with the flow in the south of France.
travel article by Pierre Mainguené, Circa Tours
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
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
(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!
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