Thau Lagoon: seasoning’s greetings

The salt waters of the Thau Lagoon provide a glorious focus for the area. By Henry Palmer

If you’ve never seen a pink flamingo in flight then you’re missing what is both one of the most spectacular and bizarre sights in nature. Aside from their remarkable colouring, they possess a strange gait, with their skinny legs stretched straight out behind them while their long necks undulate in rhythm with their outstretched wings. To see these wonderful creatures for yourself, head to the Thau Lagoon area just outside the village of Frontignan, where flocks congregate in the salt waters.

They come mainly to dine, gaining their pink hues from the tiny pigmented crustaceans they love to feast upon. It’s an intriguing sight to watch them feeding; heads down beneath the waterline, pink bodies upended above vertiginous legs.

The best way to take in the flamingos, as well as the other striking birdlife in the region, is to join awalking tour of the old salt marshes of Frontignan. These were first worked during the 14th century and continued to produce salt until 1968,when industrial developments made Aigues Mortes further to the east a more productive prospect.

The area was neglected until the late 1980s, until a rampant mosquito population demanded human intervention. It was in successfully treating the marshes and keeping the mosquitoes to a minimumthat the tours (which are free) began. For about an hour and a half you’re led along the narrow paths with a guide from the environmental agency explaining the salt production process and about the plants, insects and birds in the surrounding area.

That spirit of enterprise is typical of the Thau Lagoon region. Roughly 21km long and 8km wide, this calm and shimmering stretch of water is one of the largest lagoons off the Mediterranean Sea.

The perimeter is dotted with pretty villages and small towns which each have a distinctive character. There’s flamingo-frequented Frontignan, also famous for its wines and its outlying 7km stretch of of sandy shores, the fishing port of Sète, known as the Venice of Languedoc on account of its striking network of canals, Balaruc-les-Bains, a serious spa centre since Roman times, medieval Balaruc-le-Vieux, cradled within awell maintained circular wall, and charming Marseillan, with its outlying beaches and its bustling little harbour.

Head for the area around Marseillan at the south-western end of the lagoon to get an insight into mussel and oyster farming, one of the most productive activities of the Thau region. Down narrow roads twisting past neat rows of grapevines, La Grande Bleue Oyster and Mussel Farm welcomes visitors. Here you’ll learn about the special quality of the water of the lagoon: part-fresh, part-salty, it offers conditions that are richly beneficial for growing – and harvesting – bivalves. And you’ll learn how the water quality is tightly controlled in order to meet the strict requirements of the renowned AOC Bouzigues label under which oysters in this area are marketed. This absorbing afternoon tour of the oyster farm ends with an oyster tasting session, accompanied by a glass of white wine.

Then, for a complete change of pace – and a very different perspective of life on the lagoon – go east along the road dramatically skirting the very edge of the water and head to the lively town of Sète at the far end.

Geographically and indeed culturally Sète feels almost like an island. To the south-west it is connected to the mainland by the thinnest of sand spits, while north-eastwards the steep slopes ofMount St-Clair separate it from other life beyond. The town is an engaging world unto itself. It is a spirited place, which has something of a party atmosphere during much of the summer, when a number of festivals are held. The best among these are celebrations of photography in May, French song in June, electro and jazz in July, and world music in August.

Take a trip to the colourful covered market one morning (Les Halles is open daily except Mondays) and you’ll immediately see, and perhaps taste, the town’s Neopolitan influences. Around a third of the residents are the descendants of Italian sailors, which is reflected in the stalls selling numerous permutations of pasta and pesto, as well as the varieties of fusion food for sale. Try the macaronade, a local version of pasta with meatballs, or tielle, a sort of pasta pie with a picquant squid-and-tomato filling.

From the market, wander the network of 17th-century canals in the town centre to absorb the bustling atmosphere of the water traffic and to watch fishing boats coming and going, trailed by sea gulls. Then, for an extensive panorama, make your way to the top ofMont St-Clair and gaze over the sea, the terracotta roofs of town and the oyster farms of the lagoon.

There’s a host of cultural activities too – the town offers a variety of appealing galleries and museums. Among them is Musée International des Art Modestes, which celebrates the glory of everyday objects and also exhibits street art and rural crafts.

There’s also something of a treasure trove of more conventional art: perched on the slopes of Mount St-Clair is Musée Paul Valéry, newly reopened after a major refit. The poet, philosopher, essayist and artist Valéry was born in Sète in 1871. This museum, set just above his burial place in the Marin cemetery, commemorates his life and work and also displays a permanent collection of paintings on Sète – works by Francois Desnoyer, André Blondel and Henri Martin. In addition seasonal, temporary exhibitions are also shown.

Meander through the gallery, then sit out on the terrace of the newly refurbished museum café and drink in the stunning views over the Thau Lagoon.

Travel essentials

What to do

Free guided walking tours of the old salt marshes at Frontignan are conducted twice a month during the winter and twice a week during the summer. The numbers on these tours are limited to 20 per group, so prior booking is essential: for further details of the marsh tours, contact the Frontignan Tourist Office (00 33 4 67 18 31 60;

La Grande Bleue Oyster and Mussel Farm, Mas 778, Lieu-dit la Fadeze, 34340 Marseillan (00 33 4 67 53 14 91; Guided visits of the oyster farm run on Tuesday and Thursday at 4pm, the cost is €6 and includes a tasting session of the local mussels and oysters, as well as a glass of white wine.

Musee Paul Valery, Rue Francois Desnoyer, Sete (00 33 4 99 04 76 16; open Tues-Sun 10am-noon and 2-6pm; adults €5 to the permanent collection (€7 for combined ticket).

Musée International des Arts Modestes, 23 Quai Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny (00 33 4 99 04 76 44; open Tues-Sun 10am-noon and 2-6pm; adults €5.

Eating there

The Marcel, 5 rue Lazare Carnot, Sete (00 33 4 67 74 20 89). This arty bistro serves the freshest of seafood at around €20 for main courses of grilled cuttlefish or sea bass.

Le Carénage, Avenue des Etangs, Frontignan Plage (00 33 4 67 43 22 67; Located on the quai alongside Frontignan marina, this attactive restaurant offers well-presented specialities, such as local moules, from around €18 for a main.

Staying there

L’Hotel de Paris, 2 rue Frederic Mistral, Sète (00 33 4 67 18 00 18; A central, newly opened outfit with 36 funky rooms and a well regarded restaurant. Doubles from €87.22, without breakfast.

Hôtel de la Pyramide, 8 promenade Sergent J-Louis Navarro, Meze (00 33 4 67 46 61 50; A pleasantly relaxed 22-bedroom hotel with swimming pool and its own olive grove. Doubles from €65 without breakfast.

Tamaris, Frontignan Plage (00 33 4 67 43 44 77; Great value for families: a four-star campsite with facilities ranging from an internet point to a water park, pizzeria and bar. Mobile home accommodation for a family of three from €200 a week.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil