The Canal du Midi: a peculiar story
Relations between the Carcassonne city authorities and the Canal are part of a long and eventful history.
Three periods are characteristic of the development of these relations.
The refusal of the city authorities to associate themselves with the project
Originally the planned route of the canal took it some distance from the city of CARCASSONNE for topographical reasons, Paul RIQUET’s first plans being to canalise the course of the Fresquel. This solution was abandoned on account of the problems it would have involved and the excavation of a “straight-through” route was accepted. This did, nevertheless, pass some distance from the city. In 1670, negotiations took place between Riquet and Justice Mage from CARCASSONNE. However, the work needed to run the canal into the city would have involved an additional 2 km of excavations and this led Riquet to ask the city consuls for a payment of 100,000 livres. It was the size of this sum in relation to the interest in the canal expressed by the councillors which was largely due to the abandonment of the project. As a result of this refusal to pay, the canal, when it was completed in 1681, passed by two kilometres from CARCASSONNE
The extent of the error and the mobilising of the councillors for a new route
The distance of the canal from the city was soon seen as a mistake and a handicap for Carcassonne’s trade and its impact on the development of the city’s economy when compared to the advantages gained by the town of Castelnaudary. Several plans were therefore set in motion to try to remedy the situation.
A connecting link between the city and the Canal via a secondary canal was suggested by Vauban in 1686. This proposal was taken up again between 1750 and 1754 by the city’s engineer Louis Pellissier and work was started. But problems over the junction of the Fresquel and the existing canal led to a decision to seek a new route.
The city authorities seized on this opportunity to propose that the canal be diverted below the city walls.
On the 9th of February 1786, the Languedoc provincial authorities adopted the project.
Work began in 1787 and made slow progress on account of assorted difficulties and in particular technical problems. The canal, as well as other works associated with it – the port basin, the Pont Marengo, the Pont de la Paix, the Pont d’Iéna – was to be completed in 1810 and opened on the 31st of May in the same year.
The port, the time-consuming part of the urban transformation
In 1810, at the time the canal became operational, the filling-in of the moat was completed and accompanied by the creation of tree-lined boulevards encircling the Bastide.
From then on, the canal, in its present geographical location, found itself in varying relationships with the city according to the different sections of its route. The upstream part, passing through an excavated cutting, was to have a major impact on the landscape, but taking into account its fall in level (over 7 metres) it would not generate any profound changes to the area between the canal and the Bastide.
On the other hand, the port area would become the subject of a succession of changes. Three stages can be identified.
First stage:1812 – an urban renewal project associated with the port
The area between the port and the edge of the Bastide was the subject of an ambitious project of urban expansion, of which the canal was the principal generating force.
This project’s aim was to extend the rue Albert Tomey and the rue d'Armagnac, creating a public square bordered by two small islands built between the port’s quayside and the boulevard.
On the Bastide side, the proposal saw the creation of small islands between the edge of the old wall and the boulevard, and an ensemble of buildings relating to the canal’s operations – stores and accommodation – on the other side of the port basin.
- fell within the framework of the traditional use of the canal, highlighting the port basin and providing large areas of public space.
- illustrated the search for a good relationship between the canal and the Bastide by bringing the two together in the urban restructuring of the area.
Second stage: 1814-1855 - the implementation of the Port-Bastide development
The 1812 plan was to remain an unfulfilled project, but a number of the principles it outlined were to be partially realised.
Several series of actions were to reshape the area in question:
- The creation of an urban frontage along the boulevard, through the small islands in the continuation of the Bastide urbanised area, thus creating a break with the logic of the greenery of the walkways established on the former moat and developed further in other parts of the Bastide.
- The implementation of a series of projects aimed at enhancing the space between the boulevard and the port basin: in 1814 an initial project in line with the 1812 one proposed a central square with column framed by two built-up islands. Between 1821 and 1828, the square project was implemented in a new version consisting of a column with two fountains. Finally however, from 1830 onwards, the urban development projects for this area were abandoned in favour of a garden walk along the canal giving access to the port basin by means of two sets of steps.
- The setting-up of a number of buildings relating to the operation of the canal. The time-frame over which these buildings were constructed is difficult to establish, given the condition of the archival evidence, with undated plans and additions over the course of time. However, a number of reference points make it possible to sketch in the history of the development of the site.
A housing construction project proposed a single-storey central building with two symmetrically situated ground-floor buildings linked to the central building by a low wall topped with railings delimiting two enclosures opening out onto the canal and reached by two passageways framed by pilasters.
A view dating from 1850 and a plan from 1854 show two ground-floor buildings situated by the port basin and connected by railings.
Their architectural style seems to conform to that of the ground-floor buildings featured in the earlier project. However, their purpose is linked directly to the operation of the canal: faster throughput of traffic and accommodation for the canal-keeper.
Moreover, a building opposite, in line with the present-day wall of the S.N.C.F., was used as offices by the canal authorities.
It was therefore during this period that the key elements of the present-day layout were established by applying two different logical approaches.