Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, the Canal du Midi continues to arouse admiration even today. 242 km long and connecting Toulouse to the Mediterranean, it was dug with shovels and pickaxes by thousands of workers for 14 years from 1667 to 1681.
How about taking the time to make a stopover in Lauragais to contemplate this masterpiece of civil engineering, which emerged from the earth more than 300 years ago?
THE PIERRE-PAUL RIQUET PROJECT
In 1667, Pierre-Paul Riquet takes up this project which has been "in the boxes" since Antiquity. Indeed, all the sovereigns who have succeeded one another have always dreamed of being able to link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean while avoiding the Strait of Gibraltar, considered insecure and costing very dear.
But the question that kept coming back was: where to find the water needed to fill such a long canal?
Pierre Paul Riquet, collector of the salt tax (gabelle) in Languedoc manages to solve this thorny problem. He knows the region well, because he never ceases to survey it for his business. Living in Revel, he often crosses the Black Mountain on horseback: he notices that this place is crossed by many small streams. This is how little by little germinates in his mind, the idea that will lead to the creation of the Canal du Midi. Pierre Paul Riquet is not an engineer, but throughout his project he enlists the help of a surveyor and hydraulic specialist, Francois Andreossy.
THE WATER SHARING POINT IN NAUROUZE
Riquet's idea is as follows: capture all the watercourses that cross the Montagne Noire and channel them into a large reservoir basin dug for this purpose.
Then, run all the water stored in this tank into a ditch until the point of water sharing.
Obviously, Riquet has crucial information that would make his project possible: the fact that the crest line crossing Europe and which determined the watersheds of the rivers was located precisely at Naurouze, in the Lauragais, at 189m altitude.
This reservoir basin was dug at Saint Férréol, near Revel. Work began in 1667. It was for the time the biggest dam in the world known with a retention of 4 m000 of water!
From there the water was routed via the artificial channel of the Plain until Naurouze threshold. Finally, it was quite natural that it flowed on the one hand towards the Mediterranean Sea and on the other hand towards Toulouse. That's what we call " the watershed point »: You can contemplate this place, which has become emblematic, even today.
A TITANICAL SITE: A TRIBUTE TO THE WORKERS!
The Canal du Midi is dug in sections but we must keep in mind the idea that work is starting simultaneously everywhere.
The first stones of the dam were laid in Saint-Férréol in 1667.
At the same time, several projects are being carried out simultaneously:
- Digging of the port of l'Embouchure in Toulouse
- 34km of the Plaine channel
- Digging of the Toulouse / Trèbes part (towards Carcassonne)
A first filling of the canal is carried out in 1671.
Then, we must continue! During the second phase of the work, it involves digging the part leading from Trèbes to theThau pond, near Sète, where a port will be built.
All this would not have been possible without a large and loyal workforce. In order to be able to move the project forward quickly, Riquet implements very advantageous working conditions: paid unemployment on rainy days, compensation for sickness, Sundays and even public holidays. The workers, who came mainly from the fields found their account there, even if one suspects that accidents were frequent, since everything was dug with a shovel and a pickax, even with an explosive! As for the women, they cleared the land on the edges.
At the peak of the construction site, it took 12000 workers mobilized to dig the canal.
Did you know ?
Riquet did not have the chance to see his canal completed: he died 3 months before its official inauguration! Yet it is he who is the financial guarantor of his project to the point of getting into debt to advance the money necessary for the construction. He dies riddled with debt. His children and grandchildren exploited the management of the Canal du Midi in the following century and began to make profits from the middle of the XNUMXth century. During the French Revolution, the heirs of Riquet were robbed of their possession which would become national property.
VAUBAN THE PROVIDENTIAL MAN
The Canal du Midi was inaugurated with great pomp in 1681 in the presence of the Archbishop of Narbonne. Nevertheless, very quickly, it becomes silted up because of the rivers which cross it and in a few months, navigation is compromised.
Consolidation work will be carried out from 1686 to 1694 by Vauban, architect of the fortifications of the Kingdom. He built many complementary engineering structures such as aqueducts (in order to make the rivers pass under the canal). He enlarged the Saint-Férréol reservoir to store even more water and drilled the Cammazes tunnel also called " Vauban vault On the other hand, the Toulouse-Bordeaux part remains only at the draft stage. It will not be dug until the middle of the XNUMXth century. Today it is known as " Lateral canal at the Garonne ».
THE CANAL DU MIDI, A LINK BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT
This waterway has long been used to transport passengers and goods.
The port of Agals Gardouch became a favorite place for exchanges. Thanks to this outlet, wheat could be exported massively to Toulouse or to Languedoc, which generated a second golden age in Lauragais (after that of pastel in the XNUMXth century). In the XNUMXth century, magnificent mansions and superb castles sprang up, sponsored by landowners who had made their fortune in the export of cereals.
The train unfortunately came to tarnish this beautiful story. However, freight transport continued until the 1980s.
Today, only the yachting is allowed. It takes 7 days by boat to travel from Toulouse to Sète. It is however possible to rent electric boats or boats without a license to enjoy a few hours or a few days of this construction gem. The more athletic can walk the towpaths walk ou by bike over a few kilometers or more to meditate on the creative genius of Pierre-Paul Riquet.
Navigation is free from mid-March to October. Outside this period, it is done on request from waterways of France. However, it is completely interrupted during periods of unemployment in the canal.
La navigation speed is limited to 8km / hour. So take your time on board the boat! Cyclists should ask for their authorization near the Voies Navigables de France to be able to travel on the towpath between Naurouze and Sète.
Guided tour for groups