Canal du Midi in Toulouse, France, was built in the 17th century. It also has the distinction of being the world's oldest working canal. It is also counted as one of France's engineering marvels. Because of its significance to the engineering world, as well as to the history and culture of France, the canal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
It is essentially divided into two parts – the 211 kilometer-long Royal Languedoc Canal, which spans Marseille and Toulouse and the 200 kilometer-long Garonne Lateral Canal, which spans the length from Toulouse up to Castets-en-Dorthe. The entire canal is now called Canal du Midi. It was previously called the Canal des Deux Mers (which is French means 'Canal of two seas') as this connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Talk about building the canal has existed for quite some time, as people felt the need for a shortcut between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. This would save not only on the length of time one has to sail (cutting the distance traveled to a mere tenth), but also avoid having to pass the hostile waters of Spain as well as the Barbary pirates plying the waters. The concept of a canal harked back to as early as the time of Roman emperor Nero. Other monarchs including Emperor Augustus, Charlemagne, Charles IX and Henri IV thought about it.
It was only during Pierre-Paul Riquet's time that the talk became reality. With amazing engineering ingenuity, he figured out a way to properly channel the water by building a massive dam at Saint Ferreol. This dam was the very first reservoir that was used to feed the waterways of a canal. In all, the construction of the canal, which was a grand endeavor, took close to 12,000 laborers. It also took around 27 years to finish, with construction starting in 1667 and ended in 1694.
Today, the Canal is a popular attraction, with a number of places that you should visit. Be sure to write Beziers, Ventenac en Minervois, Carcassonne, Fonseranes, Oppidum de Enserune and Sete in your list of places to visit when you are in Toulouse. Of course, the Canal also passes through Toulouse, with its magnificent attractions such as the St. Sernin's Basilica, the Capitol square and the 13th century Dominican monastery. At Naurouze Pass, you can find a memorial to Rique, the Obelisque de Rique. The pass is also the highest point in the canal. Nearby you can enjoy the amenities of Port-Lauragais, which has a modern marina. Then, drop by Castelnaudary, which has pottery shops that have been doing business over the centuries. At Homps, visit the wine museum as well as the castle of the Maltesse Knights.
The Canal is great if you want to indulge in boating and fishing expeditions with friends. Along the canal, there are tree-lined paths for jogging and cycling. The Canal du Midi is a place of serenity and calm, it is where you can relax and hang out to breathe in the fresh air and to escape from the harried busyness of city life.