By Inntraveller Brian Baker
(Not boring…and certainly not flat.)
Having had our last four breaks with Inntravel exploring Spanish Islands, we thought to return to France this year where we first teamed up with them some 22 years ago with our children in tow. Once more reduced to a couple, we were seeking a week’s action… but not too much: we had not done a lot of cycling recently and a canal must be flat so what could be easier than a ride on the Canal du Midi in June before the summer strikes and the tourists flock?
We were lucky with the weather. The storms of the previous week or so had given way to more seasonal weather and a heatwave did not pounce until after we had completed our ride.
Inntravel break you in gently, allowing two nights and one full day to explore the delights of Carcassonne. You stay in the quaint Hotel Le Donjon, which is more beautiful and comfortable than its name implies, allowing you to explore the mediæval Cite both before the invasion and after the evacuation of the many day-tourists. (For the first night, Inntravel had happily booked us a reservation at La Table d’Alais for a dinner which proved to be outstanding). It’s only on Day 2 that you first make acquaintance with the instrument of torture you are to befriend over the next five days of cycling.
We climbed on our bikes on Day 3 a little stiff, saddle sore and somewhat apprehensive of the 53km and hill climbs away from the Canal which lay before us. An easy 15km later, we stopped at a little coffee bar overlooking the Canal (which was alluring enough for us to return to the next day as we passed by on another route). We climbed away from the Canal here and eventually started to leave the flood plain, passing through the beautiful village of Mailhac and upwards towards the garrigue and Minerve – the high point of our circular route.
Only occasionally were we forced to dismount by the gradient: gear 18 wasn’t much faster than walking pace and it was a relief to exchange one set of muscle utilisation for another. After 33km we were ready for some lunch and having reached La Caunette were delighted to discover a recently renovated restaurant, La Cave. To have cycled passed this would have been a tragedy. In a beautifully air-conditioned clean, characterful dining room we enjoyed probably the best set-menu we have had during many years of visiting France. A salad of thinly sliced raw cauliflower suitably dressed and garnished was followed by a Jarret de Porc cooked and served in a succulent bed of puy lentils and washed down with a fruity but smooth carafe of house red Minervois. A home-made pannacotta concluded the repast. My coffee raised the bill for two to 31.00 euros!
Continuing upwards to Minerve thereafter, did not seem the challenge we feared and we took time to explore this old Cathar village: former site of a mediæval religious purging.
Scenically, however, the highlight was yet to come. Upon leaving Minerve we followed the route alongside “Les Gorges de la Cresse” over which the town was perched. Here, having to dismount to push upwards and onwards was a blessing as it afforded the opportunity to view the gorge more carefully. Sadly a light rain had started blowing off the garrigue to our north and we had to conclude this traverse of the hills and our speedy and joyful descent to Cesseras in cagoules. In fairness, however, the wind dried the rain almost as swiftly as it brought it. Thereafter, it was plain sailing, if a little damp, to return to our B&B in Homps. The day’s route had been a delightful detour from the Canal and one which we were to repeat the following day further to the East as we moved on from Homps to the hillside village of Cruzy.
The last two nights were spent in Narbonne and the bike itineraries were short enough to allow time to visit the sights of this former Roman city of commerce. Thanks to the Canal de la Robine (an off-shoot of the River Aude and Canal du Midi) which runs through it to the sea, Narbonne is remarkably accessible to bikes on which you can ride almost to and from the door of your hotel in the middle of the historic centre of this lively metropolis.
On our last cycling day out from Narbonne, as recommended, we set off towards the sea and Gruissan in particular. Alongside the Canal de la Robine we were exposed to an ever more powerful westerly wind and although it was often beneficial we were once again a little apprehensive; this time about the return journey. We passed the marshy former wetlands accompanied by the song of various birds audible when the wind dropped to the Etang de Gruissan backed by the small sea side hill, capped by a fort and surrounded by its village now a small holiday town. We lunched well in one of the many seafood restaurants then boldly decided to extend our route down the dyke across the Etang to Grazel to Gruissan Plage where beach huts have turned into a holiday village of chalets and, of course, the beach. Once on the dyke we could not believe our luck as at no point during the 2.5km traverse did we have to pedal: the wind carried us along at a creditable 20 kph all the way!
Although sunny, it was too breezy for anything but a brief stay so we decided to confront our return. On our walk back along the dyke with our bikes, we were entertained by the fleet and occasionally flying kite surfers on the Etang, jealous of their ability to harness the wind’s power rather than labour against it. We managed to remount as we passed Gruissan town and strike back to the Canal. Glimpsing the steeple of Narbonne’s cathedral was a welcome sight and we reached our hotel after another good day’s activity with enough energy to enjoy our last evening in Narbonne.