Canal du Midi
Highlights of Canal du Midi
Introduction to Canal du Midi
Built as part of a shortcut between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the Canal du Midi is a 240 km. (150 mile) canal located in the southern portion of France. Extending from Toulouse to the port city of Sete, the Canal du Midi was designed by engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet and was considered one of the great engineering feats of the 17th century.
With 91 locks that ascend and descend about 190 meters (620 feet), the Canal du Midi connects the Garonne River to the Etang du Tau on the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the Canal de Garonne, it forms the Canal des Deux Mer (the Canal of Two Seas), which joins the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. The building of these canals gave voyagers the ability to avoid having to sail around Spain, which was hostile towards France. It also allowed ships to avoid pirates and to shorten their trip from a month to a week or so.
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Guide to Canal du Midi
There are 91 locks on the canal and some 328 structures that include ornate bridges, a tunnel, and a few dams. The lock at the city of Beziers is one of the most notable as it is actually a series of 8 locks forming a staircase that allows boats to cross the River Orb. These locks raise vessels about 21.5 meters (70 feet) over a distance of 300 meters (just under 1,000 feet). Known as the Forserannes Locks, these structures still boast their original stables and lock-keeper’s house and are the third most-popular tourist attraction in the region.
When the canal was built in the 17th century, there were 3 aqueducts along the way. Today, there are 40. The two most important aqueducts and the most recent are the Orb Aqueduct, completed in 1858, and the Herbettes Aqueduct, finished in 1983. The former is the longest on the canal, built of stone with seven spans. The latter, the newest, carries the canal over a busy four-lane highway.
While the canal used to accommodate mostly small commercial sailing vessels with masts that lowered easily, it functions today as a place for locals and visitors to enjoy recreational leisure activities that include fishing or canoeing. It’s also a popular place for luxury hotel barges to cruise.
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History of Canal du Midi
In the planning stages for at least 150 years before it was built, Canal du Midi was first proposed by King Francois I, who brought Leonardo di Vinci to the region in 1516 to survey a route for the water highway. However, a Royal Commission – which included Riquet, was not appointed until 1665, with the project receiving final approval in 1666. It is noted that Riquet came up with the design by building a mini version in his backyard.
The toughest task for Riquet and his band of assistants was to figure out how to keep the canal full of water. The men decided to build a dam on the Laudot River and called it the Bassin de St. Ferreol. The dam, which measured 700 meters (2,300 ft) long and sat 30 meters (98 ft) above the riverbed and was 120 meters (390 ft) thick at its base, was – by far – the largest civil engineering project in Europe at the time of its construction. A contoured channel connected the dam to the canal and 14 locks were built for carrying building materials down from the mountains.
Historians note that some 12,000 laborers worked on the Canal du Midi project, including at least a thousand women who were hired to haul dirt. However, it was discovered that these women, who were from former Roman bath colonies, knew the basics of classical hydraulic methods and they were soon put to use as engineers.
Many of the structures along the canal were designed in the neo-classical style, keeping with the king’s wish to make France a “New Rome.” The canal was touted as “worthy of Rome” and studded with plaques written in Latin.
When the canal was completed in 1681, it had cost more than 15 million livres, with one-third of the funds coming from Riquet himself, who died shortly before the canal opened. As a result, his sons inherited the canal and the family managed it until the days of the French Revolution.
Getting to Canal du Midi
Twisting and turning through cities and countryside, the Canal du Midi can be accessed from any number of places along its 241 kilometers. There is hardly any commercial traffic on the canal any longer, except for the cruise barges, so traveling it is quite safe and fairly simple.
Boaters who wish to travel the Canal du Midi are advised to purchase a guide book, which will suggest good locations for mooring for an hour or two up to a few days. There’s plenty to see along the way and where you put in and where you stop to sightsee or rest will depend on personal preferences.
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