Canal du Midi
In 1662 Pierre-Paul Riquet penned a letter to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV’s finance minister, promoting the construction of a canal across the south of France. The idea was not new. Riquet, a rich tax-farmer, had become the most recent advocate in a long line of historic figures advancing the concept of a canal linking the Mediterranean Sea to the navigable Garonne River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.
Numerous challenges had to be overcome so a canal that “communicated” between the two seas could be built. Despite having no technical training, Riquet believed he could solve the problems and build such a canal. His moxie was compelling. After a royal commission studied the proposal, Riquet was awarded a contract to initiate the construction of what would become the Canal du Midi. In 17th century France, the canal building program was believed to be the biggest project of the day.
The proposed waterway across the south of France could serve many purposes. It would bypass the traditional sea route around Spain through the Strait of Gibraltar, a route that France did not control. Construction of the canal would enhance trade. Troops and mail could be moved. And perhaps most important to the French royalty, the enormous and expensive public works project would support the ideal of France as successor of the Roman Empire. France would create a wonder that would place it as the New Rome. Colbert knew as well as anyone that, if successful, the grand enterprise to build a canal across the Languedoc would glorify France for centuries; it would be a lasting monument to Louis XIV.
Did Riquet or Colbert imagine that their canal, first opened as the Canal Royal de Languedoc on May 15, 1681, would become the domain of tourists four centuries later? How could they? Nevertheless Riquet might well feel vindicated by the canal’s modern status. He went deeper into debt in the last months of his life working to perfect the canal. For Riquet, the waterway was his life’s work. It was his reason for being. He spent generations of money to put the canal in its best light. It took over a hundred years for debts Riquet acquired during the construction of the canal to be fully paid.
Riquet and Colbert would never see the canal in its modern glory. Indeed, Riquet died months before the work was completed. When he passed, the canal could still be characterized as a muddy ditch across France. Colbert lived past the completion of the canal but was never able to see the grand work first hand.
Even the renowned military architect Vauban never saw the canal as it is today. Vauban was once a critic of the canal’s construction. Later he was responsible for many spectacular improvements on the waterway like the Orbiel and Cesse Aqueducts. But he too never gazed on the Canal du Midi with its present day signature feature, the plane trees.
Starting in the 1830’s, 42,000 plane trees were planted on the Canal du Midi. Planted to stabilize the banks and slow the evaporation of the channel’s water, the trees have grown and matured into one of Canal du Midi’s characteristic features. Today many of the most appealing sections of the waterway are lined with large mature plane trees. The lines of planes on each bank arcade the waterway letting boats travel in the cool shade of an arbor tunnel.
Regrettably the canal might soon look as it did before its signature trees were planted. Canal du Midi’s plane trees are infected with a canker stain plague. As a result, France is now felling around 4,000 trees a year. Before long all of the canal’s plane trees will be gone.
It is thought that American GIs inadvertently carried the plane tree fungus, Ceratocystis platani, to Italy in World War II with their sycamore ammunition boxes. Since the war the fungus has spread rapidly; the plane tree plague is highly virulent. Some tree experts estimate that 90% of the canal’s plane trees are now infected. The fungus is incurable. Though fungus resistant Planator trees are being planted to replace the felled diseased trees it will take years for these trees to reach full height. Travelers who want to experience Canal du Midi in its historic tree-lined glory must visit soon.
Cruising from Homps to Trebes on the Canal du Midi gives plenty of opportunity to ponder the waterway without its tree arcade. For now the plane trees remain marching along the canal banks for miles as the water level rises. The rows of trees stop when the canal reaches a lock. In between Homps and Trebes there are seven classic ovoid shaped locks; three of the seven écluses have two chambers and two locks have three steps. With the plane trees and the characteristic locks, this stretch is a favored postcard of the Canal du Midi.
It was nearing closing time when we arrived below our last lock of the day, the Trebes triple écluse. When a lock has multiple chambers the lockkeeper stops accepting boats before the official closing time as it takes longer for boats entering the lock to clear the last chamber. We arrived just in time to lock up through the Trebes écluse with the final group of the day. If we arrived moments later, we would have had to spend the night tied to the bank below the lock. There are worse fates!
The three chambers in the Trebes’ écluse brought our total for the day to 14. We traveled 29 kilometers. Lock-wise, this was one of the busiest days of our journey across France. The Canal du Midi was now rising rapidly, at least rapidly for a canal. This day we had climbed on the water about 130 feet, nearly doubling our journey’s altitude to around 280 feet above sea level.
Unlike our spontaneous stop the previous day in Homps, our two-night stay in Trebes was premeditated. Remaining more than one night in Trebes had been in our plans ever since we visited the area last year by car.
On our prior stopover we biked along the canal’s towpath, passing through Trebes as we headed to Carcassonne. Seeing the village and the Canal du Midi crystallized our desire to return and to cross France by boat. This year returning to Trebes we could linger. We would stay longer. Here we could relax.
If you are looking for more information another account of a hire boat journey through the same waters can be found here.
Travel time*: 9 hours
Cruising time**: 7.1 hours
Distance traveled: 29 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 14
Weather: An even nicer day.
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 27% complete based on cruising time and 26% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 54 of the 246 locks (22%) 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).