Ladies and gentlemen,
we are pleased to welcome you on board the « Cap au Sud » for a discovery cruise of the Canal du Midi, following the trail of one of the most famous natives of Beziers: Pierre Paul Riquet.
Here below, you will find the comments for your
cruise, written and audio:
We have just entered the Big Pound which offers 54km of navigation to the Argens lock, at a constant level of 31.35m. A pound being the stretch of canal between 2 locks. You will appreciate the technical skills of the 17th century workers who managed to maintain such a precision over such a long distance.
Conversely, the smallest pound is 105m long & is located just outside Carcassonne.
The « Canal du Midi » used to be called « le Canal Royal du Languedoc » (the Royal Languedoc Canal). Its name was changed after the Revolution because of its connection to the monarchy.
This story is in fact a wonderful adventure starting in the 17th century in the heart of the Montagne Noire, in the southern foothills of the Massif Central.
Mr Riquet decided to harness the waters from the river Alzeau and dig a channel to collect the waters from the numerous springs & streams along the 70km stretch down to the highest point of the canal, the Seuil de Naurouze (Naurouze Threshold), at 189m high, it is the watershed point between the Mediterranean Sea & the Atlantic Ocean.
The Canal’s summit pound being located here, it was necessary to find enough water to feed regularly both sides of the watershed. For this reason, Riquet built the biggest reservoir in those days, the St Ferreol Lake, above Revel, containing up to 4 million m3 of water. This was enough to fill the 240km between Toulouse & the Thau Pond.
You will notice that I mentioned the Thau Pond as the eastern limit of the Canal instead of Sète, as it is sometimes claimed. Indeed, the boats navigating the Canal end their journey at Sète after crossing the Thau Pond. But the Canal itself ends at the Onglous, near Marseillan, just across from the city so dear to Georges Brassens (famous French poet & singer, who died in 1981 - NdT). Using the last 30km of the Thau Pond saved on levelling work.
The building of the Canal du Midi required the competence of 12 000 workers over a period of 14 years, who manually moved over 7 million m3 of soil!!
To ensure loyalty of his workers who were mainly farmers, Riquet paid them up to 5 times more than what they were paid while working in the fields.
He also committed by contract to pay them the days not worked because of bad weather, injuries or illness.
How can I talk about the Canal du Midi without mentioning the « Post Barge », which in this instance doesn’t mean it was carrying mail, but passengers.
It was the fastest, safest & most comfortable way to travel between Toulouse & Beziers. It took only 4 days to link the 2 cities, as opposed to over a week in a stage coach, with numerous perils along the way. It was the equivalent of our high-speed train!
Seeing the success of this new means of transport the Canal Company gradually increased the traffic with bigger barges. They even went as far as travelling by night thus decreasing travel time to 3 days in the mid 19th century. However the apparition of the railway ended this saga.
Along the way you could find way stations (“relais de poste” in French – hence the name “post barge”) with stables to replace the horses.
Some of these way stations were larger and could also accommodate travellers for lunch (they were called “diners”) others offered accommodation for the night (called “sleepers”). The “sleepers” also contained small chapels for travellers to pray.
Another iconic image of the canal is the majestic archway of hundred-year-old plane trees. They play a major part in the local ecosystem. Thanks to the span of their branches and large leaves, they minimise evaporation during the summer heat waves and stabilise the banks with their root system.
The canker stain disease originating from America was introduced accidentally in Europe during WWII through cases of ammunition and decimated a large part of the tree population. A wide scale re-planting campaign gives hope for a better future and restores the canal to its former glory.
Pierre Paul Riquet
Who was Pierre Paul Riquet?
He was the originator of the 2nd most important building project of the 17th century after Versailles, during the reign of Louis XIV…
He was born in Beziers around 1609. He grew up in a modest bourgeois family; his father was a notary. In 1637 he married Catherine de Milhaud and they had 7 children, two of them died in infancy. The oldest, Jean-Mathias, succeeded him after he died.
Through his father’s connections, Riquet was employed as a senior civil servant in charge of the salt tax (“gabelle” in French). He was the equivalent of today’s taxmen!
Between 1634 and 1648 he was the tax collector for the town of Mirepoix. He then started to take an interest in the debate about the creation of a canal crossing the Languedoc.
In 1648 he becomes the head taxman for the region and buys the Castle of Bonrepos, near Toulouse. He will build the model for his project on the castle grounds and use it for his technical studies.
He writes a letter to Colbert (Minister of Finance) on 15th November 1662 to introduce his project to the King. The edict for the construction of the canal will be signed on 7th October 1666 after numerous controls by the royal engineers.
The canal will become a fiefdom assigned to Riquet who then became the Baron of Bonrepos-Riquet, earning back a title lost by his father in Italy.
It was then, at the ripe age of 57, that Riquet invested himself fully & with determination in this adventure. Remember that in the 17th century, life expectancy rarely extended beyond 45.
He died in Toulouse on 1st October 1680, probably from a disease contracted following a fall from a horse.
The Colombiers harbour:
We are now reaching Colombiers. This harbour was created between 1987 and 1997 to welcome travellers navigating on the Canal. There can be found shops, bars and restaurants with friendly terraces, even a little square to enjoy a stroll or a chat with friends.
Next to the quay is the old castle cellar, with his roof built in the shape of an upturned boat. It is a testimony of the region’s essential role in the wine making trade for centuries. After refurbishment it’s now houses for the Tourism Office and an exhibition gallery.
The harbour can accommodate boats of up to 14m long with a maximum draught of 1.30m. The draught is the depth below the water line to the bottom of a vessel's hull when the boat is fully loaded. For example, our boat the “Cap au Sud” draws 1.20m with a full load.
The Malpas tunnel
We are now reaching one of the most symbolic and mysterious constructions of the Canal du Midi:
the Malpas Tunnel, meaning the « Bad Passage » in Occitan, the local dialect.
His name stems from the bad reputation of the site; travellers using the Via Domitia (the old Roman road between Rome & Spain, and for a long time, the main road between Narbonne & Beziers) were frequently robbed there in the Middle Ages.
The tunnel was Riquet’s last construction project, but also the first man-made water tunnel.
Upon hearing that Colbert was considering asking the King to stop funding the project, Riquet had the audacity to start work on the tunnel in November 1679.
He had decided to increase the speed of the work in order to finish the last kilometre, to allowing the Canal to flow uninterrupted from one end to the other. However, the Enserune Hill stood between the 2 completed sections. Digging around it would take a long time, which Riquet didn’t have. Especially since the King’s emissary had already left Paris for Toulouse with great pomp, to order Riquet to stop the work.
Riquet then jumped on his horse, much faster than a coach, and rode to Nissan to requisition all available workers to try the impossible: excavate the hill to complete his endeavour!
When the King’s emissary reached Toulouse, he was told Riquet had left a week ago for Castelnaudary. Exhausted after his journey, he spent the night in Toulouse before continuing on to Castelnaudary on Riquet’s trail.
When he arrived in Castelnaudary, he learned that Riquet had already left for Carcassonne... and so on and so forth at every stage.
When he did finally catch up with him, Riquet allegedly said to him: “How unfortunate Sir, that you arrive too late after such a long journey, but we have just completed the canal and it would be a shame to abandon it now!”
Indeed M. Riquet and his workers had achieved a feat: they had managed to excavate a man-sized gallery in just one week, opening the way for the water.
The work ended in the summer of 1680. However, the tunnel needed strengthening under the supervision of Vauban after Riquet’s death.
With a length of 173m for 8.5m wide and 6m high, it is the oldest water tunnel still in use today. Inside the tunnel is a narrow towpath, wide enough for a man who would take over from the horses to draw the barge. Later a manual winch was installed; some remains can still be seen at the entrances on the same side as the towpath.
In the upstream vault, hidden from view, a small opening can be spotted. I will tell you the origins of, on the way back.
The Malpas Tunnel (downstream)
If we have discovered the history of the Malpas tunnel on the way in, I would like to tell you now about the little cave sheltered under the vault, just above the canal, where a hermit named ARTHUS would have lived!
Arthus was one of the numerous anonymous labourers who worked on the canal.
He worked hard for 15 years to offer to his wife and children a better life.
But when he came home after all these years, his wife had replaced him and his children had forgotten him.
Full of sorrow he chose to live as a hermit in a familiar place.
He took up residence inside the tunnel, above the canal he was so proud to have worked on.
He was living of the generosity of bargemen, who would leave food and wine for him, to ward of the bad reputation of the place. Arthus was maintaining this bad reputation by cursing all who forgot to fill the basket he lowered at their passage.
It is said that a master boatman who had refused to follow the tradition remained stuck for three days inside the tunnel with no explanation, blocking navigation and earning himself a bad reputation.
Another, having mocked the superstition, became a widower within 7 days.
Whereas a young sailor, who gladly sacrificed his daily ration, ended up marrying a beautiful heiress with whom he lived happily ever after!
Arthus probably died in the tunnel, but his body was never found.
The boatmen continued to ask their apprentices to prepare a basket of food before each trip, and to place it at the bow, calling 3 times for the old hermit still haunting the place:
ARTHUS ! ARTHUS ! ARTHUS !...
And if the basket had stayed untouched on the deck, the whole crew would share the feast at the end of the day.
Even if the tradition is becoming lost, some claim to have seen a strange light in the depth of the cave, as they were calling out:
ARTHUS ! ARTHUS ! ARTHUS ! ......
There is another particularity of the tunnel: it was also used as a kind of post box. Boatmen would leave notes or letters in the holes left by the struts during construction. Some of these letters were far from professional, as they were exchanged between some young sailor and pretty women!
The Fonseranes locks
We are now reaching the impressive Fonseranes staircase locks, which allow boats to be raised 21.5 m in a distance of 312 m.
From the start of its construction in 1678, Riquet had named it “the Neptune staircase”.
It originally consisted of 8 lock chambers and 9 gates to allow boats to reach the Orb level. The crossing of the river Orb, a little downstream, was replaced by the water bridge and the last chamber was disused. The 7th lock was modified to allow boats to join onto the water bridge.
There are now 6 chambers and 7 gates.
Each lock chamber is made up of a masonry slab for the floor, two curved lock walls and four mitre gates (upstream & downstream). Two small vents called “paddles” can be found on each gate to control the flow of water from the top to the bottom chamber.
To raise a boat going upstream:
This process is repeated all the way to the top.
The same process is applied but in reverse for going downstream.
For those of you interested in architecture, and even those who aren’t, I would like to point out that the ovoid shape of the locks is due more to technical than aesthetic constraints.
The first walls were straight but couldn’t withstand the pressure of the banks once the chambers were emptied. This created a pressure imbalance which led to the collapse of the walls inside the chamber.
Mr Riquet then had the inspiration to copy the method of cathedral arches to strengthen the walls, even if it made the masons task more complicated. This is why the Canal du Midi is the only working canal in Europe that has ovoid lock chambers.
Construction techniques evolved, thanks to the use of concrete and steel, and straighter higher (but not necessarily prettier!) walls could then be built.
Traditional buildings can still be seen in the surroundings, preserved and renovated during the 2017 restoration works.
Halfway on the right bank downstream (or left bank upstream), is the lock keeper’s house; it is still used today by the French Waterways staff that work and maintain the locks.
At the top, on the left bank downstream (or right bank upstream), we can still see the original way station for passengers and the stables for the horses pulling the barges.
You might have noticed that before each turning of the lock (filling and emptying of the chamber) the boatman ties the boat to the bollards on the lock walls. They have the same use as the mooring posts found on harbour docks.
The Water bridge
We are about to cross the Beziers water bridge. It allows the canal du midi to go over the river Orb thus avoiding traditional barges having to travel the unpredictable and dangerous river waters.
This bridge was built between 1854 and 1857 by Urbain MAGUES, a Canal du Midi Company engineer, who managed to combine strength and aesthetics to keep in line with Mr Riquet’s vision, in spite of numerous technical constraints.
The bridge is 240 m long, 28 m wide, 12 m high and supported by 7 arches. In its centre runs the canal, where barges of up to 5.35m wide can travel, flanked by 2 maintenance galleries running under the paved towpaths for technical teams to access the inside of the structure.
These galleries strengthen the structure without adding weight to it.
If the bridge helps save time by avoiding the dangerous river currents, Mother Nature has a way of reminding us that a strong lateral wind can make navigation difficult to say the least. Many an experienced bargeman has scraped his boat’s hull on the canal banks.
I myself have had to work hard sometimes to control the trajectory of a tiller flatboat.
Béziers and his cathedral
You can see the old historic city in the distance. Its roman name was Biterre (hence the name “bitterrois” for its inhabitants)
Beziers is an old city with his roman arenas and festive tradition of bullfighting and ancient votive festivals like the “Caritas” (the charity festival). Holy bread and sweets were distributed from an old galley-shaped chariot during a joyous procession. However, the clergy didn’t appreciate these festivities and had them cancelled in 1662. They also had the galley burned a year later to prevent the celebrations from resuming.
In 2000 a new « Caritas » galley was built by the Lycee Mermoz students to carry on the tradition. It is now celebrated every Ascension day.
Overlooking the town on its rocky outcrop stands the cathedral of St Nazaire, built on the site of an ancient roman temple. It was rebuilt in the middle of the 13th century after the massacre of the Cathars by the catholic crusaders, on 22nd July 1209. Inside can be found an unfinished cloister and a majestic organ.
Its 48 m high square steeple houses the 2nd biggest bell in the region after that of Montpellier.
This 4-ton great bell called Marie was smelted by François GRANIER in 1939. Music lovers might like to know that it rings in A sharp.
Starboard, on your right, you can see the entrance to the Fonseranes water slope. It is one of the only 2 in France and the most recent, finished in 1983. Unfortunately, it was abandoned due to the decrease in commercial freight in the 80’s.
This water slope enabled freight barges up to 38m long to avoid going through traditional locks, restricted to 30m.
It is basically a ramp that links both pounds, closed by a traditional mitre gate upstream and a movable gate downstream. This gate is pulled along the lock walls by two engines, acting as a huge syringe, allowing the boat to stay afloat.