We are exploring from a unique viewpoint, winding our way through a beautiful landscape of the Canal du Midi with a glass of rose in hand. This was more than I imagined as we glided past idyllic pastures, walking paths, and those Plane trees providing shade and reflections dancing on the water.
As captain of my own Le Boat I was delighted in how easy it was to drive, yes, I was a little nervous at my first lock, but at top speed of 5 miles per hour you almost just float in and out with a rope to tie up. After the first two, I felt like a pro.
The UNESCO World Heritage site has an amazing engineering story starting with a persistent dream of salt tax collector and amateur engineer with skills to it carry off, eventually, a 150 mile long canal creating his own highway for commercial transport. Pierre-Paul Riquet approached finance minister Colbert during the reign of Louis XIV to obtain funds for building a waterway. Reasoning is that without a canal, the vessels to southern France had to sail around the Iberian Peninsula facing many dangers including Pirates in the Gibraltar Straits. The design eventually connected the Atlantic via the Garonne to the Mediterranean.
Luckily M. Riquet married Catherine, a wealthy 19 year old whose funds assisted him in his quest. He purchased a property of 50 hectares with water rights to do a test in constructing in 1652. It convinced him to move forward. With 12,000 workers involved in digging out the ditch with pick-axe and shovel the work began in 1665. But the high cost of construction depleted Riquet's personal fortune and the seemingly insurmountable problems caused his sponsors, including Louis XIV, to lose interest. Truly he was tenacious! Investing more of his own money into this project he so believed in. Persistence paid off! Unfortunately, it was one mile shy of completion when he died in Sete.
With 190,000 plane trees, 63 locks, and 126 bridges it has really become an exceptional work of art besides being a technical achievement! Thus in 1996 it was bestowed the UNESCO designation.
Picking up the boat in Castelnaudary, a pleasant town up the hill from the Grand Bassin and the start of our floating trip. After an amazing Cassoulet dinner the night before I didn’t think I’d be able to eat for days…but we still stocked the refrigerator with a case of Languedoc wines, cheese of all shapes and sizes, pates, and of course, good butter. Planning to stop along the way and bike into the closest village for morning baguettes or croissants. Perhaps a town market or two to get a rotisserie chicken and fresh fruits. We never worries about being well nourished – we were in France!
After our instructions, and securing our bicycles, and laying out our maps alongside our GPS and we were off. Basically drifting along past churches, bell towers, rolling fields and woodlands. Looking for medieval villages like Bram, which is the best preserved circular village in all of Europe. Tying up here let us stretch our legs and get a good look around. Days just slipped by meandering along sometimes passing a canoe or kayaker, or more likely a biker riding by. In Poilhes we stopped to see the famous L’Orme de Sully; the elm tree planted in 1608 and that’s a whole other story. We navigated the double basin locks at LeLande and further along Herminis, and La Douce. Before we knew it we were coming up on Chateau de Pennautier for a visit, built by Bernard Reich de Pennautier, Treasurer of the States of Languedoc, in 1620, his grandiose castle is still in the family –but they have add vineyards in 1960 and in 2009 renovated it for guests to stay.
Our final port was the medieval town of Carcassonne another World Heritage site. I could have happily continued on the Sete the final stop!