The Canal du midi
Origin and history of the Canal du Midi.
People often ask where the 'Canal du Midi' got its name. The region « Midi » is applied to a huge part of southern France, bordering the Mediterranean, from Toulouse to beyond the Rhone. The name is thought to refer to the same habit as practiced by the inhabitants of the Mezzo-giorno in Italy – the hot, sleepy, south where people take for ever to eat lunch.
The need for a waterway, a 'Canal du Midi', to link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean was voiced by the Romans and again by Charlemagne but it took Le Roi Soleil and one of his Salt Tax Collectors to make it happen.
Tax Collectors under Louis XIV (and the remaining monarchs pre-1789) could become very rich by definition as they were given carte blanche to amass money and pass along to the king in Paris just as much as they thought they could get away with.
Such a Collector was Pierre-Paul Ricquet, born in Beziers in 1604, and the father of the Canal du Midi. He was a Salt Tax man by the age of 30 and then a Farmer-General for Languedoc, another sinecure for collecting taxes. By 1662 he had been created Baron Bonrepos and lived in the town of Revel, at the centre of the Black Mountain. It is crucial to his work on the Canal du Midi that he knew the Black mountain and its abundant springs.
The vast majority of canals in Europe run parallel with, and are supplied with water by, a major river. The Canal du Midi's route from Toulouse to the coast of the Mediterranean has no such major river. (And to add insult to injury, Languedoc has a low rainfall record making water a vital commodity.) This was the challenge facing Ricquet in building the Canal du Midi, and it took him four years of trials before he was able to show that water from a feeder canal constructed from the Black Mountain to Naurouzes just west of Castalnaudary could flow in two directions – either east towards the sea or west, back towards Toulouse. He had his feeder system.
Ricquet obtained the blessing of Colbert, Louis’s Marechal and engineering genius, and in 1666 work on the Canal du Midi started. Sadly, he died in 1680 a few months before the opening of the canal.
It took fourteen years, just to get as far as Beziers. There the Canal du Midi joined the river Orb and passage of a sort could be made to the sea. At this date the canal at Beziers joined the Orb: later a viaduct was built to take the Canal du Midi over the Orb (you can see it on your right today as you drive into Beziers from Narbonne) and further sections of the canal continued to the river Herault and Agde at which point the canal, today, flows into the Etang de Thau. This modification is recorded in the old name for the series of locks below Beziers “Neuf Ecluses (nine locks)”. Today, as a result of the viaduct, there are only five locks in the Canal du Midi before Beziers and large boats can use a hydraulic ramp to bypass even these.
One has to ask “Why?” such a canal was built. The answer, as always, is trade. The Midi in the 17th C had two major crops – wheat and wine – and one major product – textiles, primarily heavy cloth from Nimes, the home of denim, and silk. Transport by road (read mud path) was slow and expensive. Heavy goods were better transported by water and this was where the Midi was deficient. The wine of the region needed to be sent to northern France or exported. From Toulouse north-west the Garonne river was the natural highway but the wine producers of Bordeaux had put large exit taxes on anything passing through.
Even close neighbours such as the Marmandais wines suffered. (Enthusiasts of the history of the wine trade in France can find an account of these restrictions in the first several chapters of “The Winemasters” by Nicholas faith, Hamish Hamilton 1978.)
So the Canal du Midi made sense for the Languedoc producers. Transport your produce down-canal to Beziers, Agde or Sete and escape the tribulations of other parts of France. Once on ship for Britain, Holland or Scandinavia all would be smooth. Or so they thought.
Today the Canal du Midi is of no importance for transporting merchandise. Whatever value the canal had in the 17th and 18th centuries disappeared with the arrival of the railways. To make matters worse, in the 19th century the management of the Canal du Midi was handed over to the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi. Their sole use for the canal can only have been as a source of water for their engines!
Surprisingly, after WWII it was the British who revived interest in, and the economic fortunes of, France’s canals. French citizenry have never really taken to rivers and canals as relaxation but the British did. Today, the majority of canal boating companies serving the Canal du Midi - Connoiseur, Blue Line, Minervois Cruisers – are British owned.
The Canal du Midi today.
For enthusiasts of canal engineering the Canal du Midi offers a great deal:
A unique design of lock basin, roughly shaped as a womb, that could allow space for more boats than the conventional oblong basin.
- The extensive use of tree planting along the Canal du Midi. Most of the trees were Plane-trees or Cypress whose roots served to stabilize the banks of the Canal itself.
- The unique canal tunnel at Malpas west of Capestang.
- The first use in Europe of multiple lock systems, invented in Italy in the 17thC. A multiple lock leads directly from one to the next without any intervening length of waterway. Examples are at La Redorte and Puicheric. Beziers has a multiple five-lock system, leading to the Beziers Basin with a three-lock system.
- Agde boasts a three-channel circular locks giving access up and down the Herault river.
The Canal du Midi's statistics are impressive:
- 240 km from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau: 70 metres rise from Toulouse to highest point, then 189 metres down to the sea.
- 328 structures including 64 locks.
- A “long pound” of 55km without locks.
- Lock width of 6m. Channel width of 19m.
- Water depth 1.6 to 1.8m.
- 250,000 planted trees.
The Canal du Midi is one of Europe’s longest and widest canal systems and in 1994 was designated a World Heritage Site.
But the only way to appreciate the canal and its overwhelming influence on Languedoc is to visit, to observe and to love. To spend some time – half an hour or several days – in the ancient towns and villages through which the Canal du Midi passes. Le Segala, Castelnaudary, Bram, and Carcassonne. Trebes, Marseilette and Puicheric. La Redorte, Homps and Argens. Paraza and Ventenac. Le Somail, Argeliers and Capestang. Poilhes, Colombiers and Beziers. Villeneuve and Agde. Twenty one memorable towns.
The Canal du Midi is a very real air-conditioning duct through the overheated land of Languedoc. Touring by car, everywhere you drive there is always that majestic line of plane trees in the distance which means that shortly you will be crossing the Canal du Midi.
But of course on the Canal itself it is a very different experience. Hire a boat for one or two weeks, or just for a day, and experience the calming and invigorating atmosphere of moving through the still water at 5kph whilst all troubles and cares pass you by. In 1997 we borrowed a boat kept at Sete, sailed west up the Canal du Midi as far Le Somail and returned. The second week we sailed east through the Petit Carmargue (the Canal de Sete à Rhone) as far as Aigues Mortes. On a second visit in 1999 we began in a hired boat at Le Somail and in two weeks reached Castelnaudary and back to Le Somail.
At each village or town there is a different eating experience. In the west, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary, the famous Cassoulet. In summer you’ll only eat a third of the portion but never mind! In the Minervois wine region it’s duck and goats cheeses that shine, but from Beziers on it’s the shell fish of the Etang – oysters, mussels, shrimp. All, of course, washed down with the Languedoc wine. The fine red wines of Corbieres, Minervois, St Chinian and Faugeres. The white Viognier and Picpoul of Coteaux du Languedoc. The dry Muscat of St Jean de Minervois and the rosé summer wine of everywhere.
Languedoc and the Canal du Midi certainly live up to their World Heritage Site accolade.
- Geoff Taylor, Pouzols-Minervois