Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is a 240 km long canal in the south of France, connecting the Garonne River to the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean. The canal runs from the city of Toulouse down to the Mediterranean port of Sète, which was founded to serve as the eastern terminus of the Canal.
The original purpose of the Canal du Midi was to be a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, avoiding the long sea voyage around hostile Spain, Barbary pirates, and a trip that in the 17th century required a full month of sailing.
The strategic value of such a canal is obvious and had been discussed for centuries; in particular when King Francis brought Leonardo da Vinci to France in 1516 and commissioned a survey of a route from the Garonne in Toulouse to the Aude at Carcassonne.
The major problem was how to supply the summit sections with sufficient water.
In 1662, this was the problem that Pierre-Paul Riquet, a rich tax-farmer in Languedoc who knew the region intimately, believed he could solve. A Royal Commission was appointed and in 1665 the project which was finally ordered by Louis XIV. At its peak, there were 12,000 labourers on the project, including 600 women.
The Canal du Midi was opened officially as the Canal Royal de Languedoc on May 15, 1681. It eventually cost over 15 million livres, five times its original pricetag, bankrupting Riquet before he died in 1680, just months before the Canal was opened to navigation. His sons inherited the canal, and it took the family over 100 years to recover the debts.
The Canal has 103 locks which serve to climb and descend a total of almost 200 metres. It has 328 structures, including not only the locks but also bridges, dams and a famous tunnel.
Initially the canal was navigated by small sailing barges with easily lowered masts, bow-hauled by gangs of men. By the middle of the 18th century, horse towing had largely taken over and steam tugs came in 1834 to cross the Étang. Passenger and mail boats continued a brisk trade until the coming of the railways in 1857. Commercial traffic continued until 1980 when it declined rapidly and disappeared during the drought closure of 1989.