French Postcards 11: knock, knock…


Pierre-Paul Riquet was having a bad night, as he tossed and turned…

Louis XIV was his patron, although he doubted even the Sun King’s sponsorship would alleviate his growing debts – debts that had now risen to a level he knew he would never be able to repay.

It was all down to an obsession, no, the obsession – to connect the waters of the Atlantic with those of the Mediterranean via a unique feat of French engineering; a canal running right through the Midi of glorious France…

But there was a problem, a problem that threatened to wash away all the engineering success of the past ten years…


There it came again in his fevered mind.  Always the same, always the metal hand with the five finger knocking on the door inside his tormented head…

We left the Hotel Peculier, in Bézier, with mixed feelings. It had been an excellent and stylish home for two nights; two nights in which we had got to know Bézier a little, and recharged our batteries for the longest run of the trip – to our final destination, Sète. We were nearing the end.

We also knew that the countryside between Bézier and Sète was, to be frank, pretty dull.

The Canal du Midi flows all the way to the Mediterranean but the major activity, nowadays, is holiday boating. And most of that seems to be west of Bézier. 

But the design goal of the canal, built during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, was to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea for the purpose of ferrying cargo; and to provide an economic spur to the hard-pressed people of south Languedoc.


Pierre-Paul Riquet, French Baron, Salt Tax Collector, risen to King’s Engineer and now entrusted with his own obsessive vision, turned over in his sheets and stuck out his hand so that it caught the shaft of moonlight coming through the shutters on that hot August night in 1679. He dragged the fingers of the hand so that they moved along the sheet in parallel, creating a wave in the pale cotton…

In a second he was wide awake. The five finger knocking in his head had ceased… He knew what to do…

Approaching the tiny hamlet of Vias, we were able to see the work of the Sun King’s Engineer up close and personal…

When two waterways intersect, they have to go over or under each other. They can’t simply pass through each other like a road system does. Water doesn’t know how to wait – unless you make something very strong to force it!

To get the canal to the sea, near Sète, Pierre-Paul Riquet had to make the Canal du Midi and the fast-flowing river Libron ‘intersect’. They were at the same level in the landscape, so an aqueduct was out of the question.

Riquet followed his silvery vision and, using a combination of heavy ironwork and railway components,  constructing two giant sliding hands that would stop even the frequent flood waters of the mighty Libron…

Today it is one of the historic wonders of the engineering world and is called Ouvrages du Libron. Most people pass it by without even knowing its significance. Without it there would be no Canal du Midi.

Beyond Vias the landscape changes, becoming very salt-marsh based. There are camping and chalet-centric holiday parks and an increasingly complex road network. You can feel that you have entered the flow of holiday traffic.

Four kilometres from the sea, the pleasant town of Agde lies on the estuary of the river Hérault, one of southern France’s major waterways.

Tired from the heat, we entered its sheltering streets, found a quiet and shaded spot on the waterfront, and had a light lunch.

We knew we were on the last leg of the whole adventure, and there was a sadness as well as a sense of relief.

Lunch over, we cycled to the spot where you get the last view of the Canal du Midi, before it enters the sea, a few kilometres down the salt marsh.

We thanked it and gave each other a selfie kiss, before moving on…

There followed about ten kilometres of small roads. Then we entered the outer cycleways of Sète and got our first view of the Mediterranean!

The final journey was along the spit that separates the town from its huge inland lake.

This narrow bar of sandy land contains an excellent cycleway, which lifts the spirits until you realise that it’s fifteen kilometres long…

By the end we were wilting, and ready for that  long iced drink in the first cafe that emerged from the endless blue horizon…

They had an aerial photo map that showed the sheer extent of this lovely place, surrounded on three sides by the shining blue of the Mediterranean.

The top map shows our long approach down the causeway; the second shows the whole expanse of Sète, centred on its green hills.

We had cycled over two hundred kilometres in the searing heat, but we had eaten beautiful French cuisine along the way, and enjoyed new (to us) labels of Minervois and Corbière wines. We had stood in places of massacre and of engineering triumph. We had followed the Canal du Midi to the sea and had enjoyed its tranquil company – especially when it brought us shade…

Now it was time to say goodbye to two good friends that had carried us across the miles without even a puncture.

Later, walking along the quay in search of a final fish dinner, we passed a father and daughter sitting, enjoying the sunset. I asked if I could take a photograph. He smiled a yes and stood up to get out other way. I smiled and laughed that I wanted them both…

It sums up the modern, cosmopolitan South of France, really, that picture…

Thank you for riding with us! We hope you enjoyed the journey. We certainly did…

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2016.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed it! Seen some beautiful places and learned some interesting things too. Great post, thank you very much! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stevetanham says:

      Lovely to have you with us, Samantha!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eliza Waters says:

    Looks like a great holiday! Thanks for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stevetanham says:

      Thank you, Eliza. It was challenging but wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Smith says:

    Enjoyed the trip very much.
    Yesterday I watched Stage 1 of the Tour of Britain which came from Glasgow to Castle Douglas (where I live) – 168 kilometres – under four hours! I don’t think they would have noticed much of the countryside they were whizzing through. Think I’d prefer your way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stevetanham says:

      Me, too, Mary. Much more rewarding – though I do admire their skill and fitness!

      Liked by 1 person

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