After all the excesses of the holidays it’s time for a walk to get rid of some of those extra calories! How about a walk along the Canal du Midi? I promise you it’ll not be too strenuous, and there won’t be any steep inclines!
A walk along the Canal du Midi puts you in the footsteps of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a native of Beziers, who had the vision and the tenacity to get the canal built. As you walk, think about the people who built the canal – 12,000 “head”, men and women – with three women counted as one head – working away with only the most basic tools. And yet they got the canal built from Toulouse to Agde in just 14 years, from 1667 to 1681. 240 km of canal, 20 to 24 m wide and about 2.5 m deep, with 64 locks (single, double, triple or quadruple), numerous bridges. a few viaducts and an enormous dam – all built entirely by hand! A colossal undertaking, and even more impressive when you consider the times during which it was built!
Nowadays the Canal du Midi is mostly frequented by pleasure traffic, and its chief glory lies in the fact that its banks are lined by tens of thousands of mature trees. Initially Riquet only planted trees to stabilise some of the raised banks overlooking the plains, using mostly willows because of their rapid growth. Later, mulberry trees were planted along the canal, the leaves being used to feed silkworms. When silk production came to an end, Italian poplar trees replaced the mulberry trees as a productive crop, and it was only during the First Empire that the plane trees took over as the dominant tree along the canal.
Today the plane trees are becoming the victims of globalization: towards the end of the second world war a fungus was imported from North America, brought to France on wood used to make ammunition crates. The canker stain of the plane tree is a microscopic fungus which develops inside the tree and blocks its sap channels, thus eventually killing the host plant. So far no cure has been found, and the spores of the fungus can be distributed by air and water. Over the years the fungus has slowly spread across southern France, and it is estimated that more than 40,000 plane trees along the Canal du Midi will have to be felled and re-planted over the coming years. They will be replaced by plane trees resistant to the fungus, as well as a host of other species such as ash and lime. So the landscape along the canal will change, but think of it as an evolution – in some places the canal may look “naked” for a little while, but the new trees will soon grow!
If you want to know more about the replanting campaign along the banks of the Canal du Midi have a look here – your donations will help to ensure that the canal will look beautiful again!
I hope you’ve enjoyed our little walk – time for a cup of tea??
P.S. Apologies to all e-mail subcribers to the blog – I accidentally hit the “publish” button while preparing this post, so you had a semi-finished version of this piece in your inbox on Monday.