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Living in the Languedoc:   Some Famous Residents:   Pierre-Paul Riquet

Pierre-Paul Riquet was an engineer and canal-builder. He was single-handedly responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi during the second half of the 17th century. The Canal is an artificial waterway built to link the Gulf of Lyon  (Mediterranean Sea) with the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic Ocean). It was, and still is, regarded as an exceptional feat of design and engineering, predating and inspiring other major canal projects such as the Panama and Suez Canals.

Riquet (1609 - 1680) was born in Béziers, in the Hérault département, As a youth he was interested in mathematics and science. At the age of 19 he married Catherine de Milhau. He made his money "farming" salt taxes in Languedoc and became farmer-general of Languedoc-Roussillon. A wealthy man, he was licensed by the King to levy his own salt taxes. This gave him the wealth to fund his vision.

Ideas for such a canal had been discussed since Roman times, but no-one had been able to overcome the engineering problems associated with water management at the highest points, hundreds of metres above sea level and remote from any rivers. The logistics were massively complicated.

Louis XIV was keen for the project to proceed because of the cost and danger of transporting cargo and trade around southern Spain where pirates operated, but he was less keen on funding it.

Riquet's plan was to join the River Garonne to the Mediterranean. Since the Garonne flowed into the Atlantic, this meant that the ocean would be connected to the sea. The difficult part was the Languedoc, where countless obstacles stood in its path, calling for imaginative hydraulic solutions.

The main part of the work was Toulouse to the Mediterranean Coast. Work began on the Saint Férreol reservoir, the largest artificial reservoir in the world, near to where Riquet lived. Royal funds were slow to materialise, so Riquet himself financed this work and the first section (Toulouse - Trèbes, near Carcassonne). The second (Trèbes to the Etang de Thau) was started in in June 1668. The third from the Etang de Thau to the Mediterranean Sea included the building of the port of Sète, then a small fishing village called Cette).  

Jean Baptiste Colbert Presents the Map of the Canal Du Languedoc to Louis XIV
Jean Baptiste Colbert Presents the Map of the Canal Du Languedoc to Louis XIV Giclee Print

Riquet's uniqueness lay in his combination of talents. He possessed the vision to tackle the problem, the imagination to solve previously intractable engineering problems associated with it, the dedication to undertake and personally manage a project of this scale, the money and willingness to fund it, and the enthusiasm to drive it through to completion. He even had the taste to create solutions - bridges, cuttings, locks, tunnels - that are today regarded as great works of art.

The whole project took 14 years. Riquet was a model employer, taking care of the health and well being of his 12,000 or so workers.

It was officially opened in 1681. The canal is 240 km long, 10 metres wide and two metres deep, displacing some 7 million cubic meters of earth and rock. It is a magnificent feat of engineering, with 328 locks, dams and other engineering marvels, still fed by a complicated system of feeder canals and reservoirs.

The locks at Fonseranes are the most remarkable work of the whole canal: a succession of 7 locks allowing a descent of 21 metres. A little further along there is a bridge which allows the canal to flow over a river.

Drawing of the Lock at Negra on the Canal Du Midi
Drawing of the Lock at Negra on the Canal Du Midi Giclee Print

The Canal du Midi is the oldest functioning canal in Europe.

In December 1996, Riquet's canal was added to UNESCO's list of World Cultural Heritage Sites.

The responsibility of carrying out the work put a great strain on Riquet's health. He had used his own fortune, and dedicated his life to the Royal Canal that we know know as the Canal du Midi. Pierre-Paul Riquet, Baron de Bonrepos, died before his dream was realised. There was just one mile to go.

He is still remembered in the Languedoc with pride and affection. You will see roads named after him and statues raised to his memory all along the Canal. One statue of him stands in Béziers where he was born on the 29th of June 1604.  Another can be found in Toulouse where he died on the 1st October 1680.

Today, the Canal du Midi is used extensively for leisure. You can cycle along the tow paths and you can hire canal boats and take boat trips to explore it. It connects up to a network of French canals so you can get to the Languedoc by narrow boat from the atlantic ocean, from the Mediterranean Sea or by canal from Northern France.

Click on the following link for more on the Canal du Midi

Click on the following link for more on getting to the Languedoc by the French canal network

Click on the following link for more on canal holidays in the Languedoc

Click on the following link for more on other famous Languedoc people famous Languedoc people


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Asmodeus: supporting the holy water stoop in the church at Rennes-le-Château.