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Day Trips along the
Canal du Midi
Follow the historic waterway from the Mediterranean to Toulouse

It is surely one of history's oddities that the lovely Canal du Midi was the brainchild, and indeed the lifework, of a tax collector. Pierre-Paul Riquet "farmed" taxes for Louis XIV, paying in advance and then extracting whatever he could from Languedoc's peasants and merchants. Any profit he could keep, and he put it to a grand design, which he proposed to the crown in 1662. Louis approved, and the canal was built in the 1670s, by men with shovels. It carried commercial cargo for three hundred years. Now it carries pleasure boaters, long-distance sailers short-cutting the Iberian Peninsula, and on its former towpaths, bicyclists and hikers. UNESCO declared the Canal du Midi a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Canal begins at the Mediterranean port of Sete, which was built specifically for the purpose of linking sea-faring with canal-barge transportation. It traverses the cities of Béziers, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudry on the way to Toulouse, where it passes through the center of the city before joining the river Garonne and the journey to the Atlantic near Bordeaux. A side canal, the Robine, joins the Canal du Midi to Narbonne and Port la Nouvelle.

Canal boats can be rented at numerous ports, including Homps, Trebes or Carcassonne near Caunes. Canal travel is slow, so most rentals are by the week. Some involve a return to the point of rental. Seemingly anything is available, from modern cabin cruisers with berths for two or three couples to classic, narrow-hulled canal boats or small launches for two. A handful of ultra-luxury hotel barges offering gourmet meals and no work at all ply the canal, their guests comfortably sunning as the crew watches the traffic and jostles in the locks. Most boats come with a supply of all-terrain bicycles for exploring the villages and vineyards. The locks close at night; most boaters sleep on their boats.

The canal's many locks are operated by professional lock-keepers, so there is no need to worry about making a mistake and draining the entire canal into the Mediterranean. Boaters do need to man-handle their boats into and out of the locks - a job, we've noticed, generally taken up by women passengers. A few locks are in or near towns, but most are in the countryside, wherever the topography demands. Many lock-keepers offer wine, honey and other regional specialties, so replenishing the galley is seldom a problem.

The steel gates of the canal's locks are recent, but the locks themselves date from the canal's origin. So do the stone-and-mortar tunnels, the hand-cranked spillways, and the arched water-bridges that carry the canal over the Cesse, the Ognon, the Argent Double, the Orbiel and all the other rivers and streams that it crosses, maintaining its level, between the high plain of the Lauragais and the sea.

The alternative to boating is to wander the shaded towpath by foot or bike. The path is perfectly flat except for the gentle rises of the locks, and anywhere from a single bicycle track to a broad avenue wide. Vehicles are forbidden except near road crossings, so motor traffic isn't a problem. Muddy spots, mossy spillways, tree roots and the ocassional mooring line stretched across the path by a boater are about all you'll need to contend with.

On any given summer weekend, a good fraction of the population Languedoc seems to be out on the canal, by boat, bike or foot. Whole families are often biking together, sometimes hauling camping gear to a remote field between villages or flat spot by the canal. Couples picnic under the trees, vide grenier sales line the banks in the villages, boaters on holiday from colder countries sunbath on their decks, and the curious line the bridges and lock-sides, watching the boats rise as the water spills through the opening gates. Pierre-Paul and his daring engineers would, we hope, be pleased.

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