Travel Europe: Oysters for elevenses?

Sete's hundreds of restaurants boast possibly the cheapest and best seafood in France.
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The Independent Culture
Their blood oozing on to the cobbles, the shapes being heaved on to the quay had the look of portly human cadavers in the glare of the deck floodlight. The tuna fleet was in and the Anne Antoine's crew, calculating bonuses, whistled while they worked. This time, at least, it had been a good trip.

Across the canal, a shoal of seafood restaurants was packed gill to gill on the Quai de la Marine. The vista was Venetian. Sete's nocturnal trompe-l'oeil needed only a few gondolas to make it complete. As with everywhere that has canals, its tourist board is not averse to such illustrious comparisons, and Sete is spread over several islands in a lagoon, but the port's appeal is of a grittier variety.

Developed from an ancient settlement in 1666 as a terminus for the Canal du Midi, it has stayed a working seaport - the only real one remaining in Mediterranean France - with whiffs of fish and diesel oil, salt and Jack Tarry.

Its situation is dramatic. On one side is the sea; on the other, like an inland sea, the Etang de Thau - a saltwater lagoon 3 miles by 12 miles long. The principal island is a waterbound mountain. During the wet spring days we spent there, even when the sun shone its 400ft summit stayed wreathed in cloud.

Below the fort protecting the old harbour clings the Cimetiere Marin, the atmospheric setting of the best-known poem by Paul Valery - Sete's most famous son - whose own grave looks out now "at the sea for ever beginning again". The view is terrific; the network of paths among the tombstones an oasis of tranquillity above the city din.

But tranquillity is not Sete's lure. What baits most visitors - what first hooked me - is its piscivorous tourism. Not only tuna but sardines and sea bass, swordfish and squid, make Sete's annual catch the largest in France. And its five-course fish dinners at Fr100 or less, beginning with huge platters of assorted coquillages, argue the merits of free- market competition. Outside July and August, the waiters try to haul you in.

The problem is simply which restaurant to choose. Sete's 40,000 inhabitants all have their own favourite. You might think that their menus would be pretty much the same but, with price parameters bottom-snagged, they angle with diversity. Even starting in the morning with oysters for elevenses, nowhere is it more frustrating to have the capacity for only three meals a day.

In fact, Sete in its entirety engenders that euphoric feeling of flushness in which everything appears an irresistible bargain. The dearest double suite overlooking the canal is yours for pounds 50, while other hotels can offer the same view for as little as pounds 17.

One reason, and the downside, is that Sete has its problems. Local unemployment stands at 26 per cent - more than twice the national average. The big story that day in the local newspaper was the threatened decommissioning of the 16-boat tuna fleet.

With demand fuelled by high prices in Japan, where they are hunted ineluctably with radar and sonar, big fish are growing scarce.

Yet Sete is still a major port. It moves oil and timber, iron and wine. There are car ferries to Africa. And while containerisation has exterminated jobs, Sete's barnacled heyday remains encrusted on its hulk.

Chandlers' grimy windows conceal bargains in matelot vests, while in the few surviving seamen's bars, handfuls of girls - not as young or as pretty as perhaps they once were - wait on into the night with unrewarded patience. These are joints that must once have jumped but - like the shrinking tuna fleet - may never jump again.

The council yearns to reinvent the city. Leisure developments are growing up on the Corniche. But the boats in the marina are not the floating palaces of harbours up the coast. Most boats have real work to do. Sete stays stubbornly and cheerfully more Grimsby than Cannes.

The sprawling Saturday market has all the fruit and flowers, honey and herbs, of any in Provence, but the air-cured hams and cheeses exhale a breath of the Haut-Languedoc highlands. Chic boutiques are not Sete's forte; rather, cut-price emporiums untidily heaped with toys and budget kitchenware. They sell a lot of oyster knives. The one I bought cost 80p.

For a few frivolous summer weeks Sete lets its hair down for the water jousting-tournaments. Teams of burly oarsmen propel into combat lance- bearing champions perched precariously on platforms overhanging the craft. Trumpets blare, supporters roar, people tumble in. The amount of pastis consumed would fill another small canal. But for most of the year the maritime city gets on as best it can. With no obligatory sights, the visitor can savour the seafood and Sete's un-embellished version of la vie mediterranee.

Sete has another boast - the longest undeveloped beach on the French Mediterranean. Between the sea and the lagoon a narrow ribbon of land stretches southwards from the island like an umbilical cord. To the lagoon there are saltpans, to the sea an unbroken 10-mile fringe of sand where, even in August, you can find a quiet spot.

On the day we went the rain was driving horizontally - the breeze definitely bracing - the sea and sky looking as leaden as a winter Scottish loch. Yet the trip round the lagoon revealed a medley of diversions.

At the southernmost extremity, the ancient town of Agde on the Herault river was founded by Greeks in 500BC. In its quaint alleys are all the souvenir shops missing from Sete. Here is the home of Noilly Prat - James Bond's favourite mixer. You can watch the famous vermouth being made: white wine infused with herbs, for years left stewing in oak barrels in the sunshine and sea air. Was it just association, or could I taste the tang of brine?

As we approached Metz every roadside placard was offering Picpoul de Pinet. Of mysterious origin, Picpoul is the indigenous grape of the lagoon; its sharply fragrant wine is the staple lubrication of the fish restaurants in Sete. We'd planned to buy wine from the Pinet co-operative, but with lunch-time fast expiring, the village of Bouzigues had become a pressing goal.

Oysters are Bouzigues' entire raison d'etre; this molluscan metropolis has a kilometres-wide oyster park filling much of the lagoon. Like some great Burgundian vineyard, it is divided into small family holdings bequeathed down the generations. For anyone preferring their study to ingestion, on the picturesque quay a small museum elucidates subaquatic cultivation, but - paradise, paradise - everywhere sells it.

We decided on Chez la Nymphe, little more, really, than a plain whitewashed cellar but at whose rickety tables oysters by the bucketful were plunging throatwards to their fate. The young proprietor, Jean, owned only two of those rows in the lagoon and most of his harvest was guzzled on the spot.

Creating heady aromas, his wife was preparing cooked specialities, but, with oysters wet from the sea at Fr50 a dozen, we got busy with the lemons, and the Picpoul.

Getting there: The closest airport with flights from Britain is Montpellier, with daily services on British Airways (0345 222111). A cheaper alternative is to take Eurostar from London Waterloo, changing at Paris or Lille. The journey time is about 10 hours, and the lowest fare is pounds 137 return through Rail Europe (0990 848848). The French Tourist Office is at 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number)