Canal du Midi joins the Canal de Garonne at Toulouse. These two
waterways form the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of the Two Seas)
Founded in the 13th century by Alphonse of Poitiers, Montgiscard was the royalist gathering point at the time of the insurrection in 1798 against the new republican rulers of France. The village was protected by the castle of Roqueville, which has been restored and is surrounded by a large park. Montgiscard’s 16th century church, with its cloister and remarkable wall-belfry, was a place of pilgrimage.
The Grand Bassin at Castelnaudary
At the request of the inhabitants of the town, the engineer responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi, Pierre Paul Riquet, made Castelnaudary the technological heart of the canal with the construction of the Grand Bassin. At 7ha (17 Acres) it is the only stretch of water of its size along the whole waterway. The basin, which is a beautiful town attraction, was built as a port and a reservoir. On one side it features the four-flight locks of Saint Roch, and on the other side, the island of Cybele, which in this incredibly windy part of the world, acts as a windbreaker to the port. Throughout its working life, the Grand Bassin was constantly full of barges loading grain and wine bound for Toulouse, Bordeaux, Sète and the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and ultimately, the world.
Villepinte is a small village on the banks of the Canal du Midi. As well as featuring one of the 91 locks along the canal, the village also houses the beautiful 9th century church of St-John the Baptist. In 1949, the church was deemed a Historic Monument. With its origins dating back to the Gauls and the Romans, Villepinte today is presented as a typical medieval village with a maze of tiny, winding streets and a canal-side wash house.
In the 13th century, the town was a center of Cathar belief, the heretical Christian group which led to the Albigensian Crusade. In 1209, the Crusade’s then leader, Simon de Montford, came to Bram to pollute the waters of the citadel, whose wells were fed by a spring in the countryside around Bram. He besieged the town and took it within three days. The heretics were captured and horrifically mutilated. All but one had their top lips cut off and their eyes gauged out, before being led on a forced march to the town of Lastours as a warning to others: turn yourselves in or await your fate. Later in the Crusades, Simon de Montfort turned to burning the Cathars alive, and so either way they did not get off easily.
By the 17th century, the town had outgrown its walls and had expanded in concentric circles. During the working lifespan of the Canal du Midi, Bram was a center for grain, wine and agriculture.
In the little town of Trebes, visitors will find many shops tucked away in a network of narrow streets. The town’s medieval church has seen recent renovations and expansions in both the 18th and 19th centuries. A false vault of plaster built on the nave’s ceiling, built in 1860, partially collapsed in 1977. This incident was fortunate, however, revealing 350 painted faces on the wooden frame of the roof, which were then cleaned and restored. The painted figures represent characters in their daily life, with geometric and botanic patterns. This find is exceptional in the region, with the decor being complete.
Marseillette is a pleasant settlement of stone buildings. With a population of approximately 715 people, the income for the hamlet comes not only from wine, but also from the production of rice. The ancient étang de Marseillette was drained in the 19th century by Anne-Marie Coppinger, a Dubliner who had settled in the region with her revolutionary husband John Lawless to evade the Irish Famine. She purchased the rights to the lagoon and within four years had cut three channels to drain the waters into the nearby Aude River. Unfortunately, the return from the lands within the lake was insufficient, and the project bankrupted her. In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of the étang and started a campaign to improve irrigation. He built a hydroelectric power station to regulate the flow of water and could eventually cultivate the land. Today, apples, vines and rice are grown in the salty, marshy lands around Marseillette.
The quay at La Redorte is within walking distance of many shops and restaurants. An aqueduct nearby crosses the river Argent-Double. Close by is the unique épanchoir or spillway, which allows water from the canal to overflow into the river. It was added to the list of historic monuments in 1996.
The village of Homps has its origins in the Gallo-Roman period, when it was called Aldomus. It quickly developed to become a prosperous and flourishing town. In the Middle Ages, Homps passed under the authority of the Hospitallers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, who made it the seat of one of their most important commanderies. The village was destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade, in the fight against the Cathars, and suffered badly again during the Wars of Religion. With the construction of the canal, Homps had a turn for the better and once again became prosperous. Not only was it the third port on the canal, but also one of the few places where barges could turn around. Wine making has long since been important to the town. Despite being ravaged by the Phylloxera blight, it was the center of the cooperage industry in the region, sending barges of wine to the ports of Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Sète.
Roubia is a canal-side village built around a church that was rebuilt in 1929, after termites destroyed the original in 1918. When open, be sure to look inside to see a beautiful stained-glass window in the ceiling. The old port, where barges would load and unload barrels of wine, is a popular meeting place for many of the older inhabitants of the village.
A single-arched aqueduct, completed in 1676 and the first of its kind in the world, carries the canal over the River Répudre at Paraza. On the outskirts of the town lies a château with its grounds bordered by umbrella pines and palm trees. This is where Pierre-Paul Riquet lived during the construction of this portion of the canal.
Sallèles d’Aude is the first village on the Canal de Jonction, a branch canal built in the 18th century. In 1776, this extension to the Canal de la Robine reshaped the local economy and the evolution of the village. They modified it in the 19th century to allow larger boats to join the Canal du Midi from the Mediterranean. Most of its buildings date from between the 16th and 19th centuries. A former priory stands in ruins in the center of the village. Nearby, an archaeological dig in the 1970s uncovered an incredible complex for the production of amphorae (large pots) bound for the Roman Empire.
The Great Hall’s ceiling timbers are decorated with 15th century frescoes, while 14th century murals adorn the walls.
Opposite the Palace is the 13th-century Collegial Church of Saint Stephen. Built on the site of an earlier 11th century chapel, it was intended to rival the Cathedral of Narbonne. Unfortunately, because of the plague of the mid-13th century, the antics of Edward the Black Prince, and then the expulsion of Jews in France, construction halted; just as it did with the Cathedral of Narbonne.
Capestang is also notable for one of the lowest bridges on the Canal du Midi with only 10-foot headroom. In November 1766, a 140ft segment of the bank collapsed after heavy rain and snow. Ten thousand workers toiled for three months in freezing conditions to make repairs. Subsequently, they installed automatic siphon sluices in both Capestang and Ventenac to drain excess water before it floods the bank. When the level of the water drops sufficiently, air enters the pipes and the flow of water ceases.
The Canal du Midi divides the village of Poilhes in half. In 1744, a landslide blocked the canal at Poilhes. They built a retaining wall within 14 days and restored navigation. “La Gorge Fraîche”, brewed on the banks of the canal in Poilhes, is one of the region’s few beers. It is a favorite of many a bargee. The label depicts none other than a barge on the Canal du Midi.
Between Poilhes and Colombiers lies the Malpas Tunnel, the world’s first section of navigable underground canal. At 525 feet, it is not particularly long, but it is wide and high. Cut through sandstone, stone vaulting lines most of the inside of the tunnel. Before they built the canal, Toulouse and Béziers were four days apart; with the arrival of the Canal du Midi, they were only 32 hours away from each other. A towpath runs alongside the canal inside the tunnel.
The canal’s tunnel, however, is not the only tunnel through the hill at Malpas. In the 13th century, monks tunneled a channel at the nearby church of Montardy to drain a lake at its foot to eradicate the threat of typhoid and cholera arising from the stagnant waters. In the 19th century, a railway tunnel was also built underneath the canal. On the top of the hill lies the ancient Roman road, the Via Domitia, which linked Rome with the port of Narbonne, and eventually with Spain and North Africa.
On the plain below the Oppidum d’Enserune, Colombiers is a bustling little village on the banks of the Canal du Midi. It houses a beautiful Romanesque church built under the reign of the Visigoths, and later expanded in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Canal du Midi and Pierre Paul Riquet’s swan song. Following the
engineering marvel of the Grand Bief (53km stretch without locks), he
knew he had to come back down to sea level eventually and did so in his
hometown. They recently restored the lock flight and have a new visitor
As a result, the new port also opened the same year, and the old port was abandoned. The canal was diverted before the seventh lock, blocking any further access to it. This meant that two new locks had to be built, as the last two in the lock flight were also out of action. These two new locks are the deepest on the Canal du Midi, each measuring a rise of over 6 meters.
Opposite to the lock flight, one may notice an intriguing piece of engineering. The Fonserannes water slope opened in 1983, intending to allow commercial barges too large for the lock flight to enter the Grand Bief. However, after many technical issues, the water slope closed indefinitely in 2001.
The medieval town of Villeneuve-lès-Béziers was built in 843 on land which belonged to the emperor Charlemagne. It was built to house inhabitants of Béziers, which was quickly becoming overpopulated. They built a new church and town hall, forming the center of the new town.
Portiragnes is a canal-side village with a population of just over 3000 inhabitants. Although inhabited since prehistoric times, the modern-day village was founded in the 12th century. With a maze of winding streets and tiny houses, it is a true medieval village. In its center stands the church of Saint Felix, dating from the 13th–14th centuries. Portiragnes lock is one of the few on the Canal du Midi that was upgraded to the Freycinet gauge of 40 meters. Here, the canal is less than 2 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.
Vias is a small town close to the Canal du Midi. Like many other towns in the region, it was a “bastide” or fortified town during the Middle Ages. Its ramparts are still visible today. On the edge of the old fortifications is a 14th century church, built in the Gothic style. The local volcanic stone gives it a very dark appearance.
Agde, founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, is said to be one of the oldest towns in France. The symbol of the town, the Ephebe of Agde, was recovered from the sandy floor of the River Hérault in 1964. It is believed that it was on its way to a villa in Narbonne when it was lost in a shipwreck. Adge is built from black basalt, the primary building material of the area, and the remnants of a now extinct volcano that once stood nearby.
The center of the village is a maze of winding streets and medieval buildings, including an ornate 13th-century, covered market and the 17th-century Church of Saint John the Baptist. Until the 18th century, a fort stood in the center of the village, flanked by watchtowers, gates and ramparts.
- Part 1: The Canal du Midi – An Overview
- Part 2: Towns & Villages Along the Canal du Midi
- Part 3: Best Places to Visit
- Route: Canal du Midi between Marseillan and Le Somail
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