While many visitors are prepared for the beauty of the Languedoc-Roussillon countryside and the delicious food and wine theyâ€™ll taste on a barge cruise, France still has some awe-inspiring surprises up its sleeve for visitors to the Canal du Midi. Probably one of the most impressive of these is the seven-rise staircase lock of Fonserannes.
The engineering involved in working out a system in which barges can travel up and down the seven ovoid chambers (there is actually an eighth chamber, but this is no longer in use), raising boats 21.5m over a distance of 300m, is staggering. But what is most staggering of all is that it was opened in the 1680s!
The history of the Fonserannes Staircase
The Canal du Midi was the brain child of the seventeenth-century canal engineer, Pierre-Paul Riquet. His intention was to connect the River Garonne on the Atlantic coast with the Mediterranean in the south.
The Canal threw up a number of engineering challenges which Riquet employed a team of contractors to solve for him, but none were as impressive as the staircase of nine locks at Fonserannes. Created by brothers Michel and Pierre Medailhes, it is one of the features which has lead to UNESCO declaring the canal a World Heritage Site, and is now the third biggest tourist site in the region.
How the Lock Works
Anyone who has travelled by canal before will be familiar with the locks which are an integral part of any barge cruise. France, with its Fonserannes staircase, however, takes this to another level. The difference between a â€˜staircaseâ€™ and a set of joined locks is that the staircase has only one set of gates between each chamber and water levels are maintained by use of a side pond.
Travelling on the Fonserannes Lock
Gliding up to the staircase for the first time is a moment that will send a shiver of anticipation down the spine of most barging enthusiasts. The splendid structure is one thing, but so is the sheer exhilaration of negotiating this historic system.
As you wait in turn with a number of other boats you will hear the churning of the machinery (the lock is fully automated today to ensure a smooth transition for the large number of visitors each year). Then, when your turn comes and your captain manoeuvres the barge into position, youâ€™ll feel the thrill of rising up through the locks (over 21 metres) in around 20 to 30 minutes.
You might consider yourself an old hand at river travel but a trip down the Canal du Midi will be a whole new experience if you encounter the Fonserannes Lock on your barge cruise. France is a wonderful place to explore by boat, and nowhere is this more true than on the stunning Canal du Midi.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury river cruises and barge holidays throughout Europe. If you're looking for an exciting and relaxing barge cruise, France is an ideal choice. 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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