Canal Du Midi

Canal du Midi

Just imagine cruising through ancient villages, past vineyards and chateaux, a glass of wine in your hand, as you explore the 241 km of the 300 year old Canal du Midi in the South of France. Defined by its beauty, the wonderful Mediterranean weather and the relaxed pace of life, it is the perfect place for unwinding and exploring. You could be forgiven for imagining that it was always like this, but you would be wrong. Used today almost entirely by tourism, the canal was originally intended as an important trade link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Seas.

The idea of creating a link between the two seas by canal had been the dream of many historical figures including the Romans, Henry IV and Louis XIII, but insurmountable technical difficulties and high costs had made the vision seem impossible. It was in the reign of Louis XIV when the project came to the fore again, with the hope that it would promote trade, allow France to develop its transportation network and ensure a central role in Europe. Funding was still a major problem, but in 1666, a wealthy provincial nobleman, Pierre Paul Riquet decided to put his entire fortune into the project to build a canal in the province of Languedoc, linking up with the Canal de Garonne and the Garonne River, which would then join the two seas. In 1667 Louis XIV ordered a Royal edict for the construction of the “Two Seas Canal”.

In spite of his lack of education, Riquet was a brilliant organiser, a financial wizard and a man who knew and understood the land. He worked out how to feed the canal with water by using the streams and torrents descending from the Montagne Noire, channelling them by feeder canals into reservoirs and using more channels, bringing the water to the highest point on the canal at 189m above sea level. It takes 90 million cubic metres of water to feed the canal for one year. Leonardo da Vinci had tussled with this problem 150 years earlier.

The 241 km of the canal was strewn with challenges which Riquet’s skills were able to overcome. There are 65 ecluses (locks), some in groups and others single ones, their oval shape helping them to stand up to the sideways force from the excavated or built-up ground. The banks were further reinforced by the interlocking roots of the thousands of Plane trees bordering the canal. These have unfortunately suffered recently from the cancer stain disease. There are aqueducts, bridges, tunnels and reservoirs too, making it one of the most remarkable feats of engineering in modern times, while at the same time, blending into its environment and turning a technical feat into a work of art. Work proceeded fast with the 12,000 strong labour force and some sections were built simultaneously. In 1671 the Atlantic portion of the canal was opened and the whole canal was completed in 1681. It runs through the departments of Herault, Aude and Haute-Garonne, from the city of Toulouse to the Etang de Thau in the south. At its northern end it links up to the Atlantic by means of the Canal de Garonne and the Garonne River.

Maintenance

The canal suffered from the outset with the problem of silting, from both the water supply and also from branches and leaves. Periods of closure were necessary in order to re-dig the canal bed and rain, frost and drought caused leaks and cracks. Even today it is subject to the same problems and 350 employees are involved in maintaining the canal.

Its Use

Initially the canal was used by small sailing barges with easily lowered masts, bow-hauled by gangs of men. As well as being used for trade, a postal service was also set up on boats along the canal. Horse towing took over by the middle of the 18th century, with steam tugs being introduced by 1834 and by 1838 there were around 273 vessels regularly working the canal. It was in 1857, with the coming of the railways, that trade started to decline. The canal had the highest rates of any of the French waterways, which, together with the smoother and faster railway travel and the limited tonnage, made it only the third preferred option after rail and road.

Today

Today the canal is a popular tourist destination, with hundreds of hire boats and privately owned vessels travelling to and fro, especially during the “grandes vacances” in July and August. It can also act as a useful short cut for vessels sailing between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It now carries virtually no commercial traffic, although there are a number of converted peniche hotel-barges. Their size can make them a hazard if you meet them coming round a sharp bend, as do some of the hire boats travelling too fast and sometimes even on the wrong side. Tourism on the canal accounts for one fifth of French river tourism, 80% of the passengers being foreigners, mainly British, German and Swiss. Around 10,000 boats pass along the canal each year, carrying an average of 5 passengers each. The canal employs about 1,900 people and the annual economic impact of the canal is around 122 million euros.

The Sights

Now listed as a world heritage site the canal has a wealth of engineering feats along its length. The 65 locks, now mainly user operated and electrified, are mostly oval in shape and many are double or triple chambered. There is a round lock at Agde, with three doors and a staircase of eight locks near Beziers, at Fonseranes which were cut from solid rock. This remarkable piece of engineering was built by a workforce made up mainly of women.

Spillways, like the one at Naurouze, help to regulate the level of water in the canal, but siphon sluices were added later when the spillways were not able to cope with the high rainfall during storms and the canal banks burst. They can be seen at Capestang, Ventenac, Fer-du-Mulet and Marseillette. If ancient towns, castles, museums, and markets are more to your taste, there is a wealth of these to tempt you to stretch your legs and explore.

The canal passes through a number of wine growing areas including Herault, the Aude, Minervois and Corbieres and some beautiful villages at Castelnaudary, Le Somail, Homps, Beziers, Narbonne, Meze and Sete. The scenery is spectacular with distant views of mountains interspersed with shady areas flanked by Plane trees.

At the southern end of the canal is the Etang de Thau, a little inland sea and the second largest lake in France. It provides a habitat for a variety of birds, notably herons and pink flamingos as well as a rich variety of marine fauna. It is the only navigable lake on the Mediterranean coast but it can prove tricky when the Mistral is blowing.

So while you shiver in the bleak, cold winter, why not cheer yourself up with dreams of the Mediterranean sun, a glass of your favourite tipple in your hand, fields of sunflowers stretching to the horizon and nothing to do but cruise gently along, enjoying the ambience and the scenery.

Author – Dee White

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