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The History of the Canal du Midi

Boat floats gently on the Canal du Midi under a canopy of trees

The slow glide of a canal boat across the waters of the Canal du Midi has an incomparably relaxing and calming effect with everyday stresses quickly forgotten says Andrea Hoffman, travel writer and author. In this extract from her new book Canal du Midi: The Ultimate Guide she examines the history of the Canal du Midi…

History of the Canal du Midi

Boat shop on the Canal du Midi

The Romans are said to have previously planned the construction of a waterway that linked the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. However, the project did not start until the 17th century under King Louis XIV, the legendary Sun King. Pierre-Paul Riquet (1604–1680), a wealthy tax collector, presented his plans to the King in 1662 and was able to persuade him about the merits of the project. In the canal, Louis saw another opportunity to make himself immortal.

In October 1666, he gave the royal seal of approval to the project. 40 per cent of the costs were borne by the Crown, 40 per cent by the State and 20 per cent by the Riquet family, with the latter becoming the owner after the death of the King.

 Around 12,000 people worked on the canal. They built 328 structures such as locks, tunnels, bridges, dams, harbours and aqueducts. The canal is filled with water from the Montagnes Noires, the black mountains. In addition, various small rivers are fed in, and reservoirs and ditches provide the right water level.

In addition to the tremendous technical feat, the canal also impressed through its excellent integration into the landscape of southern France. Around 42,000 trees lined the banks. Their roots still serve to fortify the banks today and their foliage provides shelter for both people and animals. Before engine-driven vessels, barges were pulled by horses that walked along the towpaths that line the canal.

The opening of the Canal du Midi

Cafe alongside the Canal du Midi

On 24 May 1681, the ‘Canal Royal en Languedoc’ (Royal Languedoc Canal), as it was initially called, was opened. The waterway allowed merchant ships to bypass the Iberian Peninsula, meaning that they now had to cover almost 2,500 fewer kilometres. Pierre-Paul Riquet did not live to see the canal finished. He died a poor man in October 1680. He had invested his entire fortune and more into the canal. His two sons worked on the canal until 1682 and it took them more than 40 years to pay off the debts incurred by their father. From 1686, engineer Sébastien de Vauban (1633–1707) was entrusted with the canal. In the following years, he improved the waterways, mainly to reduce the risk of flooding.

Trade and tourism

Cyclists on the towpath of the Canal du Midi

Later, branches of the canal were added, including the ‘Canal latéral de la Garonne’ and the ‘Canal de la Robine Narbonne’. Trade blossomed and brought wealth to the communities along the Canal du Midi. Fuel, building materials, cereals and wine were transported by ships, and later there were also postal ships and passenger ships. The travellers needed to be provided for, and soon guest houses, shops and hostels were built along the banks. Barges, usually towed by three horses, took four days to make the 240-kilometre trip between Toulouse and Sète. This was incredibly quick.

UNESCO listed

The Riquet family retained their property rights until the French Revolution (1789), after which the Canal du Midi became the property of the French Republic. Since 1992, the Voies navigables de France (VNF), has been responsible for the Canal du Midi. Under Napoleon, a canal company was established in which the sovereign had a 90 per cent share. In 1858, the waterway was leased to a rail company, but in 1898 it was returned to the French government.

In the 1970s, an attempt was made to widen the Canal du Midi to make it possible for larger boats to navigate. However, due to the construction of the motorway that runs parallel, this plan was soon abandoned because freight can be transported far quicker by road. The main focus then became the use of the waterway by tourists. Since 1992, the Voies navigables de France (VNF), the canal authority, has been responsible for the Canal du Midi.

The Canal du Midi has UNESCO world heritage status.

By Andrea Hofffman, author of Canal du Midi: The Ultimate Guide. The book takes you along the length of the Canal du Midi, revealing the best places to hop off and visit. Historic sites, wonderful patisseries and boulangeries, museums, castles, vineyards, restaurants and more are covered from Sète to Toulouse. There are top tips on how to navigate, use the locks and everything else to help you have your best boat holiday. Be warned, reading this book gives you serious wanderlust. Published by Adlard Coles, Bloomsbury Publishing. Read our review

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