As mentioned in my last post on this topic, I have struggled with this question, as there are so many wonderful things to enjoy along the Canal du Midi. But there are some problems with the condition of the towpath that are difficult to overlook. On the one hand, there are segments of the route that are breathtaking, with an almost iridescent light reflecting off the water and the plane trees. On the other hand, there are severe variations in route conditions, with the path often deteriorating in an instant, with no warning. On the one hand, numerous books and articles describe the Canal du Midi as one of the best bicycle itineraries in France. On the other hand, online reviews by many who have bicycled the route describe the route as dangerous and poorly maintained. Do these statements really describe the same route?
In fact they do, and that’s part of what makes recommending the Canal du Midi so challenging. There are so many wonderful things about the Canal and the surrounding vicinity:
Beautiful towns and villages
Charming, affordable lodging options
But then there are many things about bicycling along the Canal du Midi that make it challenging for even the most experienced cyclist:
- General lack of bicycle trip planning resources for the Canal
- Little knowledge of local bicycling routes in tourism offices along the Canal
- Few publications/maps available, most are for boating and most are very outdated
- Lack of signposting along the route
- Inconsistent path surface varying from wide paved surface to wide dirt and gravel path to narrow dirt/grass path to rutted out dirt paths with deep potholes
- Paths that go from 4-5′ wide to 1′ wide or less with no advance warning, making travel impossible for many, especially cyclists traveling with panniers
- Overall poor maintenance along the towpath
- Deep ruts caused during rainy periods making parts of route very dangerous for cyclists
- Exposed plane tree roots along the itinerary that require cyclists to be constantly vigilant
- Several areas where the towpath literally disappears into the Canal
- Many areas with no alternative routes to impassable sections of the Canal
- Numerous areas with narrow paths less than 6″ from Canal on one side and 4′ or higher grass on other side
- Areas where one quick stop or one wrong move in a rut would result in a trip into the Canal
Despite the negatives, there are several nice, safe segments along the Canal and there are many low traffic deviations off the Canal worth exploring. I would definitely like to spend more time bicycling the quiet roads of the Corbieres and Minervois vineyards, I would like to spend a week or longer exploring bike paths near the beautiful town of Marseillan on the Bay of Thau and I would like to bicycle the Canal de la Robine to Narbonne. The Languedoc-Roussillon region has a lot to offer cyclists, but I don’t think that bicycling the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sete should be at the top of the list of offerings in the region.
In defense of the path along the Canal du Midi, it’s important to note that it’s a towpath, primarily an unimproved towpath, not a bike path. It’s managed by the Voies Navigable France(VNF), a public organization that oversees 6,200 km of canals, 40,000 hectares of public rivers and 3,000 structures. While the VNF cooperates with local authorities who want to improve sections of the towpath, bicycling on the towpath is clearly not a top priority for the VNF.
Interestingly, according to a 1932 law still on the books in France, cycling is not even allowed on the towpaths along the canals in France! The only exceptions are stretches that are subject to an agreement between VNF and the local authorities. According to the af3v website, VNF has a certain tolerance for bicyclists in some regions, but not all. This is why it is still recommended in French guidebooks that cyclists get approval from the VNF before bicycling along the Canal.
According to the VNF website, the current maintenance of the banks performed by VNF is sufficient for the purposes of navigation(boat traffic), but often insufficient to guarantee the safety of cyclists. Great for boats, not so great for bicyclists. With this information, it becomes easier to understand the drastically varying path conditions along the Canal du Midi. As a bicyclist along the route, you spend a lot of time wondering if anyone is in charge of maintaining the towpath. For now, it appears that the answer is basically no, except for areas near moorings and the locks and areas maintained by the local government.
The good news is that the VNF is working to develop a long-term solution that will provide better paths and safer conditions to those interested in bicycling along the Canal. Achieving this will require extensive coordination and cooperation between the VNF and the local, departmental and regional authorities who will ultimately renovate and build the cycle paths and greenways, and oversee and maintain the paths. Coordination and cooperation of this type, particularly based on the financial investment involved is difficult in any country, and France is no exception. Despite the challenge, it is encouraging to know that they are working on a solution, and that there is hope for improvements along the route in the future.
In the meantime, what is my recommendation regarding the Canal du Midi?
If you are a recreational cyclist looking for a fun, safe and comfortable cycling experience, this itinerary is not for you. Bicycling the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sete is definitely not suited for beginners or families. While there are segments of the route that are memorable, the inconsistencies in the surface and width of the towpath make cycling the entire route much better suited to experienced mountain bikers than recreational cyclists. Regardless of your cycling ability, if you can only choose one destination for a French bicycling vacation, there are many other options that offer safer cycling conditions, better support services and signposted itineraries. Perhaps 10 years ago, before the growth of the new generation of safe, signposted veloroute and voie verte in France, the Canal du Midi may have been a good option, but today there are just too many other options for recreational cyclists.
If you, like me, are determined to see the Canal du Midi before the destruction of the majestic plane trees, be aware of the conditions and plan ahead for what you’ll encounter along the way.
As a starting point, plan to go in June, July or August if possible, but definitely not in a rainy month. A day or two of rain will leave many parts of the route impossible to bike. I recommend that you rent a mountain bike, not a hybrid and not a road bike, and that you travel with as little baggage as possible. Next, read the road reports of cyclists who have cycled the Canal path recently so that you can plan deviations where towpath conditions are particularly bad. I have just posted a link to the Canal du Midi trip reports of Jennifer Margison in the Reader Update Section, located on the my home page under Trip Planning Resources. There are seven posts on her experience along the Canal, and each can be accessed by using the next button at the bottom of each page. In addition, I will also be adding more posts on my experience along the Canal du Midi.
I’ll continue to keep you up to date on improvements along this itinerary. In the meantime, if you bicycle along the Canal, I hope that you will send me a note on your experiences and route conditions. I plan to communicate with the regional and departmental tourism officials, encouraging them to move ahead with improvements to the towpath along the Canal similar to the beautiful new bike path between Marseillan Plage and Sete. This new car-free path replaced a dangerous route along the busy, congested N112 and has become a major tourist attraction in the area. Similar increases in tourism could result along the rest of the Canal if conditions were improved.
I look forward to the day when the paths along the Canal du Midi provide a safe, signposted bicycling adventure similar to the routes along the Loire and the Burgundy and Ille et Rance Canals.
In the meantime, here’s my final report card for the Canal du Midi as of this date in August, 2013. Watch for updates in the future:
- Scenery along the route: A+
- Attractions along the route: A
- Signposting along the route: D
- Safe and uniform cycling surface: C-
- Affordable lodging near route: A+
- Support services near route: B-
- Trip planning resources: D
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