The city of Sète is almost an island, a green pearl attached to the Mediterranean coastline by a thread of sand banks on either side. Sète is often referred to as “l’île singulière” – “île” means island and “singulière” has several meanings and insinuations : different, strange, unique, astonishing, in fact anything but banal. Sète is indeed “singulière” and we will try to explain why.
One of the busiest ports along the Mediterranean coast, Sète has daily direct links with Northern Africa and a thriving fishing industry. Astonishing, the port activity is here really part and parcel of the city centre. Sometimes reminiscent of Venice, the canals of Sète with their heavy cargoes of trawlers and even passenger ships are there right in the middle of town, as much part of the bustle of daily life as the market or the cafés, restaurants and shops.
Doubtless because space is limited on the lower part of the hill, the tiny streets are crammed with life. Wander through the town centre and you will see wonderful wrought iron balconies, beautifully turned stonework on impressive mansions and practically next door, you wonder whether you are in the worst slum of Naples.
In Sète, you sense the shock of extreme poverty right next to extravagant wealth ; no efforts have been made to spare the tourist the view of the industrious and industrial activity of the city, there is no « pretty picture postcard setting » although there are interesting monuments and museums to be visited, and some of the best restaurants in the whole of the Languedoc area offer truly gastronomic fare.
Then from Sète you can stroll along one of the most beautiful beaches in the region, stretching from the “Corniche” in the centre of town, right along the sand bank to Marseillan ; in all 10 km of nothing but sand and sea.
Sète is also almost a mountain, the slopes of the “Mont St. Clair” entice you to the summit 574 feet above sea-level where the view over the sea and the Thau lagoon is amazingly beautiful whatever the time of day or year.
Poets, artists and would-be poets and artists have long sought to live on the « ile singulière ». The townsfolk are particularly fond of the illustrious poet, Paul Valéry who was not only born there but proud of it too, also the rather less honourable, but genuinely talented Georges Brassens, a popular songster of the seventies. Museums are dedicated to both and attract many tourists in the summer.
More recently, Hervé di Rosa made his name as an internationally famous artist and sculptor here and you can admire his brash and sensual « Mama » on the place de l’Hospitalet. Sète is proud of this artistic connection but you will find that this statue which is in all the tourist brochures on Languedoc has just been plonked right in the middle of a car park, albeit with an attractive view over the port.
Sète is the only town I know of in France to have a statue of an enormous octopus in the square in front of the Mairie (town hall) rather than a war memorial. It is actually a rather fine octopus with two dolphins, the work of Pierre Nocca and put in place in 1987.
Perhaps the octopus is there to remind visitors of one of Sète’s most famous culinary specialities : the « tielle ». Children of poor Italian immigrants were given « tielles » to eat for their tea instead of the expensive « croissants » or « brioches » richer French children would have. Bits and pieces of octopus left over from the family meal were stewed to perfect tenderness and baked in a rough pastry casing.
The first Italian immigrants arrived at the end of the 17th century, when Cette, as the town was called in previous centuries became a Free Port and transit centre for cargoes of sugar, salt, tobacco and wine. In 1710 the port was occupied by English troupes for three whole days. Such a menace was sufficient for the people of Cette to erect solid fortifications around the town, to protect it from further invasions !
More Italian and Spanish immigrants settled in Sète between the two world wars and the atmosphere of the city remains truly Mediterranean. To check this take a look near the Octopus statue and you will see a large panel of photographs of young children. This was commissioned by the mayor of Sète in 2000. There is a photograph of every child in each nursery school throughout the city. Quite why he did this is open to discussion : perhaps it is a record for posterity ; perhaps he was already canvassing for the 2019 municipal elections ?
Every town and village in France has its culinary claim to fame. Sète is no exception and in addition to the “tielles” and other fish dish there is now a delicious little biscuit called “le Pastissou de Cette”, an interesting mixture of sweet and salt with aniseed, flour, sugar, butter and …. olives as the main ingredients. This new speciality was developed in 1998 by a dozen cooks who were looking for an interesting project to work on together. You can buy them from the best pastry shops in town for 25 F a packet and they are quite delicious and truly different.
Rich and poor, artists and industry, sea and hills, sweet and salt, Sète is full of contradictions and contrasts, striving to meet its reputation as an “île singulière”.