Slowing down on the Canal du Midi – Meanderings through France
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
This year the Canal du Midi celebrates its 350th anniversary and its 20th year as UNESCO World Heritage site, providing the opportunity to discover or rediscover this canal that was seen as the biggest building site of the 17th century by its contemporaries. If its original commercial and military uses are ancient history, today it is almost exclusively devoted to river tourism: rental boats, restaurant boats, one-day cruises or even 7-day luxury cruises on a barge are available. They all are great ways to visit the beautiful areas through which the canal leisurely goes.
Making a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean was not a new idea. In ancient times Roman emperors Augustus and Nero, and later French emperor Charlemagne or French kings François 1st or Henri IV had dreamed of building such a useful inland waterway. The challenge was to fill with water a canal that was going up from sea level to its highest point in Naurouze, only 210 yards high but a tremendous problem! Several plans were drawn up but failed to solve this thorny issue until 1662 when Pierre-Paul Riquet, a retired and wealthy tax collector, found a clever way to bring enough water to the canal all year round. He suggested to divert flows from the rivers of the Montagne Noire (the Black Mountain) some 60 miles away, into three huge reservoirs to continually supply the canal with water.
In those days Louis XIV ruled France and wanted to find a way for commercial boats and royal galleys to travel from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean (or vice versa) without having to bypass the Iberic peninsula where French boats were too often attacked by Barbary pirates. To Louis XIV being able to achieve such a colossal canal was once again a way to gain in prestige and he could not resist it! This is the reason why, although Riquet’s plan was a bit adventurous, the king approved the construction of the canal and agreed to partly finance it.
Riquet invested all his fortune in his work but in return he got the right to collect all the tolls paid by the boats that sailed on the canal and thus ensured his family‘s wealth for generations! The building work began in 1666 and ended in 1681, a few months after Riquet’s death. Considering the available equipment of the period (the thousands of workers only used shovels and pickaxes to dig the two meters deep and 150 miles long canal) it seems amazing that it took them only 15 years to complete it.
Today the canal doesn’t look much different from what it did in the 17th century. Little by little since the second half of the 19th century rail freight transport replaced waterway transport and the Canal du Midi is now totally dedicated to tourism. But sailing on it you will still be able to discover all the works achieved by Pierre-Paul Riquet. Some of them are quite remarkable and were true technology innovations. The hilly landscape was the main builders’ problem and they had to create inventive ways to allow boats to go up and down the hills!
Near Beziers, Riquet home town, a huge staircase lock was built: eight big ovoid chambers and their nine gates will allow you and your boat to be raised a height of 69 feet, in a distance of 330 yards. The eighth chamber is now out of use and you will have to sail on an aqueduct to pursue your journey. Works of renovation of this spectacular site began in 2015 and should be completed in June 2017. A recreational pathway is under construction including gardens, a restaurant, shops, footbridges to get from one bank to the other spanning over the locks…Don’t miss to visit Beziers city centre where a tall statue of Riquet welcomes the visitors in this beautiful town unjustly forgotten by too many tourists.
The Malpas tunnel was the very first tunnel dug for a canal. It goes through a hill toped by a Roman oppidum (a fortified Roman camp) in Ensérune. Using their shovels and pickaxes the workers braved the continuing threat of collapse during the cold 1679-1680 winter. Sailing under this 170 meters long vault you will still be able to see the marks left by these simple tools on the rocky walls.
Then the canal will lead you to Agde well known for its rocky seaside and its endless beaches. Once again Pierre-Paul Riquet’s genius is expressed through an ingenious three gates round lock. It allows boats sailing on the Canal du Midi to either continue their journey up or downstream or to change direction and get to the Herault River. This lock was the very first one of its kind ever built in the 17th century, another technical challenge accomplished by this visionary man.
The canal finally ends in Marseillan an old fishing port set on one of the largest French laguna, the Thau Laguna, a beautiful meeting point for thousands of birds: flamingos, herons, egrets and many other birds come there to breed. The Thau Laguna is also the place where the Mediterranean oysters are bred in its high quality waters.
But once in Marseillan you have not quite yet reached the Mediterranean and Louis XIV meant to secure his galleys in a safe port. Being able to accomplish just about anything he decided to create this harbour out of nothing! This is how Sète was born. It is now a large city and a lively seaside resort famous for its summer jousting. Perched on top of two facing vessel’s bows, with the crowd cheering them on, the jousters holding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other charge one another aiming to make their opponent fall in the water. These jousting last throughout the summer and are an absolute must see!
Besides the quiet pleasure of sailing, the Canal du Midi will take you from vineyards to vineyards where you will taste the fruity Southern wines, from lock to lock, from typical Mediterranean villages to bigger historical towns, on a leisurely cruise that we help you lose track of time…
No need to have a licence to rent a boat with all amenities onboard for a weekend, a week or more. You may contact:
For a luxury experience on a unique barge:
For a one day cruise or an entertaining meal on board:
And for more information:
About all Herault area and Canal du Midi: http://www.destination-languedoc.co.uk/articles/the-canal-du-midi-486-2.html
About Beziers: http://uk.beziers-mediterranee.com/
About Agde: http://www.en.capdagde.com/discover/essentials
About Marseillan: http://www.marseillan.com/decouvrir.asp?lang=english
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny