One hot Sunday we decided to visit the locks, or ecluses, at Fonséranes (picture) just outside Beziers. The series of seven locks at Fonséranes form a staircase through which the boats drop 21.5m to reach the level of the River Orb which flows through the town. Originally there were eight locks with the eighth still there but no longer used as, due to flooding, it had to be bypassed. There were crowds of people watching the lock keeper and his assistant work the sluices as a large number of boats of different sizes passed through, usually three or four at a time. At each end of the system was a queue of boats waiting for their turn and the direction of traffic through the locks changes each hour.
The Canal du Midi is a magnificent feat of engineering connecting the Atlantic Ocean, via the Gironde Estuary and the River Garonne and Canal de Garonne, with the Etang de Thau and the Port of Sète on the Mediterranean Sea. In 1667 Pierre-Paul Riquet, a wealthy salt tax inspector, managed to persuade King Louis XIV of the necessity for the canal as an alternative to the long journey around Spain and Gibraltar which was a notorious route for piracy. The 240km Canal was worked on by 15,000 labourers and took 14 years to complete, though Riquet was bankrupted. Its complicated system uses reservoirs and smaller canals with aqueducts, attractive bridges, elegant oval shape locks and shady tree lined banks.
It is not unsurprising that the locks at Fonséranes are deemed to be the third most popular tourist attraction in Languedoc Roussillon after Pont du Gard and the City of Carcassonne. The power and effectiveness of the system was fascinating, especially as we knew it was over 300 years old and we spent a large part of the day there. There is also a modern inclined plane bypass or water slope, built in 1983, for larger boats where a boat travels in a tank of water up or down a slope from one level to the next.
We decided to explore the Canal a little further and followed its route towards the west watching both working and pleasure boats meander leisurely beneath the plane trees. Returning to Beziers we climbed the steep staircase up to the aqueduct which passes over the River Orb, walking a short way along the towpath and enjoyed an evening view of the Cathedral high over the town with the distant Cevennes.