Pierre-Paul Riquet, a French Baron, petitioned and paid for the Canal du Midi to be built to protect French trade from Spanish pirates and port taxes in the 1600’s. Exhausted and bankrupt he died six months before the canal finally opened in 1680.
From one of the many stone bridges that cross the water we waved to an older traveller sat in the shade of the trees with his large dog. We wondered what his situation might be. It was tranquil and elderly fishermen set up with single lines nodded or ignored us as we passed by.
Cruising noisily down the water in the tell-tale hire brand of “le Boat” seemed to be mostly groups of enthusiastic Americans greeting us “BANN joor!”. We joined the groups of young locals leaning over the walls of the many steep-sided and oval-shaped locks to watch the nervous progress of “le Boats” through the gamut of daunting sluices. One of them at Fonseranes numbered nine locks long!
Béziers on arrival seemed seedy. We came off the canal too early and found ourselves in heavy and fast-moving traffic winding up dusty residential roads towards the town. Pausing for breath on the Vieux Pont we were treated to a waterside view from the River Orb up to the historical centre – enough of an incentive to keep pedalling.
A Roman statue of a contemporary Emperor stood quietly in a back corner next to a kebab shop. The people enjoying the wide open public spaces were more obviously Muslim than we had previously encountered and the many businesses in the town catered to halal diets and fashions. It had the cosmopolitan and bustling feel of a Mediterranean port, which the canal added to.
Cycling back over the River Orb on the canal-carrying Pont Canal, we saw again the white-haired traveller who had arrived on foot. Chatting, we discovered him to be a photographer looking for work along the coast. Sleeping rough with his dog he was dignified, physically fit, clean and better dressed than us.
He described himself as “a passager” which we liked. Having nothing other than smiles and conversation to offer we spent a few happy minutes talking on the bridge before waving a long farewell and pondering where his passage might take him.