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.