It was a hot and sunny day…..
Wait, shouldn’t it have been a dark and stormy night? Well it wasn’t.
Blonde and Brunette were cavorting in a sweaty way through the charming lower part of Carcassonne in Southern France trying to find a boat ride on the Canal du Midi.
Voilà! Although the canal doesn’t begin or end in Carcassonne it’s one of many places you can experience it. We found a ride that was leaving in an hour so we retreated for some air conditioning and caloric fortification before the aquatic and historical adventure.
What’s the Canal du Midi? It’s a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site and a canal that is 241km (or 144 miles) long and links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean sea. Work on it began in 1665 and it’s already done!
The canal has 60 lock gates, 125 bridges and 54 canal bridges (no, we don’t know what’s different about a bridge and a canal bridge either) so it was quite the engineering feat and the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet. Many others had pondered doing the same thing but only Pierre-Paul was able to figure out where to get the water to supply the canal and how to get it there. He figured out a whole lot more than how to build a big ditch.
These stories always seem to be about some determined genius who solves a problem no one else could and then dies destitute and out of favor right after the thing is completed. And such was Pierre-Paul’s plight. He spent his personal fortune on it, depleted the funds and/or good will of his benefactor Louis XIV and died 8 months after the completion of the canal. (That’s why we’re slackers – much less disappointing and easier on the pocketbook.)
The process of traveling the canal is still very 17th century and no less impressive for it. We entered a lock, waited for the gate to close and, as we were going upstream, the water to fill and then the opposite gate to open so we could continue. It involved more impressive hydraulics than shaking Blonde into her Spanx when she’s slippery!
On the section of the canal where we were there were bike trails that looked lovely and were actively (by French standards) being used. We also saw people just sitting on benches enjoying watching the boats and one person painting the scene. It was all very peaceful. At least until someone who hired a boat to take out on the canal created a little drama.
And, by the way, you can hire a boat and even take it out for a week without having any kind of proof of boating knowledge whatsoever! Seems like a great idea.
Perhaps a better idea is to go with a river cruise company such as European Waterways. We never traveled with them but their trips look great although their prices look intimidating.
A cruise would probably be very enjoyable as you can see the Pyrenees at some points along the canal and vineyards in other areas and it would be a very mellow sort of thing to do.
Also someone should be appreciating this marvel of engineering that at the peak of its construction employed 12,000 people. Pierre-Paul was apparently a decent chap who paid well and even paid for sick days and when the weather was too bad to work. Consequently he didn’t have trouble getting people to dig the entire canal with shovels and picks. Pierre-Paul even (quelles horreurs!) employed about 600 women. He paid them less than the men; a tradition that is still being honored throughout the world.
You may notice that the water looks very green and as if it might be polluted but we were told that the sluicing of the water with the lock gates keeps it fresh. People even fish in the canal. You do need a license for that. Hmmm.
Any time you are travel we recommend you seek out UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Canal du Midi. They’re invariably interesting and make you sound like you did something semi-intelligent on your trip.