As the Canal du Midi celebrates its 350th birthday this year, it skirts the sun-drenched shore of the Mediterranean before meandering inland through the fabled Cathar Country. For those seeking an alternative destination in France, the historic, UNESCO World Heritage status Canal du Midi is perfect, with it’s with its fortified hilltop villages, walled cities, ever present towpath and little canal side villages.
Top 6 Places to Visit While Cruising on the Canal du Midi in the South of France
Carcassonne is a medieval fortified city set atop a hill overlooking the Aude River. Rising against the backdrop of the Pyrénée Mountains, the city is striking not only during the day but also at night, when it is floodlit. Composed of a circle of towers and battlements, turrets and ramparts, with the longest city wall in Europe, Carcassonne is a perfectly restored medieval town.
The hilltop town of Béziers is the wine capital of Languedoc. It was its most famous son, Pierre Paul Riquet, whose vision led to the completion of the Canal du Midi, and his hometown is the centerpiece of the canal. Béziers was first settled by the Phoenicians and was an important Roman military post. It is listed on the Most Ancient European Towns Network, a group founded in 1994 to discuss issues such as archaeological research, tourism and incorporating monuments into urban planning.
Sitting atop a rocky outcropping at the junction of the Cesse and Briant Rivers is Minerve, the ancient capital of Minervois, considered by many to be the quintessential medieval village. The remains of its 13th century castle, which is surrounded by deep limestone gorges, affords magnificent views of surrounding countryside. Minerve is famous for being the site of one of the most brutal sieges during the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century, and for the horrific acts imparted on the heretical group called the Cathars.
Narbonne was the first town outside of Italy to be colonized by the Romans and grew to be the second largest town in Gaul. Once a coastal port, it prospered until the sea receded in the Middle Ages. It is now eight miles inland. Today Narbonne has a well-restored medieval quarter. The Cathédral St-Just is the tallest cathedral in southern France and is known for its beautiful stained glass and tapestries. Close to the cathedral stands the Pont des Marchands, an inhabited bridge, or “Pont Habité”, which was built during the Roman Period to carry the Via Domitia over the River Aude. Today is traverses the Canal de la Robine and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is notable for being one of only three such bridges in France today.
Capestang is notable for one of the lowest bridges on the Canal du Midi. The town of Capestang whose name derives from “Cap de l’Etang” lies on the perimeter of the ancient Etang de Montady is home to the 12th century collegial church of St-Étienne and the Summer Residence of the Archbishops of Narbonne. In 1766 a segment of the canal collapsed after heavy rainfall. In the place of the collapsed bank, a siphon sluice was inserted and was the first of only three on the Canal du Midi.
One of the Midi’s prettiest villages, Le Somail grew up around the canal and is one of many designed and built by Pierre Paul Riquet to help with the commerce and lifestyle surrounding the waterway. A stone-arched bridge, le Pont de St-Marcel, built in the 17th century straddles the canal and an 18th century chapel, which started life as a granary, stands at one end. Opposite the chapel, on the left bank of the canal, sits the old ice-house. It is also worth noting Le Somail houses one of the most extensive collections of first-edition books in the village bookshop, and it is something certainly worth visiting!