We spent today in Arles, an attractive town south of Avignon. It was an easy level ride of around 10 miles from our campsite on our (temporarily) unladen tandem and, although it poured with rain just as we arrived (this time we had rain gear!), it soon cheered up to turn into a pleasantly warm day.
Arles is an historic town, with plenty of Roman structures and sites, and interesting medieval streets. It’s also a town very much associated with Van Goch, the Dutch painter who spent a few months here at around the turn of the 19th/20th century. He produced many works here but also, whilst here, suffered a breakdown, during which he notoriously cut off his ear.
We visited the Hôpital de Dieu where Van Goch spent some days following his breakdown. The pretty courtyard inside was the subject of one of his more popular paintings.
We paid a visit to the 12th – 14th century Cloître de St. Trophime and marvelled at the expressive detail in the world renowned carvings and sculptures which decorated the cloisters.
There are reminders of Van Goch’s works scattered around the town, many of which are marked by visual displays of his painting(s) in the setting in which they were created…. mostly still quite recognisable..
We explored a few examples of Arles’ Roman heritage including a theatre, huge amphitheatre and remains of Roman baths.
We enjoyed wandering around the old streets with its interesting doorways and attractive vistas.
We even visited a little gin distilliery installed by Jamie Baxter one of Molly’s Clerical Error friends, set in an old house with a beautiful courtyard to the rear.
After a happy day, on our ride back we were fortunate to come across a hare at close quarters. It stopped to study us before scampering off into the undergrowth. It was the first time either of us had seen a hare at such close quarters!
It has been a tradition since the 15th century that Gypsies from all parts of Europe and further afield come together, taking part in a pilgrimage to Les-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate their patron Saint Sara on 24th and 25th of May each year.
Originally, most came in their brightly painted traditional horse drawn carriages, but nowadays, caravans and motorhomes are used. There’s rather a nice piece of background to this occasion written by a blogger, Sara Aran, who lives in Gers and runs a company providing bespoke travel tours in southern France. You can find her article by following this link to her website.
We pedalled the 23 miles to Les-Maries-de-la-Mer from our campsite in St. Gilles, following quiet backroads across typical Camargue scenery of rice paddies and shallow lakes, interspersed with farms growing grapes for wine.
We passed an intriguing multi-storey stork’s nest that seemed to be shared with a range of different bird species, flitting in and out of crevices and holes.
Because we were following smaller roads we were able to take advantage of a free ferry service that crossed the “Petite Rhône” just before Saintes-Marie.
We were glad we were arriving at our destination ‘á velo’ since the Gendemerie were preventing any motor vehicles from entering the town on the outskirts.
Once there, we were greeted by throngs of people – lots of tourists like us, but also plenty of gypsy-like people who were obviously speaking various languages other than French.
Impromptu performances of guitarists and singers all around the town ( think music like the “Gypsy Kings”!) often prompted dancing adding to the general festive atmosphere.. commentators on the festival describe the feeling that Gypsies have in taking part as coming home to be amongst like minded friends.
The main objective of our journey was to witness the procession from the Church with the effigy of the black Santa Sara headed up by Camargue horsemen “Le Guardiens”.
There was a supposed schedule but inevitably, timing was a bit wayward; eventually, after the reliquery was lowered from its niche high up in the church, and lots prayers and blessings from the churchmen and congregation, the procession began…
It was quite a spectacle with crowds lining the streets and the horseman leading the effigy of Santa Sara, the patron Saint of travelling people.
As the afternoon drew to a close we saw ominous grey clouds on the horizon so we decided to start our journey back to the campsite by the most direct route we could identify. Sadly just a few miles in the rain started with a few heavy drops, then more persistently… and a significant headwind started to add to our discomfort. The weather forecast had predicted sunny weather with a low chance of rain late evening.. so we hadn’t taken our raingear with us…
Two drowned rats arrived at the campsite after an hour and a half of pedalling against driving rain which was not that warm.
Fortunately our campsite was close to the town centre, so after changing into warm and dry clothes, we were able to purchase a welcome eat-in meal in the warm at a Turkish takeaway with large greek style salads and two large portions of frites.
Our tandem provides a very convenient clothes drying facility for the few items we needed to dry
overnight ready for our journey. With the sun being quite strong and with decent temperatures it doesn’t take long to dry off our towels and washed cycling gear.
On the road again, we were headed toward Arles, most often known in association with Van Goch who stayed in the town for a few years whilst receiving treatment for his diagnosis of mental illness.
Most of the way we were hugging the coast, passing salt lakes and rice paddies, with our paths often lined by tall bamboo.
The coast is clearly a magnet for holiday makers, but there were some elegant examples of new builds with a very modern look to them.
These buildings were in La Grande Motte.
We enjoyed another beachside picnic next to a bar for our lunchtime refreshments, before continuing on our way.
We passed through/round Aigues Morte which had a very old and very impressive wall all around it. Sadly we didn’t have time to explore since we needed to get to our campsite before it got too late.
We were headed for somewhere close enough to be able to cycle to the great Gypsy gathering at Les Maries de la Mer. Sainte Gilles fitted the bill with a little campsite tucked in behind the main street.
We started the day by following little roads from our campsite to take us onto the path beside the Canal du Midi. The towpath then took us down the flight of locks, along the aquaduct and away from Béziers.
The path towards the coast was surprisingly well surfaced so we kept a good pace to reach the Mediterranean at Marseillan Plage near Agde.
On the way, we passed a very complicated piece of engineering, where the Canal crossed a seasonal river.
The structures enabled the canal to be shut off completely when the river was in full flood. This meant the silt from the floodwater didn’t silt up and eventually block the canal.
Agde is where the canal flows into an étang with Sete at the other end. Sete is supposed to be the end of the Canal du Midi, since it gives access to the sea..although we could locate as we passed Sete.
We enjoyed the feeling of achievement of crossing from the Atlantic to the Med, and celebrated with refreshing cool drinks at a beachside bar.
Our picnic spot was on the warm sandy beach overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. We only paddled in the surprisingly cold feeling water (our swimming kit and towels were buried deep in a pannier) so we decided swimming was off the agenda, even if the sun was shining!
From the town of Marseillan we travelled along a lovely cycle path that ran along a thin spit of land with the Med on one side and a salt lake on the other to reach Sete.
Negotiating Sete was a bit of a trial, with lots of holidaymaker apartments and one way streets, that then led on to various port infrastructure and the HGV’s and busy roads that go with it.
We didn’t manage to find where the Canal du Midi met the Med, but it didn’t seem as though we missed much.
Further on we passed lots of what appeared to be holiday residences as we travelled, which is not surprising really, when you consider how close lovely sandy beaches are!
Beyond Sete we were then looking for campsites for an overnight stop… deceptively, we found ‘camping’ is a term that often only means motorhome stops… or banks of chalets with no room for tents in between.
Four fruitless attempts, after a long day’s cycling, eventually brought us to Vic-le-Gardiol a small village with a small campsite situated just beyond the village. On passing we noticed this village had its very own flamingo pond!
Arriving at the campsite after ‘Reception’ had closed, we pitched our tent in a spare plot that, although level, had rather a lot of sharp feeling stones which made the groundsheet rather uncomfortable to sit on… fortunately our airbeds provided good cushioning! Nevertheless we had a good night’s rest.
The day, disappointingly, started with rain, but we needed to get into Béziers from our campsite to get provisions for the day and tomorrow’s breakfast before shops shut for the Sunday closing at 1pm. So we donned our waterproofs and pedalled the 6 miles into town.
Shopping completed, we then explored the city on our unladen tandem. We came across the town’s market hall, which seemed to be the Sunday lunchtime social space. Popped in for a welcome Pastis et un vin rouge out of the rain till it stopped.
These are a few sights in the gallery below.
Lunch was in the Cathedral precincts overlooking the river, which was nice to enjoy since it was now a dry afternoon.
Having found out where to join the Canal du Midi we dropped down from the old town and crossed the aquaduct, taking the canal over the river Orb.
It’s amazing this was 17th century engineering..
We then followed the Canal to the famous flight of 9 staircase locks taking the canal up and out of the city.
There were only 7 evident, but when you think when the canal was built it is really impressive.
Having negotiated the locks on the accompanying path we enjoyed a pleasant Pastis at a bar at the top with a great panoramic view of Béziers and its surrounds.
There was a lovely bar at the top with a great panoramic view.
Travelling back to Columbiers and our campsite along the Canal, we decided to walk through the tunnel whose entrance we saw yesterday as we passed by. This was about 2km beyond our campsite.
It was fascinating looking at the rock formations the tunnel passed through hewn out by the navvies of the past.
Tomorrow we head for the (Mediterranean) coast and the end of the canal at Sete just south of Montpelier.
A day on and off the Canal du Midi…. We were torn between travelling along the path alongside the canal, mostly a gravel surface, often deeper gravel, and whizzing along well made roads with the wind behind us with the occasional soft incline to cope with.
So we tried to judge the surfacing by the open source mapping we were using and avoid the rougher sections.
A nice lunch stop at a village called Homps meant we could buy supplies for dinner and the following day’s breakfast. We shared company with a large group of friends making a tour along the Canal on their electric bikes. who had sorted out a way to provide the legendary French Picnique accompanied by local Minervois wine by having someone with a campervan who provided provide necessary table cloth (to cover the public picnic bench), provisions and wine!
Onward, we travelled more along the canal enjoying the quiet, with birdsong although I had to concentrate quite hard to keep a straight path on the gravel and it meant we had to keep to a stately 10 mph on the level…
We passed a few “churches” (ecluses – locks) as we travelled.. one lock keeper obviously enjoying creating eccentric artworks!
Then on the road again…. With the wind behind us we were cruising at around 18 – 20 mph. The day was a little overcast but warm enough, and we could see vegetation that looked of a more arid climate than previously, with olive trees shielding vines along the road.
As we neared our campsite for the night, some 8km from Béziers we passed the entrance to a short tunnel on the canal. Bearing in mind the canal was constructed in 17th Century it is quite a feat to complete… And one wondered how the horse power negotiated this stretch when it looked like a very path existed beside the canal through the tunnel.
A well made up country lane took us into Colombiers, a small, sleepy village with a small campsite. We arrived as rain started to fall, so we practiced our wet weather pitching of the tent.
We stayed two nights at a well appointed, yet decent priced campsite almost at the foot of the medieval city of Carcassonne. This meant we could spend a day exploring this historic town. A 20 minute walk up an attractive streamside path took us to the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The first glimpse was looking over a field with poppies in bloom. It felt as though we were medieval pilgrims reaching our destination, especially, as we climbed up a steep cobbled path leading to one of the two gates of the Cité.
We were greeted very atmospherically by a busker playing a ‘hang’ instrument, with the gentle gong like sound echoing off the stone.
As we made our way into the walled city it, understandably, became fairly busy with all the visitors coming to enjoy the sights, very much as we were!
With all the turrets and massive walks it all had the look of a fairy tale castle, complete with towers where Rapunzel would have dangled her hair to be rescued by a gallant knight!
Having had our lunch on a part of the ramparts, which peculiarly was pretty quiet we wandered the narrow streets of this walled town. Very much a touristic honeypot, but certainly well worth the visit.
In the afternoon we exited by the “Porte de Narbonne” to get to the lower town with its Bastide layout.
We wandered about, very much enjoying the atmosphere and its history all afternoon. After early evening drinks in the main square we finished off with a delicious, yet simple, meal at a Lebanese Restaurant just off the main square.
We returned via the old city, as the light was fading, managing to catch an ice cream shop open, even though the crowds had disappeared.
Tomorrow we’re off to Béziers. The Mediterranean coast beckons!
Le Camping Violette turned out to be an ideal stopover for velo randonneurs. The facilities were well thought out, including little tables next to outdoor sockets for charging phones, powerbank batteries and possibly even electric bike batteries
– overall the site was well managed and not too dear at around €10.50 for each of us … it deserved a 5 star rating from us.
Today was a day along the Canal du Midi… well surfaced cycletrack along the tree lined broad waterway that was built in the 17th Century.
Picturesque lock-keepers’ cottages beside each lock as we climbed to the reservoir basin at the peak height of 189mtrs above sea level to provide water for the operation of the canal and locks on each side of the summit.
Each cottage had the distance to the next lock and also the previous lock on a board attached to the house.. Initially I thought they were the distances to the nearest churches … confusing the French word recluse ( lock) with the word eglise (church). So now we called each lock coming up a church!
As we crossed from Haute Garonne Dèpartement to Aude Dèpartement the surface of the path deteriorated markedly and ended up being largely unrolled loose gravel – not an easy material to negotiate on a fully laden tandem. Fortunately it was relatively easy to seek out an almost parallel route on lightly trafficked ‘D’ roads instead. Our progress much helped by a following wind!
We were struck by the proliferation of wildflowers along the roadside verges. The time of year helped, but also the lack of use of herbicides was apparent.
We reached Carcassonne at around 18:00 and made our way to a well appointed campsite which we had found, located at the foot of the medieval city walls. Looking forward to exploring the city tomorrow!
This day was in search of Pastel (Woad) the dyeing material that gave Toulouse its early wealth.
A short half day ride to Labége took us to a Pastel museum just outside the city boundary.
It was also the start of our journey along the Canal du Midi to the Mediterranean coast.
Molly was interested to visit since she uses indigo in her textile work and teaching workshops. It was interesting to learn about the material’s early history and its connections to the city and the area we were passing through. Although the displays were naturally enough in French, with the animated contribution from the museum staff in basic english, my understanding of basic French and the various videos with subtitles, we gained a pretty good understanding of the material’s history and its modern renaissance with the growth of interest in low impact, vegetable based dyes.
A further short ride along the Canal du Midi took us to a really nice campsite at Dayme,