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If you had never been to the Mediterranean coast, and had to create the ideal small seaport town from scratch, Sete would be it. The town is almost like a movie set, with its small pristine harbor, sidewalk cafes, lighthouse, canals and hilltop church. One would almost expect to see Cary Grant (or more appropriately, Louis Jourdan) wandering among the art deco buildings or seated in a canal-side cafe sipping an aperitif.
Sete is a small port on the southern coast of France that time seems to have passed by. Its size prevents the larger cruise ships from stopping there, and as a result, it retains a charm and an unspoiled quality (only the small ships of Windstar, Silversea and Radisson currently call here as part of seven-day western Mediterranean itineraries). It is a real working port, or actually ports, with the old port area in the southern end filled with pleasure boats and the small cruise ship dock, while the commercial port is out of sight on the other side of town.
The Canal Royal is the focal point, as all major attractions and shopping areas are along (or within easy walking distance) of this central waterway. While Sete has some interesting attractions, the real pleasure comes in just being there, enjoying this relatively unspoiled French coastal village.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malaga • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Positano (Amalfi) • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
French. The city does not get many cruise ships, so while workers in the main shopping areas speak a bit of English, owners of the offbeat, and off-the-beaten track shops often do not.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro; there are a few ATM's along the Quai de la Resistance and the nearby side streets. Shops outside of the main shopping areas often do not take credit cards.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock a couple of short blocks and across a small canal from downtown. The entire city is within easy walk of the pier.
Food! Specifically, either a bottle of the regional dessert wine, Muscat de Frontignan, or a box of macaroons or madeleines. These make nice gifts for the folks back home, too, as they are often boxed nicely and they travel well. A local specialty is an interesting biscuit created out of aniseed essence and thin slices of green olives -- ask for a sample before committing to a box, as they are unusual and may not be to everyone's taste.
Sete is a great opportunity to people-watch. The town is compact, filled with small parks and sidewalk cafes, and the natives usually far outnumber the tourists. Place A. Briand is a nice setting to relax, surrounded as it is by busy shopping streets. For a less crowded venue, try the Parc du Chateau d'Eau, with its playground and war memorial. And for relaxing with a view, try hiking up to the top of Mont Saint-Clair.
On Foot: The entire town radiates from the old port dock, and except for a couple of spots up the rather steep hill, everything is an easy walk.
By Car: Hertz, Avis and Budget all have locations in Sete. Reservations are a must, and remember, the norm in Europe is the stick shift. Renters must request (and be prepared to pay a significant premium for) automatic cars.
Watch Out For
Alas, the French have not gotten into the habit of picking up after their dogs. Particularly on side streets, watch your step!
Centre Regional d'Art Contemporain (26 Quai Aspirant Herber, 04.67.74.94.37, 12:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 1:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. weekends, free) is a regionally funded center that showcases whatever it feels is new and interesting in (primarily French) contemporary art. The building stands out as a rather stark structure in the otherwise picturesque and early 20th-century style of its surroundings. The exhibitions are unusual (very unusual and very experimental); attendants do make an effort to bridge the language barrier.
La Decanale Saint-Louis (1 Rue Pascal, open services only, free) is the main church in the town, and very unlike the grand churches elsewhere. The building is plain, with a long stairway up to the main old wooden doors. The church was built in 1702, and features a statue of the Virgin Mary atop the bell tower, clearly visible from the pier. The tower also contains three working clocks.
Parc du Chateau d'Eau (end of Avenue Max Dormoy) was created in the mid-1800's. It is a fully realized space with lots of old shade trees, greenery and open areas and benches for children and adults alike. A highlight in the park is a war memorial, complete with statuary and inscriptions to those who died for France. In large, bold, golden characters are the years 1914-1918. Unfortunately, it wasn't the "war to end all wars," and in rather cramped spaces are the years 1935-1945 and then 1952-1962, making the memorial even more sadly eloquent.
Mont Saint-Clair (end of Rue de Belfort) is for those looking for an exhilarating hike, culminating in a climb of about 400 steps. The peak offers Sete's highest and best view, allowing visitors to appreciate the town's beauty and its lacy series of canals. Nearby is the Notre-Dame de la Salette, a small chapel that contains some interesting frescoes. The church is the destination for the annual autumn pilgrimage of fishermen's wives.
For a uniquely Sete experience, wander the canals. The downtown canals are all fronted with pedestrian-friendly walkways, and the bridges allow strollers to easily pass from one section to another. Or consider a boat ride through the canals. In season, the Sete Croiseres (04.67.46.00.46) offers a variety of boat trips through the canals and along the coast. The information booth is on Quai General Durand opposite the Tourist Office.
For those with a bit more ambition, but still averse to hill-climbing, venture out on the Mole Saint Louis (jetty) for a panoramic view of the port and the town and for a closer examination of the lighthouse and some early fortifications built in the 1700's.
And of course, shopping. The main streets of Sete around the canals are filled with shops, some tourist in nature, but many obviously catering to the locals. The Quai de la Resistance and the Grand'rue Mario Roustan are lined with food and specialty shops. Some of note include Biscuiterie Catagnia (35 Grand'rue Mario Roustan), Leonidas Sweets (8 Rue Frederick Mistral), and Au Chocolat Liegois (6 Quai de la Resistance).
Annie Quedre Streliski is a local sculptor who maintains her workshop/gallery at 14 Rue Pascal. Her work is dramatic and unusual; however, even the small pieces cost several hundred euros, and she does not accept credit cards (although she does have an arrangement with the butcher next door who does accept them ... go figure).
Been There, Done That
Come on, really, you haven't been here before. But if the little village of Sete is just not your thing, try a day trip to Aigues Mortes, a fortified city located in the heart of the Petite Camargue, built in the 13th century and standing quite alone in a melancholy landscape of ponds, sea marshes and saltpans. Aigues Mortes originally served as a departure harbor for the crusades of St Louis. Its Constance Tower is one of the most majestic pieces of architecture from medieval times, and served as a lookout post to fend off the Saracens.
Casual Dining: The town is filled with small sidewalk cafes, and those located on the Quai Maximin Licciardi seem to be filled with locals. They offer similar menus that emphasize seafood. Pick the one with the fewest smokers, order the famous moules frites (mussels and fries as only the French can make them), pour some French wine, and enjoy the passing scene. Further up the same street (now the Quai de la Resistance), several pastry shops and bakeries offer dessert.
Luxurious Lunch: For a more elegant (and expensive) meal, dine at La Rascasse (27 Quai General Durand, 04.67.74.38.46), a bright spot with a window-lined dining room and a few outside tables that take advantage of its location right on the Canal Royal. It features local and regional specialties (read seafood!), a nice wine list, and opens for lunch at noon.
Cruise lines only offer two or three in Sete. One option is a guided tour of the old town of Montpellier, followed by a trip to the Flaugergues Castle, where visitors taste wines from the estate. History buffs will enjoy a walking tour of the old fortified city of Pezenas, which was the "Versailles" (royal court) of the region; historic mansions, narrow streets and ornate doorways have remained unchanged since the 17th century, and lots of artists fill the town now. Also included is a visit to the Abbey of Valmagne, which dates from the 12th century.
Staying in Touch
An Internet cafe is located at 4 Avenue Max Dormoy and is open weekdays from 9 a.m. - 8 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. (closed on Sunday). Access is 3 euros per hour.
For More Information
On the Web: www.ot-sete.fr
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--by Maria Smith, a travel writer whose work has appeared in newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Nashville Tennessean and the San Jose Mercury News.