Pierre-Paul Riquet was born in 1609 in Beziers, the son of a solicitor and prosecutor. At a young age he was keen on mathematics and science so it was no surprise when he became interested in engineering. In 1630 he was appointed as a tax collector for the salt tax which enabled him to become very wealthy.
The main trade route between the north and south of France at that time was predominantly by sea around Spain. However, piracy was common during the 17th century and so Louis XIV was happy to support proposals for an alternative route. Where the Roman engineers had failed, Pierre-Paul Riquet succeeded in creating a 240km long artificial waterway between the river Garonne in Toulouse and the Mediterranean Sea.
It took 16 years to complete and Riquet used much of his own money to pay for it. However, the result included some major engineering marvels in the Beziers area:
The Fonserannes Lock Staircase: consisting of 8 chambers and 9 gates, this set of locks overcame a height change of 21.5m over a length of 300m and linked the canal to the river Orb. In the 19th century, the lowest lock of the set became redundant as the canal was diverted over the river via the Orb aqueduct.
The Orb Aqueduct: built in 1858, this 28m wide, 12m tall and 240m long aqueduct enabled the canal to be diverted over the river Orb.
The Malpas Tunnel: in order to overcome a lengthy diversion around the Ensérune hill, Riquet carved a tunnel through it. Completed in only 8 days, the tunnel is 8m high and 165m long.
Another of Riquet’s engineering achievements can be found further north, not far from the town of Revel.
Lac St Ferreol was created to provide the canal with the year-round water that it needed in order to operate effectively. The lake can contain up to 680,000 cubic metres of water when it is filled to capacity and the dam was completed in 1671.
Unfortunately, Riquet never got to see his final masterpiece in use. He died 8 months before it was opened in 1681.