TO SEE | FESTIVAL
Every two years, Sète organises the “Escale à Sète”, a great festival celebrating maritime traditions. And every time, the most impressive tall ships of France and other parts of the world arrive in Sète. The star of the 2018 edition was the French frigate Hermione. But there were also many more impressive tall ships to admire during this seven-day celebration.
And a celebration it was! In 2018, I went on the first day of the festival to watch the arrival parade of the main tall ships. The first one to arrive was the Russian “Kruzenshtern”, the second largest four master in the world. Quite impressive to see this 114 metres long sailing boat. The Kruzenshtern was built in 1926 in Germany and now serves as a training ship with a crew of 257 members. Some of them were saluting us as they arrived into the port. Traditional music was played to welcome the sailors. Every time a song ended, it was rewarded with applause from the Kruzenshtern crew.
One of the highlights of the Escale à Sète is the replica of the French Hermione frigate. The original sailing ship was built in 1778 and had 26 cannons, firing cannonballs of 6 kilos each. When Hermione arrived at Sète, she also fired some cannonballs. Well, not the real thing obviously, but it sounded spectacular nonetheless.
I found out too late that it was possible to go aboard the Hermione; the online tickets had sold out three weeks before the festival. You can buy tickets at the “billetterie” of the Tourist Information Office on the Quai d’Alger for the day itself. However, you have to be very early to get one, as there is only a limited number released each day. And then there is the queue to actually go on board, which easily takes an hour. Or two. Time flies when you’re queuing though, as it is the perfect opportunity to people-watch. Many colourful characters stroll along the quays; you won’t be bored.
This brings me to a very important tip: come early to Escale à Sète. I visited twice during the week, Tuesday and Thursday, and it was already quite busy. So you can expect a lot of people during the Easter weekend. Apparently, 400,000 people visit Escale à Sète. That is a lot of people for a town with a population of only 43,000! If you would like to visit one of the other tall ships, you can buy your tickets online. But even then, be prepared to queue. It’s best to come early in the morning around 09h00 and have your breakfast while watching Sète wake up.
Don’t be too disappointed if you cannot get yourself a ticket for the Hermione or the other tall ships though. There are enough other things to do to entertain you for a day. Or longer. Distinguished parades of crew members, sea shanty choirs from all around the world, kid’s activities, a maritime market, demonstrations of historic trades and crafts and of course delicious food and drinks. Sète’s local dish the “Tielle” is widely sold. This is your chance to taste this spicy octopus pie if you haven’t tried it before!
Escale à Sète is the perfect event to immerse yourself in maritime traditions and Mediterranean life. After all, Sète is the first fishing port in the French Mediterranean. To prepare your visit, you can check the day to day program online. You can also get one of the special press editions of the program available throughout the region. Everybody will be talking about this event, so it is hard to miss. From the Quai d’Alger to the Saint-Louis pier, it is quite a celebration on the Île Singulière!