Sete: Venice of Southern France
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In fact, yearly, without fail, since 1666, there has been jousting upon the waters of the Royal Canal in Sete. It celebrates the creation of the first canal to the Etang de Thau, the largest of a string of lagoons that stretch along the French coast, and the eventual linking of Atlantic to Mediterranean by the 241 kilometre Canal du Midi. So too was borne Sete, city of canals, Venice of France.
Human habitation at Sete dates back to the bronze age and it was even a haven for famed pirates such as Barberosette but it was with that first canal in 1666 and the completion of the Canal du Midi in 1681 that Sete came into its own.
Since 1839 trains have connected Montpelier and Sete and so we arrived; opening the station doors to be greeted by a Venetian image. Pont du Gare took us across the first canal and we began following signs to La Centre Ville; the Royal Canal flanked by quai sides awash with watercraft and loomed over by colourful frontages of homes and shops. The call of gulls betrayed the closeness of the sea and a growing concentration of restaurants spilling outside to sun sheltered seating. Sun-washed colour demanded our attention.
Visiting the tourism office near waterside on Grand Rue Mario Rouston we picked up a city map in hand and returned to the quai and crepery, Le Tourmentin, to plan our route, people and activity watch, and pacify complaining stomachs. Karen relished her sea food crepe while I chowed down on a mouth-watering cheese crepe. Atmosphere, location, price and service marked this as a place to recommend.
Checking into our hotel behind its emphatic neon sign, L'Orque Bleue was the most affordable of the four hotels we checked on the Royal Canal, we were pleased with the appointments, spaciousness and cleanliness of a facility long in years. Great location for enjoying a sultry summer night on the colourfully lit canal and old city.
Strolling SeteRefreshed, we set our feet seaward soon reaching the long-fingered breakwater where the Mediterranean horizon spilled out before us and behind rose Mont St. Clair, at 187 metres with its 180 degree plus view of this city of over 40,000. Nearby the walls of old fort Saint Pierre (1710) loomed above us. Since 1960 those walls have enclosed an open air theatre, Theatre de la Mer, providing 1400 fans with entertainment and Mediterranean panorama.
A long promenade led to our right revealing a bric bracked shoreline and distant sea-facing apartments. Waves crashed against the shoreline even on this day of mild winds. A lone fisherman with the customary huge fishing rod sat at duty onshore. The pulse of tabla drums echoed off the rocks. Gulls wheeled. Atmosphere. Looming above the cemetery, Cimetiere Marin, made famous by local Setois writer/poet Paul Valery, who is himself interred there, beckoned with ornate tombs and sculptures. Its crowded but silent streets led us to the tomb of Paul Valery, never foresaking the Mediterranean vista. Here too rest renowned Setois singer George Brassens and actor/director Jean Vilar.
Leaving the dead their timeless gaze we strode the flanks of Mont. St. Clair into Haut Sete, winding through streets narrow and climbing to the viewpoint. The expansive Etang de Thau with its cultivated oyster and mussel beds loomed large and sea-linked by the line of blue running arrow- straight through Sete. Sete remains a working city founded upon fishing and transportation but has evolved into a centre for ongoing festivals and museums.
The grand daddy of the festivals is Fete Saint Louis (Sete's patron saint) in August and its highlight is the 6 to 7 day elimination rounds of water jousting in the Royal Canal. This contest pits high-sterned, oared canal boats defended on the raised stern (tintiane) by "knights", armed with shield and lance, whose purpose is to dislodge their opponent similarly situated. Big crowds line the canals and a party atmosphere prevails. Enjoy past photos at http://www.saintlouisasete.fr/
Our trek back to the canal took us past Parc Simone Veil with its cool, grotto-fountain lying alongside its pale green pool. Shaded and grassy it gave sanctuary from the Sun; its name in honour of Simone Veil, a French lawyer/politician and Holocaust survivor, who returned to France and political fame after the war.
We took a coffee break at Place Aristide Briand under the canopy of a Plane tree. The square honours Aristide Briand who gained fame as a politician and co-laureate for the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize.
Regaining the Royal Canal we window-shopped the many quai side restaurants for dinner, settling on Le Grand Bleu. It served us well with a fine meal, friendly service and reasonable prices. Karen savoured local mussels and I enjoyed deep-fried rouget (fish); both of us finishing with chocolate cake. Enjoying meal and atmosphere as dusk ensued we lounged back to drink in the lights, tinkling of water craft, and quiet chatter of passing folk.
Afterwards we strolled the canal embracing the oncoming coolness of dusk relieving the impact of a long hot day.
Sete was not quite through with us; the next morning, after a bite at an early-opening boulangerie, we searched out the little, adjacent fishing village of Le Pointe Courte just behind the train station. It gained fame from a 1955 movie, of the same name, directed by Agnes Arda. This quiet corner witnessed all the accessories of a fishing village replete with drying nets, small fishing boats and lots of cats. A quiet world set off on its own. On our way back we passed a young man in a wet suit holding a spear kebabed with fish and watched the road bridge hoisted to allow a pleasure craft to leave the canal for the broad expanse of the Etang.
So water remains the life blood of Sete and every year the jousting creates a new champion whose name is recorded faithfully on a shield. Remarkable evidence of human continuity in this long lived community of the sea.
If You GoSete is 15 minutes by train from Montpelier on the Mediterranean coastal line running from Spain to Italy. It also lies along the coastal roadway. Direct train service is available to Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Marseille. It is 30 minutes from the Montpelier airport (connections to London, Frankfurt, Lyon, Paris, Bruxel and Nice), 45 minutes from the airport in Agde (connections to Bristol, London, Odense). There are ferry service connections with Morocco.
Sete Tourism is a excellent source of information for getting to Sete, accommodations, events, tours, beaches, links for the Canal du Midi and general information.
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Glen Cowley has parlayed his interest in sports, travel and history into both books and articles. The author of two books on hockey and over sixty published articles ( including sports, biographies and travel) he continues to explore perspectives in time and place wherever his travels take him. From the varied landscapes of British Columbia to Eastern Canada and the USA, the British Isles, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece and France he has found ample fodder for features. His latest book, Amber River, a guide to unique pubs of Vancouver island and the Salish Sea.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author