Travel by numbers: Canal du Midi

This marvel of engineering is also a beautiful route through the region. Harriet O’Brien calculates the appeal of a majestic waterway
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The Independent Travel

8

The speed limit in kilometres per hour for boats on the canal. It’s a supremely relaxing way to travel: the boats glide past vineyards, and under avenues of greenery created by the branches of plane trees. The only challenge is in making your way through the locks – of which there are more than 60 along the entire canal. These are in operation for cruise boats from mid March to early November. Rental charges vary during this period: at the start of the season a two-berth vessel will cost from €350 for weekend hire and from €530 per week. Rental companies include Ad’ Navis (00 33 4 67 90 95 51; adnavis.com) and Nautic (00 33 4 67 94 78 93; nautic.fr), both offering departures from Agde.

20

The width of the canal surface in metres. The best way to appreciate this ribbon of water, complete with ducks and other wildlife, is to wake up on it. Several old barges have been converted into floating hotels and guesthouses. Among them is L’Appart des Anges (00 33 4 67 26 05 57; appartdesanges.com), which is moored just outside Cers. It has three bedrooms, a retro-chic sitting room and pool. Doubles from €105.

1681

The year the Canal du Midi was opened. This amazing feat of engineering took 14 years and nine months to complete and was principally the creation of one man: Pierre-Paul Riquet. He was a wealthy salt-tax collector for the Languedoc area, from Béziers, who had the skill and determination to design and implement a man-made water link between the river Garonne and the Mediterranean, thereby providing a great trading route across southern France. Riquet sunk all his money into the venture, devising ingenious combinations of locks and even a canal tunnel. He died financially ruined six months before the project was finished. Yet, shortly after opening, the canal proved a huge success. The story of his achievement is told on canal-du-midi.org.

240

The length of the canal in kilometres. It runs from Toulouse to the edge of the Étang de Thau, ending at the point where the lagoon opens on to the Mediterranean by the old fishing village of Marseillan. On summer mornings this picturesque area, known as Les Onglous, is awash with small boats starting out on cheerful excursions along the canal. For more details on the district visit marseillan.com

1

The remarkable round lock just outside the ancient town of Agde. Built in 1676, it is an engineering triumph connecting three different levels of water through three lock gates and shaped to allow barges scope to turn around and select the appropriate exit: to the east is the Étang de Thau; to the west is Béziers; to the south is Agde – and beyond it the seaside resort of Cap d’Agde. More information from en.capdagde.com

12,000

The number of workers Pierre-Paul Riquet employed to create the canal, about 600 of them women. This was not just a manmade waterway – it was largely handmade too, for 17th-century construction techniques chiefly involved hard, manual labour. However, in mitigation, Riquet was a model employer, paying his workers well above the average wage and refusing to take on anyone younger than 20 years old. To conserve their joint achievement, in 1996 the Canal du Midi became an Unesco World Heritage Site ( whc.unesco.org).

40

The average number of kilometres you cycle per day on a week’s biking holiday from Carcassonne to Sète along the Canal du Midi. The canal’s tow paths were laid out for heavy horses pulling barges carrying wine, farm produce and more, and latterly they have been transformed into walkways and cycle routes. Among the companies arranging cycling breaks along the canal is Discover France (00 33 9 53 18 94 99; discoverfrance.com) offering a seven-night trip from €955 including accommodation.

2

The number of hours you can enjoy a musical boat ride along the canal from the ancient town of Vias. You join a troupe of actors and musicians for an evening’s entertainment on the water. Departures at 6.30pm on selected Fridays. Details from the Vias tourist office ( ot-vias.com).

26

The date in June of the start of the Canal du Midi’s annual celebration, a two-day event with music, games, food and more that takes place along from Béziers to Cers. The main action is at the Fonseranes locks, just outside Béziers. The nine locks form an extraordinary staircase up the hillside. For details, see beziersmediterranee.com

1829

The year the “Canal du Rhône à Sète” was completed. This 92km waterway is an extension to the Canal du Midi, linking Étang de Thau to the river Rhône, running east from Sète to Beaucaire. In the vicinity of Lunel, it passes through the marshland of the Petite Camargue, a haven for birds such as flamingos, egrets, ibis and more, wild horses and bulls. The Parc Régional de Camargue was established as a national park and nature reserve in 1972.

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