After cycling a section of the Spanish Meseta on mountain bikes, we arranged to rent cruising bikes for France. Our next goal? …. To transverse France via the Canal des Deux Mers.
After cycling a section of the Spanish Meseta on mountain bikes, we arranged to rent cruising bikes for France. Our next goal? …. To transverse France via the Canal des Deux Mers.
“The Canal des Deux Mers” or “Canal of Two Seas” is a waterway located in France that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This seaway is composed of two man made canals. The Canal du Midi was first to begin construction and was completed in 1681. It’s length is approximately 241 km and runs between Toulouse and Etang de Thau, France. The building of this canal was under King Louis XlV and is considered one of the greatest works of the 17th century. In contrast, the Canal de Garonne was built in 1856. This latter canal is approximately 193 km and runs between Bordeaux and Toulouse, France. The construction of these canals was originally motivated for development of the wheat trade.
Traveling in Spain from San Sebastián to Bordeaux, France can be challenging since there are no direct trains between these two cities; so here is how it is done. First you need to catch the Euskotren from the Amara train station (not the RENFE from the San Sebastián station) and take the train to Hendaye ( Spanish/ Basque spell it Hendaia). The ticket machine will say Irun, ugh! So BUY the ticket for Irun which costs around 3 euros and takes about 40 minutes. The ticket agent may say Irun and Hendaye are the same. Actually Irun is on the Spanish side of the border with Hendaye (French spelling) being on the French side. When you walk out to the train with your Irun ticket the train will say Hendaia. Part of the confusion arises from the Spanish and French rail lines. They have an agreement that Spanish trains can go as far as Hendaye in France while French trains can go as far as Irun in Spain.
Next, after arriving at the Hendaye station in France you can continue on via the TGV train to Bordeaux. The travel time takes about 21/2 hours at a cost of 30 euros. Easy!
It was early morning when we arrived at the Amara train station in San Sebastian. We needed to purchase tickets to Hendaye in order to make our next train @ 9:45 leaving from Hendaye to Bordeaux. Also, like many transportation hubs this time of day, it’s not so unusual to encounter thieves looking for unsuspecting tourists. So, as we attempted to operate the ticket machine one questionable young lad insisted on helping us. Allan shewed him away, but he swooped in between us anyway and changed the language from English to French. He then wanted to take our money to put in the machine. Although we didn’t give it to him, he probably was just a nice young man helping out a couple of tourists. Maybe. I’m not sure if we were paranoid or just being cautious. For now I’ll take the latter.
Soon afterwards we befriended an English speaking couple Curt and Rosa from Brisbane, who had questions about getting to Hendaye. They were frustrated with the language barrier since Basque is more prominently spoken here. We soon realized that we were all on a similar route going to the Hendaye station and then changing to the 9:45 SNCF train. We however would be getting off at Bordeaux, while they would be headed farther south to Toulouse.
While on the train we swapped travel stories and adventures. It was about then that I had misplaced my train ticket. This was important because I needed it to put in the turnstile in order to pass through to the Hendaye station on the French side. As I fumbled in my backpack I noticed two more dubious young fellows behind us. Neither passed us ….because…. They didn’t have tickets. I really felt vulnerable. Finally after finding my ticket and passing through the turnstile, they took off. Again I can’t over emphasize that as a traveler, especially in unfamiliar places, you need to be aware of your surroundings.
Once in Bordeaux we headed for the apartment where we would be staying for the next two nights. The proprietor Laurence gave us excellent directions, requiring only a 10 minute tram to the city center. Our stop was at Place de la Bourse, where Laurence met us a short distance away.
We booked our accommodations Apparts en ville de la Bourse through Bookings.com. It was a good price in an excellent location. However, it was smaller then expected with low ceilings and a tiny spiral staircase. Typically this wouldn’t be a problem, but dealing with bikes the next day could be an issue.
But tomorrow is tomorrow. So instead of dwelling on the logistics of our bikes, we embarked to explore this beautiful city and hopefully find a laundromat!
We awoke to clear skies and eager to explore the city. Our tour bikes http://www.o2cycles.com were to be delivered between 900 and 1000am and we scurried around to be ready. We were on the second floor and could peer down onto our street to spot the delivery truck. Tick- tock. We were ready at 830 . Tick tock . We called at 1015 but got an answering machine and at 1030, he showed up. Yay! It was like Christmas for grown ups. New bikes, helmets, saddle bags, bike locks, tubes, tools and water bottles. The Cube brand bikes were solid, with clean shifting and disc brakes. They were an upgrade from the rust bucket rentals in San Sebastián and the ” Stupid Crate Bikes” in Burgos. We couldn’t wait to take them for a spin and I headed for St. Jean bridge the start of our bike path. I wanted to pre run it so there would be no floundering around the next morning. Over the bridge I went and the crowded streets of where we were staying gave way to clear trails with minimal traffic. Nice.
I returned and we hit the city riding up, (or is that down?) the Garonne canal. Well it was towards the Atlantic and soon enough the river got wider and there were some cruise ships docked along the shore. We spotted what appeared to be a huge Arc of some sort spanning the river , and there are two big Arcs in Paris so we didn’t pay it much attention. We found a riverside cafe to have some coffee and enjoy the view. All the people watching and dodging was fatiguing. It was then that we heard a loud announcement being repeated in several languages and finally in English. The bridge was lowering. Unlike a typical draw bridge, the “Arc” was a bridge in which the center span was lowering from four huge pillars to complete its bridge function. It took about 10 minutes to lower the massive span and photos do not do justice to the enormity of the structure.
We rode back taking a side trip into the Sunday fresh market and it smelled so good. It was too crowed to ride through so we walked the bikes for a bit before heading back onto the bike path.
Our next stop was at the Esplanade des Quinconces. This square is not only the largest city square in Bordeaux but also in France itself. In the center of the square is a tall column topped by a winged lady statue made of bronze. The statue symbolizes liberty and victory.
At the base of the column is a fountain with bronze sculptures of horses drawn by chariots. One side of the fountain symbolizes “the triumph of the Republic” and the other side represents “the triumph of Agreements”.
During the Second World War German soldiers dismantled the statues in search of metal. The statues were later recovered in 1944 and returned to Bordeaux to be reinstalled.
At lunch time we grabbed a table near a plaza only to find out that were not offering sandwiches or meals. Instead they offered a cheese and salami plate with Pate de Foie de Porc which was excellent. A street performer set up a slack rope similar to a tight rope and entertained us while we ate. He worked the crowd for tips and he was packed up to move to the next plaza all within 30 minutes. I appreciated his business acumen: make them laugh, give them your greatest hits, leave them wanting for more and move on.
Once a year all the French monuments in Bordeaux are open for free, even the ones normally off limits, for a two day period. And we got lucky. We had noticed a line at the Porte Cailhau and decided to give it a spin. It looks like Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland and it was the gate tower of the city’s former walls. You will see many of these Ponts in towns and cities often with a road going through them. The old walls protecting the town from invaders have come down to let the traffic in, but many of these Ponts are left intact. We waited in line and it did not move. After 15 minutes, they let in 6 maybe 8 people. We would have had an hour wait so we headed back to the apartment for a siesta but a heard a rock band warming up close by. I drifted off to sleep as they played a song to sound check and startled awake commenting ” the drummer is rushing!”. It’s a curse.
The Musee national des Douanes was next door to our apartment so we walked over to watch the band and view the museum. The display signs were all in French but we ambled through it. It appeared to be a museum about early Bordeaux commerce trading and military artifacts. There was a stuffed lion in the corner and we were not sure where that fit in.
We had not had any pizza on this trip and were craving some. The restaurant down the street was a pizzeria yet when we got there all 4 tables were taken. We moved on and ended up eating our best meal on the trip at an Indian place. I had chicken curry and Marla had chicken Marsala. It was delightful.
We awoke in Bordeaux and loaded the panniers. It was the first time we had ever used panniers and it took some fiddling to pack our one backpack into the two panniers evenly weighted.
The bikes were left in the narrow hall overnight that led into the spiral staircase of the apartment. Thankfully no one complained about the tight squeeze to get by the bikes. I heard some young ladies descending the floor above us and I hurried to meet them and to apologize for blocking the hall but they went by so fast I never saw them. So, no worries.
The bikes were loaded and off we went through near empty streets. The day before was congested with Sunday walkers and cyclists. The canal to St. Jean Pont was now a breeze and the Browns were averaging 22 km per hour aside the canal. The tourist area immediately turned, non- tourist and we were told later that this was the part of town to avoid after dark. This section is about 10 km of industrial buildings and soon it’s more rural bordering the canal to Latresne. We made it to Creon, our first potential over night stop, and halfway point, by 1130 so we pressed on after some coffee.
At Latresne you enter the town on your left, before an immediate right onto the famed Roger Lapebie cycle path and we overshot it. I saw the sign and it was too late to turn so I hit the brakes and heard a senior citizen watching us snort something I interpreted as ” idiot “. He was right, it’s a hard sign to miss.
Roger Lapebie was a famed racing cyclist who won the 1937 Tour de France. The bike path is for bikes and foot traffic only. No cars are allowed and the road signs are scaled down in height and size for cyclists. The pathway follows an old rail way line and it cuts through the countryside, vineyards and fields. It is quiet, well maintained and there are no highways nearby.
At one point we entered a 500 yard long curved tunnel with motion activated lights that illuminate each section as you approach it. However the lights would delay long enough so that you were literally riding in the dark for a couple of seconds before the lights for that section came on. I could not resist making spooky noises while riding it. The acoustics allowed Marla and I to talk in a normal volume to each other while she fussed with her phone from opposite ends of the tunnel. Neat.
It’s the best bike path I’ve ever been on for 32 glorious km. Unlike the well signed bike path, the route to our Bed and Breakfast was not. You know it’s bad when the post office gives you the wrong direction. Doris our psychotic GPS was spitting out different directions at each stop. A local was baffled even after calling the owner. We were at a crossroad with this local and to help with the communication I drew a simple map of two crossed lines and his house on on the corner. I held the pen to him and gestured for which way, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He didn’t know which way to point us.
We headed back into town and got great map from the gift shop owner and arrived at the bed and breakfast within 20 min. The owner was not there, but his neighbor who was then called him. He was not expecting us because we did not confirm our confirmation to our reservation. Confirm your confirmation? The room was to be ready in 3 hours as he was still at work. All the restaurants in town were closed for the afternoon or for the season and we ate food from the market. After 77 km it was a delicious meal and company was good.
Our hosts were a wonderful couple, the room was great and we had a very nice quiet wifi free evening and another travel adventure story.
After a great nights sleep we awoke to rain. So to wait out the rain we sat down to a wonderful breakfast prepared by our charming French hosts Nicollete and Francois. We started with the cafe ole as ordered the night before. In addition to this we had fresh fruit of plums and strawberries, croissants with marmalade, a basket of sliced baguettes and homemade yogurt. When it was time to leave the rain had let up a bit…. but only for awhile.
Upon our departure we decided to double back to the office of tourism, just to make sure we had the best route to Reole. The town of Reole was our half way point today and also would connect us back to the Garrone canal. This was wise since there are very few road signs. Also this stage is considered one of the most difficult. Navigating even with directions and the physical endurance required to get up the hills makes this section challenging. We made it to Reole in good time even with a few wrong turns. Once in Reole we visited their Office of Tourism to help direct us to the canal.
After Reole we headed to Meilhan-sur-Garonne with a headwind and even heavier rain. Part of the route was by canal and part by road. Also, since there was so much rain the night before and our laundry had not dried …. We attempting to dry our fine delicates off the back of our bikes. This did not work well!
We arrived in Meilhan-sur-Garonne around 2:30. We had time to kill since our accommodations at Gite Au Jardin would not be ready until 6:00pm. A Gite is like a small guest house that is rented out. We had difficulty locating the place and found ourselves once again asking for directions at the local post office. The postal clerk gave us accurate directions. The Gite was located through town to the left of the bar, going over the bridge, passing the campground, to the right, down the street and then making a left on a “petite rue with a tiny sign”…. and voila ……there we were!
Since it was still too early to check in and the proprietors were not available, we left our bikes in their garden then walked back to town to eat. Unfortunately all three of the local bars and restaurants were closed… again…. So we went to the “marche” and loaded up on provisions. As we walked and gobbled up food, we came across a park with an incredible vista over looking the Garrone canal and the Garrone river running paralleling to each other.
We awoke to clear skies!
Our Gite included a breakfast that we powered down before hitting the bike path.
The first 10 km went by in a blur as the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. Mile after mile of old sycamore trees three feet in diameter space about 10 meters apart. They offered great shade bordering the canal. It was easy riding and well marked, unlike our Gite the previous night.
In Beze-sur-Baise we met a couple from Kent, England at yet another closed restaurant. They chatted about touring in their camper van and being snowed in at a market parking lot during a December visit. There was a discussion about the number of closed eateries during this off season. We headed up the hill into the town of Bezet. And there it was! An opened restaurant with real hot food! Bezet-sur-Baise is known for its wine, but that winery was closed too, and we dug in to some smoked salmon and a mushroom omelet. It was so good and with soup for only 28.00€ out the door. It was not our everyday lunch, but after two days of market food, we deserved it.
The next 10 km went by quickly in a daze of post feasting bliss. We actually don’t remember much about this part of the path except that salmon. And then like death and taxes, the numbing of the butts occurred. Why does it hurt so much if it goes numb? Because when the the blood returns after taking a Butt Break those nerves wake up, that’s why. We started talking Butt Breaks about every two km and of course coasting down the opposite side of the bridges.
We arrived in Agen with 78 km on the odometer. This was our longest ride. There was maybe 4 or 5 km of checking out some towns for a restaurant,so it was a long butt numbing ride.
We had met Richard from Ireland who told us that lodging was scarce in Agen and that a farmer over heard him asking in a market and put him up for the night. Marla in her ever organized way had booked Agen weeks in advance finding that all the hotels were booked. She found a room in town that looked a little dodgy on the Internet and we were curious what it was going to be like in the flesh. Doris, our temperamental GPS, (I would prefer to say mental), was programmed to find our accommodations at Le Secret 47 by using longitude and latitude thinking that she might respond to this information better. Doris took us on three turns and I took a moment in front of a bakery to catch my breath and a local for directions. A charming gentleman actually went out to his car to get his reading glasses to help us. Doris was right! We still asked a policeman at a barricade when we overshot a street and then later a city street worker when I knew we were close……
…. and we were close, about 10 feet from the door. There were no markings, no sign and no number on the door. But there, if you looked close was a 3″ x 5″ piece of paper telling how to ring the door bell. I tell you it’s like they don’t want to be found, or easily found. Incredible. Why in America….. The room was two flights up and small. Also inside the room the desk/dresser was adorned with some kind of “magic crystals “ things…. interesting. I was asleep in 1 min for a short power nap. Enough of a nap to eat pizza down stairs at the restaurant below, crawl back up and pass out.
Today we had a late start from Agen, but we needed to find a market for provisions. We couldn’t find one that was open so we settled on a bakery who sold sandwiches. After a quick cup of coffee and a couple of miniature croissants we made it to the bike path by 1030. No worries since Moissac is only 52 km down the canal. A leisurely ride with a hotel booked at the other end.
On the canal we kept passing another couple, Marilyn and Warren from Ottawa, whom we eventually befriended. We bonded even closer when we encountered Marilyn with a flat tire. Allan helped them fix the tire while I gawked in amazement at my husbands skill and expertise. Between the 4 of us we had all the tools and patches required for the operation.
While chatting with Marilyn we swapped stories of our lodging the night prior. It was difficult finding accommodations in Agen even though I had booked months in advance. Marilyn explained that there was a Firemans conference where the French president would be in attendance. As a matter of fact, most accommodations within a 40 mile radius were booked. That would explain why so many of the streets were closed off. The Ottawa couple found shelter in a farmers tear shaped camper. Suddenly our nights stay at “Le Secret 47” sounded like a mansion.
We also befriended another couple from England who were biking the canal by renting a car and staying at gites. They would transport their bikes to the section of the Garonne canal that they wanted to explore for the day. When done they would pack the bikes back on the car and return to their gite.
We took a brief stop at a campground near Valence to eat our sandwiches. Marilyn had given us one of their tomatoe and brie sandwiches that the farmers wife had packed for them. She also had loaded us up with grapes from the farm. We ate that first and it was honestly one of the best sandwiches that we have ever had!
After lunch we explored the campground which had a building Abattoir Public (public slaughterhouse). The date on the structure said 1882. The building now seems to be used as a refuge for campers and cyclist. Inside was complete with big red meat hooks.
We made it to Moissac around 4:00pm. Our accommodation at Le Pont Nepoleon was wonderful. This hotel is a small family run business with only nine rooms and a restaurant downstairs. It was very easy to find right off the canal. Also we were only charged 63 euros including breakfast.
We had time to explore the town of Moissac in the early evening. We headed toward the Saint-Pierre Abbey ( Abbatiale Saint-Pierre). We did a quick look and see then settled in for dinner at a nearby cafe.