77km: Blagnac – Castelnaudary.
While on the plane waiting for takeoff, the pilot and co-pilot introduced themselves over the speakers. The pilot then announced that we were bound for Bordeaux.
This freaked out everybody on the plane, except for me since I didn’t hear the announcement.
Yann was translating the announcements: the pilot quickly corrected himself and reassured us over and over that we were indeed headed for Toulouse, NOT Bordeaux. “Sorry folks, we are most definitely not going to Bordeaux. I just haven’t had my coffee. But I swear I can fly this plane.” (I like to invent translations.)
Had we ended up in Bordeaux, it wouldn’t have been a real problem. We had no hotels booked. We only had a vague idea of where we were headed once we landed in Toulouse.
We were on the aptly named red-eye flight that left the night of the 22nd and brought us and our bikes to the Toulouse–Blagnac Airport (TLS) at 10H30 the following day. We had hoped (TLS) was one of those airports that have a bike stand available for quicker assembly.
They did not.
We had to unpack and build our bikes in front of the oversized baggage area, wowing passersby with our quick-assembly skills. There wasn’t anyplace to put our boxes and discarded packing material, so we stuffed the boxes with our garbage and rode away from our mess. Nefarious slobs!
The first day, we did just 77km, cycling on a wide, paved path along Canal du Midi. This should have been an easy ride, except we were rather sleep-deprived. We were fascinated by all the houseboats docked along the canal but our constant yawning would have led one to believe otherwise.
We ended up in jovial Castelnaudary in time for their tightly secured Cassoulet Festival. Anybody trying to smuggle a weapon into the town would be denied a dish of meat and white beans!
The contents of our panniers seemed to overwhelm the security guard, so Yann offered to expedite the process by asking, “What are you looking for? We can tell you whether it’s something we have.” Cassoulet from a rival town? A bomb…? Wait, is there really a risk of terrorists bombing a cassoulet festival in a small village like Castelnaudary?
Yann’s question appeared to cause the security check guy to feel self-conscious about the ridiculousness of his duty as he hastily waved us in.
This pescatarian rebel purchased yogurt, granola, and bananas at a grocery store amid all the cassoulet stands.
I ate my sad dinner in the communal building of Camping Municipal La Giraille, located just a kilometre away from the village of Castelnaudary. Just a few minutes after we paid for the patch of grass where we were to set up our tent came a torrent of rain. Later in the night, a thunderstorm showed up.
This was the worst weather we experienced during our trip, and we got to be dry inside our tent while it happened. Not once in our 13 days of cycling did we have to ride in the rain.
109km: Castelnaudary – Carcassonne – Villerouge-La-Crémade.
We were fairly sure there were no bears in Castelnaudary and if there were, that they’d head for the leftover cassoulet from the festival rather than dig into our bag of generic granola.
We were correct in assuming our food was safe from bears, but we forgot that ants exist in France. Les fourmis found their way past the piece of duct tape that half-sealed the bag shut. For the ants, it was the Fête de Granola de Camping Municipal La Giraille: a party that was quickly broken up by Yann and me when we dumped the bag’s contents onto our plates and picked out the ants. I may have inadvertently eaten an ant or two but whatever, it’s protein.
We were to continue along the Canal du Midi bike path to reach Carcassonne. This path, which had been wide and paved the previous day had turned into gravel and subsequently, a bumpy dirt path as narrow as 6 inches.
“What’s this? A bike path for ants?!”
It was just wide enough to take us into Carcassonne, about 36km away. We went from exclaiming, “This is a bike path?!” to “This is a street?!” Example:
France gives their drivers a lot of flexibility when it comes to parking options, as well as where one can drive their car. The “footpath” in the above photo isn’t a footpath: it’s there so cars don’t have to back up out of a full parking lot.
In Canada, particularly in Montréal, parking zones are fluid: a legal parking space can turn into a no-parking zone within hours. Not to worry, there are signs along the way denoting where and when you can park, although they are sometimes unclear. Or always unclear if you’re French like a work friend of ours who has a collection of parking tickets from the city of Montréal. This French friend just doesn’t understand why it’s illegal to park on the sidewalk or in the opposite direction. If it were possible to park his car upside-down, he would have definitely already tried doing so.
It was the French hoarder of parking tickets who recommended that we visit Carcassonne. Yann and I were looking forward to dropping our bikes off at a hotel and then exploring the medieval citadel by foot but every hotel we tried was full.
So, yes, we saw La Cité of Carcassonne… from a distance. Now we had to further distance ourselves from these historical walls.
We headed for Narbonnaise en Méditerranée Natural Regional Park where we knew would have older stuff to be wowed by, namely mountains.
We were in wine country. In the Occitanie region of France, if you’ve got even the tiniest bit of land where grapes can be grown, there shall be grapes!
Did I steal a single grape? Guilty. What did I think? Seedy.
It was around 18H when we hit the small town of Thézan-des-Corbières. We had already exceeded 100km and were starting to worry about not finding a proper place to sleep, to the point that Yann started talking to the locals. After following a failed advice by one of the locals, “See the tobacconist, he knows everything,” Yann and I stopped in front of a group of middle-aged residents who were hanging out in front of the town’s main street. Yann inquired about hotel or campsite options; the 6 or 7 of them, clearly thrilled about the prospect of fresh gossip started talking over one another. Being unable to lipread French, especially French spoken by those with too-few teeth, I was worried their message was going to be that we were completely screwed: there was nowhere for us to stay for thousands of kilometres.
Yann, with his perfectly good hearing, understood that they were all giving the exact same advice: there was a campsite a few kilometres away. The real debate was whether said campsite was 3 or 4 kilometres away.
I am almost tempted to fly back to France to inform these denizens of Thézan-des-Corbières that this purported campsite was more like 5km away. Due to the intense headwind we rode into, it felt more like 10. We never did make it to this fabled campsite as we took a turn into the little town of Villerouge La Crémade. There was a little sign promising of a warm place to stay just 400m away.
We buzzed the first building with the official Gîtes de France plaque displayed out front: no answer.
We are definitely going to have to pitch our tent somewhere in the middle of a vineyard in this wind, I thought.
“I am going to try further down the street,” Yann announced. I was not optimistic.
Then! I noticed his arms flailing from a distance. He had found a nondescript building that promised us a hot, full meal complete with wine and dessert! No way. Homemade smoked salmon quiche with zucchini and eggplant ragout? With peach cobbler as dessert? No way. A huge bedroom with high ceilings? Shut up and take our money!
“Would you like to have dinner with us and the other guests?” asked the couple who ran the gîte.
This sort of question would usually get a definite “NO!” from me, but knowing I wouldn’t be expected to interact with the other guests, and the promise of a homemade meal had me going, “Mmmh, of course. Of course!”
Good god, this place was incredible. I was fully prepared to have to squat to pee in-between two rows of grapevine somewhere in the region of the D-106 road, not too far from the sparsely-toothed, quarrelsome locals of Thézan-des-Corbières.
It was a pleasure being the first Canadians to stay at Les Terres Basses in more than half a decade.