Pierre-Paul Riquet. Pierre-Paul Riquet? Who’s he? He’s not much known in the UK, and I’m not sure how much of a household name he is in France either.
But he should be. He’s the brains behind the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi. This lovely and elegant canal, opened in 1681, is 240 km. long, and runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. It was built as a short cut from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage round Spain. The idea had been discussed on and off since Roman times, but the problem was always the same. How to deal with such hilly terrain and how to supply those hilly sections with enough water.
Riquet thought he had the answer. Born in 1604 or 1609, he was a salt-tax collector. Tax collecting was a rich man’s job: at that time, it involved paying all the monies due to the king up-front, and worrying about collecting from the relevant subjects later. A rich man can have a fine home, so Riquet set out to buy the ideal spot, and in 1652, he found it: the ancient but run-down Château de Bonrepos, near Toulouse. It was a medieval building originally, fortified in the 16th century. It interested him because it was a fine site, with splendid views of the Pyrenees (Not today: the weather was awful. Never saw the mountains at all through the gloom). More importantly for him, the surrounding terrain, resembling parts of the nearby Montagne Noire, enabled him to conduct hydraulic experiments round an ancient fishpond on site from which he developed reservoirs and water-filled trenches replicating sections of the future Canal du Midi. Bonrepos, then, was where he worked up his case for showing that the canal could after centuries of simply talking about it, become a reality.
The remnants of the mediaeval building interested him not at all. He had a fine classical building built – 100 rooms. Stone isn’t available locally, so it was built of Toulouse brick, and faced with stucco to hide this embarrassing fact: bricks were elsewhere the material of the poor. He had formal gardens built, orchards, an orangery. Every winter, an iceberg’s worth of ice was wrapped in hessian and floated from the Pyrenees to be stored in an excavated ice-house deep in the woodlands for use throughout the summer.
These days, the château is in a bad way. The stucco’s falling off, the windows are rotted, and the internal decorations are absent or shabby. The inhabitants of the small village where the château stands, Bonrepos-Riquet, bought the property some years ago, and while appealing for and attracting public and private funds, it also relies on monthly working parties of volunteers, who work enthusiastically in the house and grounds to stem the damage caused by wind and weather and to bring about improvements.
We visited today on one of Elyse Rivin’s informative Toulouse Guided Walks , which always focus on those corners of Toulouse and the surrounding area which you never knew about: you leave after her tour feeling an enthusiastic expert. With input from the château’s own volunteer guides, steeped in the story of the place, we formed a picture of Paul Riquet himself. He persuaded Louis XIV of his ability to master-mind the canal, and in 1661, work began, though he didn’t live to see the waterway opened as he died in 1680, leaving enormous debt and financial problems for his children who nevertheless continued the project. The labourers – men and women, up to 12,000 of them – who built the canal were among the best paid workers in Europe, to the disapproval of other less philanthropic employers. He insisted on provision being made for all aspects of their lives, from shops and refreshment to education and worship.
Those plane trees that line the canal. They offered shade, then as now, to those who travel along it. Their root systems bind the soil and offer stability to the canal, and the leaves don’t rot, so as they fall into the canal, they help make a waterproof base. Sadly, these days those trees are afflicted by a virus. One theory is that the wooden boxes which packaged American munitions in the war and were discarded along the canal, carried the infected spores and lay dormant for many years.
And there’s so much else. Follow the links to get a fuller picture of the story, or better still, visit the Canal du Midi and Château Bonrepos, where this wonderful waterway was conceived and planned.