canal du Midi : en bateau ou à pied

What is the Canal du Midi used for ?

The Canal du Midi was originally designed to transport goods and passengers, but its uses have changed significantly since the 20th century. The new uses are mainly concerned with the tourism industry, and this has given the regions a real boost.

The Canal du Midi is France's leading destination for inland waterway tourism

Over the past thirty years or so, recreational boating has overtaken the shipping trade and has reinvigorated the boating industry. Driven by the increasing popularity of green tourism and by UNESCO's recognition as a world heritage site (1996), the Canal du Midi is now France's leading destination for inland waterway tourism. This waterway accounts for 30% of France's total visitor numbers in this sector.

Almost 10,000 boats pass through Argens lock annually, 70% of which are foreign tourists! They come to experience this very different sort of tourism, at a much slower pace (6 km/hr on average!), in a lush-green setting that is perfect for a revitalising break.

The Canal du Midi is one of the 45 world heritage sites in France. The landscapes of the canal are also classified. There are also many classified or listed historic monuments along the canal route.

There are several ways to enjoy inland waterway tourism: hiring houseboats, going on organised cruises, boat trips on passenger or electric boats, and other water-based activities. Facilities are now available, adapted to current boating practices, such as marinas and local services.  

The Canal du Midi by boat

The new trend towards 'fluvestre' tourism

This word is a combination of French words 'fluvial' (river) and 'terrestre' (land), and this fairly new concept involves tourism and leisure activities on and around a waterway. Besides navigation, 'fluvestre' tourism also includes activities on dry land, on the banks of the waterway, such as cycling, walking, roller skating and fishing.

The towpath runs for 280 km between Toulouse and Thau lagoon and Port la Nouvelle, and there are also paths alongside the supply channels and the Canal du Midi extensions that are all ideal and most importantly, car-free.

Local councils have developed some sections into greenway cycle routes. Other sections have also been developed by the inter-connected communities. The goal is to provide a continuous cycle path alongside the canal between Toulouse and the Mediterranean.

'Fluvestre' tourism is also about discovering the fascinating heritage of the regions the Canal du Midi crosses through, and the incredible variety of scenery, from the Montagne Noire region to the shores of the Mediterranean. 

Not-to-mention wine tourism and the culinary world, that are also part and parcel of the culture of the Occitanie region.

The Canal du Midi by bike

The Canal du Midi on foot

The inevitable decline of freight

In 1857, the opening of the Toulouse-Sète railroad dealt a major blow to freight traffic on the Canal du Midi and brought an end to passenger traffic. In 1858, the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer, who was now also in charge of managing the canal, introduced prohibitive navigation fees to stifle competition. This was when traffic along the canal plummeted. 

In 1898, The French State bought the Canal du Midi and breathed new life into the waterway. In the 1970s-80s, the economic crisis, the creation of the motorway of the 2 seas, and the discontinuation of the plans to respect the Freycinet gauge (extend locks to meet the national standard) brought freight to a standstill (1989).

There has been a renewed interest in waterway freight recently. It is being considered for shipping goods of high value for example, or for transporting goods short distances in urban areas. We've not yet heard the last of this form of goods transport!

Crop irrigation

Up until the 18th century, water inlets for farming were a rare find, and navigation was the main use of the canal. From the 19th century, certain regulations were made more flexible as developments and technical improvements were introduced, and water resources were better managed. As such, more and more authorisations for the use of water were granted.

Did you know?

In the 1860s, the French vineyard was attacked by a parasite (phylloxera) which caused significant damage. To fight this outbreak, it was recommended to flood the grapevines during the winter. In 1880, the Villedubert water inlet was developed, and by-pass channels were created at the locks downstream from Villedubert to transport the large volumes of water needed for these flooding initiatives, without disturbing navigation.

Champs de céréales des plaines du Lauragais irrigués par le canal du Midi

Plaines du Lauragais irriguées par le canal du Midi - Vincent photographie, OT Castelnaudary

In the department of Aude in the 20th century, the national hydro-agricultural improvement schemes were an opportunity to divert the excess water from the Montagne Noire region to the Lauragais, when the Fresquel drainage basin was created.

This was the beginning of the development of large-scale crop farming along the canal (durum wheat and corn seed in the Lauragais) and for the development of vineyards towards the Carcassonne and Narbonne regions.

A vast network of interconnected, pressurised hydraulic infrastructures was therefore created, with support from the department of Aude, the Occitanie region and the company BRL, concessionary for the Occitanie regional hydraulic network.

Around 400 km of piping, over a thousand sluice gates and water delivery terminals helped to transport the water from Naurouze or from the main pressurisation stations built along the Canal du Midi and side canals.

This water withdrawal was compensated by the water resource stored at the Ganguise dam (with a storage capacity of over 40 million cubic metres).

This hydraulic system meant that the Canal du Midi and its water supply system were given a major role in securing water resources, as confirmed by the Plan de Gestion de la Ressource en Eau de l’Aude et de la Berre (Aude and Berre water resource management plan).

The Canal du Midi water supply system