Canal du Midi
This year is highly significant for France's premier canal: 2009 marks the 400th year since the birth of its creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet. Late in his life, he persuaded Louis XIV to fund what, at the time, was one of the most remarkable pieces of infrastructure on the planet: a canal linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean through southern France. Riquet realised that if he could connect the canal with the Garonne river from Toulouse to the Atlantic, nature would take on half the job. Today, the uniqueness of the Canal du Midi is celebrated by Unesco, which has placed it on the World Heritage List. It runs for 240km from the River Garonne at Toulouse to the Mediterranean at Agde, and incorporates 99 locks and 130 bridges.
The canal brought with it a great deal of prosperity, until 1857 when the Sète-Bordeaux railway was inaugurated, drastically reducing trade by water. Inaugurated in July 2008, the Museum and Gardens of the Canal du Midi are laid out at the foot of the Saint-Ferréol basin, the main supply of water to the Canal du Midi. The museum recreates the background to the epic of the Canal du Midi and its construction.
Today houseboats and narrowboats are available for rent: one week in a houseboat on the Canal du Midi starts at €807 per week (depending on season and boat size), bookable through Midi-Pyrénées Vacances Loisirs (00 33 5 34 25 05 05; firstname.lastname@example.org). On some stretches river cruises are offered.