When you come out of the Toulouse-Matabiau railway station, the first thing you see is the Canal du Midi — unless you just cross the bridge without even noticing it.
By today’s standards, the Canal du Midi (Canal of the South) does not look particularly monumental, in fact it looks downright narrow and impractical, but when it was built in the seventeenth century it was a huge project that had a great impact on trade and the economy throughout the South of France.
Ten to twelve thousand workers toiled for nearly two decades to construct this 240-kilometer canal joining the Garonne River at Toulouse with the Thau Lagoon near Sète, thus creating a waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The canal was officially opened in 1681, but was soon closed and emptied of its water so more work could be done. In 1683 it was again filled with water and re-opened for barge traffic.
When Vauban first saw the Canal du Midi in 1684, he called it “without a doubt the most beautiful and the most noble work of its kind ever undertaken” (sans contredit le plus beau et le plus noble ouvrage de cette espèce jamais entrepris).
Since Vauban was Louis XIV’s Commissioner General of Fortifications, he was not usually involved in civilian engineering projects, but the Canal du Midi was one of the two big exceptions to this. (The other was the Aqueduct of Maintenon, which he disapproved of but had to work on anyway.)
Although he had not taken part in the original construction of the Canal du Midi, Vauban was called in to advise on how to keep the canal from filling up with silt and running out of water.
In 1685 he wrote a report recommending changes in the route of the canal. In 1686 he visited the canal again and wrote a report for King Louis XIV which resulted in additional funding. Between 1686 and 1689 he designed further improvements such as a tunnel to bring in additional water.
According to the website www.canaldumidi.com, Vauban was “preoccupied with the necessity of isolating the canal from the streams which crossed it, to keep the canal from silting up. He also constructed an entire system of drainage to prevent storm water from discharging uncontrollably into the bays of the canal.”
This sign by the canal reads: “Formerly the Royal Canal of Languedoc, the Canal du Midi was finally opened in 1681. It includes six locks in Toulouse: Bayard, Matabiau, Minimes, Béarnais and Garonne. It is inscribed in the World Heritage of Humanity.”
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.