The first of its kind, the aesthetics of the architecture and landscape that make it so unique, Canal du Midi is world heritage listed. Envisioned by Pierre Paul Riquet in 1662 this 240km long canal is the largest of its type and links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea.
Constructed between 1667 and 1681 (with further works continuing until 1694) this was a time that marked a shift from Renaissance to Modern: the canal was a technological innovation incorporating authentic architecture and landscape design visually appealing, a synthesis of art and functionality.
Riquet put in place syphons and weirs to prevent flooding, diverted many river courses, and created numerous dams in order to feed the canal system which was built as a bypass to the rapid flowing Garonne River for freight. Forward thinking, he utilised an hierarchical structure for building the system.
In producing this feat, he initially hired 200 workers divided into teams of approximately 50 people, who were directed by foremen, who were in turn supervised by inspectors. The workers were well paid, which was uncommon. Aged between 20 and 50 years, the men and women were paid sick leave in addition to working on public holidays and Sundays. In addition, housing was also provided at a reasonable rate: all of these concessions enabled a record time completion. 1667 saw 2000 workers with a record 20,000 at its peak.
With an eye for detail, during the early years of the canal’s construction, Riquet had several modifications made: this included demolishing the first locks and replacing them with the ovular style.
In total, the canal boasts 126 bridges, 64 ovular locks, 55 aqueducts, 6 dams and 1 tunnel.
With a goal at minimising bankside erosion, plane trees and other vegetation were planted, providing an additional bonus of shade and reduction in water evaporation.
In continual use until 1970, when the canal was closed to commercial traffic, the system sadly fell into a state of disrepair as a result of years of neglect: thankfully a forward thinking person saw the promise this canal and towpath had yet to yield and it is fully operational once more.
Proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, this canal is a delightful experience for the traveller wishing to experience a unique way of life upon the water and the towpath, upon which trod the hooves of the barge pulling horses, is now a busy byway for walkers and cyclists.