Sète canals

Sète: where the Canal du Midi meets the Mediterranean for a spot of jousting

The two boats moved towards one another, one blue, one red. From each boat rose a ladder, with a boy perched on a platform at the end, high above the water. As the boats became parallel, each boy raised a 2.8 metre wooden pole and I watched, perplexed, as they tried their best to dislodge each other, until the boy from the red boat lost his balance. Cheers and jubilant music drowned out the noise of the splash

This is marine jousting, a tradition that began in Sète in 1666 to celebrate the opening of the town’s port, and which continues today with its own training school. That night I must have been watching the juniors, but it’s also an adult sport, where bachelors (blue boats) fight the married jousters of the red boats. Traditions aside, it felt weird watching the town’s people egging on their children to poke each other into the canal.

At least the water looked clean.

The layout of Sète was shaped by Louis XIV’s decision to end the Canal du Midi here; streets face each other across the canal grid lines, with the tables of fish restaurants close to the water’s edge. The odour of fresh bream, salmon, oysters and mussels follows you as you walk down one waterfront, cross a bridge and then walk up the other side. Moored boats line the frontages, and at one point were broken up by the looming bulk of a visiting tall ship.

The town is overshadowed by the slopes of Mont Saint-Clair. Above the narrow terraced streets of the upper town are hundreds of steps that lead to the summit, where you gain a view that encompasses not only the port of Sète behind you but also the Thau Lagoon that stretches 20 km inland. You’ll see the 800 or so shellfish farms in neat grids across the inland sea, but not the other thing for which the lagoon is renowned – its seahorses.

Walking westwards down the Mont Saint-Clair, the palm-lined roads contrast with the cramped terraces of the eastern side; houses remain concealed behind long driveways and broad gates. Back down on the main corniche coastal road we followed a parallel path above small coves, where succulents cling to cliffs that are themselves overshadowed by holiday apartment blocks.

Sète is an open air museum of street art, with artists encouraged to cover the town’s walls. Murals range from an impressive one covering the wall of the Lycee de Paul Valery, to a slightly unnerving mural on the outer walls of a primary school with strange marine creatures celebrating tielles, the spiced octopus pies that are a speciality of Sète.

I don’t know what it is about tables set out along a waterfront, but they often generate an urge to just sit down and spend the rest of my life there, reading, writing, painting and gazing out at the water and the fishing activities. The Pointe Courte peninsula has more streets of coloured terraces than you’d think was possible on such a tiny spit of land, and I was drawn to a string of metal tables and chairs on the narrow waterfront. It wasn’t a café, as I’d first thought, but an outside living space for the houses on this side. Fishing nets were hanging everywhere, and an elderly man sat fixing one in a lean-to. More nets were piled up in a type of sentry box, where a sleek black cat watched the antics of the peninsula’s cats with disdain.

La Pointe Courte is also the name of the unofficial first French New Wave film: the self-funded 1956 debut of Agnès Varda. The film documents the hardships of the fishing community, and when a young man wants to romance a neighbour’s daughter, how must he prove his worth?

By none other than showing his prowess in a marine jousting tournament.

Carcassonne citadel

A stopover in Carcassonne: oui ou non?

Need to buy a replica medieval helmet and sword? Fancy flouncing around in costume like a Kate Mosse character?  All this can be done whilst visiting the fortified city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s up there at number 20 of France’s most visited sites.

In summer, the main town has a vibrant feel, with plenty of outdoor cafes and a stream of tourists eating ice cream as they wander to and from the fortifications of la cité. Boats will cruise you along the Canal du Midi and I once spent a couple of wonderful days cycling in both directions along the towpath – very bruised from bumping over the tree roots, but happy.

Now, on a Sunday in April, I zigzagged to avoid the dogsh*t as I walked through the shuttered town, and wondered why I’d come back. The town was dead, but did I really want to join the throngs of visitors up in the fortress?

Of course I did. From the Pont Vieux over the River Aude, the outer ring of the concentric fortifications looms up ahead on the opposite bank. There’s little indication that a portion of the 360,000 or so annual tourists are swarming around inside.

As I ducked past the costumed soldier at the Porte Narbonnaise,  the atmosphere became transformed from dead Sunday to Disney wonderland. Here almost everything was open, with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, Marseille soap, furs, and more jewellery. Like many must-sees, Carcassonne is a casualty of what it offers in terms of impressive heritage. These fortifications date right back to the Roman occupation, and fans of Kate Mosse novels will know that the cité has an ominous history as a home of the persecuted Cathars, who were nevertheless expelled from there in the early 13th century. Perhaps some visitors are particularly drawn by whatever lies at the end of the ominous signs that point the way to les tortures.

Of more interest to me was a poster proclaiming that Carcassonne is the only town in Languedoc-Rousillon where Occitan is taught from Primary right through to High School. The term Occitan, or the langue d’oc, came into being in the 14th century to differentiate between the languages spoken in the south and the north of France. The langue d’oc, spoken where oc was the word for yes, is a legacy of the region’s proximity to Spain and Italy.

As a linguist, I view Occitan as an umbrella term, rather than a clearly defined, individual language. There are a number of related varieties within southern France, such as Languedocien and Gascon, all with the same Latin root, and all with few contemporary speakers. As I noted in my book, over 90% of the Ariège population in 1864 were speakers of Gascon, rather than French, yet hardly anyone can speak it there now.

But here in Carcassonne, pupils can choose from an entire curriculum in Occitan. And it’s about more than just maintaining the language of their ancestors. The similarities of Occitan to Catalan, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese mean that it’s a bridge to learning those other languages.

So, with all the crowds and consumerism, is Carcassonne worth a visit? It’s true that the narrow inner streets are crammed with people, but few seem to venture the short distance to the outer ramparts, where you gain a true perspective of the size of these fortifications.  From here there’s also a view that stretches across the terracotta rooftops of Carcassonne, and, if you’re lucky, a close-up of a banking Ryanair plane as it prepares to land.

Similarly, if you can pull yourself away from the busy Place Marcon, there are quiet squares where few venture, such as the Place St Jean, with its view across the ramparts. And as the darkness descends, so does the magic; the floodlit ramparts have an eerie quality, and there are restaurants on the side streets that’ll transport you from Disneyland back into gourmet France.

Best of all, responsible dog owners are greeted with free bags on arrival at the fortress. That means clean pavements.

Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

A stopover in Nîmes: slow travel in the South of France.

It’s the first day of spring, although the Jardins de la Fontaine smell more like early summer. Half the population of Nîmes is sitting on the lawns of the 17th century park, like the Uber Eats cyclist taking a break, and the other half are in the outdoor cafes of the old town. I walk up the balustraded stairways and look down at the fat orange fish in the ornamental ponds until my eyes are drawn to vivid purple amongst the green.

A path leads up through the pine woods to the highest point in Nîmes and the oldest of the Roman sites, the Tour Magne. From the top of the tower the line of the Via Domitia, built by the Romans to link the Alps with the Pyrenees, still carves through the city.

From up here you gain a true perspective of the Arènes de Nîmes – a gigantic bowl of a Roman amphitheatre with 34 rows of seats that rise up and outwards.

As I leave the Tour Magne, four police officers amble up to it. France is on alert with the Gilets Jaunes demos, but these four act more like curious tourists than law enforcers. I see them again and again that afternoon, wandering round and smiling, looking at things rather than people.

Crossing the road back into the pedestrianised old town, it’s a surprise to come face to face with one of the best preserved temples from the Roman world, right here in the middle of Nîmes.  The Maison Carrée has been a centrepoint of the city for almost 2,000 years.

It’s 6pm and still hot so I go into the Amorino ice cream shop where they carve my scoops into flower petals and politely check that I understand that lime basilic comes with basil as well as lime. As I step out of the shop I almost collide with a very elderly man in violently patterned shorts. He barks at me in a strangulated voice, in a language that could be English.

Darkness falls and it’s time to join everyone else eating outdoors. I choose a table opposite a narrow alley with a view through to the massive grey stones of the amphitheatre.  16 euros to sit here under the still-swollen moon, with a duck burger du Perigord and a small pichet of white wine; a bargain.

Taking the Eurostar from London to Avignon? Nîmes is just an hour or so by frequent train service from Avignon central. See Loco2 for times and tickets.

All of the Roman sites can be visited. Read more about visiting Nîmes here.

Ascent of Tuc de la Coume

A long ridge with a stunning panorama

For years I’ve gazed at this summit (image 1), wondering how to get there as there’s no direct path marked on the maps. It’s a relatively easy summit on a long ridge that lies between the valley of the Garbet (the section running from Ercé to Aulus) and the Courtignou valley (the D18) from Massat up to the étang de Lers.

At 1745m it’s not especially high but you get a 360 degree panorama of both the summit chain and the surrounding valleys.  The final bit is steep and the tiny summit feels somewhat exposed, especially when peering down the scarp of the eastern flank.  The route I’ve given starts at the étang de Lers (between Le Port and Aulus).

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Where the house was

Why do English people move to Ariege, France?

When I first began researching British incomers in Ariège, I was curious as to why they’d chosen that out-of-the-way corner of France.  It turns out that choice wasn’t always the right word… For quite a few people it was simply where the house was, rather than an informed decision based on what that area offered as a way of life to them, beyond the house itself.

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