SETE – French poet Paul Valéry called it “the singular island” – an expression that the inhabitants of Sète have adopted as their own.
How else to describe this quasi-archipelago at the foot of Mount Saint-Clair, bordered in the north by the string of lakes that make up the Etang de Thau, and in the south by the Mediterranean Sea? This city in the southern French region of Languedoc is a sort of giant floodgate between two bodies of water, crisscrossed by canals. Not surprisingly (or very originally) it was nicknamed the “little Venice of the Languedoc.”
However, Sète is not just singular, it is mostly very plural. Especially due to its mixed origins: Italian, Catalan, North African and French. Each community has its roots in the city: the local patois dialect spoken by the elders is a mixture of Italian and Occitan, the Romance language spoken in the south of France. In the kitchen, Italian cooking wins, with the tielle, a pie made with calamari, tomato sauce and spices. The other specialty is the macaronade, made with macaroni and meat. It is said that there are as many different macaronade recipes than there are inhabitants of Sète.
To discover the city for the first time, locals recommend you see it from on high, by climbing the Mount Saint-Clair. Standing at 183 meters high, it is not the Mont Blanc, but the people of Sète are as proud of their mountain than the inhabitants of Chamonix are proud of their legendary peak.
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View from Mount Saint-Clair - Photo by : Clemens Franz
Base camp for the ascension is in front of the town hall. Take the Rue Paul-Valéry, continue through the Rue Louis-Ramond, take a break in front the Beaux Arts school, and then continue via the Rue de Belfrot and the Biscan-Pas path.
Street art and music
Once you have arrived at the top, enjoy the view, which spans from the old fishing port and beyond. Before heading in the direction of the Pierres-Blanches (“White-Rocks”) path, take a moment to discover the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, whose walls have been adorned since 1952 with murals painted by French artist Jacques Bringuier.
From there, follow the Pierres-Blanches path to the actual white rocks. On your way down, head towards the cimetière marin (“sailors’ cemetery”), the one where the rich inhabitants of Sète are buried, as opposed to the more modest Py cemetery in front of the Etang de Thau, where Paul Valéry is buried, as well as theater director Jean Vilar and painter Pierre François. François’ tomb, at the south entrance of the cemetery is surrounded by a blue enclosure – his favorite color.
Just in front of the highest entrance of the cemetery stands the Paul-Valéry Museum. It sits above the sailors’ cemetery and the Mediterranean Sea. Its architecture, made out of concrete steel and glass was designed by Guy Guillaume in the early 1970’s and is inspired by Le Corbusier.
Once inside, you dive into the culture of Sète. There are beautiful paintings, including works by Robert Combas or those of the Di Rosa Brothers, pioneers of the Figuration Libre (“Free figuration”) neo-expressionist art movement of the 1980s. There is also very complete Paul Valéry collection with more than 300 documents and objects.
Art and Sète is a love story. Like the one between Hervé Di Rosa and Bernard Belluc in 2000, which gave birth to the very rich and unusual Museum of Modest Arts – its acronym MIAM, translates to “YUMMY.”
It is out of the question to leave the “singular island” without having visited the Georges-Brassens Space. More than a million visitors have already come to “spend an hour with Brassens,” as someone wrote in the guest book. Brassens, a French singer-songwriter and poet (1921-1981) born in Sète, is an iconic figure in France.
The visit starts with Brassens’ childhood in Sète, his first friends, and ends with the lyrics of Supplique pour être enterré sur une plage de Sète (“A wish to be buried on a beach of Sète”).