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.

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