The building of the Canal du Midi, linking the Garonne navigation at Toulouse (and therefore the Atlantic Ocean) with the Mediterranean at Sete demonstrated to the whole of Europe the possibilities of inland navigation.
The initiator of the canal was Pierre Paul Ricquet (1604-80), who for many years enjoyed the profitable post of controller of the salt tax for Languedoc. On his retirement in 1662 he began to argue at the court of Louis XIV that a canal should be built, linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, demonstrating that he had developed means of supplying such a canal with water. A royal edict authorising the work was issued in 1666, and work began, initially on the Reservoir at Saint Ferreol, in the following year. The canal was inaugurated by Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the year after Ricquet’s death.
The canal has a total length of 240 km, with several lengthy feeders, one of them 42 km long. From its junction with the Garonne at Toulouse the canal rises 63 m with 26 locks in 51.5 km. After a 5 km summit it descends 189 m in 185 km with 75 locks to the Etang de Thau, a lagoon separated from the Mediterranean by a sandy spit, which gives access to Sete. The locks are oval in shape, with several groups in staircases, the most notable the eight-rise flight at Beziers. At Malpas is a 161 mile long tunnel, the first canal tunnel in Europe. There are three large aqueducts, a single arch over the Repudre built by Ricquet and others over the Orbiel and the Cesse built after Ricquet’s death to the design of the great military engineer Sebastien Vauban.
The port of Sete was established by royal decree, and followed the construction of the 650 m long pier, the Mole St Louis, which began in 1666. A passenger boat service operated along the canal from the time, the first section west of Toulouse was opened in 1672. The canal remains open for cruising and provides access to some of the most magnificent scenery and to some of the best food and wine in Europe. The waterway was originally known as the Canal du Languedoc but was renamed the Canal du Midi at the time of the French Revolution in 1789.