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Toulouse is the starting point of one of the oldest canals in Europe, the Canal du Midi. Since the 17th century, this canal has connected the city to the Mediterranean Sea. The shaded towpaths are now popular with hikers and cyclists.
Green water, rows of sycamore trees, picturesque locks and bridges – the Canal du Midi has its own unique charm that seduces even the most casual passer-by. The canal runs from Toulouse to the port town of Sète through a scenic landscape of hills and vineyards. The canal was not only used by cargo boats but also passengers travelling by mail boat. As a result, shops and inns sprang up around the locks and many of these still exist today.
For centuries there had been plans to build a waterway from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea to allow wheat, wine and textiles to be transported by ship. But it was only halfway through the 17th century that Pierre-Paul Riquet, a noble tax inspector from Béziers, managed to convince King Louis XIV of the technical viability of the project. Between 1666 and 1681, 120,000 workers toiled with picks and shovels to dig the 240-kilometre-long canal. The waterway contains 91 locks and various other ingenious constructions, such as aqueducts, dams and tunnels.
Although there are numerous cycling and hiking possibilities, the most unique way to explore the Canal du Midi is from the water. From Toulouse, there are short boat trips of a few hours that include lunch or dinner. There are also multiple-day river cruises on converted flat-bottomed boats equipped with all amenities. Guests have a private bedroom and meals are prepared by the onboard staff.
More adventurous travellers may also rent their own boat. Various companies rent small motorboats that you can skipper without a boating permit. Set out to explore the canal at your leisure. You just need to pay attention to how the locks work, but other than that it is a piece of cake. During the day you can moor wherever you would like to explore and at night you choose a place to stay. You may of course choose to cook on board the boat, but another option is to dine at a local restaurant in one of the villages along the canal.
The best known destination along the Canal du Midi is undoubtedly Carcassonne, a medieval fortress city that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even from a distance one can admire the impressive silhouette of the citadel that proudly arises above the Aude hills. The romantic turrets are not actually from the Middle Ages but were the brainchild of Viollet-Le-Duc. This famous 19th-century architect also renovated the Notre Dame Cathedral. The meticulously restored city walls, gates and buildings with their fairy-tale charm attract millions of visitors to Carcassonne each year.
“The impressive silhouette of the citadel can be seen from afar”