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  • Writer's pictureCarsten Sprotte

All set for Sète

It's not Venice, but there are colorful boats, many canals, and some spectacular jousting. Sète offers the best of seafood and an alternative to the ritz of the Riviera.

Just as Paris includes neighborhood nuggets largely ignored by foreign tourists, the French Mediterranean coast harbors lesser-known towns and treasures. I sometimes consider it “risky business” to write about such places, as they may not appeal to the prime-time audience. To learn about Sète, located in the Occitania region near Montpellier, you really do need to “get yourself all set.”

All set for seafood!

Sète is the largest French fishing port on the Mediterranean, comprising not only the coast but also a vast inland lagune (l’Etang de Thau), famous for its oysters (les huîtres de Bouzigues). Its numerous portside cafés and restaurants serve fresh arrivals from the docks. One of the town’s specialties are its tielles: a picnic-perfect tourte of various sizes stuffed with spicy tomato sauce cooked with white wine and diced squid.

All set for a boat ride!

Sète’s numerous canals are its most striking feature. The locals pride themselves on being “the Venice of Languedoc”. Of course, it takes more than canals to compare to Venice, but the canals of Sète do confer an undeniable charm. Unlike Venice,there is no imminent danger of the city being immersed, and the weather is frankly more consistently pleasant. You can take a 1:30 cruise that will take you through all the canals, the port, and the lagune.

All set for sport!

The inhabitants of Sète pratice the unique sport of sea jousting (les joutes de mer). The jousters are not knights in shining armor, but men in white, dressed as if they were invited to some chic picnic. A public tournament is organized each August along the main canal, drawing hundreds of spectators. The first of these tournaments dates back to August 1666, the year Sète was fonded by Louis XIV, both as a fort and also as a point of entry to the Canal du Midi.

All set for the view!

The heights of Sète are called the Mont Saint-Clair. The hill is flanked with a plethora of coy villas and gardens, and topped with wooded park called “La forêt des pierres blances”.

The 183-meter summit offers a splendid panoramic view of the sea on one side and the lagune on the other. From here, you’d think you were on an island. “I’lle singulière” is exactly how Paul Valéry, the famous French writer an native of Sète, baptized his beloved city.

All set for the lido!

The lido is a 12km-long, flat, sandy stretch between Sète and the neighboring town of Marseillan. It separates the sea from the lagune and offers the best of barefoot hikes…a far cry from the footsore pebbles of Nice.

All set for the stage!

Sète is home to the Théâtre de la Mer, an cultural venue remeniscient of antiquity, with the sea’s horizon as a backdrop to the stage. It reminds me of the terrace of the Villa Malaparte in Capri, made famous by Jean-Luc Goddard’s classic film “Le Mépris”. The venue offers open-air cinema every summer, as well as an annual international jazz festival.

All set for song and words

Two French cultural icons are native to Sète and now have museums dedicated to them: the songwriter George Brassens and the Nobel-prize author Paul Valéry.

All set for a spruce-up ?

To appreciate Sète, you’ll need the right mindset: a willingness to enterain postcard-imperfect places along with the perfect ones, a taste for bohemian decay and an eye for diamonds in the rough. Sète seems to scream just that: “I’m a diamond in the rough!”

Although the town offers its fair share of graceful 19th-century architecture and colorful facades typical of the French Mediterranenan, the state of decay in some streets is more Neapolitan than Venitian. There’s an iconic neighborhood where the canal joins the lagune, called the Pointe Courte. It gave it’s name to a classic 1955 French film by Angès Varda. Not so much has changed since. The tiny but colorful houses are aligned in rows along cobble-stone pedestrian streets. Some of the facades are graced by flowering vines, others by laundry hung out to dry. It’s a fringe neighborhood, set apart from Sète, or maybe a fishermen’s micro-republic. Down by the lagune where the old boats bobby out of sync, there’s a tangle of old fish nets and seafaring odds and ends, and ruined walls adorned with marine-inspirted street art. A colony of stray cats keeps company with the inhabitants of a several makeshift floating huts, slapped together with slabs of weatherworn wood. At lunchtime, an undercover, jam-packed, cash-only restaurant serves legendary seafood at its backyard waterfront.

It’s a place with undaunted character, a bastion of resistance against gentrification. Sète has become immensely popular with the French, and the TGV stop has made it all the more accessible at 3:30 hours from Paris. For me, the greatest eyesores of Sète are its buildings from late 20th century, I have often wished them to rubble, but they are here to stay for a while as a reminder of how our human society almost entirely lost its aesthic sensitivity under the dictates of economic productivity. There are many cities equally marred, of course, but the idyllic setting of Sète accentuates the effect.

If you can handle the above disclaimer, you’re all set to purchase property at almost half the price you’d pay in Nice, Cannes, or Disneyland…with a view on the very same azure sea.

If you’re just over for a visit, then you’ll discover Sète as a city that eschews glamour and glitz in favor of its authentic cultural specificities.

All set to eat? Here are some recommendations:

La Coquerie, 1 Chem. du Cimetière Marin

Set on the heights of Sète with a fine view of the sea, Chef Guilhem offers a single 6-course discovery menu, composed of fresh, seasonal ingredients. It’s a reservation-only restaurant reserved for your culinary delight.

Chez François, 8 Quai Général Durand

A popular seafood standard, set next to the canal in the heart of Sète. The place to go for fresh oysters.

Tielles Sophie Cianni & Co, 19 Gd Rue Mario Roustan

Not a restaurant but a small manufacturer of the Sète culinary speciality where you can take out tielles or chaussons aux moules (little clam pies).

See more photos of Sète and the sea.


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