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The Canal du Midi

Andrew Smyth recalls the vision and enterprise of one of Louis XIV’s chief ministers and a Béziers businessman.

Hidden in the depths of southwest France, and now a destination only for holidaymakers or those in search of a simple life, the Canal du Midi – opened eighty years before the Duke of Bridgewater initiated Britain’s canal system – presented seventeenth-century France with a technological and financial challenge comparable to the construction, more than 300 years later, of the Channel Tunnel.

A short cut, bypassing the Iberian peninsula had been a dream of centuries – it had always been perceived as an affront to French pride that ships travelling between her Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts had to pass through waters controlled by Spain. Two things made a canal finally achievable: the determination of Jean Paul Riquet, a businessman from Béziers, and the vision of Jean Baptiste Colbert, contrôleur générale to the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Riquet was already a wealthy man when, in 1637, he was appointed to administer the salt tax in Revel, a town on the foothills of the Montagne Noir, to the north of Carcassonne. Over the next couple of decades his commercial flair added considerably to the revenues created by his salt monopoly, and he spent an increasing amount of time on his growing passion: a way of  joining the two great seas.

This idea was not as far fetched as it may seem. From the Mediterranean to the watershed at the Col de Narouze, is a rise of 192 metres, although the course is tortuous. Thereafter, a narrow corridor follows the Hers River to Toulouse – a route subsequently shared with both the railway and A61 Autoroute. From Toulouse, the Garonne river was then seasonally navigable to Bordeaux, although in 1856 this was itself bypassed by another canal.

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