In the 17th century boats provided the most efficient way to carry goods - but waterborne cormnerce between northern and southern France was fraught with danger, as ships had to sail around hostile Spain, running the gauntlet of Barbary pirates on a month-long voyage. Solution? Build a canal that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The result was the 235 km (145 mi) Canal du Midi, connecting Toulouse on the Garonne River to the Mediterranean port of Sète. Opened in 1681, it was a monumental engineering achievement with over 300 significant structures, including more than 100 locks, many bridges, several dams and a tunnel. For three centuries this extraordinary waterway served its purpose well, bringing prosperity along its length, and since commercial traffic ceased in 1980 it has become Europe's most popular leisure waterway.
It's easy to understand why. The Canal du Midi goes through stunning countryside and time has been kind, mellowing the canal to the point where it seems like a graceful extension of the landscape as it meanders through Cathar country, passing towns and villages that have preserved their traditional character and charm. Cruising the canal is hugely popular and there are many options for those who wish to experience the delights of this unique waterway, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is possible to travel from end to end (either way) on cruise boats, which usually offer additional sightseeing opportunities along the way. This journey can also be done by hire craft, though the schedule often demands a hectic pace with little time to stop and explore. Most people prefer to focus on a section of the canal (often one with no locks!) and proceed slowly, opting for one of the many different types of craft on offer from numerous boat-hire establishment and enjoying a truly relaxing holiday in wonderful surroundings.
WHEN TO GO
April to October
TIME IT TAKES
At least a week for an end-to-end cruise without sightseeing stops. Boat hire available from one day upwards for custom cruises.
The Malpas Tunnel, the world's first-ever canal tunnel. under Enserune Hill in Herrault - there are now two more tunnels beneath it, a railway tunnel and a drainage adit.
A typical canal-side village - there are dozens to enjoy, but a fine example is Capestang with its fine stone bridge, splendid fortified church and picturesque central square.
Wine - the canal runs through France's most prolific wine-producing region. so there are endless opportunities to stop and taste.
Surrealistic wood sculptures lining the canal at Aiguille, near Puicheric - created by an artist who is also the , lock-keeper (or the lock-keeper who is also an artist).
YOU SHOULD KNOW
The Canal du Midi was created by visionary Languedoc tax collector Pierre-Paul Riquet. but the enterprise bankrupted him and debts incurred in building the canal were not paid off for 100 years.