When Chris was growing up in England, the nearby Grand Union Canal was still a commercial transportation corridor. Following the Oxford Canal early in this trip, it appeared to have become more of a bohemian suburb than a waterway where anything actually moved.
Here in France the canals are well-used by recreational boaters, cyclists and pedestrians to travel through changing landscapes. We’ve certainly been taking advantage of them, and the cycling is so easy that I envision still being able to do this kind of bike touring well into my dotage.
From Dinan to Rennes in Brittany, we followed the Canal de L’Ille et Rance, and we joined part of the Canal de Nantes a Brest as we neared Nantes. The obvious route from the west coast to the Mediterranean was to follow the Canal du Midi, sometimes also referred to as the Canal des Deux Mers, especially when including the more recently built northern segment: Canal Lateral a la Garonne.
The original Canal du Midi from Toulouse to the Mediterranean was built between 1666 and 1681. The idea was to create an alternative route to the long and dangerous journey around the Iberian Peninsula and through the Straits of Gibraltar, where passage was taxed by the King of Spain. The Garonne portion was built two centuries later to allow movement of larger boats that could not easily navigate the river on whose estuary lies the Atlantic port of Bordeaux.
2014/10/11-12: Meilhan-sur-Garannne to Toulouse
The Canal Lateral a la Garonne leaves the river at La Reole, and rises through 53 locks before reaching Toulouse. It winds through vinyards, and areas where tomatoes and kiwis are grown. These canals were the engineering feats of their time, and we crossed the longest aqueduct in France at Agen, where the canal crosses the Garonne. There were smaller aqueducts too, each a robust piece of 1800s masonry.
As we travel, we spend quite freely on food but we sometimes pinch pennies on accommodation. We’ve changed our policy now, and have communicated better about our minimum standards for a restful stopover of two nights and a day.
Hostelling International served us well in South America where most offered private rooms, but in France we’ve decided we need a bit more comfort and aesthetics. The hostel in Toulouse ran programs as a first stop for immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, nice enough people for a pool game, but we really didn’t fit in. I forgot to ask if our room had “un grand lit“, and I am getting too old to move bunk beds to sleep vaguely near my husband. The place had disposable cellulose sheets, a bit like the hospital cap they give you when you go into surgery.
On our non-travel day, we set out on unloaded bikes and did a relaxed tour of parks, bridges, facades, the Capitol, and coffee shops. We also stopped at a bike shop for new chains and lighter drive train lubricant for drier climes as we head south. The thick oil left from Northern Europe last year collected every piece of dust and vegetation from the canal path.
2014/10/14-15: Toulouse to Carcassonne
This was the Canal du Midi proper, with deeper locks that have curved walls, and with old stone bollards. After 16 more upstream locks, we reached the highest point on the canal at 189 m above sea level, and paused to admire the engineering structures that supply water and regulate levels.
As we began to drop slowly toward the Mediterranean, we could see the change in vegetation. The pace of cycling is perfect for noticing such things. We also changed administrative departments, and the wide paved canal-side path suddenly became a rutted single track or a gravel pathway.
It was in this stretch that we saw the effects of the fungal disease on the plane trees, planted in the 1830s to shade the canal, as Hans had warned us that we would. In some stretches, trees were marked for felling and had been girdled with a chainsaw. In other stretches, removal was taking place, and in some areas there were simply rows of huge stumps.
A quick google told me that the disease is Ceratocystis platani, and that if the plane trees of the Canal du Midi are not systematically replaced, it’s status as a Unesco World heritage site may be lost. A French agronomist concludes that the disease was inadvertently introduced during during WW2, the fungal spores born by the ammunition cases brought by US troops. The cases were made from American plane wood.
The irony is that the American plane trees in Mississippi are now resistant to the disease, and imported trees may be an integral part of saving the character of the canal. 7000 trees from the USA will soon be planted.
Chris remembers his childhood visit to the medieval fortifications here. We’re glad it’s not high season, as Carcassonne it has become very popular since getting itself onto the Unesco list.
Entering the town, I stopped at the statue of local republican revolutionary Armand Barbes which bore the quote “Vivre libre ou mourir.” I wondered whether he was in any way connected to the state of New Hampshire where license plates say “Live free or die.” Wikipedia does not show me any obvious or direct link. (Enlightened historians are welcome to comment.)
We haven’t made the most of our stopover as Chris has a sore throat, but at least we have a comfortable room to nestle in, having learned a lesson in Toulouse. We are not yet finished with canals, but I’ll end this post here. We’ll be stationary for at least another day as Chris gets over a bad cold.