The Canal du Midi was constructed by Pierre-Paul Riquet between 1667 and 1681 (under the reign of Louis XIV) with the help of about 12,000 workers. Riquet designed it in such a way that it blended in with its surroundings and managed to turn his technical achievement into a work of art. It paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. It is a 360km long canal in the South of France (called Le Midi) full of navigable waterways and 328 structures (91 locks, 55 aqueducts, 7 canal bridges and 126 canal bridges, dams and a tunnel). The canal connects the Garonne River to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterannean Sea. The canal runs from Toulouse, through Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Béziers and down to the Mediterranean port of Sète.
It was initially constructed to enable the transport of goods for the French Navy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to the Canal du Midi, the boats avoided the long sea voyage around hostile Spain, Barbary pirates and a trip that in the 17th century required a full month of sailing. The canal was also built to facilitate trade within the area. In the 17th century the Midi had two major crops: wheat and wine and one major product: textiles (heavy cloth from Nimes, denim and silk). Transport by road which was a mud path was extremely slow and expensive. It was easier to transport heavy goods by water. The wine of the region needed to be exported or sent to northern France. The canal was mainly used by small sailing barges with easily lowered masts but by the middle of the 18th century horse towing had taken over and steam tugs arrived in 1834. By 1838 there were around 270 vessels on the canal and passenger and packet boats continued a good trade until the coming of the railways in 1857. Commercial traffic continued until 1980 when it began to decline rapidly until its closure in 1989. It is now almost exclusively used by pleasure boats. In 1996 the Canal du Midi was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Short and long cruises along the canal are very popular during the tourist season. Here is a taste of what there is too see in the various towns along the Canal du Midi.
Starting off in Toulouse, this cosmopolitan and enthusiastic Ville Rose (distinctive for its brick architecture) is an absolute must for anyone wanting to explore France. It mixes heritage, lifestyle, cultural events and festival pleasures. Toulouse is just as lively by night as by day. It has one of the most intensely cultural calendars in France, including classical concerts, lyrical art, jazz, variety and electro-acoustic music. It has many museums including the Musée Saint-Raymond which specialises in antiques. The Cathédrale Saint-Etienne de Toulouse originally built in the 12th century in the Roman style was later renovated in the Gothic Baroque style is a sight not to miss. Toulouse is the centre of Occitan culture and every year the city holds a Fête Occitane with traditional music, singing, dancing and a traditional Occitan ball. You must of course not forget the city’s gastronomic speciality: Saucisse de Toulouse (pork sausage with onions, white wine, salt, pepper and spices).
As the main port of the Canal du Midi, this market town located 50km southeast from Toulouse was very prosperous in the seventeen century. Today it is a popular pleasure port. The port is now known as the Grand Bassin and is the largest open area of water in the canal covering 17.5 acres. Walking around the Grand Bassin remains a popular pastime as you can get a lovely view of the town. The town’s most unique building is the beautifully restored 17th century windmill; Le Moulin de Cugarel. It is situated on a hill overlooking the Languedoc-Roussillon region. La Chapelle Notre-Dame de Pitié located just outside the city walls is also worth a visit. The building was restored in 1981 and inside has beautiful wooden sculptures evoking the life of Christ. If you are there for lunch then you must try the city’s delicacy: Cassoulet (slow- cooked bean stew containing pork sausages, goose, duck, mutton and white haricot beans).
This medieval fortified town in the Aude department of France is divided into two parts: the fortified Cité de Carcassonne and the more expansive lower city, the Ville basse. A fortified settlement has existed on the hill where Carcassonne now stands since the pre-Roman period. The old part of the town comprises of a gothic cathedral, drawbridges, 52 towers, ramparts and many small streets whereas the lower city is more modern. There are always many music concerts to enjoy including the Music Festival on 21st June to celebrate the longest day of the year. There are train tours taking you through the medieval city which enable you to admire its turrets and ramparts. A visit to the Basilique St Nazaire to see the large beautiful stained glass windows is a must. The city has a very unique atmosphere and is a very popular place to live. If you are looking to buy a property in the area of Carcassonne, you can find a 4 bedroom villa with a large garden, a pool and outbuildings for €283,000 (Ref 10694). If you prefer something with a little more character then take a look at this beautiful 7-bedroom manor house set in a 5 acre garden with a swimming pool for €850,000 (Ref 17534).
Although the Canal du Midi does not run through Narbonne it is linked to it by the Canal de la Robine. The town was built by decree from Rome in 118BC as a trading post along the newly constructed Via Dolmitia. After the departure of the Romans it became the capital of the Visigoths. It is home to the St Paul Basilica which was one of the first Gothic churches in France in the Middle-Ages, the Pont des Marchands – an exceptional bridge with 7 arches and the Saint-Just cathedral which started being built in 1272 but was never finished. The Musée Archeologique, the Roman Horreum and the Palais des Archevêque with its view over Narbonne are also worth a visit. Narbonne has many traditional markets, cafés, restaurants and boutiques. The old part of the town has been tastefully improved with gushing fountains and pedestrianised streets. The daily food market in Les Halles sells fresh locally grown vegetables, meats, fish, charcuterie, cheeses and some locally produced wines. This historical city with a medieval heritage is a wonder to live in. Take a look at this villa with a large garden, a garage and a swimming pool for €330,000 (Ref 11405).
The next stop along the Canal du Midi is Béziers, a town with a rich historical past, Béziers was first a Phoenician settlement before becoming a Roman military post. It is a town with a rich historical past, it was already a fully functioning and vibrant city when the Romans arrived in 35BC and named the town Colonia Julia Baeterrae Septimanorum. The town has since then preserved its Roman feel. The Cathédrale St-Nazaire which was rebuilt in the Gothic style after it was burned down in 1209 is a definite sight to see. You can take a stroll down the allées Paul-Riquet which are lined with trees, cafés, restaurants and shops. There is also the beautiful Plateau des Poètes, an English garden filled with ponds and trees that was designed by the creator of Paris’ Bois de Boulogne. If you are in Béziers in August then there is the famous 5-day festival: Le Feria du Béziers. It is well known for its magnificent town centre, one of the largest in France. The landscape around Béziers is dominated by vineyards, providing the backbone to the city’s economy. Its location (near to the beach and the mountains) is a popular reason why people live there. If you are looking to buy a property in or around Béziers have a look at this large 6-bedroom winegrower house with a terrace, double garage and convertible space for €220,000 (Ref 12388). If you are keen on living in a Chateau (who doesn’t?), then this converted 2-bedroom apartment in a 19th century Chateau could be for you. It is situated in a working winery and has a communal swimming pool €384,000 (Ref 18385).
The final stop at the end of the Canal is Sète, this popular Mediterranean seaside island resort is home to 12km of fine sandy beaches. It is the largest fishing port on the Mediterranean and is notorious for its fish restaurants. Sète is home to many museums and the Théatre Molière. It is also particularly well known for its water jousting taking place every year during the summer months. Other local attractions include the daily closed market (including Sunday) selling regional produce and the panoramic view from the top of the Mont St-Clair Chapelle Notre Dame de la Salette is a must. If you get the chance you should try some of the town’s unique dishes: La Tielle; an octopus based pie with tomatoes and spices originally made by the Fisherman’s wives for their husbands to give them strength before they went to sea. It can be eaten hot or cold and is best served with a glass of regional dry white wine. And, Le Frescati otherwise known as the cake of Sète. It is a traditional French pastry with the base consisting of a sweet pastry biscuit and white raisins soaked in rum and topped with a soft Italian meringue and cold coffee fondant, it goes down very nicely with a glass of chilled Muscat. The town’s restaurants, canals, streets, bridges, fishing boats and the sweet scent of the garrigue (Mediterranean scrubland) and sea air all add to its charm. If you are looking to buy a property in the centre of Sète, why not check out this newly built 2-bedroom apartment with a panoramic view overlooking the sea €180,000 (Ref 14243).
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About the Author
Matthieu Cany is Managing Director of Sextant French Property