The Magical Canal du Midi – A World Treasure
There is something very special about the Canal du Midi, something that simply makes people fall in love with it. Running from the city of Toulouse down to the Mediterranean port of Sète, the Canal du Midi is arguably the most beautiful and well-known stretch of inland waterway in Southern France.
These days the Canal du Midi is a haven for tourists from across the world who come to bask in its beauty and soak up the scenery. In the summer the weather is gorgeous, but the colours and its serenity make it a place for all seasons. It is easy to see why it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. First time visitors will certainly be bowled over by its magnificence and even old hands will find new and exciting things to explore on every visit. It is truly a magical holiday destination.
History of the Canal du Midi
It was the Romans who first had the idea of building a waterway to join the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but the task proved impossible for many practical reasons. Even the great Leonardo da Vinci was unable to contemplate the task. In fact, it wasn’t until 1667 that construction actually began, under the reign of Louis XIV. Pierre-Paul Riquet designed and built the Canal Royal de Languedoc (as it was then known) with the aim of transporting wheat, wine and textiles. It took 12,000 people (surprisingly for this period, it was women who made up a large part of the workforce) to make it a reality, but it opened on May 15th 1681. However, it wasn’t until two centuries later, when his canal was linked to the Canal du Garonne, that Riquet’s dream of reaching the Atlantic was fulfilled.
The Canal Royal de Languedoc was renamed the Canal du Midi during the French Revolution, and by 1856 it carried over 100,000 tonnes of cargo and a million passengers a year. However, by the following year commerce had almost dried up due to the opening of the Bordeaux to Sete railway.
The combination of stunning scenery, wide variety of nature, avenue of trees and of course the sheer engineering prowess and unique locks that run the length of the canal, have given the Canal du Midi a renaissance. Since the 1990s tourists have flocked to the world renowned stretch of water and its popularity continues to grow.
To ensure the future appearance of the Canal du Midi, a huge replanting operation is currently underway, with thousands of new trees being planted to preserve the character of the canal for years to come.
The canal and its environment
Spanning the regions of the Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées, the Canal du Midi boasts some unique and truly breathtaking landscapes.
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, meander through little villages and past cafes and see a wide variety of wildlife.
There are 328 structures across the Canal du Midi, from aqueducts and bridges to tunnels and locks (écluses in French). Unlike most locks, these are all oval, making them unique, although the most famous is actually the Agde Round Lock. Being round, it can even allow a boat to turn around. It also has three sets of lock gates, each with a different water level – a very unique sight. There are actually 86 working locks to enjoy navigating on your cruise. Most ecluses are now user-operated – by the end of the first day you will certainly be a master.
Cruising the Canal du Midi
There are now a large number of companies offering both hire boats and hotel barges for your Canal du Midi holiday. The wide variety of choices is exceptional. Some will even allow you to bring a pet!
Hire boat holidays and vacations
Hiring your own cruising boat is an ideal way to explore and experience the pleasures and treasures that the Canal du Midi has to offer.
Hire boats are self-catering and self-drive which allows you freedom to plan your own day and create your perfect trips.
Hotel barge cruises
Hotel barges are elegant and comfortable, converted from traditional vessels or created as cruising boutique hotels from new. They come with a crew so that your every need is looked after and they will also plan and deliver your itinerary.
With a wide range of sizes, comfort levels and prices, you’ll find your perfect one.
Canal du Midi Places
There will be so many highlights on your Canal du Midi cruise, with each visit bringing new adventures but here are a few popular stops along the way….
This charming seaside village is located on the river Herault and is one of the oldest villages in France. As well as the famous round lock, Agde is known for the distinctive black basalt used in its local buildings. The resort of Cap d’Agde also has some of Languedoc’s best beaches, which is why it is home to Europe’s largest naturist colony!
The historic centre of Beziers is very picturesque with winding cobbled streets and an array of good shops and restaurants. It plays host to some stunning architecture including the Saint Nazaire Cathedral and Le Pont Vieux, the stone bridge crossing the Orb which dates back to the Middle Ages. In August Beziers plays host to The Feria, famous for bull fighting and street parties, with up to a million tourists visiting during this time. With an international airport, Beziers can be a good place to start or end your Canal du Midi experience. Ryanair and Flybe both fly into Beziers.
Canal de la Robine and Narbonne
If you branch off the Canal du Midi near the village of Capestang (with a much-photographed low stone arch canal bridge) the Robine (or Nouvelle) Canal, bordered by umbrella pine trees, connects with the Mediterranean, and passes through the must-see town of Narbonne. The major tourist attraction here is Narbonne Cathedral. It provides a fascinating insight into the history of the city as a change in fortune during the 14th Century meant that the building was never finished. Although the side chapels, sacristy and courtyard remain intact, much of the ambitious building work simply stopped and is frozen in time. Narbonne also has a good nearby beach area.
A very picturesque part of the Canal du Midi takes you through the gorgeous little village of Le Somail. Here you will find some nice places to eat and a fabulous second hand bookshop which was transported brick by brick from Paris.
Carcassonne is home to the famous La Cité – the world’s largest medieval fortress and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spectacular hilltop castle has been used as a location in many films, the most famous being Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Carcassonne is a great place to explore and has a lovely square in its centre with some good cafes and restaurants. Carcassonne also has an international airport, again with Ryanair serving it.
Castelnaudary is a market town and home of the cassoulet (a heavy stew of duck, Toulouse sausage and haricot beans). There is even an annual festival celebrating it at the end of August! British chef Rick Stein even featured the Castelnaudary cassoulet in his programme Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. As well as delicious food, the town is famous for the Grand Bassin, the largest open area of water in the canal.
Toulouse is France’s fourth largest city and home to the European aerospace industry. It also has a large university and is apparently the best city to study in in France and within the top 50 student cities in the world. Toulouse has lots of stunning architecture, with many of the buildings made of terracotta bricks, earning it the nickname la Ville Rose (the pink city). It too is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Basilica of St Sernin.
In 2007 a bike rental scheme was introduced across the city with bicycles available to hire daily, weekly or monthly from automated stations. In fact, a great way to see any of the towns and villages that line the Canal du Midi is to get on a bike! Most hire boats can be supplied with bikes and hotel barges usually always have cycles included, so you can easily hop off to go exploring along the way.
Toulouse has a large international airport with many operators flying direct.
And finally ….. Wine!
Remember, you can’t come to France without sampling the vin rouge! Picturesque Languedoc is France’s most productive wine region with many delicious ‘drink now’ varieties on sale, direct from the vineyards (free tastings welcomed) that border the waterway, for just a few euros per bottle.
Top tips for visitors
- Buying a good guide book is a great idea and most will give you ideas for cafes and restaurants along the route. It is a good idea to plan ahead just in case the shops are closed as many supermarkets are closed on a Sunday.
- Essentials for your luggage include insect repellent and after-bite, a cardigan or sweater (even in the summer there can be a strong breeze) and of course sun cream. Taking squashable luggage (to fit into your boat’s storage space) is an excellent idea.
- If you are self-driving your boat, getting (and reading in advance) a pilot guide book is strongly recommended – > Canal du Midi navigation books and guides <.
- As well as travel by road and by water, most of the large towns along the Canal du Midi have excellent rail links.