Linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the Canal du Midi is a great destination for a warm and very scenic cycling holiday - and one which is naturally ( or should that be artificially?) pretty straightforward.
Lined with Cathare castles and Languedoc-Roussillon vineyards, it inspired Cycle Breaks to take the tow paths of this refreshing area of France.
Cycling holidays France - Canal du Midi tours
In Britain, the canal age started in 1761 when the Duke of Bridgewater opened the canal to his coal mines in Lancashire - but in France, the Canal du Midi boast a history which is almost 100 years older. What's more,the idea of a waterway linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea goes back to the Roman emperors.
Pierre-Paul Riquet, a wealthy salt-tax collector and landowner born in 1609 in Béziers promoted the canal and won the royal approval of Louis XIV for the project. Originally for this reason, it was called the Royal Canal - it was only renamed Canal du Midi after the French Revolution.
The canal was built to transport wheat and wine to and from the interior of southern France and avoid either the long sea passage around Spain, or taking goods over the poor roads of the interior of the country.
The engineering challenges were enormous: crossing the high point of the route at Naurouze near Castelnaudary (110 meters above the Mediterranean Sea); how to feed the canal with water; preventing the sides collapsing and the canal silting up. Riquet and his engineer, François Andréossy, found solutions to these challenges and the canal was opened, after 14 years of construction, in 1681.
The project consumed Riquet's wealth and sadly he never saw it completed as he died 6 months before the canal was opened. His descendants did however enjoy the right to own and manage the canal, and as trade grew they were able to recover the family’s fortunes.
The engineering feats involved in building the canal have left a legacy which cyclists can benefit from today. The canal is 240 kilometres long from Toulouse to the sea, with a towpath, helpfully for cyclists, running the whole length on one or the other side - the towpath was always put on the weaker side of the canal to help gain access for maintenance. The 63 locks have a characteristic oval shape: this was designed to reduce the pressure on the lock walls as the locks emptied and filled with water.
Another of the engineering features of the canal that cyclists will be grateful to Riquet for is the “Grand Bief”, or the Long Reach, a flat stretch of no less than 54 kilometres between the locks at Argens and Fonsérannes. There are no locks at all to cope with any changes in level, so this section is entirely flat (although you will have to ride over the rocky hill at Malpas, where the canal was cut via a 175 metre long tunnel – the first canal tunnel in the world).
In this section the canal winds snake-like between two lines of plane trees towards Béziers, and passes through the Minervois and Saint-Chinian AOC wine-growing areas, offering some welcome refreshment along the route for cyclists! Trees were originally planted along the canal to stabilise its banks, but they now provide welcome shelter from the sun and the sometimes strong winds of Languedoc.
Like British canals, the Canal du Midi was a commercial success at first, but trade declined slowly in the 19th century with competition from the railways. It was English visitors who first used the canal for pleasure boating, giving the canal a new purpose as a 240 km long public garden for boating, walking and cycling.
You can now cycle the Canal du Midi with Cycle Breaks, taking in the historic cities of Carcasonne, Narbonne and Béziers and achieve Pierre-Paul Riquet’s dream of travelling from the interior of Languedoc to the Mediterannean coast.
Bike tours France – Canal du Midi. See our full portfolio of bike tours in Canal du Midi and Provence.
Canal du Midi - ‘Petit’ (Tour FM5) is our great little short break from Carcassonne to Béziers.
Canal du Midi – Canals & Cathar Villages (Tour FM8) - a longer tour taking in Castelnaudry, the home of that delicious local dish, 'cassoulet ‘.
Contributed by: Andy W