The idea of creating a waterway as a shortcut between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea had captured the imagination of successive French Kings and governments since Roman times. The regional route overland was slow, uncomfortable and haunted by bandits; the three thousand kilometre passage by sea took at least a month and was also dangerous as ships negotiating the Spanish coast dodged storms and Barbary pirates to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar.
In 1516, King François I invited Leonardo da Vinci to France to carry out a survey of a possible route, but this project was even beyond the great man and was abandoned because of the apparent impossibility of finding a source of water to fill any canal. Finally in the second half of the seventeenth century Paul Riquet had the vision and the courage to finance and complete the project. When finished it boasted ninety-one locks, three hundred and twenty-eight bridges bridges, dams and tunnels, and forty viaducts. In its citation and admission to the list of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO said the canal had “provided the model for the flowering of technology that led directly to the Industrial Revolution and the modern technological age”.
We arrived at the Port Neuf, a basin providing overnight stopping facilities and then walked along the towpath and crossed the river over a later viaduct addition, the longest on the entire canal and built in the nineteenth century to avoid having to use an unpredictable and dangerous stretch of the river. We were intending to walk to the Fonserannes Locks which are the third most popular tourist destination in Languedoc-Roussillon, after the Pont du Gard in Nîmes and the city of Carcassonne. It was about a kilometre and a half and it took us forty minutes to arrive at the car park adjacent to the eight staircase lock which descends just over twenty metres in three hundred rather like a Giant’s staircase.
The locks are considered to be a huge engineering achievement because they had to be cut from solid rock, and descended a hillside with an inconsistent gradient. All of the locks had to contain the same volume of water, but could not have precisely the same shape but nontheless they were built successfully without need of subsequent major repair. Suprisingly perhaps, this amazing piece of engineering was subcontracted out to two illiterate brothers, the Medhailes, and was built by a workforce composed mainly of women.
It wasn’t too busy today with just a few visitors and a handful of barges waiting patiently for the next scheduled operation of the locks. It was quite interesting but I have to say that if this is the third most visited tourist attraction in Languedoc-Roussillon then the region must be short of visitor attractions and I’m not sure that I believe that claim. From the top lock there was a glorious view across the river valley towards Beziers but we turned our back on that and continued to walk along the tree lined canal where two-hundred year old Plane trees with decorative mottled bark lean across the water, their heavy foliage forming an impenetrable canopy of heavily dappled olive-green shade.
The trees have been a feature of the eastern half of the canal from Toulouse to Sète since they were first planted in the 1830s. Their triple purpose was to strengthen the banks, reduce water evaporation by the strong Midi sun and shade the canal boats, which originally transported delicate products like wine and fabrics. But in 2005 disaster struck and for the past six years a fungus has been attacking the trees, spreading along the waterway and defying all attempts to cure or control it. Tree specialists have concluded that it is almost certain all the planes will have to be chopped down, burned and replaced because the trees have been struck by an outbreak of a virulent, incurable microscopic fungus which spreads through the roots and is thought to have first reached France with American GIs in the Second-World-War whose sycamore ammunition boxes were infected. We counted ourselves lucky to have seen these magnificent trees at this time because in a couple of years or so they may well be gone.
After a while we walked back, stopping briefly along the way at a café beside the locks and then we returned to Beziers via a redundant basin called the Chemin du Quai du Port Notre Dame that was once a thriving commercial part of the city lined with warehouses and store rooms but is now a derelict, run down and sadly neglected part of the canal with stagnant water, rotting quaysides and overgrown towpaths that will never be used again.
Having followed this alternative route back from the Fonserannes Locks we were unsure of our location, we were heading towards the thirteenth century Cathedral of Saint Nazaire but we had to cross some busy roads and walk through some poor and run down streets before crossing L’Orb over the Pont Vieux which is the oldest bridge in the city across the river and making our way back to the city.