Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 14: Toulouse to Carcassonne

Today's ride will see us cover 63 miles - the longest stage of the trip. Not massive miles ordinarily, especially if we were on road bikes - however on these heavy tourers, carrying a full load, it's an entirely different proposition. We're slightly later getting to breakfast than we'd hoped - consequently the small room is full - there's nowhere to sit. We hang around in reception until space becomes available.

I scan the walls first, but no English Breakfast option today. The room is busy, there're a lot of Germans who snaffle all the bread and croissants - we have to make do with a few odds and ends.We settle our bill and then pack our bikes ready to set off. Outside there is a group of cyclists listening as their tour guide gives them instructions - I recognise some of the Germans from breakfast - looks like they're here on a cycling holiday. We set off at the same time as them but quickly leave them behind.

From the hotel it's a mile or so amongst the busy morning traffic before we join the Canal du Midi - this will take us 50 miles or so towards todays destination - Carcassonne.

On the Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is 240km long. It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux to the Mediterranean at Sete - it was constructed between 1666 and 1681 during the reign of Louis XIV. It remains one of the oldest canals in Europe still in operation and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We're riding amongst more centuries-old plane trees again, (must have passed millions?) old barges lie sleepily in the water and soon the hustle and bustle of Toulouse is behind us. The towpath is busy though, lots of joggers, walkers and plenty of cyclists, including a couple of tandems who sped past us. There are a few cyclists passing us in the opposite direction, we give them a nod and a hearty 'bonjour' - I wonder how many are doing something similar to us? - certainly there are a few flat-vowelled English accents amongst them.

It's a clear day, not particularly sunny but comfortable for cycling. We spot a small restaurant nestled alongside the canal and decide to give it a go.

It's another family affair, there are a few working blokes gathered at a table chatting and laughing, the room is warm and smells good. We order a coffee and then ask for the menu. We opt for the Plat du Jour, starting with the most exquisite quiche, light, fluffy with a thin flakingly crisp pastry shell. One of the best things I've tasted on the entire trip. Main course was roast chicken with macaroni and some green beans - the bird was stuffed with what tasted like sausage meat, whatever, it was delicious. Pudding was a creme brulee, dribbling like a french kiss and full of flavour. Try to picture it: this is the French version of a transport cafe in England - there are rugby posters and rosettes decorating the wall. There's a TV with football playing. Next to our table there are some kids' toys and games. All the cooking, whoever does it, is craftsmanlike. The food is prepared with love and consideration - we feel totally sated by the time we leave, as far as our limited culinary experiences have stretched on this journey across France, this little place was one of the best.

Back on the canal we soldier on. It's pleasant cycling but considerably slowly than on normal roads. We stop at a seat under some trees for a drink. A man walking along the towpath stops to chat - he speaks good English, he did a job transfer a few years ago and worked in East Anglia for a while. He delighted in telling us he'd been to Cardiff to see Bob Dyan play. He was waiting to meet his brother and they were going to jog along the canal to Toulouse.
We leave the canal with about twelve miles still to ride into Carcassonne. As we approach the town the traffic gets steadily heavier; there are jams leading into the main area but we are able to weave our way through. There's a steady climb up through the new town, and then we see the main attraction: The Citadel, perched on top of a rocky hilltop and bristling with zigzag battlements, stout walls and spiky turrets. It looks like something from a children's storybook.

The first view of Carcassonne
The ride up to the entrance is steep and windy, it's a slow haul but we make it. We pause outside the main gate - it's an ant's nest of tourists: only to be expected, this is the second biggest tourist attraction in France after the Eiffel Tower. A UNESCO World heritage site since 1997, Carcassonne is the reputed inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It is indeed a fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets. There are no less than 53 towers, strung together by enourmous walls and surrounded by a moat.

There're far too many people walking through the narrow streets for us to cycle; we push our bikes to our accommodation, well within the medieval city walls. It's a fabulous hotel with stunning stone walls, a suit of armour, various statues and tasteful furnishings. The girl at the desk is doing a great job handling a coach-load of American tourists. We stash our bikes in a room out back and get to our room - after the usual shower and change we're out exploring. There are some that argue this place is over-restored, and the centre is a bit like a Disney theme park with a mess of overpriced shops selling cheesy trinkets and dodgy nougat; that it has more than its fair share of mediocre restaurants, serving bland salads and heavy cassoulet. It's a pity, because the too-perfect nature of the restoration coupled with the chintziness of the 'town' do undermine the realness and atmosphere of the fortifications, but it's still a great experience, you'll never get the chance to see medieval (and Roman) military architecture on this scale anywhere else - and the view of the castle from a distance as well as that from the citadel out across the modern city to the mountains beyond is unforgettable.
Outside the main gate

We find a restaurant and start with beer and pastis. After the fabulous lunch today we don't bother with a 'complet' - opting for just one main course each. I'm back with the goats cheese salad and Gary has a steak. We accompany the meal with a bottle of local Langeudoc. We wander back to the hotel and sit in the bar area with another bottle of wine. There is an English couple sitting opposite - he's a photographer from Rothley near Leicester - just up the road from where I live. We chat for a while before they leave for bed. We order a couple of Armagnacs to finish the night. It's been a good day - lots of cycling and we've enjoyed it. We muse over the journey we've made, the miles we've covered, the places we've visited, the hills we've climbed. Tomorrow we'll arrive at our destination.

The old town walls

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