The Canal du Midi, the famous French waterway that meanders through the south west of the country is three centuries old. Winding its way from Toulouse to Étang de Thau, taking in 150 miles and several stretches of stunning countryside, the canal, built between 1666 and 1681 is a feat of engineering beauty and continues today to provide a waterway that links the Mediterranean and the Garonne River. |
Of course, the canal was first designed and built for economic reasons. It played a huge role in the shipping trade and was important in transporting both wine and wheat across Europe. The precarious route that led around the Iberian Peninsula was best avoided and so the Canal du Midi was a safe alternative.
Although the canal was undoubtedly a significant player in the world of commerce in Europe, it is primarily remembered today as a magnificent construction and an engineering project that represented the birth of the modern age.
The Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment refers to the time in 17th century Europe when philosophical ideas were evolving at a great rate. People realised that nature could be controlled and used to the advantage of human development. The canal itself was the perfect opportunity to test this theory and when Sun King, Louis XIV was in power with his flamboyant ideas it became a reality. He commissioned Pierre-Paul Riquet to design the canal and 12,000 workers were employed. From start to finish the canal took endless hours of toil and 15 years to complete.
300 years ago, this was a huge undertaking and completion was an achievement of grand proportions, as well as being a physical demonstration of the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment values centred on progress, rational and theoretical thought as well as the progression of the human race, and all of these became inextricably entwined to create the belief that the construction of the canal would succeed and physical obstructions would be overcome. Bridges, locks and aqueducts were all symbols of cutting edge development in Western society and a significant move to the modern way of thinking and constructing. The fact that a canal was built as a symbol of this transformation is fitting when you consider that it is itself a passageway.
Today’s Canal du Midi
Today you are more likely to see tourists enjoying the canal than commercial barges. The 1960s saw a transformation in the way the canal was used and visitors to France began to realise that sailing down the canal, cycling its towpaths, and even fishing its waters was a great way to holiday. In turn, holiday companies began to market leisure barges. On a barge holiday guests can sail down the canal, soaking up the beautiful surrounding scenery that the boat passes through, make regular stops at places of interest, vineyards and local markets. Holiday barges are luxury hotels on water and with excellent on-board catering, an attentive crew and knowledgeable tour guide, it makes for a holiday to remember.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge holiday cruises in Europe. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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