Canal du Midi
Immediately past Beziers is perhaps the most impressive work of canal engineering on the entire Canal du Midi. Pierre-Paul Riquet, the canal’s founding architect who was appropriately born in Beziers, designed a linked set of 9 locks including the 8-chambered Fonserannes Staircase that take the Canal du Midi up from the Orb River. The enormous effort to build these locks was clearly worth it. A westbound boat leaving the upper chamber of the Fonserannes Staircase will not see another lock for 54 kilometers.
The Beziers section of the Canal du Midi has been altered from Riquet’s design. Riquet dammed the Orb River creating a stretch of flat water navigable by barges. In Riquet’s configuration, boats traveling west on the canal passed through a gate to reach the Orb. After a jog upstream on the reservoir, barges exited the river through the now disused Notre Dame lock and ascended the Fonserannes Staircase. In a similar manner, Riquet engineered the crossing of many rivers and streams in the Languedoc-Roussillon.
There is a flaw in Riquet’s design. In periods of drought or flood, the dams could not maintain a water level sufficient for barge transit. Cargo shipments would have to wait for normal water levels to return before navigation could continue. For this reason many of the Riquet’s original river crossings were later reconfigured.
Various schemes were proposed to fix the Orb crossing. One proposal even specified a tunnel that would go under the river! Ultimately it was decided that a pont-canal or a canal boat-carrying aqueduct would be best. In the mid 19th Century construction began anew. Two deep, rectilinear locks sandwiching a port were built below Beziers’ old town. Near the end of the second lock, the Orb écluse, the long aqueduct begins. Seven hundred and ninety feet long, the Orb Aqueduct is the longest pont-canal on the Canal du Midi. Barges cross 39 feet above the river level. A short distance past the aqueduct’s end, the canal rejoins Riquet’s original alignment in the 7th lock chamber of the Fonserannes Staircase.
Today Beziers’ Orb Aqueduct and the Fonserannes Staircase attract many tourists. Indeed the canal constructions are the third most popular tourist destination in Languedoc-Roussillon, after the Pont du Gard and the town of Carcassonne.
Tourists visiting the Fonserannes Staircase typically pay little attention to a failed civil engineering project next door. Alongside the staircase is the Fonserannes Water Slope. (A good view can be seen in this aerial picture.) Water slopes use locomotives to lift canal boats in a wedge of water. The Fonserannes Water Slope was built between 1980 and 1983 to bypass the lock staircase. Its initial trials started in May 1984. Within weeks a number of problems emerged that were never completely solved. Today the water slope construction sits unused, an unintentional monument to engineering failures.
Large barges take tourist hordes from Beziers’ port through the Orb lock, over the pont-canal, past the base of the water slope, and up the guidebook-worthy linked set of Fonserannes locks. These barges are large enough to take up the entire lock chamber; the tour boats take the place of two to three of the regular-sized pleasure craft. As a rule, on the canals and waterways of France, commercial vessels have priority over bateaux de plaisance. This meant that if a couple of the big tour barges appeared we would have to wait two lock cycles for them to pass.
This time of year the Fonserannes locks functioned in our direction of travel from 10:00 to 11:45 am. We needed to get ahead of the tour barges and the pleasure boat fleet. Otherwise we’d risk a long delay until the lock opened again in the afternoon. The night before we schemed an early start. With the motor running, just before 9 am we waited in Beziers port for the gate to the Orb écluse to open. We were not alone. Other pleasure boats with the same plan loitered in the pound.
On schedule, just after nine, the Orb lock opened. We followed two other boats into the deep lock whose gates define the edge of Beziers’ canal boat harbor.
Around 20 feet in height, the Orb lock is by far the most elevation that we have gained in a single lock. From the boat, inside the chamber, the top seems a long ways up. For most locks on the Canal du midi, boaters loosely affix themselves to well worn bollard on the upper lip. With the depth of the chamber of the Orb lock, attaching a rope to the top is impractical. Instead boaters loop their ropes around vertical poles that have been installed in slots along the chambers walls. As water enters the lock and the boat rises, crews maintain tension as the rope slides up along the pole. The system usually works well; if you can reach a pole it is easy to use.
We were third into the Orb lock just behind a Swedish couple cautiously guiding the Crystal Magic, a spanking new sailboat, on its first voyage. Our position in the lock meant that we could only reach one pole. Since this pole was behind the bow of the Herault it made it more difficult to keep the boat forward in the lock chamber. This mattered as the lock gate was immediately behind us; when the water flooded into the chamber we’d be pushed backwards towards it. Rubbing the rear of your boat up the locks doors is a no-no. Perhaps we could have done things differently, strung the ropes a different way or throttled forward, but as the lock started to fill we were clear of the rear lock door. Our position in the chamber didn’t seem to be an issue. But there was an issue.
When the lock finished filling the lock keeper opened the lock gate towards the Orb Aqueduct. The boats ahead motored out. With our ropes back on board and the other boats clear, I throttled the Herault forward. We didn’t move. More power and a little shoving off the lock sidewall didn’t help. We were stuck. How could that happen? Were we still tied up?
I shimmied to the back of the boat and looked. The problem was obvious. The small rear deck of our boat was pinned under the locks metal mesh service walkway. Since the lock was so deep when we entered we had no thought about the service walkway that overlapped the chamber and the rear of our boat far above. When the water rose and we surged back in the chamber our fate was sealed. As the lock topped up our boat was caught under the mesh walkway. I could see now that there was sufficient force to lift the Herault’s bow from the water. That couldn’t be good.
Full time barge owners refer to rental boats like ours as “bumper boats.” With numerous rubber fenders wrapped around the circumference of the barge and a low top speed, there’s not much that can go wrong. We had just found a way for things to go wrong.
For sure it is not good to wedge a canal boat into a lock. I do not recommend this! But at least the problem was easily fixed when the keeper lowered the water level in the lock slightly. With that we moved forward away from the walkway and tied up to a now convenient topside bollard. Next the lockkeeper raised the water and refilled the chamber. With the lock full of water, we expected the gates in the front to open. They always do. But this time they didn’t. Soon the keeper came over and said something in French. I’m sure we looked confused.
He switched languages. “Do you speak English?” he said.
After our nod he continued, “The lock is broken. I have called a technician.”
We stayed tied up and waited. Before long we wondered whether we would be in the lock for 30-minutes or 3 days. But it didn’t take long before the Voies navigables de France or VNF mechanic arrived. (Our trip across France gave us plenty, perhaps too many, chances to see the VNF crews in action. They were amazingly quick to come and fix problems with the locks. )
After a gruff survey the mechanic disappeared below. It was news to us that there was a “below” for the lock. Wasn’t everything below water on the uphill lock gate? Soon there was a series of loud metallic bangs. Apparently the technician and I follow the same school on mechanical repairs; if all else fails, hit it with a heavy sledgehammer. I must admit that I’m suspicious that the technician reset a breaker and then banged a hammer around for a few minutes just for effect. After all, as Becky can attest, the “beat it hard with a hammer” approach fixing things has only lead to a disaster for me. No matter the speculation on the techniques, whatever the mechanic did, it fixed the lock. We were on our way to the pont-canal.
The Orb Aqueduct was our first pont-canal. Crossing high above the river on a supported pool of water is a weird amusement park-like feeling. A river is not supposed to be so far below the boat. If you’ve ever ridden a log flume ride, you get the idea.
Shortly past the pont-canal the channel connects into the now always open chamber of the seventh lock of Fonserannes Staircase. After a wait we entered the sequence of locks. Once inside it was constant action on a humid and warm day to take the Herault up the 45 feet to the top. At each lock we needed to dodge the watching tourists and loop the boat’s ropes over bollards well above the level of water in the lock. When the keeper opened the sluice gate we’d keep the ropes taunt as the flood of water released several gates ahead filled the chamber. After the level of the water reached its maximum we detached our lines and maneuvered the boat to the next chamber. The cycle then repeated.
In the whirl of constant activity there was little time to admire the amazing feet of civil engineering that the Fonserannes Écluses represent. The locks were constructed in the late 17th Century and still function pretty much as designed today. When we cleared Fonserannes’ last chamber we would not see another lock for two days. The only significant construction in the coming stretch is the short Souterrain de Malpas or the Malpas Canal Tunnel. Cruising on the long stretch of flat water we couldn’t fathom the skills necessary to find an essentially level alignment for a 54-kilometer long waterway. Remember that Riquet set the alignment of the Canal du Midi a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. When the Canal du Midi was constructed, a precise elevation map of the Languedoc did not exist.
For us the calm stretch of water after the storm of the locks was welcome. We cruised the plane tree lined canal past the vineyards of the French countryside. On the way, just before the Malpas tunnel, we stopped to gaze at the unusual drained Étang de Montady near the ancient Oppidum of Enserune. (After seeing the Étang de Montady from the canal bank, we decided that it would be best seen from the air like in this picture.)
Eventually we reached the village of Capestang in the middle of the afternoon. Capestang is a typical quiet village alongside the canal. Small towns often offer surprises. In Capestang, La Collegiale of Saint Etienne rises dramatically above the town and the surrounding lands. We could see this dramatic cathedral-like structure for miles as we slowly approached Capestang.
After we moored, we walked into the village to shop and to see the Collegiale up close. The Collegiate is interesting inside and out; a tourist worthy sight that has been missed by the guidebooks. We would never have seen it if we hadn’t been traveling the canal.
Sights like the La Collegiale of Saint Etienne are one of the reasons why we like canal travel. Canals take us to places that we would overlook. Canals give us adventures we never anticipate. Canals make us solve problems we never knew we could have. Barging through France is a different way to travel.
Travel time*: 7.3 hours
Cruising time**: 4.6 hours
Distance traveled: 20 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 7
Weather: Clear, warm, and humid with a 5 to 10 mph wind
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 11% complete based on cruising time and 13% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 14 of the 246 locks (6%) of the locks that we would cross.
* The time between the start of the day and the end of the day.
**As measured by the hour meter on our boat. When the motor is running we were either moving or standing by to move (like in a lock).