Dominating the lagoon is Sète, an interesting lively town. Its name itself derives from the Latin word ‘ cetus’, meaning cetaceous, which became ‘ ceta’ and finally ‘ cète’. The origin of the town’s name is unclear but many believe that fishermen approaching the town from the sea called the city ‘Cète’, an old French word for whale, because of its shape on the horizon. As such, the town’s coat of arms features a whale and it has become a symbol that can be spotted around town.
Sète is also known as ‘La Venise du Languedoc’. Indeed, labyrinthine canals and marinas criss-cross in the centre of town, and with the lagoon on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, water is ever-present in Sète.
In fact, water is the reason why the town was ever built. King Louis XIV wished to link the Mediterranean with the Atlantic and ordered the construction of one of the most spectacular engineering feats ever accomplished: the Canal du Midi. The spot where Sète now stands was chosen as the canal’s starting point and the sea barrier, protecting the lagoon from the Mediterranean, was built in 1666.
The first inhabitants, mostly fishermen, settled on the Mont St-Clair, nicknamed ‘la Montagne’ by the locals. Nowadays, the fishermen’s shacks have been replaced by private villas, each with their own pool, but they are still owned by fishermen – fishing can be a lucrative business in the area, especially if you fish for tuna. Just the sight of the dozen huge trawlers moored up in town is a sign of how well they do: less than 10 of these tuna boats account for about 50% of France’s bluefin tuna quota.
Sète is best explored on foot as the centre is a bit of a tight squeeze. As you wander through the cobbled streets you’ll find plenty of cafés to stop at along the way, while the sound of laughter and Marseillan: €185,000 Hérault: €204,500 Mèze: €230,000 Sète: €260,000 delicious fresh food smells drift through the air. This is very much a town of the south, where French, Catalan and Spanish influences can be seen and heard everywhere you go.
Be sure to stop at the fantastic covered market hall, which is open every day. It’s as much a source of fresh local products as a place of social gathering, where daily news is discussed and debated over a platter of seafood and a glass of wine. Within the market hall you’ll find Halles et Manger, a delightful little restaurant where chef Magali also offers cooking classes for everyone to join in.
After you’ve sampled the delicious food (and there’s plenty), head down to the quiet and charming fishermen’s district called La Pointe Courte. Built in the 1960s to house a large community of fishermen who had naturally congregated there as it was the most convenient place to hang their fishing nets to dry, it’s a humble but wonderfully colourful area. In 1969, the town mayor sold the land for a token sum so that the community could officially settle there. The district was off-limits to outsiders for a long time, although artists such as George Brassens and Agnès Varda often frequented the area, but, in recent years new residents have arrived and visitors can be seen strolling the streets.
But perhaps what makes people really fall in love with Sète is the amazing array of cultural activities available to them. There are seven museums and the cultural calendar counts no less than 10 festivals (for about 43,000 inhabitants), including the BBC’s Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Festival held on the beach. Water jousting is a major part of life in Sète and thousands of people watch the tournaments held there every summer.
MÈZE AND BOUZIGUES
If Sète is a young city, Mèze is the one with all the history and is in fact the oldest settlement around the lagoon. Located