A visit to Provence by le beau-père (literally ‘good father’, the admirably flattering French term for father-in-law) , Savta (Hebrew for grandmother) and some of their friends coincided with our sojourn in the southwest so we made arrangements to meet up at a convenient midpoint. A glance at a map of the French Mediterranean coast suggested a number of mouth-watering prospect including Roman Nîmes, medieval Montpelier and Le Cap d’Agde, which struck a chord I couldn’t quite place initially although slightly feverish teenage memories have been recalled since.
Le beau-père and the Blonde, showing the kind of wisdom that I’ve come to expect from both of them, settled on Sète. A short guidebook perusal later and my interest was well and truly piqued. Talk of canals brought about pre-conceptions of Amsterdam-with-sun (I’ve never been to Venice – I know, it’s an aberration I intend to correct) and I certainly needed to know more about this curious water-jousting business.
The drive into Sète from the main east-west coastal autoroute took us through the seamier side of the town – the warehouses and light industry that goes hand-in-glove with a busy port. For the Tomato, though, it provided an excellent opportunity to chant ‘boat, boat daddy, boat’ repeatedly, modes of transport being the most important part of his toddler world. To please him, and because it was free, we found on street parking at the western edge of the port on the Quai d’Alger, within a short walk of the centre of town, and spent a happy few minutes discussing the various aspects of ‘boatness’ of the assorted rusting hulks moored nearby.
It took the promise of even more boats and a reunion with Grandpa to lure the boy away from the quayside. Luckily the Canal Royal came up trumps on the boat front as Grandpa, we learned, was yet to make his triumphal arrival. As it happens the Canal Royal on a sun-drenched late summer morning is the perfect place to linger over a cold pressé and there were more than enough distractions to keep the Tomato interested until the grandparents made their triumphal entry.
We lunched at one of the restaurants on the quayside; selecting one set back from the road so that we had a fighting chance of overtaking him should the Tomato make a dash for the canal. It was an enormously convivial affair with multi-lingual banter flowing backwards and forwards accompanied by enormous iced platters of shellfish, baby squid in a number of battered, fried forms and assorted garlic-drenched filter-feeders and other clam-like critters. I would heartily recommend that you lunch in Sète with at least five other seafood loving adults to ensure that you can sample as many dishes as possible. If you add a two year old to the party, all adults need to bring a present that can be revealed sequentially throughout the meal, according to boredom threshold.
After spending the requisite two-and-a-half hours over lunch (I suspect this is legally enforceable in France) we spent the afternoon wandering the cramped streets of the old town. Squeezed between the Canal Royal and Mont St-Clair, it is a typically atmospheric warren of three and four story batiments; we aimlessly wandered and chatted, catching up on family gossip. There is little of significant note to attract the visitor – not that we were looking too hard – although the church we happened upon, perched on the lower slopes of the Mont, contained interestingly juxtaposed contemporary art alongside its more classical architectural features.
As is the way of French towns, one can’t wander far without hitting upon an idyllic square and the eponymous pavement café. As it had been nearly half an hour since lunch ended, it was high time for a sit down and have a drink. The Tomato concurred and took the opportunity to renew his study of French fountains, fascinated by the giant copper octopus that guarded it. While parents and grandparents laughed indulgently, filled with a measure of post-lunch bonhomie, the boy splashed and giggled happily. Dappled sunshine filtering through the trees completed the postcard level perfection of the scene; a scene that had smacked of fantasy a few short months before when the Tomato had emerged from his meningitis coma. The poignancy of these simple pleasures was not lost on any of us.
More strolling took us further along the Canal Royal, past the grandstands along the water’s edge and an imposing statue of, well, a man with a big stick. Sète is home to the venerable sport of water jousting, a pastime followed passionately in these parts – as is the Mediterranean way – and appropriately accompanied with revelry of a boisterous nature that may occasionally involve a degree of imbibing.
The principles are fairly simple; two narrow boats are rowed on near collision course at speed. When they draw close together opposing ‘jouteurs’, armed with long lances and tiny shields, attempt to knock each other off their respective raised platforms. It sounds close to the perfect spectator sport; the anticipation as the boats approach, the mild, slightly comedic combat of the joust and someone unceremoniously falling into water, all accompanied with raucous drinking and no lack of shouting.
We, of course, saw nothing more than the empty stands and a couple of moored jousting boats and can now add Sète to our growing list of ‘places where people say ‘you should’ve been here last week’’ which already includes Siena and its Palio and pretty much every festa town in Roussillon. We really need to plan ahead.
The conclusion of the natives and ex-pats was that Sète was ‘very French’. With the faded grandeur of the tall terraces enclosing shady squares and elegantly lining canals, haughty waiters and an obscure, arcane pastime with which to be obsessed I could see their point. The town is still a working port with all the utilitarian ugliness that brings but there is much to offer the visitor who doesn’t expect to be pandered to and would like to see a more workmanlike Mediterranean France.