Cruising Down the Canal du Midi, France’s Rediscovered Wonder
Winding through the picturesque countryside and vineyards of southwest France, the Canal du Midi is one of Europe’s oldest canals still in operation. Built in the late 17th century as a shipping short cut between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has since shed its mercantile origins to become an idyllic haven for boating, biking, and sightseeing—and for making the most of authentic France.
We’ll be following France’s greatest construction work of the 17th century, the 240 km- (150 mile-) long canal that was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the local salt tax collector. Riquet devised the waterway as a means of avoiding the lengthy and perilous journey around the Iberian Peninsula, which at the time was controlled by France’s enemy Spain and patrolled by pirates. Financed by the King Louis XIV, the region, and Riquet himself, the vast project cost three times more than the initial budget but was completed in a record time of only 14 years—an astonishing 12,000 workers were deployed. Riquet never got to see the final result, passing away six months before his brainchild was finished in 1681. Originally called the Royal Canal in Languedoc, it was renamed the Canal du Midi by revolutionaries in 1789.
For centuries, canal barges were hauled by horses, a practice which declined with the expansion of rail transport. In the 1960s, the canal began to attract modern sightseers, and today it accounts for a fifth of French river tourism. Around 9,000 boats cruise parts of it each year, from self-drive rental boats to luxury vessels like the Athos (pictured), available through Barge Lady Cruises. One of the few traditional barges still cruising the canal, it was built in 1964, converted into a tourist cruiser in the 1980s and refurbished in 2007.
Careful boaters can also play captain themselves with Le Boat, a self-drive boat rental company (no license required). For a shorter experience, Le Colombiers offers hour-long commented cruises and longer dinner cruises departing from the Port of Colombiers. If you'd rather admire the canal from land, walk the tow path runs along much of it (the most popular segments for walkers are in Toulouse, Trèbes, and the area around Béziers), or do a multi-day tour with Relax Bike Tours & Rentals, which operates multiple outlets all along the route.
The waterway flows between Toulouse (where it connects to the Garonne River, then to Bordeaux on the Atlantic Coast) and Sète, a port city on the Mediterranean. The capital of the Occitanie region and the fourth-largest city in France, Toulouse is nicknamed “the Pink City” because of its abundance of rose-colored brick buildings. Its lovely center is filled with pedestrian streets, ancient churches, and elegant administrative buildings. It’s also home to one of Europe’s oldest universities (1229), the University of Toulouse, which lends the city a perpetually youthful spirit. Toulousains love being outdoors, and in the summer they are often found by the river or along its three canals, including the Canal du Midi—here, pictured as it wanders through the southern suburb of Rangueil.
Leaving east out of Toulouse, the tree-lined canal follows the natural geography, traversing sunflower fields, dense forests, and rolling vineyards. Languedoc-Roussillon (today joined with the Midi-Pyrénées to form the new region of Occitanie) is the world’s single-biggest wine producing region, and one of the canal’s original purposes was to ship its bottles and barrels. Previously, its high yields were converted into cheap table wines, but over recent decades the area’s vintages have dramatically improved in quality. You'll find extensive opportunities to visit cellars along the canal, or you can stop in the port of Trèbes, 8 km (5 mi) east of Carcassonne, to taste a glass or two at Les Vignes de Bacchus, a friendly wine bar on the canal. Afterwards, you should try another of the region’s delights, olives, at the Domaine des Pères boutique nearby.
Roughly midway along the canal is one of the France’s most visited and treasured historic sites, the medieval citadel of Carcassonne. Crowning a hill above the Aude River, the fortified city has 3 km (1.9 miles) of double walls in part dating to the 3rd century AD. The city played an important role during the 13th-century crusade against the Cathars and was annexed by the Kingdom of France in 1247. Left in a terrible state of disrepair, the fortifications narrowly escaped demolition but were restored in the mid 1800s by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who also saved Paris' Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. It’s a national classified monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site, and despite the crowds in summer, is a highlight of the Canal du Midi. The original waterway actually didn’t originally pass by Carcassonne—the locals didn’t want to foot their share of the bill. But in the early 1800s, it was finally rerouted.
Due to the undulating terrain of the region, the canal required an extensive system of locks to transit different elevations. Their chambers were built in an oval shape to withstand water pressure—63 are still in use today. The most famous are the Fonsérannes Locks, a staircase of eight locks carved into a solid rock hill on the outskirts of Béziers. They allow boats to be raised a total of 21.5 m (71 ft). The locks of Agde and Trèbes are also notable—and photogenic.
The locks aren’t the only engineering marvels: There are some 126 bridges, some fine aqueducts, and a tunnel. Just before the Fonsérannes Locks, near Béziers, is the Orb Aqueduct (pictured). At 240 m (787 ft), it's the longest on the canal. In the countryside a little further along is the Malpas Tunnel, the world's first canal tunnel (excavated 1679), which drives a 165 m (541 ft) crossing through a hill.
After star-studded Carcassonne, the canal passes close to the attractive small cities of Narbonne, home to the spectacular Archbishop’s Palace; Béziers; and several beautiful medieval churches. It also visits Castelnaudary, the route’s main port and the self-declared world capital of the famous regional dish cassoulet, a rich stew of beans and meat. The waterway also bisects dozens of pretty villages such as Homps (pictured), Argelliers, Capestag, and Le Somail—a parade of glimpses into daily life in the French countryside. Above the Malpas Tunnel, visit the Oppidum d'Ensérune, the ruins of a pre-Roman Gallic settlement. Its prominent hilltop location also affords it a splendid view of the valley and Montady, a vast field divided into wedge-shaped sections that are separated by irrigation ditches left over from the 13th century, when they were built to drain the marshy land.
The canal reaches its end at the Pointe des Onglous, where it empties into the Etang de Thau, a saltwater lagoon—at 21 by 8 meters (68 by 26 ft) it’s also France’s second-largest lake. The peaceful body of water is bordered by the attractive port town of Marseillan, famous for its cultivation of Bouzigues oysters. On the lagoon’s eastern edge is the remarkably peaceful city of Sète. Called the “Venice of the Mediterranean” by some because of its own smaller set of canals, its draws include stylish 19th-century architecture, a 12 km- (8 mi-) long sandy beach, and a lively port lined with seafood restaurants—the perfect place to end your explorations of the Canal du Midi and settle into the Mediterranean lifestyle.