One of the region’s two remarkable UNESCO ‘World Heritage Sites’ the Canal du Midi drifts lazily through Languedoc on its spectacular route from the city of Toulouse to the bustling coastal port of Sete. Uniquely beautiful, with tow-paths famously lined and shaded by 300-year-old plane trees it meanders gently between the pretty, terracotta-topped, canal-side villages.
Inspirational in both concept and construction, the 240 kilometre-long canal connects with the River Garonne to link the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean: thereby avoiding the lengthy and one-time perilous, pirate-plagued sea journey around the hostile Spanish coastline.
Although the advantages of such a route had been contemplated for at least 150 years before its inception (even Leonardo Da Vinci had pondered the possibilities), it was in the mid-seventeenth century that the multitude of technical challenges and obstacles were finally overcome. In 1666 Pierre-Paul Riquet of Beziers persuaded King Louis XIV to commission the project: and so, work commenced. The costs were projected at 3,360 livres.
The construction of the canal was unquestionably an epic and ingenious achievement, incorporating remarkable feats of civil engineering - including 103 locks - and utilising over 12000 labourers. The canal officially opened in 1681: sadly the event was preceded by the unfortunate demise of Monsieur Riquet, who died in 1680. The entrepreneur was massively in debt to the tune of 2m livres, most of which he had invested in the completion of his wondrous waterway. The final cost now totalled some 15m livres! His family inherited his interests in the project: they must have been delighted - investments were never recovered and debts remained for a further 100 years before they were finally paid off.