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Cycling along the Canal de la Garonne

Canal de la Garonne, tree-shaded paths surrounded by countryside

After taking the brand-new TGV train from Paris to Bordeaux (a great experience in itself) we picked up our rental car and drove to our holiday home rental 40 kilometers south. The next day we set about figuring how and who we’d be renting bikes from. We knew we wanted to ride along one of the old shipping canals in the area because we had done something similar along the Canal du Midi near Carcassone about five years ago.

We found a place online called “Les Cycles du Canal”, in a tiny, seemingly remote, village called Castets et Castillon, owned and managed by a friendly and helpful gentleman named Alain. Why would Alain set up a bike shop in that location? Because Castets et Castillon is located at the beginning of a trail that runs southeast along the Canal de la Garonne and ends up in Toulouse, 200 kilometers away! Some people make a three-day trip of it. We were just looking for three to four hours of easy pedalling.

We rode past the 400-year-old church (sometimes it seems that every small town in France has a 400-year-old church) just around the corner from the bike shop, and headed toward Toulouse on the path. The Canal de la Garonne is one of the many built by French engineers way back when, before trains and steam ships. This one was completed in the 1860s, but others were built in the 1600s. They are generally about 40 feet wide and six feet deep. Each would have a four-foot wide dirt path on both sides where livestock, and sometimes humans, would walk, pulling cargo from point A to point B. Often the footpaths are lined by trees that provide shade.

In the 1970s the French government made the paths of the Canal de la Garonne into useful long-distance bike trails. They are paved with asphalt, and they alternate on one side or the other of the canal, with crossings on the country road bridges that traverse it, or at the occasional locks where the private leisure boats get lifted or lowered. For the most part they are flat, clean, shady and stunningly beautiful. You pass fields of corn or wheat or sunflowers. You see the spires of churches in the towns in the distance. And you see renovated houses. In fact we loved it so much, we moved to France!

For this trip our goal was Teinture, about 30 kilometers away. About half way to our goal, the trail went through a small campground with facilities and a shop. Because it’s accessible by car, the campground doubles as a place to launch your leisure boat into the canal. There are other places along the way where you can rent a boat by the hour or the day. Over the course of three hours on our bikes, we saw fewer than five boats plying the canal.

On the way home we stopped in La Reole, a town that is unremarkable in many ways. Unremarkable, except for the ruins of the old town hall. Here in 1190 AD Richard the Lion Heart gathered the armies of the various dukes and set off on the Second Crusade. We stood right on the spot where he gave his inspirational speech. It’s why we love France. It is remarkable.

Clarke and Lisa Blair love France so much they moved there! And now blog at blairsinfrance.com

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