Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Highlights of the Midi: Sète

Sete France viewed from Mont St Clair.  Photo by Christian Ferrer

Sete France - Photo by Christian Ferrer Located where the Canal du Midi meets the Mediterranean, Sète occupies part of a narrow spit of land that separates the Étang de Thau, a natural saltwater lake, from the Mediterranean sea.  This is a working port, with a large percentage of the inhabitants involved in the fishing industry.  Although Sète doesn't try to be a top tourist destination, this very fact makes it a refreshing place to visit and wonderful opportunity to surround yourself with the unspoiled local culture.

Although archeologists have found evidence that humans have occupied the area around Sète since the Bronze Age or earlier, the town was not founded until the mid-17th Century.  King Louis XIV issued the order to build a port and provide an outlet to the sea for the Canal du Midi, and the town grew around this project. Originally known as Cette (or Seta in Occitan), the spelling was changed to Sète in 1928.

Sète is built on and around an extinct volcano, Mont St Clair, at the end point of the Canal du Rhône à Sète, and the eastern end of the Canal du Midi.  A network of smaller canals crisis-cross the town, linking the Étang de Thau and the sea, the reason some call Sète 'Venice of the Languedoc'.

Sete France viewed from the sea

The sport of water jousting (les joutes languedociennes) is an important element of local culture. Tournaments are held from April to September on the Canal Royal in the center of town, and are the highlight of the summer festivals. The competition involves two wooden row boats, one blue and one red, manned by a team of rowers. The jousters, wielding wooden lances and shields, are positioned on a raised platform (la tintaine) at the stern of the boats. The boats are rowed toward each other, and as one would expect, the jousters attempt to dislodge each other from their platform, sending the loser for a swim in the canal. All the while a band plays from onshore and crowds cheer the jousters on.  Every year at the end of August the Grand Prix de la Saint-Louis à Sète, the unofficial world championship of water jousting, is held in conjunction with the festival of Saint Louis. Competitors must be invited by the city to participate. Sétois jousting king Aurelien Evangelisti, 'The Centurion', has won the title seven times, but was defeated in 2014 by Benjamin Arnau. A water jousting school (École de joutes de la Marine) and a museum dedicated to the sport are located in Sète.

Sète hosts several colorful festivals each year.  In late June or early July, on the feast day of St. Peter, patron saint of fisherman, the town residents come together to honor those who have been lost at sea, and ask for protection for those who make their livelihood on the water.  A parade carries a statue of St. Peter through the streets, then aboard a boat which is joined by a procession of fishing trawlers festooned with flags and flowers. After the procession there is a water jousting tournament. Mix this in with the delicious local seafood, and an ample supply of rosé to wash it down, and it is impossible not to have a fabulous time.  A festival held annually on August 25 celebrates the patron of Sète, Saint Louis, with more water jousting, feasting, music, and fireworks.

With over 90 varieties of fish harvested from the Mediterranean, and cultivated mussels and oysters from the Étang de Thau, it is no wonder that Sète has many excellent restaurants serving up the fruits of the sea.There are several local and regional specialties featured, including la tielle, a dish brought from the Gulf of Gaèta in Italy by the many immigrants that arrived in Sète from this area in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a seafood mixture - usually either octopus or squid - combined with tomato sauce and spices, then encased in a pastry crust and baked.  Other specialties include stuffed squid a la Sétoise served in a wine, tomato and garlic sauce, and a local variation of bourride which, unlike other regional recipes for this dish, is not finished with garlic-laden aioli.

Sete Restaurants

Another wonderful attraction here are the 12 kilometers of sea shore with beautiful sandy beaches.  Free car parks and turn-offs from National Route 112 provide convenient access to the beach, perfect for a day of sunbathing and picnicking by the seaside.

Sete beaches.  Photo by Guenterfranz

Learn more about cruises aboard Barge Tango on Canal du Midi that include a visit to Sète at Canals of France.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Highlights of the Midi: Le Somail

Le Somail, France
Le Somail sits astride the Canal du Midi, at the junction of three communes, Ginestas, Saint Nazaire, and Salleles d'Aude.  This charming French village owes it's existence to the canal, as it was founded in the 17th century to serve those who operated and worked on the peniches that were a major form of commercial transport at the time.  Today Le Somail serves the tourist industry, with some of those same classic peniches, converted into luxury boutique hotel barges, bringing their passengers for a lovely afternoon visit or overnight mooring.

Many of the structures in Le Somail are listed as Monuments Historiques in the Base Mérimée, a database of architectural heritage maintained by the French Ministry of Culture.  Included are the 17th Century stone bridge over the canal, the chapel that sits next to it, and la glacière (the ice house).
Le Somail, France
La Chapelle de Le Somail, France
La Chapelle de Le Somail
Le Somail, France
La glacière

For anyone with a love of books, or vintage things in general, Le Trouve Tout du Livre is a 'can't miss' stop.  This antique bookstore is a treasure trove of vintage books, magazines, posters, and postcards.  It's easy to become lost in their vast collection, as hours can slip away unnoticed. But, if your stay in Le Somail is brief, you'll want to save some time for the other gems found here.

Le Trouve Tout du Livre

Le Trouve Tout du Livre

From the bookstore, cross the stone bridge and turn right along the canal, where you will often find renowned artist Denis Carrière working at his easel.  His paintings beautifully reflect the local color of life along the Canal du Midi.  Denis' work is available for purchase in his gallery (or online) — what a perfect gift or souvenir of your week on the canal.
Watercolorist Denis Carrière
Denis Carrière
Watercolor by Denis CarrièreWatercolor by Denis Carrière
Paintings by Denis Carrière
Should all of your exploration around the village have worked up an appetite, Le Somail offers several choices for catching a bite to eat.

Le Somail Rive Droite

Le Comptoir Nature
Chemin de Halage, 1, 11120 Le Somail, France / 04 68 46 01 61
Geese beside the Canal du Midi, Le Somail France This restaurant is a favorite of foodies who come here to enjoy the best locally sourced organic meats and produce the area has to offer.  All meals are freshly prepared by Le Comptoir Nature's four local French women chefs, using ingredients procured daily: daurade picked up at the Narbonne fish market, magret de canard, lamb, and pork from farmers in the nearby Pyrenees, and wonderful fresh seasonal vegetables.  There is even a vegetarian plate on the menu, a rarity in these parts.  The artisanal ice cream is made from ewe’s milk - delicious!  Le Comptoir Nature offers a selection of fine organic wines.  Enjoy a bottle to accompany your meal, or sip a glass sitting at one of their small tables alongside the canal, watching the barge traffic and being entertained by the geese and ducks all around. Jazz ensembles or a funky brass band perform on Wednesday and Friday evenings, making for great fun.  Prices are very affordable with 3- and 4-course meals ranging from €17.50 to €32.

L’Auberge du Somail
Chemin de Halage, 1, 11120 Le Somail, France / 04 68 70 71 02
Dessert at L'Auberge du Somail, Le Somail France L’Auberge is the 'new' restaurant in Le Somail, having opened with its current owners two years ago.  Locals often come here for birthday celebrations or other special occasions.  It offers an elegant dining room and an outdoor canal-side terrace.  The chef here draws from Languedoc's proximity to Spain, borrowing several dishes from the Spanish, such as paella and gaspacho.  There are plenty of typically French favorites, too: a delicious melted goat cheese salad, foie gras, and a homemade cassoulet among them.  This is the only restaurant in Le Somail that offers this succulent and rich regional dish made with white beans and duck confit.  There is great debate as to exactly where cassoulet originated.  Carcassonne, Castelnaudary and Toulouse all claim ownership, and there is a confrerie of cassoulet chefs still arguing over the recipe and it's origin.  One thing that is agreed on is that the beans have to be AOC from the Aude region. Prices range from €23 to €25 for a three course menu, or order a la carte from their large selection.

Le Somail Rive Gauche 

Le Plan B
135, Rue de la Bergerie, 11120 Le Somail, France / 06 71 88 41 48
Located a bit off the beaten path, and away from the bustle of canal boat traffic and honking geese, you will find complete tranquility in the shaded courtyard of this B&B and restaurant.   Once a shepherd's domaine, you can enjoy drinks and tapas under the trees, or visit the piano bar inside the converted barn.  The owner offers simple family style cuisine for meals from a table d’hôte menu.  Le Plan B provides a very relaxing atmosphere for aperitifs or after hours drinks, especially convenient if sleeping in one of the adjacent B&B rooms of the main house.

Jardin de Le Plan B, Le Somail France

L'O à la Bouche
Allee des Cypres, 11120 Le Somail, France   /
The huge shaded terrace at this brasserie is right on the canal and open all day. A festive trendy atmosphere is provided by these young restaurateurs from nearby Narbonne. It is THE place to meet friends for a few beers, or to sip chilled rosé while watching the barge traffic. The stone canal bridge often proves challenging to those piloting small rental boats, who negotiate the underpass with quite a lot of shouting and bumping - excitement guaranteed. The chef doles out fancy plates, specializing in Mediterranean seafood, and les frites (French fries) are freshly made in-house. Tables are nearly always full at meal time with menus ranging from €21 to €29.

Le Somail B&B Barge  

Bateau Mariance B&B
Allée des Cyprès, 11120 Le Somail, France / 06 33 69 01 06
For those who do not have an entire week to spend on a barge cruise, a perfect solution may be this pretty and well maintained Dutch barge, converted to a B&B by owner Mariance. It stays moored in one spot, and provides a great base from which to explore the surrounding area. Bookings are available by the night for a single cabin, or your group could rent all three cabins and have the barge to yourselves. There is a spacious living/dining area, tree shaded deck, and Wifi throughout the barge. This is a favorite stop-over for bicyclists riding along the canal, with access to hot showers, comfortable beds, and a meal cooked up by Mariance, featuring specialties from her native Madagascar. Highly recommended by BHB.

Learn more about cruises aboard Barge Tango on Canal du Midi that include a visit to Le Somail at Canals of France.