We passed Sète on the way to Montpellier by train and I had an ‘oooooh look at the pretty little town’ moment as I noted it down in the messy notebook of my head for a future visit.
We’d been meaning to get back to there ever since so when we heard that festivities were on the cards for the fete de St Louis we thought it the ideal opportunity to take the short train ride from Montpellier to Sète. The 20 minute ride passes through lovely countryside and the odd power-plant. (I would love to always paint a beautiful picture of France but sometimes in between the splendid Cezanne-esque landscapes, large graffiti-covered monsters pop up).
Arriving in Sète we found ourselves walking through another quiet French town on a Sunday, but instead of playing pètanque by the side of the road, the locals were fishing off the side of a bridge. A far cry from the yacht-lined waters of Saint Tropez, the Sète docks are filled to the brim with little fishing boats.
Closer to the centre of town (a whole 2 minutes later) we discovered the entire population of Sète filling the streets. This was no average French Sunday as many of the crowds had gathered to watch the thrilling sport of river jousting. Jousting, you say? Isn’t that that thing Henry VI used to do on a horse? Precisely. Except boats instead of horses. This very old sport dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times is pretty popular in this part of France, and some people take it very seriously.
Squeezing our way onto the viewing platform we saw two long boats filled with a group of men rowing, a man playing a trumpet on the stern (or some other sort of horn type insturment), a group of men sitting along the bow waiting their turn and, perched right at the top, the man of the moment with a large lance and a shield.
After some trumpet/horn playing, the boats charged like snails towards each other, the men poised with their lances to knock the other off his platform to tumble to his doom, or just into the river.
Very serious stuff. One man looked like he was about to throw a right royal strop when he lost his stick to the opposition. Here’s a little video:
Even without the joy that is jousting, Sète is a lovely little town which has great seafood, cafes and a relaxed unpretentious attitude. We were there on a Sunday and we did our usual trick of getting hungry at 5pm, a very bad idea in france, as no restaurant (bar perhaps the poor hungry-tourist-aimed restaurants) is open. We did however manage to find dessert in the form of a giant crepe.
How to get to Sète
Train from Montpellier (20 mins) or Beziers, Marseille, Toulouse. Paris is only 3h30 minutes away by train. More detail on getting to Sete at the Office du Tourisme.