For our third walk (without yet paying or providing any documentation – shh!), Tom and I joined the group for a full-day Monday outing, this time further afield, starting from the small village of Montferrand, to the northwest of Castelnaudary.
A hardy bunch of us gathered at 8am in the dark of a cold, misty morning at the Quillan railway station and were assigned a car to share transport. Our driver for the day was Bernard, a local, and we were also joined by Yves, a former road worker, who grew up in Axat and now lives in Quillan. He used to work on the road gangs for the routes nationales, cutting and maintaining those roads owned by central government. Now he is one of the few, if perhaps the only, local who cuts and maintains the walking tracks in the surrounding hills. He is full of local knowledge and tips, and generous with his thoughts. A great companion to have for a two-hour car ride – particularly when the driver is profoundly deaf!
Our drive took us north to Limoux, across the Razes wine-growing area to Castelnaudary and 12km up the road further towards Toulouse, to the small village of Montferrand. After several misfires we finally found the right exit road. The instruction had been to meet in the parking du Cimitiere. I did not think it could be possible to get lost in a village this size, of only a hundred or so inhabitants, but apparently it is. The cemetery was nowhere to be seen, and we got left behind at a fork on the road by our convoy, but we did become very familiar with every little lane and byway through the village. Eventually we were found at a lonely intersection at the back of the hamlet and escorted back past the Mairie (a third time), down the hill to the church and cemetery – located well outside the village proper. Obviously.
Having parked and got ourselves sorted, we headed back up the hill and through the village, through now familiar territory – though on foot this time! Village lanes gave way to grassy tracks and pathways. A walking stick can come in handy for particularly rocky or muddy sections. Tom was in his element.
At the top of the village we were rewarded with our first great view, down towards the canal in its line of trees. That was the climbing over in the first ten minutes. The remaining five hours would all be flat, or downhill. The benefit of a canal walk.
This particular high point had a more practical use than just viewing the countryside though. It is the site of one of the network of phares aeronautiques – lighthouses that were used to guide early flights from Dakar to Toulouse at night time along the path of the Canal du Midi. Fascinating.
This windmill sign, indicating the driveway for a former watermill that has now been converted to a lovely private residence, would prove to be an indication of things to come.
Just around the corner, slightly surreal in a line-up along the hill beginning with an old stone church tower , was a host of slightly less romantic wind turbines. They dominated the plain. Some people do not like the way these are built in such places, but I think in most cases they add interest, rather than spoil the landscape. They are certainly spectacular.
At a round in the corner, we came upon an isolated little vegetable plot, tucked away in a wee sheltered spot. The vegetables looked like they were prospering. Cauliflower, brussel sprouts…
Our next way point was the little village of Avignonet Lauragais, with a beautiful church, and some quite lovely little houses, wonderfully maintained. This would be an idyllic little spot to have a house.
Evidence of the local dialects is everywhere – a sundial is painted on the side of a house with the words ‘Here passes the shadow of time’ in Occitan – literally the langue d’oc after which this area is named.
And from there it was a short walk down to the canal, across the main road, under the railway tracks and the rattle of a passing train, and down to the lock. It is fair to say, this being the first opportunity to take a leak in about three hours, that most of the ladies in the group were more interested in the water closet than in the waterway.
The canal is a feat of engineering, but also now an attraction for more than just commerce, being popular with pleasure boats, walkers and cyclists. Back in the day, you would walk along unmown grass verges. These days the canal paths are neatly maintained and in most cases paved.
Every lock has its lock keeper’s house. That seems like a pleasant enough job. These days most of the locks seem automated too.
Right alongside, is a cute little pair of houses, nicely renovated, for sale. Appealing. Although it’s a fair way from anywhere here. Lovely spot for a quiet holiday though, right on the lock, with parking space for your peniche.
Having started half an hour late from Montferrand thanks to us wayward stragglers, we were late for lunch, so very pleased to finally arrive at our designated picnic spot, at the Seuil de Narouz. There were once plans for a canal basin here until it was discovered the water was too salty, I understand, so the plans were abandoned, and just large fields remain. Entrance is via a grand promenade of plane trees, some 200 years old, affectionately known by one local as L’Allée du Roi. We spread ourselves around the available picnic tables and tree trunks, for welcome sustenance. Those who had brough hot soup in flasks were the envy of others of us with our bare baguette and salami, given the cold.
After lunch, a quick side trip was called for to the local site of interest – an obelisk commemorating the engineering genius behind the canal – and also noting the local legend concerning the two large rocks on which the obelisk is built. Folklore has it that if ever the two rocks touch (moved by the winds of time), the end of the earth is nigh. Clearly France is not subject to as many earthquakes as New Zealand, or the world would have ended some time ago.
The trees around here are magnificent, even without their cloaks of green and gold. This one appears to have mushrooms growing on it.
Cutting away from the canal and back across the main road, we joined a little-used D road through the woods and back up the hill to return to Montferrand, closing our long loop through pleasant scenes of rural life.
Having completed our 15km, we had earned the right to afternoon tea of local almond biscuits and chocolates, washed down with artisanal apple juice or locally produced cider. I hope the curate would have approved.
Patrick from Rouvenac attempts to pop the cork.
Rest easy walkers.