Down by the seaside……..see the boats go sailin’
I decided that my first destination post needed to be about Sète. As summer is upon us, with music festivals in full swing and modern France’s birthday, the 14 July is a day to celebrate and Sète is a wonderful place to ‘faire la fête’.
However you come to be in the vicinity of Sète you need to spend at least one night here. Whether you’ve been slowly winding your way down the Canal du Midi on a barge, have cycled down from Toulouse, or if you happen to be driving along the coast on your way to Spain, there is much here to warrant your attention.
Located only 27 kilometres from Montpellier, Sète is a lively gem on the Mediterranean. As you drive into the city from the motorway or from Frontignan, before you get to the royal canal, you should see the Crespo olive company on your left. The idea now is to keep left. If not, chances are you will come in the ‘other way’ and depending on the traffic, you may wonder for some time why I am extolling the virtues of this city. Even so, you will eventually circumnavigate the mont St-Clair and approach the city center from the corniche. You will see for yourself why it’s known as the Venice of the Languedoc.
If you do happen to come in the long way, you can stop off at ‘la Pointe Courte’, a fisherman’s village with a charm all of its’ own, little row houses lined up on the étang de Thau, inhabited by locals who earn their living from the riches of this unique lagoon. Bouzigues, on the other side of the lagoon, is well reputed for oysters and seafood in general. I can’t attest to this myself as any personal ‘dégustation’ or tasting of oysters will land me swiftly in hospital as it is my misfortune to be allergic to most seafood.
Sète is a vibrant and unpretentious little city, welcoming but not really asking for your approval. There is a lot to see and do here. Sète is an authentic working port. There is a fishing port in the heart of town, a fish auction or ‘criée served by a fleet of trawlers and tuna boats. A criée is an old word which comes from crier, to shout, as the fishmongers did to advertise and sell fish brought in each day. There is an Italian connection in Sète that surfaces mainly at the table. Macaronade is a pasta dish which varies from restaurant to restaurant but seems like a lot like ragu to me. Tielle sètoise is delicious, especially if bought fresh from the market or Tielles Cianni Marcos. It is spicy octopus pie, was a traditional meal for fishermen, and happily one of the few things from the sea that I can eat. The market in Sète on wednesdays is something to see. In addition to the regular ‘halles’, or food hall, you will find people cooking couscous and all sorts of delicious Mediterranean dishes out on the street. You can also buy textiles and leather goods at this lively market.
Espace Brassens is a museum dedicated to Georges Brassens, the singer songwriter and poet from Sète. Le Musée Paul Valéry, another poet from the region, is located on the side of the mont St-Clair with a café/restaurant on a shaded terrace by the marine cemetery. MIAM or International Museum of Modeste Arts is located on the quai de Bosc which also houses an unusual little garden designed by an artist/botanist. The Regional Center of Contemporary Art is located on the royal canal. The Tourist Office of Sète, located in the city centre is full of information about these and other museums and galleries. You will find helpful english speaking staff and lots more information about ‘what’s on’ here.
Water jousting is an old Languedoc tradition. In the eighteenth century jousting tournaments opposed young bachelors in blue boats to married men in red boats. It is very entertaining to watch. Jousting is still a strong and lively traditional activity. There are tournaments during the summer, notably on the 14th July and during the Saint Louis in August.
With 12 kilometres of beach between the Sète corniche and Agde, there is enough room for everyone here. The fine sand beaches seem to go on for miles. I usually just pitch up with my ‘fouta’ and drop my stuff wherever I fancy and dip in and out of the clear blue water. You can also pay to rent a lounger at a beach club. This is a good option when the wind is blowing strong, which it sometimes does.
Underneath the corniche, you can climb down to the more protected but smaller beaches if you prefer. There is a fee for parking at the corniche, althought it is free between 12 and 2pm. The good news is that you can finally find parking spots here and no longer have to circulate like a maniac waiting for someone to leave.
Jazz à Sète is a small festival that attracts big names. I have been lucky enough to see Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, Brad Mehldau and other artists at this festival over the years. There are many concerts and music events throughout the year. Last august I saw Eric Bibb and Jean-Jacques Milteau with their tribute to Lead Belly at the Fiest’à’Sète, a world music festival. Théâtre de la Mer or theatre by the sea is a unique venue with a long and interesting history. The fort Saint-Pierre was built after an attempted invasion by England in 1710. It was once used as a prison, later as a hospital and partially destroyed during WWII. The venue was rehabilitated in 1960 and then opened as a theatre for plays rather than music. This scene never really took off but in 1970 the likes of Claude François made it popular again with an open air gig. Théâtre de la Mer is an exceptional venue for summer concerts and I highly recommend both Jazz’à’Sète and Fiest’à’Sète.
Places to stay: I love Le Grand Hotel, (www.legrandhotelsete.com) a comfortable 3* hotel on the quai de Tassigny. It is a nineteenth century canalside property exuding seemingly effortless elegance à la française. I also like l’Orque Bleue, (www.orquebleue.fr) also a 3* hotel which offers canal view rooms from the other side looking towards the mont St-Clair.
Visit: you can visit Sète by foot or boat. On the main canal you can book boat tours with commentary in French but with leaflets in English. Take your camera, a hat and water.
Things to buy: Foutas or fouta towels are a girls’ best friend at the beach. I am not quite sure how I lived without one for so many years. Thicker than a sarong, and not really made to be worn, a fouta is a quick drying alternative to a traditional towel. These colourful towels, originally from Tunisia, are inexpensive and useful at the beach or at home as throws on the garden furniture.
Happy travels! If you have any comments or questions feel free to contact me.