This charming coastal port town is the perfect place for a relaxing holiday.
One press article I read before our visit described it as being ‘like St Tropez before Bardot.’ I was intrigued to visit this place before it became another haunt of A-list celebrities and high-end fashion stores. I was not disappointed.
Home to the famous Noilly Prat vermouth, Marseillan also offers fabulous local wines and delicious fish and seafood from the nearby Thau lagoon. The old village centre is lovely to stroll around, while the scenic 17th century harbour is a great place for watching the world go by from a sun-drenched Brasserie terrace.
Marseillan has that unmistakeably Mediterranean feel. Languid sunny days, terracotta roofs, turquoise waters and a laid-back attitude will soon switch you out of ‘busy’ mode. We enjoyed a memorable 1-week holiday there and would highly recommend this area as an alternative to the pricier towns along the Riviera. It’s just as beautiful but less touristy and commercialised. Hence the quote from one travel journalist who described it as ‘like St Tropez before Bardot’ – in other words, still largely undiscovered.
A brief history
One of the oldest villages in France, Marseillan was founded in around 535 BC by the Greek Massaliotes who were extending their trading routes from the eastern Mediterranean along the coasts of what are now France and Spain. They also founded Marseilles, France’s oldest city, hence the similarity of the names.
Marseillan’s port became an important centre for trade and travel. Its fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries due to wars, occupations and social change. A golden age for the village began in 1861 with the opening of the Canal du Midi, which established a significant new transport route from the Thau lagoon to the city of Toulouse.
The village’s importance as an ‘entreport’ trading centre grew, and a new bourgeoisie emerged. This prosperity lasted until the Revolution of 1789, which ushered in a long period of political upheaval and uncertainty. Stability did not return until the 1870s when the 3rd Republic was created.
The arrival of railways and motor lorries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to the decline of water transport, with significant repercussions for Marseillan. The world wars also took their toll, reducing the village to starvation levels. Only in the 1960s did things begin to improve, with the development of Marseillan Plage as a holiday resort and the efforts of visionary Mayors to improve life for the locals. New neighbourhoods were built around the old centre to house the expanding population.
Marseillan’s population has continued to grow, particularly over the last 10 years as more and more people have discovered its attractions. Although its economy still relies mostly on trade, travellers, wine and fishing, employment in some of the traditional industrial areas has declined and pockets of deprivation exist.
Encouraging more visitors, while preserving the historical integrity of the village, is an ongoing challenge for the local government. It’s a dilemma faced by so many places that need income from tourism but don’t want to lose their soul.
Here are our top reasons why we think Marseillan is well worth visiting, before the world discovers it and it turns into another St Tropez.
1. The picturesque port
For centuries, the port has been a major source of Marseillan’s prosperity. Dry goods and wines were received, trans-shipped and sent on their way to other regions in France and also to Britain and northern Europe. The nearby town of Sète was the gateway to trading with the rest of the world.
Over time, the port was expanded to meet increasing demand. Today, the old warehouse buildings are still recognizable, but have been turned into apartments, restaurants and bars. The boats that come and go are mainly used for pleasure, but you still see fishing boats.
Strolling along the port one day, we were amazed to see this boat with a New Zealand flag! The couple on board were indeed fellow Kiwis.
They told us that they kept their boat moored near Agde and returned to France every summer to cruise around the country, leaving behind the winter season back home. We loved that life model, and filed it away for possible future use.
2. The quirky village
The old centre of the village has remained largely unchanged, as it was fortified until the late 18th century. You can stroll around the narrow streets and enjoy the individual styles and colours of the village houses and shops. Markets are held every Tuesday morning.
Beyond the ancient village are newer neighbourhoods and grandes boulevardes dating from later centuries. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spot the house of your dreams in any place you visit – and Marseillan was no exception. The pictures below show typical village houses (left) and later ones near the port. My favourite was the house on the far right, with all the greenery!
There are plenty of boulangeries and patisseries where you can buy your baguettes, croissants and teatime treats.
3. The dreamy lagoon
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There’s something very relaxing about looking out over water, and the lagoon is certainly very beautiful and restful. If you stay somewhere like the Port Rive Gauche* apartments, you get to enjoy this view from your terrace every day! For example, the Oyat apartment would be a perfect romantic retreat for a couple, or the Ostrea apartment. Both have 2 bedrooms and score high ratings from previous guests.
Companies offering trips on the lagoon include Promenade-Bateau-Marseillan who offer fishing trips and tours on their boat, Diane I. Some of these include oyster tastings! You can follow their Facebook page to see what they’re up to – it includes posts in English.
You might get the chance to see water-jousting while you are in Marseillan. This is a national sport with its own federation and a highly-contested annual tournament. The final takes place in Sète in August, but Marseillan hosts some of the heats that lead up to it. The sport is similar to conventional jousting except that the horses are large rowing boats, with 8-10 oarsmen in each. The aim is to knock your opponents into the water. The joute is usually accompanied by music, merriment and collections for charity.
4. No mozzies (seriously)
If, like me, you’re mobbed by biting insects as soon as you arrive in their homeland, this fact will interest you. There are no mozzies in Marseillan! How about that for holiday heaven? Even if none of my other 9 top reasons to visit the town are not convincing for you, surely this one will be!
It wasn’t always this way. The calm waters of the lagoon and neighbouring marshland were perfect for the biting blighters to breed in. But the suffering of the early residents did all of us a favour in the long-term, because it forced the local government to take action in order to ensure the ongoing prosperity of the town. Mosquitoes were eradicated and continue to be watched out for. Locals are required to report any sightings immediately. The only mosquito you’ll find in Marseillan is the beach that bears the name!
There are other insects that might bite you, but the absence of those whining pests and the itchy blisters they cause is just wonderful. The tourist board are missing a trick here – they should shout this from their rooftops and Instagram accounts, because it’s such a fabulous benefit.
5. The sumptuous seafood
The calm, saline waters of the lagoon make it perfect for oyster and mussel farming. Water quality is constantly monitored to ensure that it meets rigorous standards. As a result, oysters from this region are regarded as being among the finest in France. The lagoon is also known for its excellent sea bass, clams, bream, mullet and eels.
I’m not fond of them myself, but my husband still talks about the oysters he tasted in Marseillan. All the seafood we tried was excellent. Enjoying a platter and a bottle of chilled local wine in one of the portside brasseries was one of the nicest ways to spend a hot sunny afternoon.
You can visit the Coqui Thau oyster farm, just north of Marseillan along the Thau, and taste their oysters. Weather permitting, they are served on the lovely terraces overlooking the lagoon.
6. The wonderful wine
The early Greek settlers, and later the Romans, are known to have made wine in the region. By the late 20th century, the Languedoc Roussillon was the major wine supplier to France, but the quality of its wine was not good enough to receive appelation contrôlée status.
Thanks to the hard work of local vintners over the past 30 years, there are now 18 controlled origin appellations. We found the local wines to be wonderful, and I discovered one that has since become one of my favourites – Picpoul de Pinet.
I used to love seeing the trucks of grapes driving through the town! Somehow it made the whole wine-drinking experience feel more authentic. Even the cheaper wines were excellent. We could take a large container and fill it from a wine tap in our local convenience store for about €2.50! We didn’t expect it to be particularly good at that price – but it was.
7. Mysterious Noilly Prat
Joseph Noilly was a chemist working in Lyon at the turn of the 19th century. He had been researching how to improve the quality of wine produced in the Marseillan area, which had failed to reach the standards of other French regional wines. Noticing that the quality and colour of wine changed according to the casks in which they were transported, he incorporated these principles into his work, eventually developing the very first French vermouth.
In 1855 Joseph’s son Louis and son-in-law Claudius Prat formed the company that became Noilly-Prat. They based themselves in Marseillan due to the ready supply of suitable wines in the area, and the market access offered by the port.
Vermouth is still the company’s premium product today. It contains a special blend of herbs and spices, the recipe for which is a closely-guarded secret. You can visit the chais (barrel storage room) which is situated on the south western side of the port, and tour the processing rooms and herb garden. But you won’t learn the secret!
8. The bucket-and-spade beach treat – Marseillan Plage
Marseillan Plage was the result of post-war attempts to revitalize Marseillan by the then mayor, Monsieur Filliol. His vision was for a family holiday resort with shops, jetty, esplanade and places of entertainment including a casino. The latter has never materialized but the town is otherwise pretty much exactly what M. Filliol envisaged. Development began in the late 1940s and continued apace over the following 2 decades.
One morning we packed our togs, books, hats and sun cream and took the local bus to Marseillan Plage, a journey of about 12 minutes. The town reminded us of the small coastal towns back home in New Zealand. It has something of a 1960s feel with modest timber buildings – bars, cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops – and an attractive sandy beach. There’s also a marina and cinema. While there are some rather nice villas, there are also campsites and budget lodgings. We felt that there would be something to suit everyone, and every budget, in Marseillan Plage.
Despite being a fairly typical beach town, there’s still something about it that we found to be very French. Maybe it was the small things such as the charrettes rolling along the beach, selling much needed and very welcome ice creams and drinks.
9. The incredible Canal du Midi
This amazing feat of engineering is now, rightly, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It took 15 years to build and unusually for those times, women made up a significant percentage of the workforce. The canal was completed in 1681, linking the city of Toulouse with the Thau lagoon and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.
Providing a navigable waterway from the Mediterranean all the way through to the Atlantic had been a wishful thought ever since Roman times, but the complexity of construction through the difficult terrain – including the Massif Central – had defeated some of the finest minds, even that of Leonardo da Vinci. It would take another 2 centuries after the canal’s opening for it to be linked through to the river Garonne at Toulouse, thus achieving the dream of joining the 2 oceans with one waterway.
Designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet, the canal is regarded as an outstanding example of civil engineering at its finest, due to the aesthetics of its structures and the magnificent landscaping carried out to ensure that the canal fitted seamlessly and beautifully into its environment. The canal has 328 structures in total, encompassing bridges, tunnels, aqueducts and locks – including the 9 at Fonserannes near Béziers. The view from the top lock is stunning. Equally impressive is the aqueduct carrying the canal over the river Orb.
Today, the canal is bringing prosperity to Marseillan just as it did before, thanks to the new lease of life being given to canals by pleasure sailors like our Kiwi friends. If you like the idea of cruising the canal, you can find out more information on the French Waterways website.
10. The beautiful local area
As you will have noted from the above, Béziers is well worth a visit. Not only for the Canal du Midi attractions but the city itself, which is attractive and small enough to get around in a day. We took the bus from Marseillan, which offers the bonus of passing through some other pretty towns along the region’s rivers and canals.
Even more alluring is the medieval town of Pézenas, which has associations with the playwright and poet Molière. We were lucky enough to get a lift there but there is a direct bus from Marseillan which takes around 25 minutes.
Pézenas was the seat of the governors of Languedoc from the 16th century to the 18th, and the grand mansions in the town reflect this. The centre has lovely cobbled streets to stroll around, with authentic shops and cafes. Intriguingly, the local speciality – a spiced mutton pie – is from a recipe allegedly given to the town’s pastry makers by Robert Clive (Clive of India) when he visited in 1768.
Other towns recommended to us were those along the Thau lagoon such as Mèze and Sète, but we didn’t manage to fit those into our itinerary.
We flew into Béziers Cap d’Agde international airport from London Luton with Ryanair. Not exactly our airline of choice, but that was our only option. (One day I will write a post about how to survive budget airlines without being ripped off!)
A bus service runs from the airport to Marseillan, which is a good option if you don’t want to fork out for a taxi. We used the buses quite a bit for getting around, paying around €2 to €3 per person per journey. The only caveat is that they don’t always run very frequently, so it’s well worth checking out the timings in advance of your trip to make sure that they will meet your needs. And be sure not to miss a bus or the next one could be hours away! The Marseillan tourist office web site has relevant links.
There’s a commuter train station at Marseillan Plage, with services to Narbonne, Montpellier, Béziers, Sète and Carcassonne. However you’d need to travel the 7 kilometres between Marseillan and Marseillan Plage by bus or taxi.
We like to travel in shoulder seasons, when there are fewer tourists and prices are lower. We took our holiday in June, which was a lovely summery month to visit the Languedoc. The afternoons are pretty hot, however, and despite our best efforts with sun cream we still managed to get sunburned during our day at Marseillan Plage. So it’s a good idea to find shade during the afternoons.
Although English is widely understood, it definitely helps to speak a bit of French, and we found that the locals really appreciated our efforts.
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