SETE - VENICE OF LANGUEDOC - CANAL DU MIDI
THE LARGEST FRENCH FISHING PORT ON THE MEDITERRANEAN
|canal du midi||south france|
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
In the beginning, under the gallo-romans Sète was known as Ceta or Sita. It was a town on the island of Mont Saint Clair, and made a name for itself in the production of pickled fish. Soon fishing built the towns wealth, making it the envy of local lords and barons. Under the control of the Abbot of Aniane since the 9th century, Sete came under the bishop of Agde in 1246, no doubt to provoke the King of Aragon and the bishops of Maguelone. During this time the lagoon closed up creating the Bassin de Thau. Similarly silt forced the eventual closure of the then sea ports of Aigues Mortes, Agde, and Narbonne.
Under the Duke of Montmorency, Governor of Languedoc, Sète, became the definitive Languedoc port, replacing those that had died under the mud. It became the base to hunt the last of the privateers lead by the infamous Barbe Rousette. In 1596, construction work was started on a jetty that was to serve to protect the port from the storms of the sea.
Because of financial problems the jetty was not completed until 1666 by Colbert. Finally Sète was a secure anchorage for commerce and the royal fleet, as well as a sea entrance for the Canal du Midi. The town was officially created by a decree of the council of state on 30 September 1673. Forty years later in July 1710, the English attacked and seized the port with apparently little difficulty, before eventually being hunted out. Consequently Languedoc immediately improved the defenses at Fort Saint Pierre and the Citadelle Richeleu. Two centuries later the town was almost totally destroyed whilst being liberated by the allies at the end of the second World War. However Sète was quickly reborn to become the principal fishing port for France on the Mediterranean.
The charm of Sète is in the effortless energy that exumes from the canal, the sea, the streets, the restaurants. You can walk and discover fishing boats, busy with their cargo, walk and find a restaurant to eat and watch, even in the relative cool of deepest winter. It seems there is a warmth here, perhaps because of its cosmopolitan feeling of ships from ports far away or from the young coming from the nearby university city of Montpellier. It is no wonder that Georges Brassens, who is buried here, was imbued with song and word, and also that it was to provide the inspiration for Paul Valèry.
Walk down the Saint Louis Pier (Mole Saint Louis - originally constructed by Riquet to protect the entrance of the port) - look at the fishing boats and yachts vie for space. Here you will see some fo the fastest sailboats in the world as it is here that the French train for the America's Cup. Look up at the slim lighthouse that was rebuilt in 1948, after the devastation of the war. It is the last light house in France equipped with a fresnel lens from rock crystal.
Perhaps take a bite in one of the wonderful restaurants on the canal before climbing up Mont Saint-Clair (183m), where you will have a wonderful view of the village, the port, the Bassin de Thau, the Cevennes, the Pyrennees. Visit the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Salette. Converted from the remnants of an old fort built by the Duke of Montmorency and dismantled by Richeleu in 1632, this church originally served some hermits who prayed for the souls of the fishermen, as well as when necessary lighting fires to warn of pirates. It was not until 1897 that the canon Gaffino de Saint Louis restored the chapelle de la Salette and became minister there. Look around to see the decorations of scenes of Sètois life.
Here too, is the Sailors Cemetary (Le Cimetiere Marin). Constructed in 1843 from the old quarried rock that had been used in the building of the port, this cemetary was immortalised by Paul Valéry. Just like the poet, numerous Setois celebrites are buried here facing the sea. Look at the sailors names that run from Belgian to Scandinavian, often appended with Italian like endings, because they wanted to have a closer attachment to the Mediterranean zeal. Close too visit the Musée Valéry with a good collection of paintings, a wonderful exhibition on the life of the poet, as well as historical items relating to the town of Sète.
Perhaps as you leave, this warm, colorful town, this Venice of Languedoc, wander around the Pointe Courte, to drink in the atmosphere of the fishermen's quarter. Or take a drive out on the coastal road to Agde, and lie under the sun, and rush into the waves - look down the seeingly endless beach to the distant Pyrennees punching into the sky.
South France Guide | Languedoc Sights
Canal du Midi