Visiting Toulouse, France and the statue of Pierre Paul Riquet: builder of the great Canal du Midi
Getting things done, in the 17th century
Why did French King Louis XIV want the Canal du Midi to be built?
Or, why did linking two cities in the United States cause the first significant railroad to be built in Canada?
Or, why did the United States have a record of intervening in Nicaragua in the 19th century?
The brutal answer to all three questions is: sheer geography. The stark geopolitics behind New York bankers wanting to know what was going on in California during the mid-19th century Gold Rush there meant that the then-quickest journey was by sea and overland across an ideally open Nicaraguan transit route. For the initial railroad investment in the former Upper Canada, simple logistics encouraged economies in transportation costs between the Detroit, Mi., and Buffalo, NY, areas. Similarly, Louis XIV's France stood to gain a lot economically and commercially if ship-borne goods could be transported across the South (French: Midi ) of France by canal from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, instead of having to take a long, sea route around the Iberian Peninsula. Sometimes this Iberian route was at the mercy of foreign powers (and of the same Barbary pirates, the activities of which were later to prove to be the catalyst for the founding of the United States' Navy).
There was nothing new about the idea of the Canal du Midi . The Romans had dreamed of it, a millennium and half previously. (There was nothing new about the Suez Canal, either: one of Pharaohs had actually built one — which later silted up — thousands of years prior to the 19th century undertaking.)
And so it was Pierre Paul Riquet (c.1609-1680) who was commissioned to build the Canal du Midi : a magnificent undertaking, 240 kilometres long. The Canal in turn links with other waterways, including the Canal de Garonne , to link the Thau Basin (French: Etang de Thau ) on the coast of the Mediterranean the Bay of Biscay . There were originally 86 locks along the Canal , currently reduced to 25. Construction began in 1667 and was completed in 1681, shortly after the death of Riquet.
In the city of Toulouse is the midpoint between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, along the Canal du Midi, and at this point — quite appropriately — a statue of Pierre Paul Riquet
So was Pierre Paul Riquet endowed with superhuman qualities enabling him to undertake such a gigantic project successfully? (Or to put an at least vaguely comparable, and more contemporary, question: Were Woodward and Bernstein larger-than-life geniuses to whose abilities in investigative reporting may be attributed the bringing down of President Nixon? The point is, rather, that their Washington Post Editor-in-Chief, Ben Bradley, stood by his young reporters: amidst much pressure and tribulation, he gave them authority to continue their investigative reporting.) Regarding Riquet (he was not actually an engineer by profession, but a tax collector), he acted on the authority of Louis XIV in the Canal du Midi's planning and financing; he knew that Louis was behind the project. In stark terms, Louis XIV — and sheer geography — was why the project happened.
The statue of Pierre Paul Riquet stands alone on its plinth at Allées Jean-Jaurès overlooking the Canal du Midi , Toulouse, but another statue — that of Louis XIV — could thus justifiably have stood alongside it.
The statue is by Bernard Griffoul-Dorval (1788 - 1861)(1). The work, erected by the city of Toulouse, dates from 1853.
Toulouse is located in the Haute-Garonne department, in South-West France.
October 5, 2012
(1) Sculptor Griffoul-Dorval taught for a number of decades at the Special School of Arts of Toulouse (French: Ecole spéciale des Arts de Toulouse ).
Also worth seeing
Cahors (distance: 113 kilometres) has some impressive, Medieval architecture, including the 14th century Valentré bridge and the Cathedral.
How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), where car rental is available; there are also domestic air services between Paris and Toulouse-Blagnac airport (Aéroport de Toulouse - Blagnac ), where car rental is also available. The French railroad company SNCF maintains services from Paris to Toulouse . (Paris-Toulouse: distance: 677 kilometres.) Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, you are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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