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Pierre-Paul Riquet and the Canal du Midi

The canal in Languedoc, between the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, was one of the remarkable achievements of Louis XIV’s reign, writes Roger Pilkington.

Tant qué lé moundé durara,

Toun noum, Riquet, brounzinara!

So wrote a minor poet of the Languedoc, and to some extent it is true.

In a restaurant near the Matabiau station in Toulouse an item on the menu is described as a Croque Riquet. Elsewhere in France the same snack would be a Croque Monsieur, but in the Languedoc the name of Pierre-Paul Riquet is to be found attached to streets, wharves, inns - and even to confections.

Toulouse has a flamboyant statue of Riquet, Baron of Bonrepos, and at Béziers he dominates the centre of his native town in a position superior to that accorded to the poets.

Dressed in all the flowing finery of the seventeenth century, he looks confidently over the market stalls and the bus park toward the distant line of his famous creation, the Canal du Midi.

During the last three hundred years the Baron of Bonrepos has become so surrounded by a blend of praise and legend that it is perhaps impossible to know just where truth ends and popular imagination begins.

For instance, the Marquise Riquetti, godmother of the baby who in 1604 was being baptized in the hill-top cathedral of Béziers, where once the entire population had been butchered for Albigensian sympathies - did she really step forward at the christening and prophesy that the infant, named Pierre-Paul because he was born on the joint feast day of St Peter and St Paul, was to be the means of securing a great highway of trade and communication across the Languedoc?

And, fifty-five years later, did that prophecy first become a probability when the now middle-aged Riquet had the good fortune to notice a genuine workable watershed right at his feet?

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