A man, a plan, a canal

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.

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.
Pierre-Paul Riquet. Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.

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.

The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia
The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

14 thoughts on “A man, a plan, a canal”

  1. Dear Margaret,

    Thanks for that and the pictures. You might like to read the chapter in my book about Riquet. The chapters before and after explain why the canal was so necessary, and the effect it had. The book is available for Kindle at

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jewels-French-History-Books-ebook/dp/B007Z55F3U/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1336055035&sr=1-5

    Or I can bring you a hard copy at the next one of Elyse’e walks.

    regards

    Hugh Nicklin

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    1. Well, that would be great. Thank you. As the Lauragais isn’t our ‘patch’, I’m less informed about its history, and I need to do something to plug that gap. Your book looks a good way forward. However, though I shall be at the Minimes walk, I can’t come on 4th May. Does that work for you?

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  2. thank you Margaret, at least you make me discover what I unfortunately not anymore be able to follow with Elyse – being grateful, having your intelligent comments and lovely pictures – spoiled to live here and reading about your events – all the very best (think coming end of April) – love, AnnA

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  3. There was an interesting programme on R4 not that long ago about the Canal du Midi & Riquet. For me it always brings back memories as we spent our honeymoon boating on the canal. Bliss.

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    1. Oh thanks so much. I’m going to look for it right now on ‘Listen again’ on the Beeb’s website. If you happen to remember its title, please let me know, as programmes without the title are sometimes hard to track down. Don’t worry if you can’t though.

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  4. Hi Margaret !
    First of all, one million thanks for this brilliantly written blog and the open-minded study of our way of life, places of interest and traditions ! Just brilliant ! I tremendously enjoy reading it !
    And now, cherry on the cake : did you know Pierre Pol Riquet had lived and worked in Mirepoix from 1634 to 1646 ? And had his first four children baptized in the local cathedral ? One day when you come to Mirepoix, I’ll be delighted to show you around the town and you will see the house where the salt was kept and sold, and where Pierre Pol Riquet was an officer in the salt trade, before moving to Revel and getting organized for his big project of a lifetime … (I love Bonrepos and your photos give credit for its magic ! )
    I recommend Pierre Pol Riquet’s biography by Monique Dollin du Fresnel : it is a sum of everything concerning Riquet, and it is very pleasantly written. You would enjoy it !)
    I hope we can meet some time and talk about Mirepoix and Pierre Pol Riquet and many other things, maybe ? …
    Friendly yours.

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    1. Oh Martine, I’m so flattered to hear from you! I always read with interest your comments on Christine Belcikowski’s blog, which I find sometimes quite difficult but fascinating. I would love to meet you, and I’d love too to visit Riquet’s Mirepoix. Thank you!

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  5. Margaret, may I add something that you mind find of interest : a friend of mine, Mireille Oblin-Brière, has just written a biography of Pierre Pol Riquet. The title is : ” Riquet, le génie des eaux ” (éditions Privat). A whole chapter is devoted to … Riquet and Mirepoix. Over five hundred pages, unputdownable … Mireille will be in Mirepoix on Sunday, July 7th, for our 19th ” Salon du livre d’histoire locale ” , along with your friend Hugh Nicklin and over fifty other historians and writers. If you have time and inclination, please come, you will be most welcome !
    Friendly yours,
    Martine Rouche

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    1. Thank you! I’ve put the date in the diary, and I’ll look out for the book too. I’m so sorry, though, to miss your walk round Besset on 18th May. We’ll be in England. I hope it goes well, and that perhaps you will do the event again some day.

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  6. Thank you, Margaret, for your friendly wishes ! I, too, hope it will go well and I keep my fingers crossed for a fine weather …
    Please, say hello to England for me !
    And thank you again, Margaret, for this brilliant and charming blog, I tremendously enjoy reading it and seeing Ariège and surrounding places through your friendly and accurate look !
    Friendly yours,
    Martine Rouche

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    1. Thank you for your comments. I’m tremendously proud that you enjoy the blog. We’re visiting northern England – Yorkshire. I hope you’ve been able to get to know that part of the country a bit. And yes, fingers crossed for the weather to be good. All good wishes, Margaret

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