Since the 17th century, the Canal du Midi has linked Toulouse to Sète, on the shores of the Mediterranean. This unique work of engineering in the world was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, becoming a privileged destination for river tourism in Europe.
“It will be a great work of peace, capable of perpetuating the memory of its creator for centuries to come”: Louis XIV was right on that day in 1666 by predicting that the Canal du Midi would go down in history. He failed to say that he saw it as a good way to deprive the King of Spain of the taxes levied at the Strait of Gibraltar, the only passage then existing between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
The prestige of the Canal du Midi was to exceed royal hopes since, a few centuries later, UNESCO recognized in it "an exemplary expression of human creative genius". Digging a canal between the two seas was an idea that was already trotting in the minds of the Romans. However, no one had found a way to supply this canal.
This was the riddle that Riquet solved. This was his stroke of genius. He imagined capturing the streams of the Montagne Noire South of the Tarn River in order to bring them to a collecting reservoir: the Saint-Ferréol Basin, today a Great Site of Occitania. The water was then directed across the Lauragais Plain to the threshold of Naurouze, the highest point on the route of the canal: here, Riquet created a summit level, which allowed the water to flow with regularity on the Atlantic side on the one hand, and on the Mediterranean side on the other..
The complex of The Sources of the Canal du Midi has been classified among the Great Sites of Occitania.
Did you know ?
When the royal treasury ran out of funds, Pierre-Paul Riquet himself paid the workers who worked on the construction of the Canal. There were up to 12,000 of them, often farmers living near the project. In a way, Riquet was a precursor of social protection programmes since he even paid workers when they were sick or when the rain interrupted the work.
A wealthy bourgeois born in Béziers in 1604, Pierre-Paul Riquet was not an engineer but a tax collector for the lands of Languedoc. Modest, he did not boast of his rare intelligence or his marvellous practicality. Colbert, however, was not mistaken and convinced Louis XIV to support Riquet's project. The sequel is worthy of an epic novel.
The 14 years of work, the 328 structures built along the Canal, the quarrels with the engineers and financiers of the Sun King, the depletion of the royal funds: nothing prevented Riquet from progressing with the safest shipping routes. He went so far as to invest his personal fortune in it.
Pierre-Paul Riquet passed away in 1680, just a year before the work was inaugurated. It was his son Mathias who completed the Canal du Midi, this serene waterway on which it is so pleasant to sail today.
The Canal du Midi is:
Pierre-Paul Riquet is still very much alive in the minds of the inhabitants of Occitania and you will be able to meet him, greet him and get to know this fascinating man better in different places in our region. Statues of the inventor of the Canal du Midi stand in Toulouse at the head of the allées Jean Jaurès, and also on the allées de Béziers. You may also see his tombstone, at the foot of one of the pillars of the Cathedral of Saint Etienne, in Toulouse.
In the countryside of Toulouse, you may also discover his castle, at Bonrepos-Riquet, surrounded by a magnificent park where he designed a life-size model of the hydraulic mechanism of his masterpiece.
Pierre-Paul Riquet also has his own museum, right next to the Saint-Ferréol Lake in Haute-Garonne, the Reservoir. A must-see!
Worth the detour
From Toulouse, Riquet's idea was to use the Garonne River to reach Bordeaux, but instead the Canal du Midi was extended by digging the Garonne Canal from 1836 to 1856. Totalling 360 km of waterways, the two together form the Canal of the Two Seas.