The Strait of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa isn’t the only waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. A thousand kilometer north lies another connecting route. This route connects the French city of Bordeaux, near the Atlantic ocean, to the Mediterranean port of Sète through a series of canals collectively called Canal des Deux Mers, or the “canal of the two seas.” Lying entirely in Southern France this man-made canal is one of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering carried out in the 17th century.
Canal des Deux Mers consist of two canals. From the Mediterranean port of Sète to Toulouse, a distance of 240 km, runs Canal du Midi. From Toulouse to the town of Castets-en-Dorthe, 193 km away, the canal is called Canal de Garonne. The remainder of the route to Bordeaux uses the Garonne River. The two canals—Canal du Midi and Canal de Garonne— together with the Garonne River form the Canal des Deux Mers which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Often, the entire canal is called Canal du Midi.
Before the canal was constructed, the month-long sea voyage through the Straits of Gibraltar was fraught with dangers, mostly from pirates and intense storms the strait was subjected to because of its shape and physical geography.
The possibility of building an alternative route through France was first discussed by the ancient Romans. Later, many French kings expressed interest in constructing a canal which could avoid the passage around Spain, but the technological challenges were too great to overcome. The primary difficulty was in supplying sufficient water at the watershed, which is at a much higher elevation between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the first realistic project for the canal was drafted. In 1662, an engineer named Pierre-Paul Riquet proposed bringing water down from the Black Mountain to a watershed near Seuil de Naurouze, the highest point in the canal, from where the water could flow both to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The logistics were immense and complex, and the project itself looked precarious. Despite this, King Louis XIV was keen to proceed because of the increasing cost and danger of transporting cargo and trade around southern Spain where pirates were common. Construction of the canal began in 1667 and ended in 1681, and the canal opened as Canal Royal du Languedoc. In these fourteen years, Pierre-Paul Riquet solved many engineering problems that still challenges river transport today.
Pierre-Paul Riquet’s canal—renamed Canal du Midi during the French Revolution of late 18th century— reached only as far as Toulouse. Riquet wanted to continue the canal closer to the Atlantic but poor finances of Louis XIV emptied the kingdom's coffers and the project never materialized. Riquet himself died a year before Canal du Midi was completed. It took another two centuries before Canal de Garonne could be dug connecting Canal du Midi with the Atlantic.
For two hundred years after the completion of Canal du Midi wheat and wine growers in the Languedoc region relied heavily on the canal for their trade. Wheat, wine, and alcohol were exported from Lauragais to Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Marseille, and produces from other regions such as Marseille soap, rice, starch, dried fish, spices and dyes were import to Languedoc.
Canal traffic reached its peak in the middle of the 19th century. After that, railways became the preferred mode of transport and boat traffic on the canal declined. Although the canal never became the grand international route envisaged by the kings of France, it continued to cater to the local tradesmen carrying barges of wine and grain as late as the 1980s.
Today, Canal du Midi is used primarily for recreation boating and other water sports, and is a major tourist attraction. It is also possible to cycle and hike along the banks for the entire length of Canal des Deux Mers from Sète to Bordeaux as it twists and turns through the countryside, through vineyards and sunflower fields, and through delightful little villages and past cafes.
In 1996 the channel and a buffer zone of 2,000 square km were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.