Although not one of the most famous and prominent destinations in the South of France, Sete is a unique city with its own character that is worth visiting. Known as the Venice of Languedoc, it is a port and a seaside resort in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the Mediterranean with its own very strong cultural identity, traditions and cuisine. Sete, built on and around Mont St. Clair, is located on the southern end of the Thau Lagoon (Étang de Thau), an enclosed saltwater lake. On the other side, lies the Mediterranean, and the town has a network of canals which are linked between the lagoon and the Mediterranean Sea.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SETE
Sete was founded by Louis XIV in 1666 to create a sea exit for the Canal du Midi. The construction of the port was a major undertaking that took almost fifteen years to complete. The population tripled between 1820 and 1870 and the city expanded towards the Thau Lagoon. In the 19th century, the port developed due to the trade of wine, wood, sulphur, cereals, and iron, and during that time became the first cooperage port in the world. In the 1850s, fishermen from Gaeta and Cetara, villages on the Amalfi coast near Naples, left Italy, driven by the need to find a better life, and settled in Sete.
Sete is historically a city of traders and fishermen. Its traditions are strongly rooted in its maritime heritage and at the same time have an Italian character due to the strong influence of the Italian immigrants that settled here.
Jousting is more than a sport or a folklore tradition; it is something that reflects the soul of Sete’s inhabitants. Water jousting is a tradition of the Languedoc region and in Sete, the first water jousting tournament took place on the 29th of July 1666 in order to celebrate the foundation of the port. In the first tournaments, the two opposing boats were the blue one with the young bachelors and the red one with the married men. Today, there is no such distinction in the participants and the jousting tournament takes place during the Saint Louis Festival, usually held from the middle to the end of August. Water jousting consists of two huge rowing boats with a raised ladder at one end. Every boat has four jousters and ten rowers. As the boats approach, one of the jousters grabs the shield and jousting pole, attempting to dislodge the jouster off the other boat’s platform. The boats approach each other seven times, with the winner being the one that has the most opponents removed.
THE OLD PORT
The Old Port of Sete extends along Quai de la Resistance, Quai de Bosc, and Quai General Durand, and two artificial islands on the other side. Walking along the canal and crossing the bridges that connect the two sides of the canal, you see the beautiful, colourful buildings and observe the intense movement of the port. Wandering in the Old Port is a unique experience because the shores of the canal have a manorial and at the same time relaxing aura. At one end of the canal there is the statue of the jouster, and at the exit of the canal to the sea is the impressive Saint Louis Lighthouse. The lighthouse was erected in 1680 and destroyed by German mines in 1944. In 1948, the lighthouse was rebuilt, and it is now open to the public. From the top of the lighthouse, you have a 360 degree panorama of the port and the town. Finally, along the canal, there are many seafood restaurants where you can taste the fish that are caught daily by the numerous fishing boats that return to the port.
THE OLD TOWN
The Old Town of Sete (also known as Lower Town in contradiction to the part of the city that climbs up the hill of Saint Clair) extends mainly behind the western side of the Old Port. The centre of this part of the city is Place Aristede Briand, with the large stage for orchestras in the centre. From the square, walking along the beautiful pedestrian street, Rue Gambetta, you reach the central market, Les Halles de Sette, in an impressive modern building, where you can buy fresh products from the surrounding region. After the market, at the end of Rue Gambetta, the picturesque Place du Pouffre is located, with the building of the Town Hall and the famous Octopus Fountain.
PAUL VALERY AND GEORGES BRASSENS
Sete is the birthplace of many famous French people, including the symbolist poet Paul Valery and the singer-songwriter Georges Brassens. In the city, you could visit the tomb of Paul Valery and the Museum Paul Valery, which houses a small collection of his works, along with paintings and drawings by other local artists. You could also visit Espace Georges Brassens, a modern multi-media museum where visitors are guided through the exhibition by Georges Brassens’ voice while wearing stereoscopic headphones and learning about the artist’s life and work. At the end of the visit, a series of previously unseen films and recitals are presented in a video room.
TIELLE, ZEZETTES AND PIZZA
Sette has a unique gastronomic tradition that derives from its maritime background but also from the strong influence of Italian immigrants. The most famous dish in the town is tielle, a type of seafood pie. The pie is a sort of octopus ragout with herbs in dough with a delicious golden crust. It has a strong fish and tomato taste, which is also very original and unique. The best places in Sete to taste an original tielle are Tielles et Pizzas Paradiso (11 Quai de la Résistance) and Tielles Cianni Marcos (24 Rue Honore Euzet), where the dough of the tielle is perfectly crusty. Another traditional snack that originates from the city is zezette. Sete’s Zezettes are trademark biscuits and are very popular in the wider region. They are made with the addition of white wine to the dough and, therefore, they are also known as “French white wine biscuits.” You can find the biscuits in several bakeries in the town, but the best place to buy them is none other than La Maison de la Zezette (Quartier des Salins, Rte des Quatre Chansons). Finally, you can not leave Sete without eating pizza. There are many places in the town that make excellent Italian pizza, honouring its Italian past. However, we believe that Chez Melo (26 Rue Alsace Lorraine) and Mike’s Pizza (87 Grand Rue Mario Roustan) serve the best pizza in town.
OUTSIDE THE TOWN CENTRE
La Pointe Courte is the fishermen district located on the north side of the Old Port. It’s an unusual area with colourful facades, alleys, and fishing nets drying on the docks. It’s the most authentic part of the city and one of the elements that characterise the identity of Sete. At the same time, on the southern side of the city, you could visit the extended sandy beaches that stretch along the Mediteraean and in front of the Thau Lagoon.
Sete is a beautiful city with a particularly hospitable and warm atmosphere that will win you over from the first moment. Although the visitors of the region often overlook it, it is definitely a destination that deserves your attention and, in our opinion, it is the most beautiful port in the South of France.