canal du midi

a feat of impossible engineering

The Canal du Midi, which links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, was designed by Béziers-born Pierre-Paul Riquet – who lies entombed beneath a modest slab in that rather persuasive and endearing architectural pile up that is the cathedral of St Étienne in Toulouse.

© Atout France/Eric Bascoul

The canal, an engineering masterpiece, is today classified as a World Heritage Site. Built under Louis XIV, it is the oldest operational canal in Europe, and offers a chance to see the city from a boat tour, or to use its banks for cycling or walking.

The canal runs from the Mediterranean (Étang de Thau), for 240km (150 miles), to Toulouse, where it joins the Canal du Garonne—adding a further 193km (120 miles)—to form the Canal des Deux Mers. Strictly speaking only the section as far as Toulouse is known as the Canal du Midi. 

Originally called the Canal Royal en Languedoc, the canal was renamed by French revolutionaries in 1789. It was considered at the time to be one of the greatest construction works of the 17th century. 

The story of the building of the canal is told in an excellent book–Impossible Engineering. Today, the canal is primarily used by tourists, which began to grow in the 1960s, and for recreation and housing. During the dry season the canal serves as a reservoir for agriculture.

© Atout France/Catherine Bibollet

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