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  • Writer's pictureSigne

The Canal du Midi (Canal of the South) is a remarkable historical structure.

Canal du Mid, southwest of France, Vin du Sud
Canal du Midi at fall

If you travel to the southwest of France, you can experience the tranquillity and deceleration on a houseboat vacation on the Canal du Midi. It is just as much fun to explore the small towns, locks and paths along the canal on foot.

The Canal du Midi is considered the oldest preserved canal in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The canal was built between 1667 and 1681. The aim being that ships no longer had to sail around Spain and Portugal to reach the Mediterranean. In those times, that was a long and dangerous sea voyage, as there were problems with not only storms but also pirates. So people were looking for a way to transport goods through the interior of the country. It was possible to sail on the Garonne from the Atlantic to Toulouse, but further than that it became difficult. Pierre-Paul Riquet from Béziers then managed to build the masterpiece.

From Toulouse to Sète on the Mediterranean, the canal is 240 kilometres long. It needed 63 locks, a tunnel and several bridges to overcome the differences in altitude. In comparison, the circumnavigation of the Iberian Peninsula is over 3,000 kilometres.

At times, up to 12,000 workers worked on the canal. One must imagine that at that time there were hardly any technical aids and everything was dug out with rakes and shovels, the excavated material was lifted into baskets and carried away from there. The salary was good and therefore many workers (women and men) were interested in the work. Only at the time of the grape harvest it was difficult to find enough workers. Today it is more difficult to find enough workers for the grape harvest😊.

Riquet removed many natural obstacles. For example, he built the Tunnel de Malpas near Ensérune. It runs for a length of 160 meters under the hill of Ensérune. Shortly before construction began, a royal commission was announced to check whether Riquet was using state funds effectively. Riquet felt that his honour had been violated. He used all the extra construction workers and the best foremen from neighbouring sections on the tunnel and made them work day and night for higher wages, so that the tunnel was said to have reached breakthrough in only six days. The commission, which arrived shortly thereafter, was presented with a fait accompli. The tunnel is built eight meters below ground level.

Between Homps and Le Somail, near the small village of Paraza, he built a bridge for the ships. This canal bridge crossed the river Répudre and such a bridge was a completely new idea.

Répudre, canal bridge, Riquet, Canal du Midi
canal bridge close to Paraza

Homps was the most important port on the canal for three centuries: Here the ships could manoeuvre past each other and turn, because the area was large enough. The port became an important transhipment point for wine to Bordeaux, Toulouse and Sète.

Today, the winegrowers of the Minervois (the name of the wine region in the wine area) have their "Maison du Vin" here. I can recommend this house if you want to inform yourself about the wines of the region. You also have the opportunity to taste some wines.

The village itself is also worth seeing and you can find some nice restaurants.

The port of Homps at the Canal du Midi in Minervois
Port of Homps

Further along the canal, just past Argeliers, you will find my most favourite restaurant: Auberge de la Croisade.

The restaurant is located directly on the canal and was once a station where the horses were changed for towing. Today it is a restaurant with excellent cuisine using selected ingredients. You can eat well here at any time of the year but sitting under the plane trees in the summer is always a special experience. It's a good idea to ask the chef about his wine selection - I've always been pleasantly surprised so far.

Restaurant am Canal du Mid, Auberge de la Croisade
Auberge de la Croisade

From the beginning, the canal was used not only for transporting goods, but also for carrying mail and passengers.

The latter could travel from Agde to Toulouse or vice versa in four days. The intermediate stages ended in Le Somail, Trèbes and Castelnaudary, where there were hotels, restaurants and even small churches to visit a mass. The lunch stops were also fixed: Négra, Beteille, La Redorte and Béziers. Just like a package tour!!!

The boats used were faster and much more comfortable than the carriages on the bad roads. In the middle of each stage there was a break where the travellers had lunch and the horses were changed. At multiple locks and lock stairs, the boat didn´t pass through, rather the travellers changed to another boat, which saved time (and also water).

If you continue along the canal, you will see another fantastic building: The six-stage lock staircase at Béziers (Fonseranes). Here, the ships are raised or lowered by 13.6 meters in six stages. The upstream passage takes around 45 minutes, the downstream passage 30 minutes, with alternating time-limited upstream and downstream passage.

lock staircase at Béziers, Canal du Mid in South of France
lock staircase at Béziers

There are many more stories that could be told about the channel. The best thing is to make your own picture of it.

A bientôt


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