We could have travelled directly to Sete along one of our favourite beach roads, but detoured slightly to visit the old town of Marseillan, just inland from the fabulous beach of Marseillan Plage. There were plenty of people swimming off Mosquito Beach. An odd name for a delightful beach, we thought. Mosquitoes? Well, we didn’t see any and Marigold claims to be Europe’s chief attractor of mosquitoes.
The town of Marseillan, hardly that even, more like a large village, was first settled by Greeks or Phoenician traders, the Massaliotes, way back in ancient times. Marseilles, that vast, lively, teeming, cosmopolitan city to the east is a hundred times larger and bears no resemblance to its humble (almost) namesake, but as Marseille was founded around 600 BC and Agde very soon afterwards, it’s a fair assumption that Marseillan was established at that time as well, making it one of the oldest settlements in France.
Surrounded by vines there’s a rich heritage of wine production here, but not any old grape based products as Marseillan has been the headquarters for the production of Noilly Prat vermouth for at least two hundred years.
The sheer size of Maison Noilly-Prat was staggering. We’re no strangers to vineyards after so many years living in France and Spain and have visited many of the sherry producers of Jerez, but vermouth production was a new one to us.
I can’t with any certainty claim to have ever drunk Noilly-Prat vermouth. Obviously, plenty of people like the stuff though judging by the size and number of the barrels.
We tagged on to a tour guide – we do this quite often and nobody ever says ‘who are you and where did you come from’ – but apart from learning there are at least twenty different plants/herbs/spices added to the mixture neither of us can say what they are. We’re pretty sure about coriander, gentian root and camomile, but as for the other seventeen…
The clever bloke who came up with the idea was Joseph Noilly, a grocer, basically, but more importantly a spice trader and herbalist, way back in 1813. Noilly only became Noilly-Prat in 1855 when Joseph teamed up with his son-in-law, Claude Prat.
It was a fascinating glimpse of large scale production of a product I’d only previously imagined to be distinctly ‘niche,’ but time was short and we had much to do and see so we left the toiling vermouth makers to their art and set out along the narrow strip of land that leads to Sete.
We travelled along a similar route a couple of years or so ago in Spain when visiting the Mar Menor, a huge inland lagoon where the chief resort of the area, La Manga, is situated on an incredibly narrow strip of land with the lagoon on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.
Today the road has the Etang de Thau on the left side and the sea on the right. If global warming really does bring a rise in sea levels this stretch of road won’t be here for much longer, but today with the sun gleaming on vast expanses of water either side of the road it was a delightful drive.
If you like big stretches of beach with hardly anyone else in sight, which we do, then the beaches of Sete are perfect. Of course, we’re here in November and this air of solitude won’t be anything like the situation in high summer, but we stopped and walked, paddled but didn’t attempt swimming on several stretches of beach and scarcely saw another soul.
On our previous visits to Sete, we’ve only ever visited the town and the busy harbour. Last time we stayed in a (fairly seedy as I recall) hotel right inside the port. Fishermen arrive and depart in what we regard as the middle of the night and they’re a noisy bunch. I’ve never complained about noisy binmen ever since. They have a job to do and emptying rubbish bins in the early morning is like living in a Trappist monastery compared with the fishing fleet of Sete going about their business.
Sete has been described, although not by us, as the Venice of Languedoc. It’s the largest fishing port on the Mediterranean coast of France, but any similarity to Venice is a bit of a stretch. Yes, it has a lot of canals, but so does Birmingham and that’s nothing like Venice either. I suspect the people making these claims have never visited Venice, but Sete has enough charm to stand on its own feet anyway.
As does Birmingham, obviously.
Finding that amazing beachfront area was a revelation as we’d never even considered a working port like Sete to have beaches just over the way. In the same vein, we’ve been all over Barcelona, a fantastic city, yet only on our very last trip did we think to take a look at the beaches. Which were superb.
There were a few joggers on the beach. Mostly Lycra clad with red faces and grim expressions. Jogging has never held an attraction for me, it’s neither strolling nor running, both of which I can relate to and Marigold is hugely jogging averse.
‘If I ever see anyone looking like they’re enjoying it, I’ll consider going jogging,’ she once said. It’s a fair comment as those pounding along the shore appeared utterly joyless.
Marigold slept through the fishermen’s nocturnal comings and goings last time, but showed no interest today in the hotels inside the port. We needed a place to stay though and with that in mind returned to the beach area to find a hotel for the night.
Of course we had to detour slightly as the aroma of grilled fish and shellfish, fresh off the boats, emanating from the many restaurants was irresistible. Taking a photograph was forbidden today by dint of a previous binding agreement, but I have since discovered a photo taken many years ago of Marigold enjoying a seafood platter at Sete. Probably on our first ever visit. It’s one of my all time favourite photos too. Trust me, she looked just as happy this time around.
Marigold looked up local hotels online, which is pretty rare as we usually wander into (should that be blunder into?) hotels and ask if they have a spare room for the night. She came up with a boutique hotel in the beach district of Sete. It sounded promising. Or too good to be true?
Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, we found the hotel, booked ourselves in and carted our essential items* for a one night stay up to the room.
*You may imagine one small bag would suffice for one night. It doesn’t. The power of imagination is such that we cart around in our ‘essential’ bags enough stuff to last a month. ‘Just in case.’ In fairness, if we were staying for a month we’d still take the same items.
The hotel claimed to date from the 50s, not the 1850s as we thought on first sight but the twentieth century era, and had supposedly been completely remodelled recently. We found scant evidence of this, but as I’ve mentioned before, we can cope with anything for one night. Compared to some of the places in which we’ve spent the night this was a palace.
A very old dog, actually a very, very old dog was asleep in the lobby. We tiptoed past, but he was still there when we left the next morning. We were so concerned Marigold insisted on hanging around until we saw his chest move slightly in confirmation of life. It appears old dogs no longer dream of chasing rabbits quite so often.
I read an article recently, written by a scientist of some repute, claiming to have proved the incidence in germs carried by dogs was far less than the contents of an average beard. It didn’t have to be of ZZ Top standard, just bog standard face fungus. As an occasionally hirsute man, the beard comes and goes on a whim, I rather resent the inference.
There’s a word for this type of character assassination: it’s called pogonophobia, the somewhat irrational fear of beards. Scientists should be tested for this condition before being allowed anywhere near a research laboratory. Anyway, aren’t most male scientific researchers bearded?
Our evening in the hotel was interesting. We went down to the communal lounge area as the wifi in our room was non existent and we wanted to catch up on our emails. Ten minutes after we arrived, the previously empty room was full to capacity as at least 50 people arrived en masse.
Even worse, they were all Brits! Mostly unmasked and seemingly happy to sit in close proximity to each other and hence to us as well. Swiftly affixing our face masks we decided the safest Covid risk avoidance measure was to head for the outdoor terrace.
A member of the hotel staff told us, with many a Gallic shrug of resignation, that two coach loads of ‘English bird people’ had made a late booking. The bird people, ‘twitchers’ as we call them in Britain, had arrived to photograph wading birds in some marshland nearby and were said by our ‘whistle blower’ to be notoriously badly behaved.
Two years ago, they had been banned from the hotel, but new management meant the lure of a fully booked hotel out of season was too great an attraction. Badly behaved bird watchers? Surely some mistake, we thought, but our morose informant set out a cogent case for the prosecution.
We went off for a walk along the shore as he showed every indication of wishing to spend the rest of the evening complaining about Les Rosbifs. During the ten years we lived in France we heard this description many times. Do they imagine roast beef is such a staple of the English diet they eat it at every meal? I can’t actually remember the last time we tucked into a roast beef and all the trimmings meal, but it certainly wasn’t recently.
Back at the hotel the lounge area was still a no go area. Fifty or so people all talking at once, beers being gulped down, it was bedlam. We turned into classic grumpy moaners within seconds.
We’re often wary of our fellow Brits when we’re ‘abroad.’ It’s far too much of a generalisation to say we avoid them at all costs, of course we don’t, but if the people here were a fair representation of the UK birdwatching fraternity Bill Oddie has a lot to answer for.
Long distance coach travel is thirsty work, I get that, and a drop of what you fancy does you good at the end of a journey. Even so, the volume of sound in the lounge had doubled in our brief absence and our fellow guests were now decidedly raucous.
Overseas travel affects many British people in ways that don’t seem common to other nationalities. I suspect this group have been on an intensive fat reduction diet during their absence from the U.K. The fattest organ in the body, with over 60% of it being composed of fat, is the brain. The human brain largely consists of a fatty substance known as myelin, a sort of electrical insulator that encases the axons of some nerve cells and protects them from coming into contact with each other, in much the same way as the plastic casing of electrical wiring keeps them from touching each other and causing a ‘short.’ This anorak wearing group were ‘shorting out’ all over the place.
We spoke to one couple, married ‘twitchers,’ (fancy that) who were delightful and bitterly resentful of the company they were in.
‘It’s not like this in Dunstable,’ one said. ‘We make do with a flask of tea and a biscuit, that’s about as rock ‘n roll as it ever gets in our club.’
We chatted about the weather, obviously, we’re British, touched on Brexit, an inevitable topic in the last few years when in the EU, but soon realised we had little in common. We know next to nothing about bird habits and the Dunstable couple were evidently obsessives. Lovely people, but obsessives.
An example of our ‘chat.’ ‘I used to favour entomology,’ the man said, ‘but now I’ve discovered our feathered friends, insects mean little to me.’
See what I mean?
We went off to our room, but it was almost as noisy up there. Tutting like censorious animal rights activists mistakenly arrived at a bull fight, we grumbled away the evening. It all went quiet, eventually. I checked the time on my watch. Twelve minutes past two. Irritated and annoyed, sleep remained a distant hope.
Marigold repeated one of her most frequent sayings as we staggered wearily from our bed in the morning. ‘I shouldn’t pick hotels’ she said, ‘I make bad decisions.’
Shamefully, I failed to disagree.