The lively French Mediterranean port of Sete is the perfect place to indulge a passion for seafood and long sandy beaches
It’s easy to be seduced by the glamour and sophistication of the Côte d’Azur, with its expensive private beaches, packed public beaches and menus in Russian. But head further west to Languedoc-Roussillon, beyond Montpellier to Sète, and you can discover a long stretch of beach that is never crowded and won’t charge you €20 for a drink.
Sète takes you back to how the French seaside was decades ago. Fishing is taken seriously in this bustling 300-year-old port, the deepest in the Mediterranean, and this gives the town a more down-to-earth air than its flashy neighbours to the east. It’s agreeably scruffy in places and not especially chic, yet there is plenty to admire in its grid of canals overlooked by Venetian-style architecture and its lively quayside.
One of the greatest pleasures is an evening stroll along the quai Général Durand, where several dozen restaurants and bars tempt people with their seafood-heavy menus. Immediately in front are the enormous fishing trawlers whose fresh catches end up on your plate in the quickest time imaginable. And just behind Sète is the étang de Thau, a huge lagoon that is home to beds of oysters, mussels and whelks. No wonder there isn’t a McDonald’s in the town, when there’s seafood of this quality and quantity.
The quay along Sète’s Canal Royal changes character somewhat, as well as its name, as you head towards the old port. At the southern end at quai Maximin Licciardi you’ll find the fishermen’s hangouts beside La Criée where the daily fish auction takes place. The cafés here are much more basic but even at midnight they’re full of locals gorging on oysters. The atmosphere is buzzing – in keeping with the fact that Sète is a real working port, rather than just a tourist hotspot that shuts down on 1 September like much of provincial France.
A five-minute drive takes you to La Corniche, the first in an 18km stretch of beaches that go all the way to Cap d’Agde. The Corniche itself is a bit of an eyesore – very concrete and 1960s. Ignore the architecture and head to the beach, which is amazingly uncrowded even at the height of summer. There’s always plenty of room to pitch your towel, even if the beach bars and facilities start to peter out after the first few kilometres. It can also get very windy, which some people find annoying but I find wonderfully cooling when the temperatures climb into the 30s. You can take a bus from the town, or do what I did and hire a scooter. You can nip around the town and up to Mont St-Clair for panoramic views of the whole area and cut through the admittedly thick traffic with ease and a huge amount of fun.
Once you’re back on the quayside, try to catch one of the most entertaining and frankly bonkers of Sète’s spectacles: les joutes nautiques. These jousting bouts on the Canal Royal are hilarious for spectators yet are taken very seriously by the town’s old families. Rival groups of local men sit on gondola-style boats and take turns trying to knock each other off with long lances, while an oboist and a drummer play the traditional l’air des joutes. There’s even a children’s version that takes place near the old port, as well as night-time bouts that make a vibrant backdrop to your nightcap at one of the canalside bars.
Sète has its cultural side, too, as befits the birthplace of two people close to a Frenchman’s heart: the singer Georges Brassens and the poet Paul Valéry. Brassens fans can enjoy the spirited atmosphere at Les Amis de Georges, a restaurant with regular sing-along-a-Georges nights. Explore the eccentric singer’s life at the Espace Brassens, a museum combining audio and visual displays, which is across the road from Le Py cemetery where Brassens is buried. (He had said he wanted to be buried on the beach at Sète, but the authorities sensibly didn’t grant him his final wish.)
The Musée Paul Valéry, at the top of Mont St-Clair, includes exhibitions dedicated to the poet as well as contemporary art and displays showing aspects of sétoise life. His burial place happens to be one of Sète’s most dramatic sights: the sailors’ cemetery that tumbles gently down the hill towards the harbour. And then there’s the Théâtre de la Mer, an 18th-century citadel that hosts concerts and plays in an enchanting setting overlooking the Mediterranean.
I can never stray for too long from the quayside, which is as much a feast for the eyes as for the stomach. You won’t find the glitz and Gucci of the Côte d’Azur, but you will find a truer taste of France.