The Canal du Midi (canal of the south) is an impressive feat by any measure. This man-made canal runs for 150 miles from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. It is 620′ above sea level at its highest point and one must pass through 65 locks (aquatic elevators) to navigate its entire length. The canal can accommodate boats up to 18′ wide and 98′ long (limited by the smallest lock).
The canal was built to move wheat, wine, and other products throughout the south of France. Existing rivers had been used to move goods short distances in the past but commerce has little tolerance for the fickle nature of rivers. Capricious cycles of flood and drought are difficult to factor into production schedules.
Paul Riquet, an engineer from Béziers, devised the scheme by which the canal would be supplied with water on demand. The rivers feeding into the canal can be diverted should a surplus of water be the problem. Not enough water is harder to deal with. A natural topographic “divide” or “ridge-line” exists about 30 miles east of Toulouse. West of this line surface water flows via rivers all the way to the Atlantic ocean. East of this line surface water makes its way to the Mediterranean.
To provide needed make-up water during a drought, Riquet built a damn on the Laudot river in the mountains 560 feet above the divide. The damn is over 100 feet tall and 2,500 feet long and 450 feet thick at its base. Underground tunnels carry water from the damn’s reservoir to either the west or east side of the divide to provide water to the canal as needed.
Keep in mind, this canal was built more than 330 years ago. Long before the internal combustion engine or hydraulics were in use. It took a lot of very hardy people to dig this very long trench. The same year the canal was finished a woman was publicly flogged in London for “involving herself in politics”. No doubt Hillary will be metaphorically flogged this year for the same transgression. It’s been 330 years, when will you women learn?
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the horsepower needed to propel canal barges was provided by actual horses. Teams pulled barges along the canal at a sedate pace (Amazon.com would be appalled). Along with incredible engineering came some pretty impressive landscaping. More than 200,000 trees were planted to provide shade for the horses and slow evaporation.
Unfortunately our favorite trees along the canal are in crisis. The Plane trees are being attacked by a fungus that made its way to France in the ammunition boxes of American G.I.s during WW2. Probably not too high a price to pay considering…
Today the canal is used for leisure. Diane and I have taken advantage of the remainder of those 200,000 trees as we ride our bikes down the trails horses once trod. We are joined by joggers and walkers on the shady paths and by boaters on the canal along side.
As beautiful as the canal is, it’s not a Disney ride. There are those that worry the canal will lose its UNESCO world heritage status if tighter controls are not put into place. Controls over the intensity of use and over what gets put into the canal. What gets put into the canal? This is a very long, largely unpatrolled, and murky body of water able to hide a multitude of sins. Agricultural run-off and industrial waste have found their way in, as they always seem to do.
It is illegal for the recreational barges to dump sewage into the canal. There are only a few dumping stations (like you would find at an RV campground) along the canal and they are rarely used. The majority of these barges don’t move and you won’t ever see a sewage pumping skiff pull up along side one. You do the math.
The canal crosses many jurisdictions and is governed by the Voies Navigable de France (VNF), a “federal” body. The cities through which the canal passes have little power to police its use. As you might expect, control over the well being of the canal is largely “someone else’s problem.” The banks of the canal have become a sort of no-mans land in practice. This situation illustrates a not uncommon French reluctance to enforce laws. They don’t seem to have any problem making laws but enforcing them and obeying them is another story. We’ve seen a real laissez-faire approach when it comes to regulations regarding the canal, parking, graffiti…
This no-mans land at the margins of the canal attracts people at the margins of society. Illegal immigrants, gypsies and vagrants live in tents or shanty towns along the canal near larger cities. Nothing too extensive or visible but you can’t miss them unless you are actively looking the other way. The worst sections of the canal feel more like a neglected floating trailer park than they do recreational waterway.
There is a saying among those who tinker in boats. They describe their obsessions as “holes in the water you throw money into.” Apparently this is also the case in France and you don’t have to look too far to find an abandoned barge on the canal. Such a barge is prime squatting territory and brings decidedly non-Disney actors within shoulder rubbing distance of vacationers who just want to enjoy the “canal of the south” ride without too much reality floating to the surface.