Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Waterway to go...

France has a rich network of canals. If you wanted to – and if you had the time - you could travel from north to south and from east to west without ever setting foot on dry land. There are quicker ways to do it, of course, but why rush?

Canals have been around for thousands of years and France has a great tradition in hydraulic engineering that reaches back to the twelfth century. They were built initially for irrigation and then as a means of linking towns to rivers but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the French began to build longer canals – a feat made possible by the invention of locks. In 1526, a man with the unfortunate name of Adam de Craponne, was born into a noble family in Salon-de-Provence. A hydraulic engineer, he developed several canal networks in the region but his most famous canal, the Canal de Craponne, provided water for Salon and irrigation for the Crau, an arid rocky plateau nearby. At sixty-two kilometres, it was the first grand canal. Monsieur de Craponne not only invested his entire fortune in the project, he also had to borrow money from his friend, a certain Nostradamus - who evidently foresaw a great future for canals. Unfortunately, he was unable to foresee Adam de Craponne’s fate: he died a ruined man, poisoned - so the story goes –by rivals.

Probably the best known canal in France is the Canal du Midi which was built to link the Atlantic Coast to the Mediterranean. The idea had existed for over a thousand years - the Roman emperors Nero and Augustus considered it as did Charlemagne, Francois I, Charles IX and Henri IV. Several attempts were made at building a canal but they all failed.

The reasons for building one were simple: the sea route around the coast of Spain was not only long (3000 kilometres) – it was also dangerous because of pirates. Moreover, the Straits of Gibraltar were controlled by the powerful Spanish Kingdom who lined its coffers at every passage. This would be a way to weaken Spain’s economy.

In the seventeenth century, in the reign of Louis XIV, one man made the building of this canal his life’s work. His name was Pierre-Paul Riquet, a tax collector from Béziers. Within twenty years he had become very rich (no questions asked) and launched himself into the project with dedication and almost foolhardy enthusiasm. In 1666, the King issued an edict for the construction of the canal and work was begun the following year.

The canal was built to link the Garonne river at Toulouse (which flows into the Atlantic at Bordeaux) and the Etang de Thau, one of a string of lagoons along the Languedoc coast. It was a great challenge that had defeated many an engineer before him, not least because of the features of the landscape. But Riquet was undeterred. When he came to a hill, instead of going around it, he built the world’s first canal tunnel – le tunnel de Malpas; when the ground sloped, he built a lock and when a river had to be crossed he built an aqueduct. Today, there are three hundred and twenty-eight such constructions – some of which are over three hundred years old.
Twelve thousand people worked for him. He paid them above the going rate and – unheard of at the time – he paid them on their days off (which included rainy days) and when they were ill. They were even provided with subsidised housing. Needless to say, this didn’t make Riquet terribly popular with other, less generous employers…

Poor Riquet died exhausted and bankrupt in 1680, just a few months before the canal was completed. His son carried on the work and in 1681, it was inaugurated by the King. Known as the Canal Royal de Languedoc up until the French Revolution, it was renamed the Canal du Midi by paranoid revolutionaries.

From the very beginning, the canal was used to transport people and mail as well as merchandise. The Barque de la Poste (Postal Barge) took four days to travel the 240 kilometres from Toulouse to Agde and stopped regularly along the way to allow its passengers to eat (the stops were called dinées) and to sleep (couchées). At every stopping place there was a chapel, an inn and stables for the horses that pulled the barges. Horses were used for traction until the 1930s, when motorised barges replaced them.

Between 1830 and 1856, another canal was built linking the Canal du Midi to Bordeaux because the river Garonne flowed too slowly to be economical. Ironically, the Bordeaux-Sète railway line was finished at around the same time and marked the beginning of the decline of fluvial transport.


Today, the canals are known collectively as Le Canal des Deux Mers: - Canal of the Two Seas – which covers a total distance of over four hundred kilometres. In 1996, it was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Together with the other 6300 kilometres of waterways in France, it accommodates thousands of tourists messing about in boats every year while cyclists and walkers travel the old towpaths beneath the shade of the plane trees. It is a wonderful way to experience the variety of France and a perfect opportunity to just relax - and go with the flow…