TO SEE | TOWN
As an official Site d’Exception en Languedoc, “Les Neuf Écluses de Fonseranes” is one of Béziers’ top places to visit. Pierre-Paul Riquet created this architectural highlight of the Canal du Midi, which shows an ingenious water staircase of nine locks. In 2017, the locks and surroundings got renovated entirely to their former glory. With great success, I can easily spend half a day here!
Le Coche d’Eau
Since Pierre-Paul Riquet was born in Béziers, the Bitterois are incredibly proud of the inventor of the Canal du Midi. I recommend seeing the immersive show at the visitor centre before you visit the actual locks. This informative film is beautifully designed with the newest technology, using surrounding screens, and explains the history of the Canal du Midi and the nine locks in 14 minutes. The visitor centre is a good starting point anyway. Situated in the former inn “Le Coche d’Eau”, this was the place where sailors and horses regained their energy before towing the boats up and down the locks.
The history of the Canal du Midi starts in 1666 when King Louis XIV signs a decree to officially authorise building a canal linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic one. Although many attempts have been made to create a connection between the two coasts, it is the visionary Pierre-Paul Riquet who succeeds. The nine locks of Fonserane were built to overcome the difference in height of 48 meters with the Garonne river. Altogether, this masterpiece of engineering took up the rest of Riquet’s life. He put in all of his knowledge, love and money and died penniless in 1680, eight months before the Canal du Midi was completed.
Today, Les Neuf Écluses aren’t only a popular tourist destination. Les Bitterois also find their way to Fonseranes: to attend a yoga class, stroll around the Sunday morning market, eat, drink and dance during “Les Soirées Divines” or go to one of the many other events organised during summer. “Ça bouge à Béziers”! as they say here in the south. And it’s true; things are happing in this rough diamond of the south.
Board a boat
Although it is already quite impressive to see the locks in action from the banks, to get the true Canal du Midi experience you have to board a boat. There are many boat companies to choose from; I boarded “Les Bateaux du Soleil”. You can get tickets at the boat office next to the visitor centre, or you can search the internet and book directly. Tours last from one hour to a whole day, including other highlights of the Canal du Midi.
If you are visiting the sight, you might count the locks to see if there are nine. I did… And I noticed that when going up the water staircase, we actually went through six ovoid-shaped lock chambers and seven gates. How did that happen??? Well, back in the days, boats had to cross the Orb river. However, the Orb can be an unpredictable and turbulent river. Even crossing the river was a dangerous undertaking that wrecked many boats. So it was decided to permanently close the eighth gate, to lead boats from the seventh chamber to the Canal Bridge. The ninth gate is located in the direction of the Orb river and was therefore not needed anymore. Either way, it is still impressive to see the more than 300 years old lock gates in action.