Sète, the Venice of Langue­doc

Criss-crossed with canals and squeezed be­tween the shin­ing Mediter­ranean and the oys­ter-farm­ing la­goon of Thau, Sète has plenty to of­fer for prop­erty buy­ers with all bud­gets, ex­plains So­phie Gard­ner-roberts

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The western coast of the Mediter­ranean is dot­ted with well-known towns and cities, which are both tourist and prop­erty hotspots. Bustling Mont­pel­lier, his­tor­i­cal Béziers and even sun-baked Per­pig­nan all of­fer easy ac­cess to the sea, a sunny cli­mate and a life­style that cel­e­brates de­li­cious food (in­flu­enced in part by the prox­im­ity to Spain), tra­di­tional fes­ti­vals and ex­cel­lent cul­tural fa­cil­i­ties. Imag­ine hav­ing all this, in the same area but right on the sea, in a smaller town.

Some­what hid­den among these south­ern cities is Sète. Lo­cated right on the coast be­tween Mont­pel­lier and Béziers, it is set on a nar­row stretch of land with the Etang de Thau on one side (the largest la­goon in the area) and the Mediter­ranean on the other. The town crawls up the slopes of Mont St-clair be­fore sprawl­ing out at its feet. To the east lies the 12km Lido beach, while canals and bridges of the busy cen­tre end in an im­pres­sive port to the west. Sète has pre­served its au­then­tic­ity thanks to lo­cals who

are fiercely proud of their home town and it charms every per­son who chooses to set­tle here.

Youth­ful en­ergy

Sète is a town of many names. The ex­act ori­gins of its cur­rent one are un­clear but many be­lieve Sète de­rives from the Latin ce­tus, which means ceta­ceous and refers to the shape of the town on the hori­zon, which fish­er­men would see when com­ing back to the port. The bump of the Mont St-clair and the low stretch of land stem­ming from it re­minded many of the pro­file of a whale. Today, ‘ la baleine’ fea­tures on the town’s coat of arms and whale sym­bols can be spot­ted around town.

Its other ep­i­thet, of­ten touted by tourist boards, is ‘la Ville Sin­gulière’ – the sin­gu­lar town. Its pe­cu­liar shape and ur­ban lay­out, the canals, the va­ri­ety of dis­tricts and ar­chi­tec­ture make it a place full of sur­prises. But it is what makes Sète so charm­ing and the char­ac­ter of its lay­out is re­flected in the peo­ple who live there.

Fi­nally, Sète is also known as ‘La Venise du Langue­doc’ thanks to the in­ner wa­ter­ways that slice through the cen­tre of town. These canals al­low ac­cess from the Thau la­goon, into the port and ul­ti­mately the sea, thus creating a con­tin­u­ous wa­tery link from the Mediter­ranean all the way to the At­lantic, thanks to the Canal du Midi – which was, in fact, the main rea­son for Sète’s cre­ation.

Sur­pris­ingly (yet again), Sète is only 351 years old. Its foun­da­tion was due to Louis XIV who dreamed of link­ing the At­lantic to the Med via man­made wa­ter­ways. Con­struc­tion on the Canal du Midi be­gan in 1666 and Sète was founded that year as the place where the canal would pour into the sea.

Orig­i­nally the area con­sisted of marsh­lands over­look­ing the la­goon but the town soon be­gan to thrive thanks to its po­si­tion on trad­ing routes in the Mediter­ranean. Such his­tory is vis­i­ble today in the Canal Royal, the town’s main canal where the Fète de la St-louis wa­ter joust­ing tour­na­ments have taken place every year since the 17th cen­tury.

Last sum­mer the town cel­e­brated its 350th an­niver­sary. Al­though a young town by French stan­dards, it is not over­shad­owed by older towns nearby in terms of cul­tural of­fer­ings and in­fras­truc­ture. Vis­i­tors will no­tice the en­ergy and buzz about town. It is a loud, sunny and vi­brant city, which has in­spired many artists through­out its his­tory. Its cov­ered mar­ket is open ev­ery­day and is al­ways packed with lo­cals pick­ing up the day’s catch at the fish stalls and fill­ing their bas­kets with sun-gorged veg­eta­bles, while aro­mas from lit­tle restau­rants float in the air tempt­ing hun­gry stom­achs. The Thau la­goon sup­plies Sète with fresh Bouzigues oys­ters and with the Hérault vine­yards nearby, ex­cel­lent lo­cal wine is easy to find.

To get lost in the streets of Sète is to dis­cover a rich her­itage and a cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion from all so­cial back­grounds. Street art mu­rals meet grand mu­se­ums such as the Musée Paul Valéry; the Musée Ge­orge Brassens cel­e­brates the iconic French singer’s life just as the World­wide fes­ti­val – or­gan­ised every year by Gilles Petersen – on the Lido beach has peo­ple danc­ing on the sand to in­ter­na­tional artists. Sprawl­ing vil­las with pools perch on Mont

St-clair while, on the other side of town, cats sleep in the shaded street of the small and colour­ful ter­raced houses of the Pointe Courte district, cel­e­brated by Nou­velle Vague French film-maker Agnès Varda.

A home for ev­ery­one

The di­verse life­style is re­flected in Sète’s prop­erty mar­ket. As the town is fairly young, the old­est houses are mostly 19th-cen­tury build­ings, par­tic­u­larly el­e­gant Hauss­ma­nian-style apart­ments (al­though Hauss­mann never came to Sète), lin­ing the canals in the town cen­tre. Prices are also ex­tremely di­verse but the av­er­age val­ues per square me­tre are €3,128 for re­sale houses and €2,477 for apart­ments (ac­cord­ing to Meilleurs Agents).

Guil­laume Au­dran of L’adresse agency in Sète tells me that there is a real mix of prop­er­ties and, de­pend­ing on where you want to buy in the town, prices can vary dra­mat­i­cally. Mont St-clair, which over­looks the town cen­tre, boasts larger prop­er­ties with land (around 1,000m2) and of­ten swim­ming pools. These prop­er­ties can be found for sale around €500,000 but can reach €1m for sea views.

For mid-range bud­gets (around €300,000) head to La Cor­niche, the his­toric beach quar­ter where houses are largely re­cently built hol­i­day homes. Ac­cord­ing to Guil­laume, you could bag a 40m2 prop­erty for around €200,000 there. Sim­i­larly, the Villeroy district, which was con­structed around 10 years ago, of­fers new-build apart­ments close to the sea.

You can find quite spa­cious prop­er­ties even in the town cen­tre. Guil­laume es­ti­mates a 100m2 apart­ment can go for €300,000. How­ever, de­pend­ing on views and the pres­ence of lifts or bal­conies, a 60m2 dwelling in town could fetch any­thing from €80,000 to €350,000. “Hav­ing an av­er­age price for Sète is lu­di­crous be­cause of these huge vari­a­tions,” Guil­laume ex­plains. “The mar­ket is so di­verse and there re­ally is some­thing for ev­ery­one. What is ex­pen­sive is land since the lay­out of the town is so re­stricted.”

In­deed, you can also find some ex­tremely af­ford­able prices in dis­tricts fur­ther out from the cen­tre, but no less charm­ing. The “pe­tits quartiers” as Guil­laume calls them, are great for fam­i­lies as they are qui­eter than the bustling cen­tre. These in­clude La Pointe Courte and the Quartier Haut, his­tor­i­cal dis­tricts that have housed artists and lo­cals for gen­er­a­tions. “These dis­tricts have a kind of island qual­ity to them, tightly knit com­mu­ni­ties live there,” he ex­plains. But they are grad­u­ally open­ing up to out­siders too as lo­cals sell up their homes.

On the up “There’s an as­ton­ish­ing cul­tural mix in Sète,” says Guil­laume. “In fact, Sète ex­pe­ri­enced a real cul­tural turn­ing point about 10 years ago and added many events to its cul­tural cal­en­dar, as well as fan­tas­tic mu­se­ums, a theatre that other towns nearby envy and even an am­phithe­atre on the beach. It’s one of the only towns in the area which is right on the coast; we have 12km of sandy beaches on our doorstep!”

For Guil­laume, Sète is on the up. Hav­ing just sold a prop­erty to New York­ers who will be spend­ing six months in the US and six months in Sète, he says his in­ter­na­tional clien­tele is mostly look­ing for se­condary homes. Al­though they come with high bud­gets (“€300,000-€400,000 for apart­ments and €1m for houses”) they look for authen­tic and tra­di­tional prop­er­ties to pur­chase.

Sète also has ex­cel­lent trans­port links, de­spite be­ing sur­rounded by wa­ter. In 3h40 on the TGV, you can reach Sète from Paris while the air­ports of Mont­pel­lier and Béziers are about 30 min­utes away. It should be said that traf­fic and park­ing in the cen­tre of town can be tricky, ow­ing to the canals and bridges, so buy­ers who want to have a car should con­sider look­ing out­side the cen­tre.

Di­dier Plongeron of Cimm-im­mo­bilier in Sète also agrees that the prop­erty mar­ket is ex­tremely di­verse and gave me a sim­i­lar ge­o­graph­i­cal low­down of the prop­erty mar­ket. For him though, the time to buy is now. “I re­ally think prices are go­ing to go up soon,” he ex­plains. “The mar­ket is dy­namic and in­vestors are cur­rently buy­ing quite high-end prop­er­ties be­fore prices in­crease too much.” He has just sold a villa to Bri­tish buy­ers and says that the in­ter­na­tional buy­ers he sees come with high bud­gets too (€500,000 on av­er­age).

His agency spe­cialises in ex­clu­sive prop­er­ties, but has houses on the mar­ket for €60,000 as well as for €700,000. “Sète is on the rise,” says Di­dier. “We are the only deep-wa­ter port be­tween Mar­seille and Port-ven­dres so the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have a big pro­ject to create a bet­ter port and ma­rina, at­tract­ing more tourists.”

What­ever your own prop­erty pro­ject, it ap­pears Sète has some­thing to suit and, with such a pleas­ant life­style, you might want to con­sider mak­ing it your new home in France, be it for the hol­i­days or for a per­ma­nent move across the Chan­nel.

Sète’s shape on the hori­zon gave the town its nick­name – la baleine (the whale)

The old­est build­ings in Sète only date from the 19th cen­tury Fish­ing boats line the canals in town

‘Venice of Langue­doc’

Bouzigues oys­ters are a lo­cal del­i­cacy

The fête de la St-louis in­cludes wa­ter joust­ing tour­na­ments

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