The last day of what the French called my périple started with slate grey skies, a persistent drizzle and a stiff breeze. I had breakfast with my fellow cyclists – less effervescent, more subdued now than the previous evening – and started off along the tow-path. My destination today was Narbonne and the end of my trip.
‘Tow-path’ is a rather grand name for what was a narrow strip of beaten earth about twenty-five centimetres wide almost overgrown and traversed at regular intervals by the roots from the old plane-trees that lined the canal and that had gone across the path in search of water. It was like riding over gigantic corrugated iron sheet. My panniers were constantly brushing against the earth of the embankment under the trees, the overhanging vegetation lashed my legs and arms, my teeth rattled and my backside… well, less said about that the better! Nevertheless, I kept up a reasonable pace and arrived at the famous Epanchoir de l’Argent-Double near La Redorte.
This épanchoir, or canal overflow sluice, was designed by Vauban and built between 1677 and 1694. Its purpose is to allow excess water to tumble over the edge of the canal through the arches and to fall into the Argent-Double. This little river is a mere trickle in the summer, but after major storms, it can turn into a major torrent.
Crossing the épanchoir wasn’t as easy as it may look: the balustrades are worryingly low and the rough surface of the path threatens to unseat you at any moment. One skid or false move could tip a cyclist over the edge and either into the stream ten metres below on one side or into the canal on the other.
The going along the tow-path wasn’t made any easier by the high water level on several aqueducts that slopped water over the surface of the path and made it treacherous.
I arrived in Homps at around nine,
at Argens-Minervois half an hour later,
and at Riquet’s famous first pont-canal at about ten-thirty. This little aqueduct located near Paraza is notable in being the first to realise what the French claim was Pierre-Paul
Riquet’s invention. Actually, it was more an adaptation of a Roman idea, but the French are very attached to their canal and to the engineering genius of its various contributors.
This little aqueduct was begun in 1676 and is actually the only one completed by Riquet himself.
I stopped for ten minutes or so at Ventenac-en-Minervois, and there my fellow-cyclists from the Domaine des Fontanelles eventually caught up with me. They were very surprised to see me because they were convinced I’d got lost and gone the other way along the canal. They couldn’t believe that I’d got here before them. But there you are! I’d simply made far better time than they had despite creaking limbs and heavy baggage.
To reward me for my efforts the wives of the two macho cyclists gave me lunch at the canal’s edge at Le Somail. Then we set off together for the junction of the Canal du Midi with the Canal de la Robine (or at least with the canal de jonction that leads to it).
The two stringy Frenchmen set a cracking pace and we were soon at the parting of the ways. They carried straight on towards Capestang and I turned right towards Narbonne.
The tow-path of the Canal de Jonction, or Canal de Narbonne that joins the Canal du Midi to the Canal de la Robine is a straight, straightforward and reasonably surfaced run. Here the shade is from parasol pines, rather than from plane-trees.
It was at the beginning of the Robine that the fun started. At the Epanchoir de Gailhousty – a sluice designed to deal with the flood waters of the river Aude – I simply lost the canal and the tow-path. At this point, two canals join the Aude. There’s a lot of woodland and it’s simply impossible to see from the little bridge over the Canal de Jonction where the Robine and its tow-path begin.
A bunch of similarly confused cyclists were standing around wondering where to go. We took a look at the map and decided that we had to cross the Aude first. The only way to do this was by means of an old railway-bridge nearby. We went behind the épanchoir and found a little track leading off into the bushes. Following this led us to an embankment on which numerous feet and bicycle-wheels had marked a way up. We struggled to the top of the embankment and found ourselves on the railway lines, the bridge to our right. We pushed our bikes down the middle of the track and thus crossed the rickety bridge that trembled reassuringly with every step.
At the end of the bridge a break-neck bit of wall sloped downwards to the right towards the river bank. It seemed to be the only way down to the tow-path, so we took it. At the top, there was a drop of a good nine or ten metres on either side, and nothing to hang on to so it had to be negotiated carefully.
Once on the tow-path of La Robine, it was plain sailing right to the centre of Narbonne. I remembered having driven once through thick traffic to Narbonne and it struck me again how privileged the canal-side cyclist is in being able to pop up
- in the middle of major conurbations without battling with motorised vehicles or traversing the rings of ghastly commercial and industrial parks that tend to encircle French cites. I saw none of that – just the familiar green vault of the old plane-trees again.
I arrived in Narbonne at around two-thirty and went in search of my hotel, the Hôtel le Régent in the rue de Suffren [see: http://www.leregentnarbonne.com/?page_id=2&lang=fr ]. The room had the usual unappetizing odour in it that seems to be a requirement in cheap French hotels. So I showered and changed and set off to visit the town on foot.
I took a look at the former bishop’s palace and the bit of the Via Domitia that was discovered to be running across the square right in front of it. This was the first Roman road built in Gaul and was designed to link Italy and Hispania; and seeing a fairly intact bit of it still here was strangely moving. I then went to the half-built Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur just behind the town hall.
The cathedral certainly looks unfinished, both inside and out.
The cloister, moreover is gloomy and clautrophobic despite its having the distinction of exhibiting two Roman columns from the ancient forum that may also have been used in the first church on this site built shortly after Constantine’s edict of 313 authorising Christianity.
Inside, the church looks truncated and not only half-finished as it is, but also in works. It too is gloomy and claustrophobic.
After a walk around the town and an unmemorable lasagne at the suitably named restaurant L’Agora opposite the Town Hall, I went back to the hotel and in the absence of anything better to do, went to bed.
I would have liked to continue riding tomorrow, but tomorrow held nothing more interesting than the train to Paris and then Eurostar to London.