• WorldView
  • 5 Min Read
  • 25 Aug 2021

Europe's Canals & Citadels: Amazing Feats of Engineering and Grit

The Citadel Vauban on Belle Ile En Mer France

Visionary aspirations. Unwavering dedication. Massive feats of engineering. Here’s an introduction to some of the awe-inspiring and compelling vestiges of history that are integral parts of our diverse European expeditions. While transiting the Suez Canal, walking the ramparts of fortresses on Belle-Ile-en-Mer and Cadiz, and standing on Iona’s hallowed ground, the stories of these globally important locations will enrich your experience; and the narratives of the fascinating people behind them will serve as inspiring studies in vision and grit.


These accomplishments—moving millions of tons of dirt, chiseling stone into impenetrable fortresses, and navigating by small open boat in the open ocean—are further magnified by the fact that they occurred centuries ago, without the help of modern technology.


Canals: Achievements in Engineering


The Highland Clearances saw a mass exodus of tenant farmers in the Highlands and islands of Scotland beginning in the 1750s when landowners learned that sheep were more profitable than whatever farmers could extract from the land. In 1804, when Thomas Telford said he could engineer a canal through the mountainous, rocky Highlands to connect the country’s coasts and create an alternative to the hazardous Pentland Firth, people thought he was crazy. But Telford persevered. He put the country’s first steam dredger to work in 1814, helping 1,500 workers to displace more than 300,000 tons of earth and stone and bringing jobs, commerce, and life back to the Highlands. When the Caledonian Canal  was completed in 1822, it traversed three lochs and employed 29 locks and is now considered one of the first examples of social engineering. 

 

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Transiting the eight-lock Neptune's Staircase is a highlight of our voyage through Scotland's Caledonian Canal


Begun 37 years after the completion of the Caledonian Canal, the Suez Canal was originally dug by laborers with picks and shovels before mechanized dredgers and shovels powered by steam and coal came into play to move the necessary two and a half billion cubic feet of sand. French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps received the go-ahead from the Egyptian government and the backing of the French government to create a shipping route between Europe and Asia, linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. It took a decade and 500 million francs to dredge the 120-mile sea-level canal that now transports 19,000 ships annually.

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The only span you'll find across the canal, the Suez Canal Bridge links the continents of Africa and Eurasia.


A source of geopolitical conflict, the canal has survived changes of ownership and wars, and is a crucial global trade route, saving companies valuable days and dollars by avoiding a complete continental transit. Navigate the Suez on The Path of Western Civilization: From Egypt to the Iberian Peninsula and along the way, you'll delve deeper into its enduring history.


Germany’s Kiel Canal is not as well known as the Suez or Panama, but it's actually used as much as both of them combined. It took 9,000 workers eight years to construct, starting in 1887. Building on the pre-existing Eider Canal of 1784, Kiel links the Baltic and the North seas, freeing ships from having to round Denmark’s storm-heavy, 286-mile Jutland Peninsula.

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A cargo ship goes along the idyllic Kiel Canal which runs through Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region.


On our North Sea Voyage, you'll transit the Kiel Canal en route from the Hanseatic capital of Lübeck to Amsterdam. As you glide past bucolic views—cows grazing on rolling hills, half-timbered houses, and the two-way traffic of ferries, freighters, and pleasure crafts—you’ll be traveling on the world’s most frequented artificial waterway. The canal averages 32,000 crossings annually.


Military Architecture Visionaries

Many aspects of the architecture of more modern military forts around the world were influenced by a Frenchman and a Spaniard in the 1600s. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban was a French military engineer and soldier who built 160 fortresses; 12 are World Heritage sites including the Vauban Citadel on Belle-Île-en-Mer, an island with a rich history that we explore on Medieval to Modern: Tracing History from Bordeaux to Dublin. Vauban was known for using natural land forms and triangular layouts to prevent blind spots when building his forts.


Previous attempts at constructing battlements on Belle-Île to deter pirates were unsuccessful until Vauban built the current fort in 1683. Transforming the footprint to be star shaped and cover 86 acres, the citadel had walls 131 feet high and contained a barracks, hospital, and chapel. The building of this fortress is even more impressive when considering that all the stones were hand cut, transported to the island, and arranged without heavy machinery.

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From the top of Santa Catalina Castle in Cadiz you can take in spectacular views of the neighboring beach and the Atlantic Ocean. 


On Culture and Cuisine from Porto to Basque Country we walk the ramparts of another beautiful island fort, San Sebastian, and the complementary Santa Catalina castle across the bay in Cadiz. Spanish engineer Cristóbal de Rojas consulted on the king’s residence El Escorial and the fortifications of Gibraltar, but he is best known for rebuilding and fortifying Cadiz after a 1596 Aglo-Dutch attack.


San Sebastian’s 1706 fort features an irregularly shaped nine-sided plan, parapets, gunboats, and moats. The island was later connected to land via a long causeway, now much appreciated by locals for its cool breezes. On the other side of La Caleta beach, Santa Catalina is the city’s oldest military structure, constructed 1598-1621. Pentagonal with stone sentry boxes suspended over the Atlantic, it was a military prison from 1769 through to 1991 and is known to Bond fans as a backdrop to Halle Berry’s beach scene in Die Another Day. Before Rojas started work on Santa Catalina castle, he published “Theory and Practice of Fortification,” and his achievements in Cadiz became templates for fortresses in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico.


The Seat of Scottish Christianity


Moving to more northern shores, Iona was the landing site of St. Columba, who in 563 crossed the North Sea from Ireland in a coracle (a tiny, lightweight, handmade open boat) with 12 other monks and established Celtic Christianity in what is now Scotland. The footprint of their settlement is visible but their original building materials of wood and wattle are long gone. St. Columba demonstrated such great faith in his mission that without navigation systems he pushed off into the dark sea for unknown shores, leaving his country behind; and without resources made a home on an island that measures just one-and-a-half miles by three miles. Over time, prompted by the introduction of Roman Christianity and a Viking raid that leveled their settlement, Columba’s monastic community gradually returned to Ireland with their famous Book of Kells. Now on Iona, Lindblad guests can see a picturesque church built on this sacred ground in 1100 and a cemetery of kings where the real Macbeth is interred.

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Several high crosses are found on Iona including this replica of St. John's Cross outside the abbey. The restored original cross is stored safely inside.


Robert the Bruce was another man in Scotland who risked all and sacrificed greatly to accomplish his vision. Sites throughout the country have ties to the King of the Scots, but one is particularly poignant. Demonstrated by his slaying a competitor to acquire the crown and switching allegiances when advantageous, Robert the Bruce was driven to lead his country to freedom. In 1308 he destroyed Aberdeen Castle to keep the English from occupying it. The absence of a castle in an area of the city called Castlegate is a testament to the lengths Robert the Bruce was willing to go. His perseverance paid off: Scotland was granted independence in 1328, a year before his death and eight years after the Declaration of Abroath, which likely inspired our own Declaration of Independence. It includes this statement: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom–for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.


Inspired to explore? Browse our wide range of Europe expeditions.