Carcassonne and the Canal du Midi have been on our travel wish list for some time. Somehow our prior trips to the region never seemed to take us close enough to justify a visit. This year we’d get our chance. When we left Andorra we entered France’s Department of Languedoc-Roussillon, Carcassonne and the Canal du Midi were finally within reach.
Our base outside of Carcassonne was peaceful Chateau Canet. Chateau Canet sits just outside the perfect little village of Rustiques amongst Languedoc’s vineyards. It was hard to break away from the wine estate in the morning but eventually we hopped on the bikes and headed to Carcassonne.
To reach Carcassonne from Rustiques, we pedaled the short distance to Canal du Midi. When we reached the canal, we rolled onto the towpath, passed through the village of Trebes, and traveled along the canal on the smoothly graded crushed rock path to Carcassonne. Canal du Midi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; there’s plenty to see along the way.
In this case, it really is the journey and not the destination that appealed. The stretch of the Canal du Midi between Trebes and Carcassonne includes numerous locks all with a distinctive oval shape. Built between 1667 and 1694, the canal cleared the way for the Industrial Revolution. In this era, the locks were built with distinctive oval sidewalls that increased the sidewall stability of the structures. Later canals, like the Canal du Nivernais, use the now more common rectangular box shaped locks that require less water per lock cycle. Between the locks, alongside the canal, rows of mature plane trees stabilize the channels banks and shade the paths. The canal route is cool, idyllic, and tranquil.
Aside from the numerous locks, the stretch of the Canal du Midi we biked has a two “pont-canal” or canal bridges. These improbable aqueducts carry canal boats over rivers and streams. Viewed from below, it’s a strange sight to see a boat motor past on a bridge well above the apparent water level. It’s not quite like seeing pigs fly (I imagine) but it may be from the same chapter of the same book.
In Carcassonne we left the towpath, walked through the market day congestion of the ville basse or the lower town, and then climbed on the bikes up to the citadel. Historically the medieval fortress city secured an invasion corridor between what is now France and Spain. However, in modern times, fanciful Carcassonne has fallen to the invading hordes. Tourists now swarm through the gates and jam the streets. In this way, UNESCO-designated Carcassonne is much like Mont St. Michel. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to discover the warren of tight streets inside the citadel’s massive walls without the crowds. We wouldn’t get this chance during our brief stop. Even without the jam of people, the plethora of eateries and tourist shops lining the alleys without doubt detract from the aura of the town. It is unfortunate. Both Carcassonne and Mt. Saint Michel remind us more of a visit to Disneyworld than of historic medieval strongholds.
For us the highlight of the 19-mile long bike loop was without doubt the Canal du Midi. I confess to a certain fascination with historic works of civil engineering. Functional old canals make for a very different type of tourist destination. They are living history museums. And besides, it will always be hard for a 150-mile long canal to be jammed with people.
There are many more kilometers of Canal du Midi that remain for us to visit. A return trip to fully discover the waterway is compelling. Next time we’ll travel Canal du Midi on the water. Pop the corks and cruise along the waterway. What could beat that? A boat has to be the best way to see this wonder.
More pictures can be found on Picasa.