Today, the town is still centred around river tourism and has some surprises in store for visitors.
Pierre-Paul Riquet was born in Béziers in 1609 into one of the town's wealthy families.
Riquet was introduced to the world of business very early thanks to his father who was a solicitor and businessman with a seat at the Council of Trent of Béziers.
Since the mid-16th century, several canal projects between the two seas had been put forward but none of them had been accepted. As an example, in 1618, the town councillors of Béziers (including Riquet's father) refused approval of a canal project put forward by Bernard Arribat who wanted to make Béziers more accessible by building a canal between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. They thought he had lost his mind...
That it was finally Pierre-Paul Riquet who was behind the construction of the Canal du Midi is quite ironic.
The Canal du Midi would cross the south side of Béziers at the foot of the ancient Acropolis. The main obstacle to face was how to cross the river Orb. Pierre-Paul Riquet chose to overcome the problem by diverting navigation and then joining back onto the canal route 500 m downstream from the point of entrance.
To solve the issue of the 25 metre height difference between the Canal du Midi and river below, Riquet had a stroke of genius: a lock with several chambers. Fonseranes locks are 315 metres long overall and the eight chambers allow boats to reach the canal pound and Notre-Dame double lock before then sailing down the Orb.
It goes without saying that the Fonseranes locks are a remarkable masterpiece!
The irregular flow of water along the Orb made navigation challenging. In 1686, Vauban was called upon to design improvements for the Canal du Midi infrastructure, and he suggested building a navigable aqueduct to separate the two waterways. But this sort of engineering structure came at a significant cost, and the funds were not available at the time.
The aqueduct built by Urbain Magues and Achille Simoneau was only inaugurated in 1857. The structure separated the canal and the river, modernising the waterway at the same time thanks to the accelerated shipping of goods.
The Orb aqueduct is one of the biggest of its kind in France, and was listed a Historic Monument in 1996.
Up until 1858, the port of Béziers was slightly downstream from Fonseranes on the right banks of the Orb. It was called the port Notre-Dame.
After the Orb aqueduct was built, the canal was diverted and a new port, aptly named 'Port Neuf', was built in direct contact with the town of Béziers. The river port of Béziers, the 'maison batelière', is still found at Quai Port-Neuf.
In 1837, the locals of Béziers decided to honour the memory of Pierre-Paul Riquet.
A plaque was therefore displayed on his childhood home and a request was submitted to have a statue of Pierre-Paul Riquet set up on the pathways that were being developed at the time.
Sculptor David D’Angers from Paris was commissioned, and the bronze statue was inaugurated on 21 October 1838.
As the hometown of the Canal du Midi's creator, it is only natural that Béziers is connected to the history of the waterway linking Toulouse to the Mediterranean.
Therefore, there are several places in Béziers that pay tribute to Pierre-Paul Riquet, as well as some exceptional engineering structures such as Fonseranes locks and the Orb aqueduct.
There are plenty of walks and bike rides along the Canal du Midi, departing from Béziers. Some of them will guide you in the footsteps of Riquet, and others are a chance to explore the region's vineyards.
On foot or by bike, these explorations are a great opportunity to discover the history of the Canal du Midi and the fascinating Biterrois region.
Béziers is also at the crossroads of several national and even international cycle routes.
There is a wide range of boat trips and recommended routes to follow to explore Béziers and the Canal du Midi by boat. Don't miss Fonseranes locks and the Orb aqueduct.