Isabelle loves Toulouse. We didn’t. Maybe it was the tired red brick, maybe it was the homeless people in their tents alongside the canal, maybe it was Helen having a “must eat, NOW” day, or maybe its joys were simply overshadowed by the challenges of riding the bike through a city. It was pleasant enough, but no more.
Isabelle rode with us into Toulouse. Small in stature, she fitted Rosie’s seat on Argie Bargie, so the children took turns to pedal freely on her ‘normal’ bike. A thrill for all parties.
Grace got one small step closer to becoming famous when we were stopped by TV channel France3 for a segment on the evening news. The girls were particularly cute about it all – urgently removing helmets and brushing their hair!
After warm farewells with Isabelle, we rolled on down to the canal to our home for the night; another Warmshower, this time on a boat!
Our hosts this evening were Clarisse and Fabien, and their 3 year old son Gregoire. They bought the boat a few years ago “it was a compromise between Clarisse’s desire to live in the country and my desire for a complex engineering project” explained Fabien. We took care around the electrical wires over the bath/shower, slept in 100 year old timbered quarters (very confined) and had to contort ourselves to get up and down the steps. It was a novelty for us, and an adventure for the kids, but after we left we all agreed we couldn’t live on a boat.
Fabien was a contemporary thinker and perhaps the ‘youngest French brain’ we have stayed with. We enjoyed sharing a beer and hearing his views of the world, and watching Clarisse ‘mother’ in an oh-so-French way.
It was with great trepidation that we set off in the direction of Castelnaudary – we had heard and read many reports of the trail degrading from a good bitumen path to a single-trail rut replete with tree roots and pot holes, perched perilously close to the water’s edge. Just two weeks ago Helen had met someone who had helped retrieve a rider and his bike from the canal!
On the other hand, albeit not quite in equal measure, we had had such reports dismissed as being written by road-riders and others unnecessarily scared by dirt. Despite years on mountain bikes, with our quad tandem we probably fell into the scared road-rider category! We would discover The Truth for ourselves.
Abruptly on the ‘You are leaving the Haute-Garonne’ sign, the trail turned to dirt and narrowed. That said, it was entirely rideable all the way through to where we broke out for Mas-Saintes-Puelles for our third successive Warmshower. We started to diss the nay-sayers.
Our greatest challenge was the wind. Luckily Rosie was at full pedalling capacity again, her ankle quite recovered, as the gusts almost stopped us in our tracks. Helen in particular, with full front panniers creating a very un-streamlined profile, struggled to make forward progress. With the skies darkening we were happy to arrive at our destination. With our hosts coming home late, we hung out at the tiny general store, eating cheese and salami wrapped around madeleine cakes!
Lionel and Nathalie delivered a very fitting last Warmshower; two comfortable rooms, great food and most importantly a warm welcome and regional insight. They were incredibly sincere people and we hope we meet them again.
In such a nice home environment and with 85kmph winds forecast for the next day, we were relieved to have the invitation to stay extended. We readily accepted on the condition that we could supply dinner – a regional speciality, cassoulet du porc et canard. Nathalie had been adamant we try the Castelnaudary cassoulet and not wait until Carcassonne for an inferior product. Such is the way with French and their pride in regional foodstuff.
And so, well fed, well rested, we rolled out the driveway and back down to the canal for the final stretch to Carcassonne, our fabled end-point. Again, we were curious to see how the trail would be.
Just south-west of Alzonne the trail narrowed but was still rideable, even with the tandem. And then the sign ‘Fin piste cyclable’ and we were spat out onto a road. We knew the trail continued, and were about to hunt for it, when we spied a sign for a local campsite, Camping du Pujole. In no hurry to get to Carcassonne, and with rainclouds overhead, we headed off to break the journey.
And then it happened. After 3942km, Argie Bargie failed. Just 15km from the end. Bottom bracket not just creaking but cracking constantly and feeling rough as guts. We all saw the funny side of it and pushed her the last 2-3km to the campsite, with plans to push her the rest of the way tomorrow.
The campsite proved deserted and run by an unfriendly fellow who advised us against staying, because the grape harvest was scheduled to start that evening in the adjoining fields, with loud machinery running for 72 hours straight. Whether this was the truth or whether he just didn’t want us there we couldn’t be sure, but we wanted out and so did he.
After an hour of tossing around options, we decided to call Lionel who had been very firm about calling him if we ran into any problems. So we did! And half an hour later our knight in shining armor drove Helen and the kids to Carcassonne. We left Argie Bargie under a tree, and Shane rode the ‘normal’ bike into Carcassonne, happy at the prospect of riding solo, finally.
And so, not together, and without the grand entry we had all quietly imagined, we unceremoniously arrived in Carcassonne.
We explored all sorts of options about how best to retrieve the quad tandem (note Shane’s not naming it affectionately) and the long and short of it was that Shane was nominated as ‘most suitable person’. His day went something like this: rise at 5.30; walk 3 km to the train station; catch a train to the village of Alzonne – sorry Monsieur, the train only stops at the next village; did his best to locate a bus or taxi to get back to Alzonne; tried hitching alongside a busy road with no verge; arrived at the bike after walking 7km; rolled down the hill from the campsite (yay!); walked or scooted (not very often) the 18km to Carcassonne (grumble!).
Shane and Tom accompanied Grace back to Paris. Helen and Rosie did some desperately needed clothes shopping. We had a last shopping spree in Decathlon. We wondered around the magnificent old and new cities of Carcassonne. It rained for two days straight. We moved into a hotel for the last two nights when the campsite closed for the season. And we packed up our bikes and belongings.
We sit here ready to fly to England. Our bike trip is over; our love affair with France is not.