"It shall be a great work of peace that shall make the name of its creator live on for centuries to come": Louis XIV was right on that day in 1666 when he predicted that the Canal du Midi would survive for posterity. What he omitted to say, however, was that he regarded the Canal as a good way of depriving the king of Spain of the taxes he collected in the Strait of Gibraltar, the only way through between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic at that time.
A perfect example of man's creative genius
The prestige of the Canal du Midi was to exceed even the hopes of the king, because centuries later UNESCO was to describe it as "a perfect example of man's creative genius."
Digging a canal between the two coasts was an idea that had been around since Roman times. But no one had ever come up with a way to supply such a canal with water.
It was this puzzle that Riquet managed to solve, and this was his stroke of genius. He devised a way of tapping the streams of the Montagne Noire in the south of what is today the Tarn département and channelling them to a collecting reservoir: the Saint Ferréol reservoir, which today is a Great Tourist Site in Midi-Pyrénées. The water was then channelled across the Lauragais Plain to the Seuil de Naurouze, the highest point on the canal. Here, Riquet built a reach on the watershed that provided a reliable water supply to both the Atlantic side and the Mediterranean side.
Fourteen years' work
A rich bourgeois born in Béziers in 1604, Pierre-Paul Riquet was not an engineer but a tax collector in Languedoc. He was a modest man who made little of his prodigious intelligence and his extremely practical mind. The king's finance minister Colbert, however, recognised these qualities in him and convinced Louis XIV to sanction Riquet's project. The rest of the story is the stuff of an epic novel.
Fourteen years' work, 328 man-made structures built along the length of the Canal, quarrels with the Sun King's engineers and financiers, the exhausting of the royal funds: nothing stopped Riquet from making progress with a much safer trade route. He even went as far as spending his entire personal fortune on the project. Pierre-Paul Riquet died in 1680, just one year before the canal was finally opened.
It was his son Mathias who completed the Canal du Midi, the quiet waterway that is such a lovely place to cruise along today.
Prolonging the pleasure on the Canal de Garonne
From Toulouse, Riquet's idea was to use the River Garonne to reach Bordeaux, but it was decided to extend the Canal du Midi by excavating the Canal de Garonne, which took from 1836 to 1856. Totalling 360 km of navigable waterways, the two canals together form the Canal des Deux Mers, listed as a Great Tourist Site in Midi-Pyrénées.