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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz