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Pierre Paul de Riquet - The Channel of the Two Seas

The Salt Tax Collector

Started in 1667 the « Canal du Midi » - "The Canal of the South"-, one of the technological wonders of the 17th centuries, is inaugurated in May 1681.
At the inauguration time its name is "Royal Canal of Languedoc" the name that is changed to "Canal du Midi" during the French Revolution.
The canal is in different degrees the achievement of five remarkable men: King Louis XIV the absolute ruler of the kingdom who approved the endeavor, his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert who understood the importance of building a water highway that links Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean and backed the project, Sebastian Le Prestre, Senior de Vauban, the General Commissioner of the Fortifications who added his engineering knowledge to the structure, François Andréossy draftsman and cartographer of the Canal , and the man who stands as the Canal’s creator: Pierre Paul Riquet.
The idea of a navigable waterway to allow the ships to pass from the sea to the ocean without going through Gibraltar strait was not a new one. Even during Charlemagne times in the 8th century AD, and later during the 16th century there were some studies done in that sense but the biggest impediment was thought to be the water supply of such a canal.
The foremost merit of Pierre Paul Riquet - besides of course of the planning and the actual construction - consists of his demonstration of the project feasibility by finding the way to fill the canal with the water from the "Montagne Noire" mountain range.
Born in the city of Béziers, in the southern region of Languedoc, in 1604 or 1609 ( his birth certificate is lost but a probable date of birth is the 29th of June 1609 the feast of Saints Peter and Paul whose names he bears) Riquet comes from an important local family. He studies in the Jesuit College of Béziers and at 19 marries Catherine de Milhau, the daughter of a rich Bézier family.
In 1630 he enters in the salt tax collecting business ("la Ferme des gabelles") of his native region Languedoc - a lucrative business, salt being of course indispensable as a condiment as well as a way for food preserving. To further enlarge his fortune Riquet becomes also an the arm supplier to the royal forces involved in the war against the Spain.
In 1652 Riquet buys the lordship of Bonrepos (with a modest "château" for such a rich family!) situated close to Toulouse in what is now the department of Haute-Garonne. The property of Bonrepos is chosen for its hydrographic potential. It is in the wooded area that borders his property, that Riquet builds a hydro-technique device. This machine – that emulates the canalization of the mountain springs and the routing of their water towards a sharing point between the waters that will go to the Mediterranean Sea and the waters that will go to the Atlantic Ocean - allows him to test his ideas regarding the filling with water of the future canal and to demonstrate that his project is feasible.

The Engineer

On the 15th of November 1662 Riquet writes his famous letter to Colbert explaining that it is possible to build the canal and the only difficulty that remains is finding the funds for such a prodigious venture. Riquet admits himself in this letter that it can seem strange that a tax collector is dealing now with hydro-technique projects, but Colbert is interested and more so after Riquet stresses the political and financial advantages of having a shortcut between the sea and the ocean.
In 1663 a commission is sent by the king to Languedoc to study the viability of the project and in May 1665 the commission gives its accord to the project.
To finance the construction Riquet proposes to invest his own money in return for merchandise and passenger transport exclusivity for his family and its descendants, declared owner of the canal. These conditions are accepted by the royal Edict in October 1666.
The construction of the canal starts in 1667 simultaneously on an array of sites. A site consists of 250 workers divided in 5 crews with their own leader and headed by a site manager. At the height of the activity there are a total of 12,000 people working on all the sites. Riquet proves to be a good employer: beside good salaries, he pays his workers the Sundays, the holy feasts, the bad weather days and even the sick days and is therefore considered a pioneer in social security system.
The "Canal du Midi" -240 km long between Toulouse and Sète, with an average depth of 2 meters, a width between 16 and 19 meters, and a volume of 7 millions cubic meters of water - was the biggest construction site of its era. The canal makes in Toulouse the conjunction with the Garonne River thus linking Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean and therefore deserves also the name of -Canal des deux mers-.
In technical terms the canal is a so called "sharing canal" meaning that the waterways permit the water to flow naturally from the sharing point towards the sea on one side and towards the ocean on the other side. The water that fills the canal comes from the different springs of the "Montagne Noire" mountain range, springs which are channeled through a man-built drain - called "La Rigole de la Montagne" - in the Saint Ferréol reservoir. The basin that was initially a natural lake created at the mouth of the Laudot stream. To regularize the amount of water regardless of the season Riquet needed a dam. The dam was built between 1667 and 1672. It is 780m long and at the base it is 120m wide. This hydro technical complex - that at the time it was built had a capacity of 4.5 million cubic meters - controls the amount of water that passes further towards the sharing point of the Naurouze.
The canal is a chain of navigable waterway segments called "biefs" whose length depends on the difference in level of the land. The vessels pass from on bief to another through the locks whose lateral stone walls are oval shaped to increase maneuverability. The lock’s two wooden doors - for their design Riquet and his engineers use the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci - allow the water to mount or to descend. There are 65 locks along the Canal du Midi. Of these, the first ones were built in Toulouse. The Toulouse locks are unique all along the Canal in that they are square shaped.
The locks can be double, triple or even eight in number like in the case of the locks of Fonsérannes that permit a difference of 25 m in the water level (these locks were built in 1678 and at that time is was taking a vessel around 1 hour end a half to pass this water stairway) .
Unfortunately Riquet does not live to see his dream become reality. The former tax collector turned Hydrotechnical Engineer dies exhausted and crippled by debt on the 1st of October 1680. His resting place is the Saint-Etienne Cathedral of Toulouse. At the time of his death there are only 5 kilometers left before the canal is finished!
There are his sons Jean Mathias and Pierre Paul who continue the work of their father and on the 19th of May 1681 the canal is inaugurated under the presence of Monsignor de Bonzy, Archbishop of Naronne who blesses the first vessels to go from the city of Castelnaudary to the Mediterranean Sea.

After Riquet

In 1684 Sebastian le Prestere, Seignor de Vauban, General Commissioner of the Kingdom Fortifications is invited by the sons of Riquet to visit the canal. Very appreciative of the oeuvre that he sees Vauban declares that the canal is "the most noble and the most beautiful work of this kind he has ever seen". He also suggests some enhancements that he delegates to the engineer Antoine de Niquet – Director of the Fortifications of Languedoc and Provence. Vauban mains contribution consists in elongating by 7 km of the “La Rigole de la Montagne” to prevent the seasonal differences in water debit of the Saint Ferréol Lake and also in changing of some of the crossings between the canal and the rivers it encounters to the "canal-bridge" system that Riquet invented but did not have time to implement but in the crossing of the Répudre river close to Paraza village.
The "Canal du Midi" was visited in mid-May 1787 by Thomas Jefferson, then the American Ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. Jefferson traveled from Sète to Toulouse during 9 days in a glass carriage that he put on a barge. This arrangement allowed him to follow the beautiful scenery and admire the richness of the country he was crossing. From Castelnaudary - one of the towns on the canal - he made a detour on horseback into the Montagne Noire to see and study the Saint Ferréol reservoir (several places where Jefferson has been are mentioned on the paths of the park that surrounds "Canal du Midi" museum).
The "Canal du Midi" allows the Sea and the Ocean to be linked via a new water highway.
The hydro technical system that is "The Canal of the Two Seas" has two segments. The first segment is the "artificial river" built by Riquet that extends from the Mediterranean Port of Séte to the city of Toulouse. From Toulouse to the Ocean Port of Bordeaux the navigability is assured by the river Garonne. Due to the seasonal differences in its water debit, Garonne is a challenging river. A new canal called "Canal Latéral à la Garonne" - a canal parallel with the Garonne River is proposed even by Vauban. However its construction is only undertook in the 19th century during Louis Philippe. This new canal, 193 Kilometers long, that starts in Toulouse and finishes 53 kilometers upstream of Bordeaux at Castets-en-Dorthe, that includes 53 locks, is finished in 1856.
The canal that at its heyday in the middle of the 19th century was transporting up to 100,000 passengers a year lost little by little its speed and reliability with the advancement of the railroads.
Nowadays the canal, with its tranquil flowing waters and its banks lined with plane trees, is a prized tourist attraction. Unfortunately due to the old age of the trees they will be put down before 2015. Since the 80s the canal is opened between March and November only to tourist boats (between November and March the present owner of the canal "Voies Navigable de France" undertakes maintenance tasks).
What Vauban once described as "A marvel of Europe", the "Canal du Midi", is listed since 1996 in the UNESCO’s world heritage list.

For information about ways of cruising the canal check out: http://southweststory.com/wp/cruising-the-canal-du-midi

Related article: Canal du Midi in Autumn