While in France last month (October 2012), I took a long walk along the banks of the Canal du Midi near the village of Olonzac, about 20 miles northeast of Carcassonne. This canal, which was built in the 17th century as a shortcut between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, is 150 miles long, ascending and descending 620 feet above sea level with its 91 locks. Considered an engineering marvel when the it opened in 1681 because of its complex system of locks, tunnels, reservoirs, aqueducts, and feeder canals used to stabilize water levels, the Canal du Midi served as a model for subsequent European canal building. Horses originally pulled boats and barges until they were replaced by steam engines in the 1830s, but fortunately the canal’s towpaths remain, providing hikers and bikers with an attractive pathway linking together the picturesque villages and towns of the Languedoc region.
Until a competing railroad was built in the 1860s, hundreds of passenger boats and mail packets traveled the Canal du Midi on a regular schedule. To a lesser degree this commercial traffic continued until 1989 when the combination of deteriorating infrastructure and water shortages from a serious drought forced closure of the canal. After languishing for a years, some water control facilitates were restored so that the Canal du Midi could be reopened for recreational boating. Indeed, today, as bikers and hikers enjoy the towpath, vessels of all kinds and sizes, from kayaks to power boats ply the canal’s waters.
In 1996 UNESCO recognized the canal and its riparian landscape as a World Heritage Site, providing not only recognition for the canal’s restoration, but also providing funds and legal guidelines for its protection and preservation.