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Canal du Midi

An engineering feat

Stretching 150 miles from the Garonne Rover to the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean coast, the Canal du Midi is one of Europe’s greatest engineering marvels.

Canal du Midi in autumn
Canal du Midi in autumn
Beginnings

Both the Romans and Charlemagne had the idea of constructing a waterway connecting the Atlantic to the Med, but, in the 17th century, it was finally realised by the unlikeliest of people. It was a farmer and tax collector, Pierre-Paul Riquet, who proposed the plan that would lead to the Canal’s creation. 

Riquet had a detailed knowledge of the region’s rivers, and had the idea of building a dam and artificial reservoir fed by the waters of Black Mountain, from which the Canal could be filled. The first stone was laid in 1667 and in all, 12,000 labourers were employed on the project. Some 15 years later, shortly after Riquet’s death, construction finished in Beziers and the then-named Canal Royal de Languedoc was opened. At this point, however, the waterway was not linked to the Atlantic, and it was two centuries before Riquet’s full dream was realised.

From Canal Royal to Canal du Midi

The initial purpose of the Canal was to transport wheat, wine and textiles, and over the following years Riquet’s work was reinforced by Antoine Niquet, who also built additional aqueducts and bridges. The French Revolution saw the Canal Royal become the Canal du Midi, and in the early 19th century, Carcassonne was connected to the waterway. By the mid 1800s, the Canal du Midi ran all the way from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and Riquet’s vision was complete.

Canal du MIdi in summer
Canal du MIdi in summer
Decline and renaissance

At the height of its use, the Canal du Midi carried over 110,000 metric tonnes of cargo and a million passengers every year. However, when the railway line between Bordeaux and Sète opened, traffic on the waterway declined rapidly, halving between 1856 and 1879. Its use continued to rise and fall as a result of various government initiatives and competition from other modes of transport, until in the 1990s the Canal du Midi experienced something of a revival, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of British barge tourists. 

Today, visitors from all over the world have fallen in love with the Canal, enjoying barge trips on its waters and admiring the beautiful countryside through which it meanders. Other sports such as rowing and canoeing are allowed on parts of the Canal and in dry periods, it serves as a reservoir for agriculture.

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