So we entered the Canal du Midi – one of the most famous canals in the world (think Panama, Suez, Venice) on May 22 2017, after six summers of travel to our destination waterway. Canals are artificial waterways that can go up and down hills and generally connect two large bodies of water. As means of transportation they have been known about for centuries but only came to the fore around 1660 when Louis XIV of France was persuaded by his finance minister Colbert (I wrote about him when we are in Vaux de Vicomte near Melun, Paris in 2015) to fund an engineering marvel that would connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Thus reducing the need to deal with the Bay of Biscay and the necessity of sailing around Portugal and Spain and eliminating running the gauntlet through the Straits of Gibraltar. The proposed canal would move goods and people across the south of France, out of harms way and without the need for naval intervention. The Royal Canal of the Languedoc (its inauguration name) was started in 1666 and completed in 1681 and masterminded by the self taught engineer Pierre–Paul Riquet.
Pierre Paul Riquet (handsome chap)
The Canal du Midi is 240 kms. long, 20 – 24 meters wide and 2 meters deep. There 63 locks to work and 350 bridges. Many of the bridges are over 300 years old and therefore low, we had to get our air draft down to 3.00 meters.
The first lock we came to on the Canal du Midi is another famous piece of engineering – a round lock ‘bassin rond’ at the port of Agde. The round lock was built in 1680 , but the perfect roundness was modified to fit the Freycinet standard in1984. The Freycinet gauge is a standard governing the size of locks, bridges and barges in France that was established in 1879.
Round lock at Agde
The Round lock has three exit/entrances so once in the lock you can go either in the town of Agde, which leads to the Mediterranean or further down the Canal. We decided to go Agde to have a look. This city was founded by the Greeks around 650 AD used as a port by the Romans and became an important medieval trading port. It has since been eclipsed by Sete as the major Mediterranean port on the west side of the Rhone.
The town had a few interesting churches and medieval streets and buildings but generally looked a bit shabby and worn. Pity as the potential for this place is greater than its current state, but I guess this is all up to the current local government. Paul cycled down to seaside resort down river (l”herault) to le Grau d’Agde, but came back equally unimpressed. We spent the night at a dock on the river and then returned to the Round Lock, this time we took the exit down the canal.
Agde at night
Again it was full of junk boats, wrecks and people living for free in the Halte Nautique ( stopping place on the canal), so we continued on to the village and resort of Vias. There was no electricity at this port as the mayor had cut off the supply to discourage squatters on boats. Shame really as it was a nice area close to the sea with lots of recreation activities.
Paul off on his big bike ride
We stayed a couple of nights while Paul spent one day cycling (on our folding bikes) 60 kms across the Etang back to Lattes to pick up our car, Scarlet. It was quite warm (around 27C) and Paul is a very fit active 63 year old, but I was impressed that he cycled all that way and brought the car back in a seemingly effortless way. It was also Paul’s last day on the boat as he was flying back to the UK (and then to New Zealand) the next evening.
The next day it was my turn to do the car shuffle (no, I was not ready to cycle 60 kms). We put the folding bike in the back of the car and I drove to the next port – Villeneuve les Beziers. This place was much more like the Canal du Midi I was expecting, well kept villages with flowers on the bridges, clean canals lined with cycle paths and plane trees, with interesting historical notes here and there. I parked the car beside the canal and scouted the electrical outlets and water at the RV campsite beside the canal. We paid about €9 night which include power, but we had to an additional €2 for 300 liters of water.
Villeneuve les Beziers
I then cycled about six kms back down canal cycle path to meet Skookum and crew at a lock, as they cruised towards Villeneuve les Beziers. We tied up around 3:00 and Paul got packed, after which we drove him to Montpellier airport where he got the plane back to Gatwick. Needless to say Easyjet was late – so Paul didn’t get into Gatwick until midnight.
The boat seemed quite empty without my cousin Paul. He was a gem, who seemed to love washing up, making breakfast and working around the boat. He is a very bright man so we all had some great conversations. Paul and I have been close friends all of our lives so I miss him when we don’t see each other for a few years.
After taking Paul to Montpellier, we spent a few days in Villeneuve les Beziers. Martin started fixing our Jabsco sea toilet. For those who have never used a sea toilet the procedure, once you have used it, is to pump out the effluent then pump in fresh water from the canal so the toilet bowl is always has water in it. Pumping in fresh water became quite difficult and there was a blockage in the inflow pump. Martin investigated by taking the top of the pump and found, to his surprise, two beady eyes staring up at him. He was startled to find an inquisitive eel had swum in from the canal and met its demise. The eel was 10 inches long and almost an inch in diameter, and fit the pipe perfectly. It was quite dead but Martin had to fish it out (excuse the pun) and threw it in the canal.
Another little story in Villeneuve les Beziers was seeing Linquenda, the 1906 Dutch barge owned by the Wolfestan family for many years. Martin and I took our first cruise on the French canals in 2008 on Linquenda. It was where we fell in love with cruising gently through the soft French countryside. The boat was sold a few years ago so it was nice to see it turn up on the Canal du Midi, looking well cared for, but not in use, when we were there.
We took a day out and drove to Narbonne – a delightful town on the canal de la Robine, which an offshoot of the Midi that goes to the sea. The canal went through the middle of this medieval town. On the way we drove up to a place called Oppidum d’Enserune – a Roman ruin which overlooked the valley. The valley was once a lake that was drained in the Middle Ages and was then farmed. I was convinced it was a landing site for aliens as the perfect radial fields flowed from the central drainage circle. This was medieval geometry at its finest.
Our trip to Narbonne included a walk downtown beside the canal. The canal as one of the few bridges left in France that is lined with houses. Narbonne was a Roman colony but very little remains of its past. The Cathedral to St Just, the town hall and the covered market place were all well preserved and fascinating. Narbonne deserved a second or even more visits, more to come on the city later in the month.
After those little adventures we decided to move our boat to Beziers about 6 kms away. Again we had to do a car shuffle. Once we were moored in Beziers marina Martin rode back along the canal, put the bike in the back of the car then drove Scarlet to the marina.
Beziers was the home of the engineer Pierre Paul Riquet . Construction of the canal took 14 years, but Riquet who died in 1680, did not see the opening of his Canal Royal de Languedoc in May 1681. The canal was extended in 1856, but I will write more about that once we get closer to Toulouse.
The Canal du Midi has been in use (modified and maintained but the locks are mostly original) for 336 years, it is no longer used for commercial traffic but the recreational boaters (Le Boat, Locoboat, Nicols and private people like us etc) that use the canal generate a good income for the companies providing the hire boats, restaurants, the VNF lock keepers, the local repair industries and tourist centres. The south of France is noted for its warm climate and so the canal remains in use during the winter months, albeit a great deal quieter.
The canal is also famous for it’s gladed banks, 42,000 plane tress were planted between Toulouse and Sete. Unfortunately many of these trees have been removed as the result of a disease caused by a fungus Cerantocystsis platani. The plane trees provided beautiful shade and a dense canopy across the water but are now being cut down in sections and replaced by young disease resistant trees. This means many sections of the canal are open and unshaded, which, in some of the recent high temperatures, makes the canal more challenging. However when we consider the canal has been there for three centuries it makes sense that many of the trees will be replaced over time. Happily the need for such regeneration has been recognized and the tree planting programme is well in hand.
Once we had the car in Beziers – we left the boat and set off to Lyon to see a concert, have lunch with friends along the way and pick up my friend Shelley who was visiting for a couple of weeks. We met our friends Jacquie and Mike on Afternoon Delight in Moret sur Loing a couple of years ago. We met them again in Valence where they were keeping their boat. After lunch with them in Valence we continued on our way to Lyon. The city is a bit of a bottle-neck so traffic can be quite mad and sometimes very slow. Martin had bought tickets to the ‘Playing for Change” concert as it was the first and only opportunity we have had to see any of the players in this unique world wide music phenomena.
You can see any of your favourite Bob Marley songs – or any other of the many songs they have recorded at
I would encourage exploring this worldwide musical phenomena – it has created music schools and a world connection for musicians and audiences. The concert we attended at a wonderful venue in Lyon was called Scenes du Rue and focused on the art of the street and folk musicians. The maestro of the local symphony, Philippe Fournier became associated with the Playing for Change foundation and introduced classical music as another ‘Playing for Change’ phenomena.
On stage we were treated to some of the original musicians including Clarence Bekkar and Tula singing with the videos of the music they had created over the last 12 years – many familiar tunes given a different mix and voice, all in the name of peace and intercultural understanding. The concert certainly left me feeling both inspired and energized about the power of music in our world. Interesting enough as we left the theatre there were a group of very young street musicians singing – we smiled and watched for a little while.
We were staying at an IBIS hotel not far from the venue so we wandered the streets of Lyon across the Rhone and marveled at the architecture of the city. We had a long journey back to the boat ( about 380 kms) the next day with our new guest my pal Shelley.