Carcassonne is home to two Unesco World Heritage sites: la Cité and the Canal du Midi.
The Canal du Midi stretches 150 miles from near Sète on the Mediterranean, to Toulouse, where it meets the Canal de Garonne, which goes to the Atlantic.
Unesco says the canal, which was built between 1667 and 1694, is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Modern Age, and that it laid groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.
It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who started out as a tax collector and who not only came up with the idea for a canal (well, the Romans thought of it first but couldn’t figure out how to carry it out), he also was the engineer for it.
It was no small feat. Although the canal travels across a plain, it’s flat only in comparison with the Black Mountains to the north and the Pyrenees to the south. There are plenty of hills (ask any bicyclist). Riquet also had to build a reservoir, the Lac de Saint-Ferréol near Revel, to feed the canal with water from the Black Mountains.
There are 53 locks, or écluses, to accommodate the changes in elevation, which used to be operated by men and/or donkeys but now are electric. As many as 10,000 workers were engaged at a time, making it one of the big infrastructure projects of its time. Support for it was high because it would cut the trip between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and also avoid the piracy around southern Spain at that time. (More locks shown below.)
Riquet paid for it partly with taxes that he was empowered to collect and partly through his own fortune, which he exhausted. Carcassonne originally had been bypassed, not wanting to pay up; the canal got a detour through Carcassonne that opened in 1810.
Riquet died in 1680, just a few months before the major part of the canal was finished.
Of course, when there’s lots of rain, the canal risks overflowing, so Riquet devised basins (called épanchoirs) to divert the excess.
The barges, carrying wheat, wine, fabric and other goods, were pulled by men and donkeys, and fruit trees were planted along the banks to provide food. As the traffic made the banks erode, the platanes that are so typical of the south of France were planted instead. However, the platanes are under attack from an untreatable fungus, and are themselves being replaced by oaks.
The last commercial barge passed in 1980. The only traffic since then has been touristic.
Around November, segments of the canal are drained to allow for dredging and repairs to the locks. It’s a sad time of year, seeing the mud bottom exposed. When the canal is refilled later in winter, it feels as if spring is already around the corner.
The canal is great for hiking and biking—it’s flat and mostly shady. It’s impossible to get lost.
You also can go for boat rides (or you can rent houseboats (le Boat, Canalous) that you pilot yourself if you want to stay on the water that long). A boat ride is a perfect inactivity for a hot summer day. Just get your tickets in advance–if a busload of tourists arrives ahead of you, you’ll have to wait for the next departure.
Lou Gabaret, le Cocagne and le Defi offer cruises along the canal, with different lengths and starting times. There also are evening dinner cruises. Even if it’s hot, take a sweater, because you get a nice breeze off the water. The starting point is the Port of Carcassonne, in front of the train station. The cruises usually include a historic commentary, given in as many languages as needed. The guides are really amazing linguists.