Canal du Midi: Take That, Panama!

I remember with what pride my middle school French teacher pulled out a map of France and pointed to the Canal du Midi, a microscopic blue line wending its way from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast of France. It represented what was best and brightest about 17th-century French engineering--the technology that produced Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte, as well as the countless other canals that form one of the most extensive networks in the world and made France a prosperous superpower.

While down in Languedoc this past spring, I found myself driving along this famous man-made watery artery, crossing back and forth over it, meandering through glades and dells (and traffic roundabouts), and pondering how this mammoth engineering feat came to pass. So I did a little research into its history, and here's what I found out.

The Canal itself does not actually run from coast to coast. Instead, in an ingenious act of cost efficiency, it runs from the Mediterranean coast up to where the Garonne River flows near Toulouse, and thence to the Atlantic. The Canal is 240 kilometers long (about 150 miles), making it nearly three times the length of the Panama Canal. It passes the famous cities of Languedoc including Carcassonne, Castelnaudry (the home of cassoulet!) and Beziers until it empties into the Mediterranean at Agde and Sete (renowned for its oysters). There is a second subsidiary of it that flows out near the ancient city of Narbonne (near where I stayed at Chateau L'Hospitalet). It can accommodate barges of up to 30 meters whic, though not much by today's standards, was pretty hefty back in the 17th century.

The project was the brainchild of a nobleman named Pierre-Paul Riquet, who was a customs officer with a tax right on salt for Languedoc. Theoretically this was a plum post, but how much more lucrative would it be if you could link the two major sources of the stuff: the Med and the At? So thought Riquet, and he managed to convince Louis XIV and his finance minister, Colbert. They saw the merit of the idea (with franc signs in their eyes, no doubt), and ordered work on the Canal to commence immediately.

Workers broke ground in 1667 (237 years before the Panama Canal), and it took 14 years and the labor of thousands of men, but the Canal was finished. Not without many problems along the way though. First was the question of altitude and how to feed water into the Canal. The Mediterranean and the Atlantic are at sea level, but the spot where the Canal hits the Garonne is 132 meters above sea level, and at its highest point, the Canal rises to 201 meters. The solution required a system of dams, 99 locks, 130 bridges, and reservoirs that channeled runoff water from mountain streams down into the Canal. Costly, labor-intensive, but ultimately successful. Unfortunately for Riquet, he had to spend his entire fortune including his daughters' dowries on the project, and then died six months before its completion.

If he'd lived to see it, he would have been proud. The waterway sparked a surge of prosperity in the region, not only from the salt trade, but also because it allowed farmers to ship their goods longer distances, and brought a manufacturing boom to Languedoc since it was easier to get raw materials. Its busiest year was 1856, when over one million passengers plied its waters.

The next year, however, saw the opening of the Sete-Bordeaux railway line, and the Canal immediately went into decline since railway was faster and cheaper. The Canal lay neglected for over a century until its revival as a tourist destination over the past few decades. That is thanks to several features of the Canal that make it especially enjoyable for pleasure cruisers. Remember those bridges I mentioned? Well, they help the Canal cross valleys and gulleys, making for a dramatic view as your cross them. There are also footpath bridges so walkers can crisscross the water every so often and take in the scenery on the other bank. The locks? At each one, you wait about half an hour while the commissioned lock-keeper adjusts the water levels for your craft. Tourists can have a chat over coffee, or a hike in the nearby countryside. And, like with any major artery, the route is well served by traditional inns and restaurants built to cater to travelers' needs. Then there are the beautiful old-growth trees that line the waterway. Originally intended to prevent evaporation, they are now a delightful source of shade, and perfect for whiling away an afternoon under, contemplating the history of the region.

Today, the Canal is a major tourist destination, and in addition to barge trips, travelers can rent their own houseboats to float down it over the course of several days (the speed limit is 6km per hour). Though you can also just rent a motor boat for the day for a little aqua-exploration. The Canal is navigable from March to November, and there is no charge for passage other than what you pay for the boat rental.

For all these reasons, the Canal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and conservation has only increased since then, with bike and footpaths running alongside the water for most stretches.

Sure, it might not have all the scenery of the Rhine or the Danube, but the Canal du Midi is a fantastic destination for a placid waterside vacation, and is a testament to the historical resolve and technological prowess of the French.