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
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.
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