“It’s not all pristine. Proper ports temper grandeur with skulduggery. There are chaps you wouldn’t want to meet other than in broad daylight. But walk the canal network, perhaps take a boat and then park yourself at any of the fish restaurants fronting the Canal Royal…” Anthony Peregrine – The Telegraph Travel Supplement.
After a long day previously we slept late in a dark room blacked out by tight electric shutters and it was well past nine o’clock before we went downstairs and had an exceptionally good breakfast. We were planning to drive to Arles today further east and there were a number of different options for the route so we debated these over our food but failed to come to any firm conclusions except that we would first of all go to Setê, a fishing port and holiday resort on the Mediterranean coast.
Before we could go anywhere we had to retrieve the car from the hotel garage around the corner and this was something I was not looking forward to. The basement garage was rather crooked with a difficult entrance/exit and lots of brick walls inside separating the parking spots and I was going to have to reverse out!
Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem but I seem to have considerable trouble in reversing a left hand drive car. At home in the UK my natural tendency is to look through the back window over my left shoulder but this is unhelpful in a left hand drive because it is almost impossible to see anything and looking over my right shoulder I find curiously difficult. Needless to say it took me several attempts to manoeuvre the car out of this tight space and it brought on such a sweat that I needed the air conditioning on full blast to cool me down.
As we drove out of Beziers and followed the road to Agde the sun retreated behind marble white clouds that looked like crazy paving in the sky but as we reached the coast and the road followed a narrow spit with water on both sides and a string of beaches along the Mediterranean coast the cloud was pushed away and by the time we arrived in Setê there were clear blue skies once more.
I’m not sure what we were expecting of Setê but what we found wasn’t really it. I suppose we thought we might find a charming Breton fishing village or a Cantabrian seaside port but Setê was much bigger than we had anticipated because it is an important working port and it was busy too as the city was filling up with tourists and locals who were making their way to the harbour and the seafront for their sea food Sunday lunch and the waiters at the cafés and bistros were preparing the tables in eager anticipation.
We parked the car in an underground car park underneath the Canal du Midi and left it there hoping that it wouldn’t choose today to spring a leak. The Canal, which starts at Bordeaux on the Atlantic Coast, terminates here at the Mediterranean and back at street level we walked along the basin full of colourful boats and surrounded by pretty pastel coloured buildings over the wall-to-wall shops and restaurants that seemed to be elbowing each other aside in the competition for business.
It isn’t fair to make a judgement based on la stay of less than an hour but we didn’t particularly enjoy Setê and we left after a short while, navigated out of the city and continued our drive to Arles. For some reason the Satnav seemed determined to avoid the motorway and keep us on the coast road and we were glad that it did because a short way out of Setê we passed a series of marshes with mussel beds set out in military formation and lagoons where flocks of vivid pink flamingos were trawling the water searching for their lunch.
The road took us along the coast towards Montpellier and eventually to a motorway but soon as we were past the city the Satnav was again insistent that we leave and rejoin the slower departmental roads. I ignored it and eventually we discovered that we had got the thing set to avoid tolls and sure enough after just a couple of kilometres we came to a queue at a toll plaza.
It was only €5 and it was worth it because instead of a slow drive through all the towns and villages along the coast we now headed towards and past the city of Nîmes (where there was an option to return to later) and in less than half an hour later we had crossed into the Camargue National Park and were approaching Arles.
It was lunchtime and like Setê, Arles was also busy with motorists and pedestrians pushing their way through the hectic streets and as we crawled through it looked horribly as though we might have a parking problem but eventually we saw a spot on a pavement next to a park and as local people seemed to be happy to park somewhere that really looked as if they shouldn’t we were happy to trust our luck and join them. The sky was cloudless now and the temperature was climbing as we asked for directions to the old town and set out to see the sights.