France intro                                                                                        < Previous page          Next page >
Day 10 - Highest point of the canal
March 12, 2010              Castelnaudary to Villefranche-de-Lauragais              16 miles
Thomas Jefferson plaque
This is a 2009 plaque erected on the wall of one of the lockkeeper's cottages on the continental divide. Thomas Jefferson visited and studied the Canal du Midi in 1787 with a view to creating a similar canal between the Potomac and Erie rivers in the U.S. My translation* of the plaque reads as follows:

Thomas Jefferson
Symbol of Franco-American Friendship

United States Ambassador to France 1785-1789
Third President of the U.S. 1801-1809
Principal author of the American Declaration of Independence 4 July 1776

Lover of France, he journeyed through our territories and promoted to the U.S. our heritage – architecture, lands, culture, humanism. He shared our values of liberty.
With his friend. La Fayette, he played a key role in the drafting of the French Constitution and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789

1789 –2009
A bridge for liberty
220th anniversary of the French revolution

* corrections welcome

Canal W of Castelnaudary
Table and canal
I arrived at Bram station in perfect time for my short ride to Castelnaudary - the train was waiting. With the ticket office closed in the early morning, I made sure I exactly followed the process explained to me on Day 8.

I got to Castelnaudary station as early as 7.45 am, and it's just steps from the canal. It was a flying start to the day.

Yesterday, I had worn seven layers of clothes on my torso, and been none too warm. Today's warming trend caused me to cut back to four layers. But, if the temperature did actually rise through the day, it wasn't all that noticeable. The headwind that's been so prevalent came back, and chilled away whatever warmth there might have been. There's some rain in the forecast, also, but I got Seattle-mist and Surrey-cloud instead.

If you've wondered why the canal never freezes in these temperatures, well . . . it does. I saw ice stretching right across it in one section sheltered from the wind. Of course, boats would likely cut right through such a thin layer. But, then again, I haven't seen a single moving boat in all my approximaterly one hundred miles.

I stayed on the canal for about eight miles straight this morning, and with mounting anticipation. That's because I would soon reach the continental divide, at 189 meters (620 ft), at which point the locks started their downward trend, just as expected. Moreover, on the stretch of canal between the last "Mediterranean-oriented" lock and the first "Atlantic-oriented" one, the water supply from the Black Mountains enters. We've talked about that previously here. But actually seeing it was impressive for more than I show in my pictures. On a particulate level (physics-speak), the thought of one particle of water entering the canal from the Black Mountains and turning towards the Mediterranean - while its immediate neighbor turns to the Atlantic, all by design - it almost boggles the mind.

Of course, it was a brilliant inspiration to replenish the canal water that runs to each coast with a supply drawn from a dam built many miles away in the mountains and led here by its own canal. But, like an engineer, imagine what it must have taken to assure success before the massive earth-moving and lock-building project created the canal. They had to know what amount of water was needed, a no-small feat, requiring a knowledge of ground absorption, evaporation, lock usage, irrigation draw, and lock leakage. They had to match this water need to the cachment water that was available for the dam, and then design the dam and its
controls. They had to consider the impacts on rivers that ran into the canal, or which used to be served by water now captured for the canal. All this had to be known for drought as well as flood, and everything in between. A whole range of hydraulic, but hand-powered, controls had to be invented to make it all work.

They did all this without a single internal combustion engine or amp of electricity, using primitive surveying instruments, hand-written communications, and no computers. When they'd finished, they'd created a nearly 300-mile waterway that transformed south western France.

Ducks and geese were plentiful, with the geese flying in and flying out almost like they were in a waterpark. Just one swan was also present.

The canal towpath had delightful variations today, all of them acceptable for hiking but ever-changing for interest. There was a section of blacktop. A section of gravel, some of it new and clearly a repair for muddy patches. There was the usual hard dirt, and for a change some grassy miles. Approaching the canals, the tow path usually rises so that hikers and bikers don't face an abrupt elevation change. I reach each lock eagerly, and read the distance to the next, pausing to look at the lock-keeper's cottage, and his yard. Dogs bark in the distance, horses on nearby fields may bray, ducks quack, and geese squawk. Boats, when I see them, are nearly all boarded up - as are restaurants. Humans are rarely in sight.

It's fascinating to imagine the activity in summer. I've read that 50,000 boats are on the canal.

Eventually, I needed to leave the canal for a few road miles into Avignonet Lauragais and then my destination of Villefranche de Lauragais. But, with a renewed headwind - the force of which was strongly communicated by frenetically-active wind turbines on a close-by ridge - I decided to make a real stop for lunch. It was pizza time, French-style. The crust was thin and crisp, the cheese bubbled, the onion nicely-brown, and Hobson ate a large one while chatting to the store owner.

Feeling revived, I also chatted to cabinet-maker Claude Thuriés. Claude has his store and his workshop on the main street of Avignonet Lauragais, and what marvelous furniture he makes.  It's all done from solid wood, even curved-sided pieces with scrolls. Words and my pictures do not do it justice. If you are ever here, drop in on him.

It was a long day but with an early start. I was tired towards the end. The Hôtel du Lauragais has seen better days, but has a fine dining room with a roaring "walk-in" fireplace. It also has wifi, so I managed to upload this and previous days' reports. I also plan to connect with Jennifer by Skype when she gets home.

Finding accommodation for tomorrow was its normal time-consuming challenge. It's a fairly comfortable two-day's hike to Toulouse now, but that's assisted by finding accommodation halfway between here and there. Using the Internet, I located a motel at Donneville, but the owner's French was totally beyond my comprehension. The solution, once I saw it, was to ask my current hotelier to make the reservation. Duh.

Highest point and last up lock
Above: Sign on the first lockkeeper's cottage east of the continental divide
Feeder canal entry
Above: In this north-facing shot, we see the canal which brings water from the Black Mountains; it feeds the Canal du Midi to the right and Canal latérale à la Garonne to the left.
Below: The sign which somehow signifies this
Parting of the waters
Highest point and first down lock
Above: The sign on the first lockkeper's cottage west of the continental divide.
Below: Claude Thuriés, cabinet maker, in
Avignonet Lauragais. 
Claude Thuries
< Previous                                                     © 2010 Daryl May                                                           Next >