Canal views, majestic mountains, strong winds, vast vineyards, and unexpected castles are just a few things you might experience while cycling in the South of France. After almost a year of exhausting our local bike paths in the Pyrénées-Orientales, my boyfriend/cycling partner and I decided to try something new and take our bikes on the regional train with us and explore the trails of the Narbonne region. Someday we’d like to take a longer bike trip, but going just for the day was our test run. The path we chose was along the idyllic Canal de la Robine and lead to a small seaside town called Gruissan.
Bringing our Bikes on the Train
When you take a TER (regional train), you can bring your bike on board for free; you just need to find the train car with the bike symbol that had a designated space for them. If you are traveling on another type of train like Ouigo and TGV and you can’t fold your bike, you can book a space for it for about 10€. After hopping on the right train car, we found the bike space and hung the front wheels by hooks on the ceiling. It was secure and easy to attach/detach and we found some seats nearby so we could keep an eye on the bikes.
The Bike Path
From the train station, we headed Southwest until we reached the Canal de la Robine, which leads Southeast, then South towards the sea. While still in Narbonne proper, we saw a few barges docked along the sides of the canal. After about 10 minutes on the pavement, the embankment eventually turns into a dirt path, so if you plan to cycle here, make sure your bike/tires are appropriate for the terrain! I have a VTC, or hybrid style bike, which worked just fine over paved roads and earthy trails with some roots and rocks.
Once on the dirt path, we really felt like we were in the countryside. We would occasionally pass some walkers or mountain bikers, but for the most part, we had the trail to ourselves. The way the sun shone on the golden buffer grasses, and how and the bare cedar trees seemed to tickle the clouds above made me feel like I was in a real life Van Gogh painting.
Country Roads Take Me Home
What was also surprising to me was that the Pyrenees, including my beloved Canigou, were still in sight all the way up there. We traveled about an hour along the coast from Perpignan, but since the land is mostly flat, it made sense that the mountains were still in view. The only other time I lived in a place surrounded by mountains was when I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I know I’m also lucky enough to be so close to the sea, but I think I’m a mountain girl at heart. There’s just something humbling, yet comforting knowing you’re surrounded by towering blue peaks.
Eventually we needed to change directions to stay on the route de Gruissan , so we turned left at a winery and followed the bike path signs. As we were cycling next to a field, we saw a chateau in the distance! When I got home I did some googling and found out that it was part of the Capitoul luxury wine estate. I wasn’t expecting to see a chateau that day, but when you live in France it’s not out of the ordinary! After stopping to marvel at the domaine viticole de Bonfils, we followed the Canal de Sainte-Marie all the way to Gruissan.
L’Étang de Gruissan
As we approached our destination, the land around us increased in elevation. Along the Audoise coast, is a small limestone mountain known as the massif de la Clape. There are a few hiking trails around the area if you are interested in visiting the Aude department, but cycling isn’t your thing. And like most places in the South of France, you can visit some vineyards and taste some AOC la-clape wine. I know I mention vineyards most of my posts, but the Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine producing region of France!
Once in Gruissan, we decided to cycle around the lagoon, or étang before checking out the town and its beach. Educational signs were scattered along the banks that shared information about the local flora and fauna. The famous Camargue isn’t the only part of the Mediterranean where you can spot flamingos ; the flamants roses live all along the coast in Occitanie!
A Local Legend
Across the lagoon, can you guess what we saw? If you thought: another castle, you’re right! Yet again, we were surprised to see a small castle in the distance. This time, however, it wasn’t a mansion of a wine estate, but a little Medieval looking tower. Of course we had to investigate, so we cycled into the center of town, locked up our bikes and climbed up to the little fort.
Fortunately, the castle was free and open to the public! At the time of our trip, France was not yet in its third lockdown, but most museums were still closed for sanitary measures. Since this was just a small castle in the open air like a monument/ look out point, it was able to be visited. The little 10th century château-fort was mostly in ruins except for one side of the Tour de Barberousse, which was later added. The “Redbeard” name possibly refers to Barbarossa, an Ottoman pirate, or more likely Barbarousette, a more local corsair. Although the legend remains unclear, one thing is for sure: the views from the castle ruins are spectacular!
The next stop on our cycling day trip was Gruissan Plage. Since it was mid-March, swimming was not an option, but we had a lovely picnic on the sand. It was the perfect weather just to hang out on the beach since it wasn’t scorching hot just yet. Although I would have been ready to go back home after lunch, my boyfriend wanted to take once last detour to see something he spotted on the map.
At this point, the wind was starting to pick up and my quads began to burn. I wasn’t happy about having to see one more thing after the adventure we already had, and would have preferred to save my energy for the return trip. Gazing upon the new site we reached, I took back my resentment, and instead felt happy for exerting the extra effort to get there. The object of my newfound amazement was none other than pink salt marshes!
The Salins get their pinky-purple hues from a beta-carotene micro algae that thrives in salty conditions. We also saw huge piles of salt, ready to be packed and sold all around France. We couldn’t help ourselves and stopped in the gift shop to check out the local products. This meant we’d have to take a later train home, but we still would make it back before curfew so we prolonged our time in Gruissan.
In the shop you could buy all kinds of salt and even fill your own salt grinders! We went with a floral hibiscus salt and a savory basil salt, but they also had flavors like garlic, rosemary, cacao, and more. There was also a small exhibit all about the salt industry and history in the region.
On the Road Again
On the way back, the wind was in full swing and I felt like I was going so slow for the amount of effort I was putting out. Soon enough, the canal changed directions so the wind was more at an angle rather than right in front of us, so that gave me some reprise. Once we were back in Narbonne I really had to book it since the wind slowed us down! We could have still taken an even later train, but we were determined to make this one and we hopped on board seconds before departure.
This has to be one of my favorite bike trips so far and I hope to someday do a multi-day trip across France; not quite Tour de France level, but maybe from one big city to another. As always, thank you so much for reading and let me know what you would have been most excited to see on this Mediterranean cycling adventure!
À la prochaine,
P.S. If you want to see even more of the bike trip from Narbonne to Gruissan, check out my vlog: