Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi’s reputation precedes it, especially amongst the barging world. There are many myths, tall stories and warnings about this canal and we had heard them all before we headed into the canal from the Etang du Thau. We had been warned that the first impression of this iconic canal would be a disappointment as there were many disused and derelict boats lining the canal. This was true but it still didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for finally being on this canal.
The construction of the canal was started in the mid 1600s during the reign of Louis XIV to facilitate the passage of goods from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean without cargo ships having to run the gauntlet of English and Spanish ships keen to plunder goods from the French.

Entrance to the Canal du Midi

The second thing that we had been warned about was the number of hire boats on this canal, and how most of the occupants had no idea how to control a boat. Apparently they only receive about 10 minutes instruction before the keys are handed to them. Also if you have one hire boat coming towards you, then you can usually expect at least one other close behind. They also tend to panic when they see a boat of our size and can act quite unpredictably, so be prepared for anything. This also seemed to be true but we did manage to avoid most of the hassle by staying in a town or mooring during the week and moving on Saturday which is generally changeover day.
Typical shape of the locks on the Canal du Midi

Thirdly we had been warned about the shape of the locks. Most locks are rectangular in shape with straight sides. We had come across some on the Yonne River with sloping sides, which I wrote about in a previous post. Some of these were problematic so I wasn’t really looking forward to the elliptical ones on the canal du Midi. The gates are only wide enough for one barge but the lock opens out in the middle to accommodate more boats and is especially good for the hire boats as they can usually fit 4 of them in the lock. This solves issues if the water levels are low in the canal. However, boats of our size can’t fit along the walls so we are basically straddling along one side and frequently can only get one rope on and have to drive onto the front rope. When you have a deep lock and a lockkeeper who won’t take your rope there can be some strong words used and lots of frustration. I would have to say that, in general, the lockkeepers on the canal du Midi are among the most unhelpful on the French canal system. When a hire boat is in with you as well, stress levels can reach an all time high. Having said that, once we found a hire boat crew who understood the issues we tried to travel with them for the whole day, making the experience more of an adventure. 
Typical arched shape of the bridges on the canal du Midi
 The fourth thing was the height and shape of the many bridges on this canal. While we have an air draft of 3.15m we are able to collapse our wheelhouse, so if we do come across a low bridge then, with a bit of effort, we can dismantle it and cruise under. The wheelhouse, however is only 2.6m wide, so the slope of the arch will determine whether we will fit under it. We had been warned that there were potentially 10 or so bridges where we may have difficulty. This was not want we wanted to hear. I will dedicate a whole blog to the bridges on the CdM and our journey through them. Fortunately for us, we were able to fit under all of them without dismantling the wheelhouse.
The fifth thing we had been warned about was that the plane trees, for which the Canal du Midi was famed, had been decimated by a disease which had seen many of them chopped down. This fungus was believed to have been bought to Europe during WWII in the ammunition boxes used by American soldiers. 42000 trees were planted in the 19th century but unfortunately about 12000 are diseased. While many of them have been replaced with resistant species, it will be a long time before they will be large enough to provide shade from the relentless sun that beats down on the canal during the height of summer.
Lovely plane tree lined canals are not so frequent any more

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