HISTORIC FRANCE BY BIKE
In the middle of what proved to be the wettest June since records began, the chance to see a bit of sun and take part in some leisurely cycling in the picturesque Midi-Pyrenees region of France was simply too good to turn down.
I packed my suitcase and headed for Bristol Airport early on a Thursday morning clothed in a light jacket with the hood pulled up to protect my head from what had become an all-too-regular summer shower. "I can't wait to see the sun", I thought to myself, as I disembarked the shuttle bus that dropped me at the terminal.
Just a few hours later, I was not disappointed as I stepped on to the Tarmac at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport to be met by an arid heat and my first proper sighting of the sun for a number of weeks. "Yes, this is more like it," I thought.
I shrugged off my jacket, which wasn't to be seen again for the next four days.
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The early start meant that our first taste of cycling along the spectacularly scenic Canal du Midi – a 240-mile stretch of water built in the 17th century to serve as a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – would have to wait until the following day.
It offered an opportunity to spend time exploring what Toulouse had to offer. What we found was that la Ville Rose (the Pink City) – so called because of the pink brick on many of the buildings – is a vibrant place with plenty of fantastic shops, tasty French cuisine, splendid architecture and fascinating places brimming with religious and historical significance.
Our first stop was the Japanese Garden in the centre of the city. Located in the Compans Caffarelli, the garden is a place of tranquil pleasure, just a footstep away from the busy streets of France's fourth city – behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille.
We were soon back among the populace for the rest of the day, during which we took in a very pleasant and extensive tour of "Toulouse along the water" which opens the way to the Canal du Midi, Canal de Brienne, lock of Saint-Pierre and the Garonne River.
A trip to the Notre-Dame de la Daurade basilica followed. Our aim was to see the Black Virgin of Toulouse – one of more than 500 of the mysterious dark-skinned statues that continue to inspire fervent devotion across the globe.
Then it was on to the vast architectural splendour of the Basilica St Sernin church – a major stopping place for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain. Afterwards, we took lunch in the gracious surroundings of Place du Capitole.
Overlooked by the grand City Hall, of which the people of Toulouse are particularly proud, and the 18th-century buildings converted to shops and restaurants, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, without chivvying by waiters concerned about maximising customer turnover.
Eating in France is an event. Is it any wonder when you consider the quality of food on offer? The choice on the menus in each of the eateries we visited was wide enough to cater for all our tastes. Lovers of duck in particular had no problem securing a fix. The people of Toulouse love it. It's everywhere.
We moved on to spend an afternoon in the medieval fortified town of Revel around 40 minutes away. Founded in 1342, the idyllic place has an impressive covered market lined with 14th to 18th century houses. It was here we got to learn some of the history behind the Midi Canal, where we were to begin the cycling part of our trip the following day.
The extensive waterway was created to join the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic, enabling traders and merchants to avoid a turgid month-long journey around hostile Spain on a route littered with Barbary pirates.
Pierre-Paul Riquets started to work on a solution to the problem in 1662 by digging a canal to join the Thau lake to the Garonne river near Toulouse. Riquets established a complex water supply system and put into place titanic works to ensure its navigation. His system boosted the region's economy development and UNESCO listed the Canal du Midi as a world heritage site in 1996 to highlight the size of the endeavour and to honour all the artistic areas along the canal.
We arrived at Renneville lock the next morning, where our bikes were waiting for us to begin for our first experience of the Midi Canal on two wheels.
We followed a flat, tree-lined route that would have taken us as far as Germany had our legs not decided the game was up after almost 20 miles – conveniently outside the fantastic Restaurant I'Ecluce in the Castanet-Tolosan, where we enjoyed another superb lunch.
The next day we arrived at Valenve d'Agen to pick up our bikes again, from where we completed another 20-mile stretch past fields and fields of pretty sunflowers before arriving at our next stopping place – the town of Mossaic, which is famous for the artistic heritage preserved in the medieval Saint-Pierre Abbey.
The abbey – another popular stopping place for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela – was impressive, as was the town's famous chasselas grape juice. I preferred the sparkling variety, finding it particularly refreshing, if a little sweet.
We had an enjoyable stay in the comfortable 18th-century Armateur Hotel before straddling our bikes again for the final 20 miles of our cycling adventure.
We just had time to make one stop in the town of Montauban, built in 1144 by the Count of Toulouse with a market square known as the "place royale". The square was equally impressive, if not more so, than the one we visited in Revel two days earlier.
And then it was on to the airport and home. I stepped off the plane in Bristol to a typically cool and cloudy English Sunday evening. I wondered when could I go back to France.