Monday, September 14, 2009


Along the Route de Silence      

Like a slow waltz on an empty dance floor, our late October cruise was the last of the season.  Sightseeing onshore in the mornings, we'd spend a week of afternoons barging at no more than five miles per hour between Carcassonne and Béziers.  We'd glide through an Impressionist's dream:  the Cathédrale d'Arbres, an endless canopy of arching branches.  We'd wind through Corbières and Minervois vineyards, sampling wines and cheeses along the way.

We'd ride bikes on towpaths and catch wafts of fermenting grapes; we'd scramble to the deck to see 300-year old bridges over the canal reflected perfectly in the water, then duck our heads as we passed under them.  Envious of the crew's familiarity with this grande dame of canals, we'd wonder what it be like to chuck it all and beg for a job aboard.

We'd buy pottery and bottles of wine, then curse ourselves lugging them home, only to be glad we did. At dusk we'd watch workers at the mill unload crates of handpicked olives at the end of a long day and learn how experts taste olive oil: hold the nose, swirl a half-teaspoon of oil all around the mouth for 10 seconds, then with tongue touching the palate, suck in air and swallow.

We'd gorge ourselves on Bouzigues oysters--some of the best in the world--and wash down a week's worth of gourmet meals with 30 of the best local wines.  We'd visit markets, villages and ruins and thrill at the panoramic view of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean from the heights of the Oppidium d'Ensérune.  We'd be mesmerized passing through oval, stoned staircase locks and be curious of the lockkeepers.

Like the UNESCO committee when it listed the canal as a world heritage site in 1996, we'd be awed by the ingenious 17th century hydraulic system and the art of the canal structures. "One of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering in modern times," the committee reported, noting that the care given to its design and the way it blends with its surroundings "turned a technical achievement into a work of art."


Why so slow?
Three hundred years ago barges and boats were tugged by horses and men as they walked along the chemins d'halage, or towpaths on the banks. Today, speed is limited to no more than five miles per hour on the Canal du Midi because rotation of propellors any faster than that would create strong eddies, stirring up and damaging the banks.
Making the impossible possible
A grandiose project realized under the reign of  Louis XIV, the 150 mile-long and 33 feet-wide marvel links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic by connecting the port of Sète to the Garonne River, which flows from Toulouse to  Bordeaux. The idea to dig a canal to bypass the Straits of Gibraltar had been studied centuries before by the Romans, then again by French rulers: Charlemagne, François I, Henri IV and Louis XIII. The idea was always abandonned as being too difficult, too costly or even impossible.

It was a stubborn and wealthy native of Béziers, Pierre-Paul Ricquet, who made it happen. Thanks to his inventiveness and knowledge of the local geography, he solved the problem of how to provide a permanent water supply to feed a rising summit canal: channel and capture springs from the Montagne Noire. He was able to convince Colbert, the king's finance minister, that it was indeed possible, and in 1666 Ricquet was authorized to proceed. It would be the largest construction project of the Grand Siècle. Ricquet shared 40 % of the costs, in exchange for concessions on the canal. He spent the rest of his life and fortune realizing the 14-year enterprise. His motto: "The work must be finished or die at the task." And he did die at the task, only months before the canal was opened.

Tourism to the rescue
For 200 years the Canal du Midi teemed with barges loaded with wheat and wine. After falling far behind in the 19th and 20th century transportation race, the canal was menaced with closure in the 1970's. Some had even proposed to fill it in and transform it into a highway. A generation of expat mariniers came to the rescue and brought new life and a new vocation to the canal: pleasure boating and hotel barging. Though most of the canal is too narrow and too shallow for today's big barges, it's become a haven for smaller crafts, vintage boats and flatboats built to size.  

What's hot 
and what's cool
The Canal du Midi cuts across the Languedoc, a countryside rich with mountain landscapes and 2000 years of history; it's the oldest and largest winegrowing region in France. Like the canal, the Languedoc wine industry is enjoying a renaissance. Regional wines are the rising stars in the wine world thanks to progress in thermoregulation of vats, better management of local varieties like the omnipresent Carignan, and the introduction of more noble cépages: syrah, mourvèdre, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and grenache. Quality-driven Languedoc reds are what's hot in France today. The shaded Canal du Midi with a Mediterranean sea breeze is what's cool.

Don't miss the boat! Check out these favorite sites for an Indian summer holiday you'll never forget:

Text and photos ©2009 P.B.Lecron


  1. Patty you make me want to come live in France...what an amazing experience and I can live it through your words and photos. Alice

  2. Oh thank you! Better come barging quick!