Canal du Midi : Cruising in Detail

Information about the 241km of canal from the Etang de Thau to Toulouse. There are 65 ecluses (locks) all oval in shape, many of them double or triple chambered. From PK241 les Onglous (at the etang) the canal rises 190m from sea-level through 50 ecluses to the watershed at la Segala, then falls 56m through 15 ecluses to the port de l’Embouchure at Toulouse. The Canal du Midi together with the Canal de Garonne (the renamed Canal lateral a la Garonne), forms the ‘canal des deux mers’ (the canal of the two seas – the Mediterranean and the Atlantic).

The Midi is one of the world’s wonders, commenced in 1665 thanks to the initiative and skill of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the most significant ingredient of which was his strategy for keeping the canal’s summit supplied with water, from the Black Mountain 20km away, via a feeder canal. This had been the fatal problem for a scheme that had been discussed with Leonardo da Vinci 150 years earlier. Riquet is an honoured hero to this day, in Languedoc. Riquet had the essential enthusiastic support of the King’s chief military engineer de Clerville and the abilities of his own engineer Andreossy but he also had the surprisingly significant expertise of a group of 1,000 peasant women labourers from the Pyrenees with a centuries old tradition of practical water management. The omni-present oval-shaped ecluses themselves are testament – their arched shape is inherently strong against the sideways force from the excavated or built-up ground. The total workforce peaked at 12,000; it was the 17th century’s biggest construction engineering project.

This delightful canal’s green waters twist and turn through the countryside, following the contours, bordered by an avenue of thousands of plane trees whose exposed roots interlock at the water’s edge, reinforcing the banks. The canal passes through a great number of wine growing areas, including the Herault, the Aude, Minervois and Corbieres. You will also see many fields of sunflowers.

The Midi has just cause to be popular and it is. During the season hundreds of hire boats travel to and fro, not always completely sure of what they’re doing, particularly in the ecluses (tricky enough for more experienced boaters) that are subject to a perpetual overflow waterfall noisily cascading over the upper gates. It pays to be somewhat ‘on guard’ when sharing a lock with hire boats. The quantity of hirers naturally increases during the ‘grandes vacances’ in July and August. Thefts from this tempting array of targets are not unusual – lock up!

See also general notes (foot of page).

Basic Information

  • Approximate minimum depth 1.4m-1.50m, headroom 3.3m, width 5.45m. These are the ‘book’ values and may vary according to conditions. The ‘real’ depth of the Midi is the subject of seemingly constant debate because it varies according to season (governing the amount of water available to feed into the canal), nature and location. Some stretches are highly prone to either silting or to falling leaves forming a ‘soft bed’ that can be ploughed through but which certainly reduces the actual water depth. As in most other waterways, the given depth is the middle of the channel; the sides may be noticeably less deep and this may affect ‘coming alongside’ especially if one has twin bilge keels or twin propellors. The final factor is that on the ‘down’ side of an ecluse the outgoing water scours a depression immediately outside the gate but then deposits that silt a short way beyond as a ‘bar’.
  • The canal carries virtually no commercial traffic. It does, however, have a number of converted peniche hotel-barges travelling along it. Naturally, they are big and if you meet one coming round a bend on a ‘tight’ section you will need to be careful. We’ve never had a problem, they are all skippered very responsibly. Hire boats that go too fast and/or on the wrong side are another matter.
  • The speed limit is 8kph, 3kph past moored boats.
  • Most, if perhaps not all, simple ecluses are now (2011) user-operated. There is a control panel at the lock-side with buttons. Crew must be let off in advance of the lock in order to press the appropriate button actually to prepare and open the lock-gates before a boat can enter. Once moored, a button is pressed once more to empty/fill the chamber, etc. Reports indicate queues of boats waiting to pass through ecluses, where once eclusiers would ‘encourage’ (sometimes vigorously) boats in so as to fill them as well as managing the actual operation.
  • The Canal du Midi is part of the south-west region of the VNF, one of the most energetic and go-ahead.
  • Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides.

PK241 les Onglous

Les Onglous, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

Primarily a Glenans sailing school base (04 67 77 22 73), located in the former stable and other buildings for the teams that hauled boats through the canal. There are a few areas of quayside available for visitors. It’s a very interesting and peaceful spot to stay for a day or so, by the etang but also quite near the big beaches to the south at Marseillan-plage.

PK235 Bagnas – First/last lock on the Midi. Eclusier.

PK233 River Herault crossing - It is necessary to take a 1km voyage along and across the river between the 8km Bagnas section and the remainder of the canal. Exiting from Bagnas, turn south and go downstream (past possible bank-side river moorings) until within sight of the Agde weir, then turn right into the canal – high grassy banks but a timber waiting pontoon outside Adge’s ’round lock’.

Bessan
It is also possible to travel about 5km up the river to Bessan; Quiet and pretty, with pontoons at la Guinguette.

PK231 Agde – Round Lock

Agde ecluse lock, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

It’s not truly round since it was altered to accommodate longer peniches. For example, the passenger boat ‘le Capitain’ that we often seem to meet in, or coming out of, the lock. Prudence is the watchword if you also see it, not a pleasant experience. In fact, the round lock seems harmless enough but it is more difficult than it looks – it is easy (especially if the wind is blowing) to get ‘trapped’ on one quadrant or another, unable to get off and make the turn out through the gate. Bear this in mind when you choose your place to tie up. Some places are subject to quite a lot of turbulence as the lock fills. The ecluse is manned (04 67 94 10 99).

Above the lock (through the bridge in the pic above) there is a somewhat tatty Nautic hire boat base (04 67 94 78 93). Public quayside mooring to the left, possible bankside on the right before the long series of hire boats starts.

To the left of the lock lies a spur canal that also connects with the River Herault, below the weir, that provides a route to the sea. And to Chantier Allemand – an important boatyard and chandlery.

For information about Agde as a Mediterranean access port, click here.

Agde is a picturesque and historic town, well worth visiting – about 15mins walk south from the ecluse. Airport nearby.

PK227 Vias – PK222 Cassafieres

Libron, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

PK227 – Vias Quayside mooring by the bridge (04 99 47 48 49), very close to the big sandy beaches at la Tamarissiere.

PK225 – (left) the River Libron crossing flood control gates.

PK222Port Cassafieres. (right) A major hire boat base (04 67 90 91 70) with facilities potentially available for outside use – repairs, crane, etc. Fuel. Some spaces available for visitors (harbour off the river), or moor bankside nearby, plenty of scope. Big sandy beaches of la Redoute very close by.

PK214 Villeneuve-les-Beziers

Villeneuve les Beziers, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

A good place to moor for a day or two, nice village, excellent wine co-operative. Most moorings are bank-side but there is a public quayside with water (south bank just below the ecluse – ‘jeton’ tokens from the tourist office adjacent) and also other moorings by the restaurant, north bank by the ecluse. The best place is outside the friendly and very well run camp-site ‘les Berges du Canal‘ 04 67 39 36 09 (small restaurant, bar, showers, etc), which has electricity as well as water available. Phoning ahead to reserve a mooring is advised.

PK208 Beziers

Beziers, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

Beziers is a very historic place, dating back beyond Roman times to the Neolithic. It became a stronghold of the Cathar sect, forcibly surpressed in 1209 when the population (15-20,000) was massacred in its entirety by Catholic forces. The town is very pleasant to walk up to, from the port, to sit in the main square by the statue of Paul Riquet, born in Beziers.

The port (local VNF office 04 67 11 81 30) is spacious and modern, but in our experience the water and electricity points have never worked.

PK208.5 – below the port – Timber waiting pontoons.

Short canal spur off to the left once provided access to the River Orb via an ecluse. Excellent possible bank-side mooring (check depths).

The manned ecluse at PK208.5 “Beziers” is straight-sided and deep (4m+) – there are vertical poles to moor to and slide up (or down). You will only be able to loop round one pole (take both stern and bow lines through); they are spaced for peniches, not plaisanciers.

PK208 – above the port – The manned ecluse at PK208 “l’Orb” is straight-sided and very deep (6m+) – again, there are vertical poles to moor to.

Beyond the ecluse there is a canal aqueduct that takes the canal over the River Orb. Before this was built in 1858 river craft had to descend to the river, travel along, and then come back up to canal level. Conditions often meant this was not possible. The photo above (top right) shows the canal-Orb ecluse “Notre Dame” (below Foncerannes), unused since then, slowly sinking into picturesque decay. It is to the credit of the original builders that it is still so well preserved.

PK206 Fonserannes (les 7 ecluses)

Foncerannes, Fonserannes, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

Going down is quite fun; going up is An Experience. There were once 8 ecluses, plus ‘Notre Dame’, to get up from the river; now there are just 7 in operation (= 6 rises or falls) to get up from the aqueduct level. Quite enough.

The ascents and descents are according to a timetable – Up 10:00-11:45 and 16:00-18:45. Down 8:00-9:30 and 13:30-15:30. An ascent takes about 1hr – 3/4hr. It is always beer-o-clock at the top and one is entitled to expect appreciative applause.

Beside the staircase of locks is an inclined plane, to slide large peniches between the upper and lower levels without their needing to use the staircase. Following the almost total decline in commercial traffic traversing the Midi, it has been out of use for some years.

You will almost certainly be in the ecluses with other boats, of differing sizes and crew abilities, probably quite tightly packed in. It is best to be at the back, but beware the gates closing on your stern. If you’re at the front your bow may be nearer to the rushing water than you might want, but a secure line taken to the upper bollard, top or foot of the steps (see pic) will keep you safe. The controlling lock-keepers do this stuff all day, every day, so they know what they’re doing; but they tend to want to take things at a gallop, so don’t get rushed. There are usually lots of spectators enjoying what they see as fun, tending to crowd forward and get in the way of one trying to get lines round bollards, or ‘helping’.

Going up (the trickiest) ‘a deux’, the basic technique is to have crew on the lock-side with the bow line. Moving between lock-chambers, they ‘lead’ the boat with the line, walking up the steps whilst the skipper attempts to keep the boat under control, go through the gates and then tuck into the curved lock-wall. Crew takes a couple of turns of the bow line around the forward bollard and then darts back to take the stern line from the skipper, around the aft bollard, back to the skipper and then forward to pick up the bow line and control the bow.

There are two situations where this doesn’t work. Going into the first (lowest) chamber the configuration means that the crew won’t be able to walk in, bow line already in hand. It may be difficult to lasso the necessary bollards from the boat. Secondly, half-way up there is a footbridge that means crew also can’t lead the boat. The skipper may have to throw the bow line to the crew, as well as the stern. All good fun.

From here, heading west, there are no ecluses for 53km.

PK201 Colombiers

Hire boat base (travelift and yard) and PdP, in a harbour off the river. Apparently, free water and electricity for the first night. We’ve met a few people who like Colombiers and who have left their boat there for the winter. Even though there was space, we were chased off mooring ‘inside’ then an officious jobsworth came and berated us for mooring on the river-bank. The port was very noisy, too.As a result we don’t like Colombiers.

PK199 Malpas / Enserune

Malpasis the oldest canal tunnel in the world; quite short but the tunnel and the approaches are narrow (single passage) so hooting loudly to scare oncoming traffic is a good idea.Above, the Oppidum d’Enserune is an ancient hill settlement, occupied for 500 years up to 100AD – magical, but a very stiff walk up from the canal. It overlooks the Etang de Montady, once a swamp but drained in 1247, with spectacular radial fields and ditches.

PK194 Poilhes

We don’t like Colombiers but we really like Poilhes, a gorgeous little village that spans the canal with two bridges connecting the halves. Short stretch of quayside downstream of the road bridge. Bankside (with bollards) for 0.5km from that bridge upstream, plus mooring off the old washing-place opposite. Small shop/boulangerie, restaurants, superb Mairie overlooking the canal. A great place.

PK188 Capestang

Capestang, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

Capestang is a good village, with facilities including supermarkets. There are plenty of bank-side moorings either side of the bridge, as well as a hire boat base. Tel: 04 67 11 81 35

The bridge has the reputation of being the lowest on the canal; it isn’t*, but it is the most awkward because of its shape.*(the two ecluse bridges leading up to and including Carcassonne are the lowest, in our experience)

Click for dimensioned drawing of the arch, measured by Mike Hoffman. [opens in new window]

PK178-PK177 – this stretch is wide and an excellent place to moor bank-side; far-reaching views to the south.

PK172 Argeliers – good, popular, bankside moorings with a pleasant small village nearby.

PK168 Canal-de-la-Robine [Canal-de-Jonction]

Click here for separate information about the Robine/Jonction canals to Narbonne.

PK168 Port-la-Robine

Port la Robine, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers A small harbour (04 68 46 11 46, speak to Eric) off the canal (behind a sliding passarelle, so very secure), bankside moorings with water and electricity. Slipway at the far end. Some noise and dust from the works adjacent. Fuel from the pontoon outside the passarelle.A very nice walk or bike ride down the side canal (towards Narbonne) to pretty Salleles village for provisions.

PK168 – The little Halte beside the bridge over the River Cesse seems to have closed – the quayside remains. The river is worth a look at, or even to scramble down and paddle in. A fairly thin stream running betwen gravel banks, you will surely be taken aback by the plaques on the south side of the bridge recording winter flood heights – ten metres above the current level.

PK166 – The pretty village (and bridge) of le Somail. Close by, a stunning, very large antiquarian bookshop and an equally extraordinary hat museum.

PK161Ventenac – Good quaysides immediately outside a huge wine ‘cave’.

PK159 – Bridge over the River Repudre (1676), the oldest canal bridge in France, probably the world.

PK151 Argens-Minervois

A very attractive village, with an ancient and seemingly untouched chateau set on the hill above. Down at canal level things have moved on a bit – there is a hire boat base (‘Port Occitanie’ 04 68 27 03 33, no private plaisanciers, possibly fuel, crane) and bank-side moorings alongside the path where the locals play petanque.

PK152 – the ecluse at the end of the ‘long bief’.

PK145 Homps

Homps, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

PK147 – Just below Homps, by the Ecluse d’Ognon, a nice little restaurant/cafe.

PK145 – We like Homps. The village itself has nice buildings including the Knights Tower – in the Middle Ages Homps was one of the most important sites of the Templar Order of Jerusalem. On the edge of the village is an excellent service station and convenience store. There are long expanses of quayside with water and electricity (showers in the capitainerie – 04 68 91 18 98 – not always manned). Big hire boat base (04 68 91 24 00) with craned lift-out, possibly fuel (?).

A bike ride away is the much larger village of Olonzac (banks, etc.).

PK144 Jouarres-le-Vieux

By the bridge, a romanesque arch and colonnade fronts a vineyard estate.Closer to Homps, what was obviously intended to be a boat harbour. Two entrances (chains across) with an island between that would make an excellent, very safe overnight mooring.We are intrigued to know the background to this . . please contact us if you know the story.

PK140La Redorte – Good quayside moorings (with services), restaurants; a new pontoon west of the bridge at PK139. Tel: 04 68 27 80 80

PK133 Ecluse l’Aiguille

A brilliant collection of very witty sculptures made from bits of wood and ‘objets trouvé’. The lady on the bike pedals if you approach. Down by the ecluse weir is a wooden alligator. They are for sale . . !

PK127 Marseillette – A number of bank-side moorings, also a timber pontoon with water. 04 68 79 01 53

PK118 Trebes

A busy place. Hire boat base, lots of bank-side moorings, shops and restaurants.PK117 North side – pretty feeder canal. Suggested quiet mooring, but looks narrow and depth uncertain to us.

PK105 Carcassonne

Utterly spectacular, world-renowned and unmissable, Carcassonne comprises a very large, complete and intact ancient fortified town (the ‘Cité’) and a 13thC ‘new’ town. In 1849 the Cité was in such a state of dereliction that the government proposed to demolish it; this caused a national outcry and comprehensive – somewhat inauthentic in places – restoration began. In a more modern vein, there are plenty of facilities within an easy and pleasant stroll from the PdP, as well as a main-line station.

Navigationally, in general moorings are divided between the bows-to port and the alongside quay (see aerial photo above right). Both have water and electricity; the capitainerie (also the local VNF office) is by the port. It is advisable to make contact in advance of arrival, this is a popular place as might be imagined. Speak to Mathieu, Stephanie or Francoise (04 68 25 10 48). In between the two there is an ecluse – the bridge headroom here (and at the ecluse downstream ‘Saint-Jean’) is at the 3.3m canal minimum.

PK101l’Epanchoir de Foucaud – quayside outside an old canal building. When first built, the Canal du Midi by-passed Carcassonne (the cost of going though the town was more than the town, impoverished by plague, could bear) and this is where that old canal emerged. Later on, soldiers captured from the Franco-Prussian war were used to dig the revised ‘through’ route, in particular the extremely deep cutting immediately above the PdP. There is now practically nothing to show of the old canal, nor its ecluses.

PK91 Villesquelande

Villesquelande, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers Excellent grassy bank moorings under the trees, pretty bridge and lovely village nearby.

PK81 Bram

Bram, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers Bank-side and quay moorings (being extended – shallow area half-way along), hire boat base and cafe/restaurant. 06 81 95 07 97. Expensive water point. Bram village is a short distance away, based on a fortified medieval circular plan.

PK77 Villepinte

Villepinte, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers A number of good moorings near the small village; a lovely location albeit with some background traffic noise from the road a few kilometres away.- PK78 below the ecluse, very nice bankside- PK77 above the lock, one of our favourite places

- PK76.5 pumping station concrete quay under the trees

- PK76 by the bridge

- PK75 wooden quay, mooring posts

PK65 Castelnaudary

Castelnaudary PK66 – a 4-chamber staircase ecluse, closes 20 minutes early.PK65 – the ‘Grand Bassin’, a 5Ha reservoir lake feeding the ecluse. Moorings on the south side of the lake. Hire boat base (04 68 94 52 94) with showers and moorings available to plaisanciers. Dry dock. Fuel point (call ahead 04 68 94 31 57) on the north side, but not as cheap as it once was.New quaysides west of the bridge closer to the village centre. Capitainerie (Sylvie Chmielowiec 04 68 23 69 09 or 04 68 23 69 22). Good large village with all facilities. The home of Cassoulet.
Castelnaudary, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

PK54 la Segala – The Watershed. Quayside moorings by the small village. 04 67 37 14 60

PK52 l’Océan / Col de Naurouze

Col de Naurouze, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

A beautiful place; this is where Riquet’s feeder canal enters, but it does so in a wonderful octagonal parkland setting and around an avenue of plane trees. The avenue leads up to a small hill, on top of which is an obelisk commemorating the canal’s plateau ‘between the two seas’ and celebrating Riquet. Everyone should stop here; to enjoy and to pay their respects to the great man!

PK50 Port Lauragais

Port Lauragais, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

Between the rail bridge and the autoroute bridge (above left), a delightful bank-side mooring complete with sculptural concrete recliner chairs, next to a lake. The trains are quite frequent, but easily ignored. Immediately west of the autoroute (right pic), a PdP that is part of its spacious parkland rest area. Much more pleasant than that sounds, quieter and more peaceful than you might expect. 05 62 71 71 38

The adjacent A61 autoroute is an inescapable factor for the next 35km. Most of the time there is merely a background buzz, sometimes it is lost entirely, in a couple of places it is very noticeable.

PK40 south bank – a good, quiet, bankside mooring.

PK37 + PK35.5 + PK33 north bank – further good, quiet, bankside moorings.

PK28 Ayguesvives The ecluse here has been modernised into a single (oval shape) from the old double; it is quite deep (4m+). Coming down (towards Toulouse) you will need long ropes if you use the bollards, or you will need to find the inset bollards – their position is not obvious. Going up (towards Castelnaudary) the inset bollards can be seen but you will need to use bow and stern lines on the same one. There are ‘slidey poles’ but they are positioned at the extreme ends of the ecluse, close to the gates.

PK25 Montgiscard

Similar ecluse comments at Ayguesvives, but not as tricky or deep.Short length of quay above the ecluse, good for lunch or overnight. Boulangerie in the village, up the hill.

PK16 Castanet Comments as Ayguesvives, deeper (5m). Cute cafe by the ecluse.

PK12 Toulouse Ramonville

(left) Port Sud – a full service PdP, including fuel. West bank. (05 61 75 07 64). The port has recently (late 2011) been taken over by the municipality of Ramonville and there are plans to rehabilitate and enhance facilities.

(right) Port Technique – a large maintenance and repair yard, including a peniche-size dry dock. No crane. East bank. (05 62 88 32 89)

PK10 – Aérospatial space research centre. Science areas. University of Toulouse.

PK8 – Aqueduct; the canal crosses over the motorway. One way traffic (on the canal).

PK5 Toulouse Saint-Sauveur

Toulouse port de plaisance, Canal du Midi, Canal entre des Mers

A great place to stay – Toulouse and the PdP Saint-Sauveur (left in the photo, capitainerie is the curved roof building), run by the deservedly respected Sylvianne: very friendly and also very much in charge. Excellent, spotless, services and complete security. WiFi. The PdP is very popular – phoning ahead is advised (05 61 14 17 25 or 06 83 29 13 24) port-saintsauveur©mairie-toulouse,fr.

Toulouse is one of France’s leading cities; there’s a great deal to see and do, good shops and all facilities, including a big park just by the PdP. If you walk back along the canal beware the cyclists that you’ll share the path with. Some of them go at breakneck speed.

PK4 – PK1 Three Ecluses

Bayard (6m+) and Minimes (4m+) have been converted from double locks and are deep. They have ‘slidey poles’ (near the ends) to which you’ll need to attach both bow and stern lines. All three ecluses are automated but there will normally also be an eclusier at Béarnais, the nearest to PK0. Coming up from the port de l’Embouchure (junction with the Canal de Garonne) you may need to tie up at the downstream wooden pontoon and go and announce your presence. Coming from the other direction, Bayard is operated via a ‘perche’.

PK0 Port de l’Embouchure – The basin (a) off which runs the short Canal de Brienne, down to the Garonne and (b) into which connects the Canal de Garonne. Terrific white marble bas-relief plaque – the Mediterranean and the Atlantic personnified together with canal building cherubs busy with picks and shovels. The turn between the two canals is quite tight; you might want to go further into the basin and take a wider approach. There are quayside moorings here, but it is bounded by busy roads.