Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, opening lines
Geoffrey Chaucer, genial English troubadour of the 14th century, tells us that burgeoning April is the time that ‘folk long to go on pilgrimages’. But for us lucky dwellers in the home of French troubadours, Occitania, March is the month to take to the road and head south, eager to enjoy the first greening of the branches and the spectacle of the almond blossom. The amandier is one of the earliest trees to flower, its shimmering bridal bouquets of pink and white heralding the approach of spring along with the sherbet fizz of mimosa in bloom.
Early March found us setting off down the southern section of the Autoroute des Deux Mers, the Motorway of the Two Seas (las doas mars in Occitan), the road link between Atlantic and Mediterranean. The A62 section goes from Bordeaux to Toulouse, the A61 from Toulouse to Narbonne. During my many years as an adoptive Toulousaine, the A61 was the weekend escape route to sea and sun. Throw a toothbrush and swimsuit into a bag, head off straight after work on a Friday evening, and you could be at the coast in time for an aperitif au bord de la mer in less than an hour and a half.
But the A61 is not just a fast way to get to the waters of la Grande Bleue. It is also a reminder of some of the most fascinating pages in the history of this part of Languedoc. Today’s blog covers the first part of our March journey, through the Lauragais, past Castelnaudary, into the Aude and the beginning of the Corbières.
In 1662, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a man with a head full of projects and dreams, wrote a famous letter to Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV, outlining his idea for the construction of a ‘royal canal of Languedoc’, linking France’s two great ‘seas’.
At the time, he was living in a chateau near Toulouse, known today as the Château Bonrepos-Riquet. One hundred years earlier, another chateau dweller, Michel De Montaigne, had left us a vivid record of the kind of man he was through his writings. But Riquet The Man is harder to pin down. Historians have portrayed him variously as over-ambitious, a dreamer claiming to act through divine inspiration, a misunderstood genius, and a wily player who managed to overcome different obstacles thrown in his path, mostly from Colbert himself who initially approved Riquet’s plans, but who then kept sending inspectors from Paris to check up on him, even considering replacing him for the second phase of work. The exchange of letters between the two men show numerous disagreements, as well as Riquet’s temerity in frequently disobeying Colbert’s instructions.
My own picture of Riquet, the 17th century man of my imagination, has taken shape through what is known of his practical achievements, notably his wonderful legacy to inhabitants of successive centuries, the Canal du Midi.
First, there is Riquet the visionary and problem-solver, the man with the ambition, ingenuity and tenacity to bring to fruition a project that had long shimmered like an unattainable mirage in the minds of many before him. The Romans, Charlemagne, various French kings, had all dreamed of a waterway linking France’s west and southeastern coasts. If such a link could be built, as Riquet proposed, in the form of a canal, its economic and political significance would be enormous. Merchandise from the Mediterranean would no longer have to travel by ship on the long, hazardous voyage through the Spanish-controlled Straits of Gibraltar and round the Atlantic coast in order to reach Bordeaux and the west.
When he finally received official approval for work to begin, in 1666, Riquet had already started a series of experiments near his chateau in Bonrepos. He was in his sixties, rich, married with five children. He was at a time of life when most people, particularly in those days, would be thinking about putting their feet up and enjoying the fruits of a successful life and career. A spot of hunting, a nice glass of claret in the evening, banquets and balls at the weekend, leisurely strolls through the grounds to check on the progress of his park and formal gardens.
But instead he had been messing about in the 17th century equivalent of green wellies, testing his theories with a 300-metre model of his dream project, a prototype complete with reservoirs and channels. Why? Because the most difficult obstacle he would face, if ever work got started, would concern an unbudgeable geographical feature bang on the route of his projected canal.
In 1857, almost two hundred years after the opening of the Canal du Midi, bargemen were able to see trains speeding past on the new railway line from Toulouse to Sète. Today, tourists on barge holidays can also see cars, whizzing along the nearby motorway.
We join the A61 south of Toulouse, at Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and within minutes a sign announces we are crossing the Seuil de Naurouze. This is the symbolic moment the traveller leaves behind the rolling hills and wheat fields of ‘Atlantic’ France to join the cypresses, vines and olives of the Mediterranean. It is the highest point between Toulouse and the coast, the partage des eaux, where the water naturally divides, flowing on one side towards the western ocean and on the other towards the sea. It was this watershed that, in the 1660s, proved the biggest headache for Riquet. If we look to the left, beyond the canal, we see in the distance the looming mass of the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains crucial to his success.
We know that Riquet was both a cultivated man and a man of the country. Born to an upper-class family in Béziers in 1609-ish (the date is disputed), he showed a keen interest in scientific studies. Through his career in the Languedoc salt trade, where he was responsible for transporting and storing the salt and collecting taxes due on it, he travelled widely in the area, settling, in 1648, in the town of Revel, in the Montagne Noire. It was here that he explored the countryside, observing the different mountain watercourses, noting their geographical and natural features and the possibilities of harnessing their power. Fortified by his subsequent experiments in Bonrepos, he became convinced that the water of the Montagne Noire could be used to feed into the canal at the Seuil de Naurouze and thus overcome the problem of the divided water flow.
We may also surmise that Riquet was an inspiring leader, one who was able to convince others of the feasibility of his theories, imbue them with enthusiasm for the project, while intelligent enough to realise his technical limitations and enlist the help of experts in the field, notably Pierre Campmas and François Andréossy. Once approval had been granted by a king who shared his ambition to leave a mark on history, Riquet threw himself into the project. From now on he would spend the rest of his days working to construct this marvel of engineering, ruining both his health and his finances along the way. In the Montagne Noire a channel system was devised to bring the water from the slopes and into the Lac de St-Férreol, where a huge dam was built, creating a reservoir whose waters were taken to Naurouze along a long supply channel, la Rigole de la Plaine. The first phase of the canal, from Toulouse to Trèbes, was completed in 1672.
The second phase got under way, with Riquet’s debts mounting. The whole project was gigantic, lasting for 15 years, encountering numerous practical and engineering challenges, and involving 12,000 workers, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, as well as technical experts. As an employer, Riquet was in advance of his times, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave. Communication with such a large and diverse workforce was vital; Riquet was able to discuss with them in their own local language, Occitan. It’s interesting to note that among his army of workers were many women, some of whom came from the High Pyrenees and whose experience of managing the rivers and torrents in that area, constructing weirs, sluices and other ways of controlling the waterflow, was particularly valuable.
May 19th 1681. The great day of the inauguration of the Royal Canal of Languedoc had finally arrived. In Toulouse, a procession of boats set off, following a magnificent barge carrying various dignitaries including the Cardinal de Bonzi, who would perform the blessing, and Riquet’s two sons, Jean-Mathias and Pierre-Paul II. But sadly, Riquet himself was not with them, having died the previous year, on October 1st 1680, just months before the canal reached its final destination. His sons inherited the difficult task of its completion, along with huge debts.
A sad end to the story? The last major enterprise in which Riquet was involved was tunnelling through a mountain. This audacious project resulted in the 170-metre tunnel of Malpas. On the other side was Béziers, city of his birth, only a few kilometres from the coast. Did the visionary canal-builder have an inkling he would one day be revered as the architect of this wonderful 17th century monument, largest of all those commissioned by King Louis, and today, the oldest European canal still in use? The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site and the many marvels on its 241-kilometre course from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau include Riquet’s last construction, the Malpas tunnel, and almost 100 locks, in particular the spectacular ‘staircase’ at Fonsérannes.
On the A61, we have passed the Seuil de Naurouze. The next motorway sign is for Castelnaudary, home to the major port on the canal. Most people, though, associate the town with its famous local speciality of beans, sausage and duck, le cassoulet. It’s tempting to think this peasant dish played an important culinary role in helping Riquet’s army of workers to keep digging. Mangez! Mangez! In the hands of a local grandmère it offers a marvellous blend of savours worthy of its standing as a classic of provincial cuisine. The three rivals for its invention are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. In spite of my Toulouse connexions, I have to go along with Elizabeth David when the Queen of Cuisine plumps for the Castelnaudary version. Along with her delicious recipe, she also recounts an equally delicious anecdote by Anatole France, about the cassoulet served at small tavern in 19th century Paris, Chez Clémence.
‘We know,’ he writes ‘that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’
He goes on to explain that only in this way can the dish acquire its unique amber colour, similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters. One can only imagine what a European Union Health and Safety Inspector would have made of La Mère Clémence and her 20-year-old Venetian-hued cassoulet.
The kilometres pass, the scenery changes. In this increasingly stark landscape, fortified villages huddle on hilltops, church spires echoing the sombre lances of the cypresses below. Stunted bushes and leaning pines are whipped by ferocious, rampaging winds. In the distance, hills stand out in profile, impressive masses of stone and granite contouring the sky, the bleakness of their treeless slopes reminding us of much darker pages in the history of Languedoc, the bitter wars of religion and conquest that lasted for two centuries and would end, in 1229, with a re-drawing of frontiers in which the independent lords of the Midi would be brought to heel, replaced by conquerors from the north. Languedoc would henceforth be ‘royal’, a part of the kingdom of France.
Vous êtes en pays cathare...
To be continued…
On the link below you can find more information about the Canal du Midi plus a list of books written on the subject: