Pont du Somail - VNF, Damien Lachas

The village of Le Somail is undoubtedly one of the most iconic places on the Canal du Midi. The bridge, inn, chapel, storehouses and 300-year-old buildings all bear witness to the history of the waterway and the booming waterway transport industry of the past. By boat, by bike or on foot, we recommend exploring this place!

Le Somail, a key location for canal management up until 1858

Once the construction work on the Canal du Midi was finished, Pierre-Paul Riquet's heirs (Riquet has passed away just a few months before the inauguration) deemed it necessary to set up an official administration for the waterway.

This administration included seven working divisions. Each division had its own Director, two construction inspectors, a tax collector, a shipping load inspector, wardens for the canal and storehouses and a steward.  

The Le Somail division covered 45 kilometres with Le Somail port at the centre. The canal administration was responsible for the first developments in Le Somail. The buildings were set around the humpback bridge, with a remarkable arch. That was how the centre of the village came to be!  

A key overnight stopover
for the 'barque de poste' barge

Le Somail, a service stop for Narbonne

You might already be aware that Riquet chose not to pass the Canal du Midi through Narbonne, despite recommendations to do so from Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

But this major trading town of the Languedoc needed a service stop and that is why the port of Le Somail was built in 1682!

Tax and administration offices, stables, inn, storehouses, chapel, ice tower, etc. The inland waterway transport industry was booming here!

Did you know?

The port was initially named the port of Saint Nazaire, but was soon changed to Le Somail.

Le Somail, a stopover for the 'barque de poste'

When the canal was put into service, a passenger transport service was introduced, known as the 'barque de poste'.
Travellers coming from Toulouse would arrive in Le Somail on the evening of the third day, for the 'couchée' (dinner and overnight stay).

Plan général du Somail, 1850

Plan général du Somail, 1850

Services for travellers

An inn was built next to the port, on the right banks to be able to welcome travellers. The docks were built just in front of it.

This three-storey building also housed the head of the canal division, and there was a bedroom for a warden, as well as a space under the stairs used as a prison cell.

On the ground floor, there was a vast salt storehouse.


Did you know?

Other constructions were added to the village of Le Somail, such as stables, housing for the postilions responsible for guiding horses along the towpaths, storehouses for goods, a bread oven and much more. Despite all of this, the village was never recognised as a town because it was split into three different parishes. After the French Revolution, these parishes became the towns of Sallèles d’Aude, Ginestas and Saint Nazaire. 

Le Somail chapel

The chapel was built at the end of the 17th century, and was reserved exclusively for 'barge de poste' passengers who did not have enough time to get to the nearest church, 2 km away (Mirepeisset). It was also used by canal administration employees who did not have much time away from their roles. 

In around 1810, the increasing population of the village led the supervisory archbishop to authorise the organisation of mass at this chapel. The building had to be enlarged several times due to the popularity of this service. The chapel as we see it today is the result of construction work carried out in the 1880s. Mass is still held here every month.  

Le Somail 'glacière' (ice tower)

In the late 17th century, cool beverages and sorbets were all the rage! In 1672, Riquet entrusted Esprit Granier, master mason from Capestang, with the construction of ice towers at various locations along the canal to meet the demand for this industry. Many of them were near the 'barque de poste' stopovers such as Toulouse, Négra, Béteille and Le Somail.  

The ice came from the Montagne Noire region or was taken from the canal when it was frozen over. Inside the ice towers, these circular stone buildings, ice was stored off the ground using straw and there was an outlet channel into the ground to evacuate meltwater. Le Somail ice tower is the only one still standing today!

Did you know?

When Pierre-Paul Riquet passed away, there were still a few kilometres of canal route left to dig out, for sections where the ground was difficult to dig into. These areas were Argeliers and Le Somail. Although it has never been officially devoted to Saint Pierre and Saint Paul, the chapel of Le Somail features a painting of these two saints at the foot of Christ on the Cross. Today, Saint Pierre and Paul day (29 June) is still celebrated in Le Somail!

Storehouses for goods

Over time, Le Somail became the unloading location for goods on the way to Narbonne. These goods needed to be stored in a sheltered place, away from bad weather and theft.

From 1830, private entrepreneurs began to build large storehouses, most of which were on the left banks of the canal. The expansion of the winegrowing industry in the region was one of the reasons for this.

Worth the detour

One of these former storehouses now houses the famous book shop, 'Le Trouve Tout Du Livre'. There are 50,000 books there! The Tourist Office is in a beautiful merchant's house (Maison Bonnal).

Librairie du Somail - VNF

Librairie du Somail - VNF

Le Somail faced with competition

In the early 19th century, the acceleration of transport thanks to a better network of roads meant that inland waterway transport needed reorganising. In 1834, the accelerated navigation service was set up by the Compagnie du Canal du Midi and had a major impact on mooring points along the canal because the barges would now navigate day and night and would no longer make lunchtime or overnight stopovers.

Despite this, the inn stayed in business thanks to passengers who arrived in Narbonne and then got on the 'barque de poste' here to Port La Nouvelle. There were less people working for the Compagnie du Canal du Midi administration and the head of the Le Somail division and their staff worked from the beautiful engineer's house in Sallèles d’Aude.

In 1857, the opening of the railroad between Toulouse and Sète dealt a huge blow to the activity at the port despite the booming wine trade. The suspension of the 'barque de poste' service in 1858 and the drop in goods transport meant that the bustling activity in the village of Le Somail would soon come to an end.

Le Somail today,
an iconic place on the Canal du Midi

A great number of buildings in Le Somail have been listed as Historic Monuments since 1998. This iconic village in the history of the canal is a small yet lively and welcoming place that is always a hit with visitors!

There are boat rental companies on the harbour, offering boat trips for a day or longer rentals.

The village of Le Somail is still a must-see on the Canal du Midi. 

and information

168 allée de la Glacière

Tél : +33 4 68 48 14 81




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