At breakfast in the Grand Hôtel d’Orléans I talked with a large Australian on his world tour. He was a fireman back home and had not only obtained a year’s holiday in which to complete the grand enterprise, but had also accumulated an extra year’s salary to help with financing it. It seemed like a sort of sabbatical-leave without strings attached. I admired the dogged determination with which he envisaged getting to his next series of destinations, organising flights to, and accommodation in, a variety of east European capitals with the aid of the computer in the foyer. I also admired the fact that he had left Australia without detailed plans for this sort of thing and yet kept at it for months on end without apparently tiring of the game. This in particular surprised me because he was able to give so little account of his travels so far. He could only reel off a list of hotels he’d stayed in. He seemed unable to remember the names of places and was quite incapable of expressing any opinion on them. He seemed to approach his travels as resignedly as Sisyphus approached the monstrous tedium of his monumental chore.
I was a little peeved to learn from the man at the reception desk that I had to pay as much for the privilege of putting my bike in the garage as motorists had paid to park their cars. Nothing had been said about this the evening before. Anyway, I coughed up and jumped on my bike for a second look around Toulouse – this time in a thin drizzle as opposed to the brilliant sunshine of yesterday evening.
I retraced my route of the previous day, taking a look at Le Donjon du Capitole and at the crowded market in the streets around Saint-Sernin, but I tired of this rapidly and set off for Castelnaudary, my destination for the evening, as soon as there appeared to be a slight improvement in the weather.
The tow-path from Toulouse was noticeably different from its counterpart on the Canal de Garonne. The metalled surface was replaced here by rough gravel and the going was appreciably more difficult. Added to this, the weather was not obviously in the mood for improvement.
My first stop was at Villefranche de Lauragais, where I sat on the terrace of a bar in the main street, watching the rain and determined not to continue my ride until it stopped.
This finally happened at around two and I continued after a brief lunch on the gloomy canal-side to Castelnaudary.
The weather began to improve as I approached Castelnaudary and by the time I arrived there, it was reasonably bright. The distinguishing feature of the town is the large basin formed by the canal. Since Castelnaudary was the technological hub of the canal project in the seventeenth century, this large expanse of water was designed by the canal’s chief engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet at the request of the town’s inhabitants. Approaching along the canal from the north-west you hit the petit bassin and the town’s marina first,
then the grand bassin opens up on the other side of a bridge.
This is probably the best bit of Castelnaudary. The rest of the town is a rather tatty, architecturally uninteresting jumble. I took a tour of the place on my way to find my hotel, the grandly named Hôtel de France et Notre-Dame in the avenue Frédéric Mistral. Much of the town’s network of streets had been dug up for some sort of modernisation project and the few locals I saw cursed as they picked their way to their homes over piles of rubble and building materials and round heavy machinery. It was pretty tough going on a bike, too.
I located the hotel [see: http://www.hdefrance.com/] once I’d negotiated the messy rue du Bassin and managed to identify the avenue Mistral. The hotel turned out to be not just a hotel but also a famous cassoulet producing concern [ see: http://www.cassoulet.com/]. That seemed to solve the usual problem of finding a decent place for an evening meal, particularly as Castelnaudary has the unique distinction of being the world cassoulet capital. I checked in, locked up my bike in the garage (no fee this time) and went out to take a look at the town.
I didn’t much like what I saw. It must be said that I’d made the mistake of arriving in a small provincial town on a Sunday afternoon, when the provincial French are recovering from their lunch behind shuttered windows. I reflected that recovering from cassoulet probably takes some time and wondered about the effects of regular sausage and white beans on the digestive system. The streets were completely empty, even of traffic. Nothing moved, not even the odd cat. But the generally dilapidated state of the buildings, even the prominent ones, didn’t do much to endear the place to me.
I ended the afternoon feeling distinctly queasy and had to decide, with only minor feelings of regret, against the famous cassoulet. I checked out the most prominent feature of the town – at least for someone approaching it on the canal – the Collégiale Saint-Michel. It was looking distinctly worse for wear and showed no signs of life, so it didn’t detain me long.
I wandered the streets until early evening, unable to find even a decent-looking bar. I went back to my room feeling exhausted, nibbled a bit of bread and cheese there and collapsed into bed at about nine. There is something about a boring town and a boring evening spent in such a place that can drive the spirits down. Sleep was the only remedy. If day four had been the most uncomfortable, day twelve was unquestionably the most boring so far.