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What to see and do in L’Étang de Thau

The Archipel de Thau lagoon in the south of France is a bit of a secret place. Around 20km long, and separated from the Mediterranean by a sandbank, the L’Étang de Thau as it’s also called, is the largest salt lake in the Occitanie region. It’s a breeding ground for oysters and mussels. Bordering the lake are pretty villages surrounded by lush vineyards. From the commune of Agde to the town of Sète, on the Mediterranean side there are miles and miles of wide sandy beaches known as Marseillan Plage.

Rising out of the sea, and the dominant landmark of the lagoon, is the hill of Mont Saint-Clair. At its base lies Sète, known as the Venice of the region thanks to its canals and busy port. This lively town has a plethora of restaurants all around the port and almost all serve freshly caught fish. Dishes reflect a strong Italian influence due to the immigrant workers who helped create the canals in the 17th century.

Sète is a cruise destination as well as France’s leading port for blue fish, sardines, anchovies and tuna. During the summer months, the banks of the main canal are filled with spectators watching water jousting, a form of entertainment dating back to the town’s inception in 1666. Teams dressed in white, board long boats and compete against each other to topple their adversary’s jouster with a 2.8m long wooden lance! In July, the open-air theatre with its enchanting backdrop of the Mediterranean, hosts a Jazz Festival that attracts top name artists.

Around the lagoon are little villages, each with its own charms.

Pretty villages

At Balaruc-les-Bains the Antique Mediterranean Garden is well worth a visit, laid out as it would have been in Roman times. Discover the  agriculture and horticulture of the Mediterranean, and the diverse use of flowers and plants in medicine, cooking, and cosmetics. The village is known for its therapeutic thermal waters.

At Bouzigues the secrets of the fishermen of L’Etang as well as oyster cultivation are explained at the Museum of Ethnographique.

And at the 12th century Abbey of Valmagne you can take a wine tasting. Its architecture is based on the great cathedrals of Northern France. Original paintings are displayed on the stone walls of the cloisters, and there are regular exhibitions. Converted into a wine storehouse after the French Revolution, and thanks to its vineyards, it is known as the wine cathedral.


Make your way to Marseillan and en route you may spot pink flamingos in the shallow waters of the lagoon. Marseillan Port is a preserved heritage site with pretty cafés bordering the inlet. The town is the home of Noilly Prat vermouth, a favourite ingredient of James Bond for his famous “shaken not stirred” Dry Martini! Its history can be traced back to 1813, and a visit to the Noilly Prat museum will reveal many secrets including the spices and herbs in the ingredients list. Tours end with a tasting – perfect.

Marseillan’s market takes place on Tuesday morning. Its arrival turns the village from a quiet, sleepy town into a vibrant place. In a row of shacks where the boats come to off-load their catch from the Etang, you’ll find La Cabane Brasucade, a tiny family run eaterie facing onto the lagoon. Here, they marinate the oysters and mussels which are grown just offshore. You can’t miss the sight of row upon row of what look like huts on stilts in the lagoon. The freshly harvested, marinated molluscs are cooked over an open fire. Served with the local wine, such as Picpoul de Pinet, this is one of life’s finest pleasures!

Activities galore

There are numerous water sports including kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, sailing and kitesurfing. Bicycle paths are everywhere, including the 18 miles of Marseillan Plage. Beaches offer somewhere to relax, play and eat with numerous restaurants and bars.

There are also many walking paths in the area, some circumnavigating vineyards where you can enjoy tastings. This is an area of small, independent wine growers and often, it’s a matter of ringing a bell at the front door to access the tasting room.

This little part of paradise is authentic and irresistibly pretty, a well-kept secret to fall in love with.


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Natasha Blair is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. She became a Francophile after studying French Civilisation for Foreigners at the Sorbonne University in Paris. When possible, she loves to travel with her pet passport carrying dog, Poppy, a Coton du Tuleur.

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