Canal du Midi: Béziers

Trip miles  3,125

The Languedoc-Roussillon vineyards cover more than 120,000 acres from Narbonne to Nimes producing more than 220,000 gallons of wine every year. As tempting as simply sitting about and sampling might be, we decided to spend a few days on the bikes exploring the feat of 17th century engineering that is the Canal du Midi.

The hilltop town of Montady surrounded by vines

The Romans wanted to connect the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas by an inland waterway but even they couldn’t manage to overcome the vast natural obstacles presented by the landscape.

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.

Plane trees line the Canal du Midi

We biked a 30kms round trip from our campsite at pretty waterside Colombiers to the grand regional capital of Béziers. Biking along the rough and narrow tow path was challenging at times as we negotiated the large and twisted roots of the beautiful plane trees that line its banks. Wild flowers and yellow irises were in full bloom and the air was heavily scented.

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.

The top of les neuf écluses

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.

St. Nazaire Cathedral high above the river Orb

Once in the grand and elegant boulevards we admired the tall, shuttered and balconied architecture of the 18th century merchants houses which had been built alongside 16th century churches and ecclesiastical buildings.

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.

The Orb winding its way through Languedoc-Rousillion

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.

The canal bridge over the Orb