In the second of a two-part series on cycling from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, Iain Griffiths bikes the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sète. In part one, we follow the river Garonne and the Canal de Garonne from Bordeaux to Toulouse.
There is work being undertaken on the Canal du Midi towpath. This means some diversions and detours. Please check locally at tourist offices and via your accommodation/bike hire providers for the latest information.
Stretching from Bordeaux to Toulouse, the Les Canal des Deux Mers – the Canals of the Two Seas – link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The route is made up of the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi, and it can be cycled from one end to the other in 10 days at a pace that leaves plenty of time for exploring.
To travel between Bordeaux and Sete involves three waterways, starting with a 53km section of the Garonne River from Bordeaux to Castets-en-Dorthe. Afterwards, you follow the Canal de Garonne for 193km before arriving in Toulouse. From here, Sète is a 240km bike ride along the Canal du Midi.
In the second of a two-part series, we cycle this the Canal du Midi. You can read part one about the Bordeaux-Toulouse route on the Canal de Garonne here.
The history of the Canal du Midi
It had been the dream of many – from Caesar Augustus to Louis XIII – to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, providing a safe inland route that avoided the treacherous voyage around the Iberian peninsula with its storms and pirates. The lack of money and technical difficulties proved insurmountable until 1662.
A brilliant civil servant by the name of Pierre-Paul Riquet had become obsessed with the project, and he believed he had the solution. He proposed digging a canal between Sète and Toulouse, and connect it to the Garonne via Bordeaux and on to the Atlantic. Work began on April 15, 1667, with the speed of the project remarkable considering men using picks and shovels dug the canal, in the process removing 7 million cubic metres of earth over 240km. The Canal du Midi was completed in May, 1681, some 200 years before the Canal de Garonne.
The Canal du Midi quickly became a major route for cargo and passengers, and opened cities such as Toulouse and Carcassonne up to trade. Specially designed freighters were built for the canal and towed by horses; these were capable of carrying loads of 120 tons – much more than carts travelling by road.
At any time there were as many as 250 freighters plying the canal, the journey between Sète and Toulouse taking about a week. The cargo was mainly wine, dried fish, cereals and fruit. Passengers, meanwhile, were carried on horse-drawn boats called mail carriages.
Cycling the Canal du Midi
From the enormous port de l'Embouchure (mouth of the port) in Toulouse, you cycle under the bridge and out on to the Canal du Midi's towpath. From here, you pass the urbanisation of Toulouse and the rail station, Gare Matabiau, a statue of Riquet farewelling you as you leave.
The canal weaves through the city suburbs and out into the fertile countryside until it reaches Escalqueuns. Following is Ayguevives Lock with its mill dating from 1831, then on through Sanglier Lock to Negra Lock. This was a ‘dinee’, a lunch stop, for passengers on the canal. A small village was built here to cater for those travellers; hotels, restaurants and stables, even a church, which has been well preserved.
There are three villages along this stretch, two beautiful and one eccentric. They are Montesquieu-Lauragais, with its two castles, and Villenouvelle and its superb bell-tower. On the other bank, Saint Rome is where an eccentric architect built a village in an assortment of styles: Moorish, Flemish, Neo-Byzantine, and also Baroque and Tudor for good measure.
It's then back to the canal and normality, crossing the beautiful Lers Aqueduct, designed by Jean-Polycarpe Maguès, who was the engineer responsible for overseeing the construction of the canal itself.
Then it's on to the ‘summit’, so called because it is the highest part of the canal. The Seuil de Naurouze is where the supply of water to the canal is controlled by a series of sluices. Here is both beauty and history, an Arboretum, a spectacular avenue lined with 62 plane trees leading to a tribute to Paul Riquet, a tall obelisk; the place where a Napoleonic general surrendered to Wellington after the Battle of Toulouse and where an ancient Cathar fortress still stands. It also marks the regional border where the Haute-Garonne department of the Midi-Pyrenees become the Aude department of Languedoc-Roussillon.
After Seuil is Mediterranean Lock; now you stop being an ‘upstreamer’ and become a ‘downstreamer’, the water now running towards the Mediterranean. The hillier terrain is noticeable and the locks more frequent as the canal begins its gentle descent to the Mediterranean.
One of the major ports on the canal is Castelnaudary, a picturesque town and ‘Grand Bassin’, famous for its cassoulet. It’s now a slow meander through this peaceful landscape, pretty villages lazing under a warm sun.
The next stop is the UNESCO-listed fortified city of Carcassonne. This is an ideal base for an overnight stop, as Carcassonne is a must-see, and it's just a brief detour from the Bastide Saint-Louis, the town through which the canal actually passes.
From here, the canal – itself World Heritage Listed – closely follows the course of the River Aude through the gentle, hilly landscape of the Aude valley. This part of the canal is lined with ancient villages, their gothic and medieval churches, castles and ramparts all of interest.
There are some attractive locks, too, well tended by the ‘eclusier’, the lockkeeper; some, like Puicheric and Jouarres, provide cafes and ‘produits terroir’ (local produce) for sale. There is also Ecluse Aguille, where the lockkeeper has turned his lock into a fascinating gallery of sculptures in metal and wood, also carving figures and faces in surrounding trees.
The small port of La Redorte was a ‘dinee’ for early travellers, and the tradition continues today with a quayside restaurant. From here it's on to the once major port of Homps, now a large centre for pleasure boats, with plenty of accommodation and restaurants, and lots of bustle in the port itself.
Farther down is the first canal bridge to be built in Europe, the Répudre Aqueduct, which crosses the river Répudre. A few kilometres on is the delightful port of La Somail, which seems to look very much like it would have 300 years ago when it was an overnight stop.
As you near Béziers, the canal weaves its way somewhat erratically through what was difficult countryside to cut a canal; the number of curves increases, sharp bends wend their way, and aqueducts abound – seven in total between Argeliers and Capestang. Other great feats of engineering are here, too: the first canal tunnel at Malpas and the Fonsérannes ladder, a succession of 8 locks for boats to negotiate, rising over 21 metres in the space of 300 metres.
Béziers signals the last leg of the journey. Between here and the Mediterranean are the towns of Villeneuve-Lès-Béziers, and the picturesque Agde, founded 2500 years ago by the Phoenicians and today an architectural treasure trove. It is after Agde that you can smell the sea, the last 12 kilometres a cycle lane between the Bassin de Thau – a large saltwater lake – and the Mediterranean that leads you into the port of Sète and the end of your adventure.
Iain Griffiths is the author of A Cycling Guide to the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi (UK, US, Fr), available for Kindle. Iain worked as a freelance cameraman filming new stories, and natural history and travel documentaries worldwide before retiring to France. His passions include cycling, photography, watercolour, and mountain walking.
See our bike hire listings for options in Toulouse, Sète and elsewhere along the Canal du Midi, or try a bike delivery service if you are planning on only cycling way. If you are linking up with the Canal de Garonne to do the whole Bordeaux-Sète route and, again, only want to cycle one way, it may be worth investigating Bordeaux-Toulouse bike hire, and then hiring another bike for the Toulouse-Sète. Bike delivery services may be more affordable for the shorter stretches rather than the whole route.
Organised bike tours of the Canal du Midi
A number of tour companies - both large international firms and smaller local ones – operate tours along the Canal du Midi. Mostly these are self-guided tours with luggage support and pre-booked accommodation. You can use our Organised tours section to get started.
Accommodation for cyclists Canal du Midi
Click on the icons in our map for links to the bike-friendly accommodation along the Canal du Midi and its feeder regions, or browse our where to stay section by searching the relevant region in the brown search box. If you are thinking of combining a cycling tour in France with a live-aboard canal boat holiday, see our article here.
The Canal du Midi is the RED route below (you can click on it) - I've highlighted the whole Canal des 2 Mers route for people cycling coast to coast.
Books and maps
For French readers, there is a guide to cycling the Canal du Midi available from the Association Vélo Toulouse. IGN also has a guide in French The French publisher Rando Editions has this Canal du Midi guide for cyclists and walkers.
This website (again in French) has maps and additional info.