Sète fits well into our ‘now we’d like to return’ category, another of those places we briefly visited, before bustling on along the beautiful Mediterranean coast. During our adventurous summer of 2005, we drove southeast from Toulouse and crested a hill to the most magnificent sight – the bejeweled Mediterranean in the distance. We dipped down to Agde – yes, another city where we should have lingered – and before we knew it, we were driving along a pure, spectacular beachfront on our way to Sète.
We were in the beginning of our “Discover France” summer, so we had few plans and sometimes too little information; so our time in Sète was limited to floundering around the charming port with its intricate canal network, colorful boats and stunning views. Today I can’t imagine how, but we ended up driving all the way up the singular hill around which the city circles – Mont Saint-Clair. A great accident, in that the views were panoramic!
Now we understand that this modest city of 40-plus thousand does not represent the glitz and glamour of the Côte d’Azur but stands as a proud working port with abundant fishing and an inimitable, non-touristy charm. Two bodies of water wrap themselves around Sète, like a set of parentheses with the sprawling multi-blue Mediterranean to the front and the brackish Étang de Thau lagoon to the rear. Handily and with an enticing appeal, a network of canals connect the two – quite a rainbow scene with fishing boats painted every color of the spectrum.
Along the magnificent stretch of beach that separates the sea from the lagoon, we stopped to sink our toes in the soft sand and take in the endless expanse of azure waters. Magnificent! Only one couple with their two young children were even close to us – close enough, I might add, for us to notice their European ways with wildly colorful, animal-shaped floats and the entirely unself-conscious act of stripping down to don their suits. Pas de problème!
In fulfilling our “do-over”, I believe we could happily stay at Le Grand Hotel handsomely situated on the main canal and offering the three-star, 19th-century architecture that has long attracted the city’s maritime elite. And if we really wanted an exotic adventure, right out of Sète we could book a ferry to Morocco!
Somehow, though, I think we would be quite satisfied to explore the port and canals, not to mention re-visit the magnificent beaches. Perhaps one of the most interesting dollops of history in this town and port established in 1666 is the mandate from Louis XIV that the port be built as an outlet for the Canal du Midi.
Though I’m not among the fish-loving populace, those of you who fit that category will be in heaven! Mussels and oysters and octopus and every conceivable gilled creature comes straight from the port ships and adjacent lagoon to the markets and restaurants along the canal-side quays. I am altogether certain, though, that we will be able to find one of those savory daube beef stews for which the Camargue region is famous.