France’s Floating Tournament

Pascal Goyot / AFP / Getty Images

In Sète, the most languid city in France’s come-as-you-are Languedoc province, life is lived next to the water, which reflects auto shops, hair salons, halal butchers, laundromats, and open-air restaurants filled with bohemian locals. The only formally attired man in this canal town is the warrior depicted in La Gloire de la Joute, a 15-foot-tall statue of a man brandishing a 20-foot-long lance that keeps watch on Pont de la Civette, one of four large bridges stitching downtown to the Mont St-Clair neighborhood. The massive statue pays homage to the only activity that reliably rouses Sète’s subdued citizenry: water jousting.

Joutes nautiques were first held here in 1666 during the inauguration of the city’s port. Since that time, the sport, which was invented by the ancient Egyptians, has become so closely associated with Languedoc and Sète that its practitioners across France look up to the men who compete in the city’s largest canal from June through September.

The sport itself is both efficiently brutal and surprisingly refined. Teams row massive wooden boats toward each other. When they get close, jousters standing at the end of the vessels’ oversized bows try to knock each other into the water. At the stern of each bark, an oboist and a drummer in flat-brimmed straw hats play medieval ditties that help the 10 oarsmen on each team pull in unison. The musicians’ performance continues until a jouster is knocked from his perch and rowers in small boats dart into the canal to pull lances, shields, and the loser out of the drink. Along the quai, a half-drunk brass band picks up the musical slack.

All of this is viewed by thousands of spectators sipping rosé or pastis and slurping unbelievably fresh oysters harvested from the beds of Étang de Thau, a bay just outside of town. During the late-August feast of patron Saint-Louis, the grand prix of water jousting attracts thousands of fans who fill newly constructed grandstands with color and themselves with wine. It’s Sète at its finest, quintessential Languedoc, and quite a sight to behold.

More information: The easiest way to get to Sète is to take a four-hour train ride from Paris. The water jousting tournament schedule is available online.

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