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LE CANAL DU MIDI

Go with the flow in the south of France.

A travel article by Pierre Mainguené, Circa Tours

I just got back from another trip to the south of France. I have been all over the Midi region before, but I had never taken the time to explore one special place in enough detail. The area is known as Languedoc and "the river that runs through it" is the Canal du Midi. This superb waterway is a gem and a wonder of hydraulic engineering. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, on this trip, it quickly became the focus of my investigation. You'll see why in a minute.

But first, a few facts about this amazing waterway. The Canal du Midi was built by Pierre Paul Riquet between 1667 and 1681, during the reign of Louis XIV. It was dug with the help of some 12,000 workers using only raw manpower. It was conceived to enable the transportation of goods between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as a short cut to a lengthy voyage around Spain and Portugal through the Strait of Gibraltar.

The southeastern part of the waterway, 130 miles between Toulouse and Marseillan (near Sète), used to be called the Canal Royal du Languedoc. The northwestern section, about the same length between Toulouse and Castets (near Bordeaux), was formerly known as the Canal Lateral à la Garonne because it runs parallel to the Garonne River. The full length, once completed, was first named the Canal des Deux Mers (the Canal of the Two Seas), but the entire system is now commonly known as the Canal du Midi.

Today there is virtually no transportation of goods on the canal. Instead, it is used almost exclusively by self-driven pleasure boats and luxury barge-hotels. As I said, it is an amazing piece of engineering, and as it lazily winds its way through vast areas of vineyards and olive groves, it is one of the loveliest and most peaceful waterways in France.

During this one-week trip I only covered the southeastern section of the canal. I went up and down between Carcassonne and Marseillan on the Bassin de Thau (Sète on the map). The northwest section will be covered on another trip. I visited a dozen places, met quite a few people and took a lot of pictures. Here are just a few highlights and first-hand impressions of my journey.

Carcassonne, the largest medieval fortified city in Europe, is an impressive sight with its 53 towers and its enormous ramparts defending the entire city. It completely dominates the horizon as you approach, and its massiveness does not disappoint when you enter the draw-bridge gate. It is huge, it is medieval and it also attracts lots of tourists. As a World Heritage Site, however, it is a "must-see" and well worth the effort.

Trèbes and Marseillette are two quaint little towns right outside Carcassonne. There, I first discovered the "signature look" of the Canal du Midi: tall rows of enormous plane trees lining both banks, arching high above the waterway and shading its entire path all the way down to the deep blue Mediterranean. Imagine floating down the nave of a leafy Gothic cathedral for miles and miles! Also notable is the ubiquitous tow path where horses once pulled the freight barges and where one can now take leisurely walks, jogs or bicycle rides.

Le Somail (near Narbonne). This is another quaint little hamlet with a pretty little stone hump-back bridge going over the canal, next to a centuries-old chapel covered with ivy. This tiny bridge called Pont Neuf, although it was built in 1773, is another "signature" feature that punctuates the whole course of the canal. There are many more like it on the way to the sea. They are all very small (making you wonder how such bulky barges manage to go under them - with centimeters to spare, in some cases). Most of them are made of stone and many have the same typical semicircular architectural style.

Malpas Tunnel (near Béziers). This is the world's first tunnel to have a man-made canal going through it. It is not large, but it is located in a rustic and picturesque setting. Crazy pleasure boaters love to hear the dizzying echoes of their shouts and screams as they go under it.

Fonséranes Locks (near Béziers). The Ecluses de Fonséranes are a series of nine locks constructed end-to-end, changing the level of the canal by 82 ft in height over a distance of only 1,000 ft. (Only seven of them are in use today.) These locks, also known as the "stair-step locks", encompass eight basins designed in an oval shape - instead of the standard parallel walls - typical of the Canal du Midi. I was there on a Sunday afternoon. Many visitors were watching boats being floated up and down through the system. It is a local curiosity and obviously a popular place for a Sunday outing.

Béziers Canal Bridge. Within walking distance from Fonséranes, the Canal du Midi crosses over the Orb River. This 800 ft long aqueduct/bridge was built in 1857 to avoid the problems of connecting the canal to the wild and unpredictable river below. It is an amazing sight: a man-made canal, flowing peacefully in a gigantic aqueduct above a natural river! Not to be missed in this spot is a leisurely walk along the tow path, looking down at the river below, watching the boats glide by and admiring Beziers' imposing St Nazaire Cathedral way up on the hilltop overlooking the city.

Bassin de Thau (near Sète). There are many more interesting places along the canal du Midi, of course: the hilltop medieval village of Minerve, the Cistercian Abbaye de Fontfroide and the pre-Roman settlement of Oppidum d'Ensérune, just to name a few. But the journey must come to an end. And the end, in this case, is the Bassin de Thau, between Agde and Sète. There, the narrow waterway that meandered through the rolling Languedoc countryside exits into a salt water lake. All of a sudden, everything changes. There are no more plane trees, and the pretty little stone bridges are gone. In Agde you can smell the salt in the air and the breeze from the Mediterranean blows stronger. At this point, you leave the essence of the Canal du Midi behind. The Bassin de Thau is the start of a different world: the vast, wild delta of the Rhone River known as Camargue... Yet another fascinating exploration for a future trip!

Circa Tours is a division of Circa Terras, Inc.
Temecula, California - CST 2081474-40

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