L’Autoroute des deux mers, a voyage through history. Part 1


engendred flours…

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.

La Grande Bleue
La Grande Bleue

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.

Photo by FRAMYJO: Riquet’s letter to Colbert 15 November 1662

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.

Pierre-Paul Riquet, French engineer, responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi. Source: from http://www.canalmidi.com/anglais/paulrigb.htm

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.

Photo by Peter Guggerell, Vienna, Bridge over Canal du Midi

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.

Photo by Dedounet of the Lock of Fonserannes (Ecluses de Fonseranes à Béziers)

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.

Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David
Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

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.’

Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking
Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking

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...

Carcassonne, evening
Carcassonne, evening

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:



10 thoughts on “L’Autoroute des deux mers, a voyage through history. Part 1”

  1. My goodness, Laurette–most impressive and interesting history lesson. It’s also fun for me to read and remember those small towns along the way that I haven’t thought of in 20+ years since I left France. Good for you to have researched all of this and to have written it in a way that is way more interesting than just reading the facts out of an encyclopedia–or, now, more likely Wikipedia or some Google search offering. It has taken me a week to get to reading this, but very glad that I finally made it. I think you should consider writing a history book that would be destined to become a best seller thanks to, first and foremost, its wonderful readability–something not often found in historic accountings. Personally, I was happy to see yet another mention of my somewhat newly found, thanks to you, French hero, Michel de Montaigne. Hard to believe that he lived so long ago–the 1500s, I guess. another man way ahead of his time. (Wonder if that chateau had powers that gave its inhabitants the ability to see way in ahead of their contemporaries….hmmmmm…) And the Cathars. Another fascinating bit of history that once you’ve visited their chateaux, you can’t imagine how they did all that they did. Oh my–my head is spinning just thinking of it. Can’t wait for Part 2!

    1. Thanks Nancy! Always so great to interact, almost like you coming over for a visit (now that’s a thought…). Oh yes, there’s just so much to be interested in locally, let alone going further afield. Pleased that it brought back some memories of that route to the sea. Glad you’ve got hooked on Montaigne, now that’s something you could look into, his power to imagine the future, I think that he, like Shakespeare, was just …a genius! With an extraordinary gift for understanding human nature in all its enduring traits. Something for the psychologist in you to appreciate. Yes, I’m pondering Part 2 and how to cram ‘the Cathars’ into 1000 words. What’s cooking chez toi??? xx

      1. Oooh…I just noticed an egregious usage error in my comment above (Eeeeek!!!)…should have said/meant to say “historical” account, not “historic”…OMG…I may not be able to sleep tonight!

        I’m hooked on Montaigne because of his position on animals and their rightful place in the hierarchy of things, which I only came to learn about through you.

        What’s cooking chez moi? All things spring–totally overwhelming with all that needs doing before The Heat hits, because once that happens (early-mid May), the only thing one can do is maintain what’s already there. So, I’m digging, planting, weeding, and painting (trellises for climbing jasmine) and hoping to beat the weather clock.

        1. Well obviously I had spotted that dreadful error (just kidding, hadn’t noticed it at all!). I even had to re-check the meaning of ‘egregious’ in the Oxford dictionary 🙂
          It’s amazing about Montaigne isn’t it, when you think of the attitudes to animals that prevailed when he was alive.
          Interesting to hear of your doings, hadn’t realised that many things come to a halt in your part of the world as soon as summer arrives but now I think of it, it’s all a bit Scarlett O’Hara-ish down there isn’t it, in a couple of months you’ll be sitting on your porch in a rocking chair sipping mint juleps, n’est-ce pas?? (Deepest sympathy for the weeding BTW…)

          1. Hahahaha. Oh my dear, no–no porch sitting once The Heat sets in—everything and everyone, except Mr. Big and the Donkey Sisters, moves inside to the AC. You have to get all outdoor doings done by 10:00a.m., and then retreat to the cool, only to re-emerge late afternoon to deliver dinner to the barn residents and water plants later in the evening (although this year I’m working extra hard to get as much as I can on automatic watering so I don’t have to sweat it out for an hour and a half each night with hand hosing everything). What would Montaigne think?

          2. No ‘reply’ box to your latest comment, below Nancy so am replying above it…
            Difficult to imagine your summer existence, what on earth did people do before central heating? Montaigne of course had his chateau so presumably his 2 metre thick walls did the trick for winter and summer…

  2. We’ve travelled that route many times but I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of the history you have so interestingly recounted. Riquet deserves more recognition! As to the 20 year old cassoulet, well the partakers must have had stronger stomachs than modern day consumers. I would fear instant food poisoning! I am eagerly awaiting part 2 which will take me into home territory.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment Liz! I think you get more or less the same signs/scenery by train, now that we have reached the stage where travelling by car is a nail-biting business. Riquet of course is there to welcome you near the station in Toulouse, in the form of a statue I used to pass every day on my way to work. Isn’t that a wonderful story about the cassoulet? We are all so lucky to live here, and as you say Part 2 is the Corbières and home territory for you. It took me ages to write the blog as I tried to squeeze in the Cathars along with Riquet and his canal but it was getting so long I thought readers would drop off before they got to Simon De Monfort and Co, and their Albigensian crusade.
      Next time!xx

      1. I shall look for Riquet’s statue next time we are at the station. Am I right in thinking that Castelnaudry, as well as being famous for cassoulet, is also famous as the headquarters of the apocryphal French Foreign Legion? We do have a recruiting office at one of the barracks in Perpignan although I have never been tempted to make enquiries!

        1. I’m sending you the Google earth link to Riquet’s statue, it might not be visible from the courtyard of the station, you would have to look to your left, it’s at the top of the allées Jean-Jaurès (another famous ‘local’, well, not quite he was born in Castres which as you know is the terminus of your train! ) and yes indeed, the Foreign Legion has been in Castelnaudary for years, funnily enough, I have just written the chapter in Book 4 of the French Summer Novels, in which one of Claudie’s three lovers announces he is off to Castelnaudary to join the FL! 😉

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