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Canal du Midi: gently down the stream

Henry Palmer takes a slow boat down a stunning waterway in Languedoc

You putter gently beside vineyards, their neat rows of green extending far into the landscape; you pass under cathedral-like archways created by the canopies of plane trees; you moor beside cafés and little eateries; you meander with ducks.

Boating along the Canal du Midi is surely one of life’s finer pleasures. And with the speed limit set at just 8km/h you cannot but slow down – and relax.

Stretching some 240km between Toulouse and Marseillan by the Thau Lagoon, the Canal du Midi was constructed in the 17th century by a wealthy tax collector from Béziers, Pierre-Paul Riquet. As far back as Roman times the idea of creating a water route across France between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean had been mooted. In the 1600s this finally became possible.

Riquet painstakingly devised plans for an inland waterway and obtained permission from Louis XIV – and probably more importantly acquired the support of his first minister, Colbert – to undertake his project.Work started in October 1666 – and 14 years and nine months later the canal opened.

Along it more than 60 locks dating from the 17th century are still in operation, each is a small marvel of engineering and history. Indeed the canal is considered such a great creation that in 1996 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, the authorities citing theway it blends with its surroundings, “turning a technical achievement into awork of art”.

For more than 300 years barges carried wine, farm produce and other cargo along the canal. Gradually the railways replaced it as a means of transporting goods, and the Canal du Midi has nowbecome a ribbon of gentle enjoyment, its locks are in operation for pleasure boats each year between April and early November.

One of the most rewarding sections to travel is between Marseillan and Capestang, west of Béziers. Along this stretch you’ll negotiate your way through some of the finest of Riquet’s locks – and there are plenty of other sights along theway. Most boats available to rent can be supplied with bikes, so you can easily hop off from time to time to go exploring. Setting off up the canal from Marseillan, your first major stop is the remarkable round lock at Agde. Built in 1676, it is an engineering triumph, connecting three levels of water through three lock gates and shaped to allowspace for barges to turn around.

You wend your way on to the ancient village of Vias. Here the canal meets the River Libron. This crossing posed a big problem for Riquet, particularly during periods when the river flooded. In 1857 a solution was invented by the engineerUrbain Magues, who created a “floating aqueduct”, a mechanism unique in Europe that allows the river to run above the canal during times of flooding.

From there, the canal passes Portiragnes near the sea and starts to wind its way around the outskirts of Béziers.You find yourself bobbing over both the River Orb and the D19 road on a canal bridge some 12m high. In Riquet’s day the canal joined the Orb for a short distance here. However, this proved so hazardous that in the mid-19th centuryMagues built this aqueduct. With seven spans, it is 240m long and carries the canal in a masonry trough whose seal has had to be replaced only once – in 1951.

Just beyond Béziers you reach an amazing staircase of nine locks etched up the watery hillside. One of Riquet’s greatest works of innovation, the Ecluses de Fonserannes were constructed to take river traffic up, or down, a steep incline of about 22m.Moving along it at increments of two to three metres per lock, you’ll take about 40 minutes to complete the journey through the entire course.

You glide gently on to Colombiers, which has a little canal port lined with cafés. This old stone village is one of those appealing places of narrow alleyways and pastel shutters that seem to exist in a defiant time warp. Moor up here, take in the charm of the winding lanes and then bike it to Malpas, a few kilometres further west. It’s a breathtaking site with a great deal to see, which is why you should leave your boat and set out to explore onwheel and foot.

Malpas is a hill with staggering features. At the top is an Iron Age settlement, Oppidum d’Ensérune, inhabited from the mid-6th century BC and today beautifully excavated. From the slopes on the way here you look down over a striking arrangement of fields set in a perfect circle: these occupy the former Lake of Montady, which was drained in the 13th century, the ditches creating a huge geometrical pattern. At the bottom of the hill are two tunnels.

The Canal du Midi passes through the hill on the top channel, created by Riquet in 1679. Below it is a railway tunnel, constructed in 1854. Both tunnels are all the more impressive for still being in use.

Return to Colombiers and continue by boat along the Canal du Midi, passing through the Malpas hillside along a tunnel that was built by hand more than 330 years ago. You’ll continue slowly on to Poilhes, which has two fine restaurants. Just a few kilometres further west is Capestang, a town of much charm. Back in the late-13th Century, the archbishop of Narbonne was overlord of Capestang and had a summer residence here; this is now open to the public and is notable for its ceiling paintings with their graphic depictions of medieval life.

The archbishop had hoped to establish a base here. But beyond building a huge andmagnificent church out of all proportion to the size of the town, his ambitions were thwarted. Take a tour up the tall belltower for magnificent views across the winelands of the area – and the onward course of the Canal du Midi.

Travel essentials

Visiting there

Maison du Malpas, Route de l’Oppidum, Colombiers (00 33 4 67 32 88 77; lemalpas.com). This tourist information centre includes models of the Iron Age village and Malpas tunnels.

Oppidum d’Ensérune, near Colombiers ( enserune.monumentsnationaux.fr) Oct-March Tues-Sun 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm; April-Sept daily 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm; adults €7.

Château de l’Archevêque, boulevard Pasteur, Capestang (00 33 4 67 93 34 23). Open from mid- April Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; free entry.

Collegiate church of St Etienne, Capestang open daily; free entry.

Eating there

Ma Ferme, Route de Valras, Serignan (00 33 4 67 32 26 20; maferme.fr). A pretty, rural restaurant specialising in seafood and barbecues. A main course costs around €20.

La Tour Sarrasine, 27 boulevard Paul Riquet, Poilhes (00 33 4 67 77 06 97; latoursarrasine.com). A perfect place to stop for lunch – for which three courses are offered for around €28. Mains include the likes of scallops and filet de boeuf.

Les Platanes, 1 place de la Liberte, Poilhes (00 33 4 67 93 38 41). This small, charming restaurant offers a simple and very good value menu, with three courses for €23.50 – such as goats cheese salad, salmon with ginger, and panacotta or cheese.

Boating there

Companies offering boating holidays on the Canal du Midi include Adnavis (00 33 4 67 62 18 18; adnavis.com); Rive de France (00 33 4 67 37 14 60; rivedefrance.com) and France Afloat (08700 110 538; franceafloat.com).

More information

May, Béziers and Villeneuve-lès-Béziers will mark the 330th anniversary of the Canal. See beziers-mediterranee.com for details.