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France: The waterless wonder

The Bassin de Saint-Ferréol was part of one of the most remarkable engineering achievements of pre-revolution France — but time your visit carelessly and you may find a surprise in store

France: The waterless wonder
Bassin de Saint-Ferréol. Image: Ben Lerwill

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Nobody told me it was going to be empty. I’m in the south of France, and have just driven for an hour to visit the Bassin de St-Ferréol, the man-made reservoir that forms an integral part of the Canal du Midi system. I know. A bit geeky. But this is no ordinary canal system, dating as it does back to the late 1600s, when it helped to create a navigable waterway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. For its time, it was beyond revolutionary.

Anyway, the Bassin is in front of me, but there’s no water in it. I’m quite good at timing things badly – visiting rainforests during monsoons, arriving at museums on the one day of the week they’re closed, that sort of thing – but I’ve never encountered an out-of-order lake before. It turns out the reservoir gets emptied once a decade to allow for maintenance work on the system of valves that releases water into the canal. So from now until February 2017, it’s bone dry.

It normally holds 6.3 million cubic metres of water and stretches some 700m from side to side, forming a forest-fringed haven for wildlife and a tourist attraction for pleasure-trippers. Today, it looks like the surface of the moon and the only birds in sight are a flock of presumably quite confused ducks gathered in a large puddle. The canal itself, I learn, is currently getting its water from small channels running either side of the reservoir.

For five minutes I’m cheesed off, cursing my luck. Then it starts to dawn on me that, in fact, seeing an empty Bassin is perhaps better than seeing it full. I can walk in it, for a start, and I join a couple of dozen others in clambering over its rocks and dusty slopes; a strange swathe of temporary desert in the middle of Occitania. I learn that when the reservoir was emptied in October, the authorities had to transfer 15 tonnes of live fish — 15 tonnes! — to other waterways using specially adapted lorries.

Perhaps best of all, the empty reservoir also gives a proper sense of the scale of the project that Pierre-Paul Riquet embarked on back in 1667. The locally born engineer used the Bassin to feed a 150-mile canal scheme that stretched from the south coast to the city of Toulouse, where it joined up with the Garonne River. In creating a through-passage between the Atlantic and Mediterranean, he allowed French vessels to avoid having to circumnavigate Spain, a voyage that consumed not just time but taxes.

The construction of the canal and its feeder basin took 14 years, employing 12,000 workers, and, with sad irony, was completed in 1681, just eight months after Riquet’s death. He never saw the fruits of his vision, but he was well aware of what he had achieved: a canal that had forged a way over hills and across plains using a painstakingly precise network of locks, tunnels, dams and natural tributaries.

Trade floundered on the Canal du Midi after the growth of the railways in the mid-1800s, but it remains an utterly remarkable achievement. The same is no less true of the Bassin itself. As a man-made water-source responsible for keeping boats afloat along 150 miles of 17th-century canals, it’s perhaps miracle enough it’s still in working order. Which is, I ponder as I walk across ground that would normally be 20 metres underwater, all the more reason to forgive it the odd maintenance period.