The Rhone-Sète canal was created to connect the Midi canal to the Rhone. In the 1770s, the Estates of the Languedoc province ordered the beginning of the construction to link the coastal lagoons to Saint-Gilles, in the Gard département. The city of Sète was already linked to the Midi canal through the lagoon of Thau westward and to the eastern lagoons thanks to some local undertakings to create small waterways. Indeed, the region is rich in both natural and artificial rivers and streams. Pierre-Paul Riquet, the 17th-century engineer behind the Midi and Garonne canals had imagined a canal such as this one. He had a grand plan to create a complex and important network for inland navigation in South France. Although his wish could not be fulfilled in his lifetime, the Estates’ decision allowed the continuation of Riquet’s dream. As with most great constructions that started during the last years of the Old Regime, work stopped in 1789. It resumed some 15 years later and the connection to the Rhone was finished in 1811. Because of the flat landscape and almost non-existent elevation change, the canal had only 5 locks, of which only one remains in use today (Nourriguier). Until the second half of the 20th century, Sète remained the main port of the canal and the surrounding lands. Although the canal never was a profitable canal for commercial navigation, it opened Sète to both the Mediterranean and the French inland markets. With the Rhone and the Midi canal, goods could easily reach the Atlantic and other European countries.
From Sète and its port, the canal follows the coast between lagoons and sandy beaches until it reaches La Grande-Motte and then Aigues-Mortes after crossing the Vidourne river. From then on, the canal crosses the plains of the Little Camargue. Between Aigues-Mortes and Saint-Gilles, a rural setting replaces the coastal landscape. Before entering Saint-Gilles, the canal divides into two branches. One empties into the Petit Rhône while the other continues towards Beaucaire, home to a pretty and popular port. However, Beaucaire is now a dead-end as it is no longer possible to enter the Rhone river since its interestingly curved lock has been put out of service. As commercial navigation decreased, the setting of the South of France was perfect to adapt the canal to leisure cruising.
With its hot and sunny summers accompanied by a maritime breeze, the Rhone-Sète canal is of all the Southern waterways one of the easiest to navigate. Not only does it crosses beautiful cities with a rich and ancient heritage, but it also offers the possibility to observe unique fauna and flora. A French natural region, the Camargue is home to pond turtles, common cranes, flamingos and many more. Aigues-Mortes, Saint-Gilles and Sète are three of the most interesting cities in terms of history and architecture because they already were important settlements during the Ancient Era. Sète has no less than 16 places of worship, several museums including one dedicated to the Sea, and a lighthouse. Many artists have found inspiration in this charming city. The old centre of Aigues-Mortes is surrounded by stunning fortifications protecting the inhabitants for centuries. The guard tower Constance dates back to 1242. For almost 1,400 years, the Saint-Gilles abbey has made its presence the centre of attention in its city. It is listed as a UNESCO Heritage site.
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- Desaunais, A. (1937), « Le canal du Midi » in Géocarrefour, n°13, pp. 175-87.
- Vanière, P. (1835), Guide du voyageur sur le canal du Midi et ses embranchements, et sur les canaux des Étangs et de Beaucaire, seconde édition, Toulouse, impr. Douladoure, 222 p. [École nationale des ponts et chaussées, Bibliothèque nationale de France].
- (s.d.), « Le Canal de jonction et la Robine de Narbonne » in Le Canal du Midi [Online].