Intrigue and Danger on the Canal du Midi

A hotel barge cruise with European Waterways always allows guests time to appreciate the culture, gastronomy and history of the region they visit. Our Canal du Midi barge cruise is no different. Passengers on board the Anjodi are treated to unique views of the area and given a chance to learn about the history of the waterways which pass beneath their feet.

On the Canal du Midi one special feature always delights our guests who have a passion for engineering. It is, of course, the impressive Malpas Tunnel.

Visiting the Malpas Tunnel Today

The pleasing pale stone of the Malpas Tunnel can best be appreciated from a barge cruise. On board the Anjodi guests are treated to a close-up of the 300-year-old structure. It is not the tunnel’s length which is its most impressive feature – in fact, the tunnel is relatively short measuring just 165 metres in length. Instead, visitors are astounded by its height and width. The space has a stunning vaulted ceiling which reaches 8 metres above the level of the water and an attractive wide curve with room for both boats and pedestrians.

The Beginning of the Canal Du Midi

The 241-kilometre-long Canal du Midi was started during the time of King Louis XIV. The waterway was essential to the Languedoc region as it was to provide a trade route for wheat from this area. The chief engineer was a man called Pierre-Paul Riquet and, despite his ingeniousness and determination, his magnus opus project was not an easy one.

The canal took Riquet 15 years to complete and remains today one of the world’s top examples of the best of seventeenth-century engineering. In 1996 the Canal du Midi was recognised by UNESCO and given World Heritage status, However, many people do not know that the Malpas Tunnel, one of the waterway’s most distinctive features, nearly never existed.

Danger and Secrets

In 1679 Riquet’s canal had reached the hill known as the hill d’Ensérune in Hérault. The plan was to dig straight through the hill to the other side; however, the workmen discovered that the hill was made from brittle sandstone. Any tunnel built through it could be dangerous and unstable.

The Prime Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, heard that the planned tunnel was liable to collapse and immediately called a halt to the work. He asked that the canal should instead cross the River Aude, thus bypassing the hill. This was a serious problem for its architect – the river crossing option was not without its difficulties and Riquet was loath to reroute the waterway.

Riquet stuck to his plans and commanded his master mason to dig the tunnel out in secret, despite the obvious dangers involved. A mere eight days later the Malpas Tunnel was complete and it is a testament to Riquet’s expert judgement that it still stands today.

Desperate to see Riquet’s feat of engineering? You can learn more about it and cruise through the tunnel yourself on our Canal du Midi barge cruise.

Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge cruise itineraries. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.

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Author: Desiree Michels