Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Visit to Fonserannes Staircase

Canals were a invention that allowed one horse to pull a boat carrying thousands of tons, instead of hundreds in a wagon. These locks were built in the middle 1600's and were the engineering marvel of their time. Not much has changed. The lock gates are powered by electricity now instead of muscle power. Boats are pleasure boats, not cargo vessels, motorized now rather than being drawn by horses, but it follows the same path from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. I think it is hard to look at the canal in any given place, and see the tranquil setting, the beautiful plane trees along the bank and boats slowly cruising the flat water and think of it as something remarkable. The amount of work and planning do not go unnoticed when you see these seven locks that have been in constant operation for 350 years or so and think of how primitive the world was at that time. Eventually, canals were supplanted by railroads but the canals and locks remain on the landscape.
The staircase itself stretches over 280 meters (918 feet), rises 21 meters (70 feet) and has seven locks. It has become a tourist attraction for the town of Beziers. People love to watch the boats going through the locks, and the water rising and falling, taking the boats up or down with it.

We struggled to find the locks with our computer generated instructions, but eventually found them just in time to see three boats enter the locks for their trip up to the top of the staircase. Luckily, we got an early start, because if we had missed these three boats negotiating the system, we would have had to wait a few hours to see some action. Nancy and I went through these locks on our canal trip in 2001. They can be intimidating if it happens that you haven't been through too many locks. But each lock is basically the same as the one before it and by the seventh lock, boaters generally have mastered it.

You get to watch people struggling with ropes, steering their boats in tight quarters, managing to deal with the powerful flow of the water, crews working together or against each other, boats crashing into the sides of the lock, and people from different nations trying to communicate with each other. All in all, it is a spectacle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't believe those locks are as old as they are and still working! It's absolutely marvelous!

When I was a kid we used to go through 3 locks on the Illinois River and stay at Starved was always one of my favorite things...especially if we locked through with a barge. Thanks for reminding me of how much fun that was!