Canal du Midi
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Barging in France: Canal du Midi
Part 2: Towns & Villages
Canal du Midi joins the Canal de Garonne at Toulouse. These two waterways form the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of the Two Seas)
Capitole de Toulouse
The city of Toulouse, capital of Occitania, is a major industrial and university city where the Canal du Midi joins the Canal de Garonne. It has a very rich architectural heritage ranging from large Romanesque and Gothic churches to neo-classical facades such as that of the Capitole, to the prestigious mansions of the Renaissance. Toulouse is the center of the European aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus, the SPOT satellite system, ATR, and the Aerospace Valley. The University of Toulouse, founded in 1229, is one of the oldest universites in Europe. This city is also the home of prestigious higher education schools, particularly in the field of aerospace engineering.
Founded in the 13th century by Alphonse of Poitiers, Montgiscard was the royalist gathering point at the time of the insurrection in 1798 against the new republican rulers of France. The village was protected by the castle of Roqueville, which has been restored and is surrounded by a large park. Montgiscard’s 16th century church, with its cloister and remarkable wall-belfry, was a place of pilgrimage.
The Grand Bassin at Castelnaudary
Castelnaudary’s name comes from the Occitan Castèlnòu d’Arri, a Latin translation meaning “Arrius’ new castle”. The town was the location of a Roman staging post on the Narbonne-Toulouse Road. It is best known for its cassoulet, the famous and delicious casserole for which it proclaims to be the world capital. Since August 2000, they celebrate this dish every year during the Cassoulet festival.
At the request of the inhabitants of the town, the engineer responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi, Pierre Paul Riquet, made Castelnaudary the technological heart of the canal with the construction of the Grand Bassin. At 7ha (17 acres) it is the only stretch of water of its size along the whole waterway. The basin, which is a beautiful town attraction, was built as a port and a reservoir. On one side, it features the four-flight locks of Saint Roch, and on the other side, the island of Cybele, which in this incredibly windy part of the world, acts as a windbreaker to the port. Throughout its working life, the Grand Bassin was constantly full of barges loading grain and wine bound for Toulouse, Bordeaux, Sète and the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and ultimately, the world.
Villepinte is a small village on the banks of the Canal du Midi. As well as featuring one of the 91 locks along the canal, the village also houses the beautiful 9th century church of St-John the Baptist. In 1949, the church was deemed a Historic Monument. With its origins dating back to the Gauls and the Romans, Villepinte today is presented as a typical medieval village with a maze of tiny, winding streets and a canal-side wash house.
Bram is a former bastide, or fortified town. It was founded by the Romans because of its location between the warmth of the Mediterranean and the freshness of the Atlantic. Roman remains suggest the town was not as circular as it appears today. The modern town was built in the 12th century around its castle and its church. The only way to enter the village was via a gateway on the eastern boundary of its ramparts.
In the 13th century, the town was a center of Cathar belief, the heretical Christian group which led to the Albigensian Crusade. In 1209, the Crusade’s then leader, Simon de Montford, came to Bram to pollute the waters of the citadel, whose wells were fed by a spring in the countryside around Bram. He besieged the town and took it within three days. The heretics were captured and horrifically mutilated. All but one had their top lips cut off and their eyes gauged out, before being led on a forced march to the town of Lastours as a warning to others: turn yourselves in or await your fate. Later in the Crusades, Simon de Montfort turned to burning the Cathars alive, and so either way they did not get off easily.
By the 17th century, the town had outgrown its walls and had expanded in concentric circles. During the working lifespan of the Canal du Midi, Bram was a center for grain, wine and agriculture.
Carcassonne is a medieval fortified city set atop a hill overlooking the Aude River. Rising against the backdrop of the Black Mountains, the city is striking not only during the day but also at night, when it is floodlit. Composed of a circle of towers and battlements, turrets and ramparts, with the longest city wall in Europe, Carcassonne is a perfectly restored medieval town. The Romans built the oldest sections of its encircling wall in the third century AD. Its name dates from the 9th century, when the city was under siege by Charlemagne. Dame Carcas, in full view of Charlemagne, fed the last of the city’s wheat to pigs. Charlemagne, thinking the act signified an endless food supply for the city’s inhabitants, gave up and decamped. Credited with saving the city, Dame Carcas’ act led to the city being known as “The Virgin of Languedoc” and impregnable. Carcassonne’s Bastille Day fireworks display against the backdrop of the old cite, is one of the most spectacular in the region.
In the little town of Trèbes, visitors will find many shops tucked away in a network of narrow streets. The town’s medieval church has seen recent renovations and expansions in both the 18th and 19th centuries. A false vault of plaster built on the nave’s ceiling, built in 1860, partially collapsed in 1977. This incident was fortunate, however, revealing 350 painted faces on the wooden frame of the roof, which were then cleaned and restored. The painted figures represent characters in their daily life, with geometric and botanic patterns. This find is exceptional in the region, with the decor being complete.
Marseillette is a pleasant settlement of stone buildings. With a population of approximately 715 people, the income for the hamlet comes not only from wine, but also from the production of rice. The ancient étang de Marseillette was drained in the 19th century by Anne-Marie Coppinger, a Dubliner who had settled in the region with her revolutionary husband, John Lawless, to evade the Irish Famine. She purchased the rights to the lagoon and within four years had cut three channels to drain the waters into the nearby Aude River. Unfortunately, the return from the lands within the lake was insufficient, and the project bankrupted her. In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of the étang and started a campaign to improve irrigation. He built a hydroelectric power station to regulate the flow of water and could eventually cultivate the land. Today, apples, vines and rice are grown in the salty, marshy lands around Marseillette.
Church & Château at Puichéric
The village of Puichéric, where barges encounter a two-pound lock on the Canal du Midi, has a square-towered church. In the village itself, one can wander down to see the remnants of the old railway line which once connected the Minervois to the Corbières (Caunes-Minervois to Moux). These vestiges can be found all over the region. In the town of Cruzy, a former station was converted into a restaurant. Also in Puichéric are the remains of the 11th century château which was burned down in the 14th century by the marauding English under the Black Prince.
The quay at La Redorte is within walking distance of many shops and restaurants. An aqueduct nearby crosses the river Argent-Double. Close by is the unique épanchoir or spillway, which allows water from the canal to overflow into the river. It was added to the list of historic monuments in 1996.
The village of Homps has its origins in the Gallo-Roman period, when it was called Aldomus. It quickly developed to become a prosperous and flourishing town. In the Middle Ages, Homps passed under the authority of the Hospitallers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, who made it the seat of one of their most important commanderies. The village was destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade, in the fight against the Cathars, and suffered badly again during the Wars of Religion. With the construction of the canal, Homps had a turn for the better and once again became prosperous. Not only was it the third port on the canal, but also one of the few places where barges could turn around. Wine making has long since been important to the town. Despite being ravaged by the Phylloxera blight, it was the center of the cooperage industry in the region, sending barges of wine to the ports of Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Sète.
Many consider the hilltop settlement of Argens-Minervois to be one of the most beautiful on the Canal du Midi. The village is dominated by the nearly windowless towers of its ancient 14th-century castle, and cobblestone streets winding through its heart.
Roubia is a canal-side village built around a church that was rebuilt in 1929, after termites destroyed the original in 1918. When open, be sure to look inside to see a beautiful stained-glass window in the ceiling. The old port, where barges would load and unload barrels of wine, is a popular meeting place for many of the older inhabitants of the village.
A single-arched aqueduct, completed in 1676 and the first of its kind in the world, carries the canal over the River Répudre at Paraza. On the outskirts of the town lies a château with its grounds bordered by umbrella pines and palm trees. This is where Pierre-Paul Riquet lived during the construction of this portion of the canal.
The picturesque bridge at Le Somail
Le Somail is one of the Midi’s prettiest villages. This hamlet grew around a 17th-century, stone-arched bridge, Le Pont de St-Marcel. Built as a “service station” for the canal, at either side of the bridge stood a grain store which was converted into a chapel in the 18th century, and an inn where the postal-barge running between Toulouse and Agde would change its horses. Passenger boats would make overnight stops in Le Somail as they plied their way along the canal. Opposite the chapel, one can see the old ice-house where large blocks of ice kept produce fresh during the hot summer months.
Sallèles d’Aude is the first village on the Canal de Jonction, a branch canal built in the 18th century. In 1776, this extension to the Canal de la Robine reshaped the local economy and the evolution of the village. They modified it in the 19th century to allow larger boats to join the Canal du Midi from the Mediterranean. Most of its buildings date from between the 16th and 19th centuries. A former priory stands in ruins in the center of the village. Nearby, an archaeological dig in the 1970s uncovered an incredible complex for the production of amphorae (large pots) bound for the Roman Empire.
Collegial Church of Saint Stephen - Capestang
On the edge of an ancient lagoon, Capestang’s name comes from the phrase “cap de l’étang”, meaning “at the top of the lake”. In the 13th century, the town was the preferred summer residence of the Archbishops of Narbonne, and they built a magnificent palace in the center of the village during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Great Hall’s ceiling timbers are decorated with 15th century frescoes, while 14th century murals adorn the walls.
Opposite the Palace is the 13th-century Collegial Church of Saint Stephen. Built on the site of an earlier 11th century chapel, it was intended to rival the Cathedral of Narbonne. Unfortunately, because of the plague of the mid-13th century, the antics of Edward the Black Prince, and then the expulsion of Jews in France, construction halted; just as it did with the Cathedral of Narbonne.
Capestang is also notable for one of the lowest bridges on the Canal du Midi with only 10-foot headroom. In November 1766, a 140ft segment of the bank collapsed after heavy rain and snow. Ten thousand workers toiled for three months in freezing conditions to make repairs. Subsequently, they installed automatic siphon sluices in both Capestang and Ventenac to drain excess water before it floods the bank. When the level of the water drops sufficiently, air enters the pipes and the flow of water ceases.
Beer brewed in Poilhes
The Canal du Midi divides the village of Poilhes in half. In 1744, a landslide blocked the canal at Poilhes. They built a retaining wall within 14 days and restored navigation. “La Gorge Fraîche”, brewed on the banks of the canal in Poilhes, is one of the region’s few beers. It is a favorite of many a bargee. The label depicts none other than a barge on the Canal du Midi.
Between Poilhes and Colombiers lies the Malpas Tunnel, the world’s first section of navigable underground canal. At 525 feet, it is not particularly long, but it is wide and high. Cut through sandstone, stone vaulting lines most of the inside of the tunnel. Before they built the canal, Toulouse and Béziers were four days apart; with the arrival of the Canal du Midi, they were only 32 hours away from each other. A towpath runs alongside the canal inside the tunnel.
The canal’s tunnel, however, is not the only tunnel through the hill at Malpas. In the 13th century, monks tunneled a channel at the nearby church of Montardy to drain a lake at its foot to eradicate the threat of typhoid and cholera arising from the stagnant waters. In the 19th century, a railway tunnel was also built underneath the canal. On the top of the hill lies the ancient Roman road, the Via Domitia, which linked Rome with the port of Narbonne, and eventually with Spain and North Africa.
On the plain below the Oppidum d’Enserune, Colombiers is a bustling little village on the banks of the Canal du Midi. It houses a beautiful Romanesque church built under the reign of the Visigoths, and later expanded in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Béziers is one of the oldest cities in France, dating from around 575 BC. On July 22nd 1209, the city was attacked during the crusade against the Cathars led by Pope Innocent III and the Bishop of Citeaux. B&eqcute;ziers was entirely ransacked, and the old cathedral burned. They later rebuild the cathedral and dedicated it to Saint Nazarius. One of the best preserved towns in Occitanie, it is also the birthplace of engineer Pierre Paul Riquet, famous for overseeing the construction of the Canal du Midi.
Anjodi navigating the Nine Locks of Fonserannes
The Nine Locks of Fonserannes are the masterpiece of the Canal du Midi and Pierre Paul Riquet’s swan song. Following the engineering marvel of the Grand Bief (53km stretch without locks), he knew he had to come back down to sea level eventually and did so in his hometown. They recently restored the lock flight and have a new visitor center.
When the canal first opened, the locks helped boats descend on to the River Orb. Boats then had to traverse the river before rising through a series of locks on the other side. This system was riddled with issues, however. During the winter months, because of the fast current, it often swept boats off course. In the summer, boats would beach due to lack of water.
Athos traversing the Orb Aqueduct
During the mid-19th century, it was decided to build an aqueduct carrying the canal over the River, allowing for safe passage all year round. The bridge opened in 1858 and has since become an iconic feature of the Canal du Midi.
As a result, the new port also opened the same year, and the old port was abandoned. The canal was diverted before the seventh lock, blocking any further access to it. This meant that two new locks had to be built, as the last two in the lock flight were also out of action. These two new locks are the deepest on the Canal du Midi, each measuring a rise of over 6 meters.
Opposite to the lock flight, one may notice an intriguing piece of engineering. The Fonserannes water slope opened in 1983, intending to allow commercial barges too large for the lock flight to enter the Grand Bief. However, after many technical issues, the water slope closed indefinitely in 2001.
The medieval town of Villeneuve-lès-Béziers was built in 843 on land which belonged to the emperor Charlemagne. It was built to house inhabitants of Béziers, which was quickly becoming overpopulated. They built a new church and town hall, forming the center of the new town.
Portiragnes is a canal-side village with a population of just over 3000 inhabitants. Although inhabited since prehistoric times, the modern-day village was founded in the 12th century. With a maze of winding streets and tiny houses, it is a true medieval village. In its center stands the church of Saint Felix, dating from the 13th–14th centuries. Portiragnes lock is one of the few on the Canal du Midi that was upgraded to the Freycinet gauge of 40 meters. Here, the canal is less than 2 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.
Vias is a small town close to the Canal du Midi. Like many other towns in the region, it was a “bastide” or fortified town during the Middle Ages. Its ramparts are still visible today. On the edge of the old fortifications is a 14th century church, built in the Gothic style. The local volcanic stone gives it a very dark appearance.
Agde, founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, is said to be one of the oldest towns in France. The symbol of the town, the Ephebe of Agde, was recovered from the sandy floor of the River Hérault in 1964. It is believed that it was on its way to a villa in Narbonne when it was lost in a shipwreck. Adge is built from black basalt, the primary building material of the area, and the remnants of a now extinct volcano that once stood nearby.
Étang de Thau - South of France
Marseillan, like Agde, is another ancient settlement and also founded by the Greeks. Today it is famous for its dry Vermouth Noilly Pratt and the oysters which grow in the salty waters of the lagoon beside which the town sits. The Étang de Thau is one of the largest saltwater lagoons in France. A thin strip of land running from Sète to Marseillan separates it from the Mediterranean.
The center of the village is a maze of winding streets and medieval buildings, including an ornate 13th-century, covered market and the 17th-century Church of Saint John the Baptist. Until the 18th century, a fort stood in the center of the village, flanked by watchtowers, gates and ramparts.
Learn more about the Canal du Midi:
- The Canal du Midi: An Overview
- The Canal du Midi: Towns & Villages
- The Canal du Midi: Best Places to Visit
Canal du Midi between Carcassonne and Marseillan, France
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