vélo, that didn’t seem to be the case with the Canal de la Garonne. I could see on my map that as far as Agen – today’s destination – the canal was always a distinct entity to the south of the river. Thereafter and as far as Toulouse, its destination, it had been constructed to the north and, increasingly, to the west of La Garonne. So on this first day of canal cycling here in the south-west of France, it shouldn’t have been too difficult to find the Canal de la Garonne. And it wasn’t. Within 15 minutes of setting off – even taking into consideration my return journey over the river – I was on a small concrete bridge spanning the canal.

I consider myself to have a very good sense of direction and I instinctively knew that on the other side of the canal I needed to turn right and start cycling along the towpath in the direction of Agen and then Toulouse. A family on bikes – mum, dad and a young boy – arrived from the left and passed me on the bridge. ‘They clearly can’t read a map or follow the signs,’ I thought to myself.

“Bonjour,” beamed the fools.

“Bonjour,” replied the smug Englishman.

There was a similar interaction with a nearby fisherman. His eyes followed me as I cycled past him before he also tossed me a merry ‘bonjour’. There was a hint of puzzlement in his look. 

A couple of kilometres after having turned right I noticed a village signposted to my left. As I hadn’t passed through the centre of La Réole earlier I had yet to find my breakfast so I decided to follow the sign and fill my stomach. My muscles had yet to warm up and it was an arduous climb to Loupiac-de-la-Réole. Had I may the wrong choice? Was a croissant and pain au chocolat worth all this effort? I was torn between returning to the canal and continuing up the hill. Hunger won out and I kept pedalling.

Ten minutes after leaving the canal I arrived in the village. But I couldn’t spot any of the ‘commerces’ that had been promised on the signs that I’d been following. I quickly reached for Google Maps and found the Marché Minut’, a tiny supermarket in what passed for the main square. 

Breakfast purchased, I again consulted the online map to see if there was an alternative route back to the canal. As I zoomed out on my screen I could see the thick blue line of the Garonne river further north and the much thinner line of the Garonne canal further south. I could see La Réole and the route I had cycled. That was strange. Before deviating away from the canal I seemed to have been cycling west. I looked for the compass that would re-orientate the map so it was presenting itself as north-south, but there was no compass. The map was fixed north-south. That made no sense. I stared at the map for a few moments, flakes of croissant crumbling annoyingly onto the phone. At least they weren’t tears.

This smug Englishman with his excellent sense of direction… had set off in the wrong direction along the canal. By the time I arrived back at the concrete bridge I had managed to add an extra seven kilometres to the cycling day. I passed the fisherman for the second time. He nodded, a wry smile of his face.

It wasn’t so much the extra distance that annoyed me (although the hill was a pain). It was more my dented sense of directional infallibility. I couldn’t ever remember making such a schoolboy error on any of my previous pan-European cycles. I’d made lots of errors whilst cycling. I had frequently misjudged distances, not realised the Peloponnese were actually big mountains and nearly come to tears when the descent from the Col de Tende was almost impassible… But cycling west instead of east? I was blushing. I resolved never to mention the incident again to anyone, anywhere. I think I got away with it. 

Fontet was the village where I should have turned left. It was also home to the impressively named Musée d’Artisanat, de Monuments en Allumettes et de Sciences Naturelles. It was the kind of place that I would have loved to spend some time exploring, especially the section dedicated to monuments constructed from matchsticks. It was housed in an old wooden shed and the faded poster outside showed the Palace of Versailles, in matchstick form, beside the yellowing image of Gérard, the matchstick maker. Alas I would have to wait until 2pm and even then, give the man a call to book myself in. I’d missed out on seeing the real Versailles by taking the train from Paris to Chartres. This would surely have been a recompense, of sorts. With regrets and a serious hope that the museum had devoted more of its budget towards buying a good fire insurance policy than it had to extending its opening hours, I finally started cycling in the correct direction along the canal.

Accommodation was beginning to play on my mind. Agen didn’t appear to have a campsite so I looked on Warmshowers and fell upon the profile of Thierry and Marick, a retired couple with a love of foreign travel who lived 50 metres from the cycleway and the town centre. I sent a quick message, apologising for the late request, and hoped for the best.

After my experiences along the Canal de Nantes à Brest, the Canal de la Garonne felt familiar. It made for easy, comfortable cycling; the towpath was well maintained and mature trees provided ample, almost continuous, shade from sun. It was also very straight. I could see on my map the Garonne river wriggling erratically along a seemingly endless number of meanders while the canal continued a sensible path heading south-east. The canal presented as a parent on a mission to get to the shops, the river as a young child who simply wanted to have a bit of fun despite being firmly attached to its mother.

It would make sense in the telling of the story of the Canal de la Garonne to start with that of the Canal du Midi, its southerly sibling. But I had chosen to cycle in an inconvenient direction around France confounding historical chronology, so please accept my apologies for that. I’ll come back to the Canal du Midi later but for the time being, all you need to remember is that it’s much older than the Canal de la Garonne; the former opened in 1681, the latter in 1856. Although it was envisaged as a ‘logical’ Mediterranean-Atlantic-linking extension to the Canal du Midi as far back as the late 17th century, the incentive to start digging was the Industrial Revolution when more goods needed to be transported to the sea. The Garonne river was considered to be far too ‘unpredictable’ with larger boats at risk of being grounded so construction of the 194 km canal must have been considered as a welcome investment by the 19th century industrialists of south-western France. As was, presumably, the railway line from Bordeaux to Sète which became fully operational  just two years after the opening of the canal in 1858. As we’ve seen before, the railway was not great news for the waterways. A rescue, of sorts, arrived in the shape of the pleasure boats of the late 20th century, one of them carrying Rick Stein who, through his ‘French Odyssey’ TV series and book, popularised the waterway in the English-speaking world. A celebrity chef from Cornwall can’t, however, have been upper most in the thoughts of the 19th century navvies as they toiled in the mud.

David Naylor, my online contact who, with his wife Christine, was also cycling around France and who had recommended I stay at the campsite in Domfront earlier in the trip had been in contact again after spotting my mid-trip tweet (“4 weeks, 3 days, 12 hours done… 4 weeks, 3 days, 12 hours remaining”) from the previous day:

“@CyclingEurope – Camping 7 km from Agen today and heading towards Bordeaux tomorrow. If we see you we will shout.”

As we were both travelling along the towpath of the Canal de la Garonne we would be unlucky if we were to miss each other. However, although I had told David to look out for an orange T-shirt, I had few clues as to what he and his wife might look like. There were a good number of couples cycling on the towpath so it was with some relief (as well as some surprise as my mind had drifted off into the realms of inconsequential daydreaming that only towpath cycling can induce) that I heard my name being shouted from a man approaching me at speed in the early afternoon: “Andrew!”

As noted at the start of this chapter, I was lucky to be a teacher who gets a long summer holiday to go off cycling. If you don’t fancy the marking and are no fan of teenagers, there are other solutions. The first is a long-term strategy but works well for many; join the police force and retire after 30 years at a relatively young age and with a decent pension. That’s exactly what David, a former police officer living on the south coast of England had done.

“We started in Saint-Malo…” he explained. “

…And as of today we’ve done 3,000 km,” added his French-born wife. 

She had not taken retirement from her job as a neo-natal nurse in the NHS but was on an extended career break. That was a second potential strategy to add to the list. If you’re able to persuade your employer that the company or organisation that you work for will continue to function perfectly well if you don’t come to work for three months – choose your words wisely – you too could be off on a long bike ride very soon.

Their experiences of cycling the canal were generally very positive but they were finding the route relatively busy:

“When we went through the Massif Central and the Cévennes we were lucky to see one cycle tourist a day,” explained David before going on to detail the remainder of their route through France:

“After Bordeaux we’ll continue north but because of Brexit I’m restricted to 90 days so we are planning to return on day 89.”

My suggestion of overstaying the 90 days as a two-fingered salute to the Brexit bunch was dismissed by law-abiding David who pointed out that he didn’t want to mess up his chances of getting a long-term visa in the future. His French wife had no such issues of course. Had I been David I would have been filling in the forms for French citizenship faster than you could shout ‘Vive La France!’.

As they continued their cycling odyssey north-west in the direction of Bordeaux, I continued mine south-east in the direction of Agen. It was a wonderful place to be cycling. As with the Canal de Nantes à Brest, each lock had an accompanying cottage and again, some of these cottages had been repurposed to cater for the needs of people travelling along the canal. One exceptional example was the cottage beside the Écluse de Berry. It was a simple construction with a jaunty asymmetrical roof which added a touch of character to an otherwise inconsequential building. With whitewashed walls, mint green shutters and multi-coloured bunting draped across its façade this was about as Instagrammable as lock-keepers cottages went, although I did resist the temptation myself. I was too busy chatting to the chap serving me a drink and a slice of cake. I asked him if he was also the éclusier, the lock-keeper.

“No, the locks are automatic and have been for several years,” he explained in French before going on to detail how the system worked.

“Above the canal, just before the lock, there’s a cable across the water and a pole hanging from the cable. When the pole is pulled, the first door opens. Once inside the lock, there’s a button to press in the cabin over there; the door closes, the water level is adjusted and the second door opens automatically.”

There was none of that strenuous manual cranking open of locks as there was along my local canal in Yorkshire. None of those marital arguments as to whose turn it was to steer and whose turn it was to get off the boat and start working up a sweat. I’d been seeing these cables and poles all morning and had been somewhat bemused as to why they were there. I had thought they might be something to do with canoeing as the poles resembled those on a canoe slalom course but aside from that my theory had made little sense and it was nice to have solved the mystery.

I used the opportunity of my canal-side break to check on the status of my Warmshowers’ request:

“Bonjour. OK pour ce soir après 18h. Bonne route.”

Excellent. Just as I liked them; to the point and positive. My accommodation was sorted.

I arrived in the centre of Agen about an hour before the agreed rendez-vous so I found a quiet bar in front of the town hall and indulged in a refreshing beer. I should, perhaps, have saved my money for when I arrived at Thierry and Marick’s home on the southern side of the Garonne at 6pm, I was showered with an embarrassment of hospitality including a comfortable room, a delicious evening meal and a seemingly endless supply of beer. I was able to wash my clothes, charge all my batteries and there was even a cute dog to keep me amused.

Yet all of that was inconsequential compared to Marick herself who was as charming a host as I could have wished for. What’s more, I was the fifth cyclist she had welcomed into her home that week, and it was still on Thursday! Perhaps she liked the company when her husband was not at home. Although she wasn’t a cyclist, her husband, Thierry, was. He was also a keen walker and had gone away for a few days on a hiking holiday with friends. Marick explained that, because of family caring responsibilities, it was impossible for them both to take holiday at the same time. 

Once again I had been reminded as to just how fortunate I was to be able to do what I was doing. With no caring responsibilities in my own family, I continued to benefit from a personal situation which was simply not available to many others. It was humbling to meet people like Marick, or the two chaps at the campsite in La Réole earlier in the day. They were all obliged to work around what life had thrown at them. People such as David, Christine and me were in a very fortunate position and it was always useful to be reminded of just how lucky we were to have the freedom to do what we were doing. Even if it did sometimes mean that some of us weren’t able to tell our left turns from our right turns or indeed our east from our west.

Visit the dedicated Grand Tour page of CyclingEurope.org to find out more about the 2022 cycle along some of western Europe’s most iconic cycle routes.


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