Europe's oldest (and most famous) canal celebrates its the 350th anniversary this summer, just like Sète, a young girl among the ports of a Mediterranean where we were already sailing 3 years before our era. A canal and a port both born from a crazy idea in 000.
Classified in Unesco World Heritage 20 years ago, the canal du midi allows you to take another look at the towns and regions crossed, along its 240 km. Starting with the 350 structures which mark it out: locks, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels. Not to mention the lock houses, chapels, ice houses, quays which are an integral part of the landscape.
We tested the Hérault section, from Capestang to Sète. Vineyards, villages, ponds, bike rides and city tours: a beautiful destination for " slow tourism ”, with friends and / or family.
The Canal du Midi: 350 years of history
Vauban said of him: "I would have given my life to have built this work". Henri IV dreamed of it, Louis XIV did it. In 1666, the Sun King promulgated the edict for the construction of a communication channel of the Deux-Mers. For economic reasons, as much as political and military, one can imagine it.
Thank you Riquet!
Le canal du midi is designed and produced by an exceptional Biterrois, a certain Pierre-Paul Riquet (1604-1680), Baron de Bonrepos. The real talent that we recognize in him today is not so much to have dug a canal (in 14 years, and with the help of 12 men and women) as to have captured the waters of the Black Mountain. All the previous projects had, in fact, stumbled on the water supply of such a structure.
Riquet dreamed of an exceptional work. Mission accomplished with the 350 engineering structures that line the canal: 63 locks, 130 bridges, not to mention the built heritage and the thousands of trees that have been planted to create perspectives and freshness.
The Canal du Midi was the motorway at the time, paying, as it should be. Riquet died ruined, but his heirs recovered the stake. And the canal prospered until the arrival of the railway: passenger traffic was reduced to nil and that of goods (wine, cereals, wood) continued until the 70s.
Over the water, without rushing ...
Today, it suffices to follow the banks of the Canal du Midi, to understand the importance acquired in a few decades by river tourism: many boat rental companies have set up there, boatmen have been converted. in the barge ride.
Electric boats, rental of boats without a license, barges-hotels, post boats, all means are good to discover the Canal du Midi (with free getaways on foot or by mountain bike). Take your time: the average navigation speed does not exceed 8 km / h!
Capestang and the Malpas tunnel
1st stage: 54 km without locks, from Argens Minervois to Béziers. The canal overlooks a landscape of vines, since Riquet has achieved the feat of maintaining his masterpiece at an altitude of 31,35 m (this is a particularity of the section).
The great reach of the Canal du Midi allows you to discover the terroir of Saint-Chinian and Coteaux d'Ensérune. By boat, we dock at the ports of Poilhe and Capestang. A curiosity: the bridge of Saisse, in Capestang, the smallest of the Canal du Midi (well aim to pass).
On the program: lunch in the sun facing the canal, climb to the top of the bell tower of the Saint-Étienne gothic collegiate church to see the canal from above, visit the castle of the Archbishops of Narbonne, for its remarkable painted ceiling illustrated, we are not there to watch the boats or even the mountain bikes.
Before committing to the Malpas tunnel (165 m, a real feat: it was the first time that a canal was made to pass under a mountain), the barges activate their siren and move towards Colombiers, whose small port on the canal has been converted into a semi -circle, to allow easier mooring.
Climb to the oppidum of Ensérune to discover the remains of an ancient town and especially to admire the site of the dry pond of Montady in all its splendor: on more than 430 ha, the immense triangular plots, drained thanks to the ditches which collect the water, give it an original geometric shape. Plots changing color, from white to red and from green to mauve, depending on the harvest ...
Béziers and the locks of Fonsérannes
Béziers lives to the rhythm of the Canal du Midi. One day soon, a cable car could also reach the locks and the acropolis opposite (Greek term preferred to that of oppidum used by the Romans).
And the locks are Riquet's major work. This one, to make its channel cross a drop of 25 m, designed this water staircase with a length of 312 m: nine locks (6 are still in operation) allow boats to go up and down ... to the rhythm of the basins which empty and fill.
The site of locks Fonseranes must have been impressive in Riquet's time, it still is today, with the work called to profoundly transform access to the acropolis by 2018.
The heart of the ancient city, with its winding streets, its Saint-Nazaire cathedral, its theater remained in its original state, its market and its mansions, does not lack charm. The real center is the Paul-Riquet alleys, long, beautiful and shaded, with a bronze statue of the great man.
But, back to the canal, with the works of the Libron at Roads. 2 km from the sea, the Libron, which becomes a torrent in times of flooding, crosses the Canal du Midi, safe for navigation since 1858. An impressive mechanism of mobile aqueducts allows the stream to pass overhead of the canal. It is interesting to witness the operation of the locks by a team of 2 or 3 lock keepers.
Head for Agde
If you embark at the port ofAgde with Les Bateaux du Soleil, Dominique Ménage will tell you better than anyone the history of the canal and the local lock, round and original. The only one on the course to have this shape.
A success both architectural and technical, it brings together three different water levels, and allows the boats to turn on themselves to take one of three exits: towards Toulouse, towards the city of Agde and the sea, or towards the Thau lagoon, following the course of the Hérault.
Take your bike to explore the old city of Agde in the footsteps of Claude Terrisse. A strange individual who was the king's privateer under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, before becoming a benefactor of the City by bequeathing his fortune to the poor. We get lost in this labyrinth of alleys with crooked houses, this town of sailors built at the crossroads of fresh and salt water, between the Canal du Midi, the Hérault river and the Mediterranean.
The cathedral looks like a fortress, the town hall and its clock tower look gray, like the Renaissance-style mansions. One reason for this: in Agde, everything is black. The raw material was supplied by the lava from the volcano that arose from the sea less than a million years ago.
From the city center, the cycle path, along the banks of the Hérault, winds up to Grau d'Agde. Do not miss to visit the belvedere of the Fish auction du Grau d'Agde, the only one of the 36 French auctions to be led by a woman. The museography, very successful, presents the fishing fleet, the installations, and of course its operation.
Over 1 tonnes of fish are sold per year from around ten trawlers (boats from 500 to 7 m). The smuggler allows to join the Tamarissière, village nestled in the pine forest. Don't miss it ...
Marseillan and the Thau lake
We like it a lot Marseillan, this small port very lively with the arrival of the boats having made the Canal du Midi. Basaltic stone quays, black stone houses from the Agde volcano, this is the backdrop. Then come the details, unusual, gourmet. This small town, which has developed its activities around shellfish farming and vines, is proud to have the oldest Marianne in France (1878)!
The top of the shellfish farming, it's the pink Tarbouriech oyster, found in Marseillan: the Thau lagoon has established itself in a few years as an exceptional breeding ground for high-end products recognized by the greatest French starred chefs.
They can be tasted at producer prices in an old shellfish farmhouse from where you can see the parks, not far away, where these oysters are harvested by these new generation “sea farmers” (possibility of a visit by electric boat, on reservation).
Thau pond, A “piece of sea trapped in the hills” over some 7 ha, has a salinity close to that of the Mediterranean. The fish take refuge there to spawn in the spring and return to the sea in the fall. It is the favorite moment for residents who come to fish for sea bream, wolves, eels, with a net or with a line. As for the succulent shellfish, they will be served on a plate with a glass or two of Picpoul de Pinet.
Impossible to leave Marseillan without taking an “experience tour” at Noilly Prat, the place where this famous French vermouth was produced, born in 1813. A fun and informative walk from the store to the cellars, passing through the enclosure with its thousands of aging barrels open air.
Sète, port side
Do like everyone else, climb to the top of the Mount Saint-Clair, who proudly dominates Sète from the top of its 182 m, to better understand the singularity of the city. The sea on one side, the pond on the other, crossed by a canal protected by a dike (Saint-Louis pier) ...
In fact, Sète was really born from the Canal du Midi. Its construction stems from the desire to provide the Riquet structure with a maritime outlet to allow the export of local products.
The unique island that was to become Sète was almost uninhabited at the time. Since then, the city has mainly been populated by Mediterranean colonies, and first of all Italian. You can feel it by stretching out your ears or even your hand to swallow one of the famous tials (octopus pies and tomato sauce) which remain the traditional dish of fishermen, just like the macaronade, made from pasta. From dishes you eat on the go to Halles, surprisingly lively market, even on Sundays.
Formerly the world's leading cooperage port (thanks to Louis XIV), Sète has seen its cellars turn into museums, art galleries, restaurants, witnesses of the city's cultural dynamism. No palaces, no great heritage, this city born on sand does not care.
Take a ride nose to the wind to take in the sea air, Upper Quarter, remained in his juice with his MACO, open-air museum, at marine cemetery and Paul Valéry museum, Or Brassens space.
Then, go for a sea trip, in order to better look at this strange city leaning against the port, inaugurated on July 29, 1666, and which has ended up moving away from it in recent decades, before celebrating it triumphantly in 2016 for the 350th city anniversary.
Also read our article Sète, under the Mediterranean sun
Consult our Languedoc-Roussillon online guide
How to get there ?
- By train: Béziers station, direct and regular TGV from Lille, Paris, Lyon
- By car: A9 motorway, exit 36
- By plane: Béziers / Cap d'Agde or Montpellier airports
Capestang and surroundings
Tourist Office of the Canal de Midi in Saint-Chinian : Quai Amouroux, 34310 Capestang. In the old roadmender's house. Treasure hunt, treasure hunt, fun activities for young and old on the port.
The House of Malpas : rte de l'Oppidum, 34440 Colombiers (just before the ancient site). Phone. : 04-67-32-88-77. Tourist and cultural center, close to the first tunnel in the world dug for navigation.
The Oppidum of Ensérune : on the road to Nissan. Entrance: € 7, audio guide included; reductions; free under 18.
Hotel Residence : 35, av. de la Cave, 34440 Nissan-les-Ensérune. Beautiful house with old charm. Shaded flower garden, swimming pool, terrace.
At the Lock keeper: at the port of Colombiers. Phone. : 04-67-37-14-77. A good stopover for family outings and a strategic stopover.
The Terminus: in Cruzy (34310). A station converted into a gourmet and friendly bistro. Tasty traditional cuisine. Nice wine bar in summer. Terrace under the trees.
Béziers and surroundings
Béziers-Méditerranée tourist office: av. President-Wilson.
Locks of Fonsérannes house of Coche d'eau under construction, info point. New parking lot. Access by tree-lined path. Several offices in town.
Midi boats : 14, rue des Écluses. Phone. : 04-67-36-51-24. Three barges to choose from. Cruise with Vent du Sud, barge restaurant, with on board a captain who is one of the local figures, Paul Pagès (daily mid-March to mid-Nov, from 9 am, 6 hours of navigation).
Octopus Restaurant : 12, rue Boïeldieu, 34500 Béziers. A stone's throw from allées Paul-Riquet, the little restaurant of a great chef, Fabien Lefebvre.
Clos de Maussanne : Domaine Monpeyroux, route de Pézenas, 34500 Béziers. Extraordinary guest rooms in a former convent.
Raissac castle : route de Lignan, 2 km from the center of Béziers. Unusual guest rooms, in a 19th century “pinardier” chateau. A museum presents the work of the hostess (incredible trompe-l'oeil ceramics inspired by Bernard Palissy), but it is in the house that we discover the universe of her husband, the painter with the double gaze .
Pleasure Cafe : 1, quai du Port-Neuf, in Béziers. An institution since 1927, which has retained its bistro decor, or rather a "guinguette", along the Canal du Midi. Very simple, all good.
Barge "Les Anges d'Eux" : quai du Canal du Midi, 34420 Cers. 6 km from Béziers. A strange boat that looks like a junk lost on the Canal du Midi. A barge revamped with humor and love.
Harmony : chemin de la Barque, in Sérignan. A truly atypical place and restaurant, like the chef, Bruno Cappellari, self-taught in the kitchen.
Domaine La Gardie : in Vias. Not far from the canal, quiet guest rooms, surrounded by vineyards. Heated swimming pool.
tourist Office : 4 destinations in one: the Greek city, Cap d'Agde, Grau d'Agde and Tamarissière.
Cruises on the Canal du Midi : Les Bateaux du Soleil, 6, rue Chassefières. Since 1985, a serious reference.
Ô Grain de Sel : 21, quai Commandant Méric, Le Grau d'Agde. Phone. : 04-67-62-34-97. A real good little restaurant, with a terrace and a pretty dining room. Hope it lasts !
The Ephèbe museum : in Agde. Magnificent collections of underwater archeology, gathered according to excavations or discoveries due to chance: tableware and weaponry from the Louis XIII period, entire cargoes of Greco-Roman amphoras and antique bronzes found in situ. The most famous remains the Hellenistic Ephèbe, reassembled in 1964, which represents Alexander the Great.
Tourist office : av. of the Mediterranean, Marseillan-Plage.
Cozy Bed & Breakfast : 16, rue du Capitaine-Bages. A character village house. 2 cozy and comfortable bedrooms, quiet.
Domaine de la Fadèze : road to Mèze. Cellar open daily except Sun and Thursday. holidays. Just the walk to meet this atypical family of winegrowers is worth the trip.
The cellars of Noilly Prat : on the Haven. Guided tour. Smell, taste the different wines to prepare your own blend.
Saint Barth ' : Chemin des Domaines (follow signs). Open May-Oct Fri evening, Sat and Sun Carte 30 €. An exceptional oyster tasting counter, the Tarbouriech specials.
Sète tourist office: 60, grand-rue Mario-Roustan. Offers guided tours, also apps for city discovery routes.
The Grand Hôtel: 17, quai Maréchal-de-Lattre-de-Tassigny. This Grand Hotel, built in the 1880s, has retained its Louis-Philippe and grand bourgeois charm while focusing on contemporary art.
The Halles de Sète : Gambetta street. Open 7 days a week. The best of the land, land and sea, often at low prices. Among the restaurants we like: Halls and eating. Phone. : 7-06-62-82-55. A real beautiful address, warm, authentic. Magali even gives cooking lessons (the sea-game).
The Lido huts: from April to September, along the 12 km of the Sète coast. A dozen beach restaurants reinvest in the sand. We go there to rent a deckchair for the day, sip a cocktail and taste a grilled fish. Choose by feeling.
Sea trips : Quai du Général-Durand, near the Pont de la Savonnerie. Walks on the canals, outings at sea and on the pond.