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le Canal du Midi
‘Il faut finir l’ouvrage, ou mourir à la peine’, declares a brass plaque attached to the lock-keeper’s house at the picturesque Ecluse de la Criminelle. ‘Better to die in the process, than to leave this great work unfinished.’ That might not be the best translation – but it certainly sums up the spirit of the historic Canal du Midi. It is the most famous canal in France, dating from the 17th century and passing through ancient towns like Carcassonne and Béziers that have remained unchanged over the centuries. Meandering through the rugged hinterland of the Languedoc-Roussillon, shaded by plane trees and acres of vineyards and never-ending orchards of peach and cherry trees, it is a must for those with a love of France and a taste for adventure and fun. And an opportunity which is now possible thanks to a special offer between Living France magazine and Crown Blue Line.Southern France has a network of more than 700 km of navigable waterways. In the west, the mighty Garonne and its tributaries offer many exceptional cruising possibilities. In the East, a series of shallow lakes, rivers and canals lead us along behind the Mediterranean coast towards the flat plains of the Camargue and the Rhone valley. But it is the Canal Du Midi which provides the link between these two distinctive regions. This ancient canal, with its little humpbacked bridges and distinctive oval locks, continues to cast its spell over travellers as it has done for more than three hundred years. A historical waterway of exceptional beauty, it has at last been given the recognition it merits having been classified as a world heritage monument by UNESCO.The first projects for a canal to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic date back to the beginning of the 16th century. But the cost of such an enterprise and enormous technical difficulty of finding a water supply were insurmountable obstacles. That was until the completion of the Canal de Briare in 1642 demonstrated that the construction of an artificial waterway linking two river valleys was possible. Enter one Pierre-Paul Riquet, a salt tax collector from Béziers, who made the journey north to Briare to study the new canal. In 1663, accompanied by no less a figure than the Archbishop of Toulouse, Monsiegneur D’Anglure, he set out for Versailles, to submit to the famous finance Minister Colbert his proposal for a "Canal de Communication des Deux Mers". With the help of the learned Archbishop, Riquet was able to convince Colbert, and in turn Louis XIV, of the value of his project. Above all, he showed that the problem of water supply could be solved by diverting several small streams in the Black Mountains towards the Canal’s highest point at Naurouze.Riquet must certainly have impressed the French Finance Minister. For despite the substantial contribution from the Royal Treasury, Colbert had no hesitation in transferring both the property and the administration of the Canal to the Riquet family "which would maintain it with care and vigilance, having all the more advantage in so doing for the fact of its being their own property". Colbert’s judgement was vindicated by the extraordinary contribution of Riquet and the devotion of his successors, who continued for many years to invest in the Canal.The first stone was laid for the reservoir of St. Ferréol in April 1667, and in November of the same year work was begun on the first lock at Toulouse. The section of the canal between Toulouse and Trèbes was completed in only five years despite several modifications ordered by Riquet. For example, he demolished the first locks to reduce their height and rebuilt the chambers with the oval shape that makes them so distinctive today. This attention to detail ensured that the canal would function well from the very beginning, and would outlast more recent canals. The second part of the canal, from Trèbes to Sète, begun in 1672, proved much more troublesome. A difficult terrain with many river crossings added to the costs and delayed the completion. Several different routes were debated, and its surely further proof of Riquet’s genius that he chose the more difficult one on the left bank of the Aude which kept the canal above the worst possible floods. Riquet’s descendants observed that the cuttings of Millegrands, St-Julien and Dejean required more gunpowder than any battle.Riquet’s detractors became more vociferous as his project slowly advanced, plagued with technical and financial problems. Even his friend Colbert expressed reservations, and sent a representative of the court to ensure that costs were kept to a minimum. Riquet resented the presence of this gentleman, whom he regarded as a spy. Their confrontation was brought to a head when the course chosen by Riquet for the Canal brought it to the foot of the Ensérune Mountain. Here it appeared that he was at last defeated. Works were stopped and the King’s emissary set off for Paris for further instructions. Meanwhile, Riquet noticed that there already existed a small tunnel underneath the mountain that drained the Etang de Montady. Encouraged by this, he transferred all his workers to the site and dug another narrow passage through the mountain to prove that a larger canal was feasible. The tunnel, begun in 1679, and completed in 1680, enabled Riquet to continue the canal to his own hometown to Béziers.At last completed, the canal was inspected and filled with water in 1681. Several more official inspections in 1683 and 1684 provided the occasion for the King’s emissaries to admire this magnificent construction, and to taste the specialities of the canal side inns. For example, in July 1685, Mr. Daguesseau set out from Marseillan towards Toulouse in a lavishly appointed barge called the Heureuse. Along the way, he remarked on the lines of Italian poplars and ash trees, and the irises grown along the water’s edge.At the time of the French Revolution the administration of the canal passed into the hands of the newly formed République. From 1810, the partly state-owned and partly private Compagnie du Canal Du Midi administered the Canal, but the extraordinary spirit of the family enterprise was maintained, and the Canal prospered. From 1858 it was leased to its own worst enemy, the railway company that had just completed the line from Bordeaux to Narbonne. And so the inevitable decline began.Since 1898 the canal has been managed for the state by the Service de la Navigation, but the structure established at its very beginnings has been maintained. The canal is under the overall responsibility of a Chief Engineer in Toulouse.It would be a fitting conclusion, would it not, to come up with a happily-ever-after story. This was not the case, hélas, for our hero Riquet, ruined and embittered by the vehemence of his opponents, died in 1680, just six months before his dream materialised. Which means that we have to complete this journey where we began – on the Ecluse de la Criminelle. Remember that brass plaque? ‘Il faut finir l’ouvrage, ou mourir à la peine’. But if you cast your eyes slightly to the right of the lock-keeper’s house – there is a another plaque, which tends to escape the attention of most passers-by. ‘Tant que le monde durera, ton nom Riquet retintira’, it declares. ‘So long as this world will last, so your name Riquet will ring out’. Words which, who knows, might allow the great, late Riquet to finally rest in peace.
You will be unlikely to rest at all, it is worth reminding readers, in that a cruise along the Canal du Midi whilst relaxing and enjoyable in the extreme – is also hard work. ‘Another one coming up’, my wife would call out, announcing our imminent arrival at another lock. Which means its all hands on deck, ropes thrown up, barge pulled in, bash to the left, and boogey to the right. I am sure you know what I mean. Thank goodness that these are eminently French canals – in other words – fermés pendant le déjeuner!
The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at www.jeremyjosephs.com Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer.
Many of his articles are available online. Please check the sitemap for a complete list.