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The Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi is considered a masterpiece of French engineering, linking Toulouse to the Mediterranean via a waterway running for almost 250 kilometres. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi is now much appreciated by boating tourists, hikers and cyclists. The cycle route beside the canal is still being developed at time of writing.

the canal du midi in le somail

The idea of a canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic was already considered in Roman times. It was an important aim for the Romans to try and move men and supplies from the Med to northwest Europe without having to go all the way round the Iberian Peninsula to reach the Atlantic. Such a route would have allowed them to control their colonies in northwest Europe more easily, both militarily and politically. The technical issues and astronomic costs of such a project thwarted those who wished to turn the dream into reality, from Roman Emperor Nero to 17th-century French king Henri IV.
 

It was only thanks to the exceptional skills of Pierre-Paul Riquet, in the 17th century, that the project became a reality. Plans for the canal began to take shape in 1662. After some 14 years of work, it was completed in 1681, due to the labours of over 12,000 men and women.  The Canal du Midi is the oldest canal in Europe still in operation.

The Canal du Midi in figures

  • 240km in length
  • over 14 years in the making (1666 - 1681)
  • 350 architectural works constructed, including 63 locks, 126 bridges, 55 aqueducts and 7 canal-bridges
  • 12,000 workers were employed on the canal at the height of its construction, these workers using pickaxes and their bare hands to excavate 7 million m3 of earth and gravel.
  • Opened to traffic: 1681

In 1857, the Canal Latéral à la Garonne linking Bordeaux to Toulouse was constructed, allowing boats to cross all the way between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, avoiding the vast detour around the Iberian Peninsula.

For almost two centuries, the Canal du Midi flourished, used for transporting people and merchandise. The trip by canal between Toulouse and Sète (on the Mediterranean) could last up to four days for passengers and eight days for merchandise.

Up until the arrival of the railway line in the middle of the 19th century, the canal was not subjected to any real competition. With trains, transport by waterway declined slowly, with passenger transport being abandoned to train transport by the end of the 19th century, then freight transport by waterway coming to an end in 1989. Since then, the Canal du Midi, which also serves to irrigate the fields round and about, has been saved by boating tourism (with c.100,000 users a year) and by numerous hikers and cyclists appreciating it.
 

The Canal du Midi’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 has ensured a positive future for it, and its preservation for future generations.

 

The Canal du Midi and Pierre-Paul Riquet

It was only in the 17th century, with the arrival on the scene of brilliant engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet, that the Canal du Midi would see the light of day.

The creation of the Canal du Midi is inextricably linked to the story of its inventor, Pierre-Paul Riquet.

Born in 1609, he was the eldest son of Guillaume Riquet, a lawyer and prosecutor in the southern town of Béziers and, ironically, a fierce opponent of the construction project for a Canal des 2 Mers at the start of the 17th century.

Following his studies, Pierre-Paul joined the administrative department for the gabelle, or salt tax, from which he made his fortune. Remember that at this period, salt was used to preserve food such as meat and fish, as well as cattle feed, and, as such, was a vital element. Its sale was controlled by royal monopoly and those who collected the significant tax on salt were known as ‘fermiers’ (‘tax farmers’), paying the taxes collected from the local population to the royal coffers, but being allowed to keep a good share for themselves.

Next, Riquet found another very lucrative position, as a munitions supplier to the royal armies in Catalonia. In this capacity, he had to see to the provision of both arms and victuals for the troops.

Having acquired a fine property in Verfeil (in the département, or county, of Haute-Garonne), on the back of his fortune, he could have settled down to enjoy a quiet life, but as he reached his 60s, he was still full of ambition and seeking fame and recognition. He would succeed in this goal thanks to the titanic project of the Canal des Deux Mers, which he worked on until his dying day.

As he carried out studies and feasibility experiments, he won the support of Louis XIV’s great minister Colbert for the realization of the canal.

Involved not just in the conception and development of the project but also in its financing, Pierre-Paul Riquet, nicknamed ‘the lord of the Canal’, spent his personal fortune on it. He did not quite live long enough to see its completion, as the inauguration took place seven months after his death.

The route along the Canal du Midi