How a tax official designed a UNESCO World Heritage Site

July 25, 2022

Cap 'd Agde in the south of France has been one of the most important trading ports in the Mediterranean since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans in particular traded their wares here.

In the 17th century, France still had to rely on the shipping route that went all the way around Spain to the French west coast via the Strait of Gibraltar. That was a dangerous journey which took the sailars almost a month.

The French were searching for a more direct water connection between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. But that wish was difficult to fulfil with the Pyrenees as one of the barriers that had to be broken.

The famous French architect Pierre-Paul Riquet came up with a solution. He designed a solution in which mountain streams would be diverted and the water could be collected in a basin. The water could then overflow from the basins into to a new canal to be dug. At first there wasn't much confidence in Riquet's plans. That is understandable when you know that Riquet was actually just a tax official and certainly not a hydraulic engineer.

Canal Royal de Languedoc

Due to the large economic and military interests, Louis XIV started the construction of the Canal Royal de Languedoc in 1666 by royal decree.

Tens of thousands of people helped to dig the canal and contributed to the total of 328 structures such as bridges, aqueducts and basins, which were needed to realize the passage.

Everything was done by hand, with shovels and pickaxes. It took 14 years and the work was completed in 1681. The canal is 250 km long and runs from the Mediterranean at Cap 'd Agde to Toulouse. Unfortunately, Riguet passed away a year before the canal was finished and never got to see his life's work in its entirety. Thanks to Riquet, the journey to Toulouse now only took four days.

After the French Revolution, the Canal Royal de Languedoc was renamed Canal du Midi.

Canal des deux Mers

Now the French managed to reach Toulouse. However, it still was not possible to sail on to the west coast. That is why not much later in the 19th century, the Canal du Midi got extended by the construction of the Garonne Canal. That canal runs from Toulouse to the city of Bordeaux. This way, the desired connection finally became a fact. The two channels together were aptly named “Canal des deux Mers”: canal of the two seas.

A canal in use

The prosperity around the Languedoc improved greatly because the sales area for wheat and wine became much larger. But despite its great success, it never became the international trading route that was hoped for.

The Canal du Midi is one of the oldest canals in Europe and is still used a lot, but mainly for recreational boating. Imagine how proud Pierre Paul would have been when the canal was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996.

The legacy of Riquet

While strolling through the village in Grau 'd Agde, you come across another technical masterpiece by Pierre-Paul Riguet. A round lock of lava rock with a round shape. The three lock gates connect the three water levels, allowing ships to turn around their axis to continue their journey on the River Herault, the Canal du Midi or the Mediterranean.

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