M1626 – Ready, Sète, Go

In my last two posts, M1626 – Familiar sights and M1626 – Waterfront walkabout I described the lovely day I spent in Barcelona, Spain, visiting the Sagrada Família basilica and walking the waterfront.

Overnight we sailed along the coast to a different country, France, and very early the next morning (before dawn) we docked in the port of Sète. It was still dark as I ate my breakfast, but shortly after I had finished I was able to take some photographs of the sun rising between the dockyard cranes:

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Sète is located on the strip of land that separates the Bassin de Thau – an enclosed salt water lake – and the Mediterranean Sea. The town is built on and around Mont St Clair, a 175m high limestone hill, and it has a network of canals which are the link between the Bassin de Thau and the Mediterranean Sea. These canals give rise to the nickname for Sète, ‘the little Venice of Languedoc’. The town’s canals, bridges, quays, squares and mellow facades, combined with the quality of the light have made it a draw for many artists from all around the world.

The Bassin de Thau is about 21km long and 8km wide, with a maximum depth of 30m, but the average depth is only 4m. As well as the canals through Sète linking it to the sea, the Canal du Rhône à Sète provides a link to the river Rhôn, and the Canal du Midi a link to Bordeaux via Toulouse. As well as being a wildlife haven and tourist attraction, the lake supports a thriving oyster and mussel industry.

The shore tour I had chosen was tour right around the Bassin de Thau, stopping at a couple of scenic villages and the top of Monte St Clair on the way.

Leaving Sète we drove south-west along the long sandy causeway that separates the lake from the sea. Unfortunately the coach I was travelling on proved to be a bit of a disaster. I always endeavour to sit near the front of the coach, so that I can take photographs out of both the front and side windows, but in this case the roller blind was stuck covering most of the front window, and the side windows were streaked with dirt making photography from the coach impossible. Also the P.A. system howled and whistled most of the times that the local guide tried to use it. I did manage to hear her point out the cameras on tall poles that monitor the sand, as erosion is a significant problem; and also the low-lying grape vines growing with shelter each side of the road – wine has been produced in the area since Roman times.

Reaching the end of the lake, we followed the road around, driving through the village of Agde, then heading north-east to our first stop, the fishing village of Marseillan – and my first chance to take photographs on the tour! Here there was an attractive harbour inlet, lined with cafés and with La Maison Noilly Prat – home of the famous wine:

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At the end of the inlet was a square, and behind that a church who’s tower was topped with a bell shape to enclose the bell:

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As always I would have liked more time to explore the village further, but all too soon we drove on up the inland side of the lake towards our second stop, Bouzigues, centre of the oyster and mussel production since Greek times.

Here this unfortunate tour got even more shambolic. Our local guide informed us that we would be leaving the coach for a walk, and would rejoin the coach “at the end of the village”. She said that there were two routes to choose from, but the most scenic and therefore best one to choose was along the shore of the lake. She then disappeared along the other route through the village centre, leaving the passengers – including the ship’s representative – totally uncertain how far we had to  walk or where this mysterious meeting point at the end of the village was!

We wandered along the shoreline, and I stopped to take photographs of the boats – it all looked very idyllic with the still water of the lake and the lovely clear blue sky and bright sunshine:

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A little way out into the lake were hundreds of wooden frames used in the production of oysters and mussels:

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More by luck than judgement we stopped very close to where the coach and the local guide eventually reappeared. Reunited we drove on around the lake passing flocks of flamingoes until we returned to Sète.

Here we drove up steep roads to the top of Mont St Clair, where we had our third and final photo stop. As well as a great viewpoint for Sète and for the whole Bassin de Thau area, there is also a small chapel dating back to 1861. In 1952, the chapel was decorated with frescoes. I was pleased that I chose to visit the chapel immediately we arrived, as moments after taking these photographs the small space was overrun with my fellow passengers:

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There were two areas to see the extensive views, a curved path outside mainly overlooking Sète itself, and from a lookout point on top of a building, from which the lake and causeway could be seen:

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Our coach then took us back down the hill and into the port area where we rejoined our ship.

Although it was now lunchtime, I decided to forgo my lunch and head out immediately to explore the town with my camera, as we had to be back onboard by 3:30 at the latest for a 4pm sailing. Don’t worry though, I had planned this ahead of time and had eaten a very hearty breakfast to make up!

The ship is currently having it’s paintwork changed – the height of the red line and of the blue-grey is being raised. While this is being done, the effect is rather confusing:

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I didn’t envy the job of the deckhands who were hard at work repainting the bow area by hanging precariously over the side:

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From the ship it was a short walk down a side street to reach a bridge crossing one of the canals that link the lake with the sea:

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On the other side of the bridge lay the town centre, and I just wandered about taking photographs of anything that caught my eye, appreciating the lovely light that the area is so famous for:

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Walking back down that same side street towards the ship, the latter looked rather dramatic and unexpected in the street scene:

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Promptly at 4pm we set sail, but the space was very tight in the port area and even our small ship struggled to manoeuvre out. After very slowly crabbing sideways for some time, we were then able to back out into the main harbour area, before sailing forwards at last alongside a breakwater and finally out into open sea – the whole process taking over half an hour.

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As we sailed out I noticed row upon row of identical vans on a quayside presumably waiting to be exported, and their abstract pattern interested me:

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In conclusion I was ready for Sète with it’s idyllic setting by the lake and the wonderful light, but is was a shame that both the coach and local tour guide were not up to scratch, and that we had to go too early in the day.

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