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.
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; tourisme-frontignan.com).
La Grande Bleue Oyster and Mussel Farm, Mas 778, Lieu-dit la Fadeze, 34340 Marseillan (00 33 4 67 53 14 91; conchyliculture.com) 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; sete.fr/musees) 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; miam.org) open Tues-Sun 10am-noon and 2-6pm; adults €5.
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; lecarenage.fr). Located on the quai alongside Frontignan marina, this attactive restaurant offers well-presented specialities, such as local moules, from around €18 for a main.
L’Hotel de Paris, 2 rue Frederic Mistral, Sète (00 33 4 67 18 00 18; hoteldeparis-sete.com). 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; hoteldelapyramide.fr) 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; les-tamaris.fr). 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.