Canal du Midi: Capestang, Carcassonne & Castelnaudary

Day two in the Occitanie started with a hearty breakfast as we were keen to cycle even more miles alongside the wonderful Canal du Midi.

Simon fired up the cadac barbecue and began frying up some sausages and onions whilst I was despatched to collect what I thought was a ‘baguette traditionnelle’, which I had ordered the night before – such is the strict protocol on a French campsite.

I had forgotten that each region does its own twist on the ubiquitous French stick.  This one was presented with a cheeky smile from the campsite owner, a two foot-long crusty thin loaf with medieval looking spikes.

Slightly embarrassed and receiving knowing nods and smiles, I followed the glorious fried onion aromas back to Bertha and presented Simon with something which looked like it could have been used in a Gladiatorial battle ring. 

A sunny breakfast at Colombières

After visiting Béziers yesterday, we biked 50kms in the opposite direction to the lake town of Capestang. Bravely we stayed on the bikes through the Tunel de Malpas which was a dark musty 173m long and home to hundreds of pigeons nesting in its limestone walls.

Having cycled through the tunnel we then had to carry our bikes up the 90+ stone steps to rejoin the towpath on the opposite side of the canal.

Le Malpas: Europe’s first navigable canal tunnel

Leaving the tow path to cycle country lanes we were treated to wide reaching views across the Languedoc vineyards. Coffee at Capestang was a welcome break in a sleepy central square before the ride back clutching a baguette.

A late afternoon wine sampling was the reward at the small cellar of a young winemaker in Colombières. Sylvian and his little son were delightful and his wine fantastic and thankfully less than a mile from our campsite.

Moving further west to a campsite at Trebes we biked the 15kms stretch of canal to Carcassonne. The walled and towered Cathar city is a medieval jewel in the rugged hilltops. In a perfect state of repair its scallop tiled and pinnacle watchtowers look out over the vast landscape towards Spain.

The fortified town of Carcassonne

Inside the town walls boutiques, eateries and expensive hotels were busy with happy visitors all of us charmed by the winding streets and pretty squares.

It has a bloody past being the site of the conquered Cathar and later Protestant uprisings but under blue skies and sunshine it was a sparkling and content place.

Staying on the canal further west we biked another 30kms round trip from our overnight stop on a pretty French farm owned by a German couple, to hopefully sample the famed cassoulet of Castelnaudary.

Our route to town was along a windy ridge and it was tough going in open rolling hills of cereal and white bean plantations. We puffed our way up to a restored windmill, one of 20 that would’ve ground the wheat from the surrounding fields.

Aude valley views from Moulin du Cugarel

The town was smaller than we imagined and felt run-down which was surprising.

The 7 hectare ‘bassin’ which turned out to be the home of a huge fleet of tourist ‘le Boats’ was also home to weathered and greasy looking campers and caravans – travellers who had come to the end of their particular road and who sat talking and smoking along the banks of the dark water.

The Grand Bassin of Castelnaudary

We cycled the canal route back as far as we could and were amused to discover that on leaving the bassin with a ‘le Boat’ the first challenge of the new pilot is to navigate through a section of three consecutive sluices to pass through the first of four locks which we saw in a five mile stretch. “BANN-joor” brave American citizens!

The canal route home

A sampling of cassoulet proved too costly for our budget at 15-35 euros a portion (!) so we opted instead to buy a three euro tin branded from Castelnaudary at the local supermarket.

Carefully avoiding the duck and goose options we tucked into a mighty stew of Toulouse sausages with black lentils, and spiced it up admittedly with some extra garlic, onion and smoked paprika. Oh and added some goat cheese on to melt at the end. A delightful cheat’s dinner!