Cruise Through the World’s Oldest Canal Tunnel at Malpas

One of the joys of a holiday on a hotel barge is the chance to learn the fascinating history of the waterways which pass beneath your feet. Whether you’re cruising through a natural river gorge or under an awe-inspiring feat of human engineering, there are plenty of spectacles to surprise you during your journey.

Engineering enthusiasts who choose to cruise the Canal du Midi aboard Anjodi are treated to a particularly interesting sight: the Malpas Tunnel.

 

Carving out the Canal du Midi

In the reign of King Louis XIV, a 241km canal was sanctioned in order to provide a trade route for wheat from the Languedoc region. For 15 years the chief engineer, Pierre-Paul Riquet, struggled with the challenges of such an ambitious project. The finished canal is one of the most impressive feats of seventeenth-century engineering – in 1996 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.

 

Grit and Determination

The excavation of the Malpas tunnel is one of the most important chapters in the canal’s construction. In 1679, the project had reached the hill d’Ensérune in Hérault. The plan was to dig through the hill to form a tunnel, but initial excavations revealed that it was formed of brittle sandstone that was liable to collapse. This was a serious blow to the project – the prime minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, immediately stopped the work when he heard the news and requested that the canal should be rerouted to cross the River Aude rather than pass through the hill.

However, this option was no more attractive to Riquet; carrying the canal over the River Aude came with its own set of problems. Instead he ordered that the tunnel should be dug out in secret by his master mason, in spite of the dangers involved. In just 8 days, the Malpas tunnel was complete.

Cruise Through the Tunnel Today

Guests aboard Anjodi are treated to a first-hand view of the tunnel when they cruise the Canal du Midi. Although relatively short, at 165m, it is remarkably wide and high with a vaulted roof that rises 8m above the surface of the water. It remains, over 300 years later, a monument to Riquet’s determination and ingeniousness.

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