Sunday, 7 March 2010


written 1st March 2010

1st march already!  doesn't time fly when you are having fun!  Although a third of our way into the time allowed (not even allowing for our delayed start) and not a tird of the way round our original statement of intent.  We have, however, been extremely fortunate with the weather as it seems that arriving places earlier or later would have not been good - fortunately we are currently not in any of Spain, Portugal or France where there are awful storms and people are dying - good for us at least.

Anyway, where was I...

As the self-styled Pearl of the Mediterranean and Venice of Languedoc, Sete sits between the sea and the inland lagoon of the Bassin de Thau like a floating buoy, moored to the mainland by two thin strips of land covered in vines on the one hand

and riven with canals on the other. 

The main town sits at the foot of it hills, Mont St-Clair, with its beaches and old fishing quarter nestling on the seaward side. 

With its narrow streets and pavement cafe fish restaurants along the quayside,

it is pretty enough and its wide canals are a bit venice like - except for the most part wider, and cleaner and coffee is cheaper, and it doesn't smell (we've been to Venice...  if you want recomendations, just ask). 

It is very much still a working fishing port and on weekdays apparently the catch come in daily and you can even book to go watch the auction in the fish market which might have been interesting.

Having spent friday night by the side of a back road, with seagulls periodically screaming nearby - I first thought it was witches in my groggy half-awake middle of the night state! - we woke up to drizzel when we walked into town.  But the tourist office was easily found and very helpful - on finding we didn't want to pay €1 for a map (we had already seen two on street corners) they gave us lots of free booklets of things to do/see instead and a list of all the bars with free wifi, brilliant! - and with no prospect of the weather improving, we spent the day on dull washing and internet related 'real-life' chores before moving the van to the free port carpark where we found a whole community of french people who live there, seemingly permanently, in their motorhomes.  They were friendly and recommended a couple of places to visit on our route and we finished the day with a walk in the wet in search of further wifi, during which we saw rather more of the town than we intended - should have paid for that map... :)

After a slightly blowy night - the same one in which half of France, Spain and Portugal were apparently decimated by storms and left without power, roads or drinking water - we woke to a brighter day and set of in search of the market. 

Against all expectations, Sete was buzzing late Sunday morning with people out and about, kissing each other, having coffee and carrying baguettes and all other typical french things (no stripey top wearing onion sellers on bicycles though unfortunately ;) ) and the market was thriving.  We had set out for a Tielle - the typical food of Sete which is a squid and tomato pie, recommended by guidebooks and a girl from the carpark - intending to carry it with us to the top of Mont St Clair as a picnic.  We found such a thing at a bustling fish stall-cum-restaurant and also some of the biggest mussels we have ever seen so decided to buy a kilo of them as well.

We've never cooked mussels before but fortunately Tony in El Palmar had old us what to do with them - clean, beard, cook - so we were fairly confident we could manage them in the van and they were enormous.  The fishman was so confident of their quality he was inviting customers to taste them raw (saltier and slimier than cooked but otherwise pretty similar) so we figured we couldn't go too far wrong :)

With fishy treats deposited back in the van and a baguette for picnic lunch, we set off up the hill once more and having started in two coats under a grey sky,

were soon in t-shirts and sunshine and throroughly rewarded by the 360 view from the two view points. 

We walked back down and along the beach, through the town and set off along the coast once more.

Our route took us, on recommendation, through Frontignan-Plage and past the Etangs (salt water lagoons) which are separated from the sea by thin strips of land and through which the Canal du Rhone a Sete runs. 

In the setting sun it was all jolly lovely and there were flamingos in all the places marked on the map by big pink flamingos!  I have never seen live flamingos before and now twice on one trip!  Still too far away for proper pics though :( 

Our destination was La Grande Motte, which alledgely had an aire de service for camping-cars but we couldn't find it so parked in the centre of town outside the tourist office.  I would like to say that after the two previous nights, it was a quiet, undisturbed night, which largely it was, apart from the seagulls landing and walking on the roof - they are surprisingly big and heavy for birds and sound almost exactly like a man climbng on the rook, which is rather disconcerting!

Next morning, the sun was again shining as we set off to explore.

La Grande Motte was another of Bill's recommendations and described in our La Rochelle carpark conversation as "a wierd town of white pyramids with no square buildings" and this is exactly what we found.  We don't know the full history as the book from the tourist office was €8 - sorry, I don't value your continuing education that highly! - and wikipedia is surprisingly silent on the matter but as far as I can gather, LGM was conceived in the late 1960's as an attempt to revitalise the Languedoc coastline and encourage people to visit there instead of heading onwards to spain.

It was a completely greenfield site handed over to the architect Jean Balladur for him to do with what he would, and he did, supposedly creating some template for modern living - or some such thing.  The town is literally named 'The Big Molehill' and its beach front buildings are meant to resemble Inca and Mayan pyramids in Mexico whereas in reality, I think they look more like those ultra funky plastic lampshades from Habitat, you know, the ones with the geometic shapes cookie-cut out of them with those hanging chad sticky out bits - you get the idea?  Despite being 40 years old, the buildings still look quite crisp and white with their windows still sporting blinds in all sun faded shades of all the same primary colours.  It's quite nice!

The town is completely zoned.  The pyramid hotels and apartment blocks tower over the marina, there is a golf area - called 'Point Zero' which we both kept reading as 'Ground Zero' definitely not a golf destination! - a camping zone and two areas of 'residences' and villas, one of which, Will spotted on the otherside of town, was called 'Happyland', sandwiched between 'Sunnyland' and 'Dixieland'.  Well we had to go find that! 

So with nowhere being very far from anywhere, we set off in search of this particular utopia,

through the massive white edifices offering various sorts of gated paradise,

before finding ourselves in a silent, deserted, moonbase part of town where the identical pod-like residences were set apart from each other like so many 1960's sci-fi space capsules.

I was expecting Happyland to be a joyous place, built of kittens and lollipops - yes we did debate the relative merits of kittens as building material but I still maintain that no one can be unhappy with a kitten, even if it makes your lollipops a bit furry...  anyway. 

Imagine my delight when we passed Sunnyland, basking in its eponymous sun and then shattered illusions when we rounded a corner and there it was,

a run down, miserable building,

without a kitten or lollipop in sight, where all fun of any kind was prohibited.  Not a very happyland after all  ... 

Still, definitely worth a visit for the 1970's triumph of urban beach planning experience.

By way of complete contrast, we travelled next to Aigues-Mortes a walled town which has remained largely unchanged since its prominent role in the seventh crusade.

I didn't know this, but apparently, in the 13th century, the kingdom of france had no land on the mediterranean coast.  Languedoc belonged to the Kings of Aragon (Spain) and Provence to the German Empire.

King Louis IX wanted to take up the banner of the crusade so negociated the purchase of an area of malarial, mosquito ridden, stagnant swampland from the Abbey of Psalmody on which he built his town of Aigues-Mortes (literally Dead Waters).  It had a single road connecting it to the mainland, and thus the rest of the Kingdom, and he had to bribe people to live there through tax breaks and forced loans.

After just 2 years, in 1248, he was able to set off triumphantly on Crusade, with 100 ships, thousands of men and his wife and children in tow, returning six years later.  He was not so lucky on his next expedition in 1270 when he died of typhus within a month.

With the silting up of the swamp and the annexation of Marseilles to Fance in 1481, Aigues lost its importance to the French crown, only coming to the fore again in the wars between Protestants and Catholicsin the late 17th century and in 1705 when the main tower became a prison for protestants, the most famous of whom was incarcerated there for 38 years.

Today Aigues is a major hub of salt production and a river port thanks to the Canal du Rhone a Sete, constructed in 1806.

We passed the salt factory which had a big sign saying it was open for visits from 1st March - well that's today!  We've seen a lot of salt pans on this trip but still don't know much about the process so thought we fancied a bit of that and on looking for somewhere to turn round just on the outskirts of Aigues, happened upon a local produce depot.

As we turned round in the carpark, we saw someone who looked local (portly and hairy) loading large plastic bottles of what looked suspiciously like red wine into his car.  Well that was certainly worth investigation! 

Inside there were lots of fancy local products showcased and artfully spotlit, but also 4 tapped glass vats of wine and two further locals with copious plastic containers - up to 20l each bottle -  chatting away as the wine gushed from the hose.

I've never bought wine 'en vrac' like this before and she was more than happy to give us some of each to try (including the delicious muscat).  Even better, having found to our surprise that we really liked the white and needing some for cooking mussels anyway, when we enquired about what quantity and what containers she sold in - bit scared by the 5l and 10l dispensing buttons, I mean I like my wine and all but there is a limit... - she was very accomodating and didn't turn her nose up at our 1.5l water bottle, hastily fetched in from the van.  Brilliant!

The salt factory tour was unfortunately not actually starting until saturday - shame - and although we popped into Aigues for a wander - no maze of typical streets here, efficient grid pattern,  presumably the local migrant workers of the day were hugely unproductive yet meticulously organised about it... - we decided against the castle and ramparts tour as we wanted to see the Camarge whilst it was still light.

The Camargue is the wetland delta of the Rhone, a flat, fen-like land which is a patchwork of lagoons, swamps, marshes, reedbeds, saltpans and farmland.

It is famous for its wild horses and also for bull rearing, rice growing and salt production.  With all the nature reserves, museums and other local industry to visit, a week could easily be spent in the area if you had the time and inclination.  I particularly fancied the salt eco museum and the rice museum - I realise I am actually quite ignorant about rice apart from stereotypical images of pyjama-wearing orientals with conical hats, paddling up to their knees in damp fields, I don't even know which bit of plant it is... - but it was too late in the day for any of that and we needed a Carrefour so we could cook our mussels so had to press on.

We therefore arrived in Arles, famous for its roman amphitheatre and apparently instantly recogniseable as the one-time home of Van Gogh and depicted in many of his famous works, just as rush hour hit and the tourist office closed.  So we regretfully pushed on - unfamiliar towns and us at rush hour do not bode well...

We are now in a little aire in an out of the way village called Pelissane having just had the best meal we have cooked ourselves so far this trip.

Menu du jour

Premier Plat: Tielle chauffee

Second Plat: Moules en crème

Boisson et servis inclu

The mussels still looked enormous and were soon swimming around in our washing up bowl waiting to be cleaned and bearded.  The beard is the stringy, hairy bit they use to attach themselves to rocks or ropes and pulls out the shell with a squeaky squelch.

With the onions and garlic already softened in butter, in went the mussels, wine and cream and the whole lot simmered gently

whilst we enjoyed our delicious squid and tomato pie starter - definitely yummy -

then with all the mussels opening out like butterflies , we tucked in to our shellfishy main course, mopping up the delicious creamy sauce with hunks of baguette - vraiment nous somme maintenant des vrais francais. 

Bon appetit!

1 comment:

  1. Not sure about the first course but the main is making my my mouth water.