1) The sheer variety
I was especially captivated by the varied landscapes on this trip. The rolling countryside was beautiful and I was very excited to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Pyrenees. I particularly enjoyed the mixture of towpath and country lane cycling. I loved the tranquillity of the waterside but deviating from the canal led us through vineyards, olive groves and rural villages that it would have been a shame to miss. The week’s most spectacular ride was through the flourishing foothills of the Montagne Noire and along the Gorge de la Cesse – skirting along here was quite something! Ending at the coast felt like we’d earned a reward: after meandering through salt marshes and lagoons, and arriving at a lovely port and marina, we couldn’t resist cycling a little further to dip our toes in the glistening Mediterranean, and to enjoy a stroll along the sandy beach.
2) It's not simply pedalling from A to B
There were lots of surprises along the way that kept us pedalling. On one of the canal paths we came to a lock displaying a collection of inventive sculptures made from all kinds of materials: scrap metal, wood, machinery – the lock keeper had clearly found himself a pastime! Locks are also great strategic points for refuelling: we were nearing the end of one ride when we came to a lock with ice creams for sale – an ideal excuse to pause and watch a boat being assisted through the gates. On another occasion, midway through an uphill section, we came across an eco-friendly garden shared by a pottery and mosaic studio, as well as a local wine merchant. Again, we couldn’t resist stopping for some rest, relaxation and refreshment!
3) The contrasts
The accommodation provided great variety, each place offering its own particular charm. Staying at Hotel du Donjon within Carcassonne’s citadel was very special, and getting deliberately lost in this ancient fortress was great fun. I also loved the medieval décor – a tasteful assemblage of antique furniture and eccentric curios. At Le Jardin d’Homps, I particularly enjoyed sitting in the guesthouse’s shaded garden with an early evening aperitif, though its history is also interesting, with furnishings echoing the period when it belonged to one of the area’s most important wine merchants. A stay in Cruzy felt like a lovely immersion into French village culture. Indeed, just as we arrived, a speaker on the town’s tannoy summoned everyone to the square where the mobile butcher was temporarily displaying his wares. Inntravel’s guesthouse here, Le Clos Mazerolles, feels delightfully homely, and its sun terrace and colourful bedrooms lend it a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Our final hotel, La Résidence in Narbonne, occupies a splendid location: just metres from the canal path and the historic centre, it won me over with its beautiful, art deco style interiors.
4) There's food galore!
In Carcassonne, at the outset, we opted for cassoulet, the wholehearted regional speciality, in an attempt to stock up our energy levels for the week ahead! Thereafter, whether at a simple bar or a fancier restaurant, the food was just as good. When a set menu had been prepared by our hosts, we took pleasure in eating home-cooked meals and in finishing all that was put before us. Picnics tended to be more spontaneous: we would seek out goodies along the way, and it was never too long before we came across a suitable café, boulangerie or épicerie. We had not planned for our trip to coincide with market days, but fortunately we encountered Carcassonne’s vibrant Saturday morning market as well as Narbonne’s canal-side weekday stalls. We also took a tour around Les Halles – the most impressive indoor market I’ve ever seen.
5) A wonderful welcome
In this part of the world, a warm welcome seems to come just as naturally as the cycling. Although arriving in an unknown city can sometimes feel disorientating, we soon felt at home in both Carcassonne and Narbonne. In Carcassonne, we were escorted to our hotel by the porter, who gave us an entertaining mini guided tour while manoeuvring through narrow gates and the maze of winding streets. The hosts at Homps and Cruzy made us feel very comfortable and quite reluctant to leave! And the bike suppliers, too, were there to greet us with our bikes and made sure that we were correctly equipped and comfortable. This is all part of the service, of course, but it was great to feel well looked after right from start of our trip.