As an official classified UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as being a Site d’Exception en Languedoc, “Les Neuf Écluses de Fonseranes” is one of Béziers’ top places to visit. This architectural highlight of the Canal du Midi, created by Pierre-Paul Riquet, is an ingenious water staircase made up of nine locks. In 2017, the locks and their surroundings were entirely renovated 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 Nine Locks of Fonseranes. This informative film, beautifully designed with the newest technology, uses surround 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 regardless, and houses 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 started in 1666 when King Louis XIV signed a decree to officially authorise building a canal linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic. Although many attempts had been made to create a connection between the two coasts, it is the visionary Pierre-Paul Riquet who succeeded. The Nine Locks of Fonseranes 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 all of his knowledge, love and money into the project and died penniless in 1680. Unfortunately, this was only eight months before the Canal du Midi was completed.
Today, the Nine Locks of Fonseranes isn’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 happening in this rough diamond of the South.
Board a boat
Although it is already quite impressive seeing 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 chose “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 site, 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 day, boats had to cross the Orb river. However, the Orb can be an unpredictable and turbulent river. Just 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-year-old lock gates in action.