Canals probably are the oldest and most enduring elements of transportation infrastructures. From the third and fourth millennia BC on, almost every major civilization has built them. In Europe, France early became a leading canal builder, maybe because it long had been the crossroads of the continent. In more recent history, that capability has been exported. Napoleon was the first to call for a modern canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas, and in the mid-19th century, French engineers and entrepreneurs were principal in the building and operation of the Suez Canal. In 1880, the French were the first to attempt building the Panama Canal. Indeed, the word “canal” comes from the Old French word for “channel,” as in earth.
Within France, more than 150 canals were built. Most are still in service, as France now has the largest waterways network in Europe, about half of it in canals. Some of the canals are busy thoroughfares, navigable by ocean-going ships. Some are of lesser commercial importance but are maintained in step with the French penchant for preserving cultural monuments. One of them, Canal du Midi (“The Midi Canal”), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Site description notes that the Canal du Midi “is one of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering in modern times.” That it is, as innumerable picture postcards featuring its locks, bridges, tunnels, feeders and spillways attest. As customary for canals, its name is a geographical locator. The Midi designates southern France, along the Pyrénées mountain chain on the border with Spain and along the Mediterranean Sea.
In turn, that explains why the canal was built. The Romans were the first to seek a shortcut from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. They knew that two rivers north of the Pyrénées flowed past towns temptingly close for connection: the Aude from Carcassonne to the Mediterranean and the Garonne from Toulouse to the Atlantic. There’s no record of how they envisioned the connection, but they did identify its most viable route. A few centuries on, Charlemagne pondered the connection but left no suggestion as to how it might be made. In 1516, King François I brought Leonardo da Vinci in to survey the route with canal building in mind. The conclusion was that canal building was feasible. But there seemed to be no way to supply a canal with water at the continental divide in the Montagne-Noire (“Black Mountain”) massif between the drainage basins of the two rivers.
A century and a half passed before the knowledge of a local lad and the favor of “Sun King” Louis XIV precipitated a solution that triggered the building of the canal. Born in 1604 at the foot of the Black Mountain, Pierre-Paul Riquet was the right man at the right time for the job. He came to know the mountain well and to climb up through local administration to the coveted post of collector of the Gabelle, the salt tax imposed on all residents of the country, and then to become the provincial Farmer-General. The positions provided him with a handsome income and contacts throughout the province, both invaluable when he took up work on the Midi Canal project in 1654. Results came slowly but convincingly. By 1666 he had shown that a two-way feeder canal to Naurouze on the divide could supply the water needed there and had obtained a Royal Edict for starting construction in 1667.
Leading engineers were brought in to design the canal and supervise construction by a workforce of 12,000 laborers. In addition to excavation by hand of the 150 mile-long channel, 328 structures, including 64 locks, were built. The workforce included a thousand women recruited to work on the water system. Their contribution to the project turned out to be decisive. Their engineer supervisors were well versed in building fortifications, bridges and viaducts, but knew little about the hydraulics involved in building a navigable canal across the continental divide. But many of the women had come from former Roman bath towns that had maintained classical hydraulic technologies. It was they who overcame many of the hydraulic challenges that arose, including routing the waterway through the mountains using as few locks as possible and building the eight-lock staircase at Fonserannes, the first ever of its kind.
Many solutions were novel, but the details were traditional and classical. Some 250,000 trees were planted to stabilize the banks of the canal. Most were Oriental plane trees, siblings of the sycamore of North America, that long had been planted to stabilize embankments. Many of the buildings were designed with neoclassical elements in step with the King’s ambition that France be a new Rome. The canal opened in early 1681, sadly some seven months after the death of its initiator, Pierre-Paul Riquet.
In the mid-19th century, recurrent navigational limitations on the Garonne River were overcome by building Canal de Garonne, a 120-mile westward extension of Canal du Midi. Together the two canals are known as Canal des Deux Mers (“Canal of the Two Seas”). The canals no longer fulfill their original purpose of transporting people and freight. But they now offer canal tourism and the self-propelled recreations of hiking, cycling, canoeing and kayaking. An Internet search using “Canal du Midi” as a searchword will bring up organizations offering all sorts of canal experiences, from complete cruises and guided tours to simple bicycle rental. Or you can do it yourself, on water if you have a licensed boat or on land if you’re self-propelled. The experience is memorable. Where else could you start in a high-tech center, like Toulouse, the headquarters of Airbus, the European competitor to Boeing, go through one of Europe’s renowned wine districts, and end up in a fortified city that predates the Crusades, Carcassonne, itself a World Heritage Site?
Canal Du Midi by Philippe Calas, Albi, France, Editions Grand Sud, 2007, 152 page softcover, ISBN French edition 978-2-908778-61-8, English edition 978-2-908778-74-8; out of print but stocked by some online booksellers and by the Canal website, with pages selectable in French or in English.
For information on hiking and cycling along the canal, visit the “Green Way” website with pages selectable in four languages, including English. The Languedoc region of SNCF (French national rail) offers train travel and cycle rental packages, with information at www.ter-sncf/languedoc in French only.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.